Feature Article

Sri Lanka Archaeology Dept plans to take Jaffna material to Anuradhapura

[TamilNet, Wednesday, 15 June 2011, 06:45 GMT]
Material excavated recently at Kantharoadai in Jaffna, belonging to pre-Buddhist Megalithic period, and could be dated to roughly 3000 years before present, are planned to be taken to Anuradhapura museum in the south, informed sources in Jaffna said. According to news reports, the excavation has been ‘jointly’ conducted by the Sri Lanka Department of Archaeology and the Department of History and Archaeology of the University of Jaffna. Even on all earlier occasions, valuable material excavated from important archaeological sites of the Tamil country in the island such as Maanthai in Mannaar and Kantharoadai in Jaffna were taken to Anuradhapura or Colombo and became unavailable for Eezham Tamils to present their heritage in their own land.

The decision to take the excavated material to Anuradhapura doesn’t reflect the spirit of ‘partnership’, but show only a colonial attitude, academics in Jaffna said.

If there are no facilities in Jaffna even to store and study the material locally, while massive Buddhist stupas are being built with SL government funds in the country of Eezham Tamils, why should the Sri Lanka Archaeology Department conduct the excavation at all, as though it is the utmost priority now, asked a senior academic in Jaffna.

A small museum organised in the British times still exist in Jaffna, while the University of Jaffna recently re-organised a museum in the Arts Faculty, bearing the name of Professor K. Indrapala and felicitating his services.

At the inception of the University of Jaffna in 1974, Professor Indrapala initiated a museum in the History Department of the university, incorporating the collections of the then existing Jaffna Archaeological Society.

This museum was destroyed and plundered when the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) occupied the university campus in the late 1980s. India so far has not compensated to this cultural damage.

As it is explicitly known that state in Sri Lanka conceives archaeology as a weapon of structural genocide in the island, the countries that fund archaeological ‘reconciliation’ in the north and east as a priority than restoring sovereignty of Eezham Tamils should take a note of what they are doing if they are not doing it intentionally, the Jaffna academic said.

Unless the Eezham Tamils who feel themselves a nation are vested with sovereignty of their land, heritage studies of the classical nation-state model funded by the so-called postmodern world for its own benefits through state in Colombo are not only meaningless but also dangerous to the people concerned, the academic further said.

He made a particular note of the Netherlands funding an archaeological project of the Jaffna Fort, without first building infrastructural facilities or arranging guarantees to keep the archaeological material of Jaffna in Jaffna under the custody of the people of Jaffna.

Material dating back to Roman times has been found recently inside the fort by the Jaffna university team that excavated a rescue trench during the fort renovation project funded by the Netherlands. The SL department also has dug a trench sometimes back but details are not available. All material excavated by any party belongs to the SL department.

Many of the archaeological material found in the Tamil country were ostensibly lost or were never reported. A carnelian seal with a Sanskrit legend ‘Vishnubhtisya’, found by Prof. Indrapala when he was a student and given to Dr. Paranavitana never surfaced again. The Vallipuram Gold Plate, giving the place name in Tamil in its Prakrit text, is said to be lost. A Tamil Brahmi potsherd inscription found sometimes back in the excavations at Tissamaharama in down south, was not recorded in the official excavation reports of the site. Similarly, Buddhist artifacts found in the Tamil country were sometimes dumped by the local people as their nation had no sovereignty to look after its own heritage as its own, and as the state in Colombo was always making use of such finds against their territoriality.

For well over a hundred years, the excavated heritage of Eezham Tamils was not available to them but it was always interpreted against them, the academic further said adding that the case was the same with the so-called National Archives in Colombo where there are no Tamils and Tamils cannot easily find entry for studies.

Recently in an international seminar hosted by Colombo as part of its current series of ‘international image building’ exercises, when a Kerala researcher touched the topic of the South India – Sri Lanka common substratum on which Buddhism was superimposed and pointed out the parallels between the monuments of Kantharoadai and Maldives, some Sinhala academics present there reacted with animosity, telling that Kantharoadai was never excavated properly. The discussion turned irrelevant and the researcher had to ask the chairperson to stop it.

The current excavation at Kantharoadai has come to an end as virgin soil has been reached in the trenches. The trenches were laid close to the location where earlier a team from the University of Pennsylvania, led by Vimala Begley and Bennet Bronson excavated and found protohistoric material associated to Megalithic Culture or Iron Age of the South Indian genre.

Sri Lanka Department of Archaeology took the initiative to excavate the site and included the University of Jaffna as a partner, promising that the report will be jointly written by Dr. Nimal Perera of the Archaeology Department and Prof. Pushparatnam of the University of Jaffna. Students and faculty of the University of Jaffna participated while officials and workers, brought by the SL Department, conducted the excavation.

The claimed reason of the SL archaeology department for their ‘irresistibility’ of excavating Kantharoadai right now, without even preparing to store and study the excavated material in Jaffna along with their partners, was said to be to freshly fix the chronological datum line for Kantharoadai, as they had doubts over the earlier excavation by the University of Pennsylvania.

But there are suspicions in Jaffna over the real intentions: against the backdrop of what the Sri Lankan state is doing at Kantharoadai over several decades now, alienating its heritage from the Eezham Tamils of the land and trying to project it to the south and to the world that it was a Sinhala-Buddhist centre occupied at later times by Tamil ‘invaders, mercenaries and traders.’

Megalithic Culture in the island was a common substratum to those who evolved into Eezham Tamil and Sinhala identities through history.

In the context of unveiling the pre-Buddhist phase of the island buried by religious myths, even the very few Sinhala archaeologists known to be professional and non-parochial in the universities and in the SL Department of Archaeology, could not succeed in enlightening the public and the school children by their decades-long researches. Their research findings went only to another few in the academic world.

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