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Nagadeepa The Sacred Island

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By Aysha Maryam Cassim

Situated among the clusters of islets off the Jaffna peninsula is one of the smallest inhabited islands named Nainathivu. For many, a visit to Nagadeepa is considered as a pilgrimage. It’s a sacred land of veneration. 

From the southern coast of India, merchants and pilgrims had been coming to Nainathivu since about the 1st century for gems, conch shells and worship.


Getting there

The boats to Nainathivu leave from Punkuduthivu, 30 km off the mainland, reached by a series of causeways connecting it with other islands of Jaffna peninsula. You can travel by your private vehicle to reach Kuraikattuwan, the jetty of Punkuduthiv Island. 

From there, boat services to islands such as Nainathivu, Delft, Analaitivu and Eluvaitivu are being managed and operated by Sri Lanka Navy. Make sure to check the destination and the departure times of the boats before you board. 

Religious significance 

Buddhists believe that there are 16 places in Sri Lanka that have been hallowed by visits of Gautama Buddha. According to the ancient chronicle Mahavamsa, in the fifth year after attaining enlightenment, Buddha visited Nagadeepa, where he settled a dispute between Naga kings Chulodara and Mahodara regarding a jewelled chair.

“The second visit was in the fifth year of Supreme Enlightenment (5 B.E. or 523 B.C.), two Nagas (Naga Clan) in Lanka, Chulodhara and Mahodhara (uncle and nephew) were about to go to war over a jewelled throne in Nagadeepa (present day Jaffna). At this time, a god named Samiddhasumana brought Tathagata (Buddha) to Nagadeepa. Seeing Buddha, nagas stopped the war and paid homage to the Buddha. Chulodhara and Mahodhara settled the dispute and handed over the custody of the jewelled throne to Naga King Maniakkhika of Kelaniya.” (Via Mahavamsa.org)


Nagadipa Purana Viharaya

The famous Buddhist temple ‘Nagadeepa Raja Maha Viharaya’ is located on the same island in close proximity to the Sri Nagapooshani Amman Kovil. Nainathivu is an island that maintains peace and religious coexistence among citizens of ethnic differences. There are Hindu temples, a viharaya and a Muslim masjid. 

History records that the Nagadeepa Purana Rajamaha Viharaya was developed and reconstructed by pious kings Devanampiyatissa and Dutugemunu and converted into a fully-accomplished sacred place. 

In the year 1931 Ven. Randombe Somatissa Nayake Thero from Ambalangoda has visited this place and observed the ruins of the Rajayathana stupa and the Kiripalu Nuga tree and identified it as the stupa constructed with the gem-studded throne on which Lord Buddha has preached, and the Thero then reconstructed this stupa with the support of donors to enabling Buddhists for their religious observances. (Source: Nagadeepa Viharaya.lk).

Today, Nagadeepa Raja Maha Viharaya has become the most sanctified place of worship by the Buddhist devotees.

In Ptolemy’s map of Taprobana of 140 CE, this islet is called Nagadiba while the Jaffna peninsula is called Nagadiba Maagramum. The two Tamil Jain and Buddhist epics of the second century – Kundalakesi and Manimekalai – describe the islet as Manipallavam of Naka Tivu/Naka Nadu. 

Nagadipa literally translates as the ‘Island of Serpents’ (naga, Sanskrit word for serpent.) There are interesting myths and legends behind the name Nagadeepa. The common belief is that the name of this island alludes to its folklore inhabitants, the Naga people.


Who are the Naga people? 

British historian and author of ‘Ancient Ceylon’ consider the Naka to be an offshoot of the Nayars of Kerala. According to the early chronicles, pre-Vijayan Sri Lanka has been inhabited by distinctive groups of Yakkas (demon-worshippers), Rakshasas and Nagas (snake-worshippers). 

Historical accounts reveal that the Naga people, a totemic tribe (aka Cheras), dominated the northern and western parts in sixth century B.C. They started to assimilate to Tamil and Sinhalese communities by the 9th century. Archaeological evidence suggests that they could have been a race of the Dravidians. The Nagas had a king and worshipped the cobra as a symbol of destructive power. They were popularly identified with their affinity towards snakes and head covering bearing the shape of a hydra-headed cobra in reverence to their serpentine deity. 

The elements of their worship were incorporated in Buddhism and superstitions even today. For instance, cobras or nagas are associated with the incarnations of dead people, who in their symbolic form stand as guardians of hidden treasures. They are supposed to be endowed with supernatural powers by which they could metamorphose themselves into human beings at will.


Nagapooshani Amman Temple

As the boat approaches the main jetty of Nainathivu, the pilgrim will see the majestic facade of a Hindu temple. Nagapooshani Amman Temple is a historic Hindu temple in Nainathivu, devoted to goddess Nagapoosani Amman, an avatar of Durga. 

The Gopuram of the temple is a visual masterpiece, decorated with paintings, and meticulous engravings. This ancient Hindu temple was destroyed by the Colonial Portuguese in 1620 CE and later it was restored in the year 1788. Hindus believe that this temple was originally erected and dedicated for the worship of the Serpent God called “Nayinar” by the Nagas. 

In the Nainathivu temple, the object of worship in the sanctum sanctorum is a stone figure of a five-headed cobra. “Mahostavam Thiruvilla”, the festival of the Sri Nagapooshani Amman Kovil, is generally held in the Tamil month of Aani (June/July) each year for 15 days. Poojas and archanas are held regularly in the kovil. Every day thousands of devotees and childless couples come over here to seek blessings from the patron Mother Goddess of the Kovil.

Another legend states that, many centuries later, a cobra (Nagam) was swimming across the sea towards Nainathivu from the nearby island of Puliyantivu with a lotus flower in its mouth, for the worship of Bhuvaneswari Amman (who had already been consecrated by Indra). An eagle (Garuda) spotted the cobra and attempted to attack it and kill it. 

Fearing harm from the eagle, the cobra wound itself around a rock (referred to in Tamil as Paambu Sutriya Kal, “the Rock around which the Snake wound itself”) in the sea about half a kilometre from the Nainathivu coast, and the eagle stood on another rock (Garudan Kal, “the Rock of the Eagle”) some distance away. 

A merchant by the name of Maanikan from the Chola kingdom, who was himself a devotee of Sri Bhuvaneswari Amman, was sailing across the Palk Strait to trade with the ancient Naka Nadu and noticed the eagle and the cobra perched upon said rocks. 

He pleaded with the eagle to let the cobra go on its way without any harm. The eagle agreed with one condition that the merchant should construct a beautiful temple for Sri Bhuvaneswari Amman on the island of Nainathivu and that he shall propagate her worship in the form of Sri Nagapooshani Amman for universal peace, prosperity and humanity. He agreed and built a beautiful temple accordingly.

The eagle took three dips into the ocean to atone for its sins against the Nagas in the Mahabharata, and hence, the Garuda and Naga resolved their longstanding feuds. (Via Temple Purohit.)



Nainathivu village

As you wander amongst the island’s long sandy dunes and lagoons, you will be mesmerised by Nainathivu’s unpolluted beauty and unglossed country charm. The heat in the northern peninsula is rather unforgiving, so I’d suggest that you to take a tour around the village by tuk since walking on foot along the desiccated, earthy roads can be exhausting. (Make sure you negotiate a price per hour before hopping in.) 

The population of the island is approximately 2,500, which consists of a Tamil majority and a Muslim minority. We were told that many of the Tamil diaspora from Europe, North America and Australia are natives of Nainathivu. 

When I asked a local, “Why aren’t they selling their houses?” his reply was, “Miss, no one sells a house in a holy land. It’s a blessing to own a property here.” Today, the abodes of those who fled to faraway lands lie forgotten and abandoned in this island, waiting to be revisited someday. Nainathivu is a land of a 10km stretch, which can be explored in an hour or two. There is the “pen kadal” (feminine sea), where its shallow waters are awash with subtle turquoise hues, and the “aan kadal”, a rough, balmy shore, which is a beauty to behold. Palm-thatched houses dot either side of the lanes, fenced by sun-dried palmyrah leaves. Fishermen with their prawn traps take a respite from the relentless sun, in the shade of a contorted tree or against a docked boat. Women in multi-coloured sarees head to the nearby kovil, adding a speck of colour to the bleak barren landscapes of Nainathivu. 

On your way, there will be cows and herds of goats lazing and grazing around as little boys and girls glide past you on their cycles and scooters. Life may not always be easy for them. But the smiles on their faces tell us that despite the difficulties, they continue to survive in this beautiful blessed land.


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