nestorian cross anuradhapura


Mr. Andrew Scott’s article under the above caption in The Island, 26th December, is based on hearsay and conjecture.
Many are driven to conclude that Christians lived in Anuradhapura in ancient times because of a sunken Relief Cross 2.7/8″ x 31/4″ discovered in the citadel of Anuradhapura by E F Eyreton, the Archaeological Commissioner in 1912. The Cross was found on a square pillar which had been re-used as material for later building.

Considering the small size of the Cross it can be safely concluded that this could not have been part of a major church. The Archaeologist did not make any conclusive remark regarding this single small Cross except to say it was a Nestorian Cross. Nestorians were a breakaway group from the mainstream Christians owing to differences in Theology. Usually, it is the responsibility and task of the Archaeologist to make a study with such a find. But in the instance of the Nestorian Cross, Church Groups have formulated the theory that there were Christians in Sri Lanka around 6th Century AD. In fact this date was assigned to the Cross on the advise of H W Codrington. Archeologists are however reluctant to accept this dating as there were no reasons given for such dating.

The efforts to predate the arrival of Christianity before the landing of the Portuguese is not new. In 1945, in his address to the Diocesan Council, Bishop Horseley said that the Christian Church which flourished in the 6th century AC in the capital of Anuradhapura was swept away by persecution. He also added: “Anyway the persecution of 13 centuries ago brought back the Church eleven centuries later”. We are also not told who is responsible for the persecution. Certainly it cannot be the Buddhists, religious tolerance is a corner stone of Buddhism, no religious persecution is assigned to them in history.

Andrew Scott refers to a statement in the Mahawamsa that King Pandukabhaya built a chapel for the Christians. It is true that King Pandukabhaya set apart various places of worship for different religions and beliefs such as Nigantas, Yakkas and the God of Prosperity. There is no mention of a Christian Church and therefore could not have been one as Jesus Christ was then not even born! King Pandukabhaya ruled in 437 BC — over four centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ.

The writer also refers to Cosmas Indicopleustus, despite some scholars even doubt his visit to Sri Lanka. There is a theory that Cosmas obtained his information from Sopratros, a traveler said to have visited this island. Cosmas refers to the ” Nestorian Community probably composed of Persian merchants which was well established on the island”. M G Francis, in his History of Ceylon states “The Christians mentioned by him (Cosmas) in Ceylon were not natives but a colony of merchants from the Malabar coast who were trading in Ceylon”. Marco Polo who visited the island in 1284 AD does not mention Christians and the great missionary the Blessed Oderic of Udine also arrived in the island in 1318. He too does not mention Christians.

M G Francis further states “The Portuguese who landed in the island in 1505 found no Christians and no tradition of Christianity. To counter this statement it is said that the Portuguese denied the presence of any Christians as they desired to steal the honor of introducing Christianity to the island for themselves. The Portuguese Missionary in the 16th and 17th Century Ceylon:The Spiritual Conquest of Ceylon by Gaston Perera reveals that atrocities the Portuguese adopted to convert the local population. In addition a difficulty they encountered was to find Sinhala words for their Christian concepts. If Christianity was widespread then, there could not have been any such difficulty.

Andrew Scott has mentioned the conversion of Prince Dharmapala at the request of his grandfather Buvenekabahu VII. This request was motivated by the internecine warfare between the brothers Buvenekabahu and Mayadunne. Buvenekabahu paid dearly for his foolish move. He was shot by a Portuguese ‘fidalgo’ in his pleasure palace, Kelaniya when he came close to a window. His converted grandson Don Juan Dharmapala had to abandon his capital Kotte in favour of Colombo to seek protection from the Portuguese but instead only to become a Portuguese prisoner.

Dealing with Christian aliens was not gainful for the shortsighted Sinhala kings. As far as the Portuguese were concerned, destruction and pillage was the means adopted to convert the Sinhalese they called the “heathen”. Converting the heathen also became a formidable task as there was no Christian tradition in the island.

If Christianity did exist in Sri Lanka as claimed, the Portuguese need not have adopted intrigue to convert the people resulting in a revolt against their King.

Arunasiri Dias

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