Unveiling Eastern treasures

Batticaloa is the last district in our North-Eastern provinces’ heritage exploration journey. The modern-day Batticaloa District is one of the ancient areas where early Aryan settlers landed and established Aryan settlements on the island. It is also one of the ancient areas where Buddhism flourished. However, the demography of the Batticaloa District has drastically changed over the years and many deliberate efforts have been taken to erase the area’s identity and replace it with something else. It is reported that during the times of the Portuguese, they had caused severe damages to the ancient Buddhist sites, and then later severe damage was caused by the religious extremists. When the terror of the LTTE was spread across the area, ancient sites of the Batticoloa District were further damaged and neglected.

After the internal conflict has ended, satisfactory measures have not been taken to preserve the heritage of this district. The namesake archaeological work done in the district is limited to working on some Dutch period monuments only, while the massive number of Buddhist heritage sites lie neglected and damaged further.

Ancient names of Batticaloa

The history of the district runs parallel to the Ampara and Trincomalee districts. Although today they are divided into the modern-day districts and administrative divisions in the past the area belonged to the administrative division known as the Pacheena Passa or the Eastern area. Digamadulla Janapadaya was the ancient name of the vicinity of modern-day Ampara and Batticaloa districts. Deeghavapi had been the name of the area that stretches from Gokanna (modern-day Trincomalee) to Panama Paththuwa.

Just as the Ampara District is filled with many Buddhist heritage sites, the Batticaloa District is also covered with a large number of ancient sites and most of them are Buddhist heritage sites. Yet, very little is done to preserve them.

Batticaloa; a distorted name

Place names are important as they suggest a place’s identity and legacy. Changing, erasing, and distorting a place’s name is dangerous as it wipes away the place’s true identity and legacy. Sometimes, with time, place names change. But, if that change is deliberate and conspired, then it is an issue. That is unethical and wrong. In Sri Lanka, this has been happening now for a few decades. It is understandable that locals and foreigners pronounce local place names in a way that is easy for them; nevertheless, to make those distorted names the official place names is inappropriate and wrong. This has been done by the Dutch, as some modern scholars suggest deliberately, and then continued by the British, in order to erase the identity of these places and replace it with something else. During the time of the Dutch, distorted place names were entered into maps and official documents, a practice which has been continued till now. This has created confusion regarding the island’s history and identity.

Jaffna, Mullaitivu, Vavuniya, Kilinochchi, Mannar, Ampara, Trincomalee, and Batticaloa are districts where place names are being largely distorted. As we insisted in our last segment, the original names of these places should be in use in official documents, name boards, and maps and used by the public.

Batticaloa is not the original name of the place. The beautiful lagoon has been addressed by the inhabitants of the area during historic times as Mada Kalapuwa which means the muddy or clay lagoon. The name Madakalapuwa bares the place’s geographic identity and shows the earliest inhabitants of the area spoke the Sinhala language.

The Madakalapuwa area which includes the area stretching from Gokanna (Trincomalee) to Panama Paththuwa, had been known as Deeghavapi. This was an early Aryan settlement by the Shakya prince Deegha. Digamadulla Janapadaya also bares the legacy of prince Deegha.

Today, Madakalapuwa is being distorted and entered into official documents as Mattakalappu, which is wrong.

Until the 19th century, the area was known as Deeghavapi. According to the Sirilak Kadayim Potha it was in 1833 that the modern-day Batticaloa District was first created.

The area was successfully harvested by King Saddhathissa while he was still a prince when the two brothers prepared the country for the great battle against usurper Elara. One of the most important historical trivia of the area is that when the Dutch signed a treaty with the Sinhala king in 1766, the Batticaloa area belonged to the Kandyan Kingdom.

In the little booklet published by the Department of Archaeology in the year 2005 titled Batticaloa District composed by Jayalath Kulasinghe, it says that R.A.G. Festing in 1918 writes in the preface of S.O. Canagaratnam’s Monograph of the Batticaloa District of the Eastern Province, Ceylon, that he has witnessed a large number of ancient ruins in the district where a massive population of Sinhalese people has lived. The book further says that today, we can see that new religious places are being built in many ancient heritage places erasing their original identity.

Rediscovering ancient Batticaloa halted

In 2020 the ‘President Task Force for Archaeological Heritage Management in the Eastern Province’ was formed in order to preserve the severely damaged heritage places in the East. Under this, great work was initiated to do in the Batticaloa and Ampara districts. Under this project, it was reported the Department of Archaeology (DoA) successfully uncovered 650 archaeological sites and monuments in the Batticaloa District only. However, with the sudden political change in the country, this above said project faced hindrances.

Mavadivembu ancient stupa and monastery being bulldozed

In one of our previous interviews, archaeologist Prof. Dananjaya Gamalath said that vandalism of archaeological heritage in the two provinces was accelerated since 2015 by presenting photographs and videos of the sites. “These historical sites are occupied by people and that is illegal,” he further specified, presenting evidence.  Mavadivembu in Batticaloa, Olumadu archaeological site in Vavunia, Thirukkovil, Kandikudichchiaru, Gurukanda, and Seruvila Sirimangalapura, are to name a few sites that are illegally occupied, and monuments being vandalised. “These actions are backed by certain political groups with the mere intention of creating clashes between communities and erasing the Buddhist heritage out of the North and Eastern Provinces,” he further stated.

He highlighted Mavadivembu in Batticaloa District as one of the severely damaged sites. In 2019 it was reported that the ancient stupa has been bulldozed. The monastery ruins as well as the vicinity were severely damaged during this act of vandalising. Later, attempts were taken to take legal action against the culprits by Buddhist monks and then the DoA has taken measures to demarcate the monastery boundaries.

The tragedy is that this stupa is not a small one, but a large stupa. It is known as the largest ancient stupa in the district. Also, to conduct such harm to a religious symbol venerated by another group of people is an act that cannot be justified or considered as an act that can be ignored.

This site was first discovered in 2017 by archaeologists and the large stupa which was in a ruined state was recorded to be 32 metres in diameter and 100 metres in circumference. Studying the bricks of the stupa and the style of the stupa, archaeologists have dated the stupa back to the 2nd – 3rd centuries CE.

Stone carvings such as moonstones, footprints of the Buddha (Siripathul Gal), a Yupa stone, stone pillars, stone slabs, and bricks can be seen in the vicinity. The Yupa stone is another piece of evidence to say that the stupa was first built in the early Anuradhapura Period. During our visits in 2020, we witnessed that a Hindu kovil has been built on stone artefacts. A Trishul has been fixed amid ruined stone slabs and covered with red clothes. Also, a small Christian worship area has been built on the ancient archaeological heritage site. These are clearly encroachment of land and illegal constructions on a Buddhist and archaeological site.

Looted Tara in the British Museum

The world-famous bronze Tara statue exhibited at the British Museum is reported to be discovered in Batticaloa. Some sources say it was from somewhere between Trincomalee and Batticaloa.

Another story is that this extremely rare masterpiece was said to be stolen by Robert Brownrigg, the then-British Governor of Ceylon, from King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe, the last king of Kandy. Then he donated it to the British Museum in 1830. Some sources say that the story that this statue was discovered from Batticaloa was put forward by the British Museum and also say that it was discovered in the 1800s.

Further records say that the British Museum when first received the bronze statue was startled by the bare upper body of the masterpiece as they believed it could be too erotic for the public, thus keeping the masterpieces out of sight for 30 years. Sources also say that the statue was open for public view and studies only after the museum authorities clarified that the statue’s purpose was solely religious but not erotic.

However, the British Museum authorities should know that such statues and paintings were never considered erotic or vulgar in ancient Sinhalese arts; in contrast, they were considered religious and/or aesthetic.

Moreover, the British Museum which is profiting through a massive number of looted precious religious objects that belongs to other countries and cultures, should not mock or give their own narrow interpretations to these objects, after removing them from their original cultural contexts.

Kusalanakanda ruins; remnants of the Ruhuna royal dynasty

This is a beautiful place a traveller must visit for sure. Located on top of a rock, Kusalankanda is a traveller’s delight. A large number of caves with Brahmi inscriptions are evidence of a once flourishing cave monastery of the place.

The significance of the place is the inscription that makes scholars assume that King Yatalathissa and King Gotabaya are brothers instead of father and son. (Please read our 7th segment to know the story of Yatalathissa and Gotabaya).

(Pix courtesy Chandima Ambanwala/Amazing Lanka)

To be continued…

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy

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