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The Vallipuram Buddha Image "Rediscovered"

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When, at the end of the 19th century, the Visnu kovil in Vallipuram, in Vatamaracci, in northern Ilam (Lanka) was (re)built, a Buddha statue was unearthed close to this temple, 50 yardsnortheast of it. It remained in the lumber room of this temple until 1902, when it was set up in Old Park at Yalppanam under a bo-tree. In 1906, the Vallipuram Buddha image was presented by Governor Sir Henry Blake to the King of Siam, who was particularly anxious to have it, as it was supposed to be of an archaic type. This event together with the statue, was forgotten for almost 90 years. All Tamilar and Sinhalese born after 1906 have never seen the Vallipuram Buddha image, provided they have not gone to and found it in Thailand. The study of the religious significance per se, in its historical setting, of the statue is important. The Vallipuram Buddha image is a typical creation of Amaravati art, the spread of which documents the spread of Buddhism to Ilam, where it exercised a decisive influence on the first period of the development of Buddhist art in the Anuratapuram school. We get then a geographical triangle of a cultural encounter between Amaravati, Anuratapuram in its first phase, and Vallipuram. This happened at a time when Buddhism was still not identified as Sinhala Buddhism, but just as Buddhism. The study of the Vallipuram statue is thus a way of transcending or at least suspending for some time polarising ethnic identities, not ethnic identities as such.
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PETER SCHALK
*
The Vallipuram Buddha Image "Rediscovered"
When, at the end of the 19' century, the Visnu kövil in Vallipuram, in
Vatamaracci, in northern Ilam (Lankå) was (re)built, a Buddha statue was
unearthed close to this temple, 50 yards northeast of it (Ceylon Antiquary
1916-17: 96). It remained in the lumber room of this temple until 1902,
when it was set up in Old Park at Yålppånam under a bo-tree (Ceylon Anti-
quary 1916-17: 96-97). In 1906, the Vallipuram Buddha image was pre-
sented by Governor Sir Henry Blake to the King of Siam, who was particu-
larly anxious to have it, as it was supposed to be of an archaic type (Ceylon
Antiquary 1916-17: 97). This event together with the statue, was forgotten
for almost 90 years. All Tamilar and Sinhalese born after 1906 have never
seen the Vallipuram Buddha image, provided they have not gone to and
found it in Thailand.
The study of the religious significance per se, in its historical setting, of
the statue is important. The Vallipuram Buddha image is a typical creation
of Amaråvati art, the spread of which documents the spread of Buddhism
to Ilam, where it exercised a decisive influence on the first period of the
development of Buddhist art in the Anuråtapuram school. We get then a
geographical triangle of a cultural encounter between Amaråvati, Anurå-
tapuram in its first phase, and Vallipuram. This happened at a time when
Buddhism was still not identified as Sinhala Buddhism, but just as Bud-
dhism. The study of the Vallipuram statue is thus a way of transcending or
at least suspending for some time
polarising
ethnic identities, not ethnic
identities as such.
***
We have to mention for the sake of gaining a background to the Buddha
image that in an inscription the building of a
vihåra
is mentioned in an
area given as
nakadiva
(Påli, Någadipa). The Buddha image is probably
one of the remains of this
vihåra,
of which nothing is left today on the sur-
* The present author thanks Professor Ci. Patmanätan and Professor t1 Väluppillai for
many comments on this paper.
296
PETER SCHALK
face. Buddha images usually stand in vihäras. Where there is a Buddha
image, there is a vihära. The inscription confirms, then, what we could
expect — the Buddha image belongs to a Buddhist institution that was
established in Vallipuram. The date of this institution, of which there are
no traces on the surface, depends on the date of the inscription.
The inscription is on a gold plate that was found in 1936 beneath the
foundation of an ancient structure on the land belonging to the present
Visnu kövil (Paranavitana 1936: 229), the same area where the Vallipuram
Buddha image was found. Exactly when the transformation from a Bud-
dhist
vihåra
into a Visnu
kövil
took place is still still an object of research.
Usually such gold or copper plates are found in North India inside in
ståpas.
They were then not meant to be read by the public. They explicitly
or implicitly tell about a merit of a donor who had a sacred construction
built or maintained, and evidently the donor hoped to get a reward for his
generosity in the next lives to come. The documenation of his merits was
put on gold or copper that lasts for many existences in the future.
Vallipuram was not a unique Buddhist place in Yälppänam from the first
centuries AD. Together, nine places with reference to Buddhism have been
identified (W1uppillai 1990: 15-16). Vallipuram and Kantarötai belong to
the most well-known, or in the present discussion, to the most spectacular
ones.
The Vallipuram inscription finally confirms that the historical Nåkattivu
(Någadipa) is Yälppånam (Jaffna district). There is a mythological reference
to the Buddha and the
deva
Samiddhisumana having resided in Någadipa
(Malikaipsa
1958: 1: 52). These references tell us that at least the compila-
tor of the
Malikainsa
at the beginning of the fifth century was familiar
with "Någadipa".
There is a reference to King Devänampiyatatissa (250-210) giving gifts to
a Jambukolavihåra in Någadipa (Mahävamsa 1958: 20, 25). That is a refer-
ence that brings us back to the 3r
d
century BC. We must, however, be very
careful with this reference. Devänampiyatissa is depicted by following gen-
erations as having taken an Mokan role. That role implied, and this role
was displayed, by the building, restoration and maintaining of Buddhist
sacred architecture. It is now difficult to distinguish the Moka image of the
compilator in the 5' century AD, when Någadipa certainly was known,
from the historical reality.' We will therefore leave this reference out.
1
Cf Dharmadasa 1994: 89, where this Mahävarnsa passage is taken as historical evi-
dence.
THE VALLIPURAM BUDDHA IMAGE "REDISCOVERED"
297
There is one of the first historical references of King Mahallanåga (136-
143) building a vihåra called Sålipabbatain in Någadipa
(Mahävarpsa.
1958:
35: 124). There is also a second historical reference of King Kanifthatissaka
(167-186) restoring in the Någadipa
ghara
(Malijvainsa.
1958: 36: 9). It is
not clear what specific building the word
ghara,
meaning "house", refers
to.
A third historical reference is to King Vohårika Tissa (209-231), who is
said to have built a
pakåra,
"wall", in a
vihåra
called Tissa in Någadipaka
(Malivarnsa.
1958: 36: 36). All these three references are clustered in time
to the end of the second and beginning of the third century AD. The next
reference to Någadipa in connection with a Sinhala King falls to the end of
the reign of Aggabodhi II, who ruled 604-614. He is said to have given the
Unualomaghara temple to the Ftäjåyatanadhätu and (gave) as well an um-
brella for the Ämalacetiya. He also granted to the
vihåra
there a village for
the provision of rice soup (Cillavarrisa 1980: 42: 62-63). After that, Någa-
dipa is not mentioned any more by the chronicles. There are then almost
400 years of silence between Vohårika Tissa and Aggabodhi II, and this
period of silence, and the following period after Aggabodhi II, throughout
the mediaeval period may be significant. The chronicles are built on "the
merit books" of the Kings. If a King really had made a restoration or built a
vihåra in Någadipa, it would have been mentioned in his merit-book and
then been taken up by the compilators of the chronicles, and by his retinue
or kin in inscriptions referring to him. The silence can be interpreted as an
absence of any relation of the Sinhala Kings to the north. The political de-
cision makers of Någadipa, who may have been Tamilar, may have turned
for protection and cultural exchange towards Dravidian South India in-
stead.
The commentary to the
Akitti-Jätaka
(no. 480)
2
supports this view of
Någadipa being related to South India. That reference is especially inter-
esting because it points to a religious intercourse between the South Indian
city of Käviripprimpattinam (Påli, Kåveripattana) in Tamilakam (Påli,
Damilarattham) and Någadipa from about the 4
th
century AD. The other
former references were vague in the positioning of Någadipa, but this com-
mentary is quite clear in placing Någadipa close to Kåradipa.
In Tamil, we also find the word Nåkanåtu in, for example the Tamil epic
Mapim&alai,
written by Cåttariår in about the 6
th
century AD. The heroine
2 Fausboll 1963: 238: ...anupubbena Damilarattharit patvå Kåvirapattanasamipe
uyyåne viharanto jhånåbhiriiiatri nibattesi, tatråpi `ssa mahålåbhasakkåro up-
pajji. So talin jigucchanto charittetvå åkåsena gantvå Någadipasamipe Kåradipe
otari.
298
PETER SCHALK
Manim
-
&alai herself visits a shrine called Manipallavam in Nåkanåtu, ac-
cording to this Tamil Buddhist epic tradition (Cåttanår 1981: 160-162). In
the 5"-6" century AD, when both the
Mahävarpsa
and the
Manim5kalai
were written, there were evidently strong legendary Buddhist traditions
about Nåkattivu, on the Tamil as well as on the Sifthala side.'
The problems the Anuråtapuram dynasties had with the north are made
evident by looking at the reference to the word
uttaradesa,
"northern
land" in the chronicles. It covers the area north of Anuråtapuram, but how
far north is not known. It may be a vague reference to the whole of the
north of the island. Moggålana III (614-619), who followed Aggabodhi II
(Cfilavanisa 1980: 44: 711), fought against Damilas, who had taken posses-
sion of Uttaradesa, and several other following Kings did the same
(Clilavanisa 1980: 48, 83-4, 95,112; 50,14; 70,92). The formation of
ut-
traradesa
as a Tamil area was a fact in the 6' and 7' century, having
been prepared by a cutting of relations from the 3' and 4' century.
The great value of the Vallipuram inscription is, as pointed out, that this
nakadiva
is mentioned. It is then an important reference that refers to the
very place where the inscription was found. In Påli in the
Mahivarpsa
it
appears as Någadipa(ka), in Pråkrt it appears as Nåkadiva (Nagadiva) and
in Tamil as Nåkattivu. When we say that Nåkattivu is Tamil, we are of
course aware that the word is a Pråkrt loan word that has been Tamilised,
but having been Tamilised it has become a Tamil word.
***
The Vallipuram Buddha image has been "rediscovered". It stands in a cen-
tral Buddhist vihåra in Bangkok, in Wat Benja, that is known by Western
tourists as "the Marble Temple". The present author has visited the place
in January 1994 and June–July 1996. The Wat is one of the most visited by
tourists in Bangkok — even a commercial bank for money change is placed
just outside the entrance — but the Buddha image has no central place-
ment and is therefore not easily observed. The guards and professional
tourist guides do not know even that an image called Vallipuram Buddha
image is there. In the annexed monastery, not even monks who have spent
a life time there, know about this image by this or any other name.
It is placed in a corner on the back side of the Wat well protected from
rain, theft and vandalism by an iron curtain. A small wooden board says in
To avoid a missunderstanding: these sources are sources for the conceptualisations of
the 5th century AD. They are not sources for the historical Buddha or for Marnmkalai,
who is a poetic creation.
THE VALLIPURAM BUDDHA IMAGE "REDISCOVERED"
299
Thai and English that this image depicts the Buddha dispelling evil from
the island of Ceylon. No reference to Vallipuram is made. A yellow trans-
parent schal has been wrapped around the statue and at its feet are placed
pots with incense. The corner is made into a place of veneration, but it
cannot compete with the other statues in the Wat that are placed strategi-
cally along the main walk of tourists and venerators.
A replica has been made and was in January 1994 ready to be sent to
Colombo on the request of the Sifihala authorities.
4
It is a life-size statue in limestone (Paranavitana 1983: 79). It was said to
weigh half a ton (Ceylon Antiquary 1916-17: plate 10, 2). The Buddha is
depicted as standing (see pictures 1-2). The sculpture's right hand seems
to have been replaced by a new hand and its left-hand fingers seem to have
been repaired. There exists a photo of the Vallipuram image taken when it
was still standing on a low platform of stone under the bo-tree in the Old
Park of Yälppäiiam. The photo shows that at this stage the whole right arm
was broken away up to the shoulders and that the whole left hand holding
the robe was missing (Ceylon Antiquary 1916-17: plate 10, 2). All this has
been substituted today by artists in lime, and the substitutes are recognis-
able on coloured photos. The present author's interpretation of the
mudrä
5
of the right hand is therefore a conjecture, but a reasonable one (see be-
low). The Buddha is not surrounded by any of the Buddha's followers. Let
us now give an impressionistic description of this statue.
The
usnisd
is very small and low on top. The hair is curled in small curls
that are indicated as small dots in relief. It is difficult to make out in which
direction the curls are going. The face is round and fleshy, like the whole of
the body. The eyes are rather crudely formed in almond shape. The front is
high browed. The eyebrows are high-flown. There is no
firn.ä
7
visible now
and it seems there has never been one. No iris is visible, therefore giving
the impression of a blind man. The nose is big and broad and the lips are
thick. There is an indication of a smile. The ears are much prolonged: they
reach down to the Tower part of the neck and almost the shoulder. They
end up in knotty lobes. The neck is that of a fat man with indications of a
triple chin.
There is no
antaraväsaka
8
visible under the
uttaräsafigha
9
that falls in
heavy, loose pleats. It is not possible any more to determine if the original
4
Oral communication from the Department of Fine Arts, Bangkok, January 21, 1994.
"gesture (with the hand)"
6
"turban", used here in the sense of wisdom-pump.
7
"lock", used here in the sense of point between the eyes.
8
"lower garment"
300
PETER SCHALK
right hand
mudrå
is
abhaya."
The hand is replaced. The new hand is
badly done and the "restorers" consciously tried to imitate åSisa
mudrå."
That is a variant form of the
abhaya mudrå,
but it is known to be typical
of Sinhalese Buddhist iconography as we know it from the Avukana statue
of the 5
th
to 7
th
century. Evidently the restorers of today tried to give the
statue a Sinhala look by making the hand into a åSisa mudrå, knowing
that this was part of the (later development of the) Anuråtapuram school of
art. This is the first indication of an ethnic-political Sinhala-Buddhist in-
terpretation and handling of the statue. To come to the original, we have
just to disregard this recent "restoration" and stick to the paradigm that
these standing Buddhas from Amaråvati have the common
abhaya mudrå.
None of them has an
W[sa. mudrå.
We should of course not disregard this Sinhala "restoration" as an indi-
cation of the political exploitation of that statue. It is paralleled with the
"restoration" of the word in the inscription so as to fit Sinhale interests.
In the inscription we find the word
isigiraya.
There is no controversy
about the reading of the Bråhmi letters as
isigiraya,
but to fit a Sinhala
interpretation, K.N.O. Dharmadasa, Professor of Sinhala at Peradeniya
University, who represents an extension of the Paranavitana school (see
below), following his teacher S Paranavitana faithfully, revives his reading
isigir-i-ya.
12
That small, but important and seemingly arbitrary change of
a vowel from
a to i
makes it possible for Dharmadasa to interpret the word
in a Sinhala way as
isi-giri,
"the rock of the rsi"! (Dharmadasa 1994: 88-
90) This is what we could call a "Sinhala interpretation". It excludes the
possibility of making a Tamil reference. If we take the reading as it is -
there is no controversy about it — we find a Tamil name
Isiki,
and there is
rayan.
In Pråkrtised form they may appear as
isigiraya.
The
*isi-giri
is
an outcome of ethnically based wishful thinking, like the "restoration" of
the Buddha hand into an
ålsa mudrå
(see above).
The left hand of the Buddha holds up the fall of the
uttaråsangha
that
covers even the feet except for the toes that are indicated. The absence of a
penis is indicated by the fall of the
uttaråsangha
along the front side. He
9
"upper garment"
"gesture of fearlessness"
"gesture of blessing"
12
Paranavitana in one footnote said that
isigiraya
stands for Sanskrit Rsikaräja and in
another footnote that it stands for Sanskrit
Rsigirika
or
Isigirika.
See Paranavitana
1936: 237, note 6; Paranavitana 1983: 81, note 8. No explanation for the change of
vowel is given.
THE VALLIPURAM BUDDHA IMAGE "REDISCOVERED"
301
has a narrow waist, but broad shoulders that give an athletic look, and
large hips that associate with a woman.
We may find his look rather "rustic", but the parallels to this statue were
royal statues of the Satavåhanas dynasty in Andhra and the following
iksväku dynasty. The former ruled between ca 230 BC. to the 3r
d
century
AD. followed by the Iksvåku in AndhradeSa proper. It is during their rule in
the second half of the 3' century AD. that we hear in inscriptions about a
Sihala vihära for the accommodation (Vogel 1929-30: 22), — not of Sinhal-
ese monks, — but for monks from the island called Sihala. This informa-
tion then perfectly fits the time and place of establishing a Buddha statue
in Vallipuram inspired by Andhra art.
We should of course not think of the Vallipuram of today as being a cen-
tre for Tamil Vaisnavism lying rather isolated in the hot dunes of
Vatamaracci (Ragupathy 1987: 83-85). Vallipuram has very rich archaeo-
logical remains that point to early settlement. It was probably an emporion
in the first centuries AD. It is part of a route for traders and pilgrims that
went along the Eastern coast of ilam. Vallipuram is also close to the
Näkapattinam coast, with easy access from the Andhra coast.
The stylistic place of origin of the Vallipuram image is quite clear: the
Dravidian area of Amarävati that together with finds from Bhattiprolu,
Jaggayyepeta, GhanataSålå, Nagarjärrikorxia and Goli was one creative cen-
tre in Andhra for Buddhist art from about 2" century BC. to the 3r
d
century
AD. under the Satavåhanas and Iksväkus (Coomarswamy 1980; Boisselier
et al. 1978; Härtel 1971).
The Buddha image appears there only from the end of the 2" century AD.
replacing symbols for the Buddha, and lasts throughout the 3r
d
century.
From already dated stones with which we compare this Vallipuram statue,
we can conclude that it falls in the period 3r
d
-4
th
century AD. During that
period, the typical Amarävati-Buddha sculpture developed. It was inspired
by the sculpture of Gändhära and Mathurä and spread to South India, Ilam
and Southeast Asia, but not before the 4
th
century AD.
The returning attributes for this standing Buddha in stone are: he is
more than life size; he holds the end of the
uttaråsailigha
in the left hand;
the right hand is lifted to
abhaya mudrä;
the curls of the hair are fiat; the
face is round; the
usnisa is
low and small and the
uttaråsafigha
is falling
in pleats. This is the model for the standing Amarävati Buddha statue (see
figures 1-3).
The expression "Anurätapuram school" seems to indicate that there was
a Siiihala school in Anurätapuram that was formative for the development
302
PETER SCHALK
of the Buddha images. So, one expects to hear that the Vallipuram Buddha
image is influenced by the Anuråtapuram school.
What, however, is the "Anuråtapuram school"? It falls into two phases,
the first up to Dhätusena in 459 AD. and the second to the abandonment of
Anuråtapuram in the 10" century AD. From the first period very little is
left regarding Buddha images, and what is left follows the ideal of
Amaråvati. The oldest-known Buddha image in the Sifihala area from this
period is from Maha Illupallama in the district of Anuråtapuram. It is six
feet high, of white marble probably imported from the Vefigi region in And-
hra. It is an example of Amaråvati art.
Another old Buddha-image is from Metavacciya dated to the 4" century
AD., a bronze statue of 46 cm. It is reminiscent of the Amaråvati school,
both in the attitude and in the way the robe is adjusted (Boisselier et al.
1978: 141). We do not find the äisa mudrå at this stage. It belongs to the
Anuråtapuram school's second phase, as documented by the Avukana
statue.
It is then only in the second phase that the Anuråtapuram school devel-
ops specific features for what we can call Anuråtapuram or Sifihala Bud-
dhism. In the first phase this school was just receiving influences, like
Tamilakam" and Näkattivu in northern Ilam. In this first phase it was the
heir and descendant of the Amarävati school like South India, Nåkattivu
and, not to forget, Southeast Asia (Boisselier et al: 140-167). These stat-
ues, one of which is the Vallipuram statue, we all date stylistically to about
about 3'
d
-4" century AD. Their setting up was hardly possible before the 4'
century AD. We have to see the Vallipuram image as a result of a wave of
Buddhist sculpture initiated in Amaråvati. The Buddhist culture to which
this statue belongs is Dravidian and South Indian, more precisely Andhra.
We get then, as mentioned above, a geographical triangle of a cultural en-
counter between Amarävati, Anuråtapuram in its first phase, and Vallipu-
ram. Only in the second phase of the development of Buddhist art in
Anuråtapuram was this belonging together of Buddhists from South India
and Ilam abandoned and replaced in Anuråtapuram by a Sinhala Buddhist
art.
***
Why is the Buddha image so important? The image is important for two
reasons. One is its historical importance, indicating a free cultural ex-
change beyond ethnic conflicts in the
-
triangle Amaråvati—Anuråtapuram-
13
The area from Wiikatam to Kaoiyakumari.
Fig. 1. The Valli-
puram Buddha
image from Wat
Benja in Bangkok.
Photo: Peter Schalk,
January 1994.
"t
24
4
.
4
.
Fig. 2. Close-up of the same picture. Photo: Peter Schalk.
22
Fig. 3. The Buddha holds the end of the uttaråsangha in the
left; the right hand is lift to abhayamudrå here missing); the
curls of the hair are flat; the face is round; the usnisa is low
and small and the uttaråsaiigha is falling in pleats. This is the
model for the standing Amaråyati Buddha statue. By courtesy
of the Director, Madras Museum. Photo: Peter Schalk, January
1994.
THE VALLIPURAM BUDDHA IMAGE "REDISCOVERED"
303
Vallipuram, and the other is its present political importance as an object of
exploitation in the ongoing ethnic conflict on the island.
We have already elaborated on the first reason above. Let us elaborate
now on the second reason here that has been indicated above by the sculp-
tural and verbal "restorations" of our sources by Sinhala enthusiasts. The
area in Yälppåfiam district is now 100% Tamil. Tamilar are today related
either to Saivism or to Christianity or to Islam, but not to Buddhism. In the
past, however, in precolonial Ilam, there were Tamil Buddhists, but this
has not been emphasised in the historical writings by Sinhalese and
Tamils." So, the finding of Buddhist places in Tamil areas today creates a
tension in the minds of both Sinhalese and Tamilar, because Tamil Bud-
dhism, like Mahåyäna, has today no recognition in the Lankan (Sinhala)
Buddhist sangha. Many Tamilar also — not Tamil scholars of course — are
unaware of Tamil Buddhism because their concepts of Buddhism were
given to them by Sinhala Buddhists. Some Sinhalese scholars stipulate
that there were Sinhala Buddhist settlements in early history that were
overpowered by Tamil settlers in the mediaeval ages. Even a Tamil scholar,
a professor of history, has taken this stand, and this is of course noticed
and fully exploited by the Sifiliala intelligentsia!'
Ari often quoted paper in the
Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society
by the
Sinhala historian P.E Pieris from 1917 explicitly connected finds of Bud-
dhism in the North with "Sinhala supremacy", "Sinhala power" and
"Sinhala occupation" (Pieris 1917: 12, 14). This paper gave a special com-
munal edge to the start of archaeological work in the north. One of the
places discussed was Vallipuram (Pieris 1917: 17). He and his followers
just could not imagine that there was a Buddhist tradition transmitted by
Tamilar in the north.
In 1983, the year of the Tamil pogroms in Colombo, Cyril Mathew, the
Minister of Industries and Scientific Affairs and "President of the Congress
of Buddhist Associations of State Corporations and the President of the
Foundation for the Restoration and Protection of Buddhist Shrines in Sri
Lanka", published a remarkable book that was distributed worldwide and
that he sent to UNESCO in Paris. He had written it in English in co-
operation with M.H. Sirisoma, Assistant Commissioner of Archaeology
14
An exception on the Sinhala side is Gunawardana 1979: 47-48, 202-203. On the
Tamil side see Vauppillai forthc.
" Hettiaratchi 1988: 140: "It is to be mentioned that though at present the majority of
the people settled in the above province are Tamils, K. Indrapala has rightly pointed
out that Sinhalese constituted the main population there till about the thirteenth cen-
tury."
304
PETER SCHALK
from the State Department of Archaeology. In this book was a map that
allegedly showed Sinhala Buddhist places. They were now "unlawfully"
occupied (Mathew 1983).
16
One of them was Vallipuram.
In between Pieris and Sirisoma came the historian, epigraphist and ar-
chaeologist S. Paranavitana (t 1972), who in an article from 1936 published
in
Epigraphia Zeylanica —
see below — took up the political trend in ar-
chaeology initiated by Pieris. He quoted Pieris. He used the Vallipuram
inscription and Buddha image to rationalise Sifthala claims on Tamil areas
in the north. So, there is a continuous tradition of a politicised Buddhist
historiography among academics, from Pieris via Paranavitana to Siri-
soma, and, if we want to go further back, to the chronicles themselves that
have Buddhist Sinhala nationalism as a main theme. Today this tradition
is contradicted and opposed by several Sinhala historians, but still it is a
force of long-range character. There are evident ideological survivals of this
ethnically based historiography in departments of history, archaeology and
Sinhala.
It is this way of Sinhala "hegemonistic" thinking, being so characteristic
of Sinhala modern national politics, according to an official spokesman of
the Lankan Government (Jayaweera 1991), that gives the Vallipuram im-
age such importance. This spokesman, who served as Ambassador in
Stockholm till October 1994 and speaks from his experiences as Govern-
ment Agent in Yklppänam in the 1960s, wrote in 1991 that "throughout
most of its recent history, Sri Lanka has been a hegemonistic society"
(Jayaweera 1991: 33). We have elsewhere called this thinking
"dharmacratic" (Schalk 1990b: 354-359). Seeing now the possibility of get-
ting at least a replica back from Thailand of the Vallipuram image, this
thinking gets mobilised and enforced; it gets a visible object through which
"hegemonistic" or "dharmacratic" feelings can be mobilised and channeled.
The late President Premadasa, who was killed on 1 May 1993, was an
ardent Sinhala Buddhist who made himself Minister of the State Depart-
ment of Buddhism. He did not speak as a historian who tries to find out
how things really were, but as a politician with vested interests. He knew
that he could exploit politically the Vallipuram Buddha image to rational-
ise the concept of unity of the island and sovereignty of the Sinhala Gov-
6
Preface in Mathew 1983 was signed on 20 July 1983, the day when the anti-
Tamil pogroms started. In the "Acknowledgments" after p. 167, he acknowledges the
contribution by Sirisoma for having collated the material and taken a keen personal
interest in the publication of this work. Mathew was sacked from the Government in
1985 for his anti-Tamil campaigns that upset foreign diplomats.
THE VALLIPURAM BUDDHA IMAGE "REDISCOVERED"
305
ernments (Schalk 1988a; Schalk 1988b: 55-87; Tambiah 1992).'
7
We have
to recall here G Obeyeskera's old observation from 1970 that Buddha im-
ages in public places are tokens of the idea of a Buddhist nation
(Obeyesekere 1970: 50-51). Premadasa exploited this fact.
In January and February 1991, Government newspapers in ilam sud-
denly flashed the news that the Vallipuram Buddha image may be redis-
covered in Thailand and transported back to Laiikä
(The Sunday Observer
(Colombo), January 20, 1991). Another article in the media tells the public
that the Vallipuram Buddha image has been found and that the President
(R Premadasa) has made an appeal to King Bhumibol of Thailand to give
back the image to Lailkå. The President is reported to have said that the
Vallipuram statue is of great historical and religious significance to
Lankan Buddhists (Daily News 1991: February 2).
One further important point in the study of the Buddha image is that the
statue is combined with the finding of a separate inscription on a gold plate
that makes it possible to say something about the linguistic identity of the
culture, i. e. about the historical setting to which this statue belonged. In
modern terms, we would say that the inscription makes it possible to label
the ethnic identity of the area in question in the first centuries AD. There
are no other Buddhist inscriptions from that time — the first centuries AD.
— from Yälppånam", and therefore this inscription is very important. This
inscription then becomes highly interesting for politicians for political ex-
ploitation."
"For a review of Tambiah 1992 see Schalk 1993.
18
There is of course the Anaikköttai seal on a metal piece dated to the 2nd century BC.
The reading of its three syllables has been amended to követan and kövntanutaiya,
being allegedly a Tamil word. If the reading is correct, then we can document the exis-
tence of Tamil in the north alreday for the 3rd and 2nd century BC. The reading and
dating, however, have not yet been comfirmed. See Ragupathy 1987: 200-204;
Vauppillai 1990: 13.
'For President Premadasa's manipulations with the Vallipuram inscription see Anon.
1994, that praises him for being a great man: "The man's greatness surpasses his
weaknesses". To manipulate is not ugly if it is done in the national interest, is the point
of the article. To his "greatness" also belongs his ability to manipulate archaeology. The
article says: "Premadasa was a brilliant stage manager. He could create, orchestrate
and if necessary even manipulate situations to make himself look the winner, emerge
unrivalled and the best. When Premadasa obtained with great persuasion a copy of the
Vallipuram gold plate from the scholar bhikkhu Ven. Walpola Rahula, which many
thought was stolen, he was slow to make it public. — The Vallipuram gold plate un-
earthed near a Hindu temple in Point Pedro[sicl is an undisputed [sicl piece of evidence
which establishes that during the pre-Christian period the Sinhalese lived and gov-
erned Jaffna and were subject to the ruler in Anuradhapura. Without making it public,
306
PETER SCHALK
Regarding the language of the inscription, we have theoretically four al-
ternatives to play with: Sifihala Pråkrt," Pråkrt with a Tamil substratum
(V81uppillai 1990: 10-42)
21
, Präkrtised Tamil" and Paici-Präkrt." The
problem is that the inscription is so short, being isolated from a bigger tex-
he invited a number of scholars and associates to write about the gold plate, its con-
tents and its significance for today. Only when the people realised its value and started
discussing and debating its relevance to the demand for a separate homeland did he
make it public. He orchestrated the public to challenge those who were unreasonably
speaking of a northeast which has been lived in by the Tamils and therefore claimed a
separate Tamil country.- After having planted the seeds, Premadasa sat back watching
the debate. That was the Premadasa style of operation."
20
S. Paranavitana states that the language is old Sinhalese conforming, in general, to
the grammatical standards followed in other documents of that period. S. Paranavitana
1936: 230.
21
t1. Veluppillai opens up a new perspective. He starts from the fact that Pråkrt was
commonly used in South Asia and that Pråkrit then was used also by Tamils as re-
flected in the Vallipuram inscription. Following S Konnow, he finds some Tamil influ-
ence. The existence of this Tamil influence tallies with our knowledge about a wider
Tamil or Dravidian substratum of these inscriptions in writing and language. The use
of Pråkrt then is no indication of a
new
element introduced by Sinhala Buddhists, ac-
cording to Wluppillai.
22
Irå. Någacåmi is explicit in saying that the inscription appears in such a way that
Pråkrt and Tamil have been blended. He compares it to the blending (of Indo-Ariyan
and Tamil) that appears in the streets of Madras when somebody says: istukia8 puttän
instead of iluttukkontu pöyvittäa. See Någacämi 1994: 220-222.
This alternative is proposed by the present author as an alternative to be examined,
by no means to be finalised. There are at least two Pråkrt languages which have the
phonetical indications of a Tamil influence, the shift in some cases from medial forms to
tenues, as we can see in this short text. These two languages are Paiååci and
which are not always distinguished. The writing of Nåka- instead of
Någa- in Nåkattivu, and -guka instead of -guha in Piyagukatisa need not to be a Tamil
influence, but could be (Cfilikå) Paiååci writing. Paiååci, when discovered by Western
linguists in the 19th century, was defined as a form of Aryan speech which is formed in
the mouth of Dravidians when they try to speak Aryan. This falls in line with
theory. Now, we know that it has no Dravidian influence, but it looks no
doubt like a typical Dravidian phonetic development. The finding of the Amaråvati
statue in Vallipuram and the Amaråvati related writing on the Vallipuram gold sheet,
makes it really tempting to put also the language of the Vallipuram inscription to-
gether with the Pråkrt inscriptions from Amaråvati, which are defined by some scholars
as Paiååci, and so we get a large corpus which makes a linguistic analysis possible. It
may support the view that the Vallipuram inscription has nothing to do with "Old Sin-
hala". This linguistic analysis gets confirmation in a late Buddhist tradition from the
Sth century, according to which the Sthavira, to whom we normally ascribe the use of
Påli, used Paiååci. See Hiniiber 1986: 70.
THE VALLIPURAM BUDDHA IMAGE "REDISCOVERED"
307
tual codex and context, that it is possible to argue for all four. The limita-
tion of the material makes much possible, but also little credible.
The common denominator of all four is the word "Pråkrt"." This is a fam-
ily name of a number of middle Indian languages, and so it poses the prob-
lem which Pråkrt language is meant. The first and fourth alternative,
Sinhala Pråkrt and Paici Pråkrt are quite precise, but being precise they
become overdetermined due to the shortness of the text; it is just not
enough to test such precise alternatives.
The historical implication of each alternative of linguistic culture is also
clear. If the language is Sinhala Pråkrt, then references in the inscription
itself refer to a Sifihala Buddhist tradition with its centre in Anuråta-
puram. If the language is Pråkrt with a Tamil substratum, Prakritisised
Tamil or Paisåci, we can relate it to the Dravidian area where we find all
three alternatives. The point is that in modern Sinhala ethnic conscious-
ness the theory of a Tamil substratum in Sinhala Pråkrt or in "old Sin-
hala", or the existence of Tamil cognates to Sinhala terms, is rejected. The
change from medial forms to tenues, for example in the change from någa
to nåka, is not recognised as being due to an influence from Tamil, but is
seen even by a professional linguist as a development within the Sinhala
languge. Sinhala language purism is part of ethnic thinking, and therefore,
The differences start already with the classification of the language. Paranavitana's
classification "old Sinhala" that he uses together with Sinhala Pråkrt is not a technical
linguistic term, but appeals to a popular understanding that the original language of
the island was Sifihala, and that the Vallipuram inscription is part of this language. A
more technical way of speaking of the origin of Sinhala would be Sifihala Pråkrt. There
are many Pråkrt-languages that were used as vernaculars and in writing before San-
skrit was widely used. All Pråkrt languages are Indo-Aryan languages. In a historical
classifaction of these languges they are together with Pali classified as middle Indian
languages preceded by Vedic Sanskrit and classical Sanskrit and succeeded by modern
vernaculars like Hindi, Bengali, modern Sinhala, etc. The kind of Pråkrt that consti-
tutes "old Sinhala", i.e. the Pråkrt out of which modern Sinhala should arise, has its
origin in Northern India. Sifihala Präkrt is an immigrated language in the island as
much as Tamil. In this process of immigration and settling, Sifihala Pråkrt was exposed
to influences from another middle Indian language, from Påli, and from Sanskrit. Påli
was an artiflcal language constructed also from a Northindian Pråkrt, but limited in its
use for transmitting Buddhist traditions. Sanskrit was used for the transmission of
learned culture. Sifihala Pråkrt was also exposed to the influence of Tamil, so much so
that only in the 20th century linguists could convincingly show that Sinhala was not a
Dravidian language, but that it was an Indo-Aryan language. The substratum theory
has good arguments. See Våluppillai 1979-80: 6-19; Wluppillai 1980; Karunaratne,
1984: 43; Elizarenkova 1972: 126-137.
308
PETER SCHALK
when saying that a document is written in "old Sinhala", it excludes any
relation to the Tamil language, to Tamilar we could say.
Although there is little controversy about the reading of the text, the in-
terpretation that is applied already in the translation differs widely. From
these different translations, different historical conclusions are drawn re-
lating to the ethnic identity of the Vallipuram area. The identification of
the language is therefore from a present point of interest important. It is
regarded as basic to the determination ethnic identity of the image and the
inscription. This determination of the ethnic identity is then projected
backwards into history as if the present conflict was already then a daily
phenomenon. The determination is open for political exploitation of the
Buddha image and of the inscription. Especially in the present fatal ethnic
conflict, when the historical outlook is determined by a strong ethnic inter-
est, the constructed and imagined ideal past is made a norm for the future.
If the past was Sifthala, it rationalises Sifthala settlements in the present
Tamil areas. If the past was Tamil, it rationalises an autonomous Tamil
administration with a transmission of Buddhism in Tamil The Vallipuram
image and the Vallipuram inscription have been used in this kind of
"interested" historical writing. These two belong to "the hottest" artefacts
in South Indian history. To "touch" them is risky. A "wrong" word provokes
intensive feelings.'
The dominating interpretation has of course been delivered by the domi-
nating ethnic group, the Sinhalese, whose intellectuals are representatives
of the first alternative, that the language is Sifthala Präkrt or "old
Sifthala".' We should of course test all four alternatives in the same critical
25
See the following controversy: Schalk 1994a; Silva 1994; Schalk 1994b; Schalk 1994c;
Dharmadasa 1994; Schalk 1994d.
26
Paranavitana himself said in 1936 that Vatamaracci, where Vallipuram is situated, is
now densely peopled by 3aiva Tamils. Remains of the Sinhalese Buddhist civilisation
have been found which flourished in this extreme northern district of Ceylon during
earlier periods of history, as it did in the rest of the island. His conclusions of his
analysis of the Vallipuram Gold Plate are worth quoting because they have influenced
the intellectual debate for decades. Paranavitana wrote: "This inscription [on the Valli-
puram Gold Plate] also proves that Någadipa was governed in the second century by a
minister of the Anurådhapura king, that Sinhalese was the prevailing language, and
that Buddhist shrines were being built there. In such references as there are to
Någadipa in the chronicles, as well as in other Påli writings of Ceylon, there is no indi-
cation that in early times this differed, as it does to-day, from the rest of the island in
the nationality of its inhabitants and their language and religion. In fact there are indi-
cations that the extreme north of the island played a very important part in the politi-
cal, religious, and cultural history of the ancient Sinhalese people. This continued so
THE VALLIPURAM BUDDHA IMAGE "REDISCOVERED"
309
way. We must be aware that different classificatory interpretations are
possible of the same word and that the inscription, being part of a linguis-
tic encounter-area (Tamil, differents Präkrts), has differerent language lay-
ers. The language purism of present Sinhala consciousness with its rigid
borders between the languages is unhistorical.
What is said about Sifihala consciousness is invertedly valid for Tamil
consciousness that has been constructed and projected as a reaction to the
former. Tamil consciousness has also at present within itself a trend of
language purism that "cleans up" everything that reminds of the "Aryan"
influence, and by "Aryan" is not only meant the Aryan languages, but also
Buddhism. Leading Sinhala scholars like Paranavitana had taught the
Tamilar that Buddhism in Lankå is Sinhala Buddhism, and the Tamilar
believed him. He is one of the persons who with the authority of one of the
most outstanding scholars in Sinhala academic traditions linked Buddhism
to Sinhala culture. From that stand, statements about the existence of
"Tamil Buddhism" on the island seem to be absurd.
There is also among Tamil scholars a reaction to the Sifihala drawing of
borders. This reaction is expressed by emphasising the Tamil substratum
theory (A. "Wluppillai) and the existence of Tamil cognates (Po. Ragupati)
being models for Sifihala words. These theories, independent of their truth
value, can in the present situation of segregation be seen as a request for
recognition within Lankan society. They want to modify an exclusive Sin
hala consciousness by pointing out that there has been a relation between
Sinhala and Tamil since historical times.
Tamil consciousness can of course also become exclusive in separatist
ideologies with a rigid linguistic Tamil purism as a base. These ideologies
depict Buddhism either as a stranger in ilattamiltt2cam or they provoke
the making of a distinction along ethnic Iines between Sinhala and Tamil
Buddhism.
We have to notice, then, that there is a Sinhala and a Tamil approach in
the formation of interpretations. These approaches consist of a pre-
right down to the end of the Polonnaruva period, though it is likely that the proportion
of the Tamil element in the population was greater here than in the rest of the island
and gradually went on increasing." (Paranavitana 1983: 80). In the same paper on the
Vallipuram inscription he summarises: "It is hardly necessary to say that at the date of
this inscription and up to the thirteenth century, Någadipa was as much Sinhalese
territory as any other part of the island".(Paranavitana 1983: 80). We shall disregard
here the political aspects of this historical research and focus only on the descriptive
historical statements. What concerns us really is if the factual statement that the in-
scription contains "Sinhalese" is correct.
310
PETER SCHALK
knowledge that is confirmed in the interpretation of the inscription. Usu-
ally the inscription is used to confirm preconceived notions about ethnic
identities. It has the position of a partial witness. Taking a Sinhala or
Tamil stand, we move then in an interpretative circle that we cannot do
much about in this very case; we have only four short Iines, 48 legible
aksaras, and little comparative textual and historical material that makes
it very difficult, but not impossible, to break away from pre-determined
interpretative models.
We now understand why the statue and the inscription are so important.
It is not their religious significance per se that is important in the present
debate initiated by the famous Sinhala archaeologist and historian S
Paranavitana (Paranavitana 1983: 80.) followed by others in his spirit
(Hettiaratchi 1988: 139-140
2
' and revived in 1984 by Cyril Mathew and
Sirisoma, and in 1991 by the late President R. Premadasa (Sunday Ob-
server 1991: January 20. Daily News 1991: February 2)
28
, but their being
capable of rationalising political aims. For us of course, the study of the
religious significance per se, in its historical setting, of the statue and the
inscription, is important enough.
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