Did Christianity exist in ancient Sri Lanka?

By Rajitha Weerakoon

The discovery of a Nestorian cross engraved on a rock in Anuradhapura and another unearthed in Sigiriya some years ago led Prof. Senarath Paranavitana to speculate whether Kasyapa and any other Lankan kings were Christians and whether the crosses had been erected at Christian burial grounds.
Deeper digging revealed Sri Lanka’s interlude with Nestorianism in early history which was due to the the country’s geographic location – being at the crossroads of trade between the East and the West and also a bustling international centre of commerce attracting traders, navigators and explorers. Persian traders among them brought to Sri Lanka Christianity of the Nestorian sect.

Persian traders who arrived in the island had settled down along the west coast around Mantai (present Mannar.) Some had even advanced as far as Anuradhapura, the capital seat of ancient Sri Lanka. According to well-known voyager A.D. Cosmos, surnamed Indicopleusies, a community of Persian traders who were Christians had settled down in Sri Lanka by the 6th century.

Cosmos, a Greek trader from Egypt, who later returned to the seclusion of a Christian monastery said in his ‘Topographia Christiana’ that Sri Lanka called “Sieldiba” by the Indians and “Taprobane” by the Greeks had a community of Christians who were chiefly resident Persians. They had a Christian church in the 6th century. “Even in Taprobane, an island in further India where the Indian sea is, there is a Church of Christians with clergy and a body of believers. They served the Christian Persian traders who had settled in the country and there was a Presbyter who was ordained in Persia with a Deacon and a complete ecclesiastical ritual.”

Even before Cosmos, the Persian biographer, Zadoe too documented that Persians adopted the Nestorian heresy towards the end of the 5th century.

These Persians who were devout Nestorian Christians even proceeded from Sri Lanka along the spice route taking the religion with them. History records that they were the first to take Christianity to China.
What is Nestorianism as opposed to Christianity as we know of now? According to the Encyclopaedia it is “a Christian sect which derived its name from Nestorius who was a patriarch of Constantinople for about four years from 428-431 AD. Nestorius maintained that there were two people in Jesus Christ and placed strong insistence on His human nature. He denied that Mary could be called the Mother of God since only the human nature was born of Her.”

The Nestorian doctrine, therefore, was condemned at the time as heretical. But due to the missionary zeal of its followers Nestorianism was carried far and wide to the East and the Near East and the followers were numerous especially in India and Persia. After being banished from the Roman Empire, the Nestorian Christians found asylum in the kingdom of Persia where they set up a mighty medical institute in the 7th century from where they spread their medical knowledge to India, Sri Lanka and China. Persian traders who had become followers of the faith brought the doctrine with them to Sri Lanka during their trade missions. Some of the traders proceeded further.

Emperor Tai-tsung of China whose empire extended up to the Caspian Sea received Nestorian missionaries from Persia and ordered the scriptures translated into Chinese. Over the years, Nestorianism, however, gradually lost its clout with the establishment of the traditional Christian faith. It is documented that by the 16th century, large numbers of Nestorians joined the Roman Communion. Remnants, it is however said, are still found in the East.

In Sri Lanka, evidence is scarce of the presence of Nestorianism. Even if there was any, it is unlikely to be documented in any historical chronicle, especially the Mahavamsa. If there existed any Persian churches, these may have been destroyed along with other Nestorial missions in Asia after the 13th century. Or, they would have died a natural death. Although the Nestorian presence in Sri Lanka has been recorded by several foreign historians, Sri Lankan historians maintain that it had not spread among Sri Lankans. These may have been probably due to the fact that Buddhism gained ground.
According to present day archaeologists and historians, the crosses dated to medieval Sri Lanka which have been unearthed, cannot be Nestorian Christian crosses but merely happened to have the shape of the Christian crosses. Remains of such crosses and coins found during archaeological excavations may have been brought here, it is suggested, by sailors, traders and travellers passing through Sri Lanka.

The Portuguese who arrived in 1505 too were missionaries and traders but the impact of the establishment of Christianity by them as well as the Dutch and the English, cannot be compared with the presence of Nestorianism in early history.

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