web analytics

What Paranavitana said to McGilvray; “Do your homework son”

by ratnawalli - March 21, 2014 at 10:05 am

Published in my  Column in The Nation and Colombo Telegraph on Sunday, 04 August 2013

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

“There are Brahmi inscriptions at Jailani dating to the second century BC, but they appear to assert territorial claims by local political chieftains. According to Aboosally (2002: 62-3) there is no evidence that the site was ever dedicated to the Buddhist Sangha.”- Dennis McGilvray, ‘Jailani: A Sufi Shrine in Sri Lanka’

In Sri Lanka, inscriptions written in the Brahmi script “are found in an unbroken continuity from the last quarter of the third century B.C. to the end of the seventh century A. D”- (Epigraphia Zeylanica Volume VIII[i]/2001:p1). Palaeographically, these “may be divided into three periods”. – (ibid).


It’s the first period, ‘Early Brahmi (3rd century B.C.-1st century A.D.)’ that is interesting to us given our present fixation on McGilvray and Kuragala. “The early Brahmi cave inscriptions of Sri Lanka bear a stereotyped formula of the dedication of caves to the Buddhist monks. The language in them is the oldest example of the Sinhalese language showing an absence of long vowels and conjunct consonants” –(ibid).


These cave records of Sri Lanka show us “the prevalence of the custom (then in vogue in Buddhist India) of dedicating caves as places of shelter to the Buddhist monks as a body, irrespective of sectarian differences, if they had any at that early period”.- (Epigraphia Zeylanica Vol I[ii]/1904-1912:p18)


A critical way Sri Lankan cave donations differ from India is in the nature of recipients.  In India, caves were donated to “the recluses of various faiths”- (EZ :VIII:p15). “In the Barabar Hill cave inscriptions of Asoka, the Ajivakas (mendicants) were the donees”- (ibid).  Asoka’s grandson Dasalatha’s Nagarjuna Hill cave inscription specifically states “given to the mendicants” (ajivikehi).-(ibid)


In striking contrast, Sri Lankan cave donations are exclusively associated with and considered to have been triggered by the introduction of Buddhism and its success in taking root.


“Stone inscriptions first appear in Ceylon very soon after the introduction of Buddhism, and their contents are Buddhistic.”- (Inscriptions of Ceylon Vol 1(IC[iii])-p xxiii)


“After the introduction of Buddhism, the early Brahmi inscriptions, indited under the drip-ledges of caves, make their presence for four centuries, beginning from the third century B.C. and witness the establishment of the Buddhist Monastic Order in the island.” –(EZ: VIII- p 8)


“The tradition of writing one line inscriptions on the caves in the entire country and the continuation of the practice right through the period of four centuries, certainly, witness the rapid spread of Buddhism in the country. Agata anagata catudisa sagasa, the formula carried by almost all these records compels us to understand that the gifts have been made to the Budhist monks without distinction of any school or sect.” (ibid-p 11)


Here’s a typical cave inscription (No. 184 in IC) that illustrates the formula- “Parumaka-Digamita-puta Tisaha lene agata-anagata catu-disa-sagasa” (The cave of Tissa, the son of the chief Dighamitta, [is given]to the Sangha of the four quarters, present and absent).


A significant number of inscriptions however, follow shortened formats.  The typical shortenings (illustrated using this same inscription) would be-

1)    Parumaka-Digamita-puta Tisaha lene catu-disa-sagasa

2)    Parumaka-Digamita-puta Tisaha lene catu-sagasa

3)    Parumaka-Digamita-puta Tisaha lene sagasa


According to EZ VIII, the occurrence of “shortened forms, e.g. catu sagasa or sagasa in inscriptions, probably represents a later stage”.


The shortest format would look like

4)    Parumaka-Digamita-puta Tisaha lene

When this version occurs in caves, it is interpreted in context of the implicit formula, i.e. the cave donated to the Sangha by Tissa and not as his private cave to which perhaps he brought ‘advanced dates’.


In the formulaic rules of our cave inscriptions, the person whose name is in the possessive case in relation to the cave is always the donor, not the territorial claimant or occupant of the cave. Even when a cave is said to be a bonafide cave dweller’s (i.e. a monk), e.g.- “Damaguta-terasa lene- The cave of the Tera Dhammagutta” (No. 584 of IC), he is understood to be a donor. “The inscriptions which merely state that a cave was of a tera or a bata named, without mentioning its donation to the Sangha, cannot be taken as indicating that the tera in question occupied that cave. Similar phraseology is used in the case of laymen also.”-(IC, pg cvii). In cases such as ‘Tera X’s cave’, going by the same rule that applies to ‘Layman Y’s cave’, “…the gift of the cave to the Sangha, though not particularly mentioned, may be understood.” (ibid)


This is why in the Kuragala Brahmi inscriptions the donation to the Sangha is understood without being explicit.


“Suma (female), Parumakalu, donated, in partnership with Parumaka Sumana (possibly her husband), a cave at Kuragala” – No. 249 (regarding inscription no. 775) on the list of Parumakas – IC.


No. 263 in the same list (regarding the same inscription) – “Sumana, has donated the cave at Kuragala in partnership with Parumakalu Suma, probably his wife”


238th of the same list (referring to inscription no. 776); “Sona, whose son Bata Punasaguta was donor of a cave at Kuragala”



Kuragala presents three Brahmi inscriptions, two of which were published by C. H Collins in JRASCB, XXXII, 1932, from eye copies. The Collins inscriptions were reread, and republished in Inscriptions of Ceylon Vol. I from mechanical estampages (The most reliable method of reading an inscription) taken by the Department of Archaeology at site. The correct reading of what Collins saw as “Dataha Sapu daha lene” and translated as “The dedicated cave of Dataha” turned out to be “….dataha Samudaha lene” (The cave of …datta [and] of Samdda) (No. 774-IC).

Feminine Motif

The inscription Collins saw as “Parumaka Sumanaha Parumaka Lasamaya” and interpreted as “The cave of the Chief Sumana and the Chief Lasama” turned out to have a feminine motif and now reads (No. 775-IC) as “Parumaka Sumanaha Parumakalu Sumaya”- (Of the chief Sumana; of the chieftainess Summa).


One inscription, Collins did not observe was published in ASCAR, 1961-2 and appears as No. 776 of IC under Kuragala ; “Parumaka Sona-putasa

Bata-Punasagutasa lene- The cave of lord Punasaguta, son of the chief Sona.”


So, Watson, we finally come to “The Book”, which is basic reading for any scholar setting out to comment on any early Brahmi inscription of Sri Lanka.  Inscriptions of Ceylon-Volume 1, edited by S. Pranavitana, which gives the texts and translations together with (in most cases) photographic plates of their mechanical estampages, of 1276 inscriptions (41 are inscribed on rocks; the rest in caves) from 269 ancient sites distributed in 16 of the 22 districts into which Lanka was divided at the time of publication(1970).


This is the book Dennis McGilvray should have read before setting out to interpret Kuragala Brahmi inscriptions under the tutelage of an M.L.M Aboosally, hospitality dispenser and inscription analyzer extraordinaire. This is the book that does not appear, even for form’s sake, in the list of references of Mac’s paper on Jailani.  This is the book, of which C. R. de Silva, (A historian, who figures in Mac’s acknowledgements) should have warned Dennis; “Mac, you don’t have to read it, but for God’s sake include it in your references, if you want to analyze Brahmi inscriptions”.

Courtesy of The Nation  


http://ratnawalli.blogspot.com/  and rathnawalli@gmail.com



[i] The Growth of Buddhist Monastic Institutions in Sri Lanka from Brahmi Inscriptions, Epigraphia Zeylanica Volume VIII, Malini Dias.


[ii] Epigraphia Zeylanica Being Lithic and Other Inscriptions of Ceylon, Volume I, Don Martino De Zilva Wickremasingha


[iii] Inscriptions of Ceylon, Volume I, Early Brahmi Inscriptions, Paranavitana



Leave a Comment


March 2014
« Sep   Jun »

a rukizone site