Hema Goonatilake PhD (Lond)
Visiting Professor, Royal University of Phnom Penh, Cambodia
The intensive relations between Sri Lanka and Myanmar span over a period of 1000 years beginning with the emergence of the city of Bagan (written by British as Pagan) in the 11th century as the cradle of Burmese culture and civilization.
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 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. Among these are 260 large monuments influenced by Sinhalese.
Twelfth and thirteenth centuries mark significant relations between Sri Lanka and Myanmar. Twelfth century murals depicting scenes from the chronicle Mahavamsa in a Myinkaba Kubyauk-gyi Temple in Bagan by King Kyanzitta’s son are remarkable. The late historian Godakumbura noted how the stories in the Mahavamsa had been adopted as the traditional history of Myanmar and the national hero of the Sinhalese Buddhists as their national hero. When King Kyanzitta undertook the task of collecting and revising the Tripitaka (3rd Swehsandaw Inscription, Epigra. Birm. I, part II, p.163), he built a stone library for the study of Pali texts that were arriving from the Mahavihara monastery in Sri Lanka. Gordon Luce, the major historian of Myanmar has shown that this period was one of intensive scholarly work with the assistance of a large number of Sinhala Bhikkhus to carry out the task of teaching Pali through the Sinhala script (Luce, Gordon, 1969).
Several Myanmar kings according to Myanmar sources have married Sri Lankan princesses. Alaungsithu (1112-1167 A.C.), (contemporary of Parakramabahu I (1153-1186 A.C.), visited Sri Lanka, 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 (Glass Palace Chronicle, p.114). According to the Mahavamsa, on two occasions, Myanmar captured Sinhalese princesses, sent to Cambodia, and in retaliation, Parakramabahu sent a fleet of ships, took Ukkama (event is confirmed by the Devanagala inscription). According to Myanmar chronicles, King Narathu who had a Sri Lankan princess as his wife, killed her and also her son (GPC p. 183).
Inscriptions and ruins of several monasteries of the 13th century demonstrate that a large number of influential Sri Lankan (Thengu) monks taught Myanmar monks and samaneras. Around these monasteries are several stupas of distinctly Sri Lankan style which are fairly well preserved. One of these monasteries could accommodate around 100 monks. During this time, there was a strong Sinhalese presence in the Bagan Court. Narapatisithu’s Queen Uchokpan (Vatamsika) was a Sinhalese princess, possibly the daughter of Parakramabahu I. Queen Uchokpan’s two sons, Rajasura and Gangasura were precluded from succession due to a problem of kingship line, but remained influential figures at the Court. Vatamsika’s brother was a Minister of the King. Her nephew Jayavaddhana was also influential in the Court. They are mentioned in inscriptions supporting Sri Lankan Bhikkhus resident there during the period.
Ramba Viharaya’s links with Bagan
The Manavulu Sandesaya, a Pali poem of 62 verses written in Sri Lanka is addressed to a Mahathera by the name of Kassapa who was resident in Arimaddanapura (Bagan). The author of the poem is Thera Nagasena who lived in a city known as Mahanagakula (Manavulu in Sinhala) in Southern Sri Lanka. The temple Venerable Nagasena resided has been identified as the Ramba Viharaya, the royal temple of the 12th and 13th centuries in Ruhuna. Nagasena mentions in the poem, that he has received a letter from Mahathera Kassapa through a Minister Nana. The message ends with a request to Mahathera Kassapa to purify the sasana at Bagan with the help of King Siridhammaraja, just as the monks of Sri Lanka did with King Parakramabahu. Godakumbura surmises that this message was sent during the reign of King Narapatisithu (1173-1211 A.C.) (Godakumbura, 146-162).
The existence in 13th century Bagan of the Mahathera Kassapa and the Minister Nana has been confirmed by two inscriptions of Bagan belonging to the 13th century. Lionel D. Barnett who published the text and translation of the Manavulu Sandesaya in his introduction “The Manavulu Sandesaya – Text and Translation” says that Siridhammaraja is an abbreviated form of siritribhuvanadita pavara pandita dhammaraja, a regular title of Bagan kings starting with Narapatisithu’s son, Uzana (1211-1234 A.C.) and ending with Kya-swa (1234-1254 A.C.). Mahathera Kassapa and the Minister Nana have been identified in two separate inscriptions found in Bagan that belong to the same period. The inscription referring to Mahathera Kassapa, dated 1244 states that Min Hla built a large monastery for the Thera in Nadaw (Inscriptions of Bagan etc., X, No. 5. p. 243). The inscription referring to the Minister Nana, dated 1237 records the construction of a grotto and a monastery by a Minister named Nana Pisi (Ibid, vii No. 14, p. 181).
Mahanagakula has been identified as the southern capital of Ruhuna principality where Vijayabahu ruled when he sought help from King Anawratha to defeat the Chola. This is the very city on the south of the Walawe river from where Vijayabahu dispatched three armies to attack Polonnaruwa on three fronts and eventually defeated the Cholas. The temple of Venerable Nagasena, Ramba Viharaya had other viharas under it during this time. Piyadassi Thera, author of a Pali Grammar was an incumbent of one such vihara, namely the Devaraja Vihara in Dolosdasrata along the Walawe river and his maternal uncle was in charge of the Ramba Vihara lands of which Devaraja Vihara formed a part (Malalasekera, 1928, p.205). A large number of monuments still scattered
in a land area of 200 acres of dense jungle provide ample evidence for the historical significance of this temple. Furthermore, the nearby harbour at Godavaya at the mouth of the Walawe river has been an ancient international port that functioned from at least the 2nd century A.C. until the 14th century. An inscription of Gajabahu found at Godavaya states that the customs duties obtained at the port were dedicated to the Godapavata Vihara. Godavaya is adjacent to the
Hambantota port now under construction.
1See for details, ‘Sri Lanka – Myanmar Historical Relations in Religion, Culture and Polity, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka, New Series, Vol. LV
Barnett, Lionel D., “The Manavulu Sandesaya – Text and Translation”, Journal of the Pali Text Society, 1905.
Hmaman Yasawinkyi, Tr. Glass Palace Chronicle by Pe Maung Tin and G.H. Luce, London, 1923.
Epigraphia Birmanica, Rangoon, 1949.
C.E. Godakumbura, “Relations between Myanmar and Ceylon”, JBRS, Pt. II Vol. XLIX)
Inscriptions of Bagan, Pinya and Ava, Rangoon, 1892.
Luce, G.H., Old Myanmar, Early Bagan, 3 vols. New York 1969.
Malalasekera, G. P., The Pali Literature of Ceylon, M. D. Gunasena, Colombo 1928.