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Revisiting Sri Lanka-Myanmar historical links

The intense relationship between Sri Lanka and Myanmar spans over a period of 1,000 years beginning with the emergence of Bagan as the cradle of Burmese culture and civilization in the 11th Century.

Shwezigon Temple

This ancient capital of Myanmar epitomizes one of the world's greatest feats of building construction - greater than all of Europe's cathedrals, the construction of which spread over nearly seven centuries whereas Bagan is home to 4,446 monuments, built within a period of less than two and a half centuries, mostly within a period of 150 years. Bagan is a unique city encompassing approximately 40 square km. with a wide variety of religious buildings, some standing higher than 70 metres.

Twelfth Century murals depicting scenes from the chronicle Mahavamsa, four abodes of Sinhala monks and 260 large monuments influenced by Sinhalese are some of the re-discoveries that I have been able to make during my study visits to Bagan in the recent years.

Bagan to the Myanmar people is what Anuradhapura is to Sri Lankans - especially Sinhala Buddhists. Sri Lanka's contribution towards the consolidation of the Bagan Empire in terms of religion, culture and civilization is attested to in the Myanmar historical chronicles, inscriptions, art and architecture, as well as in Sinhalese records. What Sri Lanka later gained from Myanmar is equally significant. Myanmar's religious gifts to Sri Lanka - the Amarapura and the Ramanna sects contributed a great deal to the religious, cultural and educational renaissance in the 18th and 19th Centuries, the influence of which continues to this day.

Famous relics

Sri Lanka being not only the foremost centre of Buddhism, but also the country that possessed two of the most famous relics of the Buddha, the sacred Tooth Relic and the Alms Bowl, attracted the rulers of Southeast Asia. It appears from Myanmar historical chronicles that the highest ambition of Bagan kings was to possess the sacred Tooth relic of the Buddha. King Anawrahta sent a mission to Sri Lanka along with a gift of a white elephant to obtain the sacred Tooth Relic from his friend Vijayabahu I (1055-1110 A.C.). (This event is not mentioned in Sri Lankan sources).

Anawrahta received only a replica of the Tooth Relic. The King made a vow for it to replicate and there emerged four other replicas. He enshrined the first in the Shwezigon Stupa which he built in 1059 A.C. The other four were enshrined in four other Stupas, the most famous among them being Lawkananda. Situated on the riverbank, Lawkananda is an ancient landmark near the old harbour where vessels from Sri Lanka, Arakan (Rakhine) and the Mon Ramannadesa anchored.

Mahavamsa paintings

Among the most interesting sights in Bagan for Sri Lankans is the Mahavamsa episodes painted in the Myinkaba Kubyauk-gyi Temple in Bagan. This Temple has pictorial illustrations of a large number of episodes covering the history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka up to the reign of our King Vijayabahu, the contemporary of King Anawrahta and Kyanzittha. The murals relate events from Asoka's life including his paying homage to Moggaliputta Tissa Thera. There is also a sequence of panels depicting the first three Buddhist Councils.

Sri Lanka Monastery Elephant Kandula

The scenes in these pictorial illustrations include: the Buddha's visits to Sri Lanka, Emperor Asoka and King Devanampiyatissa, Asoka's message and the gifts for Devanampiyatissa's coronation, Devanampiyatissa's meeting with Thera Mahinda and Theri Sanghamitta's arrival in Sri Lanka carrying the Bodhi tree. On another wall are the scenes from the life of the Mahavamsa hero, Dutthagamini, namely: his elephant Kandula, he being given the name Abhaya (fearless), Abhaya wanting to go out and fight the enemy, when his father forbids him, he sends his father a woman's dress making the father angry, King Elara and the number of villages he administers and his justice bell which is rung by a cow when his son drives his chariot over a calf.

Another Mahavamsa inspired set of paintings are found in the Sakyamuni Temple where scenes from Sanghamitta's arrival in Sri Lanka are depicted. Sakyamuni Temple, also built in the 12th Century has scenes of Theri Sanghamitta bringing the Bo sapling to Sri Lanka and the Bo plant becoming one thousand times bigger after pouring of water on it.

These stories are known to every child in Sri Lanka. It seems to be the same in Myanmar too. The late historian Dr. Godakumbura mentions that on a visit to Myanmar in the 1960s, he found to his amazement that the Myanmar people considered Sri Lanka history to be their history and Dutthagamini, the national of Sri Lanka, specially of Sinhala Buddhists as their national hero. The Bhikkuni Suwimalee who as child stayed in Myanmar in the 1950s as her father was the Sri Lanka ambassador to then Myanmar confirms this. She remembers that the maid who looked after her in Yangon used to say that Dutu Gamunu was their hero. A somewhat similar view is held in the whole of South-East Asia. (I have seen during several years' stay in Cambodia similar recollections among the Cambodian people of Sri Lanka history, especially the Dutu Gemunu episode.) One of the explanations given by Western historians of the mural depictions of wars in that region as occurring between kings fighting on elephants is that the original model was the Dutu Gemunu-Elara battle on elephants It should be remembered that Myanmar historical writings themselves began under the guidance of Sinhala Bhikkhus. The Myanmar chronicles such as the Mahasammatavamsa, Rajavamsa and Sasanavamsa were directly modeled after the Mahavamsa.

Sri Lankan Monks' Monastery Complexes

Illustrating the general prestige of Sinhalese monks, a Myanmar inscription dated 1268 A.C, claimed that the deeds of merit by the donor were witnessed by all the Sri Lankan monks. An inscription near the Sinhalese style Stupa (No. 1113) in the vicinity of the Tamani complex of monasteries dated 1271 A.C recorded by Tissa Maha Thera is indicative. It describes the mission undertaken by a Bagan monk to Sri Lanka carrying a message from the King of Bagan to the Sri Lankan King requesting for more Sri Lankan monk teachers to go to Myanmar to propagate the Buddha's message.

During the reign of King Narapatisithu and the period immediately thereafter, several large monastery complexes that were built in Bagan were dedicated to Sinhalese monks. Inscriptions and ruins of several monasteries belonging to this period demonstrate that a large number of influential Sri Lankan monks taught Myanmar monks and Samaneras.

The monasteries where the Sri Lankan monks resided are located South of the old city. The monks from Sri Lanka came to be known also as the Tamani group or sect and the monasteries that they resided in were known as Tamani monasteries. The largest monastery complex identified as Tamani comprises three large monasteries, located near each other. I have visited them a few times and let me give a brief description.

Sanghamitta carrying Bo Sapling King Elara’s Bell and Cow

One large monastery has two floors while a broken Buddha image still lies among the ruins of the monastery which accommodated around 100 monks.

An inscription dated 1277 A.C. inside this monastery refers to Venerable Tamalin (a Sinhalese monk), the head of a large monastery who was supported by Queen Summula's daughter Princess Acau and her uncle Singasu. Tamalin was one of the most popular monks during the reign of King Tarukpliy of the 13th Century, also known as Narathihapate.

One of the three monasteries was specially allocated to the Samaneras.

Numerous were the Stupas built according to the Sinhalese bell-shaped style. There were at least 260 such Sri Lankan style Stupas. The inflow of Sinhala Buddhist culture was facilitated by Myanmar monks going to Sri Lanka and Sri Lankan monks coming to Bagan.

The Stupa built by Chapata who received Upasampada and studied in Sri Lanka for ten years is one of these Stupas built according to the Sri Lanka style.

Marriage alliances

There have been also marriage alliances between our two countries. According to Myanmar historical chronicles, King Alaungsithu of the 12th Century, King of Myanmar (who was a contemporary of Parakramabahu the Great) visited Sri Lanka.

Alaungsithu, married a daughter of the Sinhalese king and returned with an image of Maha Kassapa Thera who was highly venerated at the time in Sri Lanka. (It was Maha Kassapa Thera who helped reform our Sasana under Parakramabahu). Although not mentioned in Sri Lankan records, there is evidence from Myanmar inscriptions that confirms the strong Sinhalese connection with the Myanmar royalty during that time. The premier historian of Myanmar, Gordon Luce and local historians have given evidence to show that there was a strong Sinhalese influence in the Bagan Royal Court during the reigns of Alaungsithu and Narapatisithu. Wife of King Narapatisithu, Queen Uchokpan was a Sinhalese princess, possibly the daughter of Parakramabahu I.

Lankan monks

Uchokpan had come to Bagan with her brother who was appointed as a Minister of the King. She was made the favoured, though not the chief Queen of Narapatisithu, as evident from the title she had. Queen Uchokpan's two sons, Rajasura and Gangasura, though precluded from succession, remained for a long time influential figures at the Court, loyal to Narapatisithu and his successors.

Queen Uchokpan's nephew was a strong supporter of Sri Lankan monks who established the 'Sihala Sangha' there.

But the political relations were sometimes antagonistic. The Culavamsa records that the Myanmar King caught sight of a letter addressed to the King of Cambodia in the hands of the Sinhalese envoys and suspecting that they were envoys sent to Cambodia (there was also a Sinhalese princess among them, possibly sent as a bride to a Cambodian prince), seized them and punished them.

He also immediately stopped Sri Lanka's lucrative elephant trade with foreign countries and captured the elephants, money and vessels of Sinhalese envoys. Later the conflict was resolved and warm relations were re-established with the intervention of monks of the two countries.

The relationship has been mutually beneficial for both countries on many fronts. It is a good foundation to strengthen the friendship between the two countries.

With the rise of Asia as the centre of economic, political and cultural focus in the world, we can together make Buddhism again the unifying force in Asia as well as across the new globalised world at a time when Buddhism is being widely spread in the Western world.

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