Uncovering Sri Lanka’s past: the beginnings in the 19th century
Thus, when serious investigations began it was the Mahavansa that provided the information to locate the ancient monuments and also to identify what was discovered by ground surveys.
Although the excavations done and discoveries made during the 19th century were almost wholly the result of interested British officials, Buddhist priests in Anuradhapura too had taken a great interest in what were their own, and had taken steps to uncover some of the more important religious monuments..
For instance, Forbes (1828) had noted that between 1828 and 1829 Abhayagiriya had been cleared of jungle by a priest and Ievers in his Manual has noted that in 1841 Thuparamaya had been similarly restored by a priest. Further, he also notes that in 1853 Ruvanveliseya had been covered with white cloth and a kota (pinnacle) placed on it.
However, from his notes it is obvious that very little follow up action had been taken by those individuals or groups –an almost impossible task for voluntary workers- as the monuments had apparently remained as what they would have been after the initial clearings. Thus Ievers remarks that before 1873 Ruvanveliseya was a huge shapeless mass of bricks and it had been sometime before 1870, that the main monuments had been cleared of jungle for Lawton [he was an Englishman who had a photographic establishment down Castle Hill Street, Kandy] to photograph them between 1871 and 1873. The clearing for photographing the monuments had been done with the approval and supervision of Naranvita Unananse.
Yet, it is said that a general plan of the city of Anuradhapura showing the principal monuments was appended to Turnour’s Mahavamsa of 1833 [I have not seen it]. Tennent described the monuments in his ‘Ceylon’ (1861) and included wood-cut prints taken from the drawings of Andrew Nicholl. The latter had accompanied Tennent when he visited Anuradhapura and Polonnaruva just before the 1848 rebellion, and had drawn the more important places he had seen. It was from those drawings that the wood-cuts had been done for printing.
The illustrations in Tennent’s book show the Bo-tree, ruins of the Brazen Palace, the rock of Sigiriya, the ascent to Mihintale, the Ambasthala dagaba and a number of illustrations of the ruined monuments at Polonnaruva. The book also has a plan of Anuradha pura done by Skinner (1852) and of Polonnaruva by WG Hall. That a general idea of the stupas was had by Tennent is seen by his illustration showing the relative heights and shapes of them (p.1053)
The governors who had interested themselves in the ancient capitals had been Ward (1855-1860), Robinson (1865-1872) and Gregory (1872-1879) They had given instructions for the clearing of the jungle, and uncovering the monuments that could be undertaken by the officials. In fact during the time of Robinson, Captain Hogg of the Royal Engineers had been asked to photograph the inscriptions, but the exercise had been a failure, and later he had been used to photograph monuments. [I do not know whether that too had been successful , for I have not been able to locate any such photographs] But the better known and available series was done by Lawton. Of all the Governors Gregory had been the most enthusiastic, in reviving oriental learning, and his enthusiasm had been passed on to his successors Longdon (1877-1883), Gordon (1883-1890 and Havelock (1890-1896).
As noted earlier, NCP was formed in 1874 making Anuradjapura its capital. In 1877, Anuradhapura was surveyed, and detailed plans of the dagabas were drawn by Smither. S M Burrows had started excavations and explorations during the period 1884-1885, and finally an Archeological Survey was established in 1890, and the Archeological Department set up to administer it.
Bell, the first Archeological Commissioner had only one draughtsman and 40 labourers to begin with. It is that ‘team’ –later increased by two officers and a few more labourers that had done all that marvellous initial explorations, excavations and restorations to uncover and show to the world the glory of that ancient city. But, as noted earlier, the latter half of the 19th century had seen clearing of some of the stupas, and some of the more important monuments, but it was Bell who had commenced systematic investigations and conservation of what was discovered or exposed.
It may be easy to find fault today in the techniques and methodology of those early explorations and excavations, but the work had been done almost single handed and with the barest funds made available by the Treasury for such work. Dedication would have been the key to success. If the monuments were put up by kahavanu paid by the ancient monarchs, centuries later they were uncovered of jungle growth by British officials working with local funds and the available labour.
By the end of the 19th century Anuradhapura was no longer a forgotten city. It had road, rail and telegraphic connections. Its ancient past was proclaimed to the world, and tourists were encouraged to visit the place. A rest-house was available and coaches were also available for the visitors. All that meant the place should be in a presentable state, and that was the responsibility of the Government Agent.
During that century they also cleared a major part of Sigiriya, conserved its gallery walls, its summit, and had some clearing of the city-area around the rock. It was Gordon who had instructed Murray to get copies of the Sigiriya frescoes and a set of 13 in coloured chalks had been obtained by him. But it had been Bell who had got them copied in oil. by his draughtsman D A L Perera. For that purpose Perera had been provided with a chair hanging from the cliff of the rock, and swinging in mid-air about 150’above the ground, he had accomplished that task
During the 19th century Mihintale too had received due attention. The ascent had been cleared, and the Ambasthala dagaba conserved. For the latter they had used prison labour, and in fact a temporary prison camp had been set up in Mihintale to get the prisoners in time for work. Furthermore, another camp had been set up nearby to get the lime-stone necessary for restoration and conservation work. The naga-pokuna and some other monuments had also been cleared, water inlets and outlets discovered and a general plan of the site made available.
Polonnaruva too has had its equal share of attention. Tennent was able to see some of the monuments, which were drawn by Andrew Nicholl who accompanied him in his tour. Ward was the first governor who had directed that the jungle be cleared, and it had been Burrows who had done the major part of jungle clearing during the period 1884-1885. But when Lawton was doing his photographs (1870-1873) the principal ruins had been cleared for that purpose
At Polonnaruva the focus of attention of Buddhist priests had been the Gal Vihara, and Ievers noted that they had cleared the monument of its unseemly brickwork put up there and also removed the paints that had been applied. During that period the British had undertaken to do only what they could have achieved in a ‘season’ and had apparently conserved, to the best of their ability what they had exposed.
The annual administration reports of the Government Agents of the latter half of the 19th century (published since 1862) their Diaries, and the reports of the Archeological Survey as seen in the Sessional Papers record the work done in the 19th century.
Incidentally, I still recall, even in the 1970’ and 1980’ the Treasury officials discussing the annual budgetary estimates of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs informing the officers of the Department pf Archaeology ‘conserve what you expose’, for they said, what lies buried will remain safe to be investigated at a later date, but what is exposed should be conserved, otherwise they will perish.
In the recent past, with changing circumstances other considerations seems to have taken precedence over professional work, scholarship and technical requirements. For the public, even the annual administration reports of the Archeological department are available, as at present, only up to 1997. Yet. what was begun in the 19th c. and completed to whatever extent in the 20th c. is seen today as our visual heritage that we proudly present to the civilised world
It is also noted that although during the Anuradhapura period, the kings had the sovereignty over the whole island, the far flung areas would have been administered by the scions of the kings or sub-polities acknowledging the authority of the king in the capital. Inscriptions of the kings are found in most parts of the island, but monumental remains ascribed to them are few. Next to Rajarata southeast, has the largest number of monuments, but most of them are known to be the works of the sub-rulers of the areas
It is noted that in Polonnaruva too, whether of the Cola rule (992-1070) or of the Sinhalese monarchs, most monuments are confined to Polonnaruva and the vicinity.
In this inquiry for the culture and civilisation of the Sinhalese, a pioneer body which sponsored such activity was the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society. Established by the British in 1845. it had become the most prestigious such body in the island during the 19th and the early 20th century. During its early days the governor himself presided over its meetings, and the early membership too had been mostly British. The Journal of the Society started by them in that year continues to be published to date.
The Journal contains the many lectures held at the society’s meetings and their discussions, as well as papers presented for publication. The availability of such a forum, and a prestigious one at that, would have been a great impetus to scholars to engage in research and investigations. Apart from its varied activities in that early period, the archeological explorations done during a year came to be regularly presented at its general meetings, and then published in the journal. Thus, in those early days, apart from the Sessional Papers that came to be published later in the century, the journal was the vehicle that disseminated such information.
In this activity of discovering the past, as said earlier, Governor Sir William Gregory (1872-1877) had played a significant role. He was enthusiastic in establishing a museum, and managed to convince the Colonial Office in London, of the great advantage a museum will be to the people of the island. And, finally having had his day, the Colombo Museum building was constructed according to his plans and opened to the public on January 1. 1877. Thereafter, some of the valuable finds made in the latter part of the 19th c. were transferred to the Museum for public exhibition.
The other aspect the British took an interest in was to find and restore the irrigation system of the ancient Sinhalese. A dagaba had always been associated with a wewa or reservoir, and the credit for the discovery and restoration of most of them too goes to the British officers, and more particularly to their surveyors and engineers.
In a day, when there was hardly any transport facilities they walked or at times went on horse-back miles to trace the channels that connected this wewa with the other or to discover the lengths and contours of a bund, which held the waters of those extensive reservoirs. They travelled clearing their way through elephant infested thick jungles or dense shrub land, and when night fell they got down chulus and lighted them to find their way back to their tents or to civilisation.
R L Brohier, in his Ancient Irrigation Works in Ceylon (1934) notes the names of some of those early officers who had untiringly traced the course of those various channels and canals, and the reservoirs to which they had emptied their waters. In a sense, irrigation works would have been of real importance to the people, for one had to live before one thinks of religion or culture. So we see the multitude of irrigation works done by many ancient kings of Rajarata. All the works of that period have still not been discovered and identified, but those which have been discovered and restored still continue to arouse the wonder of both ordinary people and technocrats who work with modern and sophisticated instruments.
In his work, Brohier provides fascinating descriptions given by early surveyors like Alex, Young, Adams, Churchill and Bailey. (1855) And,
in this field of discovery too one very valuable source had been the Mahavamsa. It was the details given in it together with traditions as told by the local inhabitants that had guided them in their surveys. One surveyor had said that he knew the Mahavamsa almost by heart, which shows how important it had been for them. The discovered and restored irrigation works still function after a millennium of neglect, and speaks loud and clear of the ingenuity of the ancient engineers of the island
Speaking of the mechanism which regulated the outflow of water from a reservoir, Brohier quotes Parker, the Irrigation Officer, who had said, what fulfiled that function was the Bisokotuva. It was the "valve-towers" and "valve- pits" of modern time, that regulated or totally stopped the outward flow of water in a large reservoir. Parker had said, ‘Such being the case, the Sinhalese Engineers by building these Biso-kotuwas established a claim to be considered as "the first inventors of the "valve-pit" ‘more than 2,100 years ago" (Brohier, Part 1, p.3)
As much as the British ‘discovered’ the ancient monuments and the marvellous irrigation works, they had also never failed to acknowledge the ingenuity of the Sinhalese in executing those works. 19th century investigations and explorations had laid the foundation for the continuation of such work in the 20th century, which as properly conserved and restored is seen as the complementary aspect of the proud heritage of the people –the Sinhalese- of a small island nation. And, we should ever be grateful to those British officials for bringing those works to light in modern times to be admired by one and all.
And, let me conclude by saying the good that is done, will always remain in the memory of man.