Sri Lanka’s Anuradhapura was Indian Ocean Singapore, deep study of history ahead: PM

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s Anuradhapura city was at the centre of Indian Ocean trade, when there was no Singapore or Dubai, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said, revealing plans to set up an Institute of History to study ancient Sri Lanka.

Ancient Heritage

Sri Lanka’s Anuradhapura City was built on a civilization that sprang up upon the Malwathu Oya Valley the origins of which is still unknown, with evidence already emerging of Sri Lanka’s human settlements dating back tens of thousands of years in several locations.

"There are now findings to show that some of the oldest communities in the world lived in Horton Plains," Wickremesinghe said starting restoration work on the Lovamahapaya (Brazen Palace) in Anuradhapura City, which is part of a bigger project involving Sri Lanka’s Buddhist Mahavihara heritage.

Researchers believe Horton Plains was home to a community of early humans dating back as far as 24,000 years who may have been among the first humans in the world to engage in farming, students of history say.

Anuradhapura became well-known for being a centre of an Indianized Hindu – Buddhist civilization following the work of British archeologists and the translation of the Mahavamsa, an ancient Sri Lankan text compiled by Theravada Buddhist sect monks, after British scholars cracked the Pali language.

However evidence has since emerged of pre-historic megalithic habitations in the area and elsewhere, before currently existing religions came into being.

Cosmopolitan City

Meanwhile Prime Minister Wickremesinghe said during the historical period Anuradhapura was one of the most important trading hubs of the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal.

"What started from Malwathu Oya eventually became a great city," he said. "It became a powerful city in the Bay of Bengal. At the time the centre of the Indian Ocean was Sri Lanka. At the time there was no Dubai or Singapore.





"Anuradhapura was known as a city that had everything."

He said Anuradhapura was an advanced city of the time which traded globally.

Sri Lanka’s great temples and irrigation works would not have been possible for a small island nation, to execute without the wealth that comes from being a global centre of commerce, he said.

"Traders from Persia were here," Wickremesinghe said. "There were Greeks here. Like present day Singapore many different people were here in ancient time. Sri Lanka was an important nation.

"At the time Sri Lanka was a trading nation. Different peoples from many nations traded here. Traders belonging to the Nestorian Christian sect, who no longer exists in the world, were also here.

"There is also a cross carved in stone here."

When British researchers who first found the so-called ‘Anuradhapura cross’ , they thought it was a Portuguese artifact.

However since then entire Nestorian chapels have been found elsewhere in West Asia.

Many Nestorian Christians who were highly educated went into service with the Persian Empire, following the ideological differences with the established church. The Persian Empire stretched up to India and was mainly in control of trade West of Sri Lanka and India.

The sect is believed to have had links to the Kerala (Malabar or Syriac) Christian community who arrived in India around the fourth century, or earlier.

Sri Lanka’s importance as an ancient trading hub had since been found in texts outside Sri Lanka including in the works of Cosmas, a merchant/monk from Alexandria of Egypt, who could have been Nestorian, and who seemed to have sailed to the Indian subcontinent and wrote about the island.

The Christian Topography by Cosmas Indicopleustes (Indian Voyager) written in the sixth century was found and translated to French and later to English.

"The island also has a Persian Christians, who have settled there, a Presbyter who is appointed from Persia and Deacon and complete ecclesiastical ritual," Cosmas wrote.

"In this island they have many temples, and on one, which stands of great eminence there is a hyacinth (a sapphire) as large as a great pine-cone, fiery read, and when seen flashing from a distance, especially if the sun’s rays are playing around it, a matchless sight."

He said there were two kings in the island who fought with each other.

Indian Ocean Trading Hub

Sri Lanka position in the Indian Ocean had helped make it the biggest hub in the region.

"The island being as it is in a central position, is much frequented by ships from all parts of India and Persia and Ethiopia (Africa), and it likewise sends out many of its own," Cosmas explained.

"And from the remotest countries, I mean Tzinista (China) and other trading places it receives silk, aloes, cloves and sandalwood and oher products, and these again are passed on to marts on this side such as Male (around present day Kerala), where pepper grows and to Calliana (near present day Bombay) which exports coppe and sesame-log and cloth for making dresses for it also is a great place of business.

"And to Sindu (near present day Karachi) also where musk and castor is procured and androstachys and also to Persia and the Homerite counry and to Adule (near present day Eritrea).

"And the island receives imports from all these marts which we have mentioned and passes them on to the remoter ports, while at the same time, exporting its own produce in both directions.

"This same Sielediba (Ceylon) then, placed as one may say, in the center of the Indies and possessing the hyacinth receives imports from all the seats of commerce and in turn exports to them, and is thus a great seat of commerce."

Free trade in Sri Lanka and elsewhere in Asia was restricted by the Dutch East India company, which built monopolies, which then went to the British East India company.

However British civil servants broke many of the monopolies, allowing Sri Lanka to become one of most progressive nations in Asia once after Japan.

But many of the trading restriction were were re-imposed after independence, giving priviledges to special interest and state enterprises much like the VOC. The creation of a money printing central bank, which generated forex shortages put the final nail in the coffin analysts say.

Some analysts say it will not be possible without serious reforms to the central bank to restrain its domestic operations or abolishing it in favour of a currency board or currency board like system like in Singapore or Dubai.

Even earlier this month taxes were put on cars to cover short comings in central bank policy.

Reinstating Historical Status

Wickremesinghe said efforts were now underway to make Sri Lanka the hub of the Indian Ocean again.

"This may take 10 or 15 years, but we have to do it," Wickremesinghe said. "We are doing this taking Anudhapura as an example.

"Using ports in both sides of the country, we will develop this nation. Like in the periods of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa we have to rebuild foreign trade. We have to develop as a nation. We have to compete. We have to do import export trade.

"Our historical place we have to recreate."

Wickremesinhe said many people have told him that in school no proper history is being taught.

When he looked at other countries he said he found similar situations.

"Though history is weak in schools, we find that there is a lot of documentaries and information available for the people," Wickremesinghe said.

Philosophers and analysts who studied Nazism in Eastern Europe also say that state funded education system which came from the West with centralized syllabuses was used to create division by nationalists especially when linguistic minorities were present.

Wickremesinghe said he believed that the Sri Lanka heritage was not limited to Sinhalese or Buddhists. It was a global heritage.

Anurahdapura had played key role in being a centre of Buddhism to the  world. Out the four biggest centres of Buddhism in the subcontinent, three – Mahavihra, Jethavanaramaya and Abhayagiriya were in Sri Lanka – and had acquired fame and people from many countries had come.

He said a bishop in Egypt had mentioned four Buddhist novice monks from Sri Lanka as living there.

The Mahavihara project was started in this background.

Sri Lanka was working with Robin Cunningham, a British researcher who had recently done work on Maya Devi Temple (around what is believed to be the birthplace of Lord Buddha) to find out more.

Surface penetrating radar had already been used to look at underground structures around Thuparama, Wickremesinghe said.

He said surface penetrating radar can also be used in Anuradhapura to discover underground structures.

About 2.5 billion rupees had been set aside for the central cultural fund for Buddhist and archeological work. Out of the funds of his own office 500 million had been set aside for work on Buddhism.

"At one time Thailand was the centre of Buddhism," Wickremesinghe said. "But mostly it was Sri Lanka. Lay and ordained people could together make Sri Lanka a centre of Buddhism again."

"Looking at all these historical fact we must go forward. I have asked for a report from university professors and other experts for a report. One suggestion is to set up an Institute of History.

"I intend to discuss this more and bring an act of parliament to set it up."

Sri Lanka’s Central Cultural Fund has made paved the way for many recent achievements, and he appreciated the work of its director, he said.

The leadership for these initiatives had been given by then President J R Jayewardene long aog. Minister E L B Hurulle and Roland Silva made it a reality.

Going forward Wickremesinghe said it would also be possible to work with India.

"We have to learn about our heritage," Wickremesinghe said. "We have to tell the world what Sri Lanka is." (Colombo/Aug16/2018)

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