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Kotte Heritage 1: The Tunnels

Chryshane Mendis

Program Coordinator, archaeology.lk

Chryshane Mendis

Introduction

This series ‘Kotte Heritage’ would explore the archaeological and heritage sites of the Kotte Kingdom. Kotte, before becoming the Capital in the 15th century was first developed as a fortress in the late 14th century by Nissanka Alakesvara to serve as a base for his attacks on the Arya Cakravarti of Jaffna. In 1415 with the ascension of Parakramabahu VI as King, Kotte was selected as the Capital due to its superb fortifications and expanded into a beautiful city with further fortifications. Kotte served as the Capital of the kingdom till 1565 when the Portuguese who were defending the Kingdom on behalf of King Dharmapala decided to relocate the city to Colombo due to the continuous attacks from the Seethavaka Kingdom under Rajasinghe I. It is stated that they demolished all the buildings and used the material to expand Colombo.

What remains of the city at present and commonly known are the Veherakanda ruins, Alakesvara’s palace, some ruins at Parakumba Pirivena, the tunnel at Ananda Sastralaya, the Inner and outer moats and sections of the rampart. There are traces of other ruins within Ethul Kotte and Pita Kotte which belong to the fortress but which are not quite known and not conserved. This series will explore all known and unknown historic sites and the legends surrounding them.

The Inner-city and Outer-city

In order to get a proper understanding of the purpose of the tunnel systems it is important to know the city limits. As stated above the city of Kotte developed as a fortress and grew into a fortified city. The historic development of the fortifications of the city of Kotte could be seen in two stages, the first stage by Nissanka Alakeshvara and the second by King Parakramabahu VI. Throughout these two stages of development, various defense systems were constructed such as ramparts, bastions, moats, and various others (this series would explore each of these features in the future). During this development stage a network of tunnels was constructed for the security of the fort.

The fortified city was divided into two sections, as the inner-city and the outer-city, this is still known at present as Ethul Kotte and Pita Kotte; and access to the city was through 7 passes with the only land pass being at Pita Kotte which was about 200 feet wide and was heavily fortified by Alakeshvara and later by the Portuguese as well.

The ancient fortress of Kotte (map taken from Kotte: The Fortress)

The area of the inner-city at present comprises of the land, from the north at the entrance to Ethul Kotte road from Parliament road to the south near the Salvation Army church on Ethul Kotte road and from the east, from Nippon Avenue to the area bordering the Kolonnawa Canal in the west. The inner-city gate was found in the area where the Salvation Army Church is, which is less than 100m to the south from the Kotte Archaeological Museum. The area of the outer-city comprises the area between the inner-city gate up to the Sirikotha which is about 80m before the Pita Kotte junction. This was the main land pass to the city. With this context, we could now look into the tunnel network with a clearer mind of the surroundings.

Red are the ramparts of the Kotte fortress

The Inner-City tunnel

Tunnels are an important feature of a fortification which serves as an escape for the occupants under a siege and also to attack the enemy by surprise. The fortress of Kotte was equipped with such a tunnel system. The fortified city of Kotte was equipped with two tunnel systems, one for the inner city and outer city.

The inner city tunnel was said to have been built by King Parakramabahu VI. It functioned as an escape route with its entrance inside the city and exit leading to the lake where people could easily take boats to the other side. It is rumored that the entrance to the tunnel was through a well inside the city. The exit of this tunnel network was to be found until recently in the premises of the Christian Mission College down Mission road now known as Sri Jayawardenapura Maha Vidyalaya.

Yellow shows the supposed path of the inner-city tunnel. Brown shows the southern ramparts of the fortress

The writer on the 4th February 2017 visited the College premises with Mr. Saliya De Silva, Council member of the Kotte Heritage Foundation, a resident of Kotte and old boy of the College. Mr. De Silva knew the location of the exit of the tunnel which was accessible during his school days. Walking towards the Primary section of the school near the lake which was a considerable drop in elevation, he pointed towards a stone wall and explained that the exit was found here. He states that the opening was about 5 feet in diameter and ran several meters inwards. This was visible in the 1960s during their school days but was subsequently sealed off as it posed a danger to students who might venture in. Judging from the surroundings, it was an ideal place for an exit of a tunnel as the terrain formed a ditch-like feature giving cover to the escapees. And its close proximity to the lake about 20 feet from the opening was ideal for an escape over the lake as the surrounding higher elevation and trees would made it hard to escapees to be seen.

Red circle marks the location of the exit of the tunnel, now covered by a wall
The edge of the Diyawanna Oya
Red circle marks the exit of the tunnel and Blue arrow shows the route to the lake

Climbing the higher ground and heading towards the school Mr. De Silva pointed to a location and explained that there used to be a Tennis Court during his school days were in the corner a certain section of the tunnel was revealed. This has been mentioned in the Administrative Report for 1968-70 of the Department of Archaeology. As at present, no visible location of the Inner-city tunnel exists.

Apart from this, there are few sites within the school of notable historic significance.

The Lambrick Hall

This massive Hall was constructed in 1822 by the Rev. Samuel Lambrick when he established the ‘Cotta-Institute’ providing Christian missionary education by the Church Missionary Society. In time this came to be known as the Christian Missionary College and now Sri Jayawardenapura Maha Vidyalaya. This is perhaps the oldest School in Sri Lanka still in existence. This hall is built of typical Bristish-Ceylonese style architecture with massive columns and corridors and characterised by a large single roof. The roof has been renovated in recent times but the columns and the wooden doors and frames bears witness to the beautiful architecture of the 19th century. This is protected by the Department of Archaeology.

The ancient Na-tree (ironwood tree)

Adjoining the hall is an old Na tree said to be over 1000 years old. Legend states that the Ven. Sri Rahula wrote the Salelihini Sandesaya under this tree; no historical or archaeological evidence is found to support this claim but it is believed that this land in the which the present school is, was known as ‘Erabath-Tota’ during the recent past. It is also believed that during the days of Kotte kingdom it was the seat of ancient learning known as the Dharma Rajika Pirivena. Since a Buddhist temple can be situated 500 dunu (bow) lengths away from the inner-city according to the Vinaya pitaka, there can be some truth in this legend. [The distance to the school premises from the inner-city gate is about 500 metres.]

The ancient Na tree

Kota Vehera

Mr Douglas Ranasinghe has shown in his map a Kotavehera by the side of Mission Road existed during mid-20th century. Kotavehera type dagabas are presumed to be tombs build for important persons. It is possible that this was built at the place where one of the air inlets of the tunnel existed.

Present location of the Kotavehera

Monument to the Son of Veera Keppatipola

Legend states that the son of Veera Keppatipola after his execution in 1818 was taken under British Missionaries and educated at this school where he lived in the hostel and had died due to a fever and was cremated within the school premises. In recent times a monument has been built to mark the spot where he is rumoured to have been cremated. This is right next to the old Na tree. There are no written records to prove this stated Mr. De Silva.

The writer would wish to thank the Principal Mr. D. A. D. Vanaguru for granting permission to document the historic sites within the school and is happy to note that he is keen in preserving these ancient monuments; and also to Mr. Saliya De Silva for the guided explanation of the monuments.

The Outer City Tunnels

There were two tunnels leading from the outer-city built by Alakeshvara for defensive purposes. One being a small tunnel only sufficient for people to walk through and the other tunnel is said to be large enough for a horse to ride. Both these tunnels appears to have started in the outer-city behind the outer moat and fortifications and opened up at a tunnel junction in Pita Kotte with the small tunnel leading further south and opening at the ditch passed the Kotte Raja Maha Viharaya.

The smaller tunnel which had two sections began from the west of the main land pass and the first section opening up at the tunnel junction and the second section opening up further south. The Portuguese historian De Couto mentions an incident where during one of the sieges of Kotte by Rajasinghe of Seethawaka, that a Portuguese foraging expedition had discovered the forces of Rajasinghe hiding in the jungles outside the land pass and had used a tunnel to attack the rear of Rajasinghe’s army which caused much damage due to the surprised attack. This shows that the small tunnel was in existence during the times of the Portuguese. The larger tunnel is said to have begun from the eastern corner of the outer rampart and opened up at the tunnel junction.

The Tunnel Junction

Interestingly this tunnel junction could still be found in the premises of the Kotte Ananda Sastralaya and is one of the most unique archaeological remains of Kotte. The Kotte Ananda Sastralaya is one of the most prominent schools in Kotte and could be arrived at by taking the small road to the left of the Gal Ambalama in Pita Kotte junction. The ruins are found within the school premises.

Photograph by Mr. Prasad Fonseka
Photograph by Mr. Prasad Fonseka

There are two large structures which are cut out of living cabook rock or laterite and what is most interesting is that these are found below the ground level. Once entered from the main gate of the school one could find to the right an area demarcated by a fence and within that gaze in amazement at the two massive structures in the ground. The entire area is about 10×5 meters and about 2 meters below the ground level. There are about 12 steps to get to the base level. The first structure is cut in the shape of a stupa and the second is a tall rectangular shaped structure with a decorated entrance portico extending outwards. The entrance portico is carved with a Makara Thorana and one could enter from here and exit from another opening in the rear. No tunnel could be found at present inside the structure which is a circular cavity with a pillar in the centre for support and one could barely stand inside. This structure is decorated right round with impressions of pillars and other designs.

Entrance to the chamber in the second structure. Note the Makara Thorana on the entrance portico.

The archaeological reports date this site to the 16th century and state that the crown of the Sinhala Kings was believed to have been engraved on top of the entrance portico. This site was known to exist well into the 20th century as it and archaeological reports of 2011 states that this was covered by mud, exposing only a small section. Proper excavations were conducted in 2014 which revealed the real magnitude of this site. Although the excavations conducted here revealed no tunnel, a scan using Ground Penetrating Radar had revealed anomalies in the earth which could be the tunnel. Although no archaeological evidence can be found to prove this as the tunnel junction, its location being below the ground level and surrounded by trees makes it an ideal tunnel exit which would have given perfect cover for escapees.

Red circles show the proberbal outer-city tunnel entrances and exits. Yellow shows the path of the outer-city tunnel with the Red square the tunnel junction

The exit of the smaller tunnel is said to be through a ditch south of the Kotte Raja Maha Viharaya but no visible location is found today.

References

  • Fonseka Prasad, KOTTE: THE FORTRESS, 2015.
  • De Silva, L.M.V., ‘We are Many Centuries Old’, Sri Jayawardenapura Maha Vidyalaya 168th Anniversary Celebration, 1990.
  • කෝට්ටේ නියාමක සැලසුම් ව්‍යාපෘතිය, නියමු සැලසුම් ඒකකය, පුරාවිද්‍යා දෙපාර්තමේන්තුව, 2010.
  • කෝට්ටේ කෞතුකගාර අලුත්වැඩියාව 2010, අවිචිඡ්ද වැඩ, බස්නාහිර පළාත පුරාවිද්‍යා අංශය, 2011.

 

The next article would explore the ramparts and moats of the fort…

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Excavating Alugalge: archaeology.lk visits the excavations of the prehistoric site

By Chryshane Mendis

Chryshane Mendis

Excavation of the prehistoric cave of Alugalge is conducted by the Field Archaeology Unit of the Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology (PGIAR) led by Professor Raj Somadeva and a team of Researchers from the PGIAR and University students. The excavation which is funded by the PGIAR and the National Science Foundation (NSF) is part of the field work of the ‘Hunters in Transition’ project which aims at identifying the pre and proto historic transition which would have occurred in the mid or late Holocene Epoch. This project is the extension of the research programme of ‘Archaeology of the UdaWalave Basin’ begun in 2006 the area of which had been identified as an environmentally optimal area to study this transition. This 15 year project is currently running in its 9th season with the present excavation. The Archaeology.lk team visited the excavations in mid-March to gain an insight on this current excavation and as to what goes on during an archaeological dig.

Alugalge is located in the village of Illukumbura in Balangoda of the Rathnapura District. To reach here one must travel to Balangoda and upon reaching Kirimatithenna junction which is 3.5km passing Balangoda town on the Kaltota road, turn right on the Weligepola road and proceed about 10km to Kongasthenna junction. From here take the Illukkumbura road to the right and proceed about 5km passing the scenic Panana village to a sharp 90 degree turn to the left, from where one must take the small road to the right and travel about 2km through the hilly tea estates and home gardens to the Illukkumbura school and from here it is a 1km downhill hike from the road onto the left. The team of Archaeologists and Prof. Somadeva are based in a rented house in the beautiful peaceful village of Illukkumbura which is about 3km from the site.

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Alugalge Cave on Google Map

Summary of the excavations 

Speaking to the Professor and the team, they explained that this is the second phase of the excavation of the Alugalge cave which commenced on the 20th February 2017 and is planned for a period of 6 weeks but that the duration could be extended or shortened based on the excavations.  This cave was for the first time surveyed and excavated in August 2016 which yielded evidence of prehistoric habitation and put the occupation of the site in about 3,450 B.C. with the most interesting find being that of a Shark tooth pendant.

Inquiring into the identification of this site, they explained that after every excavation an exhibition and awareness programme is conducted in the villages from which the residents share their knowledge of possible locations which are afterwards surveyed. The cave of Alugalge was one of the many such locations identified by the people and after conducting several surveys of other nearby caves, this particular cave was selected. Such programmes with the village folk have proved very valuable and their interest in identifying and reporting on possible locations is quite noteworthy and the help and support given to the excavation by people is remarkable as the writer witnessed.

Explaining on how they conducted the excavations; about a week was spent on surveying the site and only after a thorough survey is it decided to excavate. The cave, which was excavated on the previous occasion, was excavated to a further depth this season. Once the surveying was completed they laid the gird plan and conducted the profile drawing of the levels which is of most importance and only then was it begun to excavate.

Excavation within the cave. (Photograph by Dinesh Devage)

 

Prof. Somadeva examining some finds (Photograph by Dinesh Devage)

The excavated soil layers go through two processes in order to obtain artefacts, first by dry sieving and second by wet sieving. The section of the excavated soil is marked by the grid number and layer number for a systematic identification and only then taken through the above two processes which are conducted at the site. This dry and wet sieving is a careful process and is done through experienced hands due to the delicate nature of the artefacts. Artefacts are selected during these two stages as well and further after the wet sieving; the soil is carefully dried and brought in marked bags back to the house for a more careful piece by piece identification and selection.

Photograph by Dinesh Devage

The recovered soils which are carefully marked are brought back to the house and some entire days are spent on selecting the artefacts from them. When the writer visited the excavations, both days spent there were on this separation of artefacts from the soil layers; which as the writer witnessed is equally exciting and fun as digging in the cave because for to the archaeologically eyed participant, every step of an excavation be it in the field or indoors is sensational as something new to knowledge is brought to light every moment.

Drying of the soil after wet sieving

 

Sorting out the artefacts at the house

Once dried, the soil is spread on a white polythene sheet on a table and using a variety of twisers one by one the tiny particles are separated into different containers.

It is amazing as to the amount of artifacts that turn up from just one bag of soil; for when spread out on the sheet, what seems like a heap of soil and dirt, when separated piece by piece reveals an array of artefacts. The artefacts found are Quartz stone tools and flakes, remains of animal bones and bone tools including teeth, shells, pieces of burnt clay, pieces of charcoal, and sometimes tiny pieces of graphite. The more remarkable findings are measured and cataloged separately for further analysis.

Before separation

Bone fragments
Burnt clay
Identified stone tools

Stone tools are usually made from Quartz and Chert, but from this site only Quartz tools were found and make up the largest percentage of artefacts found and these are classified as microliths due to many being less than a centimeter in size.

The artefacts sealed in separate bags.

Some of the shells discovered belong to the species Acavus haemastoma and seeds found here are identified as Dik Kekuna (Canerium zelanicum) which are still found in this area. These artifacts are then sealed in small transparent bags and labeled according to the grid and layer number from where they were excavated. These will be taken for further analysis.  The bags of soil recovered from the site amount to over a hundred and from morning till night are being painstakingly sorted out by the team. The patience that one requires to perform this is immense and it requires a trained eye to spot the artefacts from the soil and rocks.

When at the site the team would spend about 8 hours from 8 am in the morning till about 4 pm in the evening and when at the house as when the writer witnessed, from around 7 am they would sit on the benches sorting out the artefacts till 10 pm in the night only resting for meals and tea and the interesting stories of the Professor.

Traveling to the source of these wonderful finds, the Alugalge cave is located 3km from the house, the first two kilometers is motorable and turning off from the Illukkumbura school to the left we parked the motor cycle in a house nearby and began the 1km downhill hike to the cave. The first 500m is through the backyards of few houses and then takes a rather steep decent through patches of forests and small tea estates. The path is very narrow and there are many other footpaths joining the main path which makes it tricky but is now quite familiar to the team now used to trekking this path daily for almost a month. Traveling through the beautiful woods to a very low elevation the path turned north along a small ridge and came up beside a massive rock several dozen feet high, here lay the shelter of the prehistoric man, the Alugalge cave. The area has been arranged well for the dig, with a hose and tap brought from a nearby estate and much equipment such as spades and shovels including a generator used to light up the inside of the cave. The mouth of the cave opens up to the west and is surrounded by thick evergreen forests. When excavating, the team hikes down here daily, leaving the house at 7 am in the morning and arriving near the Illukkumbura School in a hired truck and making the downwards decent to the site carrying all the equipment and meals and work at the site till about 4 pm in the evening. The villagers are very supportive and have great respect to the Professor and team as the writer witnessed and many children from the village come to observe the excavations. For the lover of nature and history, this is the ultimate satisfaction.

On the way to the site
Some of the scenic houses on the way to the cave.
Entering the cave from the path.
Lighting the inside of the cave.

The team with Prof. Somadeva (Photograph by Dinesh Devage)

The excavations are scheduled to conclude end of March and only a scientific analysis of the findings back at the PGIAR would reveal the full worth of this season’s discoveries. The fascinating field of archaeology never fails to amuse the mind of even the most uninterested person with its wonderful stories of the past, spectacular findings, most of the time touched last by human hands over thousands of years ago and also the stories of the present, of the places visited, people encountered and the diversity of cultures witnessed. Although separated from family and friends for several weeks, the lover of archaeology is ever happy at heart for he who uncovers history finds happiness in diversity and wherever he or she may be, will always feel at home.

References

  • Somadeva, R. (2011), Archaeology of the Uda Walave Basin. Occasional Paper no. 2, Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology, Colombo: Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology.
  • Somadeva, R. (2014), Archaeology of Mountain, Occasional Paper no. 3, Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology, Colombo: Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology.