Although Sri Lanka gained independence from British rule in 1948, there was no independence mentality and free thinking among the people of Sri Lanka. It is evident that some people in the country acted to disregard the wealth of knowledge of the past people of this country and accept all the things of the Europeans and set aside the locality and nationality.

 However, various organisations were formed during the post-colonial period to create a sense of locality and nationality amidst the crisis.

Accordingly, the strongest attempt to ascribe nationality in the society was to give life to feelings of nationality by revealing and reconstructing the glorious past of the island nation. Archaeological evidence was of utmost importance in establishing the then weakened Sinhala society which was built upon the concept of gamai pansalai wewai dagebai shaped by the Buddhist philosophy. Thus, nationality was absorbed into archaeological research work, marking a national service.

Sri Lanka’s archaeology work; a brief history The colonial era

Sri Lanka’s archaeology work has two basic eras; the colonial period work and the post-colonial work.

 During the early times which were during the colonial period archaeology work, the work was mainly conducted by Europeans on their own agendas to fulfil their own needs. Exploration was conducted based on the information in literature sources and chronicles. The findings were recorded and subjected to conservation.

 There is plenty of evidence of the destruction of ancient monuments and some of the monuments being taken back to Europe. The Europeans in many accounts had attempted to destroy the heritage of then Ceylon through various policies and activities. They have also attempted to enforce their culture, belief, and religion by force among the islanders. This cultural destruction started with the Portuguese and reached its peak during the time of the British.

The destruction of ancient places and religious places, and the looting of ancient and precious artefacts and temples occurred on a large scale and attempted to replace the European cultural aspects with local cultural aspects.

 The policies of the British rulers such as neglecting patronising Buddhism and neglecting the sacred Tooth Relic of Kandy provoked locals to rise against the unjust, neglectful, and anti-Buddhist behaviour of the British rule. The results were the uprisings of 1818 and 1848. Accordingly, these freedom fights can be identified as a first step in the national religious revival that took place locally in the 19th century.

The birth of the Department of Archaeology

As a result, it can be seen that the British rulers gave attention to the heritage-related work of the island. British civil servants and officers explored the island’s natural and cultural heritage and composed reports, drawings, and books about them.

As a result in the year 1890, the Department of Archaeology (DoA) was established. The first archaeology commissioner was H.C.P. Bell.  In 1990 when the DoA completed 100 years the position of Archaeology Commissioner was changed to Archaeology Director General.

During its early days, the DoA did a great amount of work in restoration and conservation of archaeological sites and monuments. Many of our ancient inscriptions were studied, translated and published.

Colonial archaeology work and nationalism

However, gradually the Sinhalese society did not have much confidence and admiration for their work. The reason for that was the attitude of some foreign colonial officials towards the local culture and its heritage.

At a time when a country is under foreign domination, the desire of the natives to get rid of it can be defined as nationalism. The institutions and organisations formed against this hegemony are called national movements. As a result of this, such a national movement was born in Sri Lanka in the last quarter of the 19th century which was called the Sri Lankan National Movement.

During the period from the last quarter of the 19th century to 1915, the national movement in Sri Lanka needed to reflect a unified character. That is, they did not act as a single national movement and were operated separately as various organisations.

Panadurawadaya, Parama Vijnanartha Samitiya, Temperance Movement (Amadyapa Vyaparaya), Mahabodhi Sangamaya, incepted by Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera can be mentioned as ideologies built against certain British policies. Also, lay and religious scholars such as Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera, Anagarika Dharmapala, and Walisinghe Harischandra took prominence among the group who took responsibility for this.

Walisinghe Harischandra ‘s opinion about the archaeological heritage of Sri Lanka should be mentioned here. He believed that the DoA which was under the Europeans at that time was an institution that plundered the local heritage, looted and destroyed it, under the protection and patronage of the state. He raised a strong voice in this regard and said that Buddhism is no longer a dead religion, but is a living religion. Therefore, he was of the opinion that exploration and archaeological research related to ancient Buddhist shrines and monastic sites should no longer be allowed. For this reason, the organisations that arose were concerned with the preservation of archaeological monuments based on nationality.

Their intention was to see a completed stupa in a way that enlightens the minds of the devotees rather than preserving a ruined stupa and seeing it with an archaeological value only. Accordingly, this local movement started to carry out the restoration works of the stupas of Thuparamaya and Ruwanwelisaya.

In 1940, the governing authority took steps to bring about the Antiquities Ordinance due to the fact that national movements were acting contrary to the principles of accepted archaeological monument conservation work. Realising that they were unable to control the situation, the rulers took legal action to resolve the issue. But in the face of those legal conditions, there was some disruption in the programme carried out by the national movements focusing on the religious needs of the community. The introduction of a legal framework made it possible to preserve the monuments of the past, making them visible to future generations as they are. These Ordinances have helped to preserve buildings and places of historical or archaeological value.

Senerath Paranavitana; the first native Archaeology Commissioner

The appointment of Senerath Paranavitana as the first Lankan Archaeological Commissioner on 1 October 1940 was a special moment in the field of archaeology. Accordingly, Paranavithana’s research works were carried out from 1940 to 1956, and from that, it was possible to achieve nationalism by empowering the national goals that could not be achieved by foreign officials who were in the field of archaeology. However, Paranavitana’s archaeological theories were based on the principles of contemporary Western archaeology. At this time, European scholars were analysing the cultures of mankind in a universal model, and thus formed the opinion that the evolutionary conditions of different cultures were either advanced or underdeveloped. The integration of this concept with archaeological theories led to cultural-historical archaeological ideas. This theory states that knowledge of the past is necessary to civilise man.

Paranavitana, archaeology, and nationalism

The field of archaeology is constantly trying to build a nation-state. These theories were more sensitive to nationality and blended with past society and present society. In this way, a sense of nationality could be formed through the material factors of society.

It is understood that Paranavitana has worked based on this theory for his research. As a result, archaeological factors became racial factors. Accordingly, the archaeological works that took place during this time clearly supported nationalist politics by raising nationalist expectations.

Paranavitana’s remarkable discoveries and nationalism

The archaeological interpretation of Anuradhapura Dakkhina Stupa can be pointed out as a unique case of nationalism in archaeology. Hocart named the stupa Elara’s tomb, and in 1948 Paranavitana rejected that opinion and confirmed that it was where King Dutugemunu’s ashes were buried. King Dutugemunu is praised for his heroism throughout 11 chapters of Mahavamsa. Accordingly, Paranavitana tried to confirm the chronicle narrative related to King Dutugemunu, who did a great service to Buddhism after freeing the country from the usurpers.

Also, among the excavations done by Paranavithana, in 1953, the ruins of the ancient Buddhist temple located near the Periyakulam Tank in Kattikulam of the Trincomalee District can be mentioned. The Tamil people of the area called this place the Nathanar Temple and it was first explored by the DoA in 1929. Accordingly, archaeological research confirmed it as the ancient Velgam Vehera. The remarkable discoveries of the Panakaduwa Copper Plate and the Wallipuram Golden Plate take precedence among the archaeological finds of this time that contributes to the ideology of nationalism.

Vallipuram Gold Plate and a unitary kingdom

The Vallipuram Gold Plate was found during construction of a Visnu kovil in an ancient Buddhist monastic site at Vallipuram, in 1936. This is a benchmark discovery in Sri Lankan archaeology. It is said that during the construction of the Vishnu kovil, the old foundation of the ancient structure was destroyed and many artefacts were buried under it. It is a valuable archaeological find that helped to build a new discourse in the history of Sri Lanka. The plate length is 3 inches and the width is an inch. It has four lines and contains 40 Brahmi letters.

 The Vallipuram Gold Plate says that the minister appointed as in-charge of Nagadeepa was under the rule of the Maharaja of Anuradhapura. In the gold plate, Nagadeepa is referred to as Nakadiva. The minister of Nakadiva is referred to as Nakadiva Bhujamini (ruling the Nagadeepa). According to this plate, Nagadeepa was controlled by a minister named Isigiriya. It is clear that he was an official belonging to the kingdom of King Wasabha.

Also, the Nelugala Inscription mentions that religious services were held continuously in Uttara Passa. It is clear how a minister named Asagiri developed a place of Buddhist worship in the Eastern Province. It further testifies that Ceylon was ruled as a unitary state.

The Tunukai Inscription mentions three officials who performed their duties in the Eastern Province. Those officials went to Nagadeepa and implemented the orders received from the Maharaja.

Inscriptions and a unitary kingdom

In the inscription in Kadurugoda Vihara belonging to the period of King Kasyapa IV (898 – 914CE), the king stated that he took the entire island from Ruhuna to the Northern end of the island under his rule. An inscription (dating back to the 14th century) at the Kadurugoda ancient monastery says, “Uthurupasa Walpita Navehera.”

Inscriptions from the Northern and Eastern provinces dating to the time of King Kasyapa IV have been found in other areas of the island such as the North-Western and Southern Provinces, display similar characteristics such as the information about the administration pattern, and the letters, the language, culture, and their details. All these findings point out the fact that during historical times, the island was a unitary state under one Maharaja at Anuradhapura.

According to the chronicles, King Parakramabahu II (1236 – 1270CE) of the Dambadeniya Kingdom, drove away the forces of Kalinga Magha, who were encamped in Rajarata, and united the country. During the conflicts in the south, the Aryachakravarthi rulers (they were of a Kalinga origin) took control of the Jaffna region; but they were defeated by Prince Sapumal during the reign of King Parakramabhu VI (1412 – 1467CE) of Kotte. In the Salalihini Sandeshaya written by Ven. Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula Thera, prince Sapumal has been praised for his conquest of Yapa Patuna. Also in the Kokila Sandeshaya it is said that Aryachakravarthi was defeated and left the country. It is said that after Prince Sapumal became king as Bhuvanekabahu VI, Ven. Veedagama Maithriya Thera travelled to Jaffna where he delivered a sermon there.

Thus, inscriptions and written evidence reveal that the administration of the northern and eastern provinces was under a unitary government under the main king of the island.

Many inscriptions were found in several districts and regions of the Northern Province during this period, and it is said that these inscriptions were able to uncover a lot of information and thus it is confirmed that these areas remained under the Anuradhapura ruler until the last period of the Anuradhapura Kingdom. As Prof. Senarath Paranavitana points out, according to the Nagadeepa Inscription of King Parakramabahu I, there is evidence that the entire area of Jaffna was under the control of the king during the Polonnaruwa Period. It is stated in the inscription itself that the inscription was established by King Parakramabahu the Great who reigned in Polonnaruwa.

Buddhist monastic ruins at Vavunikulam

At the base of the man-made tank, today known as Vavunikulam in the Vannivilankulam area remains of archaeological ruins belonging to the Anuradhapura Period are scattered. In 1967/68, it is mentioned in the archaeological annual reports that the Hindus has temporarily built a hut with coconut leaves as a roof at this place and worshiped there by placing an old Shiva lingam. At present, a large kovil has been built here on the Buddhist ruins. As per reports of the Department of Archaeology (DoA), remains of a Buddha statue, footprint stones of the Buddha (Siripathul Gal), moonstone, Poojasana, carved stone pillars, and so on, have been found at this place.

At a place to the right of the temple, a large number of stone pillars are now piled up, and among the stone pillars is a fragment of an ancient pillar inscription. This inscription is in the medieval Sinhalese language. It is believed to belong to the period between 9 and10 centuries CE. It has a 10-line inscription with the image of a crow and a dog. Some of its characters have been erased. Hence it becomes difficult to understand the whole idea of the inscription.

Inside the temple, you can see a Siripathul Gala and some brick walls. Also, the remains of old buildings are scattered in the lands outside the kovil walls. At some places in the area between the Vavunikulam irrigation canal and the temple, there are pillar bases, fragments of stone pillars, old tiles and pieces of pottery, and bricks. Many of the ruins have been destroyed due to the gradual construction of the temple but there are still the remains of an old building foundation that was built in a square shape and there is evidence that nine pillars were fixed in the ground. According to the surviving ruins and inscriptions, there may have been a major Sangharama complex belonging to the Anuradhapura Period.

Deeghawapi Gold Plate

The discovery of the Deeghavapi Gold Plate (Ran Sannasa) is another remarkable archaeological discovery that highlights nationalism. According to the chronicles, and inscriptions, King Saddhatissa is a key figure in the development and religious affairs of the Deeghavapi area. It is said in the Mahavamsa that he developed agriculture in Deeghavapi and built the Deeghavapi Temple. According to the Maadanakanda Cave Inscription discovered by Ven. Ellawala Medhananda Thera, King Saddhatissa was the king of the Prachena Bhumi or the Eastern Province before he became the king of Anuradhapura.

Excavations were carried out here by the DoA in 1964. Three gold caskets were found during the excavation in the west wahalkada (west entrance) of the stupa. The date of the largest casket was determined and it was confirmed to belong to the period from 164 to 192CE. The king of that time was King Kanittathissa of Anuradhapura. These three gold caskets were placed in a special stone casket and were shaped in the form of a stupa covered using thin gold plates. A gold plate with Brahmi letters on it was discovered along with these findings.

Director of the Epigraphy and Numismatics Division of the DoA Namal Kodithuvakku read the Ran Sannasa and declared that the language was ancient Sinhala and the script was Apara Brahmi. According to this document, King Mahallakanaga was the father of the king who granted the offering to the temple. His son was King Kanittathissa. Kanittathissa’s name is mentioned as Malathisa or Kanittathissa on the gold plate. According to the Mahavamsa, King Kanitattatissa reigned from 164 to 192CE. Therefore, it is understood that the antiquity of the Deeghawapi monastery dates back 1800 years.

Rebuilding the past glory of Lanka

In this way, the reconstruction of ancient religious places and the extensive research and exploration that took place in connection with it was a reconstruction of the Sinhalese identity and glory.

With the appointment of Charles Godakumbure as the Deputy Commissioner of Archaeology in the DoA in 1947, the archaeological policy in this country took a different direction. Accordingly, the DoA has paid special attention to the importance of religious significance and utility in their work.

Bandaranaike, archaeology and nationalism

In 1956, due to the commemoration of the 2500th birth anniversary of the Buddha, archaeological research works can be indicated as a broad field that has contributed greatly to the development of Buddhist nationality. Also, the Sinhala Buddhist consciousness which became a very strong narrative with the revolutionary political upheaval of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in 1956 can be seen as a result of the backing of nationalism via archaeology. In the resulting social pattern, the Sinhala Buddhist people’s base emerged stronger as the main public force. He also wanted to fulfil his material culture as well as ideological needs. For that, archaeological explorations were used to establish a correlation between the past and the present. Anuradhapura Conservation Board was formed in 1961 to create a unique institution for heritage management under the DoA. It was able to contribute to the construction of past glory in the city of Anuradhapura. This led to archaeology, irrigation, and town planning work, and after 1980, the Anuradhapura Sacred City (Anuradhapura Pooja Nagara) was developed.

Accordingly, it is clear that Sri Lankan archaeology has contributed to fulfilling a unique task according to the overall facts noted about the relevance of modern archaeological explorations in the subject of raising nationality. It continues to this day. Sri Lankan archaeology is a series of struggles and conflicts over history and heritage preservation. It can be pointed out as another extension of the anti-imperialist struggle itself.

(Information for this article was gathered from the article written by Rukshila Wettamuni, published in Sinhala in Swadhinathwaya Saha Jathikathwaya Kara Gaman Mage Piya Satahan – a collection of scholarly articles. This is a publication of the Prof. F.R. Jayasuriya Memorial Foundation.)

Complied by Ama H. Vanniarachchy