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Dr. Senarath Paranavitana (1896-1972)

A small-made intellectual giant

Dr. Senarath Paranavitana was a rare Sri Lankan who was destined to explore the buried history and archaeology of our country and his monumental books contain a wealth of information of the pristine glory of this country.
Andrew Scott  Wednesday, 8 January 2003
This pen portrait seeks to revive the memory of Dr. Senarath Paranavitana, that small-made intellectual giant who left an indelible mark in the annals of Sri Lanka's history in recent times.

He was born on 26th December 1896 at Metaramba, Galle and he had his early education at the Metaramba Government school and later entered Bona Vista school in Galle. He studied oriental languages at Ranwaligoda Pirivena in Heenatigala. He was a school teacher at the Udugampola Government school and joined the Department of Archaeology in 1923. He married in 1930. Dr. Senarath Paranavitana received his Ph.D in 1936 and was appointed Commissioner of Archaeology on 1st October 1940 in which capacity he served diligently till December 1956. The next year (1957) he was appointed Prof. of Archaeology at the Peradeniya University.

Dr. Senarath Paranavitana was a pre-eminent archaeologist this country has ever produced and for this unique personality archaeology was both a vocation and a leisure time activity which he enjoyed very much throughout his long and very productive life which stands out as a shining example for us, his countrymen, to follow.

He always appeared as a very ordinary person irrespective of his high intellectual attainments and world recognition and was friendly towards all who came in contact with him. Dr. Senarath Paranavitana was also very active and punctual throughout his public career.

I nostalgically recall three very memorable meetings I had with this intellectual giant with so humble qualities. In the first occasion I virtually 'bumped' into him at a second hand book-shop in Colombo, browsing through some old books. The second was when the late D. B. Dhanapala, the doyen of journalism then, assigned me to interview Dr. Senarath Paranavitana which was a very challenging task for a budding journalist.

The third was at Peradeniya's intellectual rendezvous, the Peradeniya University, at the time this institution was dominated by persons of high intellectual calibre and unquestionable integrity.

He started life as a teacher but at that time no one would have ever thought that this frail looking teacher would ever come to the limelight in the field of national and inter-national archaeology and even Dr. Senarath Paranavitana himself may not have thought of his in the formative stages of his distinguished career.

It all happened by mere chance. While being engaged in teaching Senarath Paranavitana had seen an advertisement made by the Commissioner of Archaeology at that time, A. M. Hocart, calling for a few young people to be trained in archaeology.

In reply to this advertisement Senarath Paranavitana had hastened to apply and to his dismay he was selected as a trainee under the eminent archaeologist, A. M. Hocart, who took a special interest in imbibing young Paranavitana with a thorough knowledge about the art and science of archaeology creating in him a love for the national treasures buried under the earth.

Discovering the promising propensity of this young Sri Lankan scholar, Hocart sent him to India for further training and studies in his chosen field and even in India, where he came under the direct influence of world renowned archaeologists John Marshall and epigraphist Krishna Shastri of Mohenjo Daro fame, Senarath Paranavitana, the small-made Sri Lankan student, outshone all others surprising even his superiors. In addition to several other monumental works on archaeology Dr. Senarath Paranavitana is best known for his tome on Sigiri Graffiti. He dedicated his entire life to unravel certain mysteries and unfounded beliefs about archaeology and brought lustre to the entire ambit of Asian archaeology with special reference to the archaeology of Sri Lanka infusing a new lease of life to this once drab subject.

Dr. Senarath Paranavitana was a rare Sri Lankan who was destined to explore the buried history and archaeology of this country and his monumental books contain a wealth of information of the pristine glory of this country. Even today they serve us as useful sources of inspiration to both the scholars as well as the students. In addition he contributed to various national and international journals on sensitive areas of archaeology.

He devoted his entire life to the study and research in archaeology and connected areas spread over several years and the fruits of his intensive research culminated with the production of several monumental works which are outstanding even today as inspiring examples of erudite research and dedicated scholarship.

This self-made man of learning and wisdom passed away creating a void in the cultural and intellectual life of this country. His life provides inspiration to the public servants of today who should, in addition to their official duties, engage in worthwhile academic pursuits beneficial to the country.

Dr. Senarath Paranavitana was a truly cultured son of our soil who by his meticulous research enriched the knowledge of Sri Lankan history and archaeology, kindled a love for the country in the hearts of the old and the young and made Sri Lankans realise the importance of our glorious past.

We Sri Lankans owe a deep debt of gratitude to Dr. Senarath Paranavitana whose 106th birth anniversary fell on December 25th. He was a remarkable historian, erudite scholar and an eminent archaeologist who mesmerised wide audiences with novel ideas about history, archaeology and allied subjects. The best scholars, the best archaeologists, the best epigraphists and the best philologists of the world acknowledged him as an authority in all these fields. He made archaeology a living thing and though Dr. Senarath Paranavitana is no more his breathing spirit continues to be among those present.

@ CDN Wednesday, 10 December 2003

Prof. Sir Senarath Paranivitana as I knew him (1896-1972) : More an epigraphist than an archaeologist
by Kalasuri Wilfred M. Gunasekara

Greatness doth not approach him Who is for ever lookingdown - Hitopadesa

A great historian, an archaeologist and an epigraphist par excellence was the late Prof. Senarath Paranavitana who passed away thirty one years ago on October 4, 1972. Born in Metaramba, a village not far from Galle, he received his education at Buona Vista High School and thereafter he became a teacher in 1920 at Udugampola Government School and three years later he joined the Archaeological Department on 13th June 1923 at the age of 27 years.

On 24th April 1926 he was appointed as Epigraphical Assistant to the then Archaeological Commissioner on a temporary capacity. Epigraphy being his special field, he had the opportunity to tour India. From June 1923 till April 1926 he toured the North Western Frontier District of India and gained a knowledge of Archaeology, including Epigaphy, Iconography, Numismatics, Museology, Excavation and Conservation. He also gained experience in the chemical treatment of antiquities.

He had a remarkable memory and I could still remember he used to quote extensively from texts in Sinhala, Pali and Sanskrit.

On his return to Sri Lanka he was confirmed in his post as the Epigraphical Assistant to the Archaeological Commissioner on April 24, 1926. He received his training under scholars in Archaeology and Epigraphy such as K. V. Subramaniyar Aiyar. Krishna Shastri and Sir John Marshall of Mohenjodaro fame. On April 01, 1932, Prof. Paranavitana assumed duties as Acting Archaeological Commissioner till October 08, 1935, a position I must say, was denied to a Ceylonese from July 07, 1890, the Official Birthday of Scientific Archaeology in Sri Lanka.

It has been said that Prof. Paranavitana's versatility in the study of languages is not much known. Apart from being a first rate scholar in Sinhala, Pali and Sanskrit he was able to cross swords with the greatest in each langauge. He also acquired a working knowledge of many other Eastern languages as well as some of the most important European languages. That he was one of the foremost historians of Sri Lanka is undisputed, but what is not commonly known is that he was well informed of the history of the world.

In fact there was hardly a subject he could not speak about with authority.' He was awarded the Silver Medal (for 1950) by the royal Society of Arts, London. He also received the undermentioned honours in appreciation of his contributions as a scholar:

1. Officer of the Most excellent Order of the British Empire, 1951;
2. Commander of the Most excellent Order of the British Empire, 1952;
3. D. Litt., (Honoris Causa) Ceylon, 1952;
4. Gold Medal of the then Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, now R. A. S. (Sri Lanka), 1955;
5. Sahitya Suri (D. Litt., Honoris Causa, Vidyodaya University of Ceylon, 1960;
6. Sahitya Chakravarti, D. Litt, Honoris Causa, Vidyalankara University of Ceylon, 1962.

Among his vast output of writings has his thesis on Stupa in Ceylon for which the University of Leyden, Holland awarded him the degree of Philosophy in 1936. This monography was subsequently enlarged and published as the fifth volume of the Series Memoirs of the Archaeological Survey of Ceylon.

The second world war brought Prof. Senarat's archaeological work to a standstill. He was appointed Archaeological Commissioner, effective October 01, 1940, but he was in a position to issue only one Annual Report for the five years 1940-1945. From 1948 up to his retirement on 26th December 1956, the activities of the department spread throughout the island. His Monograph titled The Shrine Of Upulvan at Devundara Devinuvara (1953) which was also published as Volume VI of the Memoirs of the department displayed his ingenuity in the field of archaeological research.

His magnum opus is the two volumes of Sigiri Graffiti being Sinhala verses of the 8th, 9th and 10th centuries published for the government of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) by Geoffrey Cumberiege, Oxford University Press, 1956. I cannot refrain from quoting a part of the excellent review published by The Times Literary Supplement of September 21, 1956 on this monograph. It devoted one-and-a-half columns on these two volumes under the head 'Verses in the Rock'.

It said, "The author's purpose is to present with exact and careful scholarship the actual graffiti to elucidate their meaning and to extract from the maximum amount of poetic significance.

All these aims he admirably fulfils. Indeed his whole book is a model of graceful, lucid exposition, remarkable as much for its awareness of contemporary English writers as for its occasional recourse to a sly and charming wit. As a model incursion into one of the most difficult of scholarly fields his work deserves the very highest praise ....."

The Ceylon Archaeological Survey, during his period suffered for want of proper accommodation. Desamanya Pundit Doctor Nandadeva Wijesekera who wrote his Autobiography, his sixty first book, a wonderful one of its kind, I should say, who belongs to the generation of scholars of the calibre of Dr. Walpola Rahula, Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy, Dr. K. de B. Codrington, Dr. Paranavitana, the subject of this essay, had the rare distinction of having studied at five of the leading universities and under famous indologists, anthropologists, archaeologists and art critics, rightly said several years ago that ample space and laboratories are essential for good work.

"The men who do this work are living objects capable of being stimulated by aesthetic emotions. Besides, provision should always have been made for the best possible men from any part of the world for Ceylonese as well as for the international student. By now there should have been an Institute of Archaeology in Ceylon.

In this Institute would have worked the officers of the Survey, watched and followed by the eager eyes of the apprenticed student.

In Ceylon very seldom has one heard of such processes as the reconstruction of pottery, the preservation and treatment of metal objects and diverse other technical processes that engross the attention of men in other Archaeological Surveys.

The patching up of Dagobas, the putting up of brickwalls, restoration, reservation, conservation and clearing of jungle and the opening up of roads - it is true these are some of the regular duties of a survey. They have unfortunately been the only duties of the survey in Ceylon."

"Ceylon boasts of a grandeur that was ancient, the glory that was past, and the might that is no more. Culture, art and literature are now in the process of degeneration, or do not exist.

But the country cannot boast of one Archaeological Museum! Where are the National collections? They are either left starving, or are in private hands." In this context, I am compelled to say that those who visited the Stone Gallery of the then Colombo Museum, which is now no more, would not have looked back again. That building was not worth the plastic art of the Sinhalese.

Antiquities of great historical and aesthetic value should find a place under the direct supervision of a Director-General of Archaeology. One would see, even today, that the Department of Archaeology is in the same state, if not for a few additions of rooms, as it was during the time of Dr. Paranavitana.

Dr. Paranavitana worked amidst all these odds with a smile, and never neglected his researches at the expense of his personal comforts. He acquired knowledge, not wealth, to serve others. He was not allowed to enjoy a retired life for long. Five days had passed after his retirement when he was called upon to assume duties as Professor of Archaeology of the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya on January 01, 1957. This post, he vacated six years after, in March 1963.

It was after his retirement in 1963 that I was able to have a much closer contact with him than when I was attached to the then Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society from 1932. When I took a longer time than usual to see him at his home at Peter's Lane, Neugegoda, he would remark, "Oh! you have come to see me after a long time. It is a pleasure to meet you more often."

I could remember, once when he, in the company of Prof. Lakshman Perera, who was then in the Colombo University, and a Director of the Untied States Library of Congress Washington DC visited my residence, recalled with a touch of humour and half-closed eyes the improper use of certain Sinhala terms given to places like the museum.

He would say 'katuge' did not quite necessarily mean the storehouse of old national exhibits, but the Sinhala word 'Katuge' correctly translated would mean a house where lovers meet! His original findings of similar nature are too many to be enumerated with a limited space of this journal.

His life of research was in the realm of archaeology, epigraphy, palaeography, philology, Buddhist art and architecture. He wrote about 280 articles in English between the years 1924 and 1969, to foreign journals, not to speak of the vast number of articles written in Sinhala. A complete bibliography of his writings in both languages and a catalogue of the holdings of his private Library are in the possession of the present writer.

In February 1970, he completed the first of a series of six volumes on Inscriptions of Ceylon. The first volume contains texts and translations of 1276 cave inscriptions in the early Brahmi script.

The second in this series is devoted to 114 inscriptions dated in the reign of kings from Kutakanna (41-19 B.C.) to Mahasena (276-303 A.C.) and 81 others which have been palaeographically dated to the period between those two rulers.

Dr. Paranavitana told me that this volume should be more voluminous than the first volume. "I am leaving the rest of the volumes to be completed by the officers concerned of the Department of Archaeology," he said.

The second Volume referred to has since been published under the direct supervision of the late Mr. M. H. Sirisoma, then Director-General of the Department of Archaeology. The Third Volume was in proof stage said the late Mr. M. H. Sirisoma, and should be available to the general public before long.

Incidentally in 1972 a new venture on Ceylon Epigraphy was launched, the first issue of which was released in April 1972 'with a brief survey of Epigraphy in Sri Lanka, provided by Dr. R. H. de Silva, the then Archaeological Commissioner.' This was followed by a monthly bulletin called the 'Epigraphical Notes' running into 20 bulletins.

A monograph titled Epigraphical Notes Nos. 1-18 saw the light of day in 1991 by Dr. Malini Dias, the present Director of Epigraphy and Numismatics. The writer hopes to see the reviews of these publications shortly.

Before I conclude this Essay I wish to record in brief, what Prof. H. C. Ray, then Dean of the Faculty of Arts of the Vidyalankara University said of Dr. Pranavitana. He referred to him with a question mark that he could be a 're-incarnation of Ananda Sthavira. Ananda Sthavira, in the words of Dr. Senarat Paranvirtana (Ref. The Story of Sigiri) 'In this volume the story of Sigiri we have given the translations, accompanied by our own observations where there have been considered necessary, of some documents concerning the history of sigiri prepared by a great historian and archaeologist who flourished in the reign of Parakaramabha VI (1417-1467 A.D.).

He was a Vajiracharya named Buddhamitra of Suvanapura (Palembang) who came to Ceylon and spent some years here ..... as advisor to the King. While in Ceylon he received ordination in the Theravada Nikaya and was known as Ananda Sthavira ..... He was well acquainted with the Inscriptions of Ceylon and their historical importance, by a study of Sumangala Achharya's Silalekhana Sanghraha, and some knowledge of Indian Epigraphy as well.'

Before I conclude this Essay, I cannot refrain from recording the feelings of one of our greatest Journalists D. B. Dhanapala (Janus-pseud) to our columns of Sir Senarat Paranavitana. He wrote: "More an epigraphist than an archaeologist, more an expert in consenescence than in conversation, more a self-taught scholar than a trained scientist, Paranavitana combined in himself all that was necessary to make a great pioneer, undertaking an enormous task.

The courage of his curiosity and the sense of high adventure that accompanies those voyaging into the unknown went to make his journey into Ceylon's past through the centuries of dust and debris a fascinating story not only to himself but also to us.

Henry Schliemann, the untrained genius who discovered the site of ancient Troy and excavated the grave of Agamemnon at Mycene, followed his intuition as he became inspired by the Iliad to dig at the right spots to prove to sceptics that Homer had not nodded."

"Paranavitana had a touch of the Schliemannic genius in believing in his intuition and the Mahavamsa in his archaeological work in Ceylon.

I can quite well believe that Paranavitana went about Anuradhapura pacing distances for digging with the Mahavamsa in one hand and a measuring tape in the other to prove, as he has done, that the Great Chronicle never lied in good Pali. The chuckles of the pompous historian who once thought that the Mahavamsa was a lot of legends strung together with perspiring piety, have been silenced by the granite evidence of Paranavitana."

Although Dr. Paranavitana has left us, his contributions would be a service not only to his countrymen, but also to the rest of the world. He is, the only Ceylonese of modern times to whom we can only apply the moving words of Stephen Spender:

"I think continually of those who were truly great,
Who from the womb remembered soul's history,
Through corridors of light where the hours are suns
Endless and singing .....
Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields,
See how these names are feted by the waving grass;
And by the streamers of white cloud
And whispers of wind in the listening sky
The names of those who in their life fought for life .....
Who wore at their hearts the fire's centre
Born of the sun they travelled a short while towards the sun And left the vivid air signed with their honour."

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