The Nestorian Cross

I clearly recall the moment I came across the Nestorian Cross of Anuradhapura for the first time. It was one of those museum moments, when one small artefact stands taller than the rest in the crowded collection, and grabs a distracted visitor. At the Archaeological Museum, Anuradhapura, walking past artefacts that both enchant and estrange in chorus, this small Christian relief on a smooth granite column cast an immediate spell on me.
How do you make sense of objects without a story? All these artefacts have stories that we do not know: Who could have made them? Who could have used them and what did these artefacts mean to them? The Nestorian Cross had all of these mysteries ringing in its name, a certain exceptionality for such a small motif.

I could have easily missed it.

And yet, the moment I set my eyes on it, it rose from its miniature oblivion to shine an enormous shard of light upon lesser-known aspects of our island’s history. Amidst the array of artefacts that spoke of the grand Buddhist civilization of Anuradhapura – a story that we all know because we learn it in school – the Nestorian Cross told a different story. With this miniature cross, I had a small epiphany – that most things don’t make it to the textbooks. And though they don’t, they are still a very significant part of the story; part of the truth. It’s almost as if I carried the knowledge of the existence of the Nestorian Cross within me, an iota of ancient knowledge embedded in my psyche that simply had to be re-tapped. I am of this island, and this little cross is also my story. Déjà vu.

Is it a mascot? A symbol of a place of worship?

Or a mark on a tomb of some Assyrian traveller

who decided never to leave this soil?

A mere decoration, it cannot be

For those who seek the possibility

Of countless stories.

The mysteries of Histories.

The Nestorian Cross, 5th century AD, Archaeological Museum, Anuradhapura Sri Lanka

I had scribbled amateurishly in my travel journal. The Nestorian Cross had woken me up from my mid-day museum comatose.
What’s special about a Christian symbol in a predominantly Buddhist pilgrim site? When it was first discovered in 1912, during the early excavations North East of the Anuradhapura citadel, the immediate determination of the then Archaeological Commissioner, Edward R. Ayrton was that the Nestorian Cross was of Portuguese provenance. After all, the colonial masters considered Ceylon a ‘Boodhist’ island geographically located beneath a ‘Hindoo’ India. The convenient interpretation was that Christianity came to the island with the Portuguese. It was an idea born in the colonial imagination: ‘The World’ was ‘discovered’ only by them and nobody on earth ever moved an inch before they got into their ships with their guns.

Ayrton’s successor, Arthur Maurice Hocart, was fascinated by the Nestorian Cross as well, as he had described it in 1924, in his book ‘Memoires of the Archaeological Survey of Ceylon’:

a cross of a floret type standing on a stepped pedestal from which emanates two fronds on each side of the cross like horns,”

and concludes that it is indeed a Portuguese Cross. But the Portuguese, who came to the
island in 1505, controlled only the maritime provinces of Ceylon. Settling in the interiors of the island, and especially in Anuradhapura, a ruined and partially buried city by then, seems unlikely. The famous historian of the Portuguese period Fernao De Queyroz himself mentions the futile attempts made by the Portuguese on the orders of the King of Portugal to discover Anuradhapura.

And so, the mystery of the Nestorian Cross drew scholars who called for a more realistic explanation. In 1926, the British civil servant and scholar Humphrey Codrington had put forth an argument ahead of his times. Well versed in Syrian liturgies and the history of the Oriental Orthodox Church, Codrington draws from a 6th century AD manuscript, Christian Topography by the Alexandrian merchant and monk Cosmas Indicopleustes, which describes the presence of a community of Persian Christians in Taprobanê thus:

In Taprobane, an island in inner India, where the Indian Sea is, there is also a Christian church [Ekklesia christianon] there, and clergy and faithful [klerikoi kai pistoi], but I do not know whether there are any further on. Similarly, in the place called Male, where pepper grows, and in the place called Kalliana, there is also a bishop, ordained in Persia. Similarly, in the island called Dioscorides in the same Indian Sea, there the inhabitants speak Greek, since they are settlers of the Ptolemies, … and there are clergy ordained in Persia and sent to those parts, and a community of Christians.

Codrington argued for a much earlier date for the cross of Anuradhapura – as early as CE 500. Three hundred years after Jesus there were already Syrian Christians in South India, and Codrington uses the similarities of the Anuradhapura cross to South Indian stone crosses bearing Pahlavi and Syriac inscriptions as further evidence, Pahlavi being a script of Middle Iranian languages. Slowly, a more plausible explanation takes shape and the island known today as Sri Lanka emerges at the centre of the ‘Silk Road of the Sea’.

As Cosmas accurately described:
From the whole of India, Persia and Ethiopia, the island, acting as intermediary, welcomes many ships, and likewise despatches them. From regions of the interior, i.e. Tzinista [China] and other markets, it imports silk, aloes, cloves, clove-wood, sandalwood, and all native products. And it re-exports them to the people of the exterior, i.e. to Male…and to Kalliana…similarly to Sindou…and to Persia, Himyarite country and to Adulis.

The History of Land and Ocean

The Silk Route connected the West and the East since the 2nd century BCE

We never quite realize that the history we learn in school is ‘land-locked’. No one thinks that history ever happened out there at sea. This is possibly because history was held hostage by post-colonial nationalisms, where their scopes was defined by newly drawn ‘national borders’. Oceans were nationalized too, but to a lesser extent than the land. After all, there are no ‘sons of the sea’; only ‘sons of the soil’! The moment we focus on the oceans as arenas of history, our cherished popular perceptions of it run into trouble.

From the 2nd century BCE the Oceanic Silk Route connected the East and the West. Trade, faiths, people and ideas took sail. Just like us, our ancestors moved around in the world for all sorts of reasons. New research is bringing to light how the Indian Ocean was replete with ships of Arabian, Egyptian, Sassanian, Tamil and Chinese merchants, to name only a few. They would have all sailed past the popular port-of-call, Mantai, in the island known as Sri Lanka today. Historians now point out the possibility of expatriate merchant communities being long-term residents in the island, due to its very strategic location between the East and the West. This was confirmed by the archaeological finds in Mantai in 1984, when Archaeologist John Carswell found a Sasanian period clay bulla with three seal impressions. Two oval seals placed closer together are of a Persian mythological creature with the head of a man and body of a winged-bull and a Pahlavi inscription reading ‘abzāy farrōxīh’ (“May fortune increase!”). The third seal, set within a diamond field, is a cross, with unmistakably similar stylistic features to the Nestorian Cross of Anuradhapura. So then, there’s not just one, but two Nestorian Crosses found so far on the island. Perhaps there’s more, waiting to be discovered.

The existence of the sea silk route ensured that the rest of the world was aware of the island’s existence as early as in the 3rd century BCE. The name Taprobane is first reported to Europeans by Greek geographer Megasthenes who served as an ambassador to King
Chandragupta Maurya in India, also known as Sandrokottos in the Hellenic world. The first geographic depiction of the island can be traced back to Eratosthenes (276-196 BCE), upon whose work the more famous work of Ptolemy The Geographia builds on.

19th century reconstruction of Eratosthenes’ map of the Known World (for the Greeks), 
c. 194 BC with Taprobane at lower right

Ptolemy’s map of Taprobane, though at times disputed to portray Sumatra, is now widely accepted as the first detailed depiction of the island. It is no small wonder that the Ptolemic place names are as accurate as ‘Anurogramum’ (Anuradhapura) and ‘Nagadiba’, (Nagadipa?).
However, Ptolemy’s map infers the island to be bigger than it actually is, especially in contrast to his reductionist depiction of the Indian peninsula. This is not the first time the island’s size is exaggerated. An earlier treatise De Mundo (On the Universe), likely to have been published around 350 – 200 BCE (and incorrectly attributed to Aristotle’s Corpus Aristotelicum) mentions
“The island of Taprobane, opposite India, situated at an angle to the inhabited world, is quite as large as the British isle.”
What all of these ancient knowledges indicate is that there is an Indian Ocean island which was of utmost importance to trade routes that connected the East and the West. The early larger-than-life projections were not geographically literal but only figurative of its importance to the Known World. On a banner displayed at the entrance to the Maritime Heritage Museum, Galle, Prof. Sudharshan Seneviratne expresses this idea beautifully:
“A land known by many a name to the World System located to the east and west of this island, its history is essentially a story of trans-oceanic connectivity. It is a story of how this island came to evolve its unique personality due to the convergence of multiple streams of people, cultures, languages, religions, ethnicities and technologies. The historical saga of Sri Lanka, an island situated in a pivotal position in the Indian Ocean Rim, could not be inscribed otherwise in the annals of history and most certainly not without the story of the sea – a story of nurtured reciprocity as one of the most valued ‘ports of call’ in antiquity.”
Enough proof that we were never an island unto itself. Not only does this change our understanding of Sri Lanka radically, but it even calls to redefine the way in which we understand islands. Even those in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, were never as cut off as one would imagine, if you ask the indigenous navigators of the Pacific Ocean. And an Indian Ocean island just off the tip of South India, can only be a hub for all the crisscrossing trade routes. Viewed in this light, a Nestorian Cross, or even a Maori Totem Pole, on this island shouldn’t be a surprise!

Muddled Mongrels

If economics of trade connected us viscerally to the lands beyond our imagination, then politics connected us most, among other lands, to that of our great neighbour India. Though our history is replete with many examples, the one that draws me most is another enigmatic
site at the heart of the island – Nalanda. It is a temple shrouded in mystery. Before we proceed, let’s ask, why Nalanda? How do we jump from the far-flung trade routes of the Indian Ocean, into mystic ruins in the central highlands? A leap of faith indeed, geographically speaking: If the Nestorian Cross enriches the story of a great Buddhist civilization of Anuradhapura in one way, Nalanda does the same in an even more fascinating manner: It deepens the very idea of the grand Buddhist civilization of Anuradhapura, shedding light on multiple strands, including esoteric practices, more profound than the Theravada form which we identify with the island today.

Nalanda Gedige, Matale: A gedige is an image house, where icons of religious devotion were enshrined

No one quite knows of Nalanda’s origins. Who built it? What for? Who worshipped here? Why is it called Nalanda?
None of these questions have clear answers. But there is one truth about it that is obvious and undisputed. Very much like the great Pallava temple of Mahabalipuram, South India, Nalanda Gedige is a fine example of Pallava architecture. Colonial adventurer and Engineer of the British Army Major Roland Raven Hart, struck by its charms, writes in his book, Ceylon: History in Stone:

“Elsewhere there are plenty of Hindu buildings, and plenty of Buddhist ones, and some muddled mongrels; but here the styles are interwoven. The ground-plan is Buddhist, the vestibule pure Hindu and so is the little windowless shrine: the plain moonstone and crocodile balustrade and rivers of dwarfs and architrave of the doorway are Sinhalese, and jambs Tamilian; even the sculptures are fairly shared. The whole effect is charming and for me unexpectedly classical, nor did I find the exterior “over-richly decorated” as did Bell, though it is crowded with pilasters and horseshoe false windows and more jolly dwarfs. And the dome must have been a worthy climax when all its four faces were present, each with horseshoe niche and statue, instead of the only one which was found.”

The Pallavas were instrumental in the transition from rock-cut architecture to stone temples. But the Pallavas were Hindu. This makes Nalanda even more mysterious yet again. Mahabalipuram is also known as Mamallapuram, and Mamalla or the ‘great wrestler’
is a reference to 7th century Pallava King, Narasinghavarman I, close friend and ally of King Manavamma. Did Manavamma build Nalanda, in the grand Pallava style, in memory of his loyal friend, the great Pallava King?

Let us visualize a possible backstory, from what little we know.

It’s the 7th century AD, South India, the dry flat lands north of Kanchipuram reverberating with clash of swords and battle cry. The Chalukyas from the Deccan are attacking the Northern provinces of Pallava country in South India. At the heart of the battle, together with the great Pallava King Narasinhavarman I, is the fugitive Prince Manavarman of Lanka, fighting the Chalukyas to the end.

Being in exile, Manavarman has resided in the Pallava court for a very long time. Enough time, as they say, ‘to go native’. Upon the defeat of Chalukyas, Manavarman is heralded as a hero for his bravery and loyalty to the Pallavas. In return, Narasimhavarman supports Manavarman, not once but twice with his armies to capture power in Lanka. Upon the second attempt in 684 CE, Manavamma ascends the throne of Lanka, founding the second Lambakanna dynasty, which reigned in Anuradhapura for the next 400 years.

The inscription found at Nalanda does not mention Manavamma or anything about its origins. A building without a benefactor. The dates are somewhere between 8th-11th century AD. There are no clear historical records that connect Manavamma and Nalanda, though the story
of Manavamma and Narasimghvarman has some historical sources such as the Culavamsa and some South Indian copper inscriptions. Incidentally, the origin of Mahabalipuram in India is also unclear. Though colonial archaeologists attributed the temple to Narasinghavarman I, these claims are not corroborated by archaeological evidence or historic records.

The vagueness and incompleteness of the past will stand between us and the truth. Similar to the Nestorian Cross, Nalanda challenges our perceptions of easy categories. What is Buddhist? What is Hindu? What is Tantric? The iconography of Nalanda that dazzled Raven Hart, points towards esoteric Buddhist practices in the Anuradhapura period, a perspective supported by a large number of Buddhist
bronzes found in the island. Some of these such as the Tara, now with the British Museum, and the Avalokiteswara from Veheragala at the National Museum, Colombo, have achieved celebrity status. In fact, the museum catalogue, ‘The heritage of Sri Lankan Bronze Sculpture’ believes that the Veheragala Avalokitesvara’s style shows affinity to a South Indian product of 7th-9th centuries in the stylistic trends of the Chalukyas.

Ah, the infinite interconnections! The only inference is that faith is never a matter of straightforwardness; and that all religions and their representations are, to a great extent, syncretic.

Eroded eroticism, Nalanda Gedige, 7th century AD, Matale Sri Lanka

Whoever built Nalanda, it is evidence of the close and intricate ties the island had with the sub-continent. The endless power struggles, matrimonial alliances and individuals in exile who had returned with appreciation for the ‘foreign’, have shaped the islands history as much
as oceanic trade and port cities did. As phenomena travel across time and space, be they economics or politics, religion or architecture, exiled princes or colonial adventurers, they are destined to be the ‘muddled mongrels’, Raven Hart observes. He is only mistaken in one regard, that is, his use of the word in a derogatory sense. If anything, the muddled mongrel is the closest to the truth we can ever come.

As different as they may sound from each other, the stories of the Nestorian Cross and Nalanda contain a kernel of fundamental truth about islands: Islands are like oases; Oases are defined by the deserts that nestle them; islands are defined by the oceans that surround them. The story of an oasis is the story of the dessert with its caravan routes and guiding stars.

One could only narrate the stories of this island, in connection to the vast oceans and the greater world. In that sense, it is a premise which brings a measure of relief: we have always been an island of fascinating encounters. We were never isolated. We were never alone.

This exhibit was supported by Historical, an initiative of the programme Strengthening Reconciliation Processes in Sri Lanka (SRP). SRP is co-financed by the European Union and the German Federal Foreign Office and implemented by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH and the British Council.