Originally published on The Sunday Leader on 19/02/2012 (http://www.thesundayleader.lk/2012/02/19/the-ceylon-traveller-nagadeepa/)
For the longest time, “Nagadeepa” was a word that came up in school textbooks, whether it was History, Social Studies or Buddhism. It was yet another place that could not be visited due to the war but made more special by the mythical aura surrounding it because of all the stories about Nagadeepa; the early inhabitants of the island called the Naga people, it supposedly being one of the three places in the country visited by Lord Buddha, etc.
Nagadeepa, also known as Nainativu, is one of the islands belonging to the cluster of small islands off the Jaffna peninsular in the Northern Province. It is a special place, not just because of the stories surrounding it, but because it is one of the few places where a Buddhist temple (Nagadeepa Raja Maha Viharaya) and a Hindu temple (Sri Nagapoosani Amman Kovil) have coexisted peacefully for many years, including during a long drawn war.
The two temples are famous for joining each other’s religious ceremonies and celebrations, especially during the annual festival of the Hindu temple which coincides with Poson poya. While the almost 3000 population of the island are mostly Tamil, there has been very little internal strife.
The island came under attack in 1958, 1986 and 1990, resulting in damages to both temples. But both have been rebuilt and are regularly visited by pilgrims.
How to get there
The journey to get to Nagadeepa is as interesting as the island itself. From Jaffna, you have to travel along the causeway leading to the island of Kayts and then take the causeway that leads to Punkudutivu. The scenery while travelling on the causeways is breathtaking. The flat and sandy landscape spreads across all sides as far as the eye can see with palm trees popping up here and there and if you leave Jaffna early enough, you can catch a beautiful sunrise over the Jaffna lagoon.
The next part of the journey is by sea. At the village of Kurikadduwan in Punkudutivu, you can take a boat to Nagadeepa. Finding a boat is not a problem, especially since the boat departure times are coordinated with the times buses arrive at Punkudutivu. There are two points of entry to Nagadeepa, one near the Buddhist temple and the other near the Hindu temple but the two jetties are not far apart.
Nagadeepa Raja Maha Viharaya
Although the historical stories about Nagadeepa go back centuries, the residents of the island built the current temple in 1944. The stupa looks unusual as it is painted in silver but this is actually in order to protect it from sea wind. Some parts of ancient ruins found in the area are displayed next to a Buddha statue. There is a concrete slab bearing the legend about Nagadeepa (see textbox). All the structures in the premises are fairly modern but it is still beautiful and peaceful and you can wander around on the sandy ground strewn with seashells.
Sri Nagapoosani Amman Kovil
Similar to the Buddhist temple, the Amman Kovil has also been rebuilt and the ancient structures are no more, except for a few monuments. There is a stone inscription from 12th century CE that shows that this had been an ancient port and was the first stop for foreign merchants trying to enter the country. The Amman temple was destroyed by the Portuguese but was rebuilt in 1788. As mentioned earlier, it was again attacked during the war but is now restored (see textbox).
The statue of the Nayanair deity that is kept in the inner sanctum is supposedly ancient and was kept in hiding during the times the temple came under attack. Taking photos inside the temple is not welcomed although there were no signs informing visitors about this. However, if you speak to a priest, there is a chance of being permitted to take a few photos without intruding the worshippers and the ongoing ceremonies.
Legend surrounding Nagadeepa
According to the chronicles, in the 5th year after enlightenment, Lord Buddha visited Nagadipa to settle a dispute between two Nàga Kings – Chulodara and Mahodara regarding a gem throne. The Buddha preached the virtues of non-violence to the warring factions. He urged them to forget hating each other and be united. The two kings surrounded by their followers listened patiently to the Buddha and decided to end their enmity. After the two warring kings made peace the throne was offered to the Buddha, who returned it to the Naga kings. It was later enshrined in the Nagadeepa Stupa and soon became a place of Buddhist veneration and one of the 16 sacred places of worship in Sri Lanka. http://www.lankalibrary.com/heritage/naga.htm
Legend has it that a temple was built at the Naga Shrine by a trader who received Ambal’s blessing when passing by in the sea. The temple was demolished in the sixteenth century by the Portuguese but it is said that the Nageswari Ambal Statue was kept hidden in a tree. It is then recorded that Ramalingar Ramachandirar rebuilt the temple in 1788 and it was later renovated and a gopuram (ornate tower) added in 1935. The statue of the Naga deity kept in the sanctum is said to be very ancient, the followers who worship here seek the blessings of the Goddess Ambal Devi for the well-being of their progeny and for this reason many parents bring their new-born here. http://www.lanka.com/sri-lanka/nagadipa-sri-lanka-1003.html