The Naga people were believed to be an ancient tribe who once inhabited Sri Lanka. There are references to them in several ancient text such as Mahavamsa, Manimekalai and also in other Sanskrit and Pali literature. They are generally being represented as a class of superhumans taking the form of serpents who inhabit a subterranean world. Texts such as Manimekalai represent them as having a human form.
Certain places such as Nagadeepa in Jaffna and Kalyani in Gampaha are mentioned as their abodes. The names of some Naga kings in Sri Lankan legends such as Mani Akkhitha (Mani Naga) and Mahodara are also found in Sanskrit literature among superhuman Nagas[note 1], and the cult of Mani Naga prevailed in India up to medieval times.
They inhabited the Northern and Western parts of Sri Lanka. The Jaffna Peninsula was mentioned in Tamil literature as Naga Nadu, in Pali literature as Nagadeepa and in Greek gazetteer as Nagadiba or Nagadibois.
The Naga people of Sri Lanka, were a totemic tribe of serpent worshipers and the word "Naga" literally means "snake" or "serpent" in Sanskrit, Pali and Tamil. Cognates of the word Naga include Nayār, Nair, Naynār and Nāyakar, which are names of various communities in South India. The tribe is also known by the Dravidian term Cheran.
According to Manogaran, some scholars also "have postulated that the Yakshas and Nagas [...] are the aboriginal tribes of Sri Lanka". Scholars like K. Indrapala regard them as an ancient tribe who started to assimilate to Tamil culture and language from the 3rd century BCE.[a] According to him, in the end of 9th century or probably very long before that time, the Nagas assimilated into the two major ethnic groups of the island.
According to V. Kanakasabhai, The Oliyar, Parathavar, Maravar and Eyinar who were widespread across South India and North-East Sri Lanka are all Naga tribes. According to several authors they may have been a Dravidian tribe. Many Tamil poets who contributed to the Sangam literature attached Naga prefixes and suffixes to their names to indicate their Naga descent.
The chronicle has stated that the Buddha, during his second visit to the island, pacified a dispute between two Naga Kings of Nagadeepa, Chulodara and Mahodara over the possession of a gem-studded throne. This throne was finally offered to the Buddha by the grateful Naga kings who left it in Nagadeepa under a Rajayathana tree (Kiri Palu) as an object of worship. Since then the place was become one of holiest shrines of Buddhist of the island for many centuries. The references to Nagadeepa in Mahawamsa as well as other Pali writings, coupled with archaeological and epigraphical evidences, have established that Nagadeepa of the Mahawamsa is the present Jaffna Peninsula.
The chronicle further state that in the eighth year after the Enlightenment, the Buddha visited the island for the third time, on an invitation of Maniakkhita, the Naga king of Kalyani (Modern day Kelaniya) who is the uncle of the Naga king of Nagadeepa.
In the Tamil epic it has stated that the Manimekalai, the heroine, is miraculously transported to a small island called Manipallavam where there was a seat or foot stool associated to the Buddha. The seat in Manipallavam is said to be used by the Buddha when he preached and reconciled the two kings of Naga World and was placed in Manipallavam by the king of gods, Indra.[note 2] The legend speaks of the great Naga king Valai Vanan and his queen Vasamayilai who ruled over Manipallavam in the Jaffna Peninsula. Their daughter, the princess Pilli Valai had a liaison at the islet with the early Chola king Killivalavan; out of this union was the Prince Tondai Eelam Thiraiyar born, 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.
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. The island according to the Tamil epic was divided into two territory, Naga Nadu and Ilankaitheevam. Naga Nadu, or the whole island was also known as Cherantheevu, derived from Dravidian words Cheran (meaning Naga) and theevu (meaning island).
The similarity of the legend about the Buddha's seat given in the Mahavamsa to that in the Manimekalai has led certain scholars to identify the Manipallavam with Nagadeepa (Currently Nainativu), which has caused the history to be extracted out of the legend.[note 3]
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 Naga kings.
The Naga king Valai Vanan was stated in the Manimekalai to be the king of Naga Nadu, one of the two territories in Sri Lanka, the other being Ilankaitheevam. Several scholars identify Naga Nadu with the Jaffna Peninsula, and Manipallavam with Nainativu. Other scholars identify Karaitivu as Manipallavam.
Senarath Paranavithana rejects the identifaction of Manipallavam with Nainativu and the Jaffna Peninsula, because Manimekalai states the island to have been uninhabited, whereas the Jaffna Peninsula have been inhabited centuries before the date of the epic.[note 4] He also notes that Manimekalai does not mention that the two Naga kings had their abode in Manipallavam as stated in the Mahavamsa, nor did it mention that the holy seat was placed there by Gautama Buddha, but by Indra.[note 5] Further states Canto IX, II. 13–22 that an earthquake destroyed a city in Gandhara which in turn affteced 100 yojanas of Naga Nadu, thus rejecting the identification of Naga Nadu with Jaffna Peninsula.
In the Indian epic 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. Indrajit, the son of Ravana was married to Sulochana, a Naga princess.
Ptolemy in his 1st century map of Taprobane mentions Nagadibois. Ptolemy mentions in 150 CE that King Sornagos, a descendant of this lineage, ruled from the early Chola capital of Uraiyur during this time.
It is also believed they were great irrigation engineers who built water storages. 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).
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 god Vishnu.
- Kathiragesu Indrapala writes that "In the traditions preserved in the early Sri Lankan chronicles as well as in the early Tamil literary works the Nagas appear as a distinct group". He further 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".
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- The similarity of the legend of the holy seat given in the Mahawamsa to that in the Manimekalai has led certain scholars to identify Manipallavam with Nagadeepa, and as the former refers to the two kings as having their habitat in the Nagadeepa, the Nakanatu (the Naga world), wherever it is mentioned, has been taken as referring to the Jaffna peninsula. Continuing this method of extracting history out of the legend, a Naga damsel who is said in the Manimekalai to have appeared in a garden near Pukar, remained for sometime with a legendary Cola king and disappeared after conceiving a child, is taken to have been a princess form Jaffna and father an ancient ruler of Jaffna
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