Conserving a shared legacy

Published : Jun 20, 2003 00:00 IST



Interview with Sudharshan Seneviratne.

Professor Sudharshan Seneviratne is Professor and Head of the Department of Archaeology at the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka. He has been deeply involved, as co-Director of the Citadel Archaeology Project, Anuradhapura, in the planning and management of the excavations at the Jetavana Stupa, the largest brick stupa in the world dating back to the 3rd century A.D.

Professor Seneviratne did his higher education in India, and completed his doctoral thesis on the social base of early Buddhism in southeast India and Sri Lanka under Professor Romila Thapar at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. He is currently working on the Mauryan period in South India. On a recent lecture tour to Chennai, Professor Seneviratne spoke to Parvathi Menon about the shared historical legacy of Sri Lanka and southern India, and on the issues and problems of heritage management in Sri Lanka. Excerpts from the interview:

As an archaeologist and historian whose work looks into the early phase of the shared historical and cultural legacy of South India and Sri Lanka, could you elaborate on the aspects of the common heritage and historical exchange between the two regions. Contacts between the two regions go back to a very early period. However, it is believed that it was Buddhism, as a socially transformatory force, that first linked the subcontinent and Sri Lanka through religion, trade, politics and so on. You have written and commented extensively on the social role and social base of Buddhism. Could you tell us about changing social formations during this period in South India and Sri Lanka, and what recent historical and archaeological research reveals?

I am not very happy giving religious identities for periodisation, but since the question was posed that way, one could clearly identify two phases in the early period, namely the pre-Buddhist and the Buddhist period. The technological and cultural connections between South India and Sri Lanka go back to the prehistoric period. There are some very early sites from the middle Stone Age or the Mesolithic period in Sri Lanka dating to around 30,000 B.C. (they have been extensively cross-dated). There are suggestions that this may have been an intrusive community to Sri Lanka from South India, as the technological, cultural and subsistence patterns they reveal is similar to sites in the far South, in Tirunelveli district and elsewhere.

Then comes the period around 1000 B.C., when we have the earliest intrusion of the early Iron Age, what was till recently known as the proto-historic megalithic Black and Red culture. The critical elements for kicking off the beginnings of history - the use of metal and ceramic, the introduction of domesticated varieties of animals and plants (especially Oryza sativa or paddy), and the introduction of the earliest village culture with small crafts like bead-making and pottery making. The most interesting aspect of this culture is, however, the introduction of the burial cult, or what I would call the memorials, popularly known as the megalithic burials, and the associated ceramic ware called the Black and Red ware that bears post-firing graffiti marks. So this forms the common cultural and technological identity of that time, in a wide sense. This phase goes on into the early historical period, chronologically identified as the 3rd and the 4th century B.C. when north Indian ideologies like Buddhism and Jainism enter Sri Lanka and South India.

The cultural and historical linkages of the period after the 3rd century B.C. is something, interestingly enough, that we have not looked at very seriously in Sri Lanka. This is because in the past, for historiographical reasons, Sri Lankan historical studies often looked both for sources and for inspiration to North India. This has something to do with both the nationalist movement during the colonial period, and the post-colonial period when identities were beginning to be established. In a kind of Indo-centric way, the Sinhala-speaking people often tried to link their identities to North India and to an `Aryan' connection, and the Tamil-speaking people often looked to South India and a `Dravidian' identity.

What was the nature of the historical exchange in the two regions between 6th century B.C., the time of the Buddha, and the 3rd century B.C.?

We believe that there were intrusions of the North Indian ideologies to South India prior to the Mauryan period - as archaeological evidence from Amaravathi suggests. Excavations here indicate that luxury items such as the Northern Black Polished Ware moved to the south both through the southern trade route, the Dakshinapatha (mentioned even in the Arthasastra of Kautilya), and also along the east coast looping trade network, the long distance trade network coming from the Gangetic delta to the South and touching even Sri Lanka. Either specialised traders were carrying these items or there was a down-the-line exchange, where items were moving on their own from community to community, or from centre to centre. The chank (conch) shell, a specific luxury item found in the Gulf of Mannar, is found in northern sites. The trade in pearls, again from the Gulf of Mannar, is mentioned in the early texts, the Pali texts. Later the Jatakas mention the long-distance trade network. By the 3rd century, or the Mauryan period, you find inscriptions by Settis, the merchant bankers, in Amaravati.

What perhaps the Mauryan empire did was to become a catalyst and provide a greater fillip for the more organised expansion of the northern social ideologies. For example, monks coming as missionaries, or groups bringing a message, with the clout of the Mauryan empire. The very fact that a chieftain in Sri Lanka in the central province takes the title Devanampiya, the epithet given to Asoka, would suggest this. There are suggestions that some of the Kerala chieftains took titles that would be translated as Devanampiya, or Beloved of the Gods. In the northern areas of Tamil Nadu, you find the inscriptions of the Adiyamans who called themselves Sathyaputra. This is the name given in the Asokan inscriptions to `southern neighbours'. It is possible that the Mauryan empire may have been sitting there at the back of it with some degree of legitimising force.

So does the Mauryan period then mark any kind of historical watershed?

Not the Mauryan period precisely but certainly the 4th and 3rd century B.C. For instance, the intrusion of northern social ideologies was important. Because they bring not only a doctrine, but also a whole new culture: a new language medium, maybe even a script. Then you have things like lifestyles, food habits, architectural constructions, and technology - the Sangam works mention the Mauryan military technology and prowess. There is the use of coin money. You find the earliest issues of punch-marked coins found in the South - in Kerala and in the southern parts of Tamil Nadu - where this apparently had an influence on the earliest issues of the Pandyan coins in the symbols and the patterns they carry. So there is very definitely what I would call a watershed established in the 4th and 3rd century B.C. and what the Mauryans perhaps did was to consolidate this.

Does the Mauryan empire give political legitimacy to these changes or are these economic changes wrought by Mauryan rule directly?

I think it is interlinked. We definitely see both in Andhra and in Tamil Nadu regions a shift of human settlements from the peripheral hills towards the plains, a shift towards the east and to the river valleys of the Krishna, the Cauvery and the Tamiraparni settlements. Why these people are shifting is something we have never properly tried to look at. They may have wanted greater agricultural production, and/or they were probably coming to the coastal areas where they were probably making contact with traders. The second thing is, as much as they were moving into these areas, it could not happen within the pre-existing situation. They had to change socially and structurally. Their patterns of subsistence change, their production system changes as they are now producing to a kind of a demand situation, and you suddenly see a kick-off in the specialisation of products in this period. You are finding more sophisticated specialisation coming in.

We see the prelude to the state. Powerful chieftains emerge over petty chieftains, the Perumagans for example. You have them now encroaching into new environmental and geographical regions, establishing their hegemonic control over populations, fertile areas and resource areas especially over raw materials - like gems, iron ore, and so on. In the Mauryan inscriptions at Amaravati, a whole series of clans are mentioned whose members are incorporated into the Mauryan army and given titles of military commanders. This was an excellent strategy followed by the Mauryans as these people are acculturated into the new situation.

So about the watershed, I think this period very definitely had its specific features, and I highlight three factors, namely, changing social hierarchies, political structures getting transformed, and new resource areas being encroached into.

What about the role of Buddhist and Jain monks as carriers of the new ideology?

Well, the external factors were the southern expansion of the Mauryan empire and long-distance trade, which happens before the arrival of northern social ideologies. Then of course the more permanent mark comes with the arrival of the Jains, the Ajivikas and the Buddhist clergy who mingle with the people. It is very interesting; if you map - and we have done this - the pre-existing megalithic Black and Red ware habitation and burial sites and the earliest Buddhist and Jain sites, they overlap. At Amaravati, the Mahastupa sits on a burial site. In Sri Lanka in the southern Deccan and even in Tamil Nadu, almost with all early Buddhist sites, the megalithic site and the Buddhist site are often separated just with a small rock outcrop. The monks moved in various ways to the southern Deccan: through the Dakshinapatha, along the eastern coastal route, and some with merchants. And they obviously were living with these early agricultural communities because the message given by the Ajivikas, Jains or Buddhists would not have had any relevance to a hunting-gathering society. It had to be a settled agricultural society having certain types of social differentiation, one facing some degree of tension, in transition from one cultural phase to another.

What is the significance of the Brahmi inscriptions as a source for this period?

The Brahmi script in the southern Deccan and in Andhra coincides with the Nanda-Maurya period approximately. The language here and in Sri Lanka is Prakrit. It is interesting that in the Sri Lankan and South Indian Brahmi inscriptions, including in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, particular letters or symbols are added for the convenience of local phonetics. Kailasapathy has suggested that Tamil was an elite language. The script was borrowed and the earliest donations are engraved in the Tamil language in Tamil Nadu. In Sri Lanka, it remains Prakrit although there are lots of Dravidian- and Mundari-sounding personal names. We do not really know why. One of the suggestions I made was that Prakrit was brought through merchants and Buddhist monks and could be established more easily at the upper level, the upper crust of society. What is very interesting in the Sri Lankan inscriptions is that sometimes the letters are written upside down; so obviously the person engraving it did not understand it.

Iravatham Mahadevan suggests that literacy in Tamil appeared to have been far more democratised than elsewhere because the language of the Brahmi inscription was Tamil. He says that this is because the state in Tamil Nadu was relatively independent of Mauryan hegemony whereas this was not the case in Andhra and Karnataka.

He is quite correct because those regions were under the Mauryas. A large segment of the population was probably using Dravidian or proto-Dravidian languages or other regional dialects. But Tamil certainly had developed as a norm of expression for the common people than Prakrit. So I think Tamil played a much stronger role as a medium connecting the rulers to the ruled, whereas in Sri Lanka it did not take such strong root. It is only in subsequent periods that you see that happening.

Buddhism takes very different trajectories in Sri Lanka and south India.

I think that one of the issues we have to seriously look at is the emergence of Mahayanism and the resurgence of Brahminic practices in the south. For instance, Mahayanism is a response to what Theravada Buddhism, or orthodox Buddhism, could not do. The latter had a social appeal at a personal level. But Mahayanism also could not do what Brahminism did, incorporating the pre-existing pre-Buddhist cults and deities into its fold more effectively, particularly during the period of land grants of the feudal period. So you had the rulers, particularly the Satavahanas and the Ikshvakus, granting Brahmadeyas and so on to the priests, who in effect start the process of land reclamation for agriculture as they move into probably socially backward areas, tribal areas that have all these cult practices. Now Buddhism could not do that because it could not move away from the trade routes. It could not move away from urban centres because their main base was there, and it did not have a philosophy and ideology to market itself outside.

There was also a shift of trade patterns. By about the 3rd and the 4th century A.D. you find a shift of trade to Sri Lanka as an entrepot. There is the decline of the Roman trade even in the South, though trade did not collapse altogether. The traders were the chief patrons of Buddhism, and with more and more rulers opting for a Brahmanic identity, state patronage to Buddhism also collapses. Buddhist monasteries were huge entities, which needed regular income, patronage, maintenance and some degree of security provided by the state. Once state patronage stopped, the plug was pulled. And when the trade pattern shifted, it collapsed altogether.

By contrast, what happened in Sri Lanka?

Sri Lanka did not have such a strong tradition of pre-Buddhist cults and practices, and what existed was incorporated very successfully into Buddhism. Here monks not only went into urban areas but also into very remote areas. They went into remote hills around trade routes. The monasteries, which by the 1st to 3rd centuries A.D. are huge, then incorporated all these areas into their network. The monasteries ran huge establishments; they carried on trade and all sorts of things. So that provided them sustenance and the state became their chief patron.

You have been involved in excavations and restoration of the several of the major archaeological and historical sites in Sri Lanka, including the Jetavana heritage site. Could you tell us something about heritage management in Sri Lanka, and how you have integrated the requirements of tourism with conservation, and ongoing research?

I actually work at Anuradhapura as the co-Director of the Citadel Archaeological Excavation. Jetavana is a part of the Central Cultural Fund Archaeological Site projects of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation), established in 1988-89. This has several heritage sites and Jetavana is one of those. The Jetavana is the largest existing brick constructed stupa in the world scaling 400 ft in height and established in about 3rd century A.D.

We are exposing the site for presentation for cultural tourism and also using the funding generated out of the project for training archaeologists through our department in the university for conservation, excavation and archaeological research. We are able to maintain a good balance of future resource persons on the one hand while also generating an income. All these sites are marketed with a dollar ticket for tourists.

After I took over the site in 2000, we have reoriented the whole project with a new research agenda. We have tried to contexualise Jetavana in the larger context of the ancient city of Anuradhapura by trying to understand its urban processes and its support base. Second, we are trying to understand the site in the historical context of the cultural, religious, technological and trade links that Sri Lanka had with the outside world. Third, we are now going in for a new site presentation format. We are to introduce a public participatory interactive museum, where the museum is presented as an integral component of the Anuradhapura site on the one hand, and to the history of Sri Lanka and the outside world on the other. One of the major flaws in our museum presentation (as in an Indian or South Asian museum) is that it is extremely parochial, highlighting probably only one culture, or a majority culture. They often lose out on some of the most important things about material culture. We plan to take the visitor through historical phases to provide an understanding of various aspects of the monastery and monastic life through a one-and-a-half hour walk tour. Our focus is the student body, and our presentations will, for a start, be trilingual.

Today there are enormous pressures on heritage and heritage sites, particularly in heritage-rich Third World countries. There are pressures created by the processes of globalisation and privatisation, something you have been talking about; from fundamentalists who seek to find new political uses for heritage and from war and civil strife as we have seen in Iraq. In Sri Lanka too, you must have faced all or some of these pressures. How have you dealt with them?

There is a direct pressure on heritage from war. Further, archaeology is politicised both by the majority community and also by minority fundamentalism. History is used to legitimise their own political agenda and also to stake claims, for instance, for the homeland theory, or to prove the antiquity of a community.

A second major danger to heritage sites is antique looting. Sri Lanka is now a top spinner in that. One of my biggest worries is that there are many affluent people getting involved in this. The drug-runners and the gun-runners are the primary sources who push the antiques and Sri Lanka has turned out to be an entrepot for looted antiques. When the stock market collapsed in the late 1980s, antiques became a very good source of investment because it they have an appreciative value. We know that some corporate sector people are involved, and also some foreign embassy staff. Despite stringent laws, this goes on.

Third, we are concerned that archaeology in Sri Lanka today has turned out to be a money-spinner. There are some archaeologists who are trying to push an agenda for a larger private sector role in the management of museums and world heritage sites. The priorities of hoteliers and tour operators are totally different and I am not too happy about the integrity of the private sector in Sri Lanka. Archaeologists must be in total control of the heritage sites for many good reasons. I have nothing against private involvement in certain areas, which we have, but strictly under our control.

What about the role of international organisations like the UNESCO in heritage management?

I think that even UNESCO has to create a better track record on conservation. One area I have been very critical of is the area of funding. They do not try to ensure that the money be utilised not just for the majority community or one particular group. It was not till very recently that we had a policy for multireligious and multicultural representations through our heritage sites.

What is the future of archaeology education in the context of the privatisation of higher education in your country that you have been concerned about? How will people be attracted to the field if they cannot find jobs after that?

We have to accept certain situations about the globalisation process that is taking place, and the plans to privatise. As archaeologists we have seen this coming and we have tried to reorient ourselves in preparation. We have structured our courses in a very strong marketing way. We are working on sites that are linked to the global market for tourism. On the other hand we are working on `Archaeology and Sustainability': archaeological research that makes an input to the nation's development grid. We are researching environmental issues, ancient technology, and ethnology, which involves mapping and documenting, peoples' past and present lifestyles. We have done mineral resource studies and are helping the geological department in their mineral prospecting.

Finally, a question on the media and heritage. In your country what has been the role of the media in highlighting heritage preservation and promotion?

Archaeologists and media practitioners both seek facts. We try to be objective, impartial, and independent in our data retrieval and dissemination. Our professions are both problem-oriented and issue-related because we are also social activists. In Sri Lanka the response to the question, "Who owns the past? Who owns heritage?" is often very parochial. I got a student to do a dissertation on media reportage on heritage. The media will do romantic and irrelevant stories, often based on half-truths to kick up their circulation, and to keep alive feelings of nationalism. The television, newspapers and other media have given exaggerated reports that have led to the looting of archaeological sites. It is very dangerous. They may say that golden Buddhist statues are available somewhere for the public to see. Within two months the site is looted. Or they say there are rubies in the eyes of some Buddha in a particular place. We have monitored this. At least two-thirds of the sites reported like that were looted within three months. They even give a road map for antique looters to find the place easily! But some sections of the media have been conscious and responsible in their reportage.

How productive has your visit to Chennai and meeting with Indian researchers been?

We have been talking to academics and researchers here and it has been very productive. We all share the very same issues and problems, and what we are trying to do is to forge closer links and form a consortium of south Indian and Sri Lankan archaeologists. They are many areas - faculty/student exchange, resource person development - where we can help each other. There has been a greatly positive response from the State Department of Archaeology and the University Department of Archaeology in Chennai to these efforts.

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