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Excavating Sri Lankan archaeology with Raj Somadeva PART 2

by ratnawalli - November 22, 2014 at 8:33 am

Darshanie Ratnawalli, being the second part of an interview with Professor Raj Somadeva published in  The Nation (print edition here) on Sunday, 16th November 2014

6Somadeva and team in Ranchamadama.

Professor Raj Somadeva, PhD (Uppsala), Post Graduate Institute of Archaeology, Sri Lanka spoke to Darshanie Ratnawalli on a variety of topics, assiduously tackling all questions both verbally and in a 2400 word answer script, and modestly dismissing all thanks, citing his obligation to answer to the public. Here are excerpts from the interview continuing from last week.
DR: You believe in giving weight to the internal dynamic when interpreting findings?

RS: Yes. We separated from the Indian mainland 7000 years ago. We developed as an island. The main characteristic of an island civilization is the insularity. We got capabilities of developing some things on our own. We had a series of external influences, but the internal dynamic was the most crucial factor in shaping our culture. During the last 100 years, the main theoretical perspective to dominate our historiography, inspired by our first generation of historians and archaeologists was diffusionism. Everything diffuses from the powerful place to here. This is an old fashioned way of thinking. Every people has the capacity to develop their own things. As an archaeologist by profession, I believe that it is more important to look at our ‘internal dynamic’ than try to find conquering external connections. It does not mean that the external influences should be ignored.

DR: But the island didn’t develop Prakrit on its own…

RS: This happened due to the Indian oceanic trade in the first millennium BC. If it hadn’t we would have developed our own language. That’s the historical reality.

DR: But because it happened we got a Middle Indo Aryan language and the associated mythology. The island adopted the Indo-Aryan ‘yaksha’, ‘naga’ mythology. It does not have an indigenous mythology…”

RS: No we had. We had. Just give me five minutes. I will show you… (Comes back with some sculpted stone objects). Can you identify these four objects? You asked about our indigenous myths. This is female breasts. This is a male phallus…

A proto historic Lankan conceptualisation of the male phallus.

Female bust conceptualised by proto historic Lankans

DR: These are pre-historic?

RS: No, proto-historic. Now look at this. Female genitals. And this is thighs. And they enhanced this region ((indicating the gluteal area). So these are the conceptual fabrications of the early period developed by our indigenous people. Every artifact tells us about their mental formulations, if you like, myths.

Female gluteal region and thighs venerated in proto historic Lanka

DR: But they were displaced. These conceptualizations were displaced by the incoming…

RS:  Yes, powerful organized religions… We are still waiting for dates for these artifacts. I hope they can be dated to 6000 BC. The final phase of the pre-historic hunter gatherers can be dated to 1800 BC according to the results Dr. Deraniyagala got from Manthai. But that is his observation. We got totally different things.

DR: But why do you call these objects proto-historic?

RS: Because we also got pitted hammer stones used to produce fire and very finely manufactured stone tools. Proto-history started from the point that traditional hunter gatherers started to increase the dependence on floral material or became foragers. These are from the foraging phase. It’s the beginning of the proto-historic period. This is the first time in Sri Lankan archaeological history that we found this sort of objects. Phallic objects.

DR: Religious?

RS: Yes. Religious. These are nonutility objects. So they have some sort of religious connotation. This is why I am always talking about the internal dynamics. As you said when the Big Tradition came over the Indian Ocean to this country, every folk tradition got displaced.

DR: So that’s why we call it the Great Tradition. Because it could displace indigenous conceptualizations.

RS: Yes

Ritual space in 6000 BC Lanka? The limestone cave in Hunugalagala, Walmithalawa excavated in 2013, yielding phallic objects

DR: All this talk of the internal dynamic… It’s not because you have ties to the Hela Urumaya?

RS: No. I don’t have any ideological affiliations with any political party. I have several friends in the Hela Urumaya and I know Minister Patali very well. But I don’t have any bias.

DR: Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka has said in an address in Paris that you found beads in Ambilipitiya that were 4000 years old, older than beads found anywhere in the world and that when you excavated the place where they were found, you unearthed a history that will amaze the world, namely a civilization that definitely built powerful cities 4000 years ago including 6 walled cities larger than Sigiriya. What’s your comment?

RS: Yes, Hon. Minister’s statement is correct. I had an excavation in a village called Ranchamadama in the Ratnapura District  in the year 2007. It is an ancient cemetery. The radiometric dates obtained to the wood charcoal collected from the burial canoes suggest that it was built in 1350 BCE. We found a fragment of a clay bead from one of the burials. So that could also be assigned to that date. This is the only example of this kind so far recovered in Sri Lanka that belonged to the proto-historic period (i.e. Prehistoric – historic transition) of the country. I did not read the Hon. Minister’s speech and thus it is difficult to make any clarification on other points he made.

Ancient cemetery in Ranchamadama, where they buried the dead in canoes. C. 1350 BC

DR: I can play you the Minister’s speech…

RS: [Listens to the relevant part (from 7.24 to 7.54 @ http://tinyurl.com/Paris-speech) containing claims of a 4000 years old urban civilization in Lanka and curtly shakes his head].

DR: It wasn’t you who said those things?

RS: (Shakes his head)

DR: You have said that the Yaksas and Nagas of the Lankan chronicles are the indigenous communities of Lanka. Are you sure you said this?  In the Chronicles, they are clearly depicted as mythical creatures. The yaksha-naga mythology is shared across south Asia. It was part of the package we got when the Great Tradition came over the Indian Ocean.

RS: I noticed that you used a word ‘Indian Great Tradition’. For me it seem to radiate your own bias on that tradition. The feeling of the greatness of a given tradition is highly relative. Traditions are autonomous. I think we cannot understand our tradition relative to the tradition of our neighbour. It is also important to know that the similarities of different traditions could originate and exist individually and autonomously. Yes I told that the Yakshas and Nagas in our historical horizon are coming to our ken as indigenous groups. Actually it is not originally my own idea. It is embedded in our historical chronicles. For instance, as we are all familiar with, according to Mahavamsa, at the time of the arrival of Vijaya, the island was occupied by Kuveni and her relatives. Then Vijaya’s mission was to subjugate those indigenous people to hold his sway in the country. The concept of Naga is a widespread phenomenon in South Asia. So too are Yakshas and Devas. But, we have to distinguish very carefully what the term Yaksha and Naga meant for our society.

DR: Yes. I am talking about our society. I am talking about Lankan chronicles. Not all Yakshas and Nagas in our historical horizons are indigenous. Some of them are Indian. Because Lankan historical horizons are wider than Lanka. They encompass India too. For example, according to Mahavamsa, when Sanghamitta’s ship is about to sail from India, Nagas tried to seize the Bodhi branch. So that was definitely Nagas in India. Asoka had just bidden farewell to the Bodhi branch and gone and the ship was about to sail. Definitely not an indigenous group.

RS: So this is according to Mahavamsa? We have to carefully…

DR: Wait. Not only Mahavamsa. According to Dipavamsa, Mahavamsa and Samantapasadika, when Buddhist missions were sent to various countries after the third council, Thera Majjhantika went to Ghandhara/Kashmira and converted a Naga king. Both Mahavamsa and Samantapasadika say that he also converted many yakshas in the Himalayas and that a certain yaksha with his yakshini and 500 sons obtained first fruits (sothapatti phala). That’s the Sri Lankan sources. But the odd thing is the Buddhist sources of Kashmir-Gandhara echo this. Hiuen Tsiang’s travels relate the legend of how Arhat Madhyantika claimed the land of Kashmir from the Naga. In the version given in the Chinese Vinaya of the Mula-Sarvastivadins, Arhat Madhyandina take the land from the Naga and settles people there. So even though you say that traditions are autonomous, they are all connected.

RS: Yes, yes I agree…

DR: What I meant by ‘Great Indian Tradition’ was not the Tradition of modern India. But the whole, greater India; Sri Lanka, India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Java, Sumatra, Malaysia…It’s the Great tradition not because it’s up there, but because it’s all around. Can you really separate our tradition and the tradition of India? When the Buddhist cannon and the commentaries were bought here from India, we preserved them. We added to those commentaries. Our chronicles arose from that commentarial tradition…

RS: You are talking of the tradition taken by the super-structure of the society; kings, ministers, the Buddhist clergy, not the common people. The common people had separate traditions, thinking and behaviour patterns.

DR: But don’t you think the common people follow the trends set by the privileged people? For example, if the privileged people had Naga as part of their personal names, don’t you think the common people would also adopt those names? Don’t you feel that this adoption of Naga names was a fashion among people who had adopted the Great Indian Tradition? For example in his 1926 book “Indian Serpent Lore- The Nagas in Hindu Legend and Art”, J. P. H Vogel, a Professor of Sanskrit and Indian Archaeology in the University of Leyden, a former Superintendent, Archaeological Survey of India says “With reference to the name Nagarjuna, we may call attention to the frequent occurrence of the word ‘Naga’ as the first member of personal names both in literature and in inscriptions. This alone would suffice to demonstrate the importance of the deified snakes in ancient India. Cf. the Index of personal names accompanying Professor Luders’ List of Brahmi Inscriptions. Ep Ind, vol x, pp. 193 f”.

RS: Actually…all those terminologies, ‘yaksha’, ‘naga’ are derived from Pali and Sanskrit. So in the early period, it was the literate people who classified some of the local groups as yakshas and nagas.

DR: But Professor, even though you say they are groups, they are not really group names are they? They are just personal names.

RS: Not personal names. You have personal names. But at large the names denote a group of professionals. Yakshas are…

DR: No Professor! For example, if Parumaka Naga’s son is Parumaka Maha Reta, it’s not really a family name is it, or a group name? Because the son has a different name?

RS: Naga and ‘Yaksha’ are not perfect group names…

DR: Not like Barata?

RS: Not like Barata. It’s a kind of way of denoting a particular profession. People who use that name engage in that profession…

DR:  Profession??

RS: Yes. Profession. Like smelting iron or manufacturing iron tools. For example there is an English name, ‘Shoemaker’. What’s the etymology of this word? ‘Shoemaker’ is a profession. But it’s used as a personal name.

DR: But if somebody’s name is Naga Sena, what is the profession?

RS:  No, no, no. Like ‘Shoemaker’ can be used in different contexts, if there’s a particular name for a profession, later on someone can use this as his or her personal name. Ok? You have to look at the entire historical process not only history. Historical process is totally dependent on the socio-political realities of the day.

Mythical Vagina from 6000 BC?


A small stone marked with a tunnel like cavity, which obviously represents the vagina. At the time of excavation, they found the cavity filled with red ochre powder, clearly meant to depict blood. The professor says that in the rural society, the vagina is known as ‘kili male’ and ‘kili’ means blood. He concludes that it’s the idea behind that rural terminology, which is depicted in this object, offering us an instance of the linguistic reflected in material form. It is my understanding however that what is known as ‘kili male’ in the rural society is not the vagina but the menstrual disorder called ‘Menorrhagia’, involving excessive and prolonged periods.

To be continued:

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