Colombo Telegraph

Kuragala Lessons 2: Using PR To Obliterate Heritage

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

Darshanie Ratnawalli

I surmise that Dennis McGilvray came into the orbit of the Aboosally family through his researches into the matrilineality of the Tamil and Muslim communities of the east coast of Sri Lanka. M.L.M Aboosally’s wife came from the matrilineal east coast town of Kalmunai[i]. My hypothesis is that on the strength of these connections, this American scholar was hired by the Aboosally family to write a PR article on Dafther Jailany. What confirms this hypothesis is the fact that he wrote a PR article[ii] based on the client’s book; Aboosally M.L.M: 2002. Dafther Jailany: A Historical Account of the Dafther Jailani Rock Cave Mosque.

The client brief he received was to negate the fact that there ever was a Buddhist layer in the site. This he executed in 2004 saying “There are Brahmi inscriptions at Jailani dating to the second century aca, but they appear to assert territorial claims by local political chieftains. According to Aboosally (2002: 62-3) there is no evidence that the site was ever dedicated to the Buddhist Sangha.”

McGilvray makes this statement as a footnote to “The Archaeology Department nevertheless erected a permanent trilingual signboard near the Jailani mosque, also visible today, stating that the location, known as Kuragala was the site of a Buddhist monastery dating to the second century BCE.”

In 2013, a journalist called Latheef Farook would execute the same client brief by making a statement strikingly similar; “The 1971 version (of the inch map) depicts the area only as a Buddhist monastery of the 2nd century BC (the only evidence of which is a board placed by the Archaeological Department in 1972.)”. Note however that unlike McGilvray and Aboosally, Farook (either through ignorance[iii] or an intention to deceive) keeps the Brahmi inscriptions relentlessly out of the picture.

As to McGilvray, the awkward term ‘aca’ that he has used after second century gives us a clue to his lack of familiarity with the ancient period. It should have been either BC (Before Christ), BCE (Before Common Era) or if he wanted to be esoteric and use Latin, ACN (Ante Christum Natum) or AC. Given this lack of familiarity, McGilvray would if he was writing a research article, have depended on an expert source. Since it was a PR article however, the client (Aboosally: 2002) served as his sole reference. It is on the strength of this reference that Dennis McGilvray made the startling contribution to the study of the ancient period of Sri Lanka’s history; by seeming to assert that 2nd century BC Lankans were still a cave people; that they asserted territorial claims to their caves by writing in the Brahmi script on the cave wall things like “The cave of lord Punaśaguta, son of the chief Soṇa” and “The cave of datta [and] of Samudda.” Just like animals asserted territorial claims to their caves with spoor markings, just like cavemen asserted such claims with totems and cave paintings, the literate cave people of 2nd Century BC Lanka had their own way. Geddit Watson?

Under what circumstances and for what reason would a non cave dwelling people (such as the 200 BC Lankans) consider caves as territory? A scholar with any intellectual vigour, notwithstanding his lack of familiarity with the ancient period would have wondered. Dennis McGilvray did not. A true investigator would have then sought knowledge from a more competent source than Aboosally. McGilvray did not.

The Brahmi inscriptions at Kuragala do not contain the term ‘given to the Sangha’ (See Inscriptions of Ceylon Vol I Plate Numbers 774, 775, 776 or the digitized record 1 and digitized record 2. Aboosally who was not an archeologist concluded from this that ‘there is no evidence that the site was ever dedicated to the Buddhist Sangha’. The Director General, Department of Archeology declared openly that this was a Buddhist Monastery in the second century BC. Obviously there was a context here that Aboosally was missing. A scholar would have tried to find it. McGilvray did not.

If McGilvray had gone to Sigiriya, he would have discovered another interesting fact. Trilingual boards placed there by the Department of Archaeology identify Sigiriya as a 2nd century BC Buddhist Monastery too. Yet not a single one of the seven Sigiriya cave inscriptions contains the word ‘Sangha’ (Published in Inscriptions of Ceylon Vol I, digitized record available here. These inscriptions read; ‘The cave of Sala, the dealer in tamarinḍ, and of the courtesan, Tosā; ‘son of the chief Kaḍi’: ‘The cave of Abhijit, son of the chief Tiri’; ‘The cave of the chief Naguli’; ‘The cave of Brahmadatta, son of the chief Tissa’; ‘The cave which is a co-donation of the lay-devotee Uttara, and the female lay-devotee Tissā’; ‘The cave of the lay-devotee Uttata’.

What would McGilvray have concluded from these assertions of ‘territorial claims’ to caves? Did the people of 2nd Century Lanka dwell in caves or did they simply use caves for recreation? Would a tamarind dealer and courtesan owning a cave together have suggested to McGilvray and Aboosally the possibility of fertility rituals being practiced in these caves? How would McGilvray read the fact that the Department of Archeology rejected all these interesting possibilities and settled for the mundane explanation that these are donative records to the monastic Buddhist Church? Would McGilvray conclude that the Department lacked scintillating intellects like M.L.M Aboosally or that Aboosally needed more educating on the early Brahmi inscriptions of Lanka?

If these cave inscriptions with the term ‘given to the sangha’ missing had been the sole representatives of the early Brahmi lithic record of Lanka, better scholars than McGilvray and Aboosally may have speculated on the possibility that the 2nd/3rd century BC Lanka was home to a cave dwelling people who could also write. As things are there has been no room for such speculation, because we have a huge body of such early Brahmi cave inscriptions (1234 were published by Paranavithana in Inscriptions of Ceylon Vol 1, some were published later and some remain unpublished) packed into a startlingly short time span (3rd century BC to 1st Century AD). The majority of these inscriptions clarify their purpose by the term ‘given to the sangha’. The entire body is considered as a single complex linked to the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka in 3rd century BC[iv].

The Aboosally’s PR drive to dissociate Kuragala Brahmi inscriptions from the Buddhist order and reposition it as a ‘territorial claim’ continues. Consider the telltale term ‘territorial claim’ appearing in Dharisha Bastian’s presentation; “Large crowds of Buddhists with a territorial claim, encountering large crowds of Muslim pilgrims with a historic claim of their own…”

*The writer can be found at

[i] Refer to McGilvray’s footnote 11; “I would speculate that the assertiveness and independence of mind shown by the Chief Trustee’s wife, an educated woman from the matrilineal east coast town of Kalmunai, may have had an impact on the way women are currently incorporated into the Jailani celebrations.”

[ii] Scroll down the list of references and footnotes in this article. Notice that Aboosally:2002 has been used as the sole and overriding authority on all matters archaeological relating to Kuragala. Allow your amazement to carry you to its inevitable conclusion.

[iii] Almost delusional levels of ignorance pertaining to the History of Sri Lanka is far from uncommon among Sri Lankans specially of a certain vintage. In the comments section of an earlier article, my attempts to clarify a point by quoting from “Passage to India? Anuradhapura and the Early Use of the Brahmi Script:R.A.E. Coningham, RR. Allchin, CM. Batt & D. Lucy: Cambridge Archaeological Journal 6:1 (1996), pp. 73-97” was violently contested by a gentleman named Mohammed Asghar Hussain who continued to insist throughout the entire length of the comments section that Robin Coningham was an Orientalist scholar of the late 19th century or the early 20th century. One can’t discount the possibility that Coningham was an Orientalist scholar in his previous birth. But in this life he was part of a Sri Lankan-British team of archaeologists who conducted excavations in Anuradhapura from 1989 and discovered a very large number of inscribed potsherds with Brahmi writing going back to the fourth century BCE. (Read Indrapala: 2005; p 138). Coningham et al: 1996 was the publication which resulted from those excavation s. Since Mohammed Asghar Hussain also claimed to be familiar with the ‘sayings’ of Sudarshan Seneviratne and Neera Wickramasinghe, I surmise that he is a gentleman who took to history late in life, (after the mind had hardened into a rigid mould) for an agenda and not through a thirst for knowledge.

[iv] Coningham et al. 1996; “…in Pataliputra, the thera  [Buddhist elder] Moggaliputta

directed that Mahinda, the son of the Emperor Asoka, should be sent to Sri Lanka to convert the king, Devanampiya Tissa, and his people to Buddhism (Mahavamsa XII, 7). This tradition can be substantiated by Asoka’s thirteenth major rock edict stating

that he had sent envoys carrying Dhamma [righteous law] to the southern lands of the Colas, Pandyas and as far as Tamraparni [Sri Lanka] (Thapar 1961, 256).

Furthermore, this appears to correlate with the fact that hitherto the earliest evidence of writing in Sri Lanka has been the Brahmi inscriptions recording the donations of caves to the Sangha [Buddhist order] (Fig. 3). Agreement has been shared by archaeologists

as well as by palaeographers and historians: “it is possible to draw an inference that the Brahmi script of the oldest inscriptions of Ceylon was introduced by Buddhist missionaries who came to the Island in the time of Asoka. (Paranavitana 1970, xxiii).

“The next phase at Anuradhapura, although possessing several elements in common with its predecessor, was of Mauryan derivation. During the reign of Asoka ca. 250 BC, Buddhism was introduced to Ceylon in association with other attributes such as the art of writing in Brahmi script.”(Deraniyagala 1972, 50)”

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