Northern Islands of Sri Lanka

Nagadeepa is a very important island, in the North, because of its religious significance to both Buddhists and Hindus. Thousands of Buddhist devotees, on every full moon Poya day, especially soon after Poson full moon Poya day, visit Nagadeepa.

by Admiral Ravindra C Wijegunaratne

There are a number of tiny islands in Palk Bay and Palk Strait. The biggest among them is Delft Island (Nedunthivu) with about 4,800 inhabitants. Another important island is Nainativu or Nagadeepa, and as per historical details, it belonged to the 'Naga' tribe, the ancient seafarers who were very wealthy. Other islands, in the North, are Karainagar, Kayts, Mandativu, Pungudutivu, Analativu, Eluvativu, Kakarativu, Palitivu, Iranativu (North and South) and the famous Kachchtivu ("tivu" means 'island' in Tamil). Kayts, Karainagar, Mandiativu, and Pungudutivu are connected by causeways of the Jaffna peninsula. You have to travel by boats to other islands. Most of these islands, other than Kayts, Karainagar and Delft, have very few inhabitants, most of whom are mainly fishermen. Due to their remoteness, these islands are very beautiful and well-protected.

The Mahawansa (Great Chronicle) written by Buddhist monks and Manimekalai, a Tamil epic written by Kulavanikan Cittalaic Catanar, probably around the 6th Century, mention Nagadeepa.

Nagadeepa is a very important island, in the North, because of its religious significance to both Buddhists and Hindus. Thousands of Buddhist devotees, on every full moon Poya day, especially soon after Poson full moon Poya day, visit Nagadeepa. Further, thousands of Hindu devotees, a large number from overseas, also visit Nagadeepa during the 16-day Mahostavam festive season celebrated during the Tamil month of Aani (June/July). The religious importance of this island is due to two world- famous religious sites, belonging to Buddhists and Hindus. Nagadeepa Purana Rajamaha Viharaya, the place which the Buddha visited five years after his enlightenment, to settle a dispute between two Naga kings, Choolodara and Mahodara, is the Buddhist religious site.

Less than 500 meters away from this Buddhist site is the Nagapooshani Amman Kovil, an ancient Hindu temple dedicated to Parvathi, who is known as Nagapooshani, or Bhuvaneswari, and her consort, Shiva, who is named here as Nayinaar. If you visit the Nagapooshani Amman Temple Museum, you can see the "Nainativu Tamil slab inscription of the Great King Parakramabahu I," part of it is broken, though, written on a four-foot-tall and a two-and-a-half-foot long granite in Medieval Tamil with a few lines in Sanskrit, the only Tamil inscription erected by the great Sinhala king, read as "that foreigners should come and stay in Uratturai (ancient port of Kayts)that they should be protected … Those who suffered shipwreck, based on cargo carry (horses, elephants or general cargo), half to one-fourth of value has to be paid to the State Treasury."

As a young naval officer (22 years old), I had the fortune of protecting this island, its people and the religious sites, from terrorists, from 1985 to ’87.

As a Buddhist, to protect a place visited by the Buddha from evil forces, was a great responsibility. I was appointed the Officer-in-Charge of Naval Detachment Nainativu in mid-1985. I took over command just a few months before the LTTE massacred 146 Buddhist devotees at the Sri Maha Bodhi, on 14 May 1985. It was obvious that the terrorists’ next target was Nagadeepa, the most prominent Buddhist shrine in the Northern Province.

The responsibility for protecting Nagadeepa fell on a young officer and 20 sailors. Fortunately, the Security Forces Commander Jaffna and Commanding Officer of SLNS Elara, decided to reinforce our detachment with an Army infantry platoon. First to come was Sri Lanka Light Infantry (CLI) platoon, under Second Lieutenant Amal Karunasekara, who is a Major General now. As per Amal’s explanation, he had heard, soon after they landed, at Nagadeepa Temple jetty, a conversation between two sailors, on duty at a bunker, near the jetty. "Machan ada Ude Kaamath paan, sausages, bittara, butter and Jam. Kaatada mehema kanna Puluwan! " (See, today breakfast also sausages, eggs, butter and jam with bread! Who can eat like this my friend! ). With a tribute to our supply officer, in our motherbase SLNS Elara, LT (then) Bandula Dahanayaka, that was how we ate those days. Amal was surprised to hear the sailors were whingeing such food his soldiers were not lucky to have.

Thanks, Navy for making us fit, strong and happy. That's why once Napoleon said "Army marches on its stomach. "

We were in a very remote island. No electricity. We had a small generator which was barely sufficient to light up only a section of the perimeter. Our detachment was next to the Nagadeepa Purana Rajamaha Viharaya. Our prime task was to protect the religious site and two Buddhist monks living there. "Loku Hamuduruwo" was Rajakeeya Panditha Most Venerable Brahmanawatte Dhammakitti Tissa Nayaka Thera of Amarapura Nikaya. A learned scholar, who was fluent in all three languages Sinhala, Tamil and English. He was very influential and all islanders greatly respected him. He had direct links to the then President J R Jayewardene at that time. He had developed Nagadeepa Island singlehandedly during 40 years. Nagadeepa has five schools, a fully-fledged hospital and a dental surgery. A large number of islanders were well educated, and some of them have served, or serving, as GAs, AGAs, doctors, engineers, accountants and prominent businessmen in various parts of the country and abroad. A large number of them are living in Canada and the UK. Loku Hamuduruwo had witnessed the destruction of the Nagadeepa Temple by Tamil mob that came in boats, from the mainland, during the Sinhala-Tamil riots, in 1958.

Loku Hamuduruwo was determined not to leave the temple at any cost thereafter. So, our orders were very clear, "Protect the temple and priests at any cost". I was with several SLA Officers at Nagadeepa—Second Lieutenant Amal Karunasekara, late Lieutenant Dharmapriya Silva, Lieutenant Sajith Wijekoon, Lieutenant Susantha Senaviratne, late Lieutenant Thilak Senaviratne, Lieutenant LBR Marks and Lieutenant Jagath Pakshaweera. They and their Army men were fed by the Navy.

My best friend was "Podi Hamuduruwo" the junior priest, Nawadagala Padumakitti Tissa Thera. He was one year my senior and our bond was unique. He was like an elder brother to me. A fearless monk, who protected the temple well and looked after high priest with utmost respect. He was the link between us – the military and the chief priest. A few days, after I took over the detachment, I happened to visit him in the temple. He was cooking lunch (Dawal Dana) for him and Loku Hamuduruwo. I was shocked to see the menu. Normally, lunch was provided by a person called Kandaiah, who had prepared alms for the monks for 25 years. That day, he had gone out of the island with his family. So, Podi Hamuduruwo was cooking lunch—dhal curry, one vegetable and rice.

I immediately ordered my supply sailor to offer meals and tea daily. The Navy has been doing so ever since.

Podi Hamuduruwo was worried about the prospect of a terrorist attack. We gave him some lessions in self-defence. So, when "Action Stations" was sounded, Podi Hamuduruwo would take the high priest to the bunker close to the temple.

On 1st October 1990, the LTTE forcibly expelled the Tamil speaking Muslims from the Northern Province, an atrocious act amounting to ethnic cleansing. Within the next 24 hours, 72,000 Muslims were forcibly expelled from their homes of centuries. They were allowed to take only what they could carry in a shopping bag each. The tiny Muslim community, living on the Southside of Nagadeepa, also had to leave their houses. They were fishermen and lobster divers. The Loku Hamuduruwo told them not to leave. He promised them that with the support of the military, he would look after them and protect them. On the request of Loku Hamuduruwo, the Muslims decided to stay back. Even today, during the holy month of Ramadan, the first Iftar (meal to break the fast at Sunset) is organized by the Nagadeepa Buddhist temple with support of the Navy. Ethnic harmony on this tiny island is a great example to the whole country.

I am glad that our Podi Hamuduruwo is the high priest of Nagadeepa Purana Rajamaha Viharaya, today, after the demise of his teacher, 17 years ago. He is Praveenacharya Dhamma Keerthi Sri Venerable Nawadagala Padumakitti Tissa Thera, Chief Incumbent of Nagadeepa Purana Rajamaha Viharaya, Dambakolapatuna Viharaya and the Chief Sanganayaka of Northern Province. The priests (Loku Hamuduruwo and Podi Hamuduruwo) are national heroes. They never left the temple for their safety and comfort during trying times. They protected this holy Buddhist site, in the North, for future generations and looked after the inhabitants of the island. They encouraged us, gave us the morale and spiritual support to fight the terrorists and to protect the holy place.

Please visit Nagadeepa. The boat trip from Kurikadduwan Jetty, in Pungudutivu, to the Temple Jetty, in Nagadeepa, is enjoyable provided the sea is calm. Road connection from Jaffna town to Kurikadduwan Jetty is very good. You can visit the newly built three-story building in Nagadeepa Temple and the first-floor Museum, which provides information about how Ven. Randombe Somatissa Thera from Balapitiya visited Nagadeepa, in 1931, and found ruins of stupa and Viharaya, destroyed by the Portuguese and the Dutch and how he was supported by Tamil Buddhists in Nagadeepa in the task. Interestingly, some land deeds refers to the place as "Buddha Walluwa" (in Tamil, Buddha’s land)."

Also, visit ancient Buddhist ruins of a stupa in Delft Island, where not a single Buddhist lives but well protected. Never forget, there are Tamil Buddhists also. The 2012 Sri Lankan census revealed that here are 22,254 Tamil Buddhists in Sri Lanka (roughly 1% of Sri Lankan Tamils in Sri Lanka). Ven. Buddhagosha Thera was a Tamil Buddhist monk. Venerable Bodhidharma, was a semi-legendary Buddhist monk from Kanchipuram, South India; he lived during the 6th Century.

(The writer retired from Sri Lanka Navy and he is Former Chief of Defence Staff, Sri Lanka )

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