Carving a niche in Sri Lanka’s prehistory
Rock Paintings and Engraving Sites in Sri lanka
R. A. J. Somadeva
Published by the Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology of the University
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.
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
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
H.C.P. Bell has reported his observations on the painted rock
surfaces of two sites in the Polonnaruwa District and the Batticaloa
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
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
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”.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.