Sri Lanka is a small pear-shaped island situated just off the southeastern tip of the Indian sub-continent. It is not a big island being only 270 miles from north to south and 140 miles from east to west at its widest point. The western most point of the island Talaimannar jutting out into the Gulf of Mannar is a mere 20 miles from India. The west and southern coastal plains of Sri Lanka are lush and tropical and this is where the country’s fabled spices come from. Fruits, flowers and grains grow in abundance. The north and east are hot and dry and cultivation is only possible with the help of an extensive system of irrigation. Sri Lanka has been known by a bewildering variety of names throughout its history. Its earliest name, Tambapanni, first appears in one of King Asoka’s inscriptions and is the origin of the name the Greeks knew the island by, Taprobane. The name means ‘Copper-colored Palms’. According to ancient legend when the first immigrants arrived in the island they threw themselves on the shore and the rust-colored earth stained their hands. The Sinhalese have long called their home Lankadipa (Lanka Island) or just Lanka. In the Sanskrit literature of India it was usually known as Ratnadipa (The Island of Gems), Simhaladipa (The Island of Lions) or simply as Simhala from which the English name Ceylon is derived. In 1973 the country changed its name from Ceylon to Sri Lanka (Holy Lanka).
From Roman times Sri Lanka has been famous for its elephants, pearls,
conch shells, sweet fragrant spices and in particular its gems. Ships
from as far away as China in the east and the Red Sea and Persian Gulf
in the west used to converge on Sri Lanka to get these and other exotic
products. But Sri Lanka has also long been known for something more flavorsome
than any spice and more beautiful and precious than any gem – the
teaching of the Buddha. Buddhism was introduced to the island in about
248 BCE and has been the religion the majority of its people ever since.
In fact, Sri Lanka was the first country outside India to embrace Buddhism
and it has now prevailed there longer than in any other place on earth.
For centuries Buddhists have looked upon Sri Lanka as a sacred realm almost
on a par with India itself. The island was believed to be sanctified by
several visits by the Buddha himself. The legend of the Buddha's visits
was not, it should be noted, confined to the Theravada tradition. The
Lankavatara Sutra, the seminal text of the Ch'an and Zen schools of Buddhism,
was believed to have been taught by the Buddha while he was in Sri Lanka
residing on Sri Pada ‘which shone like a jewel lotus, immaculate
and shining in splendor’. The Chrakasamvara Tantra mentions the
Buddha flying to Lanka and leaving the impression of his foot on a mountain.
Further, the island’s many temples enshrined some of the most revered
relics in the world, the most important being the Buddha’s tooth,
a strand of his hair and his begging bowl. Of course numerous similar
relics were to be found throughout the Buddhist world but for some reason
those in Sri Lanka were held to be ‘more authentic’ and thus
more sacred. Another thing that gave Sri Lanka a wide appeal to Buddhists
from other lands was that all the three vehicles of Buddhism - Hinayana,
Mahayana and later Tantrayana or Vajrayana - flourished there. There were
occasions when kings proscribed one or another of these sect but more
usually a spirit of wide tolerance prevailed. People were free to practice
the Dhamma and interpret it according their own understanding. And this
tolerance extended not only to different sects of Buddhism but to other
faiths as well. Writing in 911 the Muslim traveler Abu Zeid al Hasan said,
‘In the island there are a great multitude of Jews as well as other
sects…the king permitting the free exercise of every religion’.
Of these sixteen places seven are in Anuradhapura and the rest are spread widely throughout the country. Those in Anuradhapura are the Sri Mahabodhi, Mirisavati Stupa, Ruvanvali Stupa, Thuparama, Abhayagiri Stupa, Jetavanarama Stupa and Lankarama Stupa. Of the rest Nagadipa is on an island near the northern tip of the country while Tissamaharama is in the far south. Dighavapi is on the eastern seaboard near Ampara and Kelaniya is on the west coast near Colombo. Sri Pada is on top of the country’s second highest mountain, Divaguha is somewhere near its foot, and Muthiyangana is on the very southeastern edge of the hill country while Mahaiyangana and Kirivehera are down on the plains. To the ancient Sinhalese it was not that there were many sacred places in their land but rather that the very land itself was sacred. In their imagination. Lanka was a vast sacred mandala whose axis was Sri Pada encrusted with precious gems and from which numerous rivers spiraled outwards with their life giving waters. The Sadhammopayana puts it like this; ‘This Buddha land is illuminated by the luster of the sun of supreme wisdom and cooled by the full moon of compassion. It is everywhere enclosed by the lofty peaks of the Buddha’s Dhamma and with hills of the gold and jewels of true understanding. The lions of self-confidence living comfortably and fearlessly in the forest of the Sangha decorate it. It is refreshed with the rain of Dhamma instruction, strewn with the blossoms of the factors of enlightenment and has the straight highways of the Eightfold Path. The ocean of virtue surrounds it with waves of good conduct. Noble heroes inhabit this Buddha land which is eminent above all others’.
Pilgrimage is as popular today as it was in the past. It is true that modern transportation and better roads have changed some aspects of the experience but the old spirit of devotion and awe, of endurance and benediction of enjoying companionship and enduring hardship, still prevails. The Sinhala terms for pilgrimage are ‘journey of worship’ (vandana gamana) or ‘journey of merit’ (pin gamana). The devotees of a particular monastery or a particular teacher, an extended family or perhaps people from one neighborhood will discuss the possibility of going on pilgrimage, decide on a date and begin to work out the details. One of the local monks or perhaps a nun will be invited to accompany the group or if they are particularly respected, to lead it. The costs of the whole journey will be calculated and shared equally between all the participants. A bus or truck will be hired, loaded up with large cooking pots, bundles of fire wood and sacks of rice and vegetables and after the inevitable delays will set off to enthusiastic shouts of ‘Sadhu’! Sadhu! Sadhu’! This oft heard exclamation means something like, ‘It is good’. In Buddhism pilgrimage is neither a penance nor an obligation during which one is expected to be dour and serious. The mood of pilgrims often alternates between curiosity and piety, high sprits and wonder. There are traditional songs that pilgrims sing and poems that they recite as they progress towards their goal and some of those sung on the Sri Pada pilgrimage contain a good deal of humor. After the devotions time is always made for buying souvenirs or products not available at home. At Sri Pada pictures of Samantha and little books of devotional poems are popular and at Anuradhapura a certain type of native sugar not available in southern Sri Lanka always sells well. Most pilgrims today wear neat ordinary clothes but those keeping the eight or ten Precepts during the journey and some of the older people will wear white.
Since its founding in 1890 Sri Lanka’s Archaeological Survey has discovered and excavated hundreds of ancient temples, monasteries shrines and other monuments. At many of there sites inscriptions have been found recording the names of the places, gifts given to various institutions, how much they cost, the names and titles of the donors, what year in the reign of certain kings the gifts were made, and so on. When all this information is put together it becomes a valuable supplement to the information given in other sources. The work of piecing together Sri Lanka's past is by no means finished and new information is coming to light all the time.
© 2007 Copyright Ven. S. Dhammika & BuddhaNet/Buddha Dharma Education Association Inc.