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Thailand's gift to Sri Lanka: the establishment of the Siam Nikaya

Dr. Lorna Dewaraja

Those who act rightly according to the teaching, which is well expounded, those are they who will reach the Beyond-Nibbana, the realm of passions, so hard to cross. -- Dhammapada (Pandita Vagga)

This year marks the 250th anniversary of the establishment of the Siam Nikaya. On Saturday the 20th of July 1753 on the full moon day of Asela, Upali Thera of Siam and his retinue who had arrived in Kandy, conferred on the Sinhala monks the gift of the Upasampada, which had long disappeared from the island.

This was achieved with the active support of two kings, Boromakot (1733-1758) or Dhammika as he is called in the Mahavamsa and Kirti Sri Rajasinghe King of Kandy (1747-1782). The outstanding personalities connected with the event were the saintly and erudite Upali Maha Thera on the Thai side and the indefatigable Saranamkara Thera on the Sinhala side. The establishment of the Siam Nikaya was the climax of centuries of endeavour on the part of the Sri Lankan rulers and it is considered an event of singular importance in the religious, cultural and political history of the island and is recorded in elaborate detail not only in the Mahavamsa but also in several contemporary and near contemporary literary works, some of which are not yet published.

Saturday, the 20th of July 1753 was the full moon day of Asela. That night the king brimming with joy went to the preaching hall on foot and placed his head at the feet of the Siamese monks, offered a fan and with all reverence invited them to perform the Upasampada. In the presence of the king the following Sri Lankan monks were admitted to the Higher Ordination with Upali Thera as their Upadhya and Brahamajothi Thera and Mahapunna Thera as their Acariyas.

Kobbakaduve Unnanse
Valivita Saranankara Unnanse
Hulangamuve Unnanse
Navinne Unnanse
Bambaradeniya Unnanse
Tibbotuvave Siddhartha Buddharakkhita Unnanse

Training in ecclesiastical procedure

Having accomplished their main task which was the result of centuries of effort by a series of rulers, Upali Thera and his associates did not stop here because there was much more to be done. It was mentioned that the study of the Pali language and practices relating to monastic discipline had been grossly neglected in Sri Lanka, so much so that even the most basic ecclesiastical procedures had gone into abeyance.

Upali Thera had to teach the Sinhala monks the basic procedures and even the Kammavaca or the Pali formula recited at the performance of ecclesiastical acts like pabbajja (ordination) and Upasampada (Higher Ordination).

These rules are laid down in the Upali Kathikavata or set of rules formulated by Upali Thera which is available in Thailand. When requested a copy of the Kammavaca had been sent by king Dhammika to Sri Lanka and a fragment of this is still available in the library of the Malvatta Vihara in Kandy.

The newly ordained bhikkhus were given instruction in the performance of the Patimokkha ritual, which was vital for the Buddhist monastic community to maintain and establish its purity and exercise control over its miscreants.

Following the Thai royal tradition, Kirti Sri Rajasinha, invited the Thai bhikkhus and Sinhala bhikkhus to observe the Vassavasa or rains retreat, a monastic practice coming down from the time of the Buddha, which ensures that monks are confined to one monastery for three months during the heavy rainy season and ends with the Kathina festival. During the period of the retreat, Upali thera with great wisdom and foresight admitted 97 samaneras belonging to both Malvatta and Asgiriya Viharas to the Higher Ordination. Thus Upali thera's endeavour helped to restore the sangha, revive monastic practices and strengthen it numerically. The dearth of monks in the island would have convinced him that many more were needed to ensure the stability of Buddhism in the face of many dangers for years to come.

Upali thera's commitment and thoroughness in performing the task expected of him is clear when he effected the delimitation of ecclesiastical boundaries within which the sangha was expected to perform its activities according to Vinaya rules. All monastic rites like the pabbajja, Upasampada and patimokkha had to be done within a consecrated venue (sima) or boundary. A great deal of importance is attached to the ritualistic validity of the (sima) and Upali thera demonstrated and explained in detail to the Sinhala monks, the procedure of the delimitation of the sima and the ritual connected with it.

Kathina ceremony

On the full moon day of November 1753 which fell on the 9th Saturday, the Kathina ceremony which signified the end of the rains retreat was celebrated in great splendour with people from all parts of the island and also foreign merchants assembling in Kandy. This too was the impact of Thailand where the Kathina Ceremony was a magnificent one with the royal family participating, offering new robes and lavish gifts to the priesthood.

It was the practice in Thailand then and now and even in Sri Lanka from ancient times that the robes offered to the Sangha at the Kathina Ceremony should be prepared within one day - that is spinning the yarn, weaving the cloth, cutting up the robes and sewing and dyeing them. The robes, thus prepared in the traditional manner were taken by the king in procession and offered first to the Temple of the Tooth Relic and then to all the bhikkhus who observed the rains retreat.

At the successful conclusion of all these significant events, Kirti Sri Rajasinha brimming with gratitude towards his royal brother King Boromakot of Thailand held on the 14th October 1753, an exhibition of the Tooth Relic for the benefit of the Thai monks and envoys.

The transformation of the Asela Perahera into the Dalada Perahera

The Tooth Relic or the Dalada was brought to Sri Lanka in the reign of Kirti Sri Meghavarna who ruled in Anuradhapura (303-331). The Mahavansa says that a great deal of money was spent in celebrating the festival in honour of the Relic and the King decreed that the Relic should be taken round the city of Anuradhapura annually. There is evidence to show that his decree was faithfully carried out by his successors for the well known Chinese traveller Fa Hsien who visited India and Sri Lanka in the 5th century describes in elaborate detail this magnificent festival.

The Devale Peraharas that form a part of the Asela Perahara today did not form a part of the procession in Fa Hsien's time. Somewhere down the line the practice of taking the Tooth Relic in procession annually seems to have gone into abeyance very likely due to security reasons, as the Relic became the symbol of royalty.

The Asela Perahara of the 17th century as reported by Robert Knox consisted only of the Dewale Peraharas honouring the Hindu and Mahayana deities namely, Natha, Vishnu, Kataragama and Pattini. Upali Thera who witnessed this was quite perturbed that in the heart of a Buddhist country, the deities should be honoured in all pageantry and the Buddha ignored.

It is said that as a result of the agitation caused by Upali Thera, the King ordered that henceforth "Gods and men should follow the Buddha", in the procession. This is how the Tooth Relic of the Buddha became the focus of the Asela Maha Perahera. This indeed is a great service that Upali Thera has rendered to Sri Lanka, for this procession which is now held in honour of the Tooth Relic is the greatest event in the entire Buddhist world. The second mission from Thailand in January 1756

Once the Order of Bhikkus was firmly established and definite steps were taken for the maintaining of discipline, the need was felt for the training of newly ordained monks in meditation and the study of Buddhist texts. It is to meet this need that King Boromakot of Siam sent 16 theras and 11 novices. The most prominent members of this mission were Suvisuddhacariya Maha Thera and Varananamuni Anu Thera.

The former belonged to the Vidarsanadhura - the school of monks who were committed to higher forms of meditation and the latter belonged to the Granthadhura, the school of monks who were devoted to the study of sacred texts. The two leaders of the delegation were apparently masters in their respective spheres. The monks brought with them 97 books that were not found in Sri Lanka and for the next 4 years worked for the welfare of the Sri Lankan Sangha.

The purge of the Sangha

Once the Order was established the king found it necessary to hold a convocation to purge the sangha of its undesirable elements, advise those bhikkhus who remained, and promulgate a set of disciplinary rules for their guidance. On several occasions before this rulers had attempted this task and Kirti Sri Rajasingha was following their example. He gathered the support of pious monks like Saranankara and "ordered an investigation, took strong measures against them (impious monks) and had them seriously admonished, that from now onwards those who had renounced the world, should forever avoid unseemly tasks like astrology, medical activity and the like and should foster the words of the Buddha".

The impact of the Thai contact and the services rendered by Upali Thera cannot be over estimated. If, after a series of mishaps, he did not arrive in 1753, subsequent events in Sri Lanka and Thailand prove beyond doubt that the Siam Nikaya would never have been established in Sri Lanka and certainly not under a Buddhist king. King Boromakot the magnanimous ruler whose tireless efforts facilitated the restoration of the sangha in Sri Lanka died in 1758 and the country was plunged in a fratricidal struggle for the throne. During the reign of his son Ekatat (1758-1767) the Burmese sacked Ayutthia in 1767 which ended its existence as the Thai metropolis.

This was the most terrible blow to Thailand as most of her treasures both material and cultural were lost for ever. In this situation the cordial relations with Sri Lanka and the exchange of missions could never have taken place. On the Sri Lankan side the situation was not much better.

For soon after the arrival of the second mission trouble was brewing between the king of Kandy and the Dutch. The Dutch invaded Kandy in 1765 while the king and the royal family went into hiding. The Temple of the Tooth which was the target of their attack was looted, the king's palace was razed to the ground and the rest of the city lay at the mercy of the Hollander. After the invaders retreated the king regained his throne.

However, the atmosphere in Kandy, the strained relationship with the Dutch and the confusion in Ayutthia was not conducive for diplomatic relations to take place. In the last and auspicious moment in 1753 the Upasampada was restored and it proved to be an unqualified success.

Summarising the impact of the Thai contact it must be emplahsized that it retrieved Buddhism from the darkest chasm it had fallen into, during its long history of 2300 years in the island. The extinction of the sangha means the virtual disappearance of Buddhism from the island.

This had happened before during the Cola interregnum when the monks either disrobed or fled to South India and Burma to escape the harassments of the invaders. Matters were soon rectified by Vijabahu I (1055-1110) who held pabbajja and upasampada ceremonies and regenerated the Order. This practice was continued by successive rulers who thus quantitively and qualitatively strengthened the sangha.

By the 16th century the situation had changed for the worst and a new danger threatened the very survival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka - the onslaught of Christian missionary enterprise - Kandy had now become the last bulwark of independent Buddhism. The once flourishing monasteries of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa were in ruins and the maritime provinces were ruled by Christian powers. The time and resources of the king of Kandy was exhausted in his attempts to maintain the sovereignty of his kingdom so that he had little time for matters spiritual.

The island was devoid of the yellow robe, the monasteries came to be occupied by a set of degenerate, corrupt persons called ganas. Many temple libraries had been burnt down by the Portuguese invaders and also on the orders of Rajasinha I of Sitawaka and Pali learning grossly neglected.

This was the tragic situation when Thailand stepped in on the orders of King Boromakot of Ayuthia. The restoration of the Upasampada was only, one of Upali Theras many achievements. In addition he set up simas or consecrated boundaries in 25 places in the country for the correct performance of ecclesiastical rites.

Three or four centuries ago the Sihala sangha gave instruction to the entire Buddhist world on these matters and Sri Lanka was looked upon as the repository of the pure Theravada tradition. In the 18th century the Sinhala monks had to learn the correct intonation of the Kammavaca from the Thai monks.

With the arrival of the second mission (1756), the Granthadhura and the Vidarsanadhura, which too was taken from Sri Lanka earlier was reintroduced. Thus Upali Thera's work was completed in every possible way. It could be mentioned that the scholar monks who kept the flame of learning alive during the 19th century all belonged to the pupillary succession of Saranankara Thera who was a pupil of Upali Thera.


Source: The Daily News, Sri Lanka, 14 May 2003, https://www.dailynews.lk

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last updated: 21-05-2003