up a maritime past
Imagine the scene: It is rush hour in the Godavaya harbour's tax
office. Ships from all over the world are rocking on the waves,
secured by their heavy bell-shaped stone anchors. Sweaty labourers
are carrying loads of cargo into the harbour and tax collectors
are busy stamping the cleared freight with a lion seal.
picturesque harbour town down South, is situated around a huge rock
overlooking the Indian Ocean, the gem mining area of the Lower Sitracala
Wewa and the inland shipping route of the Walawe Ganga.
It seems almost
like a modern harbour - but all this happened as far back as the
2nd century AD in Godapavata Pattana, west of Hambantota. Evidence
is being unearthed every day to prove Godavaya's importance in the
maritime Silk Route, with excavations and research revealing connections
from China in the East to the Red Sea and the Mediterranean in the
Once a year,
Godavaya bounces back to life again as Sri Lankan and German archaeologists
excavate the old Kingdom of Ruhuna to gather more evidence about
its glorious past. Since 1994, a team from the University of Bonn,
Germany, directed by Prof. Helmut Roth has been working with the
Archaeological Department directed by Director General Dr. W.H.
Wijeyapala and the German Archaeological Institut (DAI), conducting
joint excavations here.
Under the guidance
of Research Assistant Oliver Kessler, a team of 35 is presently
excavating the temple area of Gotha Pabbatha Rajamaha Vihara in
The excavation team comprises officers and workmen of the Archaeological
Department, local archaeology students and experienced labourers
from the nearby village.
The temple area
had been a religious and administrative centre since the reign of
King Gajabahu I. A unique Brahmi inscription on a rock next to the
ancient shrine room clearly states that this was indeed a significant
sea-trading place. True to Sri Lankan tradition, Ahalaya, one of
King Gajabahu's ministers, has immortalized himself by getting his
name carved in another inscription on this rock.
In ancient times,
Sri Lanka was heavily involved in the export and import trade and
exported dark red garnets that were in great demand in early medieval
Europe. Upto the 7th century AD, these semi-precious stones were
found as burial objects in many European graves and new research
reveals that most of those garnets were from India and Sri Lanka.
Another money-spinner for Sri Lanka had been spices. Sassanian (Persian)
and Chinese pottery was also discovered as import cargo and Roman
coins as early foreign currency.
Ships from the
East carrying silk from China exchanged their commodities with merchandise
from the West in the transit harbour of Godavaya as trade ships
from both directions usually did not go farther than Sri Lanka.
Therefore, Ruhuna played an important role as a turntable of trade
and commerce in early East-West trade.
Upto the 6th century AD sea trade was busy. Articles of trade to
and from the river shipping route as well as land routes were also
switched at Godavaya.
town is mentioned in the Mahawamsa's chapter on "The 12 Kings".
Even in early western books like the Topographia Christiana of the
6th century AD, Sri Lanka is referred to as an important sea trade
centre on the Silk Route.
points to an exciting excavation site on the east side of the ancient
monastery: the custom office building, which was decorated with
ornaments showing an elephant placing his trunk in lotus flowers.
Normally, only the King was allowed to collect taxes. In Godavaya,
the tax fees were donated to the temple for its maintenance. Clay
seals bearing the emblem of a lion were used to seal goods and cargo
as proof that the customs duty was paid.
On top of the
rock overlooking the entire area was the monastery, which dates
back to the 2nd century AD. On the west side of the monastery an
elevated ancient image house (Buddhu gedera) and a chapter house
(Dharma salawa) were excavated.
Three different statues were discovered here: A standing Buddha
about 3.50 metres tall and two Bodhisattva statues each about 1.80
metres in height. Traces of colour are evidence that the statues
date back to a period before the 8th century AD. The source of the
colour is still a mystery, but it has withstood the weather.
At the bottom
of the rock was the settlement of Godapavata Pattana, sandwiched
on the peninsula between the Walawe river's inland harbour and the
sea harbour in the bay of Godavaya. "Many South Indian harbours
carry the ending 'pattana" which means harbour," explains
Oliver Kessler. Hence, close links existed between Lankan and South
Indian harbours, because the Dravidian community organized the sea
A landing jetty
constructed of stone pillars upto 3.50 metres high was part of the
ancient harbour. While doing an underwater survey, the excavation
team found one of the four ancient stone anchors discovered so far
in Sri Lanka, the other three being found in Galle.
coins, beads, bangles, bricks showing guild marks in the shape of
an O, a huge selection of pottery and rich decorations used for
roofs and houses give clear evidence of a once prosperous time.
A quarry was
also discovered. One big pillar covered with many drill marks dating
to the middle Anuradhapura period before the 5th century AD, lies
in front of the huge rock close to the ocean. "That is something
spectacular, as there are not many quarries documented," Oliver
In a few days,
as these excavations end, Godavaya will disappear again under a
thick layer of sand to be protected against the weather and souvenir
hunters. Silence will return to the sacred area of the 2nd century
AD monastery overlooking the Indian Ocean, where now fishermen are
working hard for their daily catch.