Naga people (Lanka)

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Cobra symbolism in a Sri Lankan Hindu statue of the Nainativu Nagapooshani Amman Temple
Cobra symbolism in a Sri Lankan Buddhist statue. According to Buddhist scripture the Naga king Muchalinda shielded the Buddha from getting wet in the rain by coiling round him and holding his large hood above the Buddha's head.[1]

The Naga people, also known as Cheras, among with the Yakkshas, were an ancient tribe who once inhabited Sri Lanka. The Naga people appear until the third century BCE as a distinct group in the early Sri Lankan chronicles as well as early Tamil literary works.[2] In the third century BCE they started to assimilate to Tamil language and culture.[3]

The Nagas had by the 9th century AD or probably earlier assimilated into the major groups, the Sri Lankan Tamils and Sinhalese.[citation needed] Naga identity was visible in history through persons with the name Naga added to their personal names.[4][page needed] According to several authors they may have been a race of the Dravidians.[5][6]


The Yakshas and the Nagas are depicted in the Pali epic Mahavamsa as the early inhabitants of Lanka when Vijaya arrived in the island in 500 B.C.[citation needed][a] According to Manogaran, some scholars also "have postulated that the Yakshas and Nagas [...] are the aboriginal tribes of Sri Lanka".[6] Holt concludes that they were not Tamils, but a distinct group.[2][b]

Ancient Naga tribes[edit]

The Oliyar, Parathavar, Maravar and Eyinar who are widespread across South India and North-East Sri Lanka are all Naga tribes.[citation needed]

Early Tamil literary works such as Kaliththokai' mention that many Naga tribes such as Maravar, Eyinar, Oliar, Oviar, Aruvalur and Parathavar migrated to the Pandyan dynasty and started living there in the Third Sangam period 2000 years ago.[citation needed]


In the Ramayana, the mythological island Lanka is been often identified with Sri Lanka. The inhabitants of Lanka were mentioned as non humans, mainly referring to the Rakshasas and Yakshas, but also mentioning the Nagas.[6] Indrajit, the son of Ravana was married to Sulochana, a Naga princess.[citation needed]

Naga territory[edit]

An early copper coin discovered at Uduththurai port carries the name Naga bumi in Tamil, referring to the Naga Dynasty of the North.[citation needed]


Naga Nadu[edit]

By the time Buddhism had reached Tamilakam, the twin epics of ancient Tamil Nadu Silappatikaram (5-6th century CE) and Manimekalai (6th century CE) were written, speaking of Naga Nadu across the sea from Kaveripoompuharpattinam.[10]

Manimekalai speaks of the great Naga king Valai Vanan and his queen Vasamayilai who ruled over Manipallavam, todays Nainativu, which is also known as Nagadeepa. [11]Their daughter, the princess Pilli Valai had a liaison at Nainativu islet with the early Chola king Killivalavan; out of this union was born Prince Tondai Eelam Thiraiyar, who historians note was the early progenitor of the Pallava Dynasty.[12] He went on to rule Tondai Nadu from Kanchipuram. Nainativu was referred to as Manipallavam in ancient Tamil literature following this union. Royals of the Chola-Naga lineage would go on to rule other territory of the island, Nagapattinam and Tondai Nadu of Tamilakam.[citation needed]

Cīttalai Cāttanār, the author of the Manimekalai, reflected the perception at the time that Naga Nadu was an autonomous administrative entity, kingdom or nadu stretching across coastal districts, distinguished from the rest of the island also ruled intermittently by Tamil kings.[citation needed]

The Pali work Mahavamsa and the Tamil work Manimekalai, mentions a dispute between two Naga kings, which was settled by the Lord Buddha.[4][page needed]

Ptolemy in his 1st century map of Taprobane mentions Nagadiboi. Ptolemy mentions in 150 CE that King Sornagos (Chora Naga of Anuradhapura), a descendant of this lineage, ruled from the early Chola capital of Uraiyur during this time. Kaveripoompuharpattinam received many adulatory comparisons to the Naga capital Kadiramalai in the classical period.[citation needed]



It is also believed they were great irrigation engineers who built water storages.[1] The Giant's Tank dam and reservoir system in Mannar, Sri Lanka is considered by some (Such as Author, Mudaliyar C. Rajanayagam) to have been built by the Nagas based on the extensive ruins and the presence of villages with surrounding the port with Naga name (e.g. Nagarkulam, Nagathazhvu and Sirunagarkulam).[13]

Snake worship[edit]

Sri Lankan Tamil Hindus since ancient times have regarded the cobra as a divine being by the passing down of Naga traditions and beliefs. Further, a cobra can be found entwining itself round the neck of the supreme Hindu god Shiva as the serpent-king Vasuki. Cobras can also be found in images of Vishnu.[1][5]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Manogaran notes: "... there is general consensus among historians that Sinhalese settlements preceded Tamil settlements on the island by a few centuries."[7] Manogaran also notes: "... we can only speculate that the ancestors of the present-day Tamils were already in Sri Lanka when the Sinhalese began colonizing the island."[8]
  2. ^ John Holt writes that "in the early Sri Lankan chronicles as well as in the early Tamil literary works the Nagas appear as a distinct group".[2] Holt also writes that "the adoption of the Tamil language was helping the Nagas in the Tamil chiefdoms to be assimilated into the major ethnic group there".[9]


  1. ^ a b c Godwin Witane . (2003). The growth of the cobra cult in Sri Lanka . Available: Last accessed 07 March 2010.
  2. ^ a b c Holt 2011, p. 73.
  3. ^ Holt 2011, p. 73-74.
  4. ^ a b Holt 2011.
  5. ^ a b Laura Smid (2003). South Asian folklore: an encyclopedia : Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka. Great Britain: Routledge. 429.
  6. ^ a b c Manogaran 1987, p. 21.
  7. ^ Manogaran 1987, p. 21-22.
  8. ^ Manogaran 1987, p. 22.
  9. ^ Holt 2011, p. 74.
  10. ^ Cāttan̲ār; Kōpālayyar, Ti Vē (1989-01-01). Manimekhalai: The Dancer with the Magic Bowl. New Directions Publishing. ISBN 9780811210980. 
  11. ^ "BuddhaNet.Net: Sacred Island - A Buddhist Pilgrim's Guide to Sri Lanka: Nagadipa". Retrieved 2017-03-18. 
  12. ^ Ordhendra Coomar Gangoly. The art of the Pallavas, Volume 2 of Indian Sculpture Series. G. Wittenborn, 1957. p. 2. 
  13. ^ Lionel Wijesiri . (2009). The giant wakes up Revival of Yoda Wewa . Available: Last accessed 07 March 2010.


  • Holt, John (2011), The Sri Lanka Reader: History, Culture, Politics, Duke University Press 
  • Manogaran, Chelvadurai (1987), Ethnic conflict and reconciliation in Sri Lanka, University of Hawaii Press