Keynote address by Prof. Raj Somadewa at The Annual Research Session 2013 of University of Sabaragamuwa, Sri Lanka

This is the transcript of the keynote address delivered by Prof. Raj Somadewa at The Annual Research Session 2013 of the University of Sabaragamuwa, Sri Lanka held on  December 19, 2013.



Prof. Raj Somadewa delivering the keynote address
Prof. Raj Somadewa delivering the keynote address

Honorable sirs, distinguished guests, colleagues, and Dear friends,

It is a great honor for me to be invited to deliver the keynote address on this special occasion today. I consider that you have privileged me to express my own views and perspectives to the wider academic community in your university.  I thought it is more appropriate to begin my lecture by referring to the first occasion I came to know about this meeting. A couple of weeks ago Dr. Ms. Paranavitana of your faculty, called me to ask my consent to accept the invitation to deliver the keynote address of the annual research session of her university. I accepted it with great pleasure. Since then I was so eager to find a suitable theme for the talk. In the meantime, Dr. Paranavitana called me for the second time and inquired about my preparation and she asked if I could talk about my own research which is spatially focused on the archaeology of the Haldummulla area. On behalf of the Vice-chancellor and the organizing committee of this conference, thank you very much Dr. Ms. Paranavitana, for your concern and the kindness conveyed. However, I thought it is apt to share some ideas on a theme related to our thinking on history and tradition which perhaps, I am professionally qualified to talk on.
Dear friends, whatever field we are qualified to work in our professional lives, the inspiration made by the historical thinking on our working culture cannot be neglected. We all are historically derived and our mental templates are historically molded. As T.S. Eliot once wrote in one of his poems;
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future?
And time future contained in time past.
Time past contained in time future that is why we need history to survive as social beings.
Let me now explain what circumstances caused us to formulate our current historical thought. The beginning of archaeology in Sri Lanka is a manifestation of the curiosity of British colonial administrative officers some of whom were fascinated by ‘the ancient civilizations of the orient’. The first English translation of the fifth-century chronicle Mahāvamsa provided a literary guide to search for lost cities of the country, just like Homer’s Illiad inspired Schliemann to search for the ancient city of Troy.
Efforts made by British colonial officers to record and document ancient ruins during the latter part of the 19th century provided a remarkable contrast. Uncovered ruins of ancient buildings and sculptures were assessed as the achievements of a local past and were assimilated into a global cultural order. The artistic quality of the historical paintings and the Buddhist architecture as well as the technology of the ancient irrigation works of the country was contrasted with that of the classical ‘western’ civilizations of the Mediterranean and the Near East. This comparative approach to the early archaeology in Sri Lanka excluded the possibility of having a more specific scientific research frame to view the cultural development of the country.  The colonial enthusiasm for the Sri Lankan past remained within the limits defined by the differences between the colonizers and the colonized. The influence of the British colonial ideology was sustained even in the early post-independence archaeology of the country.
Post-independence scholarship in Sri Lankan history and archaeology sought the legitimacy provided by an uninterrupted existence of the indigenous people of the country and their cultural history was characterized by the historical texts and the archaeological remains.
The main streams of thinking that affected the archaeology of the island after the 1950s might benefit from examination through a post-colonial theoretical perspective. After gaining political independence in 1948, attempts were made to investigate the culture and identity of the society. The resistance created against the colonist’s view of the ‘voiceless, sensual, female, despotic, irrational and backward’ character of the cultures in the colonies is apparent in post-independence archaeology in Sri Lanka. The search for the existence of indigenous cultures the growth of full-scale literacy, deeper consideration of the historical tradition of paintings and sculptures, and the socio-political aspect of monumental architecture characterize the culture-historical trend in post-independence scholarship.
Post-independence Sri Lanka also has some historians and archaeologists strongly influenced by the growing nationalistic nation-state ideology. A historical theme of ‘Aryanization’ from the historical chronicles was used to glorify the past. Aryanization is described in the chronicles as a substantial population migration from the northern part of India to Sri Lanka during the mid-first millennium BCE. It also recounts a story linking Sinhala identity with ‘a white-skinned race’, which is believed to have led to an inheritance of racial purity.
The consolidation of the nationalistic ideology of Sri Lanka, which was fragmented during nearly 350 years of colonial domination was an important social dynamic during the first half of the 20th century and is reflected in literature and religious discourse. Among some Sri Lankan intellectuals, the archaeological heritage, regardless of the spatial and temporal dimensions of particular ruins, became an important tool to push the boundaries of the long-term existence of the nation far back in time, long before colonization. Archaeology also provided an anchor for the social psyche to rely on the idea of a more glorious past.
Archaeological activities in the 1970s on the island were mostly empirically oriented. The research results were incorporated into nationalistic perspectives of the past.  In particular, the deep stratified excavations launched at the ancient city of Anuradhapura provided a sequence of cultural continuity from the early first millennium BCE to the early second millennium CE. Heavy emphasis was placed upon the emergence of writing to bolster past cultural achievements. Finds of north Indian cultural materials associated with the first irrigated agriculture have renewed discussion of the Aryanization theme. The theoretical inspiration of the archaeological work carried out in Sri Lanka in the 1970s came from foreign meta-narratives such as the Childean concept of the ‘urban revolution’.
During the 1980s, the initiation of the Cultural Triangle project under the Central Cultural Fund of the UNESCO/Sri Lanka joint venture induced a sudden change in the methods and practice of Sri Lankan archaeology. Five major historical sites (Abhayagiriya monastery and Jethavana monastery in Anuradhapura, the 5th-century city/royal complex at Sigiriya, the Alahana parivena monastery complex at Polonnaruva in the north-central province, and the 17th and 18th-century city of Kandy in central province) were selected under this program for research and conservation. A uniform set of methods in excavation and recording was prescribed for the project and an extensive program of excavation and conservation was undertaken. The interest shown by socio-political and intellectual institutions of the country towards the selection of the sites for the Cultural Triangle project reflects the attraction of the great monuments for the nation. In epistemological terms, it was an attempt to harmonize post-independence ideology with a more scientifically rigorous methodology. The role of the project in developing research infrastructure and in archaeological capacity building has been remarkable. The Cultural Triangle project stands out as a significant turning point in the history of archaeological research in Sri Lanka.
Cultural continuity from prehistoric cultures using lithic technology to the emergence of iron technology became a major research interest in the 1980s and 1990s. The cemeteries of the iron-using culture excavated during that period produced an important artifact assemblage from a previously unexplained period of the island’s cultural history. The iron-using culture of Sri Lanka has been viewed through a ‘South Indian inspiration’ paradigm and this is still subjected to a wider discussion.
During the latter part of the 1980s, an interest in the ‘common people of the past’ emerged among the archaeologist in the country. It was an attempt at a new point of departure and a reaction against the previously prevailing focus on the ‘temples, palaces, and tombs’ in the social history of the island. This reorientation mirrored a global trend towards new social archaeology. One of the pioneering advocates of this emerging movement in 1989, Senake Bandaranayake launched the settlement archaeology project.  Unfortunately, the project as well as this general trend within Sri Lankan archaeology was soon discontinued. Academic interest in the ‘common people of the past’ was apparently insufficiently grounded in the contemporary social context of Sri Lanka, but a more detailed analysis is needed.
During the mid-1990s, research interest in the ‘Neolithic’ origins of the island emerged. The term Neolithic signifies a new technological era when both stone and metal had been used in parallel to each other. Archaeological materials associated with the Stone Age-Iron Age transition at a number of sites were re-examined from a ‘Neolithic’ perspective. No adequate explanation has been offered of the clear-cut break from the prehistoric Stone Age to the supposed ‘Neolithic Age’ in the archaeological sequence. The search for a ‘Neolithic’ can be described as an ‘intellectual artifice’ inspired by the cultural development in Europe.
Some changes in the archaeological data acquisition occurred during the 1980s and the 1990s. The emphasis shifted from site-specific surveys to regional-scale surveys. However, the theoretical developments of that period did not match the methodological improvements.
Knowledge is a product of its time. After the 1960s, several major research works on the Sri Lankan past were inspired by influential socio philosophical thinking. For instance, the ‘privileged relics’ of the past were subjected to deep scholarly concern. Buddhist architecture was theoretically explained for the first time through the view of the then-dominant theoretical paradigms. At that time, most of the other research in the archaeology of Sri Lanka carried forward the Indianization paradigm as the main theoretical frame of reference. Expansion of the Indian culture outside the Indian mainland has been termed as ‘Indianization’. During the 1960s, the idea of ‘Indianization’  became prominent as an explanatory tool for understanding the development of the South and Southeast Asian cultures. The cultural imperialistic notion of the Indianization idea has discredited it as a single explanatory theory.
The emergence of another line of research in Sri Lankan archaeology is discernible from the late 1980s and onwards. This represents the expansion of the research scope to a number of new fields. Notable examples are the maritime archaeology of the Galle harbor project, metallurgical studies in Alakolavava in Sigiriya and Samanalavava in your area, ecology and resource exploitation, animal Osteology related to archaeology settlements and environmental interaction and settlements and spatial interaction, numismatic studies in the wider Indian Ocean region and paleoclimatic studies in the Horton Plains.
In the last decades of the last century and the early decades of the 21st century, we are passing an ambitious path towards explaining our historical development with more clarity and confidence. Formulation of intelligible research programs on historically relevant themes on the basis of a viable research frame of reference is emerging. The belief of external influences like that of the Indianization paradigm did not survive and the focus on internal dynamics became the solid foundation of recent works. Explanation of historical continuities and changes has been considered as the objective of archaeology vs. providing mere descriptions on popular themes to accomplish social nostalgia.
Under the aegis of these new developments now we know this island was colonized by the archaic Homo sapiens at least 125 000 yrs ago. Since that, they had proliferated to the hinterland and made an adaptive response to the diverse environments in this country. Kuruvita, Kitulgala, and Balangoda in your province became the key focal areas of this research program.  The leading and eminent figures of prehistoric research in this country, Dr. P.E.P Deraniyagala, and Dr. Siran Deraniyagala are from your area.  Once we thought that the history of our civilization was supplanted by the so-called Aryans who migrated from the northern part of the Indian subcontinent. New evidence are appearing to argue that it is not a correct historical assumption. As our historical chronicles describe, the Aryan migrants arrived here in 600 BCE. But now we know at least 1800 years before that we were in a position to cremate our deceased relatives and construct burial chambers to deposit their corporeal remains. We made polychrome clay pots using the wheel. The most striking feature of this age was the use of iron. We have clear evidence to prove that we invented the iron smelting technology to the world 4400 years ago. The rest of the world had acquired that knowledge 800 years later. Once again the Sabaragamuva area is becoming a key geographic focus to unveil such enigmatic information, which helps to reconstruct an important cultural trajectory of our country. According to the data surveyed and excavated in Haldummulla and its suburbs a new transformation of the Balangoda man could be proposed. During the mid-Holocene, the hunter-gatherers who occupied the upper montane region had faced the hardships of climatic change. The pollen concentration in the Horton plains shows a marked decrease in vegetation. It was due to the decline of the southwestern monsoon pattern. This climactic event is also evidenced in lake deposits in mainland India as well. Soon after this climatic deterioration, there was a wet phase resulting in an increase of biomass. The period between 3000 and 2000 BCE, the Balangoda man took a new initiative to exploit floral resources as a response to this fresh climatic makeover. We have evidence to show that for the first time he has made crude pottery in the cave situated in Walmeetalava in Haldummulla. They had experimented with sedentary life there. Our next field season will hopefully provide us with microfossils of the cereals they exploited and animals hunted for their food quest.
Dear friends, Let me conclude my keynote address by mentioning one important thing. At least 5000 years ago our inventive ancestors had marched along the mountain slopes surrounded by the premises of your university. The wind that passes through your sophisticated laboratories carries their spirit. This landscape is induced by creative thinking inherited from our native scientific knowledge.  I have no doubt that Sabaragamuva University will be the intellectual hub of that tradition in the future. I wish you all great success.  Thank you very much.



  1. i have read about srilankan archaeology through a key note address of one professor and have found that this section of archaeology is fighting against the old path shown by British colonisers. I have a quest of feeling to read about the ramayana age in srilanka. I shall owe you much if you please enlighten me on my email.
    with kind regards:
    Yours faithfully,
    Dr. Udai Narain Sinha
    Reader in the Department of ancient Indian History and Archaeology,
    Lucknow University,

  2. Dear Dr Udai,
    I have been interested in the Ramayana Saga vis a vis Sri Lanka & have studied all available info on the matter I could get my hands on. Sri Lanka has a written History of more than 2500 years – which also aided to the establishment of the chronology of India as well, of which you are no doubt aware of – but unfortunately – the saga of the Ramayanaya is not mentioned in any of these ancient texts such as the Mahawansa ( the Great Chronical of Sri Lanka), Dipavaliya, etc,etc. Mahawansa (5th Century) mentions in its first chapter itself that it has made use of earlier texts in the preparation of its early chapters up to the 5th century.In the millenia that intervened, neither the sculptures or paintings depict any episodes from this saga. There is no mention at all of the Ramayana saga. Rama/Sita saga receives 1st mention around 2 -3 centuries ago coinciding with the arrival of Royal concubines for local kings( & also later Royalty) from the South of India – mainly Madurai – where the story was firmly prevalent. The connection with ” Lanka” appears to be a fictional connection between the “Lanka” of Ravana & Sri Lanka – connecting similar sounding names. It must be mentioned that the Rama/Sita saga is prevalent in most of SE Asia including Indonesia where even a “Langkawi” exists.
    Various sculptures & rock carvings also exist in the SE Asia region depicting this saga – but NOT in Sri Lanka !
    As mentioned, this saga receives mention very recently. In SL in recent times, the saga has become an instrument of promoting “Tourism” & many natural geographical features have been “converted” to fit in to this myth in SL – eg, Sita ( Seetha) Eliya up in the cold central hills of SL ( which means Sita/Seetha – ” cold”, & Eliya – “plain”, in Sinhala Language is now converted/interpreted as the “plain of Sita” where she was said to have been imprisoned by Ravana. A mountain with a flat top is now referred to as ” Yahangala” by Tourist touts — (means Bed of Rock) & is now connected to Ravana ! There is a Kovil ( at Hakgala near Nuwara eliya – which means the plain on which the King encamped – not very far from ” Sita Eliya” – that has been put up to Sita ( or Seetha in Sinhala) where nothing at all existed 20 years ago – speaking from my very personal experience/observation. It is also touted as an “important point” on the “Ramayana Trail” as touted by the Tourism touts” & many from SL & India are taken for a “ride” on this misinformation.
    The saga is now a completely commercialized money making enterprise now in SL. People are being fooled to extract money !
    Recently, a gentleman going by the name of Mirando Obeysekera ( an octogenarian if I am right) claiming to be a academic has put out a book in which he claims that the saga is connected with SL – unfortunately without a shred of hard evidence – archaeological or otherwise!
    That there were human habitations in Sri Lanka prior to the arrival of Vijaya is a proven fact – even the Mahawansa records existence of a civilization in SL at this time – Kuveni in the act of weaving cotton cloth at Vijaya’s arrival + other prehistoric burial sites such as at Ranachamadama” & “Ibbankatuwa” ( in hill country & dry zone respectively) but no hard evidence of the Saga has emerged!
    If you are interested in the period before the arrival of Vijaya, I could help by recommending several scholarly publications by well acepted academics, which would be of interest to you.
    Best regards
    C.S.Rohana Nanayakkara.

  3. Please publish a photograph of the stone Orion belt calendar that had been excavated by the team of Prof Raj Somadeva at the limestone cave, Haldummulla.

  4. Professor Raj Somadewa’s insightful discussion on different phases of Sri Lankan archaeological development was read with much enthusiasm. He rightly explains that type of history that was based on myth, such as Aryanization and the theory of Vijaya’s Sri Lankan colonization, cannot be proved by scientific evidence available on the ground. I am, however, not convinced on his lack of enthusiasm on the contribution made by ‘Indianization’ and ‘South Indian inspiration paradigm’ . The novel approach initiated by Professor Senake Bandaranayake in the late 1980s to understand Sri Lankan history and people through the ‘common people of the past’ has been pushed aside to the detriment of the country’s truth loving people. To a large an extent the understanding and interpretation or construction of Sri Lanka’s history was camouflaged or hijacked by the people in power who wanted to construct history on ethnic lines. The replacement of Dr. Bandaranayake’s article on ‘Settlement’ he wrote to the National Atlas of Sri Lanka (1st edition) in the second edition of the book is a classic example. Dr. Bandaranayake’s this article demonstrated the beginning of a new initiative in understanding the Sri Lanka’s people’s past thorough true facts and scientific investigation. This initiative was derailed, and history, archaeology and hence the truth, will suffer many more years to come. .


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