Sri Lanka-Cambodia Relations with Special Reference to the Period 14th
- 20th Centuries
by Dr. Hema Goonatilake
Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka, New Series, Volume XLVIII,
Special Number Issued on July 21, 2003 to commemorate the 250th Anniversary
of Upasampada in Sri Lanka
The emergence of Theravada Buddhism in Cambodia is conventionally traced back
to the 13th century A.C. However, there is emerging epigraphical and sculptural
evidence, that Buddhism of both the Mahavihara and Abhayagiri of Sri Lanka had
made a strong early impact on the development of Theravada Buddhism in South
East Asia when a good part of this region was dominated from about the 5th-6th
century A.C. by the Mon Khmer culture, and later became part of the Khmer empire.
The movement of Buddhist monks and teachers from Sri Lanka to the region was
facilitated by advances in navigation technology that witnessed a quantum leap
during the period of the fourth-fifth centuries. This helped the spread of the
Pali language, the lingua franca of Theravada through
Pali texts written in Sri Lanka
Cambodian monk translates Sri Lankan Pali text into Chinese
From the first to the sixth century, Funan, the earliest known kingdom in
Cambodia with Oc Eo (in present day Vietnam), as the central port, was a trading
power, and known as the most powerful kingdom in mainland Southeast Asia. The
capital city of Funan was Phnom Ksach Sa in the province of present day Prey
Veng in Cambodia. According to a local legend, the kingdom was founded by an
Indian Brahmin named Kaundinya (Chinese form: Hun-t'ien) after subduing the
queen of Funan, Soma (Chinese form: Liu-ye), a legend paralleling our Vijaya-Kuveni
During the fifth and sixth centuries, Funan was an important centre of Buddhist
learning (P. Pelliot, “Le Fou-nan”, BEFEO, vol. III,1903, Briggs
1951, p. 12). According to the Chinese History of Southern Ts’i (479-501),
the King of Funan, Kaundiya Jayavarman (478-514) sent in 484, an Indian Buddhist
monk, Nagasena, a resident of Funan as ambassador to the Court of the Chinese
Emperor Wu-ti taking ivory stupas with him. According to another Chinese source,
History of Leang (502-556), the same king sent another envoy to China in 503
with gifts including a coral statue of the Buddha (Hazra, 1981, p. 73). These
illustrate the importance of Funan as a centre of Buddhism then.
One of the earliest references to Buddhist relations between Cambodia [Funan]
and Sri Lanka goes back to 505 A.C. The Vimuttimagga, (a manual of practical
instructions on sila, samadhi and panna) a Pali text of the Abhayagiri school
of Sri Lanka, composed by Upatissa in the 2nd century
A.C., exists today in the Chinese language. At the invitation of the Chinese
emperor, the Funanese monks Mandrasena and Sanghabhara (or Sanghapala) had taken
many Theravada and Mahayana texts to China. It was the latter who translated
the Vimuttimagga into Chinese in 505 A.C. (Demieville et al 1978). The Pali
language and the Abhayagiri tradition of Theravada, it can be concluded, was
known in Cambodia during this time. It may be noted here that it was several
decades before this time that the Chinese Buddhist monk Fa-Hsien stayed at the
Abhayagiri Vihara, and went back to China with a large number of Buddhist texts
written in Sri Lanka.
Further evidence for the presence of Pali Language in CambodiaThere is other
evidence for an early Pali presence. A statue of the Buddha with an inscription
with the formula in the Pali language “Ye dhamma...” was found near
Toul Preah in the province of Prey Veng in Southern Cambodia (IC, Vol. I, p.
297). The whole inscription is in Pali with only the word hetuprabhava in Sanskrit.
On the basis of the script, Bhattacharya has dated this inscription to the 7th
century. The presence of the Pali language in the 7th century in the Southern
part of Cambodia indicates that Theravada Buddhism existed there at the time,
at least in some pockets.
Evidence of an early Pali presence throughout South-east Asia comes from the
very north of the South-east Asian region. Two gold plates with the same formula
were found in Hmawza in Myanmar, also dated to the same period of 6th/7th centuries
(Hall, 1981). The same formula was found at the Katuseya monastery at Mihintale
containing the Pali form "Ye dhamma …” written in the 9th century
Sinhala characters on a thin gold scroll. The verse is followed by a passage
in corrupt Sanskrit (Goonatilake, 1974, p. 53).
Cambodia-Sri Lanka marriage and trade alliances
The Sri Lanka chronicle, Culavamsa records that Cambodia and Sri Lanka had
close political and cultural contacts in the 12th century. This was a time when
there was trade rivalry between Burma and Cambodia. The Burmese king suspecting
the Sri Lankan envoys of consolidating contacts with the king of Cambodia, disrupted
these friendly contacts. The Burmese king intercepted a letter written by the
Sri Lankan King Parakramabahu I (1110-1153 A.C.) addressed to him in the hands
of Sri Lanka envoys, and seized them alleging that they were envoys sent to
Cambodia (Cv, LXXVI, 21, 22).
The Sri Lankan envoys were punished by tying pestles to their feet, and forcing
them to water plants - a punishment that exist even today in Burma. On a later
occasion, the Burmese captured a Sinhalese princess sent to Cambodia by the
Sri Lankan king (Cv, LXXVI, 35 See also Sirisena 1978, pp. 22). Probably the
king of Sri Lanka was responding to a request made by the Cambodian king Dharanindravarman
II (who was a Buddhist) by sending a princess as a bride to his son Jayavaraman
VII. Cambodia and Sri Lanka apparently attempted to consolidate their friendship
by a marriage alliance as well.
Luce (1969) has argued that the rulers of South-east Asian countries, especially
the Cambodian and Burmese kings were eager to have consorts from Sri Lanka,
probably because the people of these countries regarded Sri Lanka as the Holy
Land of Buddhism. According to the Glass Palace Chronicle of the Kings of Burma
( p. 114), the Burmese king Alaungsitthu (1112-1167) visited Sri Lanka, married
the Sri Lanka king’s daughter, and returned to Burma with an image of
Maha Kassapa Thera.
During this time, Sri Lankan envoys and merchants travelled to the Isthmus
by sea, and by land to Cambodia and China through Burma. Burma controlled these
land routes leading to China. Chinese sources reveal that Cambodia was actively
engaged in trade with the Chinese Empire. It is possible that the king of Sri
Lanka had sent envoys to Cambodia with the intention of participating in this
trade (Sirisena, 1978, p.66).
When, as described above, the king of Burma captured Sri Lankan envoys, he
also confiscated their elephants, money as well as their ships. Further, he
immediately stopped selling elephants to foreign countries and increased their
prices. Sri Lanka at the time, was importing and exporting elephants.
From the 6th century, Sri Lanka was a large emporium for foreign merchants and
therefore these Burmese elephants may have been for re-exportation to the West.
The 12th century Nainativu inscription of Parakramabahu I mentions that Sri
Lanka was engaged in trading elephants and horses (Indrapala, 1963, p. 70).
In retaliation to the Burmese King's action, a raid on some of the ports of
Burma was carried out by King Parakramabahu. A fleet of ships was equipped with
the necessary arms and provisions together with physicians, nurses, and medicines.
Only five ships, however, finally arrived at the port of Kusumi (present day
Bassein) under the command of Nagaragiri Kitti. They defeated the Burmese army
and destroyed many villages. The attack on the port of Kusumi is confirmed by
the contemporary inscription of Devanagala written in Sinhalese (EZ, Vol III,
No 34, pp. 312). In response, Burma lifted the ban on elephant trade. Sri Lankan
monks now intervened between the two Buddhist countries, Sri Lanka and Burma,
and their friendship was resumed (Cv, LXXVI, 10-75).
Cambodian prince studies in Sri Lanka
After Parakramabahu I’s purification of the Sangha, Sri Lanka once again
became an important international center of Buddhism, in fact, the most important
one for Theravada. The Burmese Glass Palace Chronicle as well as the Kalyani
Inscriptions in Burma (named after the Kalyani river in Sri Lanka on which higher
ordination was performed) give accounts of how Uttarajeeva and his disciples
visited Sri Lanka during 1171-1172 A.C.
During this visit, the Sangha from Sri Lanka and from Burma jointly performed
the higher ordination (upasampada) on Chappata, the only novice (samanera) in
the Burmese group. The group returned to Burma. But Chappata stayed back in
Sri Lanka for 10 years, and studied the Tripitaka and commentaries under Sinhalese
monks. Chappata returned to Burma with four other monks who were well versed
in Tripitaka. Of the four monks, Sivali was a native of Tambralipti, Ananda,
a South Indian from Kanchipura, Rahula, a Sinhalese monk, and Tamalinda, a son
of the king of Cambodia.
These monks including Tamalinda returned to Burma, and formed a Sinhala sect.
George Coedes (1968, p. 178) identified Tamalinda as the son of Jayavaraman
VII (1181-1219). Jayavarman VII was a Mahayana Buddhist who identified himself
with the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara as reflected in his religious monuments
such as the Bayon. It is not clear whether Tamalinda went to Sri Lanka with
Chappata and the group, or whether he was already in Sri Lanka when Chappata
arrived. Jayavaraman VII's chief priest (purohita) at his court was a Brahmin
scholar from Burma. It is likely that Burma being a center of Buddhism in the
region during this time, Burmese Buddhist monks visited Cambodia and Tamalinda
learnt about Sri Lanka from these monks.
Sri Lankan Buddhism came to Cambodia in the 12th century
Michael Wright, in a recent paper (Conference Proceedings, 2001) has put together
a few items of architectural evidence (supported by some circumstantial written
evidence) to show that the Sinhala form of Buddhism, reformed by King Parakramabahu
I, and the Lankavamsa ordination may have arrived at Angkor during the reign
of Jayavarman VII. This he says, was probably via Nakhon Sri Thammarat in the
southern part of modern Thailand, and probably found a foothold at Jayavarman
VII’s court. Wright also suggests that from Angkor, the Lankavamsa spread
north and west into what is now Thailand and Laos, carrying with it also Angkor
prestige, sacred script and the cult of divine kingship. As the main evidence
for this, he cites that the Pali language was consistently written in Khmer
script in the region for a long period of time. If Buddhism arrived in Thailand
first, he has argued then Pali would have been written either in Sinhala or
Siamese script. He has also pointed out that the Ratanabimba Vamsa (“History
of the Emerald Buddha”) claims that the Emerald Buddha image, the Thai
national palladium came from Lanka, first to Angkor and only later travelled
to Thailand and Laos.
As for architectural evidence, Wright has pointed out that the stone stupa
in the central tower of the vast temple Prasat Phra Khan was built in Sri Lankan
style by Jayavarman VII (1181-1215) in honour of his dead father. This stupa
is reminiscent of the then contemporary stupa style in Sri Lanka, as exemplified
by the Kiri Vehera of Polonnaruwa. Wright further states that this stupa has
been explained away by others as "a later addition" without any evidence
what so ever. Although Jayavarman VII was certainly a Mahayana Buddhist, he
would have been aware of Sri Lankan stupa architecture. Tamalinda who was ordained
in Sri Lanka was probably his son, and thought that a Sinhala style stupa was
a suitable monument for his father. The second item of architectural evidence
Wright has presented is the presence of a statue facing Potgul Vihara (12th
century) at Polonnaruwa, an elderly man with a slight paunch, without royal
adornment who he says, could be Jayavarman VII in old age. He points out that
it is widely accepted that there are a number of sculptured portraits of Jayavarman
VII, although royal portraiture is not well attested to in Asia. He has further
stated that usually kings keep their eyes open, and that Jayavarman VII (1181
- 1210), a wel1-built young man with slight paunch, is unique in having himself
portrayed without crown or jeweled ornaments with eyes closed in the ecstasy
of meditation. Only one similar figure outside Cambodia has been found, according
to Wright, and it is this anonymous statue of this elderly man at Potgul Vihara,
which is also similarly unique in Sri Lankan art, closing his eyes to the world.
It should be recalled here that Sri Lankan historians who are equally at a loss
to definitely identify this image have variously identified it as that of King
Parakramabahu or of the rishi Pulasti.
A prince from the Khmer empire becomes king of Sri Lanka
King Kirti Sri Nissankamalla (1187-1196A.C.) of Sri Lanka was a successor
and a nephew of Parakramabahu I. He has been recently identified by Mendis Rohanadeera
as a prince from Singburi near Lopburi of the Dvaravati kingdom (present day
Thailand), which during the 12th century, formed part of the Khmer empire. Rohanadeera
also argued that the princess sent to by King Parakramabahu was a bride for
Nissankamalla while he was still in Singburi (Rohanadeera 1998, pp. 38).
One of the inscriptions of Nissankamalla (Slab Inscription of Kirti Nissankamalla,
EZ, No. 13, pp. 17) mentions “Kambojavasala” (gateway to a Cambodian
street) in Polonnaruwa, the Sri Lankan capital city after Anuradhapura. This
indicates that there was a special residential quarter for Cambodians in Polonnaruwa
which may have had Khmer monks, ambassadors or even soldiers. The inscription
also states that the king bestowed on Cambodians, gold, cloth and whatever they
wished, and commanded them not to catch birds. This inscription has been wrongly
interpreted by Sri Lankan historians implying that the Cambodian residents sold
birds to supplement their wages. The mention of catching of birds created further
confusion among the then British researchers as to why Cambodians known to be
Buddhists had the habit of killing birds, and therefore, they were interpreted
to be non-Buddhists (Burrows, J.C.B.R.A.S., Vol. X, p. 65). Only those who are
aware that the practice of eating birds has been common among the Cambodians
and other South-East Asians and continues even today, could understand that
king Nissankamalla may have been embarrassed with this un-Buddhist habit, and
made every effort to stop it.
Influence of Cambodian architecture on Sri Lanka
The influence of Sri Lankan art and architecture on Cambodia unlike in the
case of Thailand where Sri Lanka, made a significant early contribution (examples
Dvaravati, Nakhon Sri Thammarat, Chiang Mai, Sri Sacchanalai, Sukkothai and
Ayutthia), can be noticed only after the 15th century (see below), except for
the stupa during the time of Jayavarman VII, referred to above. It is interesting
to note, however, that there was a reverse flow in that Cambodia influenced
Sri Lanka in the field of architecture.
A pyramidal solid structure without doors or windows rising from a square at
ground level found in Polonnaruwa has been identified as an uncommon stupa.
This stupa known as Sat-mahal-prasada (a seven storied building) is a single
tower with seven storeys, with each storey becoming less in width and height
at each stage. In the centre of each of the four faces above the ground level,
there is a niche projecting from the wall where there is a standing figure of
stucco, which appears to be a deity. Two archeologists/historians Fergusson
and Bell compared this unique Sri Lanka structure to the Cambodian prasats (Fergusson,
Vol. I, 1910, p. 245) and Bell, ASCAR, 1903, p. 16). It has been, however, pointed
out that Cambodian prasats have shrine rooms on top of their pyramidal bases,
and a deep staircase in the middle of each face (Paranavitane, The Stupa in
Sri Lanka, p. 99). There are others who argued that the Sri Lanka structure
was more similar to the Wat Kukut (Coedes, BEFEO, Vol. XXV, p. 83), Si Liem
chedi in Chiang Mai (Frederic, Louis, 1965 p. 376), and Wat Phra Tat, in Haripunjaya
(Frederic, 1965, p. 41), all located in Northern Thailand.
Another unique architectural piece in Sri Lanka, the Potgul Vihara (built
during the reign of Parakramabahu I (1110-1153) has also been considered to
be influenced by Cambodia (Bell, pp 16). Bell pointed out that the Potgul Vihara
was unique in Sri Lanka for its highly symmetrical plan which closely resembled
the plan of the Eastern Mebon at Angkor (EZ, Vol. 11, pp 238) The Potgul Vihara
which was a monastery resembles in its plan the temple of Mebon (a Hindu temple)
and Pre Rup. The temple of Mebon erected in 952 A.D. is an example of the early
Khmer pyramid temple built on three tiers of artificial terraces. The base of
Mebon made of moulded sandstone supports five towers, the central tower being
further elevated on a foundation of about four feet high. This arrangement of
the towers is similar to that of the central shrine and four stupas on the top
tier of the Potgul Vihara (Briggs, p. 127). An identical plan was used for Pre
Rup, which was built about fifteen years afterwards (Parmentier, Angkor Guide,
p. 127). The similarities of these three buildings are that they have three
tiers, the arrangement and the symmetrical placing of the five monuments on
the uppermost tiers.
Differences between Mebon and Potgul Vihara have also been pointed out. For
example, Mebon has four main entrances while Potgul Vihara had only one, and
two subsidiary entrances to the lower two tiers. It has also been pointed out
that the more important features of the two monuments are similar, and therefore,
it is possible that the Potgulvehera was inspired by Cambodian architecture
and modified by the Sinhalese according to their needs (Sirisena p. 138). In
fact, Bell has suggested that the "Kambojavasala"(residential quarters
of the Cambodians) referred to above, was to the south of the city of Polonnaruwa,
and that the Potgul Vihara could have been built in commemoration of the arrival
of this Cambodian mission. Bell further said, "In the erection of the Potgul
Viharamonastery, Sri Lanka and Cambodian architecture joined firm hands, each
yielding somewhat to the idiosyncrasies of a people mostly foreign by blood,
but united in bonds of faith and close friendship" (Bell 1906, p. 17).
Another piece of architecture that can be identified as having been influenced
by Cambodia is the fortress of Yapahuva, the 14th century capital. The palace
can be accessed by three flights of steps separated by terraces. The first with
plain balustrades consisted of 24 steps and the second of 40 steps. The third
flight had 35 steps and leads to the porch of the palace. These steps are flanked
by heavy balustrades with intricately carved figures at the top of the balustrades.
The lower steps were flanked by pedestals, the first pedestal being supported
by huge lions, the next two by demons, and then a pair of gajasimhas having
heads of elephants and bodies of lions (UHC, Vol. I Pt 2, ASCAR, 1910-11, pp.
57). Although staircases with balustrades, moonstones and guard-stones were
common in Sri Lanka from the early centuries of the Christian era, the third
flight of steps is unique, and it has been compared to staircases which gives
access to certain prasats in Cambodia by Victor Gloubew (JCBRAS, Vol. XXXI,
p. 461). The Pre Rup and Bakheng temples (889-900) have axial staircases with
seated stone lions flanking each flight (Rawson, 1967, pp. 48, 54, 65). The
lions found in Yapahuva have strong similarities with this Khmer style.
Sri Lankan monks make rapid progress in Cambodia
Mahayana Buddhism was the predominant faith in the royal court of Dharanindravarman
II and Jayavaraman VII at the time when Sinhala interactions were intensifying.
Special mention should be made of the two wives of the latter, Jayarajadevi
and Indradevi who contributed greatly to popularise Buddhism among the people
by dramatizing Jataka stories, the first traces of Theravada features (Goonatilake,
2000). Cambodia for a long time was a country of religious pluralism, also practicing
Vaisnava worship, Shiva worship along with Mahayana Buddhism. However, in less
than eighty years after the reign of Jayavarman VII, Theravada had become the
predominant religion in Cambodia, as documented by the Chinese envoy Chou Ta-kuan
who lived one year in Cambodia between 1296-1297.
He was a member of a Chinese mission from the Mongol-Chinese ruler Timur Khan,
Kublai Khan’s grandson and successor, arrived in Cambodia in the reign
of Indravaraman III (1295 A.C) the son-in-law of Jayavaraman VII. Chou Ta-Kuan
gives an account of the social, political and religious conditions of Cambodia
during this period. He mentions that three distinct religious sects existed
in Cambodia namely, Pan-Ch’i (men of learning), Buddhist monks called
Ch’u Ku (Thai: Jao-gu) and the Taoists Pa-ssu-wei. (Chou Ta-Kuan, Trans,
From Chou Ta-Kuan’s description Ch’u Ku “shave their heads,
wear yellow garments, uncover the right shoulder, fasten a skirt of material
around the lower part of the body, go barefoot … take only one meal a
day, and recite numerous texts written on palm leaves …’. It is
clear that the Chu-kus were Theravada monks. That they were known during this
period by its Thai name might indicate the close relations between Thailand
By this time, the Sinhala Mahavihara sect had spread to Nakhon Sri Thammarat
in southern Thailand after close relations between Sri Lanka and Nakhon Sri
Thammarat were established during the time of. Parakramabahu II (1236-1270 A.
C.) Goonatilake 2001a). Sinhala monks also had influenced the construction of
the first Sinhala style stupas there (Noonsuk, 2001) We know from Thai inscriptions
that in 1292, King Rama Khamheng of Thailand founded an aranna (forest) monastery,
and offered it to the Mahathera from Nakhon Sri Thammarat, and the king, princes
and princesses observed precepts during the vassa season, and the kathina ceremony
lasted a month (Griswold & Prasert, 1971). The predominant form of Sinhala
Theravada that came to South-east Asia was of the forest kind from its then
headquarters in Dimbulagala (referred to as Udumbaragiri in Thai inscriptions).
Forest dwelling and Pali language institutionalized in Cambodia
It was about the same time that the forest dwelling form became popular in
Cambodia. By the reign of King Siri Sirindavamma or Indravaraman III (1296-1307),
kings not only donated kutis and villages to the monks, but also became monks
and also went to the forest to practice the dhamma. It appears that through
the Sri Lanka monks, Pali began to be increasingly used in Cambodia during the
same time. A Sanskrit inscription of Preah Khan found near a tank near Angkor
Thom in which several Pali words occur belongs to the reign of Indravaraman
III. It refers to the kuti, the dwelling house for monks, constructed by Samtec
brah Guru, the spiritual master of this king. The use of Pali in this inscription
shows the gradual institutionalization of Theravada Buddhism in Cambodia at
this time. Another inscription dated 1308 A.C. found in a temple named Wat Yok
Khpos, probably brought from Kok Svay Chek near Siem Reap in Central Cambodia
is written partly in Pali, Sanskrit and partly in Khmer. This gives the earliest
epigraphic reference to a Sri Lankan monk. This inscription records that King
Siri Sirindavamma after a year of his abdication from the throne, donated a
village named Sirindaratanagama to Mahathera Siri Sirindamoli. The Sanskrit
portion mentions that in the following year, an upasika by the order of the
king set up an image of the Buddha and made donations to it and that the king
assigned four villages to the maintenance of the monastery (Coedes, BEFEO, Vol.XXXVI,
p. 14-21; Coedes, 1968, p. 228; Briggs, 1949-1950, p. 251). After his abdication,
the king went to the forest monastery and became a Buddhist monk and devoted
himself to the study and practice of Theravada Buddhism. The title Mahathera,
referred to in the Cambodian inscription indicates the connection with Sinhala
Sinhala influence extended to literature
The Cambodian Mahavamsa or the extended version of the original Mahavamsa
of Sri Lanka, written in Khmer script is a unique document discovered in Cambodia
in the 19th century. The original Mahavamsa on Sinhala history written in the
5th century A.C. in Sri Lanka contains 2,915 verses while the Cambodian Mahavamsa
contains 5,772 verses by having more episodes and other historical material
taken from several Pali commentaries. The Cambodian Mahavamsa too deals with
only Sri Lankan history. It has been attributed, based on its language and style
by Ven. Saddhatissa (1980, p. 244) to a Khmer monk called Moggallana who lived
in Cambodia in the 9th or 10th century. The availability of a large number of
manuscripts of this text in Khmer script shows that the Mahavamsa was unusually
popular among Khmer Buddhists.
The technical literature of Cambodia also increasingly changed from Sanskrit
to Pali. The Bhesajjamanjusa, a medical work, written in Sri Lanka, dated to
1267 A.C., was perhaps the most widely used medical text in Cambodia up to recent
Sri Lankan monks introduce Buddhism in Laos
The Cambodia-Sri Lanka connection made an impact on other lands too. King Jayavarman
Paramesvara or Jayavarmadiparamesvara who succeeded King Siri Sirindavamma in
1327 is the last king mentioned in the great inscriptions of Angkor Wat (The
Cambodian chronicle begins with narration of kings from around 1350). By his
reign, Sri Lankan Buddhism had penetrated to the masses, completely replacing
Brahmanism and Mahayana Buddhism which had existed more as royal and personal
cults rather than religions for the broad masses (Coedes 1968). The resident
Sri Lankan monks by the 14th century had become the main advisors to Cambodian
kings. Jayavarmadiparamesvara’s reign also saw the abrupt end of Sanskrit
inscriptions giving way to Pali as the official language.
King Jayavarmadiparamesvara gave his daughter, Nang Keo-Keng-Ya in marriage
to Fa-Ngum of Laos who grew up in the royal palace and provided him with an
army to reclaim his country of birth (Viravong, 1964, pp. 36). Fa-Ngum now founded
the Kingdom of Laos in 1353 (Laos had earlier been part of the Khmer empire).
When the Cambodian princess found that the people in Laos believed in cults
of spirits, and performed animal sacrifice, she requested her father to send
a Buddhist mission. According to the Wat Keo inscription in Luang Prabang dated
1602 A.C., the king of Cambodia sent a team of Buddhist monks, headed by three
Sinhala monks. These three Sri Lankan monks were Mahadeva Lanka, the elder brother,
Mahadeva Lanka, the younger brother, and Maha Nandipanna. The chief of these
three monks and the Cambodian monk teacher of Fa-Ngum became the first two Sangharajas
of Laos. The team included 20 Buddhist monks and three other experts, Norasing,
Norasan Noraray and Noradet. A gold Buddha image gifted from Sri Lanka to Cambodia
called Prabang was brought along together with the Tripitaka. The first capital
city of Laos was named Luang
Prabhan after this image. This information is confirmed by the Wat Keo inscription
in Luang Prabang dated 1602 A.C., (Coedes, 1925; Goonatilake, 2002; Le Boulanger,
1931; Levy, Paul, 1940; Viravong, 1964). The Prabang image remains up to now,
the palladium of Laos and an important annual procession carrying the image
is held in its honour, reminiscent of the Dalada Perahera carrying the Sri Lanka
This 14th century Buddhist mission also planted a Bodhi tree, and later a pagoda
was constructed by the name of Vat Po Lanka (Lanka Bodhi Vihara). This is attested
by a stele near the Bodhi tree commemorating this event, as well as by the Wat
Keo inscription. In the third year, Wat Keo was built, and it was named after
the queen Keo. The queen placed an emerald on the breast of the Buddha image.
These factors taken together document the introduction into Laos, of Buddhism,
especially its Sinhala School that had by now become dominant in the region.
The introduction of Buddhism now served as an important factor for the moral
unity and consolidation of the Lao State (Goonatilake, 2001). Cambodian monks
receive upsampada in Sri Lanka. The period that followed Fa-Ngum’s founding
of Laos was one of political confusion and foreign invasions. The Thais and
Chams (in Southern Vietrnam) were engaged in war with the Khmers. Around the
same time Fa-Ngum founded the kingdom of Laos, Ayutthiya seized Angkor, in 1351,
again, in 1393, and finally in 1430. According to the Annals of Ayutthiya, Angkor
was seized in 1353. The Cambodian chronicles record that Angkor was sacked in
1351 and that the Cambodian king took refuge at the court of Laos until he was
eventually restored to the throne of Cambodia in 1355 (Briggs, p. 253, 257)
In spite of political turmoil, religious connections between Cambodia and Sri
Lanka continued through the 15th century A. C. The Jinakalamali refers to this
religious intercourse between Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Thailand that took place
during these years of political unrest. In 1423, eight monks from Cambodia headed
by Mahananasiddhi with twenty-five monks from Nabbisipura (Chiang Mai) and six
Burmese monks went to Sri Lanka. Afterwards six Mon monks from the Ramanna country
joined this group. Having studied the Tripitaka from the Mahatheras in Sri Lanka,
they received upasampada ordination in the presence of a chapter of twenty Sihala
Mahatheras under the chairmanship of Vanaratana Mahathera, the Sangharaja of
Sri Lanka at the time who was the head of the Keragala monastic institution
in 1424 A.C., on the river Kelani.
The ceremony was presided over by King Parakramabahu VI (1412-67) of Jayavardhanapura.
Sangharaja Vanaratana and Dhammacariya acted respectively as the kammavacacariya
and upajjhaya. The evidence from the Jinakalamali reveals that although there
were political differences between Cambodia and Thailand, this did not impede
religious connections between them. On their return, the Sinhala upasampada
was introduced (in some cases, re-introduced) to the Syama, Lav, Ayojjha and
Kamboja kingdoms (roughly covering present day Thai, Lao, Cambodian and Southern
The spread of this Sinhala sangha in Cambodia during this time is also attested
by a Khmer inscription dated by Coedes to the 15th century with several Pali
words found at Kompong Svay in Eastern Cambodia. It refers to a monk whose name
was “Lanka ... Sriyasa”. He is said to have taught the Dhamma to
royal princes. He did various activities to popularise the religion. The king
conferred on this great person a title “Svami Silaviyyadhika Boddhissambhara.
Sanghaparicara Mahapurusha”. These details are not sufficient to identify
him with a then known thera in Sri Lankan sources. But it is quite certain that
Lanka ... Sriyasa was a learned monk and played an important role in the religious
history of Cambodia during this period. The name Lanka strongly suggests that
he was from Sri Lanka.
Continued Sri Lankan presence in new capital
King Ponhea Yat, also known as Suryavarman finally abandoned Angkor because
it was too difficult to defend from the Thais, and moved to Basan (Srei Santhor)
in Campong Cham province. After one year there, Ponhea Yat established himself
in Phnom Penh in 1432. (Coedes, BEFEO, XIII) The Sri Lankan monks who had resided
in Angkor appeared to have also followed the king to Phnom Penh. It is possible
that the Cambodian monks who returned after receiving upasampada in Sri Lanka
also contributed to a new resurgence of Buddhist activities.
After King Poòhea Yat established Phnom Penh as the capital, he built
there five key wats (vihara). They were Wat Boddhaghosachar, Wat Unnalom, Wat
Koh, Wat Dhammalankara and Wat Lanka. All these wats were associated with Sri
Two monks from Sri Lanka, Assajita Maha Thera and Buddhaghosa Maha Thera had
lived for some time in Cambodia during this time, and when Ven. Buddhaghosa
passed away, the king built a temple in his honour, and this temple was named
Wat Boddhaghosachar. This is better known today as Wat Chen Dom Deik. When Ven.
Assajita passed away, the king built a stupa on the hill of Bodhilom enshrining
the eyebrows of Ven. Assajita to commemorate him. From that time, Bodhilom was
known as Wat Unnalom. Wat Unnalom today is the abode of the Cambodian Sangharaja.
At the time the five wats were built by the king, it appears that a Wat Pheam
Phlom already existed in Phnom Penh near the present Phsa Chah (old market).
This wat was well known to possess a golden Buddha statue brought from Sri Lanka.
No mention is made in the Cambodian chronicles as to who, and how this Buddha
image was brought to this wat. The chronicles only mention that King Poòhea
Yat carried this statue in a procession from Wat Pheam Phlom, and placed it
in Wat Unnalom and named it 'Preah Sokhalin' because the colour of the statue
was gold. This statue is not found any more at Wat Unnalom.
At the ancient site of Wat Koh, only the Bodhi tree can be seen today. However,
another pagoda by the same name exists today at a different place, not too far
from Wat Unnalom. Wat Dhammalankara, however, is no more (Som Chan Ven 2002).
Wat Lanka was one of the five key wats, and was then designated the principal
library in the country where the Tripitaka was kept. There were also buildings
to house the Sri Lankan monks who taught the Tripitaka, and hence the wat was
named after the Sri Lankan monks. The ancient site of Wat Lanka was where the
Cambodian Development Council stands today and there still remains a part of
the early stupa. Today’s Wat Lanka is at a different site. In the 1960s,
the present king Norodom Sihanouk’s mother Queen Kossamak had the new
Wat Lanka repaired, and renamed it as Wat Kossamak. Yet, people continued to
use the old name of Wat Lanka because of the strong Lanka connotation, and is
so known up to now.
Cambodia-Sri Lanka religious exchanges in the 19th century
Cambodia witnessed dramatic political changes from the18th century. The north-west
region was annexed to Thailand in 1795 with Battambang as its centre. In 1779,
the capital moved to Udong (35 km from Phnom Penh) and the rest of the kingdom
(except Battambang) faced until 1845, political instability and destruction
caused by royal conflicts and wars between Thailand and Vietnam to take control
of Udong. King Norodom (1860-1904), took the capital back to Phnom Penh and
in 1863, the French imposed a protectorate over Cambodia. Norodom’s mother
remained in Udong and had several viharas constructed in Udong in Sinhala style.
The Buddha’s ashes brought from Sri Lanka by Achar Ong were enshrined
in the main stupa of the Sangharaja's monastery in Wat Unnalom by King Norodom’s
mother. The organization of this ceremony is recorded to be the most memorable
merit making that King Norodom’s mother performed during her lifetime
(Eng, Ibid, p. 1171, Yang Sam, 1990, p. 115).
King Norodom had spent ten years in Bangkok before he ascended the throne,
and brought to Cambodia the newly formed elitist Thammayut Nikaya from Thailand.
The Cambodian monk Pan who belonged to the spiritual lineage of King Mongkut
of Thailand was made Sangharaja of the Thammayut Nikaya of Cambodia. Wat Batumvaddey
(Pathmavathi) which was constructed by the king adjacent to the royal palace
became the headquarters of the Thammayut Nikaya. As in Thailand, this sect served
the royalty and the elite families in Cambodia. The Mahanikaya, however, continued
to be the major nikaya which the vast majority of people followed.
In 1886, King Norodom in consultation with Sangharaja Pan of the Thammayut
Nikaya and Sangharaja Nil Tien of Mahanikaya, sent Preah Maha Utol Mer, Preah
Sivikajinadhamma Chap and Preah Bhikkhu Nanda as envoys to Sri Lanka along with
an elephant tusk, a white umbrella studded with diamonds and other precious
gifts to be offered to the Sacred Tooth. The Sangharaja Paramavamsa Dhammananda
Mahathera, and the Upalivamsa Sangharaja Sirimangalacarya of Sri Lanka gifted
in return, a relic of the Buddha and one of Ananda thera and two saplings of
the Sacred Mahabodhi tree. The Sinhala monk Preah Ratanasara, accompanied the
Cambodian envoys back to Phnom Penh in 1887. King Norodom received the relics
and the Bodhi trees with great honour and conducted celebrations for three days
and nights, and the king himself planted one Bodhi sapling in Wat Batumvaddey
Rajavararam in Phnom Penh (Eng Soth, 1985).
An inscription at the Bodhi tree at Wat Prachumsakor in Phnom Penh, about
one km. from the royal palace, with no date, but installed in the twentieth
century, describes the mission sent by King Norodom to Sri Lanka as well as
the return mission accompanied by the Sinhala monk Preah Ratanasara who brought
a relic of the Buddha and a relic of Ananda Thera and two saplings of the Sacred
Mahabodhi tree. The inscription also adds that the other Bodhi sapling was planted
in front of the Wat Prachumsakor on the second day of the waxing moon in the
month of Vaisakha, the year of mouse, 2431 B. E. (1888 A.C.)
It also describes the procession of monks, royal family members, generals,
officers of the royal government and other dignitaries that escorted the holy
relic on elephants, horses and carriages with traditional music and dancing.
The inscription also records the following information as reported by an old
woman in 1951 (indicating that the inscription was installed after 1951). “The
precious materials deposited by those who attended the ceremony in the hole
in which the Bodhi sapling was planted were stolen on the day after the ceremony.
The leaves of the sapling faded for three days, and the Sangharaja Nil Tieng
replanted it with a special ritual called Pin Peath, and royal body guards were
stationed to protect the tree”.
There is no mention in any Sri Lankan source of either the Cambodian mission
to Sri Lanka or of a Sri Lankan monk accompanying a Cambodian mission to Cambodia
around the year 1887. However, Upalivamsa Sangharaja Siri Mangalacarya of Sri
Lanka who is mentioned in Cambodian sources can be identified for certain as
Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Nayaka Thera of Vidyodaya Pirivena. Although he
was not a Sangharaja (the term used in Sri Lanka by then was Mahanayake), he
was the leading monk during that period in terms of scholarship as well as of
leadership, accepted nationally as well as internationally.
The Sangharaja Paramavamsa Dhammananda Mahathera of Sri Lanka, referred to
in Cambodian records cannot be identified with any of the monks who held leadership
positions during that time. Mahanayake of the Malwatte chapter in 1887 was Mahanayake
Tibbotuwawe Unnanse. Cambodian sources mention Preah Ratanasara as the Sri Lankan
monk who accompanied the Cambodian delegation on their return to Cambodia in
1887. The term Preah which means Venerable was and is still used in Cambodia
to refer to a Buddhist monk, the equivalent in Thai being Phra. The fact that
there is no mention of the name of the village Venerable Ratanasara came from,
makes it more problematic to identify the monk.
The only monk by the name of Ratanasara associated with Venerable Hikkaduwe
Sri Sumangala was Ven. Kahawe Ratanasara. But it was only in 1897 that the Ven.
Ratanasara received higher ordination under Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala. The Ven.
Ratanasara received the title “Sri Sumangala”, became the Chief
Sangha Nayake of Colombo, and was appointed the third Principal of the Vidyodaya
Pirivena only in 1922. The unidentified monk would be none other than Venerable
Kahawe Ratanasara if the date of the arrival of Preah Ratanasara in Cambodia
was any time after 1897, since a samanera could not have been sent as a representative
of Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Nayaka Thera. If the latter’s choice was
a scholar monk to have been sent as representative to Cambodia, it would have
been Ven. Mahagoda Gnanissara, the second Principal of the Vidyodaya Pirivena.
Cambodia-Sri Lanka relations continue up to now
The first record of Sri Lanka-Cambodia links in the twentieth century occurs
in reference to the famous Buddhist missionary, Ven. Narada Thera’s visit
to Cambodia. In March 1939, Ven. Narada Thera visited Cambodia and Laos at the
invitation of these two governments. His visit was considered a symbolical renewal
of the long time relationship between these countries (Bechert, 1967, p.237).
The next renewal of Sri Lanka relations with Cambodia appears with the formation
of the World Fellowship of Buddhists initiated by G. P. Malalasekera. Its first
world conference held in June 1950 was attended by Buddhists of Theravada, Mahayana
and Vajrayana from many countries in the world. Cambodia was represented by
the Sangharaja Chuon Nath of Maha Nikaya who was the greatest Cambodian Pali
scholar in the recent past (WFB Souvenir, 1950).
In the mid 1970s, Cambodia underwent the Pol Pot holocaust, during which almost
all temples were destroyed, and a large number of monks killed or forced to
disrobe. With the overthrow of Pol Pot, Buddhism was gradually restored. And
in the 1990s, leading Buddhist institutions had been re-established. Sinhala
connections again played a key role in these restoration activities. These activities
included the restoration of the Buddhist Institute, the major centre of Buddhist
education, research and documentation, the premier centre of monks’ education,
Monk’s High School, the Buddhist Monks’ University.
Three Sri Lankan monks served as teachers in these institutions during the
last ten years. The writing of a Pali Grammar, instituting an annual research
conference in the universities, and the initiation of a national level organization
of Dasa Sil Mathas are among the other contributions made by the Sinhalese.
As the present writer played a central role here, it would not be appropriate
to describe these activities further.
The earliest traces of Cambodia-Sri Lanka religious relations go back to the
beginning of the 6th century. Close political as well as religious relations
between Cambodia and Sri Lanka during the 12th century resulted in a mutual
influence, with the Sri Lanka stupa style being adopted in Cambodia while several
Cambodian architectural features made a significant contribution to Sri Lanka.
Theravada Buddhism became the religion of the court as well of the people from
the beginning of the 14th century when Sinhala monks became advisors to Cambodian
kings. By mid 14th century, Sinhala monks headed the Cambodian delegation that
introduced Buddhism to Laos, and the senior Sinhala monk in the delegation became
the first Sangharaja of Laos.
The spread of Theravada temples throughout Cambodia from the 14th helped democratise
Cambodia, and made the literati establish close links with the people. Deep
cultural influences on the laity followed, including the influences of Pali
on the every day vocabulary, and the growth of indigenous Pali and Khmer literature,
partly based on Sri Lanka models. This spread of culture among the broad masses,
contrasted with the earlier adoption of Brahmanic culture by only the court.
And in the court it-self, speech forms in use for, and among the royalty changed
from Sanskrit versions to Pali. These religious interactions between Cambodia
and Sri Lanka continued up to the 19th century, and continue up to now. After
the Pol Pot disaster, Sinhalese again played a leading role in helping restore
the Khmer Buddhist heritage.
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