It was on the full-moon day of the month
of Unduvap that the ship bringing Sanghamitta Theri and
the branch of the Bo-tree at Gaya, arrived at Jambukola
or Dambukola. It would have taken at least two days for
the chariots, awaiting the Theri�s arrival with her
companions to reach Anuradhapura, a distance of about
150 km. (Jambukola was, scholars say, Kyts or a port
nearby on the Northern coast of the Jaffna peninsular).
The planting of the sacred branch on Lankan soil was an
event of utmost importance, as it signifies Buddha�s
dhamma that took root in Lanka. In connection to this a
14-day festival was held to honour the Bodhi tree.
After this festival in the month of Duruthu, Sanghamitta
Theri Ordained Princess Anula and the court ladies who
renounced the worldly life. This was the specific reason
for Theri�s visit to Lanka. With that ordination she
founded the Seehala Bhikkuni Sangha the Order of Seehala
That was the first step taken by the Theri. A greater
and more important task lay before the Theri to teach
the Dhamma and the Vinaya, which formed the bedrock of
Sanghamitta Theri and the eleven Bhikkunis who came with
her from Jambudeepa (North India) took up residence in
the �Upasika Vihara� which King Devanampiyatissa built
for Princess Anula and the court ladies who were to be
ordained, and began to teach the Dhamma, instructed the
novice bhikkunis on the Vinaya, and exhort them to lead
the goodlife, according to the Dhamma, which alone would
bring them salvation from sansaaro.
The Bhikkhunis responded well to the teaching and soon
acquired a reputation for their learning. Some
specialised in the Vinaya, and others in the history of
the religion - �Saddhamma Vamsa�. The Deepavamsa
mentions five famous bhikkhunis - Mahila, Samanta,
Girikali, Dasi and Kali - who were pre-eminent among
Vinaya scholars. They came to Anuradhapura all the way
from Ruhuna, especially to teach the Vinaya. The first
two were daughters of King Kavantissa and half-sisters
of Dutugemunu. Girikala was the daughter of the King�s
Purohita the adviser while Dasi and Kali were daughters
In the first century AD Lanka was hit by a severe
drought and famine. Bhikkus and Bhikkunis left their
abodes and went to India or to the hilly districts in
the island. At long last the famine was over and
Walagamba ascended the throne after Seven years of war.
He got down Bhikkus and Bhikkunis from India to revive
the religion. They came without a hesitation when they
heard the peril was over. The Deepavamsa tells us that
the first to teach the Vinaya were sixteen bhikkunis.
The Deepavamsa records much information on the Theravada
Bhikkunis where as the Mahavamsa, which was introduced
very much later than the Deepavamsa, mentions the
Bhikkhunis and Mehenavara only in passing. The Mahavamsa
says nothing even of Mahila the half-sister of
Dutugemunu who was still famous when Mahanama Thera
wrote the Mahavamsa.
One chapter in the Deepavamsa gives a detailed account
of the original missionary Bhikkhunis who came from
Jambudeepa to learn Dhamma and Vinaya.
Some Seehala Bhikkhunis specialized in the history of
the religion - �Saddhamma Vamsa in King Walagamba�s time
and two Bhikkhunis who came from India, Seevala and
Maharuha, were both historians.
They were proud of Nagamitta who was Ordained in Lanka,
and lived during the reigns of Kutakanna Tissa and his
son Abhaya. She too was well-versed in history. Two
others distinguished for their knowledge of the
Saddhamma Vamsa were Sanha and Samudda, who lived closer
to the last period recorded in the Deepavamsa.
Some scholars are of the opinion that Deepavamsa is the
work of Bhikkunis, they had made a collection of
traditions handed down from the time of Sanghamitta
From its inception the Bhikkuni Order was a great
success and its reputation was so high, that even
royalty came from overseas seeking peace and refuge.
Nunneries were favourite objects of endowment with the
women. As more and more women joined the order more and
more nunneries had to be built. When the numbers grew,
as it happened with the bhikkhus, there were schisms
among Bhikkhunis too.
This was due to differences in the interpretation of the
Dhamma or the Vinaya rules. New abodes were needed for
the breakaway bhikkhunis. Mahavamsa says that Moggallana
II (497-515 AD) built a special Mehenawara which was
named Rajini and gave it to the Saagalika bhikkhunis.
There was also another breakaway group known as
The original group Ordained by Sanghamitta Theri and
headed by her, the orthodox Theravada Bhikkhunis, were
known as Hatthalahaka Bhikkuni. A Shrange name for a
Sect of Bhikkunis. The word means �elephant post�.
Sanghamitta Theri wanting a quiet place for meditation,
made it a habit to be away from the city and visit where
the State �elephant used to be tethered. The King when
he got to know this, built her a Vihara there and it
became the Theri�s residence until her demise. And the
community of bhikkhunis, under her, became known as
The Seehala Bhikkunis didn�t confine their mission to
their island home and few Bhikkhunis went to China in
the 5th century and ordained Chinese women. The
Mahavamsa or any of the other Pali or Sinhala chronicles
(Vamsa katha) make no mention of this. This from Chinese
records that we learn that two batches of Seehala
Bhikkunis went to China in 429 AD and 433 AD in a ship
captained by one Nandi from India. This captain Nandi
took them to Nanking, the capital of the Sung Dynasty.
In the second batch was a bhikkhuni by the name of the
When the second group arrived four years later, the
first group was very fluent in Chinese. Now there were
enough bhikkhunis for a quorum to perform the Upasampada
or Higher Ordination. 300 Chinese Samaneri Bhikkunis
were given the Upasampada in batches, The ceremony was
overseen by Bhikkhu Gunawarman, a Kashmiri Bhikkhu.
The Bhikkhunis who played an important part during the
Anuradhapura period of our history, who even braves
stormy seas to carry the Dhamma to China and founded a
Bhikkhuni Order there, disappeared from the scene with
the fall of the Anuradhapura kingdom in 1017 AD. There
is no mention in any of the chronicles of nunneries.
What happened to them during the years of Chola rule?
After Vijaya Bahu defeated the Cholas wrested the
country from them and became King in 1065. He enlisted
the help of King Anuradhapura of Ramanna (part of
present day Myanmar) to restore the Upasampada and
revive the religion, but he made no attempt to revive
the Bhikkhuni Order.
�The Bhikkhuni Order was fostered and cherished by
successive rulers for over 12 centuries. Why it was
allowed to die completely without any attempt at
resuscitation is difficult to understand� (Malalasekera