southern Buddhist in a northern Island
By D.B.S. Jeyaraj
News of his death was not
unexpected. It was known for quite some time that the
Viharadhipathi of Nagadeepa Vihara, Jaffna, Venerable
Brahmanawatte Dhammakiththi Tissa Mahanayaka Thera was ailing.
Many Tamils from the northern island of Nainatheevu (Nagadeepa)
visiting Colombo had been calling on him in recent times. It was
well known among the Nainatheevu people that their beloved "samy"
or "periyasamy" as he was known was on his death bed. He
passed away at the Colombo National Hospital on April 15 which
incidently was the day of his birth too.
Even though his funeral could
have been held in Colombo or his native place Balapitiya, the
remains of Venerable Rajakeeya Panditha Brahmanawatte Dhammakithi
Tissa Mahanayaka Thera, the chief incumbent
(Viharadhipathi), Nagadeepa Purana Raja Maha Viharaya were
cremated under state patronage at the Adahana Maluwa of the same
viharaya. This was in deference to the preponderant wishes of the
people of Nainatheevu. This was indeed appropriate because the
Mahanayake Thera had spent an unbroken 55 years in
Nainatheevu.Vast crowds comprising clergy and laity of all four
major religions in the country attended the funeral. The people of
Nainatheevu paid their tribute in a fitting manner and also as a
token of their esteem showered hospitality on all the mourners who
gathered in the small island.
Although I am not from
Nainatheevu I was quite sad when I heard of the venerable priest's
demise. I had first seen him when first touring the island as a
child with my family. Later I had met him on a few occasions when
visiting friends in Nainatheevu. I had also met him accompanying
Sinhala friends from the south as an unofficial guide. The most
treasured memory was however a long discussion and short interview
I had with him in 1981 when I was acting for some months as the
northern correspondent of the Virakesari.
He was truly a remarkable man
who blended with his surroundings and established a vibrant
relationship with the people. He was a true disciple of Lord
Buddha because he did not play 'politics' in any way and was only
concerned with preaching the dhamma and maintaining a Buddhist
presence in an island associated in belief with the Buddha. Those
unfamiliar with the recent history of Sri Lanka may wonder as to
why this makes him remarkable. Several Buddhist priests have been
living in the north-east. Some have even been killed. So what's
special about this priest?
I regard him as unique
because he was unlike many 'politicised' Buddhist priests who
regarded themselves as 'missionaries' regaining the Sinhala
Buddhist heritage from an alien environment. The Buddhist
renaissance in many parts of the north-east was in many ways a
political project. In the perception of those minority communities
inhabiting those areas it was part of what they regarded as 'colonisation'
aimed at altering the demographic patterns of the region. Many
priests maintained close links with the police and armed forces
and were often in practice agents of the state rather than
followers of a great soul who spurned the trappings of state
Many Buddhist priests were at
the forefront of this 'colonisation' process too. A notable
example being the Ven. Dimbulagala Thero who in association with
state officials tried to settle Sinhala colonists in the Manthurai
aaru (Maduru-Oya) region. It was this fear of 'Sinhala-Buddhist
expansion' that triggered off a desperate yet thoroughly notorious
response among some Tamils. In ill-advised pre-emptive bids they
cut down Bo trees. A more extreme act was the destruction of
ancient Buddhist sites by Tamil militants.
All this was due to a faulty
understanding of Buddhist history and archaeology. An observation
made by Dr. Susantha Goonetilleke more than 20 years ago
illustrates this tragedy vividly. This was in a follow up
interview I conducted for the Virakesari after reading an article
by him in The Lanka Guardian. I write from memory and am not sure
of the exact words but the essence of what he said was this.
Commenting on archaeology in
the country he said that the Sinhalese were wary of vertical
excavations and the Tamils were suspicious of horizontal
excavations. The Sinhala people liked all discoveries pertaining
to the Mauryan era but did not like deeper excavations going
beyond that into the megalithic period. This was because of a
faulty notion that the discovery of a civilisation existing in the
pre-Mauryan period would undermine the claims of a 'Buddhist'
heritage in the country. So they would like 'vertical' excavations
to stop at the Mauryan period and not proceed beyond. The Tamils
on the other hand were worried about Buddhist sites and shrines
being discovered in the north-east. This was because it was
erroneously believed that proof of a Buddhist presence in the
north-east eroded Tamil rights to habitation in those regions.
This was because in the Sri Lankan context it was believed that
Buddhism was linked only to the Sinhalese. So the Tamils would not
like 'horizontal' excavations to extend into the north-east. They
would like all excavations to be limited to the provinces outside
Lack of knowledge
These fears and concerns were
due to lack of knowledge Dr, Goonetilleke said. The Tamils had at
one point of history been Buddhists and the discovery of Buddhist
links was not something to be resented. Likewise, the Sinhala
people need not worry about a pre-Mauryan heritage. Dr.
Goonetilleke contended then that more and more archaelogical
discoveries and related research may reveal that both the Sinhala
and Tamil people along with those inhabitants of South India could
all be of one stock.
The reason for recalling this
is to emphasise the mutual suspicion and hostility prevailing
between the Sinhala and Tamil people on the question of a
'Buddhist presence' in the north-east. It is against this backdrop
that I refer to the Venerable Brahmanawatte Dhammakiththi Tissa
Mahanayaka Thera as a refreshing exception. This southern Buddhist
priest spent the greater part of his life in a northern island and
endeared himself to a people different in race and religion.
Furthermore, he was able to do this in a political atmosphere that
had turned overwhelmingly hostile in recent years. He was able to
live in Nainatheevu not because of naval protection alone but more
due to the everlasting goodwill and amity he fostered.
This Mahanayaka Thera of the
Amarapura Mulawanshika Nikaya was born in Brahmanawatte,
Balapitiya in 1915. His parents were Migalahandige Richard de
Silva and Lakdu Layanhamy who decided to admit their youngest son
to the sasana. Accordingly the Mahanayaka Thera entered the
bhikkhu order under Thotagamuwe Pagnamoly Tissa Nayaka Thera at
Ambalangoda Randombe Maha Chetiya Pirivena. He completed his
studies at the same pirivena.
He got through his
matriculation along with his erudite contemporary, Venerable
Professor Walpola Rahula Thera. In 1939 he went to Jaffna and
joined the Victoria College at Chulipuram. (the alma mater of
Appapillai Amirthalingam). He taught Sinhala and learnt Tamil
there. He was very proficient in Tamil and later wrote many books
and booklets on Buddhism in that language. A few years later after
the demise of the chief incumbent of the Nagadeepa Vihara Ven.
Randombe Somasiri Tissa Thera, the Ven. Dhammakitti Tissa Nayaka
Thera succeeded him.
Rich in folklore
The Nainatheevu island has an
area of nearly six miles. It is a few hundred yards from the
Kurikattuvaan pier in Punguditheevu, about 16 miles from Jaffna
town. Known as Nagadeepa in Sinhala the island - along with
Kelaniya and Mahiyangana - is believed to be one of the three
places in Sri Lanka that Lord Buddha visited. It is rich in
folklore and legend associated with classical Tamil literature
Three of the five great epics
of ancient Tamil are Buddhist. One of these is Manimekalai.
According to it the chief protagonist Manimekalai visits an island
called "Manipallavam." She worships at a Buddhist shrine
(putha peedikai) there. There is a spring called "Komugippoigai"
in front of it. As a result of her worship a vessel floats to the
top of the spring. It is the "Atchaya Paathiram" which
grants a never ending supply of food when required.
It is believed that
Nainatheevu is Manipallavam. The spring has now dried and is
somewhat depressed. It is called "putha pallam"
(Buddhist pit) by residents. Opposite in dilapidated state is the
ancient Buddhist vihara believed to be the one in which
Manimekalai worshipped. That area is still called "putha
valavu" or "Buddhist compound" by the people. The
present Raja Maha Vihara was constructed later due mainly to the
efforts of the Mahanayake.
It was not built on property
acquired or seized by the state. Instead it was purchased at a
very nominal sum from the "thimilar"(A fishing sub-caste)of
the area. As a result of this Ven. Dhammakiththi had a special
affinity towards Nainatheevu fisherfolk. He was like a guardian
angel to them and prevented them from being harassed by the naval
detachment stationed there.
There are many instances
testifying to the humanity of the priest. For want of space I will
relate three important ones. In 1958 there was no naval post on
the island. When the communal violence erupted the navy personnel
at Karainagar compulsively evacuated him to the base there.
Although the people of Nainatheevu remained peaceful there were a
number of people from adjacent islands engaged in trading in the
south. Many were affected and were compelled to return home. Some
of these people got excited and became a frenzied mob.
They converged on Nainatheevu
and attacked the vihara in the absence of the priest. The ancient
statue of the Buddha was destroyed by the mob. Had this news
spread in the south passions would have been aroused more and led
to further escalation of violence. But Governor-General Sir Oliver
Goonetilleke suppressed the information. Urgent measures were
taken to get down an identical statue from Myanmar (then Burma.)
It was brought as a replacement. To his eternal credit Ven
Dhammakiththi went along with this 'exercise of deception' in the
interest of humanity. This remained a secret until Tarzie Vittachi
revealed it in his Emergency 58. Also the Karainagar navy later
rounded up a number of Nainatheevu people as suspects. The priest
however insisted that all be released.
The second incident was in
1986. Nainatheevu had been free of militant violence for long. But
then two Tiger recruits from the island laid underwater explosives
along the jetty. The wires extended underwater to Kurikadduvaan.
Lying in wait there the LTTE men observed Nainatheevu with
binoculars. When a naval patrol launch reached the jetty the
explosion was set off. Fortunately for the navy it went off
prematurely. The pier was destroyed but the naval personnel
escaped. The enraged sailors embarked on a shooting spree
targeting innocent civilians. The Ven. Dhammakiththi accosted them
and flung off his robes saying that he as a Buddhist priest could
not tolerate such a sin. The navy calmed down and returned to
barracks. A massacre was averted.
The third was in 1990.
Nainatheevu has a small Muslim population too. In fact there is a
belief that the island derived its name from a well-known Muslim
merchant Naina Muhammad who leased the island from the Sethupathy
kings of Ramnad in India. The LTTE after evicting Muslims from the
peninsula wanted to drive the Nainatheevu Muslims too. The Muslims
sought asylum with Ven. Dhammakiththi. The Buddhist prelate
ensured that adequate protection be given to them by the navy. He
also told the LTTE bluntly that no Muslim would be sent away. The
Muslims of Nainatheevu are the only Muslims who continued to
remain in the north despite the Tiger expulsion.
Another example of his
greatness was when a separate pier was constructed near the
Buddhist Vihara. The earlier one was in close proximity to the
famous Hindu Temple dedicated to Nagapooshany Amman. The Buddhist
pilgrims disembarking would worship at the Amman temple first and
then come to the vihara. The new pier meant that Buddhists could
immediately go to the Buddhist vihara itself. Ven Dhammakiththi
however decreed that all launches with Buddhists should disembark
at the older pier first. They should worship as usual at the Hindu
temple and then come to the vihara, Afterwards they could embark
at the new jetty constructed near the vihara.
The Amman temple chariot
festival days and Poson usually overlapped. Ven Dhammakiththi had
a lavish feast offering (Madai Paravuthal) at the vihara during
the water cutting ceremony. Later this practice was extended to
the Veerapathirar Temple ceremony too. During Vesak season there
was a dansala that catered more to Tamils than Sinhala people.
Buddhist devotees often bring sweets, biscuits and chocolates. The
Ven. Dhammakiththi would take them personally in rotation to the
gates of the three schools on the island and distribute them
amongst the children.
Tower of strength
He was also a financial tower
of strength to the people. He would lend them money whenever
required, often getting the money from others to help those in
urgent need. Yet in keeping with priestly custom he would not
touch the money himself and got an assistant to do it. When he
purchased anything he would hand over his ola purse to another to
get the money out. Whenever the people of Nainatheevu organised a
cultural event they would first go to the Buddhist priest for the
In spite of this intimate
intermingling Ven Dhammakiththi never engaged in politics. He
remained aloof never attending meetings, though he would
participate in literary meetings. He never intefered in politics
and was a passive witness to developments. It was this detachment
that enabled him to live through troubled times as a southern
Buddhist in a northern Tamil island.
There is a jovial view among
Nainatheevu people that they are a difficult community to get
along with. Former Police DIG Sundaralingam's father, Ramachandra
wrote once that Nainatheevu was a good place to be born, worship,
die (thondral, valipaduthal, maraithal) but not to live (vaalthal).
The Buddhist priest from Balapitiya went against the grain of this
homegrown wisdom and lived a full and amiable life in Nainatheevu.
He was a unique personality who is irreplaceable. It is with great
sorrow that I pay tribute to a Buddhist disciple and a