Buddhist Heritage of Tamil Nadu and its Links with Lanka

By Dr. Nirmala Chandrahasan, ‘The Island,’ Colombo, Novermber 12, 2013
article_imageThe cultural affinities between Tamil Nadu our closest neighbour and Sri Lanka are many but little is known of the religious ties which bound the two countries between the early years of the Christian era and the 14th century AD, during which time Buddhism was prevalent in South India.

Buddhism came to South India before the 3rd Sangam period in the 2nd century BC. Pandit Hisselle Dharmaratana mahathera, in his Buddhism in South India states that there is evidence that Ven. Mahinda Thera, Emperor Asoka’s son also spread the Dhamma in Tamil Nadu. The Mahathera states “although the chronicles say he arrived through his supernatural powers, scholars are of the opinion that he travelled by sea and called at Kaveripattinam on the east coast of Tamil Nadu on his way to Sri Lanka”. Dr Shu Hikosake Director Professor of Buddhism, Institute of Asian Studies in Madras in his book Buddhism in Tamil Nadu a new perspective also takes the same view. Hsuan Tsang the Chinese 7th Century, Buddhist monk, scholar traveller, mentions that in the Pandyan kingdom near Madurai there is a monastery built by Mahinda thera. He also mentions a stupa built by King Asoka in Kanchipuram. Stone inscriptions of the Emperor Asoka, Rock Edict no 3, refers to the Dhamma being spread in the Chola, and Pandya country (Tamil Nadu) and Tambapanni (Sri Lanka)

Buddhism flourished in Tamil Nadu in two phases, firstly in the early years of the Pallava rule 400-650 AD, and secondly in the Chola period mid 9th to the early 14th century AD. There were many centres of Buddhism in Tamil Nadu among them Kanchipuram, Kaveripattinam, Uraiyur and Nagapattinam. The Chinese Buddhist monk scholar, Hsuan Tsang who visited India in the 7th century AD, describes Kanchipuram as a flourishing city and states that most of its population was Buddhist. He says there were over 100 Buddhist monasteries and over a thousand Buddhist monks. He also mentions about the presence of 300 monks from Sri Lanka in the monastery at the southern sector of kanchipuram. The Pallava king Mahendra Varman in his Sanskrit work Mattavilasa Prahasana’ refers to the existence of many Buddhist Vihares chief of which was the Raja Vihare. Among the notable Buddhists scholars who were natives of or resident in the city, he mentions Rev. Dharmapala rector of Nalanda University was a native of the city as was Anuruddha Thera author of the Abhidammathsasangaha. Although there is evidence that the Ven Buddhaghosha was resident in kanchipuram for some time it is not certain whether he was a native of the city although he was in all probability from the Tamil country.

Outstanding Tamil monks

Dr Hikosaka in his book points out that during the Pallava period Tamil Nadu had outstanding Tamil monks who made remarkable contributions to Buddhist thought and learning. Among them we may mention Buddhadatta thera He wrote many books. In the Abhidhammaratana he gives a glowing account inter alia of Kaveripattinam and Kanchipuram and the Mahavihare at Sri Lanka. While he was in Sri Lanka he composed many Buddhist works such as Uttara Viniccaya, Ruparupa Vibhanga, Jinalankara etc. Another famous Tamil monk, Buddhaghosha, contemporary of Bhuddhadatta composed many Buddhist commentaries. Buddhaghosha made a remarkable contribution to Buddhism in Sri Lanka. He stayed and studied Buddhist precepts at the Mahavihare in Anuradhapura. The Visuddimagga was the first work of Buddhaghosha while in Sri Lanka. While staying at the Granthakara Pirivena at Anuradhapura he rendered Sinhalese commentaries of the Tripitakas into Pali. Another Important Tamil monk was Dhammapala; he lived in the Mahavihare at Anuradhapura and composed a commentary on Buddhaghosha’s work. Dr. Hikosaka concludes that a study of the three monks shows that Tamil Nadu Buddhists were closely associated with Sri Lankan Buddhists. It will be noticed that the monks used the Pali language in their treatises just as in Europe in the middle ages, the Christian monks used Latin.


The interaction between Tamil Nadu monks and Sri Lankan monks is also mentioned in the Mani Mekalai, the 6th Century Tamil literary epic by Sattanar. Among the other Tamil literary epics which show the influence of Buddhism are the Sillappadhihkaram, Valaiyapathi Kundalakesi and Jivaka Cintamani. The Manimekalai, is a Buddhist work, it expounds the doctrines and values of Buddhism. The book also mentions Tamil Buddhists in the island of Nagadipa off the coast of Jaffna. Since Tamil Nadu was largely Buddhist, one can easily conclude that the Tamil population in the north and east of Sri Lanka was also largely Buddhist. “The Tamil Buddhists who followed Theravada Buddhism shared common places of worship with the Sinhalese . There were also Tamil Buddhists who were followers of Mahayana Buddhism, and they had their own Mahayana temples”, states L K . Devanda In his book Tamil Buddhism in Ancient South India and Sri Lanka. He points out that there are still some Tamil Buddhist establishments “Palli” in the East of Sri Lanka and possibly in the Jaffna peninsula. The best known is Velgam Vihare, which was renamed Rajaraja Perun Palli after the Chola emperor. Another was the Vikkirama Calamekan Perumpalli. Velgam Vihare also known as Natanar Kovil by the present day Tamils stands out as the only known example of a Tamil Vihare or Buddhist Palli. In the words of Dr Senerat Paranavithana –”an Ancient Buddhist shrine of the Tamil people”— some of the Tamil inscriptions found at the site record donations to this shrine and are dated in the reigns of the Chola kings Raja Raja chola and Rajendra Chola. It is the view of Dr Paranavithana that the date of the original foundation of the Vihare was considerably older.

Devanada writes today Buddhism in Sri Lanka is monopolised by the Sinhalese. There are even those who call it “Sinhala Buddhism”, seemingly unaware of the fact that it is a universal religion. This notion was propagated only in the early 20th century by revivalists such as Angarika Dharmapala. Unfortunately he says today the Tamils of Sri Lanka also believe that Buddhism is a Sinhalese religion and alien to them, but this was not the case in the past. Unlike today the ancient Buddhist /Hindu civilization in Sri Lanka and the ancient Palli /Sanskrit place names has nothing to do with ethnicity. Hence the Pali, Sanskrit place names in the North and East of Sri Lanka are part of the Tamil Buddhist heritage. The author states that the Tamil politicians, scholars, intellectuals and the Tamil media should make every effort to educate the Tamil public to be aware that Buddhism was a part of Tamil civilization and in fact the most important part of the Tamil heritage of the north and east of Sri Lanka is its Hindu/Buddhist heritage. Hence the recent efforts by some elements t o place Buddha statues in these areas to mark their ethnic presence is entirely misplaced apart from being contrary to the universal values and teachings of Buddhism.

Changing situation

The situation in Tamil Nadu began to change after the 7th century with the rise of Vaishnavism and Saivism there was a significant increase in Hindu Braminical influence. The Buddhist and Jain institutions in Tamil Nadu came under attack and they began to lose popular support and the patronage of the rulers. The Chinese scholar monk, Hsuan Tsang records instances of Tamil Buddhist monks fleeing to Sri Lanka when they were worsted in religious debates and feared the repercussions of the rulers change of religion. Pandit Hisselle Dharmaratana Maha Thera writes, “Although Buddhism declined in the Tamil country from the 7th century onwards it was by no means eradicated. For several centuries Buddhism still survived though in a state of decline. The continuation of the Mahavamsa states that in the 13th Century King Parakramabahu of Dambadeniya brought down Buddhist monks and scriptures from the Chola country in Tamil Nadu to revive Buddhism in Sri Lanka. During this time there was a great deal of cultural exchange between South India and Sri Lanka”. The chief of the monks who was brought from South India was Ven. Dhammakitti. He wrote the continuation of the Mahavamsa from the time of king Srimevan upto his time. The Ven Dipankara of Chola known as Buddhappiya came to Sri Lanka for his studies in Buddhism. He wrote the Pali poem Pajjamadhu (nectar of verses) in adoration of the Buddha. He is also the author of a Pali grammar. The venerable Buddhamitta and Maha Kassapa were also two monks from the Chola country of Tamil Nadu. They studied the dhamma in Sri Lanka and rendered great service to the of the religion, states Pandit Hisselle Dharmaratane Maha Thera. He goes on to say that this shows that up to the 14th century there were Buddhists monasteries and centres of learning in South India. There is also evidence that during the invasion of Magha of Kalinga in Sri Lanka and the destruction of Buddhist monasteries there, monks from Sri Lanka fled to and sought refuge in monasteries in Tamil Nadu. However after the 14th century Buddhism disappeared in South India leaving only traces of its heyday in the many ruins such as we find in Amaravati.

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