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Uncovering Sri Lanka’s past: the beginnings in the 19th century

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Uncovering Sri Lanka’s past: the beginnings in the 19th century
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Thus, when serious investigations began it was the Mahavansa that provided the information to locate the ancient monuments and also to identify what was discovered by ground surveys.

Although the excavations done and discoveries made during the 19th century were almost wholly the result of interested British officials, Buddhist priests in Anuradhapura too had taken a great interest in what were their own, and had taken steps to uncover some of the more important religious monuments..

For instance, Forbes (1828) had noted that between 1828 and 1829 Abhayagiriya had been cleared of jungle by a priest and Ievers in his Manual has noted that in 1841 Thuparamaya had been similarly restored by a priest. Further, he also notes that in 1853 Ruvanveliseya had been covered with white cloth and a kota (pinnacle) placed on it.

However, from his notes it is obvious that very little follow up action had been taken by those individuals or groups –an almost impossible task for voluntary workers- as the monuments had apparently remained as what they would have been after the initial clearings. Thus Ievers remarks that before 1873 Ruvanveliseya was a huge shapeless mass of bricks and it had been sometime before 1870, that the main monuments had been cleared of jungle for Lawton [he was an Englishman who had a photographic establishment down Castle Hill Street, Kandy] to photograph them between 1871 and 1873. The clearing for photographing the monuments had been done with the approval and supervision of Naranvita Unananse.

Yet, it is said that a general plan of the city of Anuradhapura showing the principal monuments was appended to Turnour’s Mahavamsa of 1833 [I have not seen it]. Tennent described the monuments in his ‘Ceylon’ (1861) and included wood-cut prints taken from the drawings of Andrew Nicholl. The latter had accompanied Tennent when he visited Anuradhapura and Polonnaruva just before the 1848 rebellion, and had drawn the more important places he had seen. It was from those drawings that the wood-cuts had been done for printing.

The illustrations in Tennent’s book show the Bo-tree, ruins of the Brazen Palace, the rock of Sigiriya, the ascent to Mihintale, the Ambasthala dagaba and a number of illustrations of the ruined monuments at Polonnaruva. The book also has a plan of Anuradha pura done by Skinner (1852) and of Polonnaruva by WG Hall. That a general idea of the stupas was had by Tennent is seen by his illustration showing the relative heights and shapes of them (p.1053)

The governors who had interested themselves in the ancient capitals had been Ward (1855-1860), Robinson (1865-1872) and Gregory (1872-1879) They had given instructions for the clearing of the jungle, and uncovering the monuments that could be undertaken by the officials. In fact during the time of Robinson, Captain Hogg of the Royal Engineers had been asked to photograph the inscriptions, but the exercise had been a failure, and later he had been used to photograph monuments. [I do not know whether that too had been successful , for I have not been able to locate any such photographs] But the better known and available series was done by Lawton. Of all the Governors Gregory had been the most enthusiastic, in reviving oriental learning, and his enthusiasm had been passed on to his successors Longdon (1877-1883), Gordon (1883-1890 and Havelock (1890-1896).

As noted earlier, NCP was formed in 1874 making Anuradjapura its capital. In 1877, Anuradhapura was surveyed, and detailed plans of the dagabas were drawn by Smither. S M Burrows had started excavations and explorations during the period 1884-1885, and finally an Archeological Survey was established in 1890, and the Archeological Department set up to administer it.

Bell, the first Archeological Commissioner had only one draughtsman and 40 labourers to begin with. It is that ‘team’ –later increased by two officers and a few more labourers that had done all that marvellous initial explorations, excavations and restorations to uncover and show to the world the glory of that ancient city. But, as noted earlier, the latter half of the 19th century had seen clearing of some of the stupas, and some of the more important monuments, but it was Bell who had commenced systematic investigations and conservation of what was discovered or exposed.

It may be easy to find fault today in the techniques and methodology of those early explorations and excavations, but the work had been done almost single handed and with the barest funds made available by the Treasury for such work. Dedication would have been the key to success. If the monuments were put up by kahavanu paid by the ancient monarchs, centuries later they were uncovered of jungle growth by British officials working with local funds and the available labour.

By the end of the 19th century Anuradhapura was no longer a forgotten city. It had road, rail and telegraphic connections. Its ancient past was proclaimed to the world, and tourists were encouraged to visit the place. A rest-house was available and coaches were also available for the visitors. All that meant the place should be in a presentable state, and that was the responsibility of the Government Agent.


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