Sri Lanka: The Guardian of Nagadeepa — A Journey of Faith and Harmony

How “Kutti Swami “(baby priest) became “Periya Swami”(High Priest) in Nagadeepa Buddhist Temple ?

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Nagadeepa or Nainativu is one of the smallest inhabited islands in the country.

Most Revered Nawadagala Padumaketti Tissa Thero, the Chief Sangha of the Northern Province and guardian of Nagadeepa Purana Rana Maha Viharaya and Dambakolapatuna Viharaya, celebrated his fifty years in the priesthood on July 4th, 2023.

I first came to know this esteemed Buddhist priest when I served as the Officer in Charge of the small Naval Detachment in Nagadeepa back in 1985. At that time, I was a 23-year-old Sub Lieutenant, while Revered Priest was a year older than me and an able assistant to the High Priest, Most Revered Brhmana Watte Dharma Ketti Tissa Thero, a respected educationist who held an honored degree in Tamil Literature from India.

Padumaketti Tissa Thero had already transitioned from his ‘Kutti Swami’ stage to become a ‘Sinna Swami’ (Junior priest) at that time. He had gained significant popularity among the Tamil community residing on the island, particularly among the younger generation. Despite attending Tamil school on the island and being a mischievous youth, he learned Buddhism and Tamil literature under the watchful eyes of the High Priest. Although he was sent to the best Buddhist Teaching Institutes (Pirivenas) in Anuradhapura, he never stayed for more than two days, always returning to Nagadeepa out of his deep respect and affection for the High Priest. He knew that the High Priest would struggle with his day-to-day work and the running of the Vihara without his assistance. Such was the selflessness of this young priest, who was willing to forego his education to care for the High Priest. Eventually, the High Priest made the decision, which I used to jokingly refer to as his ‘individual tuition,’ to entrust the young priest with his guidance.

Photo: Navadagala Padumakitti TissaHigh Priest and his junior priest when I was Navy Commander in 2015

Each morning, Padumaketti Tissa Thero would rise early to sweep the temple garden, water the plants, and prepare breakfast for the High Priest. The fresh water supply to the temple was brought by a bullock cart, on which the junior priest loved to ride to the freshwater well, located about two kilometers away from the temple. It was during this journey that he would encounter his ‘young gang’ along the way. Upon his return, he would study under the watchful eyes of the High Priest until lunchtime. The midday meal for the two priests was provided by Mr. Kandaiyah, a devoted Hindu, who considered it a great merit to offer daily meals to the two Buddhist priests. Mr. Kandaiyah would occasionally bring delicious desserts and sweets, especially for the young priest. My army buddy, Lieutenant LBR Marks (who later rose to the rank of Major General), and I would also enjoy our share of these treats courtesy of the junior priest.

During the LTTE attacks in the North, the government decided to station an Army Platoon in support of the Naval detachment. The Navy provided food for the Army Platoon, which was stationed on this remote island. Since we did not have electricity, an old patrol craft would bring our supplies every other day. We had an abundance of fresh food, including large lagoon crabs that I would hunt with a metal rod and a torch at night along the reef. Sometimes, I was fortunate enough to catch a big lobster. We also had an ample supply of fresh fish obtained by bartering milk powder packets with the humble fishermen of the island, as well as shellfish caught during my pastime hobby at night. We ate well and protected Nagadeepa Viharaya and its two priests.

One day, I visited the temple and noticed that the junior priest was absent in the morning. It turned out that he was cooking lunch for himself and the High Priest since Mr. Kandaiyah and his family had gone on a pilgrimage for a few days. I felt a deep sense of sorrow and immediately ordered that breakfast and midday lunch be provided from our camp, before we consumed our own meals. This practice continues to this day, with the Navy providing daily dana to Nagadeepa Temple. Looking back, I realized what a great relief it must have been for the humble Mr. Kandaiyah, even though his wife used to prepare sweet meals each day. Admiral Daya Sandagiri, the then Navy Commander and a devoted Buddhist, played a significant role in this arrangement, ensuring the temple’s needs were met.

Nagadeepa is a place of immense historical and religious significance. According to the Mahawansa, the chronological written history of Sri Lanka maintained by Buddhist monks, Gautama Buddha visited Nagadeepa during his second visit to the island, five years after his enlightenment. He arrived to settle a dispute between two Naga-tribe kings, Chulodhara and Mahodara. Therefore, this temple holds a revered place among the most sacred temples in Sri Lanka. As a Buddhist, I consider it my destiny to have protected this temple from enemies during our country’s internal conflict, and I believe it is the greatest deed I have accomplished in my 38-year career.

Our bond, from our early days to the present, is truly unique. Padumaketti Tissa Thero witnessed step by step as I climbed the ranks of my chosen career, from Sub Lieutenant to Admiral, and he has always been there to bless me and my family.

Have you ever visited Nagadeepa? The journey by boat from Kurikattuwan jetty in Punkudativu to Nagadeepa temple jetty is truly delightful. It takes approximately 35 minutes by road from Jaffna town to reach Kurikattuwan jetty, also known as KKD jetty. The most beautiful time to be in Nagadeepa is after sunset, especially on a full moon Poya day. If you wish to witness true ethnic and religious harmony in our country, I urge you to visit Nagadeepa and spend a few days exploring the island. The Nagapoosan Amman Kovil, the second-largest Hindu temple in the Northern Province, is also situated in Nagadeepa, about one kilometer away from the Buddhist temple. Furthermore, in the southernmost point of Nagadeepa, there is a small mosque and a small Muslim village. The Muslim residents are primarily fishermen and lobster divers. They may have migrated from pearl and chank diving communities long ago. In 1990, when the LTTE terrorists issued an ultimatum for all Muslims in the Northern Province to leave their homes and businesses within 24 hours, this small Muslim community also prepared to leave.

However, the Chief Incumbent of Nagadeepa Temple, Most Revered Brahamanawatte Dhammakitti Tissa Thero, a learned scholar from Balapitiya, urged the Muslims not to depart and assured them of the temple’s and Navy’s protection. The Muslim leaders in Nagadeepa decided to stay, and Thero kept his promise. Arrangements were made to transport their fish and lobster catch to Colombo with the assistance of the Navy, and the temple provided financial aid whenever necessary.

The LTTE’s attempt to ethnically cleanse all Muslims from the North was unsuccessful thanks to the brave actions of the High Priest. Today, all three communities—Sinhala, Tamil, and Muslims—live in ethnic harmony on this small island, serving as the best example of ethnic harmony for our entire country and the world. Only military personnel who protected these religious sites in challenging conditions truly know these stories. Let us not forget them and the gallant Buddhist priests who safeguarded these sacred places in trying times.

Fifteen years ago, the High Priest passed away. Despite having three senior student priests, two of whom were professors at the time, all three unanimously agreed to appoint our junior priest, Nawadagala Padumaketti Tissa Thero, as the guardian of Nagadeepa Viharaya. This decision was based on his extensive knowledge of the islanders, the Tamil language, and the customs and traditions of Tamil culture. Additionally, he could deliver sermons in Tamil to the Tamil Buddhists, who number around 72,000 according to the latest census of Sri Lanka (let us not forget that Ven. Buddhagosha Thero, who initiated the writing of the Tripitaka, was also a South Indian Tamil). Moreover, he had sacrificed his education to care for the aging High Priest in the most remote area of Nagadeepa, making him the most suitable candidate for the position of High Priest. I must mention the pivotal role played by Admiral Daya Sandagiri, then Navy Commander and a devoted Buddhist, who built Dambakolapatuna Viharaya during his tenure as Navy Commander. He played a major role in reaching an agreement to appoint Ven. Nawadagala Padumaketti Tissa Thero as the High Priest.

Since the end of our internal conflict in 2009, Nagadeepa Temple has become a must-visit Buddhist temple in Sri Lanka. Our Thero frequently travels abroad and, with ample public support, ensures that Nagadeepa Purana Raja Maha Viharaya offers numerous facilities for devotees. On the day that Thero completes half a century in priesthood, I wish him good health and a long life. Dear Thero, you have endured numerous hardships as a young priest, and we have witnessed firsthand your dedication and commitment to the High Priest and the Sasanaya (Buddhist order), as well as your tireless efforts to protect the place where Lord Gautama Buddha visited in Sri Lanka during his lifetime. May you continue to live with happiness and peace.

Ravindra C Wijegunaratne

Retired Admiral Ravindra C Wijegunaratne, former Chief of Defence Staff of the Sri Lanka Navy, currently serves as the High Commissioner of Sri Lanka to Pakistan, following his tenure as Managing Director of Ceylon Petroleum Corporation and Chairman of Trincomalee Petroleum Terminals Ltd.

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