The Archaeological Department recently began excavations of the ancient tunnel situated at Kotte Ananda Sastralaya. The project is sponsored by the Municipal Council of Kotte. Most of the archaeological remains of Kotte were lost during the last century and therefore the action by the Kotte Municipal Council led by Mayor Janaka Ranawaka is commendable, a [...]

Sunday Times 2

Digging into the tunnelled history of Kotte


The Archaeological Department recently began excavations of the ancient tunnel situated at Kotte Ananda Sastralaya. The project is sponsored by the Municipal Council of Kotte. Most of the archaeological remains of Kotte were lost during the last century and therefore the action by the Kotte Municipal Council led by Mayor Janaka Ranawaka is commendable, a good example for the other councils in the country since most do not care to preserve the few archaeological remains still found.

According to the Nikaya Sangrahaya and Saddharmaratnakaraya, Nissanka Alakeshvara built the fortress of Kotte based on the defence system planned and built by Mahausada (a bodhisattva which means a previous birth of the Buddha), to protect the pre-historic Indian city Mithila and its king,Vedeha. The full details of the Mithila defence system are found in the 12th century work of Ummagga Jataka. There is no doubt that most of those features had been suitably adopted in Kotte. One of them, the two tunnel escape system to come out of the city Uttarapanchala, the city of the enemy king Chulani Brahmadatta.

Outer tunnels and the tunnel junction at Pita Kotte

The tunnel junction; the two sections are clearly visible

What is found in the premises of Ananda Sastralaya is a tunnel junction, just about 100 metres from the Gal Ambalama.

The fortress of Kotte had been built according to the best military strategic standards of that time, proven by the fact that Kotte was never invaded by an enemy during the period of about 190 years that it existed. As such Alakesvara had built two tunnels from the fortress to exit to Pita Kotte in case of need.

Having tunnels to escape was not new. It is known that Mahinda V, the last king of Anuradhapura also escaped through a tunnel.
Of the two tunnels, one had been a small tunnel with a width only sufficient for people to walk one behind the other according to Portuguese historian Diogo de Couto. The other, was broad and so high that even a horseman could go riding through. The big tunnel had been exposed in 1974 and it is said the school children of Ananda Sastralaya went beyond 30 feet inside. As a result the tunnel entrance had been closed by concreting.

The small tunnel had two entrances perhaps to indicate the two directions it ran. It appears that one section was, to come out of the fortress and the other section was, to go further if required. Anyone coming out of the fortress using either the small tunnel or the big tunnel could either come out or go further after entering the second section of the small tunnel. The small tunnel then opened to a ditch so that the people can move further without being seen.

Couto mentions that once during a siege led by Rajasinha, the Portuguese were starving and a group decided to go out of the fortress from the land pass (near Sirikota) to look for food in the jungle. While they were wandering they suddenly saw the forces of Rajasinha hiding in the jungle. They immediately returned and informed the soldiers. An attack was launched after going through a damp and muddy ditch barely wide enough for one person. After going through the ditch they attacked the rear of the army causing severe damage. The forces of Rajasinha counter attacking forced the Portuguese to retreat through the tunnel. It is clear the tunnel system was in operation at that time. However why Rajasinha was not aware of the tunnel system is not clear. The entrance to the ditch appears to have been on the other side of the Raja Maha Vihara which is now largely covered due to the construction of roads.

From the geographical layout of the fortress, it is likely that the larger tunnel started from one of the bastions [behind the Jatika Sevaka Sangamaya building], which is at the eastern corner of the (granite) rampart of Nissanka Alakeshvara. Since a tunnel must have air inlets it is likely that it had an air inlet at the eastern bank (between Sirikota and Jatika Sevaka Sangamaya). The smaller tunnel would have started from a place on the west of the main entrance. Perhaps it would have started from a Devala which is now lost. It also would have had an air inlet on the western side of the land pass. The tunnel junction had been prepared by cutting and removing the natural cabook mound. It is likely that the whole area would have been hidden due to natural growth of vegetation.

Since the rainwater of the school premises had been directed to this place for a long time, at present it is filled with sand about 4 ft. (1.25 m). In the premises of the Kotte Raja MahaVihara, a huge cabook (laterite) block with something that looks like a carving is situated near the Circular Road. This may have been a mark to indicate the end of the small tunnel.

This appears to be the last section of the Ditch [Mirihana Road]Gal Ambalama

The Gal Ambalama, a small building on the Kotte Road at Pita Kotte junction is part of the defence system of Kotte. This was dismantled and reconstructed a few decades back due to broadening of the road and is now located several metres away from the original spot. During digging by an individual in 1976, a three way tunnel had been exposed behind the building. It is quite possible that the air inletsof the tunnels were hidden by constructing the ambalana. Perhaps the third way observed is a sub-tunnel connecting the two tunnels run close to each other.

Present excavations

The excavation of the tunnel system will be carried out in several stages. The first stage is to find out the original floor level during the Kotte Period – several test pits will be dug and then the sand collected will be removed. It is expected that the height of the entrance that is below 3 feet at present will be about 6 feet after. The second stage will be to remove the sand inside the small cave and locate the entrances to the two small tunnels described above. Other stages will be decided later based on the findings.

Inner-city Tunnel

When ParakramabahuVI decided Kotte would be his capital, he built the laterite [cabook] Rampart (still the most prominent structure in Kotte), inner-city moat and the inner-city tunnel. This tunnel has no connection to the outer-city tunnels described above. The purpose of this tunnel was to escape from the inner-city during an attack. In the event of an attack to the inner-city the rest of the fortress is also not secure and therefore the exit of this tunnel had been opened to the Diyavanna Lake.

The exit point of this tunnel is certainly at the Jayawardhanapura Maha Vidyalaya[CMS] premises as it was exposed in 1964.The entrance of the tunnel may have been about 200 metres from the inner-city gate [near the museum]. One of the air inlets of this tunnel appears to have been hidden at the small stupa which existed on the Mission road. The remains of this were lost in the ’70s when a two storeyed house was built.

It is very likely that most parts of the tunnels are intact since they were built through natural laterite layers and in time to come it may be possible that certain sections could be opened for the general public.

Tunnel dug to rescue Vidiya Bandara

The most popular belief is that this tunnel was dug for Princess Samudradevi to rescue her husband Vidiya Bandara imprisoned by the Portuguese. According to the chronicles, she employed workers known as ‘Pallaru’ (a caste primarily engaged in agriculture(. Couto cays the workers were brought from Rayigama. The Portuguese had ill-treated and tortured Vidiya Bandara so much even the Portuguese were disgusted. Samudradevi was thus able to bribe the Portuguese guards and cut a mine from the garden of the [Catholic] fathers. Vidiya Bandara was imprisoned close by and that tunnel was very short, enough to go under the Portuguese rampart and was cut within one night. It was probably cut through sand and temporary, unlike the tunnel in Kotte cut into cabook. It is impossible to cut a tunnel from Kotte to Colombo Fort because some areas are muddy, and therefore even if cut would fill up with water, and not be stable.

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