While we examine the political allies and animosities between the Sinhala kingdom and the South Indian kingdoms we must also study the situation of Buddhism in South India. As historical and archaeological records reveal, Buddhism flourished in South India for centuries.

In our today’s segment, we shall examine the situation of Buddhism in South India and the religious link between South Indian Buddhism and Sinhala Buddhism.

In the book, Buddhist Remains of South India, Dr. D. Dayalan writes;

It is generally believed that Buddhism came to South India in the third century BCE, during the time of Emperor Ashoka or little earlier. However, the prevalence of Buddhism in the Tamil region till the 3rd – 4th centuries CE is not attested by any material evidence. The reason may be that consistent with the pan-Indian usage, perishable materials like wood and brick had been used for the construction of secular as well as religious edifices of the earlier times. However, the discovery of a large number of stone sculptures and bronze images datable to the 5th – 6th centuries CE and onwards at various places all over Tamil Nadu indicate the wide prevalence of Buddhism in the area. A few stone and bronze images and some of the inscriptions indicate that Buddhism existed in certain pockets in Tamil Nadu till the 16th – 17th centuries CE.

In the forward of Buddhist Remains of South India, Prof. Sudarshan Seneviratne writes’

Following the pre-historic period, the Early Iron Age culture, represented by the megalithic Black and Ware culture to South India, emerged c. 1000 BCE. Its early village cultures were represented by pastoral and agrarian communities spread over different ecological zones inhabiting nadu and kudi settlements. Tamil Sangam literature and megalithic burials represented such communities.

Subsequently, by the 4th century BCE, intrusive North Indian social ideologies represented mainly by Buddhism, Jainism, and Ajivakism and associated signature cultural symbols, connected with such village communities.

Buddhism survived at urban centres of Tamil Nadu and its vestiges were buried in history until 14th century CE. Dayalan has documented at least 96 Buddhist heritage sites in Tamil Nadu and some of these sites are also identified as religious centres having connections with other international Buddhist centres, mainly in Sri Lanka and South-East Asia, dating from the Early Historic period to 17th century CE.

Buddhism in South India

What historians and archaeologists believe in common is that Buddhism came to South India during the time of the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka (273 – 236 BCE). Dr. Dayalan writes that it is generally considered that Buddhism came to South India during the time of Emperor Ashoka or little earlier. His rock edicts found in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh are the earliest records in South India which invariably speak of the Buddhist Dhamma.

He further says that the label inscriptions of Brahmi character, dated from about 2nd century BCE to 1st century CE, carved near the ancient Abhyagiri Vihara at Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, however, record the association of Tamils with Buddhist institution in Sri Lanka.

In fact, a large number of stone sculptures and bronze images datable from 5th – 6th centuries and onwards noticed at various places all over Tamil Nadu optimistically indicate the wide prevalence of Buddhism in the Tamil areas in those periods. It appears that Buddhism in Tamil Badu had been patronised largely by the local people and the merchants, and also by the rulers to some extent.

Dr. Dayalan also writes;

The outstanding excavations at Kavirippumpattinam had brought to light the remains of a vihara of 4th – 5th centuries CE and a Buddhist temple of 6th century or a little later. Nagapattainam, another important Buddhist centre in Tamil Nadu, appears to have been a centre of Buddhism for quite a long time. Hundreds of Buddhist bronze icons were produced here right from 8th century CE to 16th – 17th centuries CE.

These facts explain why and how Hindu art, architecture, and cultural influences cannot be seen during the Anuradhapura Period although there had been close cultural and political alliances with South Indian kingdoms, allowing us to believe that a Buddhist culture flourished in South India during the time of the Anuradhapura Kingdom.

Dr. Dayalan in Buddhist Remains of South India explains that during the Cola period, the Buddhist institutions known as Sailendra Culamanivarma Vihara alias Rajarajap-perumpalli, Rajendracolap-perumpalli and Akkasalaipperumpalli, existed at Nagapattinam.

Notwithstanding there is no standing edifice associated with Buddhism found at Kancipuram now, Yuan Chwang, the Chinese traveller who visited India in between 629 – 645 CE, and a few literatures mentioned about many Buddhist establishments there and also a few other places in Tamil Nadu. Some of the stone sculptures, bronze icons, and inscriptions indicate that in certain pockets Buddhism existed in Tamil Nadu till 17th century CE. Interestingly, many of the Buddhist sites also happened to be either maritime or inland trade centres. The occurrence of foreign materials such as potteries, coins and other objects at these sites particularly from Europe, the Gulf region, China, Sri Lanka, and South-East Asian counties has attested this fact. 

In the article ‘The great Tamil Buddhists; The History of Buddhism in the Tamil Kingdoms of South India’ By T. N. Ramachandran (Former Joint Director-General, Department of Archaeology, Government of India), he explains that;

Mahendra Thera appears to have travelled by sea and to have passed through Kavirapattiman where, during his temporary stay, he raised seven Buddhist viharas which the later Tamil Sangam works, such as Silappadikaram and Manimekalai (2nd century A.D.), attribute to Indra. Indra is only a contraction of Mahendra. Mahendra was greatly helped in spreading Buddhism in South India by Arittaha, of Sri Lanka, the uncle-in-law of King Devanampiya Tissa. There is a village called Arittapatti in Madura District near where Arittha appears to have lived in caves, thereby lending his name to the village. Arittapatti, which was originally a Buddhist place, lost gradually its Buddhist nature.

Ramachandran further writes that, according to the Manimekalai the early Cola king, Killivalavan (2nd century CE) converted a prison-house into a charity house at the request of the Buddhist nun Manimekalai, and gifted it to Buddhists who utilised the building for a palli and a charity house. The Pali work, Rasavahini, refers to a Cola king who, while engaged in constructing a Siva, temple at Kaveripattinam, met some Buddhist bhikkus who proved to him the superiority of Buddha Dharma and in return got form him the Siva temple which they converted into a shrine of the Buddhist.

During the 5th century CE Buddhadatta Thera, who flourished in the reign of the Kalabhra chief, Accutavikkanta, resided in a vihara in Kaveripattinam built by one Visnudasa or Krsnadasa. This Thera is said to have written most of his works in Kaveripattinam at the instance of the Buddhist acaryas Sumati, Buddhasika and Sanghapala.

According to Ramachandran, a golden age of Buddhism dawned in South India when monks and nuns (bhikkhus and bhikkhunis) such as Manimekalai and upasakas and upasikas who were lay followers of the faith, travelled throughout the land in utter renunciation and humanitarian zeal to render help even as the Buddha did. This is the picture of south India that we visualise from the Tamil classical works of Buddhism the Silappadikaram, Manimekalai, Kundalakesi, Virasoliya, Bimbisarakathai, Valaiyapati, Tiruppadikam, the Jaina Tamil work Nilakesi and the Hindu Tamil works, Devaram, Nalayiraprabadham and Periyapuranam.

Some ancient Buddhist sites in South India where Buddhism shined

Ramachandran writes about a number ancient Buddhist sties in South India where Buddhism was shining during its hey days. The Buddhist sites in the northern districts of the Madras Presidency, particularly in the Andhra country, are vast as against almost a fraction in the southern districts. From Salihundam in the Srikakulam District in the north, to Chinna Ganjam in the Guntur District in the south, and from Gooty in the Anantapur District in the west, to Bhattiprolu in the east, the Andhra country witnessed in the three centuries, preceding and following the present era, a phenomenal growth of Buddhist culture and art. Ramatirtham, Sankaram, Salihundam, Kodavalli, Arugolanu, Guntupalli, Jaggayyapeta, Ramireddhipalli, Alluru, Bezwada, Gudivada, Ghantasala, Garikapadu, Goli, Nagarjunikonda, Amaravati, Peddamaddur, Chinna Ganja, Peddaganjam, Kanuparti and Bhattiprolu are a few places among the many that have yielded relics of a glorious Buddhist civilisation that flourished in the Andhra Country in the early centuries. Stupas, caityas or prayer halls, and viharas were found in large numbers, particularly in the Guntur and Krsna districts along the banks of the River Krisna which was known to the Greeeks as Maisolos.

Nagarjunkonda; a centre of Buddhism in South India

As the studies of Ramachandran reveals, Nagarjunakonda or ‘the Hill of Nagarjuna’ is one of the sites excavated by the Archaeological Survey (from 1926 to 1931 and again in 1938). The discoveries made here are of singular interest in that they include not only monasteries, stupas and caityas, but also a palace, a wharf and a large number of inscriptions relating to the Iksvaku dynasty that ruled the country in the 3rd century CE.

The reign of the Andhra King, Pulumavi, witnessed the raising of the great Mahacaitya of Amaravati which became the centre of the Caityakas while under the Iksvakus great stupas arose at Jaggayyapeta and Nagarjunakonda on either side of the River Krisna. The Caityakas probably derived their name from Amaravati Mahacaitya. We also learn that there were other monasteries at Nagarjunakonda one of which was built for the residence of the Sinhalese monks, writes Ramachandran.

To be continued…

(Information courtesy; The Mahavamsa, The Arya Kingdom in North Ceylon by Prof. Senerath Paranavithana, A Concise History of Ceylon by Prof. Senerath Paranavithana and C.W. Nicholas, Demala Wansayata Purwikawak by Kolat Senanayaka and Narada Karunathilake, Buddhist Remains of South India by Dr. D. Dayalan, and The great Tamil Buddhists; The History of Buddhism in the Tamil Kingdoms of South India By T. N.Ramachandran)

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy