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Guharamaya: a cave of stone age man

(This is a reprint of an article originally published in 1937. The writer, D.T. Devendra , was an eminent archaeologist, writer and teacher./ Sunday Times)

About four miles to the north of Rambukkana, in the heart of a village on the plain beside a plantation of jak, is a curious structure of stone, like the table of some giant of the good old days. It is called by local folk, Maliyadeva Guharamaya, the dwelling of the last great Initiate of Buddhism in our island.

There is no history connected with this structure, for, it belongs to a period before history ever came to be written.

The building, if it can be styled is known as a dolman, a word probably derived from Cornish and meaning stone hole.

The dolmen at Padavigampola is the only known example in Ceylon of structural work by Stone Age man.

Stone edifices like dolmens and those at Stonehenge were once associated with the sun-worship and human sacrifices of the Druids.

Scholars are of opinion that they were chambers for the dead or (and) temples of a primitive cult. The dead were held in awe and worshipped, consequently they were housed magnificently in contrast with the living who were satisfied with caves and crude rock shelters.

The tribal chieftain of Neolithic man, the probable author of dolmens and other megalithic structures, was buried in these chambers of stone, and earth heaped over the pile. There were also huge mounds of earth and rubble known as 'barrows' which contained stone 'boxes' within them.

The origin of these monuments has not been discovered. Chains of dolmens exist, chiefly along the coast, from India to Egypt, from Asia Minor along the Mediterranean littoral (both African and European), up the Atlantic, across the North Sea in the Scandinavian countries, and, in special, Denmark by the Baltic, the source of amber supply.

The islets of the Mediterranean, particularly Malta abound in these relics.

It is contended that a race of Asian sea-traders who colonised in the Mediterranean spread their art of erecting these lithic monuments amongst the people with whom they came into contact. Monuments of antiquity such as dolmens, megaliths, cromlechs, menhirs, are connected with sea-trade and ore deposits, of gold, copper, tin, besides amber. Hence some scientists call the traders megalith-builders. These monuments have not been discovered in the heart of Europe, in Germany (central) and Austria, for instance, and this negative evidence led them to associate them with sea-borne traffic.

The Azilian period of the early hunter and nomad is said to have ended eight to nine thousand years ago. Then came Neo-lithic man whose 'advanced civilisation' with polished stone implements, hatchets, saws, hafted axes, adzes, etc., enabled him to put up crude settlements, grow wild crops and throw up protecting palisades. Crops necessitated the recording of seasons. Hence the Stonehenge which was a chronometer in addition to its 'religious' significance, such buildings are attributed to this new Stone Age of 'improved' stone instruments.

The dolmen at Padavigampola has only three sides. The door is nowhere to be seen. Each side is one solid block of gneiss roughly fashioned into rectangular shape.

The left wall and the roof, which latter is an enormous slab, have cracked right across on account of a soft vein in the hard rock.

The heaviest slab by far is the roof. It is of the same thickness as the walls. This block weighs thrice as much as a wall. It is interesting to speculate how men using stone tools were able to lift into position this mass of granite weighing several tons. The roof inclines about 10 degrees to the right.

A slab smaller in dimensions than either wall serves as the back door of the dolmen. It is not long enough to fit right across the two major walls.

Consequently, it leaves a space of 2 feet from the back end of the right hand wall. It too seems to have been bigger originally.

Probably a crack loosened one portion and this has evidently been removed later, possibly by the recluse inmate who used the opening as an exit.

The whole structure seems to have been closed up, almost airtight, with one slab in front and another behind. In this manner it would have been a sealed box and a fit receptacle for the sacred dead.

Grooves of over a foot in breadth are cut at either end of each wall so that two slabs could be fitted into position to seal the whole effectively.

Padavigampola is nearly 40 miles from the seacoast. How comes it, then that this monument has been set up at such a distance? The answer is furnished in these words of a famous anthropologist, Professor Childe:

"But it must be remembered that most of these tombs, and especially those in the hinterlands, were not built by the visitors themselves, but by natives who had assimilated the idea rather imperfectly and were trying with increasing ill-success to copy the models that they had seen.

These latter were far too preoccupied with their cult and the labours it involved to make any real progress in the more practical arts.

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