Tamil Buddhism

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Bodhidharma, founder of Zen Buddhism, is believed to originated from Kancheepuram, Tamil Nadu.

Tamil Buddhism (Tamil: தமிழ் பெளத்தம்) or Buddhism amongst Tamil speaking people refers to the various schools of Buddhism that flourished in the ancient Tamil country.

Earliest Tamil Buddhism[edit]

Although there is paltry archeological evidence regarding the antiquity of Buddhism, number of well known Classical Tamil literature of and work on Tamil Grammar were written by self identified Buddhist authors. There is no scholarly agreement on the antiquity of Buddhism amongst Tamil people with researchers such as Peter Schalk, arguing that it does not predate the 4th century CE and Buddhism was always a marginal religion amongst the Tamil people. Whereas some scholars and Neo Buddhist activists claiming that Buddhism was prevalent earlier than the 4th century CE and played an important role in the Tamil society.[citation needed]


Tamil Nadu[edit]

The ancient Tamil Buddhist poem Manimekalai by the poet Seethalai Saathanar is set in the town of Kaveripattanam.[1][2] Ancient ruins of a 4th-5th century Buddhist monastery, a Buddha statue, and a Buddhapada (footprint of the Buddha) were found in another section of the ancient city, now at Pallavanesvaram.[3]

The heritage of the town of Nagapatnam is found in the Burmese historical text of 3rd Century BCE, and gives evidences of a Budha Vihar built by the great Ashoka.

Nagapattinam was a Buddhist centre of the 4th-5th century CE. Its stupa dates from this era. Buddhism disappeared from this city as of an unknown date, but was revided as of the 9th century. (H.P.Ray, The Winds of Change, Delhi 1994, p. 142) In the 11th century, Chudamani Vihara, a Buddhist vihara (monastery) was built by Javanese king Sri Vijaya Soolamanivarman with the patronage of Raja Raja Chola.[4] “Animangalam Copperplate” of Kulothunga chola notes that “Kasiba Thera” [Buddhist Monk] Renovated the Buddhist temple in 6th century with the help of Buddhist monks of ‘Naga Nadu’. This ‘nagar annam vihar’ later came to be known as ‘Nagananavihar'.Buddhism flourished until 15th century and the buildings of the vihara survived until 18th century.

Kanchipuram is one of the oldest cities in South India, and was a city of learning for Tamil, Sanskrit, and Pali and was believed to be visited by Xuanzang (Huan Tsang) also known as Yuan Chwang. It was during the reign of Pallava dynasty, from the 4th to the 9th centuries that Kanchipuram attained its limelight. The city served as the Pallava capital, and many of the known temples were built during their reign. According to Tamil tradition, the founder of Zen Buddhism, Bodhidharma was born here[5][6][note 1]

, as was the famous Sanskrit writer Dandin who wrote Dashakumaracharita. The Sanskrit poet Bharavi hailed from Kanchi and wrote the famous Kiratarjuniya here under the patronage of the Pallava king Simhavishnu. Great Buddhist scholars such as Dignaga, Buddhaghosa, and Dhammapala lived here too.

The king of Kanchi, Pallava Mahendravarman I was a great scholar and musician, a man of great intelligence and also a great Sanskrit satirist and playwright.

Xuanzang, the great Chinese traveler, visited the city in the 7th century and said that this city was 6 miles in circumference and that its people were famous for bravery and piety as well as for their love of justice and veneration for learning. He further recorded that Buddha had visited the place.

Sri Lanka[edit]

Jaffna peninsula[edit]

9th Century Tamil Buddhist Stupas,[9] in Kadrimalai, Jaffna Peninsula.
The Ancient Tamil Buddhist Shrine,[10] near the Nagapooshani Amman Kovil, Nainativu

Nāka Tivu/ Nāka Nadu was the name of the whole Jaffna peninsula in some historical documents. There are number of Buddhist myths associated with the interactions of people of this historical place with Buddha.[11] This Tamil Buddhist shrine was located close to the ancient Nainativu Nagapooshani Amman Temple of Nainativu, one of the Shakti Peethas.[12][13] The word Naga was sometimes written in early inscriptions as Nāya, as in Nāganika - this occurs in the Nanaghat inscription of 150 BCE.

The famous Vallipuram Buddha statue built with Dravidian sculptural traditions from Amaravati, Andhra Pradesh (Amaravati school) was found in excavations below the Hindu Temple. The language of the inscription is Tamil-Prakrit, which shares several similarities with script inscriptions used in Andhra at the time, when the Telugu Satavahana dynasty was at the height of its power and its 17th monarch Hāla (20-24 CE) married a princess from the island.[14][15] Professor Peter Shalk (University of Uppsala), writes "Vallipuram has very rich archaeological remains that point at an early settlement. It was probably an emporium in the first centuries AD. […] From already dated stones with which we compare this Vallipuram statue, we can conclude that it falls in the period 3-4 century AD. During that period, the typical Amaravati-Buddha sculpture was developed."[16] The Buddha statue found here was given to King of Thailand by the then British Governor Henry Blake in 1906.[citation needed]

Dr. Indrapala argued for a flourishing pre-Christian buddhist civilization in Jaffna, in agreement with Paranavithana, and Mudliyar C. Rasanayakam, Ancient Jaffna in an earlier work, 1965.

This place is similar to Nagapatnam where all Asian vessels used it as a stopover point and the Buddhist and Hindu Dagobas are just a resting and worshipping places for the sailors and international traders.[citation needed] Both Nagapatnam and Vallipuram served the powerful kingdoms of China, Siam, Cambodia, Champa (Vietnam) and Java.[citation needed]

A group of Dagobas situated close together at the Kandarodai site served as a monastery for Tamil monks and reflect the rise in popularity of Mahayana Buddhism amongst Jaffna Tamils and the Tamils of the ancient Tamil country in the first few centuries of the common era before the revivalism of Hinduism amongst the population.[9]


Thiriyai is referred to as Thalakori in the 2nd century AD map of Ptolemy. Pre-Christian-Buddhist Tamil Brahmi inscriptions have been found in the area, the oldest belonging to the 2nd century BCE. Thiriyai formed a prominent village of Jaffna's Vannimai districts in the medieval period. The site is home to Mahayana Buddhist vatadage ruins worshipped by the locals during the rise of Tamil Buddhism in the area. During Paramesvaravarman I's reign, the famous Tiriyai Pallava Grantha inscriptions of 7th-8th century Tamilakkam were recorded in the village. The inscription refers to Tamil merchant mariners from Tamil Nadu, their seafaring and commerce to Trincomalee.[17] It details their endowment of this shrine dedicated to the Buddhist deity Avalokitesvara and his consort Tara. Dvarapala sculptures found at the ruins are early contributions of the Pallava school of art to the island.

The Chola Dynasty patronised several religions amongst Tamils, including Saivism, Vaishnavism and Buddhism. They built Buddhist temples known as "Perrumpallis". The famous Rajarajapperumpalli of Periyakulam was built by Rajaraja Chola I. Tamil inscriptions excavated from this site point to the attention the Cholas paid to the development of Trincomalee District as a strong Saiva Tamil principality and for their contributions to the upkeep of several shrines including the monumental Shiva Koneswaram temple of Trincomalee.[18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Little contemporary biographical information on Bodhidharma is extant, and subsequent accounts became layered with legend.[7] There are three principal sources for Bodhidharma's biography.[8]None of them mentions specifically Tamil Nadu, only "the western regions" and "Souther India". See Bodhidharma/Birthplace sources for an extensive overview of possible origins, and the reliability of the sources provided for these possible origins.


  1. ^ Rao Bahadur Krishnaswāmi Aiyangar, Maṇimekhalai in its Historical Setting, London, 1928. Available at www.archive.org [1]
  2. ^ Hisselle Dhammaratana,Buddhism in South India, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, 1964. Available on Buddhist Publication Society Online Library [2]
  3. ^ Marine archaeological explorations of Tranquebar-Poompuhar region on Tamil Nadu coast., Rao, S.R.. Journal of Marine Archaeology, Vol. II, July 1991, pp. 6. Available online at [3]
  4. ^ http://www.nio.org/past_events/archaeology/sridhar.pdf
  5. ^ Kambe year unknown.
  6. ^ Zvelebil 1987, p. 125-126.
  7. ^ McRae 2003.
  8. ^ Dumoulin 2005, p. 85-90.
  9. ^ a b Peter Schalk. Buddhism among Tamils in pre-colonial Tamilakam and Īlam: Prologue. The Pre-Pallava and the Pallava period pp. 1
  10. ^ http://www.buddhanet.net/sacred-island/nagadipa.html
  11. ^ Malalasekera, G.P. (2003). Dictionary of Pali Proper Names: Pali-English. Asian Educational Services. p. 42. ISBN 81-206-1823-8. 
  12. ^ Laura Smid (2003). South Asian folklore: an encyclopedia : Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka. Great Britain: Routledge. 429.
  13. ^ Chelvadurai Manogaran (1987). Ethnic conflict and reconciliation in Sri Lanka . United States of America: University of Hawaii Press. 21.
  14. ^ Ponnampalam Ragupathy. (1987). Early settlements in Jaffna: an archaeological survey. pp. 183
  15. ^ Peter Schalk. (2002) Buddhism among Tamils in pre-colonial Tamilakam and Īlam: Prologue. The Pre-Pallava and the Pallava period. pp.151
  16. ^ Schalk, Peter. "The Vallipuram Buddha Image". Tamilnation.org. Retrieved 2013-01-10. "Vallipuram has very rich archaeological remains that point at an early settlement. It was probably an emporium in the first centuries AD. […] From already dated stones with which we compare this Vallipuram statue, we can conclude that it falls in the period 3-4 century AD. During that period, the typical Amaravati-Buddha sculpture was developed." 
  17. ^ Meera Abraham (1988). Two medieval merchant guilds of south India. Manohar Publications. pp. 136
  18. ^ Peter Schalk, Ālvāppillai Vēluppillai. Buddhism among Tamils in pre-colonial Tamilakam and Īlam: Prologue. The Pre-Pallava and the Pallava period, Page 157-159.


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