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Excavating Sri Lankan archaeology with Raj Somadeva PART I

by ratnawalli - November 10, 2014 at 9:09 am

First part of the interview with Professor Raj Somadeva published in The Nation (print edition here) on Sunday, 09 November 2014

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

Professor Raj Somadeva, PhD (Uppsala), Post Graduate Institute of Archaeology, Sri Lanka

Raj Somadeva, one of the top Sri Lankan archaeologists, has drawn attention to his work in recent times with two interesting claims viz: discovery of a yaksha inscription and the existence of Buddhism in the island complete with a cave dwelling monastic sangha prior to the 3rd century BC. He spoke to Darshanie Ratnawalli on these claims as well as the ideological debates within the discipline. The following are excerpts of the interview.

DR: Dr. Susantha Goonathilaka, the president of Royal Asiatic Society, Sri Lanka alleges that you call every settlement complex a ‘civilization’ indiscriminately when cities and/or evidence of writing are necessary for a culture to be called a civilization. How do you define a ‘civilization’?

RS: First I want to say that I am confident about what I am saying and also academically and professionally qualified to say so. Civilization is a particular state of development achieved by humans. It is mainly characterized by an ‘urban way of life’. This is a highly relative notion. My stand on what is civilization appeared in my book titled ‘Urban Origins in Southern Sri Lanka’. It was published in 2006 by the UppsalaUniversity in Sweden in their series of Global Archaeology. Presence of a writing system and cities are not the valid characteristics for identifying the emergence of civilization any more. This ‘bundle of criteria’ of pre-modern urbanism was first explained by Gordon Child in his seminal article on ‘Urban Revolution’ published in the 1940s. Now this list of criteria has been discredited as a non-representative ‘laundry list’ which is not adequate to explain pre-modern urbanism. You have ancient civilizations that had no writing system. For example the civilization of Great Zimbabwe. You have civilizations that had no proper cities. For instance take the case of the Egyptian civilization.

DR: There are ideological differences within your discipline. What is the nature of your relationship with the archaeologists of the University of Jaffna?

RS: I have a very good relationship with Professor Pushparatnam.

DR: There are concerns in certain quarters over the intellectual rigor of Professor Pushparatnam’s interpretations. Could you comment?

RS: That is the scholarly tradition. If you are an academic, you have the privilege of doing your interpretations independently. We can deal with them very diplomatically.

Raj Somadeva and team at the inscribed drip ledge cave at Kuragala. Raj Somadeva and team at the inscribed drip ledge cave at Kuragala.

DR: Is there reason to believe that some drip ledge caves in Wessagiriya and elsewhere may have been dedicated to Jain Sramana. We hear of Jain aramas in the chronicles, that even Abhayagiri was built where a Jain called Giri had an arama, so isn’t it reasonable to suppose that some caves were dedicated to Jains? Is there a school of thought among archaeologists that some of the drip ledge caves of Lanka may have been the dwelling of Jain Sramanas? Where do you stand in this? Are there any Jain religious words in the cave inscriptions? Some South Indian scholars (i.e. Y. Subbarayalu) hold that the absence of the term ‘Sangha’ in Tamil Nadu caves contrasting with its prominence in SL caves is clinching evidence for excluding Buddhists from the TN corpus of cave inscriptions. But even we have inscriptions that follow the short formula and don’t mention the word ‘Sangha’. Could some of them have been given to Jains?

RS: No we don’t have any substantial evidence to keep up the idea of the prolonged prevalence of Jainism in ancient Sri Lanka as a religion. But it does not mean that the believers of Jainism were not present in Anuradhapura. Because Anuradhapura was the only cosmopolitan city developed in the southernmost periphery in the Greater South Asian region. The city was rushed by merchants from far regions of the Indian Ocean rim. They brought here not only the trading goods but also different ideas and practices. I do not agree with your argument. The caves where the word Sangha is absent were not the caves dedicated to Jain clergy. My argument is that they are the oldest caves dedicated to the Buddhist Sangha. I have physically observed a fair number of such caves and the measurable evidence that help to prove their deep antiquity are still found in such locations. My report on this survey will be released by the end of November.”


DR:  But there are prominent archaeologists in this country who teach people that some of the caves may have been given to the Jains. (This question is inspired by a photo-description the interviewer has once seen posted on the webpage for the 2008 session of ISLE, a study abroad program offered by Bowdoin College, USA in affiliation with the University of Peradeniya: ‘Material Culture professor and Director General of Sri Lanka’s Central Cultural Fund, Sudharshan Seneviratne lectures at Vessagiri, an ancient dwelling for Buddhist and Jain monks in Anuradhapura’.)

RS: You mean Professor Sudharshan Seneviratne?

DR: Yes.

RS: (After a ten second silence). People can express their own ideas.

DR: You don’t think they were given to the Jains?

RS: No.

DR: So, that’s your opinion and it’s a matter of opinion?

RS: Yes.

DR: There are others who have a different opinion?

RS: I think only Professor Seneviratne. Because he studied in India and got his training under Champaka Lakshmi and Romilar Tharper, he was greatly inspired by the Indian tradition. Once he tried to incorporate our megalithic tradition with South Indian megaliths. I don’t agree with that.

DR: You don’t believe that our Parumaka is derived from perumakan?

RS: It can be. But what about from Sanskrit pramukha? It can be derived from that too. We have to rethink all these things. That’s why we started in 2006, a new project called ‘Hunters in transition’. We have to re-think our history from the point of decline of our hunter gatherers; what happened to them? Whether as Dr. Deraniyagala thinks, they retreated to the uplands or if they took an alternate way to develop their technology towards the mainstream history.

Megalithic Cemetery at Ibbankatuwa Megalithic Cemetery at Ibbankatuwa


DR: But the Sri Lankan megalithic tradition is very closely connected to the South Indian megalithic tradition right? That’s what everyone believes. Not only professor Seneviratne…

RS: No he is the person who…(Who what? We will never know because the interviewer interrupted in midsentence.)

DR: He may be the person. But now the majority of the people believe…

RS: Because they don’t have any alternative to explain the megalithic cemetery. They don’t do research. They just sit in rooms with fans and read and use ideas propagated by their first generation of scholars.

DR: But even active archaeologists like Robin Conningham…

RS: Ho!

DR: Why?

RS: No, no he is good.

DR: Robin Coningham has merely summarized the present view of the majority of scholars. [‘The majority of scholars hold that this tradition is strongly linked to that of Peninsular India, if not actually deriving from it (Begley 1981, 94; Deraniyagala 1972, 159-60; Lukacs & Kennedy 1981,107; Seneviratne 1984, 283)’ – From p93 of Anuradhapura and the Early use of the Brahmi Script by Coningham et al.]


RS: Robin is good. He is a reputed scholar. But I don’t think the things he tells about Sri Lanka are right. Have you read his ‘Paradise Lost’? It has been published in one of the CambridgeUniversity journals. In it he ultimately says, the most suitable terminology to denote the Anuradhapura civilization is ‘forest civilization’. Forest Civilization? What do you mean by that?

DR: Why does he call it a forest civilization?

RS: I don’t know. But the statement clearly shows his bias.

DR: Do you really think he is biased?

RS: Biased. Biased. I know his teacher Raymond Allchin also. They are the agents of neocolonialism.

DR: Apparently in your recent explorations you have unearthed an inscription by Yakkhas. Is this true? What does it say?

RS: Yes it is true. I found a cave inscription written in early Brahmi script on the roof of a cave situated in Tamketiya in the village Nailgala of Kaltota. It is a donatory inscription. You asked me about the content of this inscription. The purpose of setting up the inscription was to register a grant of a cave to the Buddhist Sangha by a lay devotee. His name is Upasona. The text reads as ‘…Upasona aya Tisha puta aya Kerasha putaha aya Maha Shivaha lene Shupadine chatu disha shagasha. …yagasha…’

The ‘yaksha’ inscription: “Upasona aya Tisha puta aya Kerasha putaha aya Maha Shivaha lene Shupadine chatu disha shagasha. ...yagasha....”The ‘yaksha’ inscription: “Upasona aya Tisha puta aya Kerasha putaha aya Maha Shivaha lene Shupadine chatu disha shagasha. …yagasha….”

DR: As per the above reading, the donor is not Upasona but aya Maha Shiva.

RS: Yes, Upasona is the grandfather of the donor. The mean height of the letters of this inscription is 25cm. The peculiarity of this inscription is there is another short line engraved in small letters below the main text of the inscription. It reads as ‘yagasha’. This word appears as a signature to the inscription. The word yagasha is in genitive case and masculine gender. The consonant ‘ga’ here stands for the consonant ‘ka’. Consonant ‘ka’ transformed to ‘ga’ and vice versa in the early language in Sri Lanka. The change of a surd between vowels to its corresponding sonant is familiar in the early inscriptions. The letter ‘ga‘ is a sonant and it could change into the corresponding letter ‘ka’, a surd. This rule is only valid for sonants of guttural and dental classes. We know that the letter ‘ka’ and ‘ga’ are guttural. It is one of the grammatical rules of writing Prakrit words in ancient Sri Lanka. As Paranavitana has clearly stated this phonological change is only sporadically noticed in the early inscriptions in Sri Lanka. It also a regular feature in many other prakrit languages in South Asia. Therefore the word ‘yaga’ is synonymous to the word ‘yaka’ and the last letter ‘sha’ appears in this case as the postfix of the genitive case. Then the word ‘yagasha’ could be translated as ‘belonging to Yakshas’ or ‘who wrote this inscription are Yakshas’.

The estampage of the ‘yaksha’ inscriptionThe estampage of the ‘yaksha’ inscription

DR: Does ‘yaga’ represent a new addition to the bag of titles that appear in our cave inscriptions such as bata, barata, parumaka, aya, etc?

RS: No it is not such. The word ‘yagasha‘ does not stand in this inscription to denote a mere individual. I am sure it indicates a sort of professional identity of an indigenous group who occupied the mountainous region in the deep hinterland of the country. I think this is the first time we got unchallengeable written evidence about the people who lived here in this country before the population migrations from the Indian sub-continent which took place in the mid first millennium BCE. They are described in Mahavamsa as Yakshas. The other people mentioned are Devas and Nagas.

DR: If yaga or yaka is used as a title to indicate a group identity in that inscription, how do you explain the fact that such a title is to be found nowhere in the large corpus of already published inscriptions? Why is it a one off? Up to now, as far as I know the only known Lankan inscription to mention yakshas in any form was the 10th Century Vessagiriya slab inscription of Mahinda IV, where it says that the waters of the Tisa Tank was the dwelling of a rakus who was converted by Thera Maha Mahinda.

The site of the ‘yaksha’ inscription, a cave situated in Tamketiya in Nailgala, KaltotaThe site of the ‘yaksha’ inscription, a cave situated in Tamketiya in Nailgala, Kaltota

RS:  I cannot imagine how it happened. Deliberately or mistakenly it was so. I do not see any significance of probing that history and therefore I am not so retrospective at this point. Anyway there is no point of asking Einstein why scientists missed the theory of relativity before him. Definitely this question has significance to a philosopher of history of science but not to a physicist I hope.

Professor Somadeva stresses the scholarly tradition, which gives an academic the privilege of making independent and innovative interpretations. I merely wish to add a cautious post-script. Raj Somadeva concludes that the original word ‘yaka’ has been written in the inscription as ‘yaga’. What’s invoked as support for the premise is the rule lxxxi, given in paragraph 290 of page lxxxvi of Paranavitana’s Sigiri Graffiti, Vol 1: “Surds of the guttural, palatal, dental, and labial classes between vowels occasionally change to their corresponding sonants”. Getting into specifics of this rule however, paragraph 290 informs us that our inscriptions afford hardly any examples for ‘ka’ changing to ‘ga’. Literary works provide us with the instance, where the ‘ka’ of the original Sanskrit word, ‘phalaka’ (shield) has become ‘ga’ with a half nasal in the corresponding Sinhala word; ‘palanga’.

What it boils down to is that where the consonant ‘ka’ occurs between vowels in early Sinhalese, it’s by no means certain that it will always change into ‘ga’. The rule tells us that it could happen. The evidence tells us that sometimes it has happened, most times, it hasn’t. Whether it has happened in the case of ‘yaka’ and given us ‘yaga’ has to be established with more specific evidence, such as more occurrences of yaga and yaka as alternative and interchangeable Sinhalese Prakrit forms for the Old Indo Aryan yaksha, which is derived from the root ‘yaj’, ‘to offer’. (See, Paranavitana: 1929 “Pre-Buddhist Religious Beliefs in Ceylon”)

Next Week:

Raj Somadeva’s views on mythology, the interaction between Great Indian Tradition and the Lankan internal dynamic, the latest non-utility stone objects he has unearthed, and how he differs from Harry Folk and K. Indrapala on the Tissamaharama potsherd and the Annaikotte seal respectively.


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