Naga people (Lanka)

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Cobra symbolism in a Sri Lankan Hindu statue of Nainativu Nagapooshani Ambigai.
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 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, and lost their separate identity.[3][note 1] The Naga people were snake-worshipers. The word Naga was sometimes written in early inscriptions as Nāya, as in Nāganika which can be identified in the Nanaghat inscription of 150 BCE.


The word Naga may have different origins. The word naga or nag means mountain in Sanskrit,[6][7] although the term Nāga also means cobra in Sanskrit. The Nagas have also been known as "Cheras", which is a Dravidian term for hill or mountain.[8][9] They were probably called "Cheras" since they may have been a hill tribe. Sri Lanka has also been known as Cerentivu, meaning "island of Cheras".


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.[10][note 2] According to Manogaran, some scholars also "have postulated that the Yakshas and Nagas [...] are the aboriginal tribes of Sri Lanka".[13] Holt concludes that they were not Tamils, but a distinct group.[2][note 3] The practice of dravidian customs such as snake-worshipping, have the Nagas been considered by some scholars to have been Dravidians.[15] Snake-worship is still practiced among Sri Lankan Tamils and the Nair community of Kerala.[16]

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.[17]

Early Tamil literary works such as Kaliththokai[18] 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.[17][19]


The Nagas lived among the Yakkha, Raksha and Deva in Lanka according to the Manimekhalai, Mahavamsa and Ramayana. Meghanatha, the son of Ravana, was married to Sulochana, a Naga princess in Lanka. The allied Nagas fought on the side of the Meghanatha and were defeated by Garuda.[citation needed]

Naga territory[edit]

There is a reference to the town Naga Nakar in Tamil Brahmi inscriptions belonging to 200 BCE, which is believed to be denoting Kudiramalai.[20]

An early copper coin discovered at Uduththurai port carries the name Naga bumi in Tamil, referring to the Naga Dynasty of the North.[21]

The Mahavamsa and the Manimekalai mentions a dispute between two Naga kings on Nainativu in northern Sri Lanka.[22]


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, and their civilization which was even more sumptuous than those of the Cheras, the Cholas and the Pandyas.[citation needed]

Manimekalai speaks of the great Naga king Valai Vanan and his queen Vdcamayilai who ruled the prosperous Naga Nadu with great splendour and a rich Tamil Buddhist tradition. 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. 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. The Talagunda inscriptions of Kadamba Kakusthavarma also refer to the coastal Thiraiyar tribe as forming from this Chola-Naga alliance.[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.[23]

Ptolemy in his 1st century map of Taprobane mentions Nagadiboi. Ptolemy mentions in 150 CE that King Sornagos, 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 Kanderodai (Kadiramalai) in the classical period.[citation needed]

Naka Nadu included Mantai in the northwest, Thirukonamalai in the northeast and Mahavillachi in the middle of the island. The socioeconomic structure of this nation was built around its oceanic trade and agriculture, the inner trade and trade with the kingdoms of Tamilakam, Rome, Greece, Egypt, Kalinga and the far east being the mainstay of its economy. The Karaiyar tribe of these Tamils were coast-residing seafaring people and the oldest settlers of the Coromandel Coast and the coasts of Sri Lanka. The Ketheeswaram temple of Maanthai was built by this clan in the classical period.[citation needed]

Early Cholas[edit]

The Manimekhalai and archaeological inscriptions refer to the Chola-Naka alliance and intermarriage as being the progenitor of the Pallava Dynasty.[24]



The Naga used to have kingdoms and temples in Sri Lanka.[25][26] The Nagas built a temple in Medawattha, Mathara called Nagavila today. It used to hold a statue of Buddha sitting on the Muchalinda, the Cobra. Naga maidens used to perform dances there.[27]


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).[28]

Snake worship[edit]

Naga people were snake-worshipers.[citation needed] According to Rasanayagam,

The origin of their name cannot certainly be traced to serpents or serpent-worship, for they were so named long before the advent of the Aryans in whose language alone the word signified 'serpents'.[29]

The word Naga was sometimes written in early inscriptions as Nāya, as in Nāganika - this occurs in the Nanaghat inscription of 150 BCE.[citation needed]

The Mahavamsa describe the Nagas as supernatural beings whose natural form was a serpent, but they could assume any a form at will.[30]

Similarly, 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][4][31]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ According to several authors they may have been a race of the Dravidians.[4][5]
  2. ^ Manogaran notes: "... there is general consensus among historians that Sinhalese settlements preceded Tamil settlements on the island by a few centuries."[11] 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."[12]
  3. ^ 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".[14]


  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 Laura Smid (2003). South Asian folklore: an encyclopedia : Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka. Great Britain: Routledge. 429.
  5. ^ Chelvadurai Manogaran (1987). Ethnic conflict and reconciliation in Sri Lanka . United States of America: University of Hawaii Press. 21.
  6. ^ Kumar, Braj Bihari (2005-01-01). Naga Identity. Concept Publishing Company. ISBN 9788180691928. 
  7. ^ Glashoff, Klaus. "Sanskrit Dictionary for Spoken Sanskrit". Retrieved 2016-09-28. 
  8. ^ Ambedkar, Dr B. R. (2014-10-21). THE UNTOUCHABLES. Ssoft Group, INDIA. 
  9. ^ "Early Tamils of Ilangai". Scribd. Retrieved 2016-09-28. 
  10. ^ The Story of Vijaya and Kuveni
  11. ^ Manogaran 1987, p. 21-22.
  12. ^ Manogaran 1987, p. 22.
  13. ^ Manogaran 1987, p. 21.
  14. ^ Holt 2011, p. 74.
  15. ^ "Early Tamils of Ilangai". Scribd. Retrieved 2016-09-28. 
  16. ^ Nayar, K Balachandran (1974). In Quest of Kerela. Accent Publications. p. 85. 
  17. ^ a b Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (1903). The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. Published for the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland by Trübner & Co. pp. 57–. Retrieved 21 September 2011. 
  18. ^ Mudaliyar, Singaravelu A., Apithana Cintamani, An encyclopaedia of Tamil Literature, (1931) - Reprinted by Asian Educational Services, New Delhi (1983), Pg 83-101
  19. ^ The Tamils Eighteen Hundred Years Ago By V. Kanakasabhai
  20. ^ Epigaphia Zeylanica VII, No. 82)
  21. ^ (Pushparatnam, P. 2002: 11, 30)
  22. ^
  24. ^ Ordhendra Coomar Gangoly. The art of the Pallavas, Volume 2 of Indian Sculpture Series. G. Wittenborn, 1957. p. 2. 
  25. ^ WWW Virtual Library Sri Lanka. (2009). The original inhabitants of Lanka: Yakkas & Nagas. Available: Last accessed 07 March 2010.
  26. ^ Wilhelm Geiger . (2003). The Mahavamsa. Available: Last accessed 07 March 2010.
  27. ^ Paravi Sandeshaya verse 128/ Kokila Sandeshaya
  28. ^ Lionel Wijesiri . (2009). The giant wakes up Revival of Yoda Wewa . Available: Last accessed 07 March 2010.
  29. ^ Rasanayagam 1926, p. 4.
  30. ^ Prof. S.Ranwella. (2009). THE SO-CALLED TAMIL KINGDOM OF JAFFNA. Available: Last accessed 07 March 2010.
  31. ^ 'Naga' Worship in India and. (2004). 'Naga' Worship in India Last accessed 07 March 2010.


  • Holt, John (2011), The Sri Lanka Reader: History, Culture, Politics, Duke University Press 
  • Rasanayagam, C. (1926), Ancient Jaffna, Asian Educational Services (1993 reprint) 

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