@ WWW Virtual Library Sri Lanka

The original inhabitants of Lanka: Yakkas & Nagas

Sri Lanka is said to have been inhabited by Yakkas (demon-worshippers) , Rakshasas and Nagas (snake-worshippers) before the arrival of Vijaya and his men who colonized the island. They were totemic tribes not supernatural beings. There is in north-east India today a state called Nagaland the home of the Naga people.

The Nagas of pre-Vijayan Lanka lived around Kelaniya and in the peninsula in the North. Nagadeepa (Nainathivu) was an island off the peninsula joined to the mainland about 30 years ago by a causeway. Does Nainamadama the name of a village in the NWP, hark back to a time when there was a Naga settlement in that area.

It was at Nagadeepa that Mani Akkhika (one with eyes like gems) met the Buddha who had come there to bring peace between two Naga chieftains Chulodara and Mahodara, who were fighting to claim a precious seat, and invited the Buddha to his homeland Kelaniya. Mani Akkhika was an uncle of the two warring Naga chieftains.

Nagas were living in Kelaniya as a distinct group of people or in today's parlance as "an ethnic entity", when the poet monk Sri Rahula wrote the Selalihini Sandesa in the 15th century, and they were Buddhists. The poet points out to the Selalihini bird, the Naga maidens seated on the Sandy bank of the river, strumming their veenas and singing hymns to the Buddha (Budu guna gee).

The 'yakkas' were numerous and very powerful, and held themselves aloof and confined themselves to the mountain fastnesses of the North- Central region, whereas the 'nagas' confined themselves to the sea-board, and Maniakkhika was the 'naga' king of Kelaniya.

The luxuriantly wooded Mahanaga garden, on the right-bank of the river Mahaveli, which discharges its confluence into the sea near Trincomalee, was at that time a strategic stronghold of the 'yakkas'. When Buddha arrived at the Mahanaga garden to intercept the 'yakkas' who were assembled there, they were more surprised than alarmed, when they saw him clad in a yellow robe and shaven-headed. Being inquisitive of the intruder and to know who he was, the 'yakka' chief asked the Buddha, "Who art thou to come here and disturb us?" At once, the Buddha, to their bewilderment, performed a miracle by sitting cross-legged in the air. Now, the 'yakkas' through fear, emotional excitement and apprehensive of danger, begged the Buddha to save their lives and set them free.

Whereupon, the Buddha, addressed them saving "I shall, O yakkas,save thee from all danger, provided I am offered a place to sit down, and make known to thee my mission". The evil horde verily agreed saying "O Great Being! We shall offer thee the whole island". Buddha, having seated at the spot, where the Mahiyangana cetiya now stands, delivered to them a discourse, whereby they became spiritually evaluated and attained the stages of holiness (i.e., the fruits of Sovan, Sakadagami, Anagami and Arhat). Among them was the 'yakka' commandant Saman who, after listening to the discourse, became elevated to the first phase of spiritual eminence ('Sovan'), and came to be known as Saman deviyo, who is now propitiated as the tutelary deity of Sri Pada. The god, thereupon, appealed to the Buddha to give him something as a token of symbolic worship, in the absence of the Buddha. Buddha in accedence of the earnest request, gave the god a handful of hair from his head, which the god accepted with great devotion. The god had the hair-relic secured in a golden reliquary and enshrined it in a small tope 10 ft. high and 24 ft. in circumference (Mhv. 1:36). It is the first cetiya in Sri Lanka, built during the life-time of the Buddha. All other cetiyas were of later construction.

When the Buddha was dwelling at Jetavana in the fifth year of his Buddhahood, he saw that a war was imminent between the Nagas Mahodara and Culodara, uncle and nephew, for a gem?set throne. With compassion for the Nagas, he took his sacred alms?bowl and robes and proceeded to Nagadipa in the north of Sri Lanka. When they saw the Blessed One, they joyfully worshipped at the feet of the Master. He counseled them in the way of the doctrine and both Nagas gladly gave up their claims to the throne and instead offered it to the Buddha. The Buddha however returned the throne to the Nagas as a memorial requesting that they pay homage to it. On this second visit of the Buddha to Sri Lanka, many millions of Nagas established themselves in the three refuges (Buddha, Dhamma & Sangha) and in the moral precepts. Today they consider an islet named Nainathiu as the sacred place the Buddha so visited. (But, according to history, they had earlier considered the whole of the Jaffna peninsula and most of other parts of northern Sri Lanka as Nagadipa, and that the ancient Nagadipa temple was in what is presently Kandarode.)

The Naga king, Maniakkhika o Kalyani, who had come there to take part in the battle, became established in the refuges and moral duties. He respectfully invited the Buddha to visit the part of the country where he held sway. When the Buddha accepted it in silence, the King planted the Rajayatana tree on that very spot. The Rajayatana tree was carried as a parasol over the Buddha by the deva named Samiddhi Sumana when the Buddha was traveling from Jetavana to Nagadipa. In this way the compassionate One completed his second visit to Sri Lanka and returned to Jetavana.

In the eighth year following his attainment of Buddhahood Buddha, accompanied by five hundred disciple monks, proceeded to King Maniakkhika's dwelling city of Kelaniya in the west of Sri Lanka on the Vesak full moon day. He stayed there temporarily together with the monks under a canopy decked with gems, upon a precious throne?patterned seat. The Naga king and his followers treated the Buddha and disciples with great delight. The compassionate One preached the Dhamma there. The Kelani cetiya (stupa) was later built on this site.

From there he proceeded to the Sumanakuta (Sripada) mountains in the middle of the country. The footprint he left there is highly venerated and is still protected. It is called "Sripada " meaning the noble footprint, and `Sumanakuta " because it was the dwelling of the deva Sumana and also called "Samantakuta " because of its height.

He spent the day with the monks in a cave called Divaguha at the foot of this mountain. This sacred place is still not recovered.

As is generally known, a piratical tribe called the Nagas, who had a king and worshipped the cobra as a symbol of destructive power, inhabited the northern and western coasts during early history. So numerous were they that the country became known as Nagadipa, the "Island of Serpents."

Mudaliyar C. Rasanayagam devotes the first chapter of his book Ancient Jaffna (1926), to this fascinating subject. "The Nagas were supposed by the ancients to be serpents living underground obviously because in Sanskrit the word 'naga' means 'serpent,'" he wrote. "They were supposed to be endowed with supernatural powers by which they could metamorphose themselves into human beings at will."

In his book Ceylon: An Account of the Island Physical, Historical and Topographical (London: 1859), Sir James Emerson Tennent provides an interesting footnote to a sentence in which he likens the designation Nagadipa to the way the islands of Rhodes and Cyprus severally acquired the name Ophiusa (from the Greek ophis, meaning snake). This footnote has relevance to the supposed supernatural powers mentioned by Rasanayagam:

"Strabo (the lst century AD Greek geographer) affords us a striking illustration of the Mahavamsa in calling the serpent worshippers of Ceylon 'Serpents', since he states that in Phrygia and on the Hellespont the people who were styled ophiogeneis, or the Serpent races, actually attained an affinity with the snakes with whom they were popularly identified."

Rasanayagam also provides a footnote regarding this supposed ability of the Nagas to metamorphose that quotes a more rational explanation by Talboys Wheeler. He claimed: "In the process of time these Nagas became identified with serpents, and the result has been a strange confusion between serpents and human beings."

The scholarly Mudaliyar puts forward another reason why the Nagas might have been called so. "There have been various conjectures made as to the origin of the true Nagas," he writes. "Some thought that they were so-called because they were serpent-worshippers; and others have surmised that the name was derived from the fact that their head-covering was in the shape of a hydra-headed cobra."

Some believe that the Nagas were of Mongoloid stock and that they had migrated originally to northern India, but had later been forced by Aryan invasions to seek fresh settlements farther south. Others have cast doubt on the well-worn Aryan invasion theory of migration. Whatever their origin, it is reasonably clear that a Naga kingdom existed in the north of the island from the 6th century BC to the middle of the 3rd century AD.

After the demise or assimilation of the Nagas on the island, elements of their cobra connections were incorporated in Buddhism as well as popular folklore and superstition. For instance, cobras became associated with the incarnations of dead people, who in their new, ophidian lives guarded hidden treasure, Buddhist temples, Bo-trees and the like. As an extension of this belief, guardian cobra statues like my grandfather's began to be found in houses situated in pairs on either side of an entrance or doorway.


@ WWW Virtual Library Sri Lanka