man live here?
Exciting finds are being unearthed painstakingly
by a group of enthusiastic archaeology students at a site in Vessagiriya
High noon. A motley group of young women and men
including a monk are on their haunches atop a massive rock, lovingly
tracing with their fingers an ancient inscription, oblivious to
the rivulets of sweat pouring down their cheeks in the scorching
sun of Anuradhapura.
This is not the only group out at midday in this
ancient city, when most people are seeking the shelter of cool buildings.
Across the road, amidst thorny scrub, two more groups are carrying
out digs, dubbed explorations and excavations – all to find
out what this area would have “harboured” centuries
|A view of Vessagiriya Pix by M.A. Pushpa Kumara
Welcome to Vessagiriya -- very close to Isurumuniya
famous for its lovers -- that has been given scant attention.
And the labour of love of these youth from the
Peradeniya University’s Archaeology Department has paid rich
dividends. For they think they have struck “gold”. They
have found in their initial excavations, to a layman what looks
like pieces of stone, but to their trained eye tiny chips of quartz
or thiruvana, which they believe are tools of the latter part of
the Stone Age, the Mesolithic period. Although it is known that
Anuradhapura was a living and breathing city since the 3rd century
BC, these tools may prove that pre-historic man too had settlements
here before that.
|Striking gold: A tiny quartz tool that was
W. Ishankha Malsiri, 22, and Nivandama Vijithagnana
Thera, 26, remember the day they found the chips clearly. “It
was June 6,” says Ishankha explaining that grid W7 S1 B1 was
where their breakthrough came though explorations were carried out
on 10 grids. “For every grid, we take a soil sample and found
these tools about three feet down in a gravel layer,” says
Ishankha hardly able to contain his excitement. Three tools or part
of tools and also chips, probably discarded when making the tools
have also been unearthed.
Among the finds are ceramic, pieces of pottery,
the rim of pots, shards and more recently Black and Red Ware. All
these finds are recorded in detail in grids, labelled, placed in
polythene sachets and sent to the laboratory for testing.
These artefacts have been found at a site, across
the road from the Vessagiriya rock outcrops, set amidst paddy fields,
with the bund of the Tissa Wewa in view.
|Students hard at work in the scorching sun
“At this site we found gravel soil similar
to that found in the area where the ancient citadel of Anuradhapura
was located,” says D. Thusitha Mendis, 35, Senior Research
Officer from the Central Cultural Fund who is the efficient site
manager of the student group from Peradeniya, now camped at Vessagiriya.
Explaining how they picked the spot for the exploration
and excavation, Thusitha says: “We made a grid covering an
area from a centre-point in Vessagiriya, going one km towards the
Malwatu Oya and also in the other direction towards the Tissa Wewa.
We also drew a detailed cross section.” Later they identified
a 300-metre area for exploration and zeroed in on two points.
Early that morning, a tractor had driven up to
a few tents and an open shed put up unobtrusively by the rocks of
Vessagiriya, blending in with the stark but beautiful landscape
typical of the North Central Province and disgorged youth, ranging
in age from 19-23 who then joined those already poring over maps
“Some of them are boarded in houses nearby
while others live in the camp,” says Thusitha taking in the
neatly pitched tents and the white stones marking the walkways,
with the sweep of his hand. The youth, all Honours degree undergraduate
students of the archaeology course, have been in Anuradhapura since
early June and will reluctantly wind up their field work in about
“This is a scientific investigation. Everything
is numbered, be it a coin, a bone or a piece of pottery, then computerized
and the cumulative data will give us an in-depth look at the eras
gone by,” says Uditha Jinadasa, a post-graduate student who
has come to Vessagiriya to impart her knowledge on how to use the
latest technology to make archaeological work easier.
As The Sunday Times joins her group of eight undergraduates
punching numbers on a small piece of equipment that is no bigger
than a mobile phone, Uditha is teaching them how to get the correct
location of any item under the Global Positioning System. “Where
earlier we needed a lot of equipment, now it is tiny. We just have
to get a signal from the satellites and then mark it. Then we download
all points to the site computer, map the area and get the location
spot on. This will help all future work,” she says.
The group at the top of the rock, guided by Senior
Lecturer Dr. Piyatissa Senanayake, had first got an insight on how
the cave-dwellers, believed to be monks who lived a spartan life
and depended on pindapatha (or alms) for their survival, kept the
rains out from their sleeping quarters, the sandy floor of the rock.
Peering at a rock cave, Dr. Senanayake points out the chiselled
ledge at the top, the simple measure taken to make the water drip
straight down without blowing in.
Next it is time to read the ancient Brahmi script
from Northern India carved below the ledge and focus the students’
attention on the fact that there is a South Indian letter too in
them. The inscriptions are permanent markers on most of the donations
of the caves by lineage or clan chieftains known as ‘Parumaka’.
This particular cave was donated by ‘Parumaka Palikada’
to monks coming from ‘all four directions, not only on that
day but forever’.
Thereafter, it is time to climb the rock and in
the blazing sun, take an imprint of the inscriptions, the process
of which is dubbed estampages with wet paper spread and held down
over the script and then inked over. “This helps us to read
even the lettering that the naked eye cannot see,” says Dr.
The thoughts of all the undergraduates are echoed by Sandya Niroshini,
23, when she says the field work is the real university of life
where they have to see to each task and take responsibility for
routine stuff like making the tea (some of whom along with the lecturers,
drink in well-cleaned coconut shells) and keeping the camp clean.
“In university, our lessons are limited
to books, but here we learn not only archaeology but also about
life,” she smiles, while Ishankha adds, “Loku jayagrahanayak.”
(It’s a major triumph.)
Not only facing stray dogs and cattle, but also
cobras, polongas and deadly thorny scrub, they learn life-skills
and leadership away from the lecture halls of Peradeniya. No armchair
Five hundred young men of Vaishya origin
or the elitists were ordained here states the Mahavamsa, says
Project Director Prof. Sudharshan Seneviratne giving the historical
significance of Vessagiriya. However, according to him this
site cannot be taken in isolation. Horizontally it’s
part of the Ranmasu Uyana and Isurumuniya complex. Vertically,
its history runs to the Pre Historic through the Early Iron
Age prior to the inscribing of the early inscriptions in the
3rd Century BC
It is believed that forest-dwelling aranya monks who would
have gone on pindapatha (seeking alms) because they were forbidden
by the Vinaya to hoard food, would have lived here. They would
have lived not too far away or not too close to a human settlement.
Therefore, the settlement would have been about 2 km as the
crow flies, the A’pura citadel or other smaller habitats
along the Malwatu oya flowing half km to the east of the sites.
The monks would have been living where a thoroughfare would
be close and it fits because the ancient route from the Malaya
hills, Kandy, went past Vessagiriya, The Sunday Times learns.
Of course, water was near, says Prof. Seneviratne, referring
to the Tissa Wewa, located to the west of the site.
Vessagiriya is also linked to the famous Saliya-Asokamala
legend, while parricide King Kasyapa I of Sigiriya fame is
believed to have donated land to both Isurumuniya and Vessagiriya
and named them after his two daughters, Bodhi and Uthpalavanna.
“The short inscriptions on the rock indicate primitive
Buddhism. Then in the post-Christian period this place developed
small buildings and up to the 10th and 11th centuries, despite
the big monasteries in Anuradhapura, Vessagiriya retained
its early links with Buddhism, giving it some pristine sanctity,”
says Prof. Seneviratne, equally comfortable, battling the
thorns when visiting the exploration site and drinking tea
from a coconut shell, as he would be walking the august corridors
of the Peradeniya University.