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Excavating Sri Lankan archaeology with Raj Somadeva PART 3

by ratnawalli - November 23, 2014 at 12:13 pm

Darshanie Ratnawalli, being the third part of an interview with Professor Raj Somadeva published in  The Nation (print edition here) on Sunday, 23 November 2014

Somadeva and team at the site of the ‘yaksha’ inscription, a cave in Tamketiya, Nailgala, Kaltota.Somadeva and team at the site of the ‘yaksha’ inscription, a cave in Tamketiya, Nailgala, Kaltota.

The last part of the interview of Professor Raj Somadeva with Darshanie Ratnawalli continued from last week.

DR: To which period do you assign your ‘yaksha’ inscription?

RS: Frequently we used to ascribe the inscriptions written in early form (angular style) of the Brahmi letters found in Sri Lanka to 250 BCE which is contemporaneous with the reign of Emperor Ashoka in India.  In that conventional sense, our present inscription could also be ascribed to that date. But the thinking on the antiquity of the Brahmi script has now been gradually changing. I would like to quote a very particular case in this regard. Dr. Siran Deraniyagala, as you know, a well-known archaeologist in the country has unearthed a potsherd with an early form of Brahmi letters engraved on it found in an excavation carried out in the Mahapali refectory in Anuradhapura. The letters written reads as ‘ tayakute’ of which the meaning is uncertain. The soil layer where this particular potsherd was found has been radiometrically dated to a period between 600 and 500 BCE. This finding is stunning. It has provided an empirical framework to the early use of Brahmi script not only in Sri Lanka but also in the greater South Asian region. In 1970s, Professor Paranavitana has also concurred with the dating of the use of Brahmi letters before Ashoka. Anyway I suppose we need further research on this subject within a positive line of thinking.

DR: But isn’t there some doubt about this early date, 500, 600 BC?

RS: No

DR: Yes. For example, doesn’t Dr. Deraniyagala himself suggest in his publication in 1990…

RS:  1992…

DR: In 1990 [Radio Carbon Dating of Early Brahmi Script in Sri Lanka(600-500 BC), pg.159]; that because the 5 sherds came from a 10m deep pit, 3x3m, some of the layers may have been disturbed…

RS: Right…

DR: What I found was that in certain powerful academic circles, there was a lot of doubt about this early date.

RS: What do you mean by ‘Powerful academic circles’?

DR: For example, Michael Witzel, the Professor of Sanskrit and Indology at Harvard says in one of his publications [Autochthonous Aryans? The Evidence from Old Indian and Iranian Texts, 2001, p85, fn214]; “Coningham 1995 maintains an early –improbable–date for Brahmi at c. 500 BCE for Sri Lanka. This single, early date probably is due to unclear stratigraphy; the singular find of inscribed materials is situated barely below a much later level.” Then again there is a very unflattering statement made about the finding of early Brahmi writing in Sri Lanka in a joint publication by Steve Farmer, Richard Sproat and Michael Witzel [The Collapse of the Indus-Script Thesis: The Myth of a Literate Harappan Civilization, p46]. They say; “Writing is still often considered a requirement of large-scale urban civilizations…The result is that the discovery of early traces of writing is often taken for a holy grail by the public, archaeologists, and the agencies that fund them. It’s not a gross exaggeration to suggest that the first reaction of archaeologists who stumble on a cache of unknown symbols is to call in the press and announce the discovery of a new script, or in one alternate scenario the earliest traces of an old one. This story has played out repeatedly in the last half decade alone in respect to discoveries in Central Asia, Egypt, Sri Lanka, Europe, Central America and most recently Southeast Iran.” This seems to be somewhat an extreme reaction…

 RS: Ok. But remember that we are dealing with material evidence and the knowledge produced by the local scholars. So these are the criticisms…

DR: But let me read out to you the most reasonable summing up of the situation I have found. It’s by L.S. Cousins [Early Development of Buddhist Literature and Language in India]: “A limited amount of archaeological evidence for the early use of writing has been found on potsherds in the excavations at Anuradhapura, the ancient capital of Ceylon. The initial discoveries were made by Deraniyagala, who at first favoured rather early dates B.C., partly based upon his previously published view that a type of bone point found in archaeological contexts both in India and in Sri Lanka is a writing implement. In his more substantial subsequent publications he proposed on the specific evidence from his Anuradhapura investigations to date the use of Brahmi to approximately to sixth century B.C. Further investigations were carried out by British archaeologists and F.R Allchin initially suggested, more cautiously, that these potsherds are dated “by a large number of radiocarbon samples at least to the 4th-5th centuries B.C., if not earlier”. In a subsequent collective publication by the British archaeologists involved, a still more cautious position is indicated: “To sum up the evidence of the early use of Brahmi at Anuradhapura, the inscriptions provide a convincing series starting from their earliest occurrence in the early part of the fourth century B.C. The series shows three stages during which familiarity with and use of writing steadily develop.”” So it has been brought forward right? From the 6th, 5th century to 4th century? But still pre-Asokan.

RS: I agree with you. A single finding is not adequate to change the whole scenario of the origin of Brahmi. But it indicates in some way to think on the deep antiquity of the origin of Brahmi in the greater south Asian region. What I emphasise is that there is a possibility to push back the earliest date of Brahmi before the arrival of Arhat Mahinda in the day of Asoka. It has been accepted by Paranavitana, Deraniyagala, Ramesh and everybody. So this is supportive evidence for my discovery of the word ‘yagasha’.
R. Somadeva versus H. Falk. The Tissamaharama potsherd.R. Somadeva versus H. Falk. The Tissamaharama potsherd.
DR: Your reading of the famous Tissamaharama potsherd differs from that of Harry Falk. Why haven’t you published this variant reading anywhere significant? It only appears in a Sinhalese article in Sunday Divaina. What’s generally accepted in the relevant circles, yours or Falk’s?

RS: I have my own priorities in academic and research work. Some things which gain wider public attraction have been overlooked by my own preferences. In the case of the Tissamaharama potsherd, I made my interpretation on a reasonable linguistic ground according to my knowledge and experience of working nearly 22 years with epigraphy in Sri Lanka. Dr. Harry Falk has made his own. As an academic I did my part. I have very neutral views on the acceptance by others on my work. If scientists and the philosophers seek acceptance by others of their knowledge, then science will not progress anymore. Most of the brainstorming scientific discoveries were not the focus of popular public acceptance in their early stages. I believe that justifiable knowledge of any form will find its own levels of acceptance in society in time.

DR: Was your variant reading of the Anaikotte seal ever published in a journal of repute? You say that the term on this seal is in Prakrit? Is it generally accepted that the seal carries a Prakrit term? I read an interview given by Prof. Sudharshan Seneviratne in Frontline where he says; The discovery of the famous copper ring at Anaikoddai from the early historic context that [the copper ring] had both the megalithic symbols and the Brahmi symbols, the Brahmi symbols reading a Dravidian term. There are doubts whether it is Kovendha or Kovendhan. Both refer to the identity of a ruler or chieftain.

The pre-Christian seal with Brahmi writing unearthed at the megalithic burial complex at Annaikotte
RS: I have re-examined the reading of this seal found in the Jaffana peninsula. The legend on it was first deciphered by Professor Kartigesu Indrapala of the Jaffna University. Professor Indrapala has deciphered the three Brahmi letters appearing on the seal as ‘kovetan’ and concluded that it narrates a name of a petty ruler of Tamil origin. He equates the word ‘kovetan’ with the word Koventan in Tamil. But my close observations show that he mistakenly added the three monograms engraved top of the line of letters during his decipherment. The correct way of reading it is ‘keveta’. This word could be the Prakrit version of the Sanskrit word ‘kevarta’ which means ‘ the fisherman’. The modern word ‘kevatta’ used for fishermen is a derivative form of the word ‘kevarta’. It is important to note that the area where the seal was found was a highly economically productive region even during the early historic period. In the Vallipuram gold plate inscription of King Vasabha, this region is identified as ‘badakara atana’ which means ‘the territory of the golden seaboard’. No doubt, this area has contributed to the national economy in a great proportion from the resources of the sea. Fish and salt might have played a vital role in this regard. Most of the later scholars relied on Professor Indrapala’s interpretation.

DR: Is it because you dare not publish these contrary readings in international forums that you only publish in Sinhala?

RS: No. I published the Annaikotte reading in one of the journals published by the Social Sciences faculty of the Kelaniya University. Unfortunately, it is in Sinhala.
‘The Annaikoddai Seal. Beyond the Homelands approach’, Somadeva’s article published “unfortunately” in Sinhala in ‘Sarasavi’- 50 years of Independence commemoration volume, University of Kelaniya, 1998.‘The Annaikoddai Seal. Beyond the Homelands approach’, Somadeva’s article published “unfortunately” in Sinhala in ‘Sarasavi’- 50 years of Independence commemoration volume, University of Kelaniya, 1998.

DR: There are certain academics who won’t publish in English, the things they say in the vernacular, because their reputations would suffer.

RS: I agree with you. So we’ll publish in English. That’s the solution.

 DR: You were involved with the Kuragala excavation? What can you tell me about the Arabic inscriptions there? I also heard that the tombstone with Arabic writing on it was destroyed? Is this true?

RS: No I am not involved with the excavation in Kuragala. I did an archaeological exploration there. The report of that survey is to be published in the near future. Kuragala was subjected to the attention of Arabic people from the 13th century onwards. Most of them came to search for gems in the Sabaragamuva area and to visit Adam’s peak. I need to look at the Arabic inscription afresh before I comment on that. I did not see any destruction at the site except the removal of unauthorized constructions within the archaeological reserve there.

DR: Are you being politically correct? Are there Arabic inscriptions in Kuragala? Are they authentic?

RS: Yes. One. I saw that inscription. It’s on a free standing rock. We have to get a copy and go through the script to verify its antiquity.

DR: It hasn’t been done yet?

RS: No. I am going to copy that inscription and get an Arabic scholar to decipher that. Have you heard of Dr. Shukri of the Naleemiah Institute, Beruwala? I’d like to ask him to decipher this short inscription and I am ready to publish it in my report.

The spot at Kuragala where there’s an Arabic inscription on a free standing rockThe spot at Kuragala where there’s an Arabic inscription on a free standing rock

See also Part 1 and Part 2

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