Monday, December 05, 2005

Glossary: Sakadwipi

Sakadwipi is the name of a class of brahmin priests who claim to hail from Sakadwipa "the Teak Tree Isle."

Although there is a tendency to equate Sakadwipa with Iran or Central Asia in Western scholarship, Indian textual evidence such as the Mahabharata indicate that this island was to the east of India. Likewise, its shores were washed by the Milky Ocean which is also located by numerous sources in the East.

Both Sakadwipa and the Milky Ocean also are given southern and tropical characteristics. For example, they are associated respectively with the salmali tree and the tropical weather system of three seasons with a rainy summer.

The importance of Sakadwipa and the Milky Ocean lie in the fact that they demonstrate an early knowledge of lands far to the East of India. They are included with other early notices like those of Suvarnadvipa and Yavadvipa in the epic Ramayana.

Myths hinting at migration themes are connected with the Sakadwipa and Milky Ocean locales. Both involve movements from southern India or Sri Lanka northward, but after possible earlier migration from the East.

Manu Vaivasvata, the Hindu Noah, is said to have come from southern India to the Himalayas during the great flood. The Puranas mention that he arrives from Dravida or the banks of the Kritamala, both located in present-day South India.

However, Manu's father Vivasvat, also known as Visvakarma, is linked with Sakadwipa. In one version of the myth, Surya is the father of Manu and Visvakarma acts as the latter's father-in-law. Visvakarma pares the rays of Surya the sun god on his lathe located in Sakadwipa.

The priests of Sakadwipa are said to have originated from these parings.

The Sakadwipi brahmins today have their own tradition in which, although they come ultimately from Sakadwipa, they are brought to Eastern India from Sri Lanka by Rama. This tradition conflicts with a version in the Samba Purana that has Samba, the son of Krisna, importing the priests. The Skanda Puruna states that Rama's father brought them directly from Sakadwipa.

In both the examples of Manu and the Sakadwipi priests, we see that they came from the South to northern India, but originally they came to southern India or Sri Lanka from Sakadwipa in the East. Of course, this would match the route of seafarers traveling the monsoons from Southeast Asia to India.

The Sakadwipi are considered the original brahmins of Kikat, the area corresponding to Sanskrit Kikata and modern eastern India particularly around Bihar. However, probably because of their foreign origin they are classified as Potala or "underworld" brahmins.

According to their own traditions, they were dispersed to various parts of India by a king of Kanoj (Kanauj), but they are still concentrated today in Bihar, Bengal, Orissa and eastern Uttar Pradesh. Historically, they are linked with the Maga Brahmins of Magadha.

H.H. Risley noted that the Sakadwipi were mostly the priests of lower castes and tribes, but there is evidence that some of these people had once held an exalted position (like the Sakadwipi/Maga priests). The Dosadh caste, for example, have gotras (clan names) that indicate they were once hereditary officers. They also had the function of acting as village heads.

The Dosadhs themselves are priests in some areas where they preside over the pig sacrifice considered unclean in orthodox brahminism.

Indeed the Sakadwipi conform to few practices recognized by the more reputable Panchagauda brahmins who have a more recent origin in this area. They freely marry other members of the same gotra, but avoid marriages between people within geographical districts known as pur. They often take to farming or soldiering.

With reference to the movements from Sakadwipa/Milky Ocean to the southern subcontinent and then towards the north, the first century CE Periplus of the Erythraen Sea offers some interesting clues.

"There is a river near it called the Ganges, and it rises and falls in the same way as the Nile. On its bank is a market-town which has the same name as the river, Ganges. Through this place are brought malabathrum and Gangetic spikenard and pearls, and muslins of the finest sorts, which are called Gangetic. It is said that there are gold-mines near these places, and there is a gold coin which is called caltis. And just opposite this river there is an island in the ocean, the last part of the inhabited world toward the cast, under the rising sun itself; it is called Chryse; and it has the best tortoise-shell of all the places on the Erythraean Sea."

Chryse, the island of gold, probably encompasses the same location as Suvarnadvipa (Sanfotsi/Zabag) of the Indians. That island probably refers to much the same location or rather the gold-producing regions of Sakadwipa.

As early as the 3rd century, the Chinese begin mentioning their frontier to the south as Chin-lin the "Gold Frontier" or the "Gold Neighbor." In 722, Thuc Loan organized a rebellion againt the T'ang empire of China uniting 32 provinces of "Annam" with the countries of Lin-yi (Champa), Chen-la (Cambodia) and Chin-Lin ("Gold Neighbor").

The deployment of Chinese troops at the southernmost border, usually in Annam (northern Vietnam), was also called Chin-Lin in a play of words that might have meant "Golden Unicorn." The empire had faint notions of a distant southern source of gold known as Chin-Chou "Gold Land."

Not until the Sung dynasty did these sources come into better view at, least from what we glean from Chinese writings.

If the Sakadwipi brahmins represented Southeast Asian dealings with Hindus in eastern India, Suvarnadvipa began intensifying relations with a more Buddhist leaning beginning in the 10th century.

As discussed previously, Suvarnadvipa or Sanfotsi as the Chinese knew the area had begun requesting Chinese help against its southern neighbor Toupo, during this period.

The powerful Toupo empire to the south and the expansion of Islam much further West were grave threats to Suvarnadvipa's trade network that extended all the way to Africa. In India, the island kingdom sought to strengthen its relations with the eastern and southern Indian regions and with Tibet, which so far had held out against Muslim advances.

Suvarnadvipa representatives skilled in Tantric Buddhism helped forge closer ties especially with regard to the Kalacakra Tantra. The root text the Srikalacakra-garbalamkarasadhana was said to come from Suvarnadvipa. Interestingly it seems also from here that great importance is given to the kumbhabhiseka "the jar consecration" as a means of initiation into the study and practice of Tantra.

Since one of the kings of Shambhala is also linked with the "Southern Ocean" it must be in Suvarnadvipa where that kingdom so closely associated with the Kalacakra was located.

Paul Kekai Manansala


Martin, Robert Martin. The history, antiquities, topography, and statistics of eastern India ... London, W.H. Allen and Co., 1838.

Risley, H.H. Tribes and Casks of Bengal, 4 vols., Calcutta, 1891.

Vettamani. Puranic Encyclopaedia, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1975.