Sri Lanka was experiencing heavy rainfall recently, a phenomenon, according to the Buddhist belief, that coincides with the month of Il, often referred to as the rainy month. The inter-monsoon session receives heavy rain in November, which is the Il month. Following the Il, Sri Lankans embrace the cold Unduvap month. Though it is a moderately cold month, historically it is referred to as the month that warmed up the entire island. The reason being that this is the month in which the sacred sapling of Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi arrived in Sri Lanka with Sangamitta Theri.
Unduvap, the day of the full moon, is the last Poya of the year. Many cultural turning points coincided with the arrival of Sanghamitta Theri on the Unduvap Poya.
During the reign of King Devanampiyathissa, the Mauryan king, Ashoka undertook a splendid mission that laid the foundation of a diplomatic relation that has lasted centuries. The Indian emperor Ashoka played a pivotal role in propagating the great Dhamma to neighboring countries. As a part of his mission, he considered one of the most important contingents to be Thambapanni, now known as Sri Lanka. He sent his ordained son Arahath Mahinda and daughter Sangamitta Theri to Sri Lanka to introduce Buddhism to the island nation. Apart from the Buddhist Dhamma, the arrival of Sangamiththa Theri also brought a lot of other cultural norms and nuances that got established across the island. She was accompanied by ten other Bhikkhunis and a contingent of highly skilled craftsmen from India. These craftsmen and artists were instrumental in the development of the Buddhist culture in Sri Lanka. Their skills involved drawing, crafting, landscaping, architecture carpentry, and rock carvings, and some were experts in health sciences and methods. Historians refer to this phase of emergence of Buddhism as the Maha Bodhi culture. Along with the Maha Bodhi culture, literature, arts, and crafts also developed in the region. The entourage that accompanied the Sangamitta Theri was quite diverse and included people of various castes, including carpenters, builders, artists, and many others.
A lot of these skills and crafts were then adopted by the locals resulting in the building of extraordinary cultural artifacts including the Ruwanweli Maha Seya, the Great Stupa. Buildings, particularly palaces and temple paintings, and woodcraft were developed as a result of this cultural dissemination. It has added tremendously to the Sri Lanka’s great cultural heritage.
Princess Anula was the first to be ordained in Lanka as a Bhikkhuni. Sanghamitta Theri established the Meheni Sasana (Buddhist nuns) that lasted for about 1000 years in Sri Lanka. It is often considered to be the revolutionary movement that led to the liberation of women in the region. Although things have changed over time and women are no more allowed to go to the mound or Uda Maluva (upper terrace) where the Bodhi tree stands, it is still of high cultural significance that the woman who came from India brought with them a message of synergy and gender equality. The credit especially goes to Sangamitta who had brought the message of equal rights for women to Sri Lanka, a cultural gift from India.
Sanghamitta Theri did not conclude her mission by planting the sacred Bo Sapling in the picturesque Mahamevuna Park. After ordaining Queen Anula Devi, five hundred women devotees from all levels of society joined the Bhikkuni order along with her. It is not widely known that those Bhikkunis had extensive literary skills, especially in Pali language that turned out to be instrumental in the promotion of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.
Interestingly, around that time, Mahinda Thera, the greatest communicator of all time, was preaching in Sinhala, while most of the facts on Dhamma were in Pali, the language used by including Sanghamitta Theri and her delegation. At that time Pali was not widely popular. Bhikkunis who were in their quest to learn Dhamma had to learn Pali as an act of great courage and perseverance. This courage is what ultimately helped them develop their linguistic skills in Pali and understand the Dhamma. They were fortunate to interact with eminent scholars in the process.
The prime example of their Pali skills is reflected in the Deepavamsa, which is the first Pali chronicle in the island’s history. It was compiled by a group of Bhikkhunis in the 4th century AD. This in fact has been endorsed by scholars, Professor G.P. Malalasekera, Sirima Kiribamuna, and Wilhelm Geiger. Dipavamsa, mostly in Pali verses, was written to propagate Buddha’s teachings. It signifies the impact of Buddhism on Sri Lanka and the role played by the Indian mission of Sangamitta on the literacy level of women, who were the first to master the Pali language, considered to be elite at that time. Dipavamsa was a collective work, produced by a generation of Bhikkunis over some time and also served as the main source of information for literature that were developed later.
There is another significant achievement in the spread of Buddhism that can be attributed to these Bhikkunis. The Lankan ship that sailed in 426 AD across the sea to reach China, bearing the message of Dhamma, was captained by Nandi and eleven Bhikkunis were aboard. The delegation was led by Dayanara Thisarana Theri and they ordained over 300 bhikkhunis in Nanking – the capital of the Sung Dynasty. Later Chandramali Theri led the second group to Tibet to spread Buddhism in 429 AD.
The contingent that arrived with Sangamitta was also critical in enhancing agriculture in this country. The agricultural economy flourished on the island with new cultivation methods and the building of large tanks with eco-friendly rainwater harvesting techniques. Emperor Ashoka had the vision of liberation, not only for his territory but for neighboring nations as well. He made the big sacrifice of sending his son and daughter on this noble mission to Sri Lanka. It was our good fortune that Sri Lanka was the first country to which such a mission was undertaken. From such an early time, India has played the role of a good friend and it is extraordinary that it continues to do so even today, as is remembered in the many tempests India has helped us sail through