For the past 200 years, our understanding that Buddhism originated somewhere in the Middle Gangetic region of northern India and Nepal has been largely unchallenged. While Nepal and India often publicly argue as to who can rightfully claim ownership over the Buddha, could Sri Lanka, too, stake its own claims to Buddhism’s founder? A closer exploration of the archaeological, epigraphical, and written evidence involving the island, however, suggests that a Sri Lankan origin for the Buddha may not be so far-fetched.
Central to this current consensus of a Middle Gangetic origin are two travelogues from the Chinese pilgrims Faxian and Xuanzang who travelled across South Asia during the fifth and seventh centuries in search of the Buddha’s traces and his original teachings. Translations of the travelogues into English, French, and German appeared from the 1830s onwards, and the nineteenth century saw a prolonged process whereby orientalists employed the accounts of these two pilgrims in two crucial ways. First, curious phonetic analogies were employed to connect places described in classical Chinese to those mentioned in Indic Pali or Sanskrit texts. These sites were then linked to the modern Hindu and Urdu names of towns and villages found across the Middle Ganges today. Second, the pilgrims’ descriptions of sites associated with the Buddha’s life were also deliberately re-interpreted to give new meaning to several abandoned ruins dotted across the same region.
Yet what has so far escaped attention from studies of the travelogues are Sri Lanka’s possible connections to sites described by the pilgrims. In one such instance, Faxian describes the polity of ‘Yu-teen’ where he claims the inhabitants were devout Buddhists and provided lodgings for their ‘priests from the four quarters’. The use of the phrase ‘from the four quarters’ so confused the first European translators working on the travelogue, they initially assumed Faxian was referring to its monastic residences being ‘square-shaped’. The paucity of written or epigraphical evidence from the subcontinental mainland or from China’s borderlands describing the Buddhist monkhood as being ‘from the four quarters’ perhaps explains the confusion. Nevertheless, several stone inscriptions marking the gifts of residences to the Buddhist monkhood ‘of the four directions’ in proto-Sinhalese area are readily found across Sri Lanka.
Moreover, textual evidence from the island itself also prompts questions about our current understanding of Buddhism’s early geography. A close reading of the Dipavamsa, a Pali-language chronicle dating from the third century, reveals how the ‘Lankadipa’ (or island of Lanka) lays claim to both the ‘bodhi tree’ under which Siddartha Gautama attained Buddhahood and also the ‘most excellent Buddha’ himself. The Sri Lamkadvipaye Kadaim, a Sinhalese-language fourteenth-century ‘boundary’ text dealing with cartographic and topographical matters, depicts both the ‘Simhaladvipa’ or ‘island of the Sinhala’ and the ‘Trisimhaladvipa’ or ‘island of the three Sinhalas’ when referring to the entire island mass of modern Sri Lanka before equating both polities with the ‘Dambadiva’ polity in which Buddhists traditionally believe the Buddha himself resided. The text finally lists the number of ‘maharata’ or ‘great countries’ and ‘desa’ or ‘regions’ within this Dambadiva before then curiously concluding: ‘here ends the recitations of the boundaries of the island of Sri Lanka’.
Examinations of other Sinhalese-language texts from the island reveal further surprises. In a sixteenth century copy of the Rajaratnakara, a similar connection is made between the island and ‘Jambudvipa’, a Buddhist synonym of the Dambadiva associated with the Buddha. Writing in a hybrid of liturgical Pali and Sinhalese, the text’s transcriber refers to the same Simhaladvipa of the Sri Lamkadvipaye Kadaim, before linking it with the ancient Kalinga polity of Buddhist lore and then explicitly equating it with the Buddha’s Jambudvipa. Furthermore, in the Tri Simhale Kadaim – another seventeenth-century boundary text – the author describes the islanders’ pilgrimages to the famous mountain of Adam’s Peak in central Sri Lanka during the Duruthu and Vesak Buddhist festivals and expressly explains that the pilgrims come from ‘this’ Jambudvipa. Why the authors of these texts appear insistent on associating Sri Lanka with the Buddha’s home region surely deserves further examination.
Archaeological evidence from the island also leaves us with more questions than answers. In an 1832 exploration of Sri Lanka’s Mahaweli river, a civil servant curiously observed the existence of a remote city called ‘Kalinga’ some eighty miles from the river’s mouth. More than a century later, this ‘Kalinga nuwara’ or ‘city of Kalinga’ was, in fact, confirmed as a remote island on the river, and during the 1960s, surveyor RL Brohier described its location in a region of Sri Lanka which he described as ‘the least known parcel of country to most people in Ceylon’. Brohier further reported the presence of ‘many traces of ruined structures, and evidence of past civilization in masses’ which to him indicated that Kalinga was once covered by buildings of varying size and scale. Of further interest for Brohier was that Kalinga featured the only traces of an ancient system of irrigation control found anywhere on the Mahaweli. Remarkably, almost fifty years after Brohier’s reports, little more is known about this Kalinga and its significance for Sri Lankan history. With thorough archaeological excavations of the site yet to take place in what is still a sparsely populated and remote part of Sri Lanka, Kalinga’s secrets remain well kept.
While we do not know if this Kalinga in some way relates to that of ancient times, epigraphical records further appear to connect modern Sri Lanka to early Buddhism. Tapussa and Bhallika, the merchants who became the Buddha’s first two lay disciples, are traditionally described in Buddhist literature as having received the Buddha’s hair relics for deposit in their homeland of Ukkala. A Sanskrit inscription, uncovered during the 1930s near Thiriyai in northeastern Sri Lanka and dated to either the seventh or eighth century, describes the presence of the Buddha’s relic and explains that the location was known as the Girikandika–caitya and was founded by the merchants ‘Trapussaka’ and ‘Vallika’. Remarkably, the thirteenth-century Sinhalese Poojavaliya chronicle text describes as ‘Girihandu’ the very same location in ‘Sri Lankadveepa’ where a golden casket containing the relics was set upon a rock. With Girihandu – a common form of Girikandika in both Pali and Sinhalese – seen elsewhere on the island, evidence for the deposit of the Buddha’s hair relics at Thiriyai by his first two lay disciples thus appears rather forceful.
Perhaps the most intriguing feature of Sri Lanka’s epigraphical repository is the presence of inscriptions that appear to firmly connect the island to the Buddha himself. At a ruined Buddhist complex at Sithulpawwa, an inscription in proto-Sinhalese explains how a cave there was offered to a certain ‘wanderer named Gotama’. Although the area around Sithulpawwa was scoured for inscriptions twice during the twentieth century with several epigraphs traced to the second century BCE discovered therein, this particular epigraph appears to have escaped attention until 2004. Yet a conclusive explanation as to who this Gotama was does not yet exist. Furthermore, the offering of a cave to ‘the wanderer, Lord Gotama’ is described in another epigraph located nearby at Gonagala. In proto-Sinhalese, the inscription has yet to even be officially catalogued by the Archaeological Department despite its apparent discovery during the mid-2000s. The inscription’s inclusion of the epithet ‘Bagawata’ to characterize this Gotama is revealing. With its Pali variant Bhagawan used today across the Buddhist world, the term continues to be employed to describe the Buddha solely rather than other figures or beings within the Buddhist sphere.
These examples, and several more, feature prominently in my recent monograph exploring Sri Lanka’s role in the wider process of placing the Buddha in the Middle Ganges during the nineteenth century. By calling attention to the various gaps and inconsistencies in textual analyses, archaeological records, and epigraphical explorations from Sri Lanka and further afield, I aim not to convince anyone that our current understanding of early Buddhism and the geography associated with its emergence is completely incorrect. Rather, my research seeks to highlight additional pieces of evidence that Buddhist historians should re-examine within the context of what we already know about the Buddha and his life.
Recently, numerous Sri Lankan weblogs, video channels, and independent publications have argued that the historical Buddha simply could not have emerged from northern India or Nepal. To take just one example, a YouTube channel styling itself as Yathartha or ‘Reality’ boasts almost ten million views from video uploads across its platform. Established only in 2019, Yathartha openly appeals to its 70,000 subscribers in its channel description to furnish evidence to help uncover the island’s “true” hidden history wherein the Buddha’s traces remain. Should the current consensus regarding Buddhism’s origins become untenable, Sri Lanka may very well one day publicly jostle with its northern neighbours over the right to claim the Buddha as one of its own.