By Darshanie Ratnawalli –
What if a part of Sri Lanka in the centuries before Christ had been named after a personage, a creature or a deity from the Celtic myth pool? We’d know that a people who were immersed in the Celtic myth pool were responsible for the naming. At the very least we’d deduce heavy, long-term and thoroughgoing involvement of Celts in Sri Lanka. That was an analogy. Here is the reality: In the last centuries before Christ, the part of Sri Lanka known today as the Jaffna peninsula was called Naga-dipa[i], after a species of creatures from the Indo-Aryan myth pool.
First, some background. As everyone knows, during the first thousand years before Christ, Indo-Aryan languages as well as ideologies and lore that were sired and mothered by the speakers of these languages, and so couched in them were spreading in south Asia, over land and later by sea. When the Christian era was just a few centuries in the future, this cultural package had arrived in Sri Lanka. The package was also delivered throughout south India down to its southernmost tip. It’s easier if you liken this to the spread of radiation from powerful radioactive nodes located in north India. If you took a metaphoric Geiger counter able to measure metaphoric radiation to the area corresponding to Tamil Nadu in the centuries immediately preceding Christ, it would beep. Loudly.
In order to beef up that beep with some percentages, let’s survey the corpus of pottery and cave inscriptions of Tamil Nadu during the period commencing two centuries before Christ and concluding one century after Him. Out of a total collection of 469 Tamil Brahmi inscribed pot-sherds, the writing on which typically and invariably spells out personal names, 270 legible inscriptions were surveyed by Y. Subbarayalu. Nearly fifty percent out of the total were Prakrit names. Of these, some appear raw in the pure Prakrit form, some in partly Tamilized form (visakaṉ) and/or hybridized with Sinhalese Prakrit (eg: buta-śa, camuta-ha) and North Indian Prakrit (yakhamitra-sa) genitive suffixes while a smaller percentage appear “fully Tamilized avoiding non-Tamil letters, like Kuviraṉ (from Kubira or Kubera)”:-(Subbarayalu, “Early Historic Tamil Nadu”; 2009, pp.95-122[ii])
Surveying the cave inscriptions of Tamil Nadu representing his early Tamil-Brahmi phase, stretching from the early 2nd century BC to the end of the 1st century CE, I. Mahadevan found that nearly 30% of the stems of all the words in them were Middle Indo Aryan (Prakrit). “For arriving at this figure, he has taken into account all the lexical items, including place names, verbs and grammatical particles”. Surveying “only the proper names of persons found in these cave inscriptions excluding other lexical items” Y. Subbarayalu found that, just like in the pottery names, nearly 50% of them were Prakrit names, either in pure form or in the Tamilized form.-(ibid)
Getting back to our radiation metaphor, Tamil Nadu received its Indo-Aryan radiation largely from North India as regards to ideologies, ideals and lore couched in Old Indo-Aryan (Sanskrit). “The expansion of Vedic culture (the Ārya culture as its propagators and contemporaries would have called it. Parenthesis mine), or the process of Sanskritization as some scholars prefer to call it, to the areas south of the Vindhya mountain started in the later Vedic period from circa 1000 BC. It was a gradual process spread over several centuries. Bold and adventurous Brahmin seers and sages, priests, kings, soldiers, traders, artisans and others were involved in this process.”- (V. Sivasamy[iii], “Early Historic Tamil Nadu”, p157)
But as we saw above, TN received a more mass-market IA radiation with the arrival of Middle Indo-Aryan languages flanked by ideologies and lore expressed in them. Tamil Nadu absorbed this from two sources; Sri Lanka and North India. The pot-sherd and cave inscriptions of Tamil-Nadu carry the imprint of these two sources;
“Though the Prakrit influence from Sri Lanka is clearly perceptible, Sri Lanka is not the only source. In fact, the impact of North Indian Prakrits is found more influential than that of Sri Lankan one. That is understood from the larger use of the dental “s” (standing for all the three sibilants) as in the case of all north Indian Prakrits. Sri Lankan Prakrit used the palatal “ś” instead, avoiding “s” altogether, in the earlier stage, i.e., during the second century BCE…Mahadevan (1996A, 2003:p. 109) suggested that the non-doubling of consonants and also the absence of the ligaturing of consonants in the Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions may be due to the influence of Sri Lankan Prakrit. This feature, however, cannot be attributed to the Sri Lankan Prakrit alone, as it is also noticed in North Indian Prakrits, for instance, in the case of the pottery inscriptions of Kasrawad in Madhya Pradesh…The occurrence of a large number of Prakrit names, in their original form or in the adapted form, certainly vouch for a considerable presence of immigrant Prakrit-speaking people in the particular sites. The foregoing evidence suggests that some of the Prakrit speakers hailed from Sri Lanka while the majority of them came from the northern parts of India. ”- (Subbarayalu, op.cit., pp.104-105)
Pottery and cave inscriptions however, are not the only sign-posts announcing Indo-Aryan influence in the South. Much more fascinating than tracking Middle Indo-Aryan north to south on inscriptions is following the various creatures from the Indo-Aryan myth-pool southwards. Of all the creatures in this very fecund myth pool, none is as fun to follow south as the Naga.
With the extension of the Indo-Aryan cultural universe southwards, the Naga universe too expanded into the southern regions. The Northern Nagas together with their accessories and paraphernalia (such as gem studded seats sat on by the Lord Buddha) moved also into southern settings to enact their captivating plot themes, eventually entrancing the southern human populace too into following their northern brethren in doing “Naga things”. A conspicuous “Naga thing” the northern Indo-Aryan speakers did was to start the fad of adding “Naga” to personal names.
“ …we may call attention to the frequent occurrence of the word ‘Naga’ as the first member of personal names both in literature and in inscriptions. This alone would suffice to demonstrate the importance of the deified snakes in ancient India. Cf. the Index of personal names accompanying Professor Luders’ List of Brahmi Inscriptions. Ep Ind, vol x, pp. 193 f” – (‘Additional Notes’ re p23, in the final pages of Jean Philippe Vogel:1926[iv] –full text)
It would have been unnatural for the southernmost Indo-Aryan speakers, the Sinhalese not to follow this fad. Didn’t the deified Nagas play a lead role in their lore too? See what happened when Sangamitta tried to set sail for Lanka with the sacred Bodhi branch. No sooner had the ship touched the sea, the waves were stilled for a yojana all around, lotus flowers of five colours blossomed, manifold music instruments rang out and the Nagas tried to seize the branch through magic. Arhat Sangamitta drew on her supernatural powers, assumed the shape of a Garuda and frightened them into submission. When the terrified Nagas entreated her, she relented and gave up her precious charge to them just for a week. They took the branch into the Naga realm, bestowed on it the kingship of the Nagas, worshiped it with manifold offerings and brought it back to the ship. (ibid[v], p24). So narrates the Mahawamsa at length, presumably drawing on the earliest monastic oral tradition of Lanka in the centuries BC, when the monks were living in drip ledge caves donated by a people who inscribed their donation in MIA Sinhalese on the cave wall. Quite a number of these donors had the personal name “Naga”.
Only in Lanka, “Naga” was for the most part a single name not the first member of a compound as in North India. In inscription number 80, Inscriptions of Ceylon, Vol.1[vi], “The cave of Deva, son of Nagaya[vii] the Goldsmith, [is given] to the Sangha of the four quarters, present and absent”. In no. 1172, Tissa who is an elder monk (tera) is the son of lay-devotee (upasaka) Naga[viii]. Monk Elders were named “Naga” too. No. 458 announces that it’s the cave named Indasala-guha of the tera Naga. In 451, we meet the cave “Sudassana of the tera Nagasena.” Naga of 101 is a titled bloke, “Barata Naga”. 128, 129 and 132, 387 and 718 give us the title Bata in front of the personal name Naga. In 260, 261, 262, 263, 264, 265, 266 we meet a very elite family (every son and even the mother has a title) who uses the name “Naga” a lot. Parumaka Mahareta who also goes by the names Reta and Revata is the son of Parumaka Naga. After marrying a woman titled Parumakalu, the daughter of a Parumaka Naguli, Reta has begotten two sons Naga and Kadali, both Parumakas. Kadali has a son named Parumaka Cudanaga. In 318 we meet a titled family a little less hung up on the name Naga. Parumaka Mala has innovatively named his son Namara, also a Parumaka. Namara’s son however is Parumaka Naga.
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[i] “Subsequent references to Nagadipa in the Mahavamsa and other Pali writings, coupled with certain archaeological and epigraphical discoveries, have conclusively established that Nagadipa of the Mahavamsa is the present Jaffna Peninsula.”-(p180, “The Arya Kingdom in North Ceylon”, S. Paranavitana, JRAS Ceylon- Vol. VII, Part 2- New Series, 1961–Full text)
[ii] “Visākī and Kuviraṉ, Historical Implications of Names in the Tamil-Brahmi Inscriptions”, Y Subbarayalu- in Early Historic Tamil Nadu, c 300 BCE-300 CE, Essays commemorating Prof. K. Kailasapathy on the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death, Ed. K. Indrapala, 2009
[iii] “Brāhmaṇas and Yāgas, Spread of Vedic Ideas”, p156-166, V. Sivasamy, Early Historic Tamil Nadu, 2009
[iv] 1972, 1926, English, Book, Illustrated edition: “Indian serpent-lore; or, The nāgas in Hindu legend and art”-(full text) by Vogel, J. Philippe (Jean Philippe), 1871-1951
[v] A word about Jean Philippe Vogel, former Professor of Sanskrit and Indian Archaeology in the University of Leyden, Holland and late Superintendent, Archaeological Survey of India. His work on the Naga lore remains unread as I suspect by almost all the living historians and archaeologists of present day dismally intellectually climated Sri Lanka. This has resulted and continues to result in public displays of incredible naiveté on Nagas. In contrast, S. Paranavitana acknowledged (in his obituary for Vogel); “The present writer owes an immense debt of gratitude to the late Professor Vogel and if he has made any contribution to Ceylon archaeology, it was in great measure due to his aid and the inspiration derived from him.” – (Full Obituary)
[vi] Archaeological Survey of Ceylon, Volume 1, Containing cave inscriptions from 3rd century B.C. to 1st century A.C. and other inscriptions in the early Brahmi script. By S. Paranavitana, 1970 (IC1)
[vii] This name Nagaya is a sandhi: Naga + aya. ‘Aya’ is an Middle Indo Aryan equivalent of Old Indo Aryan ārya. (p XXXVII, IC1). Princes used this particular sandhi when they had the personal name Naga to join their name and the title; aya. E.g. In inscription no. 736, prince Naga is called Nagaya. Apparently, there was no bar for goldsmiths to use this name too.
[viii] It is written as Naka, as sometimes Naga was written in our inscriptions.