Into the arms of Buddha at Nagadeepa Purana Viharaya Sri Lanka

His calm demeanour forced them into a powerful silence
His soothing voice rendered them both speechless
The Words of Wisdom slowly turned their frowns upside down
Their moist eyes indicated the mindful turn around.

The differences lay forgotten and the unity was sealed for the better
At the Nagadeepa Purana Viharaya - they lie hidden forever.

Such was the peaceful mediation by Lord Buddha when he came to Sri Lanka. And that too, during his second visit. The Nagadeepa temple Sri Lanka is a memoir of this visit. It is considered to be one of the 16 sacred places or Solosmasthana in the country. To be honest, there wasn’t much that I knew of this story. It was my visit to the Nagadeepa Buddhist temple that uncovered this unique tale of Buddha in Sri Lanka. Turns out he was here for a major purpose and what that is – forms the major part of this tour of the Nagadeepa Purana Vihara.

Nagadeepa Purana Viharaya - a Buddhist temple in Jaffna
Nagadeepa Purana Viharaya – a Buddhist temple in Jaffna

Nagadeepa Purana Viharaya is located on an island off the coast of Jaffna. While this post focuses only on the Buddhist temple on the Nagadeepa island, it isn’t the only place to visit on the isle. There is another equally interesting Hindu temple here, which has its own epic tale, However, that I shall keep for another post. For now, let us just enjoy this tour of a very important Buddhist site and go back to the era of Lord Buddha.

Did Buddha come to Sri Lanka?

As per the ancient chronicle Mahavamsa, Lord Buddha did come to Sri Lanka – not once but thrice. The first visit is said to have been 8 months after his enlightenment. He visited Mahiyangana where he converted the Yakshas to Buddhists with his sermons. It is believed that he gave a lock of his hair to the chieftain who in turn, enshrined it into the current stupa. He also, left his foot imprint on a gemstone that has been kept at the Samanala Mountain.

Buddha statues kept in the Nagadeepa Temple Museum in Jaffna
Buddha statues kept in the Nagadeepa Temple Museum in Jaffna

Five years after his enlightenment, Buddha returned to Sri Lanka for his second visit. This was to the Nagadeepa Island and what happened there forms the crux of my next section on the Nagadeepa Purana Viharaya history. Lord Buddha’s third and final visit included 500 bhikhus. This took place after 8 years of his enlightenment. It was Kelaniya upon the invitation of a Naga King -Maniakkika.

There are a few other chronicles that detail these three visits of Lord Buddha. These are the only pieces of historical evidence available to date about Lord Buddha’s visit to Sri Lanka.

The history of Nagadeepa Purana Viharaya

As already revealed, the Nagadeepa Purana Viharaya history goes back to five years after Buddha’s enlightenment. Turns out that there were three Naga kings – Maniakkika, Chulodara and Mahodara. Chulodara married his uncle – Mahodara’s daughter and was gifted a gem-studded throne. Sadly, the princess passed away. Following her death, the uncle asked his nephew to return the throne which Chulodara refused. This led to a major quarrel.

The quarrel reached a peak when Lord Buddha arrived in Sri Lanka. He landed in Nagadeepa (the kingdom of Mahodara) to mediate peace between the two parties. He not only managed to calm the two kings but with his Dhammas and sermons on unity and peace, managed to convert them to Buddhists. The disputed throne was offered to Lord Buddha by the two kings. Buddha offered it back as his relic and this was enshrined by the Naga Kings as relics within the stupa at the Nagadeepa temple.

Statue of Ven. Dhammakitti Thera at the Nagadeepa Purana Viharaya. Note the painting in the backdrop depicting the history of the temple
Statue of Ven. Dhammakitti Thera at the Nagadeepa Purana Viharaya. Note the painting in the backdrop depicting the history of the temple

The first construction of the Nagadeepa Vihara was done under the reign of King Devanampriya and later was expanded by Dutugemunu. It became a major pilgrimage spot for the Buddhists. Sadly, during the civil war, the LTTE forces attempted to damage it. One golden statue of Buddha was broken and thrown into the sea. The Government along with the then priest – Dhammakitti Thera managed to restore the temple.

During the 1980s, there were several bomb explosions around the jetty. The Navy stationed at Nagadeepa island retaliated to the LTTE threats. It was Dhammakitti Thera who helped maintain peace and convinced the Navy to retreat. Following this, bunkers were made for the senior monks and the younger ones were trained in combat.

Post the riots, the temple was expanded to accommodate the increasing number of pilgrims to this Nagadeepa Buddhist temple. So, now, from one major stupa, there is plenty more to see at the Nagadeepa Purana Vihara.

The layout of Nagadeepa Temple

Entrance to the Nagadeepa temple in Jaffna
Entrance to the Nagadeepa temple in Jaffna

There are four parts to a typical Buddhist monastery in Sri Lanka – a sacred Bodhi tree, a stupa with relics, image houses or chaityas (prayer halls) and living quarters for the monks. At Nagadeepa Viharaya temple, these sections are located right next to each other. In addition to these parts, there is one museum called the Palace of relics that is located within the premises. The entire layout is located within a radius of 2 km on Nagadeepa island.

Bodhi Tree of Nagadeepa Buddhist temple & the Naga Pokuna

As you walk down from the jetty closest to the Nagadeepa Buddhist temple, you will see a huge Bodhi tree on the left. Right next to the tree is a small pond with a statue of Lord Buddha seated on a lotus with a seven-hooded Naga (serpent) shielding him. This pond is called the Naga Pokuna. You will find most of the devotees heading to the tree next to it to pay their respects before walking across the road to the main entrance of Nagadeepa Purana Vihara.

Naga Pokuna with the Banyan tree and Bodhi tree next to it
Naga Pokuna with the Banyan tree and Bodhi tree next to it

Watch out for a Banyan tree next to the Bodhi tree. This is linked to another part of the history or Nagadeepa Viharaya. During Buddha’s visit, a deity by the name of Samiddhi Sumana accompanied Buddha from Jetavanarama in Anuradhapura to Nagadeepa (Nainathivu island). It is believed he used to stay in a Banyan tree. He uprooted his residence and inverted the tree to make it into an umbrella for Lord Buddha. This tree, referred to as Kiripalu Nugaruka was planted by the two Naga Kings and worshipped. The current Banyan tree is said to have emerged from this tree and is still revered by the devotees.

Rajayathana Stupa of Nagadeepa Viharaya Temple

The first thing that you will be drawn to when you enter the Nagadeepa Rajamaha Viharaya is a silver stupa. This is believed to the site where the bejeweled throne has been enshrined. The Rajayanthana Stupa is the ultimate destination of all devotees to Nagadeepa Buddhist temple.

Rajayanthana Stupa of the Nagadeepa Vihara Temple of Sri Lanka
Rajayanthana Stupa of the Nagadeepa Vihara Temple of Sri Lanka

As per the records, the original stupa was badly broken by the various wars in Sri Lanka. It was in the 1930s that the stupa was identified by Ven. Dhammakiththi Tissa Maha Nayaka Thera and restored to its present form. The silver color has been applied to protect it from sea salt and humidity. As for the throne, there is a reconstructed model kept on the premises for viewing.

Palace of Relics or the Museum of Nagadeepa Purana Vihara

The ancient kitchen utensils of Nagadeepa museum
The ancient kitchen utensils of Nagadeepa museum

This is a modern building close to the stupa. The Nagadeepa Vihara museum has two floors filled with artifacts recovered from this site. You will find ancient kitchen utensils used in the Nagadeepa Purana Viharaya as well as old televisions, radios and several paintings. There are old Buddha statues and idols that have been gifted by various donors and countries like Burma.

The mysterious silver Stupa in the Nagadeepa Raja Maha Viharaya
The mysterious silver Stupa in the Nagadeepa Raja Maha Viharaya
The Golden stupa on the 2nd floor of the Nagadeepa temple museum
The Golden stupa on the 2nd floor of the Nagadeepa temple museum

The two interesting artifacts that caught my attention are two pagodas – one silver and the other golden one. The Golden Pagoda in particular, has been given a focus on the 2nd floor of the Nagadeepa museum. Sadly, the lack of signs around these artifacts is the reason why I can’t explain why they were kept here. I would have definitely loved to know.

The various image houses of Nagadeepa Purana Viharaya Sri Lanka

The main Chaitya of Nagadeepa Raja Maha Viharaya Sri Lanka
The main Chaitya of Nagadeepa Raja Maha Viharaya Sri Lanka

Unlike the epic temples like the Wat Chedi Luang in Thailand and the Hemis Monastery in Ladakh, the prayer halls are much smaller but quite detailed. One of the reasons for this could be that they are reconstructed recently. The biggest shrine room has several Buddha images kept in a brightly painted mini hall. The entire building is constructed in a typical Sinhalese style with a gorgeous moonstone at its entrance and two elaborate guard stones flanking it.

Painted ceiling of the Nagadeepa Buddhist temple chaitya
Painted ceiling of the Nagadeepa Buddhist temple chaitya
The elaborate staircase of Nagadeepa Purana Viharaya Sri Lanka
The elaborate staircase of Nagadeepa Purana Viharaya Sri Lanka
The artistic banister of the main prayer room of Nagadeepa temple
The artistic banister of the main prayer room of Nagadeepa temple

The stairs leading to the doors have numerous images of dwarves – some of which reminded me of the gunas seen on Dravidian architecture. The banisters of this particular shrine room got me back to the monasteries in Bhutan and Ladakh – that mythical crocdile – snake ingesting an object.

Image of Sleeping Buddha in the 2nd meditation room of Nagadeepa temple in Jaffna
Image of Sleeping Buddha in the 2nd meditation room of Nagadeepa temple in Jaffna

The 2nd image house close to the entrance has an image of a sleeping Buddha. As compared to the main shrine house, this one feels a little minimalist. The only wall art is behind the sleeping Buddha while the rest of the wall is plain.

Golden Buddha statue in the 3rd image house of Nagadeepa Viharaya
Golden Buddha statue in the 3rd image house of Nagadeepa Viharaya

The 3rd and the most recent prayer hall has a huge statue of the Golden Buddha. Here too, the walls are barren. However, a gorgeous moonstone has been laid at the base of its staircase. I think the place was still being constructed as there are two plain guard stones next to the staircase, waiting for their idols.

Nagadeepa Rajamaha Viharaya – a symbol of harmony

Nagadeepa Purana Vihara temple is not just a representation of Buddhism. It is actually considered to be a symbol of harmony between different cultures and religions. This emerges from the recent history of the Nagadeepa Buddhist temple. During the year 1990s, many Muslims took refuge in the monastery to escape the ethnic cleansing initiated by LTTE. These people were protected by the Navy and a new custom was created for them. The Navy along with the monks of Nagadeepa Buddhist temple would serve the first iftar to their new members – aka the Muslim refugees.

Nagapooshani Kovil on the Nagadeepa Island - one of the other places to visit on the island
Nagapooshani Kovil on the Nagadeepa Island – one of the other places to visit on the island

With the presence of a prominent Hindu Shaktipeetha on the same island, the Nagadeepa Buddhist temple is visited by numerous Hindus too. Such is the harmony that you see people of all faith visiting Nagadeepa Purana Viharaya. I hope, I have inspired you to visit this place. Go on, pin this and share this symbol of harmony.

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Common FAQS

What is the best way to reach Nagadeepa Purana Viharaya?

The closest local airport to Nagadeepa island is Jaffna. It is also, the closest railway station and major city to the island. You can reach Jaffna via road or take one of the many trains from Colombo. Once in Jaffna, you will need to hire a local cab, auto or get into a public bus to Kurrikaduwan jetty on Punkudutivu Island.

The jetty has regular boat services to Nainativu or Nagadeepa island. The boat ride is just 15 minutes and you can infact, see the island from Kurrikaduwan jetty. Nagadeepa island has two jetties – one in front of the Buddhist temple and the other in front of the Nagapooshani Kovil – the Hindu temple. If it stops at the latter, you can just walk down to the Nagadeepa temple, which is just around 200 -300 meters from it.

What is enshrined in Nagadeepa?

The gemstone throne that caused the dispute between the two Naga Kings- Chulodara and Mahodara is said to have been enshrined within the Nagadeepa Purana Viharaya Stupa.

Where to stay on Nagadeepa Island?

Nagadeepa island does not have any hotels or stay options. The best place to stay if you want to visit Nagadeepa island is in Jaffna.

Jaffna city has numerous options that you can even book online using the Booking resources below. I stayed at the North Gate by Jetwing which is fairly comfortable. You can look the same up or try the other Jetwing hotel in Jaffna. Other than these, you could look up The Thinnai and Green Grass hotel.

What is the best time to visit the Nagadeepa temple in Jaffna?

In terms of season, it is best to visit Nagadeepa island between the months of January to October. The remaining months see a lot of rainfall, sometimes enough to make the sea rough.

Nagadeepa temple is open from 6 am to 6 pm

What are the ferry timings and ferry fare for Nagadeepa Island?

The Ferry service from Kurrikaduwan jetty near Jaffna starts at 7 am to 6 pm everyday. There is a ferry every half hour. The price per person is LKR 40 per person. You can even hire an entire ferry for LKR 5000

Travel and Photography tips

  • Dressing up in white or light colored clothes is considered respectful when visiting the Nagadeepa Buddhist temple. However, it is not mandatory.
  • Don’t miss visiting the nearby Nagapooshani Kovil when on Nagadeepa island. You can either walk to the Hindu temple or hire a tuk tuk to get to it . The distance between the two is hardly 300 meters.
  • There are a few shops selling refreshments around the Nagadeepa Vihara. Rest rooms are available in the temple premises.
  • There is no entrance fee to the temple.
  • Carry a wide angled lens for capturing the various details within the temple. In the museum, it is best to use your cell phone to click the pictures, especially those of the encased artifacts.

Booking Resources

  • Booking.com is a good place to reserve your hotel in Jaffna. This link will help you get to the Jaffna hotel page and book your room.
  • If you are looking for car transfers between Colombo and any other city in Sri Lanka, you could book one through Klook.com. The website also, offers hotel bookings for Jaffna.
  • Another online resource that you can use to book cars and tours in Sri Lanka is GetYourGuide.
  • Amazon is a good resource to pick your travel requirements like bags, rain coats, trekking gear etc. Consider using my affiliate link to get to the site.
Disclaimer: This article includes affiliate links. This means that at no cost to you, I will receive a small commission if you purchase through my link. Thank you for supporting me with this.
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1 thought on “Into the arms of Buddha at Nagadeepa Purana Viharaya Sri Lanka”

  1. Amazing post on the Purana Viharaya on Nagadeepa Island. It is just so fascinating that there is so much history on this tiny piece of land. So many lost connections to explore.

    Reply

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