|Author:Laxman Burdak, IFS (R)|
Variants of name
Nagadeepa (Nagadipa) or Nainativu is one of the islands belonging to the cluster of islands in the Palk Bay off the Jaffna Peninsula. Access to Nagadeepa is from the village of Kurikattuwan (Kurikadduwan) of the island of Punkudutivu which is a 20 minute boat ride over the Palk Bay. The island of Punkudutivu is connected by a causeway over the Palk Bay to Kayts, the largest island of the cluster. Kayts is in turn reached by a longer causeway, again over the Palk Bay from the city Jaffna. The total distance (land and sea) from Jaffna to Nagadeepa is approximately 30 km. The Jaffna city is located 404 km north of Colombo in the northernmost Peninsula of Sri Lanka and can be reached via the A3 main road that is then linked to the main northern A9 motor road. 
Nagadipa or Naka-diva is first mentioned in the Pali chronicles of Ceylon in connection with the story of the Buddha’s second visit to Sri Lanka in the 6th century B.C. According to the Mahavamsa (ch.1.vv 44-70) the Buddha, during this visit pacified two Naga kings of Nagadipa who were arrayed in battle over a gem-set throne. In the ancient chronicles the pre-historic Naga tribes are represented as non-human beings enriched with an advanced civilization.
The name of the island alludes to the folklore inhabitants, the Naga people. It is home to the Hindu shrine of Shree Nagapooshani (Bhuvaneswari) Amman; one of the prominent 64 Shakti Peethas, and the Buddhist shrine Nagadeepa Vihare. Historians note the island is mentioned in the ancient Tamil Sangam literature of nearby Tamil Nadu (such as Manimekalai) and ancient Buddhist legends of Sri Lanka (such as Mahavamsa). Ptolemy, a Greek cartographer, describes the Tamil territory including islands around the Jaffna peninsula as Nagadibois in the first century CE.
The Manimekhalai and the Mahavamsa both describe Buddha settling a dispute between two Naga princes over a gem set throne seat on Nainativu. The Tamil language inscription of the Nainativu Hindu temple by Parâkramabâhu I of the 12th century CE states that foreigners landing at new ports must meet at Kayts and they must be protected, and if ships to the islet carrying elephants and horses get shipwrecked, a fourth of the cargo must go to the treasury.
The island has another Tamil name, Manipallavam and is believed to have been blessed by a visit of the Enlightened One, the Buddha Siddhartha Gauthama in order to settle the aforementioned dispute over a throne encrusted with precious jewels between two Naga kings, Chulodhara and Mahodara. The Mahavamsa mentions that this was the Buddha’s second visit to the island and that it took place six years after attaining Enlightenment. The great Tamil poetic work, Manimekala, authored at the height of the Sangam period, also mentions the above conflict and states that the Buddha engineered his footprint to be marked in the island to commemorate the visit.
The two quarrelling Nagas, now reconciled, gifted the said throne to the Buddha and embraced the doctrine, it is stated. In the Northern Province, it is believed that the dagoba in Nagadipa was originally built at the spot where the throne was buried. However, in other parts of the country, the fervent belief is that it was enshrined in the Kelaniya Viharaya. The latter legend has greater acceptance since the Buddha’s next visit was to Kelaniya on the invitation of the King Maniakkhita, who had come to Nagadipa to pay homage to the Enlightened One.
The island at the centre of this controversy is only about two square kilometers in extent and is located a couple of miles off Jaffna, on the Western side of the peninsula. From there to India is a mere 35 miles. However, the Greek cartographer, Ptolemy locates Nagadipa further South. Ptolemy’s map of the world is said to have been drawn in the 2nd Century AD and is based on the description contained in Ptolemy’s book, ‘Geography’, written almost 2,000 years ago. Ptolemy calls the island ‘Nagadiba. In fact he names the Northern part of the island ‘Nagadiba Magramam’ which could indicate a district that shows the political reach of that island.
Ptolemy refers to what is now called Sri Lanka as ‘Taprobane’ and his map shows 20 islands that belong to the larger political entity, Taprobane. It could mean that at the time the island was made of at least 20 principalities.
According to history, more than 2,500 years ago, this region was inhabited by the Nagas, a people with ancestry from what is now called India. It is said that they spoke an Indo-Aryan tongue and worshipped a deity in the Hindu tradition that took the form of a Naga or a cobra. Their closest political associates were the Keralites. Legend has it that when the Nagas ruled that part of the island, other parts were controlled by the Yakshas, Rakshas and Devas. The Yakshas are also believed to have had links to Thailand while the Rakshas were closer to what is today Malaysia. The Devas were considered to be pious and peaceful. They were later deified in popular belief systems. They are said to have fled to the Malabar coast during the Rama-Ravana conflagration and integrated with the peoples there.
The Nagas, according to caste-based belief systems, were tasked to protect borders. However, the Nagas in Nagadipa and the Northern part of the island did not have to defend countless kingdoms as was the lot of their brethren across the Palk Straits. The Chulodhara-Mahodara legend indicates that there would have been at least two powerful clans. After the arrival of Vijaya, it appears that the stock of the Nagas fell and eventually they were restricted to the island Nagadipa. In terms of Naga-worship, what remains is the Nagapushani Amman Kovil in the island with the image of the seven-headed cobra.
From ancient times the island was known as a trading point for conch shells. During the war, it was the Navy that ferried passengers to the island. Today countless pilgrims visit Nagadipa to worship at the Vihara as well as the Nagapushani Amman Kovil. The chronicles state that the kings Dutugemunu and Devanampiyatissa had repaired the Nagadipa Viharaya during their respective reigns. The European invaders stopped Buddhists from worshipping at this temple. Recent renovations began only in 1931 when the Ven Ampangoda Randombe Somatissa Thero visited the island and identified the ruins of the temple.
What is most interesting is that Nagadipa has special mention in both Sinhala Buddhist and the Naga Buddhist history. The Nagas embraced Buddhism 2,600 years ago. No doubt even then the island was called Nagadipa. This is why in all likelihood the Hellenic cartographer Ptolemy used the name Nagadiba, which is but a mild corruption of ‘Nagadipa’. It was clear to Ptolemy almost 2,000 years ago. There’s no reason for it to confuse us, today.
Nāka people were snake-worshippers, a Dravidian custom, and spoke Tamil based on Ptolemy's description of the Nāka people. They also likely spoke Prakrit, a language of the school of Amaravati village, Guntur district with which the early Tamils of Jaffna had strong cultural relations during the classical period. The Nākas were a branch of the Dravidian community, and were at that time part of the Chera kingdom, and of ancient Tamilakam. Archaeological excavations and studies provide evidence of palaeolithic inhabitation in the Tamil dominated Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka and in Tamil Nadu and Chera Nadu (Kerala region). The findings include Nāka idols and suggest that serpent worship was widely practised in the Dravidian regions of India and Sri Lanka during the megalithic period.
The Nākas lived among the Yakkha, Raksha and Deva in Ceylon according to the Manimekalai and Mahavamsa. Cobra worship, Tamil speech and Keralan cuisine extant in Jaffna Tamil culture from the classical period attests to the Nāka's heritage.
Sangam literature details how the ancient Tamil people were divided into five clans (Kudi) based on their profession during the Sangam period, where the Nāka clan, who were in charge of border security guarding the city wall and distant fortresses, inhabited the Coromandel Coast - South Tamil Nadu, East Tamil Nadu and North Sri Lanka.
Ancient Tamil epic Manimekalai and the Sri Lankan history book Mahavamsa both mention a dispute between two Naga kings in northern Sri Lanka. According to the chronicles, in the 5th year after enlightenment, Lord Buddha visited Nagadipa to settle a dispute between two Nàga Kings - Chulodara and Mahodara regarding a gem throne. Mahodara wanted to take possession of it. When Buddha came over from Jetavanarama in the city of Sravasti, He was accompanied by God Sumana , a protective deity residing on a tree at the entrance to the Vihara.
- K. Indrapala. (1963). The Nainativu Tamil Inscription of Parakramabahu I. UCR Vol XX1. No. 1. pp.70
- Laura Smid (2003). South Asian folklore: an encyclopedia : Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka. Great Britain: Routledge. 429.
- Chelvadurai Manogaran (1987). Ethnic conflict and reconciliation in Sri Lanka . United States of America: University of Hawaii Press. 21.
- http://keraladotpark.com/pdf/Archacological%20wonders.pdf A research paper from archaeologist Dr. P. Rajendran showing evidence of paleolithic age human inhabitation in Kerala. This includes the pictures of serpent idols made of clay and metal which belong to the mesolithic age.
- Department of Archaeology, Kerala University confirms paleolithic age findings in Kerala
- General article for palaeolithic age findings in ancient Chera region
- A very detailed article including palaeolithic age in Kerala which was then part of Chera Naadu, one of the three Tamil kingdoms of that era
- "Anthropological museum to have new additions". The Hindu Newspaper (Kerala). 27 December 2010.
- Aitihasik Sthanavali by Vijayendra Kumar Mathur, p.486