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The bi-centennial of the Amarapura Maha Nikaya of Sri Lanka

by Rohan L. Jayetilleke

This year 2003, marks the bi-centennial (200 years) of the Amarapura Maha Nikaya, which was established in 1803, at Velitara (Velitota) of Balapitiya, Sri Lanka. It is opportune to trace the antiquity of the Sri Lanka Buddhist-connections with the Union of Myanmar (Burma).

The establishment of the Amarapura Nikaya in the Rohana (southern coastal areas) of the Island, resulted in the emerging of great scholars and grammarians both in Pali and Sinhala, faithful rendering of the Pali Tripitaka to Sinhala and English and also the members of the Amarapura Nikaya, who took the message of the Buddha to the west and east and also initiating action, to counteract the evangelical activities of the Portuguese, Dutch and later the British missionaries both the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches in Sri Lanka from 1505.

The Portuguese (1505-1658 AD), Dutch (1658-1796 AD) and finally the British 1796-1948, (ceding of the Kandyan kingdom to the British in 1815, and the Anglican churches becoming the British State financed and directed State religion of the country).

British missionaries

The Portuguese rulers' governance was directly connected with conversions of Buddhists to the Roman Catholic faith, through the first group of missionaries, the Franciscans, made many efforts to convert the King of Kotte, Bhuvanekabahu VII (1521-51), who was driven by political expedients into relying more and more on the military strength of the Portuguese. (Fernao de Queyroz, The Temporal and spiritual Conquest of Ceylon (1687) translated by Fr. S. G. Perera (Colombo 1930, pp 238 ff). Although the king gave every liberty to Franciscans in their pursuit of evangelization in his kingdom, the king himself showed no inclination to embrace the new faith.

The late most Ven. Agga Maha Panditha Madihe Pannaseeha Maha Nayaka Thera

The Franciscans, however, were able to convert the king's grandson and successor Dharmapala (1551-1597), who since his boyhood, had been brought up under the personal guidanship and tutorship of the Franciscans. Dharmapala, who died without issue, bequeathed his kingdom to the King of Portugal, having by an earlier deed, already transferred the revenues and services of Buddhist temple villages (viharagam, bhogagam) to the religious and educational establishments of the Franciscans in Sri Lanka. (Ibid pp 330-31). Thus, under the Portuguese, Catholicism became the 'established' religion of the maritime areas, to the exclusion of Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam.

To the missionaries, in particular, conquista temporal (territorial conquest) was the stepping stone towards the final goal of conquista spiritual (spiritual conquest). This is evidenced by the standing order given to Manoel Mascarenhas Homen (Captain General of Ceylon from May 1614 to February 1616) when he went as General of Ceylon, sent by the viceroy Dom Jeronimo de Azevedo (Viceroy in Goa from December 1612 to November 1616) Goa of 23 of April of 1614. The standing order read:

"Matters of our religion and the spread of the Catholic faith are things which ought to take first place, and as such I would commend them to you and deal with them also in the first place, because the principal purpose that impelled the king or lord to conquer that Island (Ceylon)is that of Christianity and the conversion of many souls as are therein.

The ministers of the religion can never achieve this without the patronage and help of the captains-general, and I can affirm with truth that I converted more heathen than the fathers did, for in that island Christianity follows the arms; if ours prevail, Christians multiply and Christianity progresses before our eyes ..... It is therefore proper that you should extend your patronage to ministers of religion, ordering the payment of clerical stipends and maintenance, visiting the churches, and whenever you find yourself free from fighting on feast days, giving them help in there celebrations and assisting them in any other way. "Tikiri Abeysinghe, 'Portuguese Regiments on Sri Lanka', Published Dept. of National Archives, Colombo, p. 48).

The churches that sprang up along the southern sea coast came to be known as 'Palliyas' which was the place of registering, births, deaths, marriages and lands and the school tutoring the natives to be absorbed to clerical positions, as well as teachers. The teacher of the school 'Palliya' came to be known as Palliyaguru, which surname still continues in Sri Lanka. The writer's ancestors, too became government Christians to sustain their positions in society and ownership of lands.

In Galle Kaluwella, where the St. Mary's Cathedral stands became exclusively a Roman Catholic settlements girdled by similar settlements in Ambalanwatte, Millidduwa, Minuwangoda, Kalegane, Kitulampitiya etc., in the environs of Galle city. In Minuwangoda a property of one of the ancestral families of the writer is still called Thombuwatte 'Thombu being land registers, and Thombuwatte meaning land registry.

The growth of the British empire witnessed the establishment of many missionary organisations, both Anglican and non-conformist, receiving the encouragement of the government to pursue evangelisation in Sri Lanka. Thus in 1805, there arrived in Sri Lanka four missions of the London Missionary Society; soon they were followed by others; Baptists in 1812; Weslyans in 1814; and Church (of England) Missionaries in 1818. In addition to these, a group of Congregationalist and Presbyterian missionaries sponsored by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions; they arrived in the Island in 1816.

Of these five groups of missionaries, the London Missionaries, did not expand beyond the original four who arrived in 1805 (one of the four was deported in 1807), the American Missionaries confined their activities to Jaffna peninsula. Baptists, the smallest of the three groups gradually extended their activities with headquarters in Colombo (in 1812) eastward through Hanwella (1819) to Matale (1835), and then to Kandy (1841).

Weslyans the most energetic concentrated on more populous southern and western coastal areas with three key positions of Colombo, Galle and Matara. Within twenty years they set up new stations (terminology then used) in the intermediate towns and villages, Negombo, Moratuwa, Panadura, Kalutara, Ambalangoda and Weligama. The Church Missionaries, agents of the government official Anglican Church, chose two places towards the interior of Galle, Baddegama (Christ Church 1819), Kotte in 1823 and Kandy in 1818. This establishment was placed under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Calcutta in 1818, then transferred to Madras (modern Chennai India) in 1837 and finally instituted in Ceylon in 1845 under a separate bishopric.

The Siamese Sect

Though, the Siamese Sect of the Sri Lanka was established at Kandy with the two chapters Malwatte and Asgiriya in 1753 under the royal patronage of Keerthi Sri Rajasinghe, by Phra Upali Maha Thera of Thailand on the initiative of Velivita Sri Saranankara Sangharaja Maha Thera, in the Kandyan kingdom, there was no Christian missionaries activity in the Kandyan kingdom, but it was at the time 'monastic landlordism, as against the onslaught on Sinhala Buddhists by Christian powers as from 1505. The 'simas' consecration grounds established by Phra Upali Maha Thera were in and around Kandy, Satkorale and other places in and around hill country areas under the control of king of Kandy totalling twenty-five.

The coastal areas being under the Dutch there were no consecration grounds established or higher ordination rites conducted. The samaneras of the coastal areas had to come to Kandy to obtain higher ordination status.

With the passage of time the Kandy fraternity became caste exclusive (govigama) and the southerners had to independently initiative action to set up their own fraternity independent of Kandy as the southerners were in the lower strata of the caste structure.

If not for this timely action, the Southern and Western provinces would have been christianised. John Davy in his work of 1821 ('An Account of the Interior of Ceylon and its Inhabitants' (London)) says, "The immediate cause for the conflict was the refusal by the chief monks in Kandy to grant higher (upasampada) ordination to those monks who had non-Goyigama social origins, a refusal which was legitimised by a royal decree attributed to Kirti Sri Rajasinghe. Although the exact sequence of events which led to the promulgation of such a decree is not accurately known." (P. 219).

Amarapura Maha Nikaya

Since the establishment at Kandy was unwilling to deviate from the caste exclusivism, those in the low country of other caste groups with the assistance of their own patrons and without royal patronage of Kandy or the British, on their own held the first Upasampada at Totagamuwa Vihara in 1772 and another immediately thereafter at Tangalle in 1798. These ceremonies were disapproved by the establishment of Kandy.

Thus, not being inclined to be a 'rebel group' they thought it fit to obtain royal patronage from an overseas Theravada Buddhist king and to go on their own with their own fraternity. The country they looked forward to was Burma (modern Myanmar) which was totally a Theravada country with a Buddhist king and Sangharaja.

Thus in the year 1799, Ambagahapitiye Gnanavimala Thera (Salagama) who lived in the Ambarukkharamaya at Welitara, Balapitiya, proceeded to Burma (Myanmar) with five samaneras (novices) and three lay devotees on a British cargo vessel with the aim of obtaining higher ordination there. The entire journey of the delegation was financed by the patron of Ambagahapitiya leading Salagama headman of Welitara Haljoti Dines de Zoyza Siriwardena.

Upon their arrival in Amarapura (now a city noted for silk in Myanmar) then capital of Myanmar, the emissaries were received ceremoniously by the ruling King Bodawpaya (1782-1819) himself and with the royal patronage the delegates were given higher ordination by a chapter of Myanmar monks presided over by Myanmar Sangharaja Nanabhivamsa in 1800.

After being tutored by the Myanmar preceptors for some months, the group returned to Sri Lanka in 1803, beginning with them a number of Pali texts extant in Sri Lanka and a letter from the Sangharaja to the bhikkhus of Sri Lanka. This letter after recapitulating the history of religious contacts between Myanmar and Sri Lanka, describes the manner in which the Sri Lankan bhikkhus were received and granted higher ordination in Myanmar in 1800 (J. P. Minayeff (ed) 'The Sandesa-Katha, J.P.T.S. (1885) pp 17-28).

These events are also briefly referred to in the Myanmar chronicle, Sasanavamsa, written in Myanmar by Ven. Pannasami in 1861, edited by Mable Bode (London, 1897) p. 135).

Soon after their return to the island they established a 'udakhupkhepa sima' (a flotilla of boats moved together to form a platform over water) at Madu river, Balapitiya, and under the preceptorship of Ven. Aggasara, the most senior Myanmar bhikkhu who accompanied them an upasampada ceremony was held on Vesak Full Moon Day (May) 1803. The new fraternity thus came to be known as the Amarapura Nikaya, and was distinguished from the Kandyan establishment, which because of its origin in Thailand (Siam) came to be known as Siyam Nikaya.

The Amarapura Nikaya in its infancy required the efforts of another bhikkhu, who was much more energetic than the founder and a visionary Ven. Kapugama Dhammakkhanda for the new fraternity to be legally recognised by the British rulers of the littoral. He, with the sponsorship of his patron Adrian de Abrew Wijayagunaratna Rajapakse, residing at Walukaramaya at Dadalla learning the successful return of Ambagahapitiye proceeded to Myanmar himself to obtain higher ordination director. He set off from Galle harbour in 1807 with six other bhikkhus (samaneras) and three lay devotees, and returned after two years with his mission completely achieved.

In addition to higher ordination Kapugama Maha Thera also received from the Myanmar king and Sangharaja of Myanmar an Act of Appointment to the office of Ganacariya (Chief Monk) with the ecclesiastical highest title of Myanmar then, 'Sadhammavamsapala Dhammasenapati Mahadhamma Rajaguru' and a letter addressed to the British governor of the maritime provinces of Sri Lanka asking the latter to confirm the said appointment.

The British governor issued a certificate of confirmation of the new appointment conferred on Kapugama Maha Thera dated 14 January 1814, stating, "whereas the Sinhalese Priest Dhammakhanda unnanse having proceeded to Ava, has brought from thence and produced a letter addressed to His Excellency the Governor, together with a commissio and signet from which it appears, that he has been nominated by the Emperor of ava to the office of Ganachariya, and has received certain ornaments and honorary distinctions.

This is to certify that the said Dhammakhanda unnanse has permission to assume and use within the British territories on the Island of Ceylon, the ornaments and honorary distinctions thus conferred upon him, without interruption, in so far as the same is consistent with existing regulations" (Ceylon National Archives Document 5/63/45(2)).

The scholarship of Ven. Kapugama is authenticated by a letter written to her parents by Mrs. Elizabeth Harvard who (with her husband a Weslyan missionary in Ceylon) visited Ven. Kapugama's temple at Dadalla, Galle, in England on 26 August 1816. "I afterwards went with our party, to inspect the Priest's dwelling-house, and his library, which is very extensive and a valuable one, containing many royal and noble presents which he received in the countries where he has travelled" (W. M. Harvard, Memoirs of Mrs. Elizabeth Harvard, 3rd edition. (Dondin 1833) p.69).

(The writer is a senior retired government service official, ISP Switzerland International Award Winner (1978) for English anthropological and investigate English journalism and free lance writer for over 50 years both home and abroad, on history, Buddhist heritage, Buddhism).


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