The great Tamil Buddhists
The History of Buddhism in the Tamil Kingdoms of South India

(Former Joint Director-General, Department of Archaeology, Government of India.)

BUDDHISM came to South India during Emperor Asoka’s reign. A party of Bhikkhus went to Sri Lanka in 250 B.C. under the leadership of Arahat Mahinda (Mahendra), after the third great Buddhist Conference under Moggaliputta Tissa Thera held in Asoka’s presence at Pataliputra. Mahendra Thera appears to have travelled by sea and to have passed through Kavirapattiman where, during his temporary stay, he raised seven Buddhist viharas which the later Tamil Sangam works, such as Silappadikaram and Manimekalai (2nd century A.D.), attribute to Indra. Indra is only a contraction of Mahendra. Mahendra was greatly helped in spreading Buddhism in South India by Arittaha, of Sri Lanka, the uncle-in-law of King Devanampiya Tissa. There is a village called Arittapatti in Madura District near where Arittha appears to have lived in caves, thereby lending his name to the village. Arittapatti which was originally a Buddhist place, lost gradually its Buddhist nature.

We hear from the Manimekalai that the early Cola king, Killivalavan (2nd century A.D.) converted a prison-house into a charity house at the request of the Buddhist nun Manimekalai, and gifted it to Buddhists who utilised the building for a palli and a charity house. The Pali work, Rasavahini, refers to a Cola king who, while engaged in constructing a Siva, temple at Kaveripattinam, met some Buddhist bhikkus who proved to him the superiority of Buddha Dharma and in return got form him the Siva temple which they converted into a shrine of the Buddhist. In the 5th century A.D. a great Buddhist divine called Buddhadatta Thera, who flourished in the reign of the Kalabhra chief, Accutavikkanta, resided in a vihara in Kaveripattinam built by one Visnudasa or Krsnadasa. This Thera is said to have written most of his works in Kaveripattinam at the instance of the Buddhist acaryas Sumati, Buddhasika and Sanghapala. Buddhadatta’s patron was the Cola king, Kalaber Accutavikkanta, and this divine exhibits in his works an unusual eloquence and patriotism in describing the Cola kingdom under him, of which he was a proud inhabitant.

A golden age of Buddhism, when the Triratna caught South India in its enchanting and soothing grasp and when monks and nuns (bhikkhus and bhikkhunis) like Manimekalai and upasakas and upasikas who were lay followers of the enchanting Faith, travelled throughout the land in utter renunciation and humanitarian zeal to render help even as the Buddha did, is the picture of south India that we visualize from the Tamil classical works of Buddhism the Silappadikaram, Manimekalai, Kundalakesi, Virasoliya, Bimbisarakathai, Valaiyapati, Tiruppadikam, the Jaina Tamil work, Nilakesi and the Hindu Tamil works, Devaram, Nalayiraprabadham and Periyapuranam.

The Buddhist sites in the northern districts of the Madras Presidency, particularly in the Andhra country, are vast as against almost a fraction in the southern districts. From Salihundam in the Srikakulam district in the north, to Chinna Ganjam in the Guntur district in the south, and from Gooty in the Anantapur district in the west, to Bhattiprolu in the east, the Andhra country witnessed in the three centuries preceding and following the present era a phenomenal growth of Buddhist culture and art. Ramatirtham, Sankaram, Salihundam, Kodavalli, Arugolanu, Guntupalli, Jaggayyapeta, Ramireddhipalli, Alluru, Bezwada, Gudivada, Ghantasala, Garikapadu, Goli, Nagarjunikonda, Amaravati, Peddamaddur, Chinna Ganja, Peddaganjam, Kanuparti and Bhattiprolu are a few places among the many that have yielded relics of a glorious Buddhist civilization that flourished in the Andhra country in the early centuries.

Stupas, Caityas or prayer halls, and Viharas were found in large numbers, particularly in the Guntur and Krsna districts along the banks of the river Krsna which was known to the Greeeks as Maisolos.

Nagarjunakonda or "the Hill of Nagarjuna" is one of the sites excavated by the Archaeological Survey(from 1926 to 1931 and again in 1938).The discoveries made here are of singular interest in that they include not only monasteries, stupas and caityas, but also a palace, a wharf and a large number of inscriptions relating to the Iksvaku dynasty that ruled the country in the 3rd centtury A.D. Most of the stupas here were richly carved with scenes drawn from the life of the Buddha, his past births and everyday life, besides decorative and ornamental designs.

The reign of the Andhra King, Pulumavi, witnessed the raising of the great Mahacaitya of Amaravati which became the centre of the Caityakas while under the Iksvakus great stupas arose at Jaggayyapeta and Nagarjunakonda on either side of the river Krsna. The Caityakas probably derived their name from Amaravati Mahacaitya. We also learn that there were other monasteries at Nagarjunakonda one of which was built for the residence of the Sinhalese monks.

Kancipura, Avanti and Arimaddana are according to the Gandhavamsa three great centres of Pali Buddhism. Buddhaghosa in the Nigamana to the Manorathapurani refers to Kanci as a centre of Pali study. Buddhaghosa says elsewhere (Papancasudani) that his own writing was at the instance of Buddhamitta when the two lived together at Madhurasutta-pattana (Madura). Again in his Manorathapurani Buddhaghosa says that his work was at the instance of Jotipala while the two were living together in Kancipuram and other places.

To reconstruct the history of South Indian Buddhism we have to depend mainly on the works of the Tamil poets and scholars who were great acaryas from time to time. The most helpful Tamil works are the Manimekalai, Kundalakesi, Siddhatattogai, Tiruppadikam, Bimbisarakathai, Valaiyapati and Virasoliyam. Some of the very early Tamil Buddhist luminaries are Ilam or the Young Bodhiyar, Aravana Adigal, Sittalai Sattanar, Sanghamitra, Nada-Kutanar, Thera Buddhadatta, Bodhi Dharma and Dinnaga.

Sanghamitra, a Tamil Bhikkhu of the Cola country, who lived in the early half of the 4th century A.D., went to Sri Lanka converted the king to Mahayana (Vaitulya) and being patronised by his second son Mahasena, destroyed the Mahavihara which was a seat of Hinayana and renewed and enlarged the Abhayagiri Vihara, which became thereafter the stronghold of Mahayana.

Buddhadatta Thera (5th century A.D.), a Tamil of the Cola country, held charge successively of Buddhist monasteries at Mahavihara in Anuradhapura, Kaveripattinam, Uragapura, Bhutamangalam and Kancipura. He has written about these monasteries. While at Kaveripattinam, he wrote the Buddhavamsatthakatha at the request of his sisya Buddha-Sikha; and at the request of another disciple, Sumati, he wrote Abhidhammavatara. At Bhutamangalam he stayed in a Buddhist palli built by a Vaisnava, Kannadasa alias Venu (Vinhu) das, and completed another work called Vinaya- viniscaya. His disciple, Buddha Sikha, followed him everywhere. Invited to Sri Lanka, he compiled other works there at the request of a Sinhala Pontiff Mahathera Sankhapala. They are Uttaravinicchaya, Ruparupa-vibhaga, Jinalankara and a commentary on Buddhavamsa called Madhuratha-Vilasini. He met the famous Buddhaghosa in Sri Lanka and the two had friendly discourse. While the Gupta king Kumara Gupta was a patron of Buddhaghosa Thera, Buddhadatta’s patron was the Kalabhra Accyutavikkanta (Acyuta Narayana) of the Colanadu.

The Gandhavamsa mentions ten South Indian Buddhist teachers who wrote works and speaks also of twenty other Buddhist teachers of South India who wrote books in Pali at Kancipuram.

The ten teachers are

( 1 ) Buddhadatta (5th century A.D.).

(2) Ananda, the author of Mulatika on the Abhidhammattakatha.

(3) Dhammapala (5th-6th century A.D.) a native of Tambarattha (Tirumnelveli district) who became successively the head of the Buddhist monastery called Bhataraditta - Vihara at Kancipuram and the Mahavihara at Anuradhapura, wrote good commentaries on Buddhist basic texts, such as "Attakatha," "Paramartha Manjusa," "Nettipakaranatthakatha." He resided in the city of Tanjai in Tirunelveli district.

(4-5) Two unnamed former teachers (Purvacaryas) who wrote the Niruttimanjusa and Mahaniruttisankhepa.

(6) Mahavajirabuddhi, author of Vinayaganthi, a glossary of the five the Vinaya books.

(7) Cullavajirabuddhi. The name of his work is not traceable.

(8) Dipankara Thera 91100 A.D., alias Buddhapriya Thera and "Coliya Dipankara," was disciple in Sri Lanka of Ananda Vanaradana, and later on became the head at Kancipura of Baladicca- Vihara. He was the author of the Pali works, Vajjamadu and Rupa-Siddhi, the former on Buddhist art, and the latter on arithmetic. He wrote also a commentary on the Rupa-Siddhi. He wrote a tika on Sampapancasatti also.

(9) Culladhammapala who wrote the Saccasankhepa and

(10) Kassapa, who wrote the Mohaviccedani and Vimativicccedana.

From the Talaing records of Kalyani we get a list of

Buddhist acaryas of South India, some of whom

are Kaccayana, author of the first Pali grammar;

Buddhavira, author of the Sutta-sangaha; Nana or Nanagambhira,. the author of Tathagatotpatt. Anuruddha (l2th century) of the Pandya land who became popular in Sri Lanka and Burma by his works, :Abhidhammathasangaha, Paramattha-vinicchaya, and Nama-rupapariccheda."

South India continued to be the centre of Pali Buddhism as late as the 12th century A.D.

Dharmakirti (13th century A.D.) of the Pandya country was another celebrated Buddhist acarya who was invited and patronised by Parakrama Bahu II (1236-68 A.D.). He organised in Sri Lanka an international conference of Buddhists. The Datha-vamsa and Culavamsa (latter part of Mahavamsa recording history of Sri Lanka from Mahasena to Parakrama Bahu II) are works which are ascribed to this Dharmakirti.

The Buddhist monks formed a galaxy of stars that illumined the Buddhist firmament in South India for nearly 1,300 years.

Courtesy World of Buddhism