Hidden archaeological treasures in Wilpattu | Daily News

Hidden archaeological treasures in Wilpattu

Conveyance canal of Kuda Vilachchiya
Conveyance canal of Kuda Vilachchiya

The Wilpattu National Park (WNP) is not only significant from an ecological standpoint, but is also extremely rich in archaeological terms, housing a number of ruins and artifacts. Its proximity to Anuradhapura has also been a factor contributing to the rich archaeological heritage of the area.

The area around the Park is sparsely populated with very few rural settlements. The WNP is one of the least explored areas of the country despite it being documented in some ancient inscriptions. A total of 68 archaeologically important sites have been found, four of which were Miocene fossil sites. Twelve sites belonging to the prehistoric periods were also surveyed.

Several sites represent evidence of both prehistoric and historic periods. Forty-two were identified as a combination of proto-historic and historical sites. In addition, 28 irrigation structures such as tanks and abandoned paddy lands were also identified. One of the major findings of the archaeological surveys has been the discovery of the Weeransole ruins. This site, located near the Palu Vilandawa tank consists of three destroyed image houses and Buddha statues including two of the seated Buddha (Samadhi) and one standing statue. One of the destroyed Samadhi Buddha statues seated under the hood of a cobra, is a rare find. This is the fourth known Buddha statue belonging to this posture in Sri Lanka.

Foreign and local experts such as Begley (1981), Bell (1904), Brohier (1929,1934), Deraniyagala, (1955,1957,1958,1960a, 1960b,1972a,) Hawkey (2002), Nicholas (1963), Paranavitana, (1956,1970), Seneviratne (1984), Sitramplam (1990), and Wattala (1979) and de Silva and Karunaratne (1979) have directly and indirectly contributed in developing the present knowledge base on the ancient Wilpattu civilization. However it is not an easy task to launch archaeological surveys and excavations in a landscape of 131,879 hectares covered with thick jungle.

The Irrigation Department is now on a move to unveil another irrigation marvel to the nation – the abandoned Kudawilachchiya tank. It believed to have been constructed during the era of Prince Saliya and Asokamala. This is supposed to be the first-ever evidence of the hydrological knowledge of ancient Sri Lanka that can be proved with evidence. It is believed that around 1,900 years ago, the son of King Dutugemunu, Prince Saliya had lived in Galbendhi Neeraviya situated southeast of the historic Maradanmadu tank in Wilpattu.

Ruined monasteries were found in the forest areas where inscriptions were found on large rocks (Ochchappu Kullu and Veheragala). All these sites have been excavated and destroyed by bounty hunters.

The Ochchappu Kallu rock inscription is still well preserved but the Veheragala inscriptions are barely discernible and limited to a few lines. There were several inscriptions recorded at the WNP. An inscription of Kanittha Tissa (167–186) found on the rock of Ochchappu Kallu and 10 cave inscriptions were recorded in the vicinity of the site. In addition, one of the inscriptions belonged to King Kanasha which was unknown to chronicles such as the Mahawansa and Deepawansa. In Sinadiyagala, which is a rock about 1.5 miles from the Moderagam Aru, there is another inscription of King Vasabha which describes a scene of the granting of Kalapahanaka tank to the Dakkhina Viharaya at Anuradhapura. Other inscriptions recorded in the Park are the Timbiriwewa rock inscription of King Kumaradasa (508–516 AD), Andaragollagala inscription of King Dathotatissa II (667–683 AD), and an inscribed pillar dating to the 10th century at Pattiya Eliya.

Ruined Stupas are found at Tammannawala, Kimbula Ketugala, Veheragala, Ochchappu Kallu, Naipena Guhawa, Hunuvila Gama and Kalivila. The Stupa at Jumbula Ketigala near Thimbiriwewa has been completely demolished, but brick fragments can be seen in the forest below the rock. Legend suggests that the ruined pillars near the Kali Vila are the remnants of the palace of Kuveni. During a current survey, a ruined Stupa a few metres north of the pillars were observed. The present road network runs through the site and near the stupa and also through the foundation of the structure. Therefore, immediate action has to be taken to prevent further destruction of this site. Veheragala and Naipena Guhawa are somewhat further south from the present road network and hence these sites are not protected. None of these sites in the Park has been declared or gazetted as archaeologically protected monuments.

The Weeransole ruins near the Palu Vilandawa tank consist of three destroyed Buddha statues, including two seated (Samadhi) and one standing statue. A well-preserved Samadhi statue was moved to the Park entrance (Hunuvilagama) during the 1980s by Army officers, and can now be seen in the image house. This statue is similar to the Samadhi Buddha statue in Anuradhapura. These three Buddha statues have been previously recorded in the Eastern Province – two from Seruvila Mangala Rajamaha Viharaya off Trincomalee and one at the Kantale sugar plantation, and are currently displayed at the archaeological museum in Anuradhapura. This is only the fourth Buddha statue of its kind in this posture. A broken lotus pedestal which belongs to the standing Buddha statue also can be seen at the site. The head and arms of the statue were found to be missing and no inscriptions indicating the same have yet been discovered at the sites. The site has also been excavated and destroyed by bounty hunters, and requires urgent conservation.

There are eight divisions within the Park and it is learnt that the staff presently available for guarding, guiding, developing field work, bungalow maintenance, administrative and finance management is not sufficient. This staff of around 85 is not strong enough to prevent growing illegal sand mining, timber rackets, poaching, chena cultivation, encroachment of the forest reservation, trespassing, etc., and enforcing law on vandals and all sorts of culprits.

No full-scale survey for discovering archaeologically important sites has been conducted in collaboration with the Archaeology Department. According to the Puravidya Chakrawarthi Venerable Ellawala Medhananda Nayake Thera there are around 300 archaeologically important sites situated within the Park premises, the majority of them covered with thick jungle. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has initiated a lengthy survey aimed at documenting sites of cultural and archaeological importance, flora and fauna varieties, abandoned and existing water sources. There are around 100 safari vehicles and due to dearth of staff the safari vehicles travel to the interior of the Park without guides or field assistants.

The WNP needs more wildlife rangers, field assistants, guides and bungalow keepers – a minimum workforce of 150 immediately for the protection of the Park.

Nearby settlers, security personnel and local government authorities have very little environmental awareness of the Park.

This inhibits their ability to effectively coordinate and take decisions that would help manage the Park. Illegal deforestation contributes to accelerated loss of biodiversity and archaeological treasures because of habitat reduction and destruction.

Many people think that gold and other treasures lie hidden within the archaeological ruins. This encourages nearby residents or organized gangs from outside to venture into the Park searching for riches. It is observed that almost all the significant sites have been looted and are in need of urgent conservation. Treasure hunters not only destroy existing archaeological ruins, they become familiar with the area and might indulge in further nefarious activities. Therefore the findings made so far can be used as baseline data for future detailed exploration, and also to prioritize conservation action. It is vital to document and publish the available information of this unique ancient civilization for awakening public awareness, both local and international.

It is understood that except for the exploratory survey executed by the IUCN no local or world heritage organization has conducted a full-scale survey of the WNP in consultation with the Wildlife Conservation Department and the Archaeology Department for recording the monuments which have been destroyed by treasure hunters.

The IUCN research programme ‘Supporting WNP Management in Sri Lanka’ commissioned by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development with the Department of Wildlife Conservation working as the main technical implementing agency has been launched.

The programme running from 2019–2022 aims at enhancing the WNP’s infrastructure, supporting interagency coordination, better patrolling to thwart poaching, securing and rehabilitating habitats. The government of Germany has extended financial support valued at eight million Euros to complete the project.