The Amarapura Nikaya is a Sri Lankan monastic fraternity (a lineage of ordained monks) founded in 1800. It is named after the city of Amarapura the capital of Burma (now Myanmar). Amarapura Nikaya monks are followers of the Theravada tradition. The Amarapura Nikaya does not practice caste discrimination but there is a higher percentage of Karava monks in some of the sub sects.
The need to establish this Sect
By the mid 18th century, upasampada (higher ordination, as distinct from samanera or novice ordination) had once again become extinct in Sri Lanka. The Buddhist order had become extinct thrice during the preceding five hundred years and was re-established in the reigns of Vimala Dharma Suriya I (1591 - 1604) and Vimala Dharma Suriya II (1687 - 1707) as well. These re-establishments were short lived. On the initiative of Ven. Weliwita Saranankara (1698-1778) the Thai monk Upali Thero visited Kandy during the reign of king Kirti Sri Rajasinghe (1747 - 1782) and once again re-established the Buddhist order in Sri Lanka in 1753. And the Buddhist order of monks so established was called the Siyam Nikaya after the " Kingdom of Siam". (see Siyam nikaya)
Caste discrimination introduced by the Siyam Nikaya
However in 1764, merely a decade after the re-establishment of the Buddhist order in Sri Lanka by reverend Upali, a group within the newly created Siyam Nikaya conspired and succeeded in restricting the Nikaya's higher ordination only to the Govigama caste. This was a period when Buddhist Vinaya rules had been virtually abandoned and some members of the Buddhist Sangha in the Kandyan Kingdom privately held land, had wives and children, resided in the private homes and were called Ganinnanses. It was a period when the traditional nobility of the Kandyan Kingdom was decimated by continuous wars with the Dutch rulers of the Maritime Provinces . In the maritime provinces too a new order was replacing the old.
Mandarampura Puvata, a text from the Kandyan period, narrates the above radical changes to the monastic order and shows that it was not a unanimous decision by the body of the sangha. It says that thirty two ‘senior’ members of the Sangha who opposed this change were banished to Jaffna by the leaders of the reform.
The Govigama exclusivity of the Sangha thus secured in 1764 was almost immediately challenged by other castes who without the patronage of either the King of Kandy or of the British rulers of the maritime provinces, held their own higher ordination ceremony in 1772 at Totagamuwa Vihara. Another was held at Tangalle in 1798. Neither of these ceremonies were approved by the Siyam Nikaya which claimed that these were not in accordance with the Vinaya rules.
Caste discrimination challenged by non- Govigama castes
As a consequence of this ‘exclusively Govigama’ caste discrimination policy adopted in 1764 by the Siyam Nikaya, the Buddhists in the Maritime provinces were denied access to a valid ordination lineage. Hoping to rectify this situation, wealthy laymen from the maritime provinces financed an expedition to Burma to found a new monastic lineage. In 1799, Ambagahapitiye Gnanavimala Thera a monk from the Salagama caste, from Balapitiya on the south western coast of Sri Lanka departed for Burma with a group of novices to seek a new succession of Higher ordination. The first Bhikku was ordained in Burma in 1800 by the Sangaraja of Burma, his party having been welcomed to Burma by King Bodawpava.
The initial mission returned to Sri Lanka in 1803. And soon after their return to the island they established a udakhupkhepa sima (a flotilla of boats moored together to form a floating platform) on the Maduganga river, Balapitiya and, under the most senior Myanmar bhikkhu who accompanied them, held an upasampada ceremony on Vesak Full Moon Day. The new fraternity came to be known as the Amarapura Nikaya, from the then capital of Burma
Several subsequent trips to Burma by Karava and Durava monks as well, created a core group of ordained monks by 1810 and provided the required quorum for Higher Ordination of Amarapura Nikaya monks in Sri Lanka .
The higher ordination denied to them in 1764 by the Govigama conspirators had been regained and they were soon granted recognition by the colonial British government. However the radical change of ordination rules by the Siyam Nikaya in 1764, and its continuance despite it being contrary to the teachings of the Buddha, plagues the Sri Lankan Buddhist Sangha, and the Sangha remains divided on caste lines.
The establishment of the Amarapura Nikaya was significant because it signalled a change in the social dynamic of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. For the first time, a monastic lineage had been created not through royal patronage of a Buddhist king, but through the collective action of a dedicated group of Buddhist laymen.
The Amarapura Nikaya was thus both independent of government and royal power, and more closely tied to its patrons in the growing middle class. This presaged both the growing power of the middle class in Sri Lanka during the 19th and 18th Centuries, and the rise of so-called Protestant Buddhism among the Sinhalese middle class- a modernized form of Buddhism in which increasing power and authority were vested in the laity, rather than monastic authorities.
The Amarapura maha nikaya is divided into no less than 21 sub-orders. These sub orders are believed to have been formed along cast divisions
Above: postage stamp issued to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Amarapura sect of Sri Lanka
Kshatriya Maha Sabha, Sri Lanka