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Carving a niche in Sri Lanka’s prehistory

Rock Paintings and Engraving Sites in Sri lanka

Author: Prof. R. A. J. Somadeva
Published by the Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology of the University of Kelaniya

Rock Paintings and Engraving Sites in Sri Lanka by Prof. Raj Somadeva published by the Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology (PGIAR) of the University of Kelaniya is a monumental treatise that covers a wide gamut on rock paintings and engravings sites (RPE) in Sri Lanka that hitherto remained systematically and scientifically unrecorded. The book is dedicated to Emeritus Professor Senake Dias Bandaranayake who inspired Prof. Somadeva in many ways.

This magnum opus falls into two chapters. The first chapter contains 15 parts. It is replete with 129 figures and 17 sites elaborated with photographs. The Rock Paintings and Engraving sites project was funded by the Ministry of Cultural Affairs. The second chapter is co-authored by Profs. Wasantha S. Weliange and R. A. L. Osborne entitled “Some Biological Aspects of Conservation and Management of Sri Lankan cases”, which contains 12 figures, four maps and 16 plans.

Chapter one falls into 15 parts. The first nine are the preamble, mystery of research, documentation, methodology study of RPE a prolonged pessimism, prehistoric hunter gatherer, Veddah aborigines and the physiographic context, the contents and technology. The tenth part contains signs, symbols and metaphors and reading the icons are categorised into these parts.

They are: Why colours? Intertexuality Vs. Intericonocity and “Dots for water”. The 11th to the 15th parts of the book are: Artistic quality, the lines: non figurative intricacy dating, summary and the sites. There are 15 sites that are richly illustrated, photographically documented in the magnificent systematic study on RPEs. Chapter one contains a useful account of references used in writing.

Prehistoric paintings

The co-authored chapter two comprises nine parts. They are: introduction, caves and rock shelters, sunlight in caves, microbial world in caves, caves as underground biological hotspots, Sri Lanka caves, cave paintings or rock art, threats to the prehistoric paintings and a scientific study of Sri Lanka's caves. Chapter two also contains a separate account of references. The entire monumental treatise runs into 236 pages.

In the project RPE ,while the research and photography are done by Raj Somadeva himself Nayomi Kekulawala as his associate together with the field team shouldered the tedious task. They are D. Gamlath, I. M. Indika, S. Chandrakumara, K. Edirisinghe, A. Samanmalee, P. Ranasinge, D. Jayaratne and A. Tilakasiri.

On page 26 of the book Prof. Somadeva says: “The first attempt at recording RPE sites in Sri Lanka goes back to the last decade of the 19th century.

H.C.P. Bell has reported his observations on the painted rock surfaces of two sites in the Polonnaruwa District and the Batticaloa District.

It is my view that Johann Wolfgang Heydt who was an employee in the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in Ceylon in 1733 through Arnet Jansen, his draftsman and painter executed plate 77. The explanation of Heydt's found in p 63-4 of the English translation and notes provided by R. Raven-Hart's book entitled Heydt's Ceylon published in 1952 by Ceylon Government Colombo is the earliest attempt to record RPE sites in Sri Lanka.

The record dates back to the 18th century. Heydt/Jansen's petroglyphs ‘hieroglyphs’ cut in stones and rocks below Adam's Peak would have been the earliest attempt to place on record, which is effaced with the whirl-gig of time.

Heydt's Ceylon being the relevant sections of the Allerneuter Geegraphisch Und Topogrphischep Schau-Platz won Africa und Ost-Indien published by Wilhermsclorff in 1744.

Dr. Siran U. Deraniyagala's path breaking study entitled Prehistory of Sri Lanka Vol. 1 (Part 1 and 2) (1988) (which is not cited by Prof. Somadeva in his present book) on page 390 says, “Most, if not all, of the rock art listed by Nandadeva (1986) is ascribable to the Veddahs, a possible exception being the engravings at Doravaka-Kande and Dimbulagala.

This explanation could be applied to the rock caves discovered from the environs of the Adam's Peak cited by J.W. Heydt and the other caves found in the area”.

Divaguhava

The recent news reports that evoked interest on Divaguhawa or Baghavalena in the environs of the Adams Peak should undoubtedly be an RPE which is said to have a painting of King Nissankamalla.Another possible RPE that is already recorded is Kurundaka Lena referred to by Buddhagosha has been identified as the karambagaa, a cave near Ridiyagama, in a village six miles off Ambalantota. The fragment of paintings believed to be 2nd century BC is the oldest fresco extant in Sri Lanka (D.B. Dhanapala's The Story of Sinhalese Paintings – 1957). This case has not been recorded as an RPE in Prof. Somadeva's treatise.

Gamini S.G. Punchihewa in his book titled Souvenir of a Forgotten Heritage 1990 has provided some sketches on Veddah art from the Hamangala, Illukpitiya Rock caves in the Damana Divisional Secretariat Division eight miles from Ampara.

The only cave record found in Prof. Somadeva's book from Damana is the Malayadikanda cave from the Register of Archaeological Monuments (ROAM) detailed out on pages 147 to 152.

This is another possible RPE site, a salient omission by Prof. Somadeva in this full-fledged publication based on RPE sites in Sri Lanka.

Henry Parker aptly observed in 1909 in his Ancient Ceylon “Thus there seems a good reason to believe that when the monks came to occupy the caves their original residents had already voluntarily abandoned them, and like the Veddahs of Anuradhapura established in the village themselves.

On pages 40-41 of the book Prof. Somadeva says, “The vegetation regions of zone D is dominated by both montane and sub montane rain forests and the other zones mentioned here fall into dry lowland type vegetation in which the tropical and thorn forests and dry monsoon forests predominate. Individual exploitable fauna elements in the forests are numerous.

Some of the fauna species such as the porcupine and the spotted deer are common to most physiographic zones in varying degrees Contrary to this, some restricted animal species reflect the fauna existence within the wet/dry dichotomy.

Clear examples are the spotted deer (Axis axis), the water buffalo Bubalis bubalis which is exclusive to the Dry Zone and the hog-deer (Hyelaphus porcinus) which is confined to the wet zone.

Though a critically endangered species found in the Red data Book of the IUCN 2012 the Hog Deer, it was widely accepted as an introduced species for game purposes.

Excavation

The pre-historical excavations done in Alawala Pothgullena in the District of Gampaha in 2007 where the lower jaw remains of a 17,000 year old Hog Deer commonly known as Sinhalese Wilmuwa discovered by Prof. Gamini Adikari and Jude Perera amply supports Prof. Somadeva's insights that the local Hog Deer is no longer an introduced species.

On page 120 Prof. Somadeva categorically says ‘Probably a female tusker accompanying her baby is engraved on the interior walls of the cave Doravaka kande; This finding is baseless, and cannot be considered as authentic and accurate as the Ceylonese elephant does not have a female tusker.

On page 42 Prof. Somadeva says, “57 individual RPE sites have so far been reported in Sri Lanka. A list of them is shown in a Table.

I find that only 24 sites were visited during the present project. RPE project field survey was done only for two years. But none of the RPE sites are recorded by Global Position System (GPS). Out of the 57 individual RPE sites reported in Sri Lanka the status of 33 RPE sites are still not known.

Though ascertaining the present status of RPE falls within the ambit of Chapter two none of the authors of the splendid work have delved into the aspect of taking appropriate measures to save the RPEs for posterity as a national project.

The system of recording is a crying need of the hour. Another pertinent factor which is overlooked by writers are the use of diacritical marks in identifying the Sinhalese toponymy or place names or Sinhalese words of the RPE sites cited in the book.

Shortcoming

Another shortcoming in its splendid compilation is that on page 75 Prof. Somadeva says, “De Silva et al 2004 have made a misleading attempt to identify this creature with the species (Calodactylodes illongworthorum)” I do not find De Silva et al 2004 listed among the references found in the Chapter 1 of Prof. Somadeva's book.

On page 208 the Vettambugala cave, Calodactylodes illongworthorum is locally or colloquially identified as gal huma, whereas on p 219 the walls of the Henewalagalge cave have been identified as maha gal huna. The first colloquial name is very likely a lapses calamai or lapsus pennae.

Gamini Jayasinghe interpreting the Grandeur of Sinhala Buddhist Art text by Dharmasena Rassapana 2003, Vishvalekha Publications says, “Before the arrival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka samples of engravings or Veddah rock art were found in several places such as Thanthirimale, Aadiyagala, Dorawaka, Dimbulagala, Gangolla, Kotiyagala, Myella cave and Budugala.

They cannot be identified as mature art, but these sketches help us to form an idea about prehistoric art.

Some scholars believe that these artistic forms reflect tribal characteristics of the prehistoric man. Myella cave has not been placed on record in Prof. Somadeva's book on RPEs.

Dimbulagala man

Lala A. Aditya, the renowned architect and antiquarian, in an article published in the 1986/87 Journal of the RAS Vol. 31 has observed, The “Dimbulagala man holding a Bo leaf which is probably symbolic of bringing the sapling of India, which I suspect is a depiction of the event by the then proto-historic inhabitants of Dimbulagala. These are probabilities.”.

Dr. Nandadeva Wijesekera in his book Veddahs in Transition says, “The object of the drawings is not known. There does not appear to be any magical or religious significance underlying these as in the case of other pre-historic Europe.”

The aspects of study on petroglyph's have not been referred to in the study on RPEs by Prof. Raj Somadeva. “So no one can give the exact meaning of petroglyph.

But the common idea is that it is a symbolic language”. The word petroglyphs is used in the book only once.

RPE project launched by the PGIAR under the auspices of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs has stimulated further research into Petroglyphs found in caves.

The project RPE is a gift for posterity. Raj Somadeva's Rock Paintings and Engraving Sites in Sri Lanka has carved a niche in the pre-history of Sri Lanka.

 

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