The Masterpiece from the Ant hill
by Tissa Devendra
Little did I imagine, 60 years ago, when I began my career in government as a District Land Officer in the ramshackle old Kachcheri, on Inner Harbour Road, in Trincomalee that, almost 20 years later I would return as Government Agent – and be thrice blessed to recover sacred Buddhist relics from the protecting earth and, later, to be custodian of three wonderful images of the Buddha.
The land now described as the Trincomalee District was, for centuries, an integral part of Rajarata the ancient Sinhala kingdom. Its northernmost point was on the hill of Tennamarawadi, where there yet remained the ruins of a little stupa. Its southernmost point was near the inlet of Lankapatuna [now Ilankathurai], also marked with the ruins of a stupa, where the ship conveying Danta Kumara made landfall with Princess Hemamala carrying the sacred Dalada. Between these two points there were, along the coast, the Vatadage of Tiriyaya, Gokanna Vihara [now transformed into Koneswara Kovil] and the great stupa of Seruwila. Numerous other sacred sites dotted the land between the sea and the Kantalai reservoir. Prominent among these was the monastic complex of Vilgam Vihara. These ancient sites brought home to me the fact that I was now the custodian of a hallowed land that held "the ashes of our fathers and the temples of our gods.’’
I will briefly retell the account of my finding the relics at Vilgam Vihara in 1971:
"With mounting excitement I lifted out a perfectly hemispherical stupa of blue green crystal to the sound of more ‘sadhus’. It had a finger deep hollow to hold sacred relics. The stopper had fallen off and the hollow was filled with earth mingled with intriguing flecks of white. These, we presumed, were relics and were reverentially placed on a white cloth…" [from ‘Treasure by Starlight’ in "Tales from the Provinces"]
A Dubious ‘Sadhu’
Decades ago, a Government Agent represented every Department of Government in the District he administered. Archaeology was, thus, one of my responsibilities and had a personal resonance for me as my father, D.T.Devendra, was an eminent archaeologist.
One day I received a call from the Police Station in Uppuveli, on the outskirts of town, that they had taken into custody a presumed robber of ancient sites together with some artifacts. When I drove up to the Police Station I found several policemen curiously looking at the objects displayed on the table of the Officer-in-Charge. These were two Buddha images each about 10 inches in height, a saucer of little white ‘seeds’, a peacock feather, trays of jasmines, hibiscus and marigolds, a cluster of joss-sticks, an oil lamp (extinguished), skeins of yellow thread and other paraphernalia associated with ‘poojas’. In a corner of the room squatted a long haired man in a yellow verti and a necklace of large seeds looking most woebegone at the loss of his means of livelihood.
The Police Officer’s story was most interesting. He had observed a gradually increasing number of ‘devotees’ beginning to frequent a newly established ‘devala’ to seek blessings and pray for favours. Unobtrusive observation showed that the objects on the ’ were two obviously ancient Buddha images. The Police were well aware that ancient images were the property of temple bhikkus or the Archaeological Department, and not itinerant ‘sadhus’. The ‘sadhu’ in question was promptly taken into custody together with his "tools of the trade" on suspicion of having vandalized an ancient temple. Under interrogation he denied robbery and claimed that a man from a jungle village had sold it to him. Being a most resourceful chap he lost no time to set about establishing his own devala as a source of income and had built up quite a clientele with his genuine sounding mumbo-jumbo.
Both images and the saucer of little white fragments were duly handed over to me as the legal custodian of ancient objects in Trincomalee. When I got into my car Maharoof, my general factotum, reverently carried the ancient images placed on a white cloth on his lap. Back at the Residency I cleared the desk in my office room [equipped with an impressive old safe] and placed the images on it. It was time for a detailed inspection and I placed the images beneath the bright beam of my reading lamp.
Both statues were seated in ‘Samadhi’ mode, most popular ‘mudra’ in Sri Lanka’s sedent Buddha statues. The first I studied was of white, slightly rough textured ‘soap stone’. It was in pristine condition in spite of centuries of enshrinement in the enveloping dark and tons of earth of an ancient stupa. The features radiated serenity. What really entranced me, my wife and children, was that streaks of the original red paint that yet remained in the sculpted folds of the robe.
The other statue, though sadly damaged and crudely patched, was a sculptural gem. It was carved in smooth and transparent crystal. It had been split across the middle, probably by the rough tools of the temple robbers. The two pieces had been refixed in their original position but, tragically, pasted using some black substance. I do not think that, to date, I have seen such a lovely little statue. It is an exact replica of the famous Toluvila Buddha with its delicately moulded torso.
Several times that day I quietly came back to the room to contemplate the two images whose custodian I had become after many centuries. At last, I reverently placed them in the old Colonial wall safe.
As for the contents of the saucer, my father told me an interesting story. Some years ago he had been in Hiriwadunna near Sigiriya. Investigating an old ‘devala’ led him to the house of its ‘kapurala’. The man was not at home but his snot-nosed little grandson was around. When asked where the kapurala was, in all innocence, the boy came out with the amazing statement "He’s busy turning out relics [‘dathu ambaranawaa’]" – a cottage industry of the kapurala fraternity! The contents of the saucer from Uppuveli were pretty obviously such a product. However, to be on the cautious side, I placed the saucer in the safe. When I retrieved it a few weeks later – the saucer was empty. I will never know whether the constituent elements of a man made relic just dissolved or – did some real sacred relics supernaturally beam themselves out of the profane confines of the old English safe?
Some days later my father visited us in Trincomalee and, naturally, was fascinated by the statues. After a careful examination he pronounced both of them as typical of the Anuradhapura period over a thousand years ago. A stickler for correct action, he advised me against retaining the images in the Residency. They had to be handed over to the Archaeological Department without delay. I duly, but most regretfully, followed his instructions and lost the beautiful statues for ever – where they probably lie in some corner of a forgotten cupboard of the Archaeological Department.
From the Ant Hill
Way back in the 1970s Gomarankadawala was a remote, but lovely, village in the Vanni jungle. Not far from it, in a swampy patch of ground stood the stone pillars of an ancient shrine. This was the site of the hot-water spring of Rankiri Ulpotha. Gomarankadawala was also the Divisional ‘capital’ housing the Headquarters of my Divisional Assistant Government Agent [A.G.A] who headed the only Sinhala Division in Trincomalee District. Its claim to distinction was that it had been the easternmost outpost of the Kandyan Kingdom. Incidentally, it was, thus, governed by the Kandyan Marriage Ordinance which gave the Government Agent the legal authority to divorce incompatible couples, without lengthy Court proceedings.
A Unique Little Image
One morning, Mr. Y.B. Dissanayake, the A.G.A., came to meet me at the Kachcheri carrying a heavy little parcel wrapped in newspaper. He placed it before me and carefully unwrapped it to reveal an unusual granite image of the Buddha. What was most interesting was that it was not a free standing image. The sedent Buddha, not more than four inches in height, was recessed into its own shrine. This was a small solid ‘column’ with an alcove cut deep into it to hold the Buddha image on a pedestal. The alcove was surrounded by a neatly patterned arch. A stupa formed the roof of the shrine, its pinnacle sadly lost. This unique artifact had been found in a termite ant hill [‘humbaha’] by a peasant digging into it for earth to build his home. The Rajarata peasant was a law abiding man who promptly hastened to carry his find to the A.G.A. And now it lay on my desk – en route to its temporary sojourn in the Residency safe.
I have never in my life seen such a stone shrine. The unyielding granite had been carved with the utmost delicacy to give the inch high face of this little Samadhi Buddha a smile of gentle compassion. It is a masterpiece of the sculptor who had delicately chiseled the unyielding granite to carve this little gem. This image enthralled everybody who saw it. I had a replica made of tamarind wood by the sculptor of the Kovil Chariot and had it presiding over my Conference Room in the Kachcheri.[Is it yet there? I wonder]
Serendipitously, my brother Somasiri was staying with me in the Residency. He was Commandant of the Naval and Maritime Academy in the Navy Dockyard. Talking about the statue, now in the Residency, he suggested that his craftsmen may be able to cast a metal replica from a mould as a permanent souvenir once I had ‘surrendered’ the original to the Archaeological Department. This was done with great skill and the metal replica, looking almost stone-like [photo], now graces my home. As for the original, I presume it lies forgotten in the dim recesses of the Archaeological Department to which I duly handed over this unique masterpiece of the Sinhala sculptor’s art.
POSTSCRIPT Many years later, on pilgrimage in Buddha Gaya, to my ‘serene joy and emotion’, I observed a few of these identical little shrines made as votive offerings to the Sacred Bodhi by our King Sri Meghavarna many centuries ago.
former Chairman, Public Service Commission, is a Patron of the Colombo Brch. An article by him on his times at Dharmaraja in 1937, appears in the 125th Year Souvenir.
His father, D.T. Devendra, later an archeologist, was in the College Staff while, brother, Somasiri, later Commandant SL Navy and sister, Ransirini later, a writer of disctinction, were all at Dharmaraja in 1937.