After the annexation of Kandy in 1815, the Amarapura Nikaya 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 Suduhumpola 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.
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 who 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. During British rule, these four sub-castes effectively became two, but even with this, the differences grew rapidly.
- The most vociferous opponent of the Nikaya from within the fraternity was Yatanvela Sunanda Thera
- The founders of Amarapura belonged to no less than three different, distinct castes
Consider that merely 10 months after Kapugama Dhammakhanda Thera obtained a Certificate of Confirmation from the Colonial Office, monks from the Karava and Durawa castes held a meeting at Kottegoda, where they selected 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 Karava 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 side with them 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 even further through those rifts. On the other hand, by appointing a Salagama representative without paying heed to the other castes, they managed to widen 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, Kataluwe 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 when 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. But long before any of this happened, 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 managed to reinforce the unity they had 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), 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 clan. 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 Beratuduwe Dhammadhara, Kahave Nananda Thera. A further series of debates resulted, after which the Sangharaja of Burma was consulted. The Sangharaja’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 Sangharaja 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 made the issue more complicated, as I will explore in the next piece, was the founding and emergence of the Ramanya Nikaya, which had its beginnings in the Amarapura Nikaya itself.