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Kuragala Lessons – Fighting with honour for a stake in a layered heritage

by ratnawalli - March 19, 2014 at 12:15 pm

Published in my Column in The Nation and Colombo Telegraph on Sunday, 26 May, 2013

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

In Archaeology there is a novel concept called “Public Participatory Interactive multi cultural Museum and Site Presentation applicable to sites with multiple heritages[i]. This involves being inclusive of all available heritage components in presenting the identity of a site[ii].

Kuragala presents the typical layered heritage pattern. Season 1- It is a pre-historic habitat of Homo sapiens balangodensis[iii]. Season 2- In 2/3rd century BC Lanka, adherents of a new religion make it a raging fashion to dedicate caves right and left to the cave dwelling Sangha (inscribing the donor names on the cave wall) and Kuragala does not escape[iv]. Season 3- Kuragala becomes an Islamic shrine and a retreat.

Nowadays, Kuragala is a very useful site. Trying to assess how much its presentation in Media measures up to the multiple stakeholders concept is a sure way to identify the less obvious faces of intolerance and chauvinism. (As we already know the obvious face, the BBS, the flavor of the season in villainy).

I am going to highlight two recent journalistic presentations that attempted through misinformation (which even a routine veracity check could have shown up), to obliterate one heritage component of Kuragala and up the stakes of another. These presentations were by Latheef Farook and Dharisha Bastians.

Let’s compare these with the presentation of Kuragala (in 1932) by Charles Collins, the British Civil Servant and GA for Ratnapura at the time. Collins’ presentation, “The Archaeology of Sabaragamuwa, Bintenna” (Journal R.A.S (Ceylon) Vol. XXXII, No 85 of 1932) is currently available in the RAS library, Sri Lanka. In the public interest, I have uploaded my scanned copy at http://ratnawalli.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/The-Archaeology-of-the-Sabaragamuwa-Bintenna..pdf.

Collins’ paper is an attempt to give an account of the antiquities of the Ratnapura District which “is generally considered archeological barren”. “The few early Ruins and Inscriptions which are to be found in the District” are practically “in one small corner”. Traversing this ‘small corner’ to get up close and personal with these ruins and inscriptions takes Collins to seven places (Budu-gala, Kura-gala, Diyainna, Handa-giriya, Kottimbul-wala, Sankha-pala Vihare in Pallebedda and Galpaya).

“Kura-gala, the next place that claims our attention…the interest centres not at the foot of the hills, but high up …The archeological interest is confined to two sets of high and rocky cliffs, with a deep cleft between them. In the first set…there are several caves and two inscriptions. The latter are found on a high rock known as Hituwan-gala. The first record (A) is cut in a single line at the South end of one of the caves in this rock”.

Collins then describes the first record (A). “The inscription is cut in Brahmi characters of about the second century B.C.” This “inscription is worn and very difficult to reach, but from a “squeeze” and an “eye-copy” it appears to be as follows…”

Describing Inscription B, as being “on the same rock as A, but inscribed in two lines, about 30 feet or more above a second cave” and “in an almost inaccessible position” Collins gives us its transcript nevertheless. As per these transcripts, these are records of cave dedications by elite donors.

Return to 2013 and witness the obliterative intent in Latheef Farook’s presentation. He transforms the Buddhist layer of the site into a mere claim by “vested interests”, dating from 1961, for which “no proof can be adduced”. The only evidence that the site was a Buddhist monastery of the 2nd century BC, Farook informs us confidently, is “a board placed by the Archaeological Department in 1972”. As we struggle between two explanations for Farook; ignorance or deception, we notice another strange thing.

Far from being ignorant of the writings on the Hituwangala rock he is very much aware of them. The following sentence makes this clear; “For example when Mr. Godakumbura was asked to record and decipher the Arabic writings at Dafther Jailany Mosque especially on the Hittuwangala Rock, his answer was that it was of no relevance…”  It is this sentence which ultimately points us away from ignorance and towards deception as the real explanation. Notice the plural ‘Arabic writings’. Also notice the annexation of ‘writings on the Hituwangala Rock’ under ‘Arabic Writings’.

The only writing on the Hituwangala rock as Collins makes clear is in the Brahmi script and by no stretch of the imagination does Brahmi look like Arabic as Collins’ ‘eye copy’ also makes clear[v]. Nor is there a plurality of Arabic writing in Kuragala. There is only one open claim of an Arabic inscription. It’s written on a tombstone allegedly discovered in 1922. (This discovery is unknown to Collins and his local guides). This tombstone is the only Arabic writing Farook’s article mentions upfront. “Among the proofs of Qutub Muhiyuddin’s links with Kuragala was the tombstone discovered in 1922 when excavating to build a mosque about ten feet below a mound of earth with the words stating “Disciple of Mohyiuddin” dated 1322 AD.” It is the photograph of this Arabic writing, which is uploaded and circulated widely as the legitimating evidence. There are no upfront references in Media to Arabic inscriptions on the Hituwangala rock[vi] or any rock in the vicinity (Crucial geology tip- a tombstone is not a rock). Nor photographs. Nor translations.

Instead there are covert acts of annexation and multiplication. Consider the following sentence from Dharisha Bastians’; “Kuragala is home to an ancient Sufi shrine, sacred to Muslims because Arabic rock inscriptions, tombstones and other historical evidence point to a greatly revered Islamic saint having meditated in the rock caves”.

Notice the transmogrification of tombstone into tombstones and Brahmi rock inscriptions into Arabic[vii]. There is a strikingly similar sentence in Farook’s, strongly suggestive of both journalists having dipped into the same source.

“Rock carvings, Arabic inscriptions, writings, tombstones and legends lead us to believe that Qutub Muhyiuddin had spent a part of his meditation at Jailany-Kuragala.”

To be continued.

[i] This is how the Jetavana site has been presented to the public. According to Sudarshan Seneviratne; “Though this is primarily a religious site, the rationale of the site presentation is to situate Jetavana within a socio-cultural context representing its international dimension to the visitor as well”. He is all for stressing “the multi religious and multi cultural character of this site”. Because “This site, which is primarily a Mahayana Buddhist site, has yielded several statues of Hindu deities. A Mahayana statue carries a 10th Century AC Tamil inscription recording an endowment by a mercantile guild in south India. The discovery of West Asian ceramics and large quantities of imported ceramics and raw material for beads only speak of the multi cultural and multi religious character of this site. The 6th Century AC Nestorian cross (now located at the Anuradhapura archaeological museum) was discovered in the elite Citadel complex adjacent to the Jetavana site.”

 

[ii] Some others caution against being too heavy handed with the multi-religious -multi cultural approach to the extent of distorting the true ethos of a site. See A look at an Insider’s Challenge to History Brown Sahibs and Cultural definitions by Bandu de Silva. Part I http://www.island.lk/2007/10/10/midweek4.html and Part II http://www.island.lk/2007/10/11/features5.html .

[iii] It appears now that Kuragala is the largest prehistoric settlement ever to be unearthed in Sri Lanka. It’s a success story where a bold decision led unexpectedly to spectacular results. http://www.ceylontoday.lk/59-32242-news-detail-kuragala-back-in-the-limelight.html

 

[iv] Note that Caves all over Sri Lanka are inscribed in one language(Sinhalese Prakrit) and one script (the variation called Sinhalese Brahmi), even when the donors described are from varying cultural/ethnic contexts. This uniformity across a broad geographic canvass helps to place it within a single genre. For this reason even when the word ‘sangha’ does not occur in the inscription people generally do not make embarrassing gaffes. For example, it would be a rare simpleton who would interpret “The cave of the merchants who are the citizens of Dīghavāpī, of the sons of ….and of the wife Tissā, the Tamil” as a record of a 200 BC X rated cave epic. You don’t have to have the whole nine yards as in “Princess (Abi)Allurādhī, daughter of king Nāga and wife of king Uttiya, and king Uitiya, caused this cave to be established, for the Saṅgha of the four quarters, as comfortable abode of all that are come, and for the welfare and happiness of beings in the boundless universe”. The context identifies the purpose.

 

[v] The only thing that would exonerate Farook from ‘deception’ is if Arabic writing had appeared on the Hituwangala rock face after 1932 when Collins failed to witness any. But then he would be open to ‘gullibility of the most simpleton kind’. If I were a journalist I would prefer the charge of ‘deception’ to gullibility. I could at least preen myself on being a wily fox.

 

[vi] There is one though. But I am saving it for next week. Too juicy.

 

[vii] Again if Arabic witting and a tombstone had materialized after Collins’ visit, this would exonerate Dharisha Bastians from ‘deception’ and transform her merely into a ‘bridge buyer’, but is such deliverance worth it?

 

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