Professor Raj Somadeva conducted a survey on the macro area of the Kaltota escarpment, which houses the controversial Kuragala site. What he unearthed about Kuragala is part of a research project called ‘Hunters in Transition’.
Darshanie Ratnawalli of The Nation interviews Prof. Raj Somadeva to provide readers with more information on the Somadeva’s work and the controversial Kuragala site.
The survey report will be ceremoniously launched. The invitation reads: “The Kaltota survey phase 1. Memoirs of the Post Graduate Institute of Archaeology no 3/2015 by Professor Raj Somadeva et al. A report on the historicity of the Kaltota escarpment including Kuragala will be launched on 12 Friday June 2015 at 3.00 pm in the Auditorium of the Department of the National Archives, Independence Square, Colombo 7. We are cordially inviting you to be present at this occasion”.
DR- Why is this specially launched? Is it general practice to launch every archaeological survey ceremoniously?
RS- No. there is a demand from the people who funded the project to launch the publication ceremoniously
DR- Who funded it?
RS- The Dayaka Sabha of the Dewram Wehera in Pannipitiya
DR- So the Kaltota survey is not government funded?
RS- Actually even though it comes under the memoirs of the PGIA, even the printing cost is borne by the Dayaka Sabha
DR- Is it because the sight is of special significance?
RS- Yes, because there is a lot of controversy propagated on Kuragala. They wanted to clarify the archaeology and the history of the sight and tell this scientifically constructed story to the society
DR- Does this Dayaka Sabha have any connection with the BBS or the Sinhala Ravaya?
RS- No. That is I don’t know. Even if there is any connection it does not matter to me because I did the survey as a professional according to the laws and principles of archaeology.
DR- So civil society is taking an interest in archaeology and funding it?
RS- The Department of Archaeology which is the apex institute having sole responsibility for archaeological sites have big responsibilities, but little money. I don’t see any problem with asking the public to contribute. All the cultural things whether tangible or intangible belong to the people irrespective of ethnicity
DR- So did the department make an appeal to the public or did the Dayaka Sabha take the initiative in funding this Kuragala report?
RS- No this is not a survey centering on Kuragala. It’s part of my research project called ‘Hunters in Transition’. Its geographical focus includes the Kaltota escarpment which includes Kuragala. So I asked a couple of friends, I want to survey the macro area of the Kaltota escarpment, you are interested in Kuragala. You have soft funding resources. So please help me.
DR- Did you mention the Arabic/Islamic cultural layer of the Kuragala site in your survey?
RS- Yes. I quoted an article by Dr H.M Shukri, Director of the Naleemiah Institute of Islamic Studies in Beruwala about the Arabic inscriptions of Sri Lanka. In this article he mentioned the inscription of Kuragala. I published a photograph of the Arabic inscription and I said that there is a multiple layer of cultural existence in Kuragala. Apart from the long standing heritage of Holocene hunter gatherers and early Buddhist residential abodes there is evidence of some Arabic/Islamic affiliation suggested by this Arabic inscription. But according to Shukri this inscription has no intelligible meaning. So I said this Arabic inscription does not establish a long standing tradition of Arabic presence or Islamic religious practice at the site. But the current Muslim population of the locality have attributed intangible cultural values to the site and we have to respect that. Because it reflects historical cultural interactions in a modern context. We should allow all the people of the country to experience the intangible cultural values adopted by them to the site within the legal provisions prescribed in the Antiquities Ordinance. You can’t do anything tangible within the site. You can’t construct anything. But you can experience the site without any ethnic boundaries.
DR- So you are saying the present mosque should never have been built?
RS- Actually some work has to be done to find a place outside the archaeological site and help them rebuild the mosque there. It’s a problem for the Archaeological Department and the politicians. I am a professional. I have done an archaeological survey of the site and established the historicity and the archaeological importance of the site. So in future, for managing this site you have to follow the legal provisions of the Antiquities Ordinance.
DR- What does it really mean professor?
RS- It means you have to remove all new constructions from the site whether it’s Islamic, Hindu or Buddhist
DR- But a Buddhist stupa has been built there?
RS- It’s an old one
DR- How old?
RS- Normally that kind of Stupa belongs to the tradition of ‘akasha chaithyas’. The purpose of constructing ‘akasha chaithyas’ is to establish a line of sites. When you construct small stupas or ‘akasha chaithyas’ in the summit of a rock they serve as communication beacons giving directions. These ‘akasha chaithyas’ have been constructed since 7th century CE.
DR- But the chaithya at Kuragala is a modern construction
RS-Yes you are right. It’s a common practice in archaeology. If you have identified a location with residues of ancient construction you use modern bricks to simulate it.
DR- I see…Like the Sigiriya ponds?
DR- So even though certain parties have accused that the Stupa is a modern construction by the Dept. of Archaeology…
RS- It is a modern construction manifesting the ancient stupa. It’s an established principle in archaeology. It’s not conservation but restoration. Conservation is when you have the collapsed thing and you have consolidated it and completed it. Restoration is when you have signs of existence of a thing but you don’t have any residue, only some scanty signs. Then according to the physical features remaining you rebuild for the sake of the citizen
DR- But some allege that the Kuragala stupa was only constructed a few feet high and abandoned due to the protests of the Muslim community.
RS- No, that is the way in restoration. If you do not have any material residues remaining at site manifesting the super structure of the stupa you can’t do much. What you can do is to demarcate the outer periphery of the stupa and build 3 or 5 lines of bricks depicting the shadow appearance of the ancient structure.
DR- But professor what If a Muslim says; if a Sufi saint meditated here, don’t we have a right to demand that a mosque be constructed here?
RS- No. if you have a set of ruins depicting the cell the Sufi saint used to meditate and reside in, it’s ok. You have a legal right to ask that cell be conserved or restored. But you don’t have any tangible evidence to promote the intangible aspects of the Islamic heritage of Kuragala except that Arabic inscription.
DR- What about the famous tombstone of Kuragala?
RS- One of the walls of the mosque there have a small inscription indited on top indicating 1926. So all tangible manifestations of the mosque site postdate 1926.
DR- So there’s no tombstone datable to the 13th 14th centuries
RS- No, the only thing that could be assigned some sort of historicity is the Arabic inscription
DR- You haven’t asked Dr. Shukri to read the inscription anew. You just took his old reading?
RS- Yes, the Shukri article gives a holistic approach to the Arabic inscriptions found in Sri Lanka. He wrote it before all the controversies about Kuragala arose.
DR- Does he date the Kuragala Arabic inscription?
RS- Yes to a period between 10th and 16th centuries CE. He says it could be the work of a Sufi saint of north Indian or Persian origin
DR- Can Arabic script be dated?
RS- Yes it can be dated on palaeographic grounds
DR- So you think you have made your contribution to resolving a controversy that has been raging for some time
RS- I had no intention of resolving any controversy or conflict. As a professional I did a survey based on empirical grounds. I constructed a synthesis based on my observations. I included maps, photos, readings of inscriptions and copies and that’s it. For the first time the Arabic inscription comes on my report excepting its appearance in the Shukri article.