Review by Lasanda Kurukulasuriya
“This is the dream I have had for the last fifteen years. I want to tell the story of this country and its people. I want to make people think about our past and what we are doing to it before it is too late.” – Nihal Fernando
Studio Times’ newest book, Eloquence in Stone- The Lithic Saga of Sri Lanka, surpasses all its previous publications in terms of size, scope and panache. The monumental effort that must have gone into its production is stamped on every page of this work, in every detail of its layout and style, its tone and content. The Acknowledgements penned by Anu Weerasuriya at the end, touching in their sincerity, reflect the deep personal involvement that has gone into its compilation, and confirm the reader’s suspicions that this must be the outcome of a lifetime’s labour on the part of its producers.
It is difficult to name a specific genre for Eloquence. It is not a regular “coffee-table book.” Yet it is replete with lush colour and black and white photographs on every page, telling the story of Sri Lanka in a way that is immediate and compelling. While the exotic pictorial content makes it the kind of book that most Sri Lankans would eagerly show a visiting foreigner, the disciplined sequence of the photos and the liberally referenced text, suggest a more weighty purpose than that of an extended photo essay. What makes it unusual is, that it is the photos that give structure to the narrative, and not vice versa.
The text by SinhaRaja Tammita-Delgoda is more romantic than scholarly in its style. This is perhaps its strength as well as its weakness. On the one hand it makes the book eminently readable, with the narrative flowing almost seamlessly from one chapter to the next. But there are moments where the writer, carried away by the grand projects he describes, tends to lapse into a self-congratulatory tone which can be mildly irritating at times.
The authors have hit upon an ingenious device in using Sri Lanka’s heritage of artistry in stone in order to tell the story of the rise and fall of its ancient civilization. What better way to bring together the many strands of history, from the stone age (pre-history), on to the development of a great agricultural civilization based on the construction of reservoirs, the coming of Buddhism, the building of temples, the preparation of cave abodes for monks and the magnificent stone carvings and cave art that this entire project gave birth to.
“The ability to store water and use it was the foundation of the civilization of ancient Lanka,” writes Dr. Tammita-Delgoda. It was the basis of the prosperity of that era – a prosperity enjoyed in harmony with nature, and with respect for the environment. It was an age when kings looked upon it as a duty also to “build for the glory of the faith.” The book is dedicated to the art inspired by those efforts. But “much more than the story of monuments in stone, it is an account of the culture which grew up around them, the world which produced them and the people who built them.”
The “saga” starts with evidence of early man on this island in pre-historic times. Findings at the caves like Fa-Hsein Lena, Batadomba Lena and Beli Lena have included large amounts of worked and unworked stone. Some of these tools and weapons are described as “jewels of craftsmanship,” and the technology used is believed to date back to 29,000 BC.
Of the landing of Prince Vijaya, we are told that “At the heart of this tale is a core of historical and archeological fact. We now know that around 1,000 BC there was a new peopling of the island.” Artifacts pictured in these pages refer to the first evidence of written language said to have appeared in Anuradhapura in the 7th and 6th centuries BC, in the form of Brahmi script inscribed on pieces of pottery. According to the book “The language of these letters is an Indo-Aryan dialect or “Prakrit,” an early form of Sinhala.”
With the arrival of Buddhism in the 3rd century BC, we are on more familiar territory, within the realm of history. The story proceeds to the spacious age of the Raja Rata, or “Land of Kings,” which lasted from the 4th century BC to the 10th century AD with Anuradhapura at its centre. “The monumental masses of masonry speak of a time when man thought that things would last forever and dreaming of posterity he built on a vast scale. These massive ruins are all that is left of an era of great art, architecture and mighty kings, a Golden Age against which everything which came afterwards was measured and found wanting.”
Under the onslaught of successive waves of invasion from South India, Anuradhapura was destroyed, the Raja Rata laid waste and annexed as province by the Cholas. When Vijaya Bahu drove them out in 1070 it was from Polonnaruwa that he launched a renaissance that restored some of the bygone glory of the Raja Rata. It reached its height during the reign of Parakrama Bahu. The monuments of this later period illustrate the mingling of Hindu and Buddhist influence in art and architecture.
The sections of this book that are, in a way, more fascinating than those about the already well-researched Anuradhapura-Polonnaruwa era, are those relating to the “Lost Civilisation” of Ruhuna. It encompassed a vast area that included what is now Batticaloa, Amparai, Moneragala, Hambantota, Matara and Galle. Described as “wild and rebellious country,” this kingdom is hardly mentioned in the chronicles. The extensive documentation of these lesser known sites, many of which lie scattered in the Yala sanctuary, bring special value to this publication. Among the gems pictured here are the Mailla cave paintings, believed to be among the oldest murals in the country, and comparable with Sigiriya. Another is the Yatala Buddha, made of dolomite marble, and described as one of the most beautiful statues in Sri Lanka. One can only wonder at what kind of original structure there must have been, from the amazing picture of “Elephant Stables” in Yatala – a huge cluster of gigantic stone pillars over 18 feet high.
In the latter part of the book the reader’s photographic journey tracks the shifting kingdoms and capitals of the Sinhalese kings from Dambadeniya to Yapahuwa, Kurunegala, Gampola, Kotte and finally the last refuge in Kandy. It is clear that the Studio Times team has literally left “no stone unturned” in their journey into every accessible nook of this island. They express regret about their inability to record the numerous sites in the north and east due to the prevailing security situation. Among the images captured in war affected areas, to which they ventured with the permission of security personnel, are those of Velgam Vihara and Tiriyaya in Trincomalee, Magul Maha Vihara- Lahugala, Madu Maha Vihara – Pottuvil, Kudumbigala – Okanda and Mailla cave- Kotiyagala.
Since Eloquence is a distillation of photographic material gathered over at least 40 years, it contains many pictures of sites and monuments as they appeared at an earlier point in time, before they were propped up with steel rods and covered with protective roofing. As a result their appearance in these pictures is far more breathtaking. Gal Vihara and Potgul Vihara are cases in point. (The colossal Mahayana Buddha of Buduruvegala on the other hand, was originally built within an image-house structure, which would not have permitted the fantastic view it now affords in the open air, with the sky as its backdrop.)
It’s worth noting that some of the photographs which appear in these pages are the only available records of certain monuments, which have since been destroyed, robbed or desecrated by the less civilized present-day descendants of our much-vaunted ancient civilization. “Almost every remote site we have visited has been desecrated, blasted and broken into. Sometimes it feels like a race against time, just to record and to reveal what is left before it is lost forever,” says the text.
Eloquence in Stone earns its place among books that any lover of Sri Lanka would want to own and treasure. It is a valuable record of the art and architecture of a people who are described as being “heirs to one of the oldest living cultures of the world.” As a corrective to the flood of cheap “touristy” material, and misinformation about Sri Lanka that circulates everywhere nowadays, it is a book that every Sri Lankan diplomatic mission overseas and every INGO in Sri Lanka should acquire for its library.
Photography by Nihal Fernando, Anu Weerasuriya, Luxshmanan Nadaraja, Christopher Silva,
Devaka Seneviratne, Roshan Perret.
Text by SinhaRaja Tammita-Delgoda
Designed by Eranga Tennekoon
Printed by Samhwa Printing Co., Korea
Produced and Published by Studio Times Ltd.
Hard cover, 451 pages excluding addenda
Available at Studio Times, 16/1 Skelton Road, Colombo 5.