Dutugemunu And Elara Betrayed
- Story of Dutugemunu’s Ashes
By Raja de Silva
The Dhakkhina thupa (Southern Dagoba) in Anuradhapura had for a century been known as the tomb of Elara, the just Tamil king of a couple of thousand years ago.
It was revered by one and all, who kept faith with the orders of the victor, King Dutugemunu, that passersby should respect and worship the memorial dagoba he had built in memory of Elara, where he had fallen in combat (Mhv., 25-73) near the south gate of the city of Anuradhapura (Mhv., 25-69). The Vamsatthappakasini (commentary to the Mahawamsa) describes the site of the combat as “Anuradhapurassa Dakkhinadisabhage” i.e., the south side of the city of Anuradhapura.
In 1948, Elara’s tomb ceased to exist officially, and in its place there appeared the signboard at the monument describing it as Dutugemunu tomb, even though there is no mention in the chronicle of any memorial monument for this hero-king of the Sinhala people. The Dakkhina thupa was interpreted by Paranavitana as a monument built on the cremation site of Dutugemunu, and so it was described in official publications (e.g., Administration report of the Archaeological Survey for 1948; Guide to Anuradhapura 1952; Ancient Anuradhapura by Anuradha Seneviratna (1994 p. 196). The time-honoured memory of Elara enshrined in the popularly recognized tomb, not to mention the chivalrous act of Dutugemunu, were destined to be forgotten – “unwept, unhonoured and unsung” – for Paranavitana’s new finding was not questioned.
Nine years later, Paranavitana’s conclusion was contested by me in an article titled “Dakkhina thupa – not Dutugemunu’s tomb” published in the Sunday Observer of 4 April 1957 (Appendix E). Paranavitana did not liquidate my reasoning with the muriatic ink that flowed from the pen that he was wont to wield with the dexterity of a rapier against his presumptuous critics. Instead, he was gentle enough to afford me, his former junior Assistant Commissioner, tacit encouragement in scholarship by maintaining an eloquent silence. I do not propose to reproduce, here, those original objections of half a life-time ago, nor do I propose to discuss Elara.
Emboldened, in 1968, I took action towards reasonable restitution. I had the offending signboard replaced with one that described the monument as the Dakkhina thupa built in that vihara founded in the reign of King Vattagamani Abahaya (Valagambahu). There were no academic reprisals from Paranavitana or anyone else.
The subject of Dutugemenu’s tomb became newsworthy again in 1978 when the Minster of Cultural Affairs, Hon. Edwin Hurulle, was told by a national minded informant that a parcel of excavated material containing what could well be Dutugemunu ashes was lying unremembered in the stores of the Archaeological Museum, Anuradhapura. As instructed by the Minister, the parcel, which was wrapped in brown paper, was dusted without, handled with care, and placed in the hands of ARL Wijeskera, then Deputy Government Analyst, for scientific examination and for carbon-14 dating. The latter exercise was to be handled by Granville Dharmawardena, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Authority.
A committee of enquiry was appointed by Minster Hurulle to examine whether the Dakkhina thupa was Dutugemunu’s tomb. Deshamanya ND Wijesekera was the Chairman; Raja de Silva, Saddhamangala Karunaratne, Roland Silva and MH Sirisoma, all of whom have served as Archaeological Commissioners in turn were among the members of the committee too numerous to mention here by name; the secretary was Kalasuri VV Abhayagunawardena. In the interests of assisting the Committee with their enquiries, copies of my 1957 article were distributed by me to the members at the outset, inviting them to commence by considering my arguments against taking the monument concerned as Dutugemunu’s tomb.
After a few meetings of the Committee, since no response was forthcoming from my fellow-members, I retired unhurt from its deliberations. I was thus not a party to the conclusions arrived at, nor have I seen the report submitted to the Minister. Prof. Abaya Aryasinghe was reported to have been a dissenting member of the Committee. The Committee is said to have concluded that the Dakkhina thupa was indeed built on Dutugemunu’s cremation site; the organic material (charcoal and ash) assumed revered proportions as containing the ashes of the national hero-king. With honours due to royalty the hitherto neglected charcoal and ash fraction from the excavation was brought (under the patronage of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs) in a motor procession from Ruhuna to Rajarata to find repose in the Dakkhina thupa as the ashes of Dutugemunu in his ancient capital Anuradhapura. What went out from Anuradhapura in a brown-paper parcel returned in a gilded urn – “What mad pursuit? What pipes and timbrels?”
The generality of Sinhala Buddhists was satisfied; the Tamils, especially the intelligentsia, would have viewed these proceedings with chagrin. Dr. James T Rutnam delivered a lecture at the Jaffna University in March 1981 on Elara’s tomb, since published (Tiruneliveli). He spared no words of censure in assailing the scholarship of Paranavitana, and the role of the Committee of Enquiry in reporting that the once-popular Elara’s tomb was the more popular Dutugemunu’s tomb. Rutnam felt that Elara was betrayed in the subsequent elevation of “fragments of charcoal and lumps of ash” to the status of the ashes of our national hero. The question before us now is: was Dutugemunu betrayed?
In regard to the report of the committee of inquiry, the report of the carbon dating laboratory (said to be a French institution), and the scientific examination said to have been done by ARL Wijesekera at the Government Analyst’s Department, the following relevant questions deserve to be answered: The replies would constitute the evidence that sorely needs publicity, if only to allay fears expressed at the Jaffna University.
Were human remains present in the material examined?
(a) What was the date assigned to the organic material by the French Laboratory?
(b) Did the answers to these questions lend support to the findings of the Committee based on literary documents?
3. On what grounds did Prof. Abaya Aryasinghe dissent?
Paranavitana lent verisimilitude to his recognition of the Dakkhina thupa (ca 89-77 BC, rule of Vattgamani Abahaya) as a monument built on the cremation site of Dutugemunu (mort. ca. 137 BC): he suggested that there might have been built a smaller dagoba set up not long after the funeral of the king; he admitted, however, that this question was not settled by resorting to further excavation (Glimpses of Ceylon’s past 1972 p. 18). It is interesting to note that the truth was bent acutely by the Central Cultural Fund Guide Book 1981 p. 43:
“The Dakkhina dagoba was an enlargement of an earlier construction over the ashes of Duthagamini (sic)”
Furthermore, whereas Paranavitana stated that among the discoveries in the ransacked dagoba were at various levels, “fragments of charcoal and lumps of ash”, the CCF guide Book (probably following the report of the committee of inquiry) replaced the word “ash” with “ashes” when it stated that.
“Traces of charcoal and ashes were found in the centre of the thupa.”
It was also suggested that
“They were probably the actual remains of the legendary hero.”
It is recorded in the chronicle that in keeping with his dying instructions, Dutugemunu was cremated at a spot where the Ruvanveli dagoba can be seen on the terrace for the ceremonial acts of the sangha (kamma-malaka) (Mhv., Ch. 32 v. 58).
There would have been various buildings to the south of the Ruvanveliseya, such as those of the Tissarama, the royal dwelling of Devanampiyatissa and the Kalapasada Parivena. The king would have been cremated in the vicinity of the Ruvanveliseya
“in a place where the great thupa may be seen,”
though it was, in fact, outside the precincts (nissima-malaka, Mhv., 32-80). The “precincts” may well have been those of the vihara of the Ruvanveli dagoba. If, on the other hand, the cremation site was further south, in the (later) Dakkhina thupa premises, the above-mentioned buildings belonging to the monastery of the Ruvanveli would have obstructed the view of the Ruvanveliseya which is situated 800 yards due north of the Dakkhina thupa. It is thus (topographically) ruled out that the site of the Dakkhina thupa was the site of the cremation.
The site of the royal cremation, referred to in the chronicle as the royal terrace (raja-malaka), should (according to the theory of Paranavitana) have been at the site of the (later) Dakkhina thupa. Was this so? The platform for the funeral pyre would have been above the ground level obtaining at that time. The burnt earth and charred organic material from the funeral pyre should therefore have been found at this very level. But at what level did Paranavitna find the “ample traces of the compressed layer of charcoal” which led him to invoke the remains of a funeral pyre as its origin? It was far below the then ground level and below the underground foundation brickwork of the Dakkhina thupa. This archaeological evidence goes against the proposition that the Dakkhina thupa was built over the site of Dutugemunu’s cremation on the royal terrace. On this count alone, it follows that the burnt material, charcoal and ash could not have belonged to the funeral pyre and the person of Dutugemunu.
The site of the terrace for the ceremonial acts of the sangha, where the cremation took place, can be investigated from the point of view of the available literature. Paranavitana drew attention to the terrace of the picula tree of the time of Mahinda Thera, which is the same to the terrace of the acts of the sangha as recorded in the Mhv., 15-27. He also cited the tradition in the late (fourteenth century) Saddaharmalankara that the Dakkhina thupa was built on a terrace known as the great terrace of the pulila tree. He equates this terrace with that of the picula tree/kamma-malaka of the sangha, mentioned in the Mhv. Let us see what the chronicle and its commentary have to say about this latter site in relation to other known monuments and sites.
On the occasion of the ceremonial introduction of Buddhism to Lanka, Devanampiyatissa visited Mahinda Thera, who had spent his first night in Anuradhapura in the royal dwelling in the Mahamegha park. This dwelling was situated to the west side of the eastern gate of the sacred Bodhi- tree enclosure (Vamsatthappakasini, ch 15, v. 12) On receiving jasmine flowers from the king Mahinda Thera went to the royal dwelling and scattered eight handfuls of blossoms about the picula tree standing on the south side of it (Mhv., 15-28). Then Mahinda Thera announced that the picula tree site, which was the kamma malaka of the sangha in the times of three former Buddhas will once again be serving the same purpose. The commentary, here, states that the picula tree was situated to the south-east of the royal dwelling (Vamsatthappakasini p. 344. i.e, ch. 15, v. 27). It therefore follows that the terrace of the picula tree/kamma-malaka of the sangha was certainly very close to the royal dwelling and the Bodhi-tree enclosure.
The Dakkhina thupa, however, as admitted by Paranavitana, is 300 yards in the southern direction from this area. Thus notwithstanding the (late) tradition of the Saddharmalankara it is evident, from the literature quoted above, that the Dakkhina thupa could not have been built on the site of the kamma-malaka of the sangha/terrace of the picula tree/raja-malaka, where Dutugemunu was cremated. These considerations lend added support to my hitherto undisputed contention of 1957 that the evidence brought forward by Paranavitana to show that the Dakkhina thupa was built over Dutugemunu’s cremation site does not support his conclusion.This article was taken from Raja de Silva’s book titled: Digging Into The Past – Essays Of Antiquity. Raja de Silva was Archaeological Commissioner from 1967-1979.