Links forged in faith

Links forged in faith

While many are aware that Theravada Buddhism was brought to Siam by Sri Lankan monks, few know that Siamese monks were later in a position to return the favour; this year the two countries celebrate the anniversary of a very special bond


Buddhists in Sri Lanka are preparing to mark the 260th anniversary of a milestone in their history: the arrival on their shores of a high-level delegation, dispatched by the king of Ayutthaya, which was to play a key role in reviving the monkhood in their country.

The murals which adorn the interior of the prayer hall at Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara in Colombo are still in impeccable condition. Unusual for their use of a modern artistic perspective, they depict stories about the Lord Buddha’s three visits to Sri Lanka and other major Buddhism-related events on the island. One of the wall paintings shows King Kirti Sri Rajasinghe presenting a ritual fan to Phra Upali, the missionary dispatched by King Borommakot of Ayutthaya.

The Theravada school of Buddhism is thought to have originated in Sri Lanka around 300 BC and monks from this island later spread their brand of faith in Siam and other parts of Southeast Asia. But when Phra Upali Maha Thera and 17 other monks from Ayutthaya disembarked at the port of Trincomalee in 1753, Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka was in a state of crisis.

The fault for this lay not with the Dutch _ whose main interest was commercial not religious and who were to be displaced a few decades later by the British _ but with the original colonial power, the Portuguese. The latter, zealous Catholics, had controlled parts of the island between 1505 and 1658 and during that period had done their utmost to stamp out what they regarded as pagan beliefs. Fired by missionary fervour, the Portuguese destroyed many Buddhist temples and killed so many monks that the remainder disrobed and went into hiding, some later marrying. Their number was not replenished since, fearing death, few laymen dared to become ordained.

"By the 18th century, there were no more monks. There were some novices, but no one could ordain them as monks," explained the Venerable Prof Ittademaliya Indasara, chief incumbent of Sri Sambuddhaloka Viharaya temple in Colombo.

Asgiriya Vihara is one of two Buddhist temples in Kandy whose history is interlinked with ours. Two novices, one from Asgiriya Vihara and one from Malwatta Vihara, helped draft the letter to King Borommakot of Ayutthaya, which resulted in a Siamese delegation, led by Phra Upali, being dispatched to this city in 1753. Phra Upali ordained many monks at this temple and stayed here for the rest of his life. In the grounds of the ordination hall, the sema stones marking the four corners of the site bear traditional Thai patterns.

"In Kandy, there was a novice named Saranankara. Later, King Rajasinghe, the novices and Buddhists [laity] discussed the issue and decided to send a mission of five persons from Kandy to Siam," added the abbot who is also vice-chancellor of the Buddhist and Pali University of Sri Lanka.

Two novices helped draft a letter which the Kandy delegation delivered to King Borommakot (reigned 1733-58) when they finally made it to his capital in Ayutthaya in 1752. That monarch acceded to their request for a high-ranking monk to be dispatched to Sri Lanka to officiate over the ordination of a new generation of Buddhist clerics. The task was given to Phra Upali, a senior monk based at Wat Thammaram in Ayutthaya. His party of 17 monks and seven novices duly boarded a ship which docked in Trincomalee after a journey of five months and four days. There they received a warm welcome and were conveyed to the temple of Buppharam, later renamed Malwatta Vihara, in the sacred city of Kandy.

It was there, in July 1753, during a ceremony attended by King Kirti Sri Rajasinghe, that Phra Upali ordained the first six members of the newly established Siam Nikaya order of Buddhism. During the course of their three-year sojourn on the island, the Siamese monks were to ordain some 600 monks and 3,000 novices. Among those elevated to the monkhood was a novice named Weliwita Saranankara (1698-1778), who later went on to become Supreme Patriarch of Sri Lanka.

Phra Upali never returned to Ayutthaya, living out the remainder of his days in Kandy.

Thanks partly to the contribution he and his brethren made, "Sri Lankan monks consider Thai monks as their brothers," said the Ven. Ittademaliya Indasara, noting that Thailand's two Buddhist universities (Mahachulalongkorn Rajavidyalaya and Mahamakut) maintain close relationships with their counterparts in Sri Lanka and regularly hold projects, meetings and workshops together.

"The religious and cultural ties binding Thailand and Sri Lanka are strong, resilient and unique," said General Shantha Kottegoda, Sri Lanka's ambassador to Thailand.

"Theravada Buddhism originated in Sri Lanka and [for that reason] the Sangha [council of Buddhist monks] in Thailand is called Lankavamsa, or Lanka Nikaya; whereas the majority of the Sangha in Sri Lanka are known as Siamvamsa or Siam Nikaya, owing to the Siamese monks who returned Lanka's favour by helping them to restore their once-defunct monastic order."

In May and again in August this year the governments of Thailand and Sri Lanka are taking part in celebrations in Kandy to mark the 260th anniversary of the arrival of that mission led by Phra Upali and the foundation of Siam Nikaya. Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul is scheduled to visit Sri Lanka early next month, followed by our PM, Yingluck Shinawatra, at the end of May and (according to information supplied by General Kottegoda) HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn in August.

In addition, Sri Lanka's Ministry of National Heritage has undertaken to establish a museum at Wat Thammaram in Ayutthaya to mark the contribution made by Phra Upali.

According to the most recent census data, 63% of Sri Lankans are Buddhist. To mark the anniversary, pilgrimages are being organised to important Buddhist sites there, including a six-night/seven-day bus tour from Colombo to Anuradhapura, Sigiriya, Dambulla and Kandy.

"Thai visitors mainly like following the Buddhist trail. Seeing cultural attractions is the main thing but there is much more than that," said Dushan Wickramasusuriya, assistant director of the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau. "We also do packages that focus on sightseeing, hiking, beach walking, Unesco heritage sites and beautiful boutique resorts. The packages to mark the 260th anniversary will be seasonal: late February-May and May-August."

Buddhist pilgrims to Sri Lanka inevitably include on their itineraries the so-called atamasthana (eight sacred places worthy of veneration) in Anuradhapura; they are: Sri Maha Bodhi, Ruwanwelisaya, Thuparamaya, Lovamahapaya, Abhayagiri Dagaba, Jetavanaramaya, Mirisaveti Stupa and Lankarama. Included here are images of several of these sites.

A landmark in the former capital city of Anuradhapura, this sacred tree is called Jaya Sri (or Siri) Maha Bodhi. It said to be the oldest living tree in the world and was supposedly propagated from a branch of the famous bodhi tree of the same name in Bodh Gaya, India, under which the Lord Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment. The sapling was apparently brought to Sri Lanka by Theri Sangamitta, the daughter of Emperor Ashoka, and was planted in Mahameghavana Park, here in Anuradhapura, in 249 BC by the local ruler, King Devanampiyatissa.

About 72km from Dambulla is Kandy, the last capital of the Sinhalese kings before Sri Lanka was colonised by the British in 1815. The most important destination here for Buddhists, both locals and pilgrims, is Sri Dalada Maligawa, a temple where a tooth of the Lord Buddha (dalada in Sinhalese) is enshrined. The relic is housed in a gem-studded golden pagoda. According to legend, after the Lord Buddha was cremated an arahat (person who has achieved enlightenment) named Khema took one of the Buddha’s teeth to Kalinga, India. Later, a war broke out between two kings who coveted the tooth. So, Princess Hemamala and Prince Dantha disguised themselves as Brahmin priests and brought the relic from India to Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka’s first capital, some time between 301 and 328 AD. Ever since then, this tooth has been regarded as the most precious object in the whole country and every time a new capital was established on the island, the relic was moved to that city. In the 16th century, Portugal colonised parts of Sri Lanka and tried to forcibly convert the local Buddhists to Christianity. Thinking that possession of the tooth would boost their status, the Portuguese seized and destroyed it, not realising that the Sinhalese had earlier replaced the real relic with a replica.

Mihintale is a mountain peak near the ancient city of Anuradhapura. It is here that Sri Lankans believe a Buddhist monk named Mahinda and King Devanampiyatissa met and inaugurated Buddhism on the island circa 300 BC. It is now a pilgrimage site full of religious monuments and deserted structures.

A few hours’ journey from Anuradhapura is the city of Dambulla. Visitors who spend an hour or so toiling up a steep mountain path are rewarded for their efforts by the grandeur of the Dambulla Cave Temple, also known as the Golden Temple of Dambulla. It was built by King Walagambahu in the 1st century BC and was included on Unesco’s list of World Heritage sites in 1991. It comprises a complex of five caves with more than 2,000m2 of painted walls and ceilings and houses over 150 images of the Buddha. The largest of these is a colossal figure carved out of the rock and measuring 14 metres in length. Situated 148km east of Colombo and 72km north of Kandy, the site is the largest and best preserved cave-temple complex in Sri Lanka.

Devout Buddhists like to pray and practise meditation around the venerable old bodhi tree at Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara, a major Buddhist temple situated 7km east of Colombo’s Fort area. According to several documentary sources, the Lord Buddha visited this place in the eighth year after he attained enlightenment, delivered a sermon to local followers and then meditated for seven days and seven nights. A golden throne presented to him by two disciples of royal lineage is believed to have been stored within a large white pagoda in the temple grounds. This architecture of this vihara is said to have been used as an a model by members of the Lanka Wong Buddhist order when they later spread the faith to the kingdoms of Sukhothai, Chiang Mai and Ayutthaya.


- Sri Lankan Airlines and THAI both operate regular direct flights on the Bangkok-Colombo route. The journey takes about three hours. 
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