Naga people (Sri Lanka)

Naga people (Sri Lanka)

Cobra symbolism in a Sri Lankan Hindu statue of Nainativu Nagapooshani Ambigai.

Cobra symbolism in a Sri Lankan Hindu statue of Nainativu Nagapooshani Ambigai.

Cobra symbolism in a Sri Lankan Buddhist statue. According to Buddhist scripture, the Nāka king Muchalinda shielded the Buddha from getting wet in the rain by coiling around him and holding his large hood above the Buddha’s head.[1]

The Nāka people were the aboriginal inhabitants of Sri Lanka who ruled Nagadeepa or Nāka Nadu – the coastal districts of mostly Western and Northern Ceylon, particularly the Jaffna peninsula from the 6th century BCE to 3rd century CE. They also inhabited the coasts of the early Chola and early Pandyan kingdoms of Tamilakam.

Nāka people were snake-worshippers, a Dravidian custom, and spoke Tamil based on Ptolemy’s description of the Nāka people.[2][3] They also likely spoke Prakrit, a language of the school of Amaravati, Andhra Pradesh with which the early Tamils of Jaffna had strong cultural relations during the classical period. The Nākas were an offshoot of the Kerala Nayar community, at that time the Chera kingdom of ancient Tamilakam. The interchangeable names Nāyar and Nāka or Naga, meaning Cobra or Serpent were applied to and self-described by these snake-worshipping people from classical antiquity.[4] The word Nāka was sometimes written in early inscriptions as Nāya, as in Nāyanika – this occurs in the Nanaghat inscription of 150 BCE. Archaeological excavations and studies provide evidence of palaeolithic inhabitation in the Jaffna and Kerala region. The findings include Nāka idols and suggest that serpent worship was widely practised in the Kerala region during the megalithic period.[5][6][7][8][9]

The Nākas lived among the Yakkha, Raksha and Deva in Ceylon according to the Manimekhalai and Mahavamsa. Cobra worship, Tamil speech and Keralan cuisine extant in Sri Lankan Tamil culture from the classical period attest to the Nāka’s Tamil heritage. Most Sri Lankan Tamil people consider themselves to be descendants of the Nāka people.

Sangam literature details how the ancient Tamil people were divided into five clans (Kudi) based on their profession during the Sangam period, where the Nāka clan, who was in charge of border security guarding the city wall and distant fortresses, inhabited the Coromandel Coast – South Tamil Nadu, East Tamil Nadu and North Sri Lanka. The name Nāka is either a corrupted version of the word Nayanar or may have been applied to this community due to their head covering being the shape of a hydra-headed cobra in reverence to their serpentine deities.[10] The rulers and society of Nāka-Tivu and Nāka-Nadu, meaning Nāka island (Tivu) or country (Nadu) are described in the Vallipuram gold plate inscriptions and the Manimekalai for many centuries.[11] H. Parker, a British historian and author of “Ancient Ceylon” considers the Nāka to be an offshoot of the Nayars of Kerala[12] Ancient Sri Lankan history book Mahavamsa mentions a dispute between two Naga kings in northern Sri Lanka.[13] The Manimekhalai and archaeological inscriptions refer to the Chola-Naka alliance and intermarriage being the progenitor of the Pallava Dynasty of Tamilakam.

The ancient Nainativu Nagabhooshini Amman Kovil and the famous Naga Risa Nila Kovil of Tenavaram, Tevan Turai were some of their greatest cultural and architectural contributions to the island.

Contents1 History2 Origins2.1 Nagas legends2.2 Decline of Naga identity and assimilation2.3 Naga Kings of Anuradhapura3 Culture3.1 Architecture3.2 Irrigation4 See also5 References6 External links

Sri Lanka was an extension of the Indian subcontinent for at least 800,000 years of the last one million years when the sea level was lower than it is at present. Sri Lanka and India were part of one (land) mass, linked by a land bridge. It was estimated that the sea level could have dropped on at least 17 occasions in the last 700,000 years, resulting in the creation of a land connection. The last separation from India would have occurred about 7,000 years ago. It was, therefore, possible that humans were present in Sri Lanka at least as early as one million years ago.


Early sources indicate that Ceylon was an extension of the Early Pandyan Kingdom, and was known as Eela-Mandalam Thamiram porunai – the land of gold near the river of copper coloured toddy trees.[14] Tamil Brahmi inscriptions and early Sangam literature from the 3rd-century BCE-4th century CE illustrate that a section of the island, known as Nāka-Tivu or Nāka-Nadu at the time, was autonomously ruled by local kings (Ko) in the northern peninsula with capitals and emporiums at Mantai, Kadiramalai and Vallipuram. Among the chiefdoms of this land were inhabitants that proliferated serpent worship before the common era.

Early Tamil literary works such as Kaliththokai mentions that many Tamil Naga tribes such as Maravar, Eyinar, Oliar, Oviar, Aruvalur and Parathavar migrated to the Pandyan kingdom and started living there in the Third Tamil Sangam period 2000 years ago.[15] The Karaiyar tribe of these Tamils were coast-residing seafaring people and the oldest settlers of the Coromandel Coast and the coasts of Sri Lanka. The Ketheeswaram temple of Maanthai was built by this clan in the classical period. There is a reference to the town Naka Nakar in Tamil Brahmi inscriptions belonging to 200 BCE, which is believed to be denoting Kadiramalai.[16] An early copper coin discovered at Uduththurai port carries the name Naka bumi in Tamil, referring to the Naka Dynasty of the North.[17] Ptolemy in his first-century map of Taprobane mentions Nagadiboi. By the time Buddhism had reached Tamilakam, the twin epics of ancient Tamil Nadu Silappatikaram (1st century CE) and Manimekalai (3rd century CE) were written, speaking of Nāka Nadu across the sea from Kaveripoompuharpattinam, and their civilization which was even more sumptuous than those of the Cheras, the Cholas, and the Pandyas. Manimekalai speaks of the great Nāka king Valai Vanan and his queen Vdcamayilai who ruled the prosperous Nāka Nadu with great splendour and a rich Tamil Buddhist tradition. Their daughter, the princess Pilli Valai had a liaison at Nainativu islet with the early Chola king Killivalavan; out of this union was born Prince Tendai Eelam Thiraiyar, 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-Nāka lineage would go on to rule other territories of the island, Nagapattinam and Tondai Nadu of Tamilakam. The Talagunda inscriptions of Kadamba Kakusthavarma also refer to the coastal Thiraiyar tribe as forming from this Chola-Nāka alliance. The Oliyar, Parathavar, Maravar and Eyinar are all Nāka tribes. Ptolemy mentions in 150 CE that King Sornagos, a descendant of this lineage, ruled from the early Chola capital of Uraiyur during this time. Kaveripoompuharpattinam received many adulatory comparisons to the Nāka capital Kanderodai (Kadiramalai) in the classical period.

Cīttalai Cāttanār, the author of the Manimekalai reflected Tamilakam‘s perception at the time that Nāka Nadu was an autonomous administrative entity, kingdom or Nadu stretching across coastal districts, distinguished from the rest of the island also ruled intermittently by Tamil kings; Eela or Irattina Tivu-Nadu.[11] Naka Nadu included Mantai in the northwest, Thirukonamalai in the northeast and Mahavillachi in the middle of the island. The socio-economic structure of this nation was built around its oceanic trade and agriculture, the inner trade and trade with the kingdoms of Tamilakam, RomeGreeceEgyptKalinga and the far east being the mainstay of its economy.

It was from the Naka people that the Aryans first learned the art of writing; hence Sanskrit letters to this day are known as Devanagari.

Nagas legends

The Mahavamsa describes the Nagas as supernatural beings whose natural form was a serpent, but they could assume any form at will.[18] The Mahavamsa also mentions that Buddha visited Sri Lanka on three occasions. On the second occasion, Lord Buddha visited Nagadipa in 581 BCE to resolve a conflict between the Naga kings (Chulodara and Mahodara) in Kelaniya (Near present-day Colombo)[19] and Wadenawagallaf (formerly Seven Korles) over a gem-set throne of gold. Eleven years in Ceylon. Comprising sketches of the field sports and natural history of that colony, and an account of its history and antiquities”. Available: Last accessed 7 March 2010.</ref>

The decline of Naga identity and assimilation

The Nagas are likely to have lost their identity over time, due to their loss of power and the formation of alliances with the new settlers of Sri Lanka. It is believed the original population’s control over the island declined and they moved to their stronghold in the North of Sri Lanka. Jaffna being called Naga Dipa since ancient time explains this. But elements of their cobra beliefs were incorporated into the newly arrived  Sinhalese  Buddhists, folklore and superstition. For example, cobras are associated with the incarnation of dead people who guard Buddhist temples, bo trees, and hidden treasures[4] It is considered bad karma among the Sinhalese to kill a cobra.[20] Muchilinda, the serpent who protected Buddha from the rain, and Naga statues are used as guardians in the portals of Buddhist shrines.[2]

Similarly, 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 cobra can be found entwining itself around the neck of the supreme Hindu god Shiva as serpent king Vasuki. Cobras can also be found in images of Lord Vishnu.[1][2][21] But Hindus do not worship cobras or have Cobra temples. The Sri Lankan Tamils are the only Hindu population in the world to have Cobra Temples and worship Cobras to this day. This shows that Cobra worship is a traditional practice especially practised by the Sri Lankan Tamil population rather than a religious practice.

There are many Naga temples in India and many Hindu families are descended from Nagavanshis. The Nairs, Nayaks, Bunts are all snake worshipping people. Nair families have sarpa kavus in their Theravada (ancestral house), the same applies for Bunts and most of the royal families of Kerala and Tulunadu.

Naga Kings of Anuradhapura

Main articles: List of Sri Lankan monarchs and House of Lambakanna ISee also: Anuradhapura Kingdom

  • Mahallaka Naga (135-141 CE)
  • Bhatika Tissa (141-165 CE)
  • Kanittha Tissa (165-193 CE)
  • Cula Naga (193-195 CE)
  • Kuda Naga (195-196 CE)
  • Siri Naga (196-215 CE)
  • Voharika Tissa (215-237 CE)
  • Abhaya Naga (237-245 CE)
  • Siri Naga II (245-247 CE)
  • Vijaya Kumara (247-248 CE)

The Naga used to have kingdoms and temples in Sri Lanka.[4][22] The Nagas built a temple in Medawattha, Mathara called Nagavila today. It used to hold a statue of Lord Buddha sitting on the Muchalinda, the Cobra. Naga maidens used to perform dances there.[23]


It is also believed they were great irrigation engineers who built water storage.[1] The Yoda Wewa 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 surrounding the port with Naga name (e.g. Nagarkulam, Nagathazhvu and Sirunagarkulam).[24]

See also
  1. a b c Godwin Witane. (2003). The growth of the cobra cult in Sri Lanka. Available: Last accessed 07 March 2010.
  2. ^ a b c Laura Smid (2003). South Asian folklore: an encyclopedia: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka. Great Britain: Routledge. 429.
  3. ^ Chelvadurai Manogaran (1987). Ethnic conflict and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. United States of America: University of Hawaii Press. 21.
  4. ^ a b c WWW Virtual Library Sri Lanka. (2009). The original inhabitants of Lanka: Yakkas & Nagas. Available: Last accessed 07 March 2010.
  5. ^✎ EditSign A research paper from archaeologist Dr P. Rajendran showing evidence of palaeolithic age human inhabitation in Kerala. This includes the pictures of serpent idols made of clay and metal which belong to the mesolithic age.
  6. ^ Department of Archaeology, Kerala University confirms palaeolithic age findings in Kerala
  7. ^ General article for palaeolithic age findings in Kerala
  8. ^ A very detailed article including palaeolithic age in Kerala
  9. ^ “Anthropological museum to have new additions”The Hindu Newspaper (Kerala). 27 December 2010. Retrieved 2011-05-03.
  10. ^ Srilankanreference. (2009). Sri Lanka – Yakksha and Naga Times. Available: Last accessed 07 March 2010.
  12. ^ H. Parker (1909). Ancient Ceylon. New Dehli: Asian Educational Services. 7.
  13. ^
  14. ^ E. Parameswaran. Early Times of Ilangai.
  15. ^ The Tamils Eighteen Hundred Years Ago By V. Kanakasabhai
  16. ^ Epigaphia Zeylanica VII, No. 82)
  17. ^ (Pushparatnam, P. 2002: 11, 30)
  18. ^ Prof. S.Ranwella. (2009). THE SO-CALLED TAMIL KINGDOM OF JAFFNA. Available: Last accessed 07 March 2010.
  19. ^ Patrick Peebles (2006). The history of Sri Lanka. United States of America: Greenwood Press. 14.
  20. ^ South Asia Media. (2009). Ethnic Groups in Sri Lanka and Their Origins. Available: Last accessed 07 March 2010.
  21. ^ ‘Naga’ Worship in India and. (2004). ‘Naga’ Worship in India and. Available: Last accessed 07 March 2010.
  22. ^ Wilhelm Geiger. (2003). The Mahavamsa. Available: Last accessed 07 March 2010.
  23. ^ Paravi Sandeshaya verse 128/ Kokila Sandeshaya
  24. ^ Lionel Wijesiri. (2009). The giant wakes up the Revival of Yoda Wewa. Available: Last accessed 07 March 2010.
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