Colombo Telegraph

Sketches From The South: The Rise & Fall Of Amarapura

By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

The history of the Buddhist clergy, in this country, has largely been a history of schisms, splits, and amalgamations. Over the centuries, certain points have been inferred with respect to this process. First and foremost among them, that the breakdown of Buddhist monastic orders in response to growing caste militancy was only a partial, and not complete, consequence of the political games played by the British. Insignificant though this may be, it is nevertheless important in that certain writers paint a rosy picture of caste-ism while forgetting that the rifts between different castes were exacerbated once the British realised it could harness them to its advantage. Caste-ism was, in other words, waiting to be harnessed by external forces.

Some historical antecedents

When the annexation of Kandy was complete, assurances were made by the Colonial Office that steps would be taken to preserve the privileges of the traditional elite, which obviously included the monastic orders (the Siyam Nikaya). Until then, the politics of the Kandyan Kingdom had followed a largely cyclical process, with shifting loyalties and shifts in the regime (particularly after the Nayakkars began their reign). But with the advent of the outsider, this was destined to be succeeded by a largely linear process, in which that outsider, the imperialist, managed to concentrate hitherto traditional privileges within his bureaucracy. The traditional elite, naturally anxious to preserve those privileges, sought to preserve them through their faith. It was in this context that the Siyam Nikaya was guaranteed the continuation of its practices, in part through the much vilified, controversial Kandyan Convention.

No less a person than the then Governor of Ceylon, Robert Brownrigg, visited and placated the nervous monks at Malwatte and Asgiriya with assurances that “the protection and security promised to their religion would never be wanting.” John D’Oyly, Chief Translator and later Baronet of Kandy, made similar assurances and entreaties to the kapuralas of the four devales in Kandy (Kataragama, Pattini, Vishnu, and Natha). The two promised to undertake three practices which had been the duty of the King: providing food to the temples from the Maha Gabadawa, holding the pageant of the Tooth Relic in Kandy, and maintaining the Dalada Maligawa.

Of the three, the first is the most interesting, since the adherence to and the abrogation of its practice is for me a good indicator of how the Colonial Office affirmed, and later derogated from, the practices of the traditional Kandyan elite. It took several decades for the British to abscond from taking part in the ceremonies of traditional society in India, and that was a consequence of the Mutiny, which took place in 1857. In other words, it took an entire Mutiny to turn the British away from Indian life and culture. In Sri Lanka, by contrast, only 17 years were needed for them to renege on their promises regarding that life and culture; by 1832, contrary to the provisions in the Convention, the Colonial Office had elected to do away with the provision of food to the monks, and instead replaced it with a scheme whereby an annual stipend of 310 pounds (or about 30,000 pounds, when adjusted for inflation) would be paid to the temples. This was an uneasy proposition from the start, and was doomed to stall.

It did stall 15 years later, in 1847, when after a campaign against it by the Legislative Council (which argued that to fund Buddhist monks would be to force a Christian legislature to support heathenism), it was shelved off in favour of a meagre land ownership scheme for the monks. As no proper arrangements were made for the management of these lands, however, some of them would pass into alien hands. This same process, of representations made to preserve traditional privileges giving way to their retraction, can be seen even in the way the British “took to” the pageant and the maintenance of the Maligawa. And yet, by no means did rebel monastic sects emerge purely because of the activities of the British. Long before Pilimathalawa’s and Eheliyapola’s defections, long before the Chieftains decided to side with the British to oust the King, those rebel sects were quickly coming up. Their emergence was conditioned by the regions they originated from. In the hill country, the dominant caste was Govigama; in the low country, the dominant castes were Salagama, Karawa, and Durawa. The Siyam Nikaya yielded to the pressures this soon necessitated, and years after its founding by Welivita Saranankara, it yielded to the dominant caste. Upasampada was restricted to this caste (which was not dominant in the low country, or along the coastal belt). This was true especially when considering how power was distributed in the bureaucracy, prior to the British annexation, between the different castes: while in Kandy the non-Govigama castes had their own headmen, the departments to which they were attached were overseen by Govigama chieftains.

The rise of Amarapura

These discrepancies, unaddressed for years and decades, had to spill over. They did spill over in 1799 with the founding of the Amarapura Nikaya, which had its biggest following in the South, among various groups, ranging from those who felt marginalised by the policies of the Siyam Nikaya to those who were tied to British interests and thus wanted to “affirm” breakaway factions (in the secular or non-secular realm) which were free from the control of the former Kandyan Kingdom. This was tied to the fact that, while certainly not free from the shackles of colonialism, the South was freer than the hill country and Colombo, and was thus more open to a revolt in the Buddhist order. (In fact open support was given to the revolt by local headmen, many of whom had repudiated Buddhism and professed Christianity to become part of the bureaucracy.) But while two upasampada ceremonies had been conducted, in 1772 (at the Thotagamuwa Viharaya in Thelwatte) and in 1798 (at Tangalle), these were not endorsed by the conservative monastic elite (which in 1764 conspired to restrict ordination to Govigama; Sitinamaluwe Dhammajoti was the last non-Govigama monk to receive his upasampada at the hands of the Siyam Nikaya).

In 1799, therefore, Ambagahapitiya Nanavimala, a Salagama monk who resided in Welitara (a Salagama stronghold), went to Burma with a contingent of five samaneras and three lay devotees. They stopped at Amarapura, where they were duly ordained in 1800, and from where they returned in 1803 to inaugurate the new sect at Balapitiya (another Salagama stronghold, in many ways more so than Welitara). This was the Amarapura Nikaya, and their trek to Burma was financed by a leading (Salagama) entrepreneur from the region, Dines de Zoysa Jayatilaka Sirivardana, most likely an ancestor of Cyril de Zoysa, who would lead the Buddhist revival in the 20th century.

But for this sect to get formal recognition, it needed a stamp of approval from the British in the Maritime Provinces. This could only come about through the efforts of an ally monk, and that monk, also from the Salagama caste, was Kapugama Dhammakhanda. He enjoyed the patronage of the chief headman of his village, Adrian de Abrew, who like de Zoysa was an ancestor of a prominent Buddhist lay revivalist (Peter de Abrew, the founder of Museaus College). Kapugama Thera organised an expedition to Burma on his own account, and in 1807, with the patronage of de Abrew, he set off, to return two years later. Curiously enough, however, while the objective of the expedition was to gain recognition for the new Nikaya, the Certificate of Confirmation given to him by the monks at Burma did not make reference to the sect; that would come about in 1825 (a decade after the annexation of Kandy) with an official Act of Appointment given to Nanavimala Thera. (The British had commenced the practice of issuing written Acts of Appointment a few years earlier.) The reason why Kapugama himself was not handed the Act was simple: in 1816, he rejected Buddhism and became a Christian. But this act of departure, symbolic though it was, did not prevent the rise of ideological clashes within the Amarapura Nikaya itself.

It is a mistake to suggest that the British did away with feudal structures in the societies they colonised. Far from it. In societies advancing towards capitalism, as Marx correctly surmised, such archaic structures would give way to an industrial class, which is why and how the Tories yielded to the Whigs. Such a transformation did not come about in the colonies. The reason is obvious. The British did not want to be the catalyst for the sort of change that would empower a nationalist bourgeoisie in the countries they had conquered. The one link with the past that those countries had which would hold back such a transformation was those feudal structures. In India, Africa, and of course Sri Lanka, the conqueror resorted to them, and in resorting to them, he found the perfect way of keeping us locked in the past. Those who believe that feudalism is retrogressive would be surprised to learn that the British didn’t really combat it. Instead, they encouraged it. That was their game, after all. Divide and rule.

The significance of Amarapura

Historians and sociologists tend to view colonial Sri Lankan society in terms of a series of encounters between Govigama and Karawa, or between the landowning aristocracy and the capitalist bourgeoisie. As a result, the evolution of the Salagama as a distinct caste has been neglected in scholarship, with the result being that even such seminal works as Kumari Jayawardana’s Nobodies to Somebodies fail to account for the rise in Salagama consciousness and standing during the Dutch occupation. This is a rather curious omission, and reasons for it are hard to find. Regardless of those reasons though, I believe that such an omission is unpardonable when assessing the divisions in the Buddhist order during the early years and decades of British rule.

What was so significant about the Amarapura Nikaya, given this? Simply, that it was the first sect to emerge from an entrepreneurial class. Those who view colonial history in terms of a rift between Govigama and Karawa fail to consider the fact that the Salagamas forged ahead as a “business class” before the Karawas prospered through arrack rents. What this necessitated was a shift in the way the new Buddhist order, built on the patronage of powerful Salagama headmen and entrepreneurs, operated. 

Given its unique autonomy, it had virtual carte blanche to move forward with a reformist agenda. In other words, as Professor Kitsiri Malalgoda has argued in his book Buddhism in Sinhalese Society, “it successfully questioned for the first time the right of secular authorities to regulate the affairs of the order.” It was as reformist as it was sectarian, and like the Protestant Reformation in Europe, it coincided with changes in the economic landscape: the decline of the traditional elite (soon to morph into a landowning class, courtesy of the British), and the rise of a new elite (though the Salagamas had more or less consolidated economic power before British rule).

Where it differed from the reformist and sectarian movements in Christian Europe, however, was that it was not inaugurated with the objective of establishing a religion and priesthood “for all”, i.e. for the peasantry. It was defined in relation to and against the Establishment, but this did not mean that it flirted with radicalism the way that, for instance, Thomas Müntzer did when he rebelled against both the Catholic Church and Martin Luther. In fact, as Regi Siriwardena argued in a reply to Kumari Jayawardana once, it is difficult to ascertain whether the Buddhist priesthood in Sri Lanka ever produced the equivalent of a Müntzer or for that matter Martin Luther. Even with the setting up of the Amarapura Nikaya, its primary objective was to reform the order in line with the historical antecedents of Buddhism, as reflected (or refracted) through its tenets. “Where are the radical Buddhists?” Siriwardena once asked. It is a question which has invited both censure and praise, and has divided scholars over the decades.

From one standpoint, it has been argued that Buddhism here was infected with the remnants of feudal society. This school of thought discounts the Buddhist revival of the 19th century on the basis that it did not do away with the separation between the clergy and the laity. Personally though, I do not think the contention that Buddhist radicalism as understood by Western scholars did not come about totally is reason enough to conclude that the Buddhist order sought to preserve feudal structures at whatever cost. This is where we must credit the Amarapura Nikaya, because for the first time in the history of the Buddhist order, it brought forth (as Professor Malalgoda observes) “closer cooperation between the monks and their devotees.” This had less to do with an overt objective by those monks to erase caste distinctions than with the fact of their own meagre historical condition: given that it had no royal patronage, the Amarapura Nikaya was compelled to rely on the lay devotee. As an anthropologist once wrote, moreover, this had an impact on the way even the Govigamas saw it: “I know many villagers of the Govigama caste who prefer to give alms to monks of the Amarapura or Ramanya Nikaya rather than those of the Siyam Nikaya because they believe that the former are less worldly.” Here, then, was a Buddhism that promised people salvation in this present birth, as opposed to the more conservative Buddhism which gained prominence among urban followers in the latter part of the 19th century.

Salvation, in other words, would come about through this birth and this world, not one’s next birth. It encouraged affirmative action and dissension, and encouraged a new culture of revivalism. It is here that we see the seeds sown later by Anagarika Dharmapala, with a monastic order that, while certainly not radical like its Western counterparts, sought to combat the other-worldliness the conservative sects had encouraged in their devotees. What this resulted in was a sharp awareness of the need to oppose external forces which harmed the faith, and the Amarapura Nikaya took this point to heart so much that one Christian missionary contended that it was “at present the most prominent in controversy, street preaching, and all that is aggressive.”

After the annexation of Kandy in 1815, the Nikaya gradually found its way to the Central Province, tapping into not just non-Govigama monks and laymen but even Govigama monks who felt disgruntled with the rigidity of their overseers. Among the latter group from the Siyam Nikaya who severed their ties with their ecclesiastical superiors were Mayilave Gunaratne Thera and Rambukwelle Sobita Thera, who had belonged to the Huduhumpola temple (Malalgoda, page 139). But arguably the most vociferous opponent of the Nikaya from within the fraternity was Yatanvela Sunanda Thera, who belonged to the Asgiriya Chapter (the most powerful in the Nikaya) and who had got re-ordained by the Amarapura monks at Balapitiya in 1834. The Act of Appointment granted by the Colonial Office in 1825 would have had an impact here.

The splintering of Amarapura

But from the beginning, what was seen as an all-embracive ethos and philosophy within the Amarapura Nikaya became a definitive factor in the segmentation of that sect in later decades. There were no less than five groups of monks which went to Burma to be ordained in Nikaya. Moreover, the founders of Amarapura belonged to no less than three different, distinct castes: in order of importance, Salagama, Karawa, and Durawa. They were brought together by their opposition to the Govigama elite, but as the years progressed, the underlying tensions between them erupted. What worsened these tensions, interestingly enough, was the absence of a patron under whom some semblance of unity could be maintained, and the fact that the most powerful caste in the fraternity, Salagama, was divided into four sub-castes, each with its own ideological affiliations and share of privileges. By the time of British rule, these four sub-castes became two, but even with this, the differences grew rapidly.

Consider that merely 10 months after Kapugama Dhammakhanda Thera obtained a Certificate of Confirmation from the Colonial Office, monks from the Karawa and Durawa castes held a meeting at Kottegoda, where they (s)elected a representative for their caste: Ambalangoda Wilegoda Punnasara Thera. They even went as far as to petition the government for a separate Certificate, and when they failed, they then persistently sent petitions for an Act of Appointment. In 1825, almost 10 years after Dhammakhanda Thera had converted to Christianity, the government appointed a Chief Monk over the Salagamas, which infuriated the Karawa and Durawa monks.

As Professor Malalgoda has noted, the latter group tended to view the Salagamas as inferior to themselves, which made them reluctant to organise a common front against the Govigama elite. One wonders as to why the British, having appointed a Salagama representative, did not appoint representatives for the Karawas and Durawas. One can only conclude that this was symptomatic of their ambivalent attitude towards caste in the country: while they were able to tap into caste rifts to perpetuate British rule, they were rather unwilling to make official declarations which would divide society further through those rifts. On the other hand, by appointing a Salagama representative without paying heed to the other castes, they ended up widening those rifts even more.

Of the two other castes, it was the Karawas who were most vociferous in their demand for ecclesiastical autonomy. This had to do with the fact that they were also the largest of those castes and also the most powerful, and that they were close to the Salagama monks, with their headquarters in Dodanduwa. Surprisingly, while they opposed the Salagama sect, they colluded with them over important ecclesiastical functions. The leader and founder of the Karawa sect, Kataluve Gunaratne, had moreover obtained his ordination, not at Amarapura, but at Ramanya. Their link with this Burmese city would later lead to them using the designation Kalyanivamsa (after their leader), when attempts at dividing the Amarapura Nikaya further on the basis of caste affiliations continued to fail and after an alternative sect, the Ramanya Nikaya, made their use of the Ramanya label obsolete. The Kalyanivamsa, over time, gradually found their way to Kalutara and Panadura, and even the Christianised Moratuwa, all of which would become the bastions of the Karawa caste. However, long before any of this unfolded, the Amarapura Nikaya had already splintered, thanks to a fatal leadership vacuum.

This process of splintering began when the Salagama monks along the coastal belt affiliated themselves to either of the two lines of succession which had been initiated by the two founders of the Amarapura Nikaya: that of Ambagahapitiya Nanavimala, based in Welitara, and that of Kapugama Dhammakhanda, based in Dadella. It is an irony of fate that while Dhammakhanda had gone with a contingent of monks to Burma intending to supplement, or aid, the efforts of Nanavimala in commencing an alternative monastic order, this merely led to the segmentation of that order. Initially, however, the laymen were opposed to this segmentation. They wanted the two lines to converge, which they apparently managed to do after Dhammakhanda converted to Christianity. Having convinced the Welitara monks to unite with the Dadella monks, they were able to reinforce the unity they brought about by appointing Nanavimala Thera as the leader of both the Salagama groups. When Nanavimala passed away in 1834 (the year that Yatanwela Sunanda Thera rebelled against his Asgiriya roots and entered the new Nikaya), the leadership passed over to Bopagoda Sumana Thera.

Here we must reflect on and consider the fact that the Salagamas of the South were not merely opposed to the Karawas and the Durawas; they were also opposed to each other on the basis of the sub-castes which had been formed within their group. It was during Sumana Thera’s term that these rifts between the sub-castes widened so much that the Salagama Amarapura Nikaya split. This began when the Thera’s chief pupil, Lankagoda Dheerananda, who belonged to a higher sub-caste, founded an autonomous group within the Nikaya. It then worsened when a controversial issue that had not been resolved with the unification of the two Salagama camps made itself felt again.

This was the controversy over the “sima”, which in Buddhist terminology refers to a boundary drawn up to demarcate a sacred area within a temple, so as to separate the sacred world (“lokoththara”) from the profane (“lawkika”). Without delving too much into the niceties of this term, it is enough for us to know that when the two Salagama camps were founded, the simas were based on the respective chief temples, in Welitara and Dadella. The two simas had to give way to one when the two camps converged, but for a long, long time, controversy raged over where it should be based. The Welitara monks, led by Beratuduve Dhammadhara Thera, were adamant that it be based in Balapitiya, near the Madu Ganga. The issue remained unresolved (in fact no upasampada ceremony was conducted in Balapitiya thanks to this dilemma), but eventually, Bopagoda Sumana, despite his affiliation to the Dadella branch (which had its sima at the Gin Ganga), agreed to enlarge the sima at the Madu, in 1845. It was this decision which was challenged by Lankagoda Thera, the chief pupil, six years later.

Lankagoda Thera’s justification for his stance was that the sima at Balapitiya was in effect defiled by a bridge built within the structure, which intruded on the sacred area. This, apparently, made the demarcation of the sacred boundaries a confusing affair. The debate that it compelled led to what historians refer to as the “Simamskara Vadaya”, which was less a debate (as the term “vadaya” suggests) than a controversy. 

The embittered teacher, Bopagoda Sumana, who had been appointed to unify those twin camps before, found himself in a precarious position. Given that the controversy had brought discomfort to Salagama monks in general, he was, naturally, in no mood to add to it even further. For this reason, Sumana Thera decided to throw his weight behind the group which had the larger following: the Welitara camp, led by the pupil of Beratuduve Dhammadhara, Kahave Nananda Thera. A further series of debates resulted, after which the Sangaraja of Burma was consulted. The Sangaraja’s decision, however, made matters worse: he stood by the decision of the (minority) Dadella camp, and even after a delegation from the Welitara camp was sent in 1858 to consult him and try to persuade him into looking at the matter from their side, the Sangaraja refused to be swayed. He was, however, worried over the split it had caused in the order, and to this end sent a missive to Bopagoda Sumana explaining his concerns.

Having written a further letter to a powerful, non-partisan Amarapura representative, Bulatgama Sumana Thera, he tried to bring the two camps together. Upon Bulatgama Sumana Thera’s request, some form of unity and agreement was reached, but neither side was willing to let go of its stance on the controversy of the sima, which continued even after the passing away of the respective leaders of the camps: Bopagoda Sumana in 1864, and Lankagoda Dheerananda in 1871. The conflict had begun in 1851. It was never to be fully resolved. In later years, the students of both these leaders organised their own splinter groups: the Saddhammavamsa fraternity, after Lankagoda Thera, and the larger Mulavamsa fraternity, after Bopagoda Sumana. What had been begun to rebel against the caste-ism of the leading monastic fraternity, in other words, gradually had given way to the caste-ist pressures which had given birth to it in the first place.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at

Back to Home page