Kantharodai & Tamil Buddhists Of Antiquity


“…Few have heard of it and fewer have visited it…”

I heard about Kantharodai only recently. There seemed to be a certain magic about the place and I yearned to visit it. The big coach I was travelling on this February could not negotiate the narrow winding side road from the main Jaffna-KKS road and I had to walk the final kilometre to the site, nestling in a grove of palmyra trees. A sign in Sinhala said that the Buddha was here during his visit to nearby Nagadeepa. Gun totting soldiers lurked about and a modern and out of place corrugated iron image house with a brightly painted statue of Buddha looked garish. There were bus loads of noisy pilgrims who were only interested in having their pictures taken with the stupas in background. I, rather selfishly, wanted the site to myself and wished they would go away.

What Is It?

It is the ancient burial site of sixty or so senior Tamil monks, ‘discovered’ in 1916 and excavated in the 1960’s. The twenty odd Stupas on flat coral stone beds, the largest about 20 feet in diameter,  are said to contain the remains of the monks together with ‘treasure.’

Kandarodai, a small hamlet and archaeological site of Chunnakam town, is in a suburb of Jaffna District, in Sri Lanka. Known as Kadiramalai (from Kudiramalai) in the ancient period, the area served as a famous emporium city and capital of Tamil kingdoms in the Jaffna peninsula of North Eastern Ceylon from classical antiquity. Located near a world famous port at that time, Kandarodai was the first site the Archaeology Department in Sri Lanka excavated in the Jaffna peninsula.

Black and red ware Kanterodai potsherd Tamil Brahmi scripts from 300 BCE excavated with Roman coins, early Pandyan coins, early Chera Dynasty coins from the emporium Karur punch-marked with images of the Hindu Goddess Lakshmi from 500 BCE, punch-marked coins called puranas from 6th-5th century BCE India, and copper ‘kohl’ sticks similar to those used by the Egyptians in 2000 B.C found in Uchhapannai, Kandarodai indicate active transoceanic maritime trade between ancient Jaffna Tamils and other continental kingdoms in the prehistoric period. The parallel third century BCE discoveries of Maanthai, Anaikoddai and Vallipuram detail the arrival of a megalithic culture in Jaffna long before the Buddhist-Christian era and the emergence of rudimentary settlements that continued into early historic times marked by urbanisation. The chief Pittan-Korran of Kudiramalai further south, a commander-in-chief of the Chera king, administered the locality under the Chera kingdom from the 1st century BCE – 1st century CE and is described at length in the Purananuru.[

A group of Dagobas situated close together at the site served as a monastery for Tamil monks and reflect the rise in popularity of Buddhism amongst Jaffna Tamils and the Tamils of the ancient Tamil country in the first few centuries of the common era before the revivalism of Hinduism amongst the population. Recent excavations of Sivaganams in the stupas suggest Tamil Hindus also worshipped at the site. The domes were reconstructed atop the flat bases of the ruins by the Archaeology Department. The similarities between the finds of ancient Jaffna and Tamil Nadu are indicators of a continuous cultural exchange between the two regions from classical antiquity.These structures built over burials demonstrate the integration of Buddhism with Megalithism, a hallmark of Tamil Buddhism. Outside Andhra Pradesh in India, Kanterodai is perhaps the only site where such burials are seen.” (Wikipedia)

Where Is It?

It is situated west of the village of Chunnakam, about 10 kms from Jaffna. There is a good road to the site with a small car park. The site is guarded by the Sri lankan Army. A fence stops you from getting close to the structures. You have to walk on the rough stony ground without shoes or sun protection.

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