WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka

India - Sri Lanka: Search for a common past

by S.Muthiah

The six-incisored hippopotamus of Sri Lanka

THROUGHOUT one recent week, at different venues in Chennai, Dr. Siran Upendra Deraniyagala, former Director General of Archaeology, Sri Lanka, called for a much closer partnership between India and Sri Lanka in exploring the prehistoric links between the two countries and their influence on the rise of civilisation in this part of the world.

A recurring theme was that Sri Lanka was, "more often than not, linked to southern India by a land bridge." He held that during the last 7,00,000 years the sea level dropped sufficiently at least 17 times to create such a connection. The last separation of Sri Lanka from India was, he thought, about 7,000 years ago!

A satellite picture from the National Remote Sensing Agency, Hyderabad, which I used on the cover of my recent book, The Indo-Lankans, reveals a very definite land link. "Adam's Bridge" is what we were taught to call it in school. Years ago, travelling by the Indo-Ceylon Boat Mail and crossing the Pamban Bridge, I'd watch the chain of rocks, clearly visible beneath the pristine water, running parallel to the railway track. And a few hours later, crossing by either m.v. Irwin or m.v. Goschen, the ferries that linked Dhanushkodi with Talaimannar, the chain of rocks would be visible again. That the two countries were once linked, even a schoolboy mind had no doubt. And it's a memory that triggers hope that a land bridge of a different sort might one day be built.

The extinct lion and gaur of Sri Lanka.

But that's digressing. To get back to Siran Deraniyagala's words, he went on to suggest that such joint "digs" might not only throw new light on the humans who lived in Indo-Lanka (my coinage) a million years ago, but also on the flora and fauna that thrived in this part of the world. In the gem-rich alluvial gravel of Sri Lanka's famed Ratnapura District have been found the remains of Upper Pleistocene fauna, including a hippopotamus with six incisor teeth, a rhinoceros dated to around 80,000 years ago, and a lion, he stated. As I listened, I wondered where I had heard it all before, in fact, seen it all picturised. And then when I got home, it suddenly came back to me.

In the 1950s - 1960s, I had been in charge of a publication rather well-received internationally, The Times of Ceylon Annual. And in the 1963 issue, an article on Ceylon's vanishing wildlife had not only spoken of these extinct animals but had also carried line illustrations of them.

The author and the artist was P.E.P. Deraniyagala, father of Chennai's visiting lecturer. Paul Deraniyagala was at the time not only the Director Emeritus of the National Museum but was also, among other things, a Member of the Permanent Council of the International Union of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Sciences. To him, The Times of Ceylon Annual a hallowed publication now extinct and the National Museum, Colombo, I owe the information that follows and the accompanying illustrations.

Referring to Ceylon being "connected to the Indian landmass on several occasions", Deraniyagala Senior cited one proof. Many of Ceylon's freshwater fish, he said, are identical with those in India. "Since such fish die within a few minutes of being immersed in seawater, these could only have entered Ceylon by the rivers which had formerly traversed the land connecting the two territories," he posited. There is enough evidence, he felt, in the large boulders and pebbles found in Ceylon "digs" to testify to torrential rivers that had once existed and had produced them.

These rivers could have resulted from heavier rainfall than occurs in the island today. "In these earth layers or `beds' are also the fossilised bones of animals that no longer occur... though some possess living relatives in India or even as far afield as Africa," Derainyagala Senior wrote.


Accompanying his sketch of a lion and gaur in mortal combat in prehistoric Ceylon, in that long ago Annual, were his notes on the extinct Ceylon Lion, the Leo leo sinhaleyus Deraniyagala 1937, and the extinct Ceylon Gaur, Bibos sinhaleyus Deraniyagala 1962. Certainly, the lion figures in Sinhala folklore whereas the tiger doesn't. The pristine Sinharaja Forest, Sinhagiriya (Sigiriya) and the Sinhala race all derive from sinha, the lion.

Deraniyagala Senior believed that the tiger from East Central Asia, coming into the subcontinent through Assam, drove the native lion out of India and into Africa where no Simba (a variation of Simha) fossils have been found, thus indicating more recent arrival. With Ceylon becoming an island by then, the lion survived there till it was hunted out. Deraniyagala Senior cited fossils of three lion teeth found in the island one in 1936, another in 1947 and the third in 1961.

The Ceylon gaur, smaller than the Indian, was reported by several British writers writing from the island from as early as 1681. These were said to have grazed in the highland Horton Plains. Leg bones and teeth of gaur have been found in the Ratnapura area in some number, but it was the discovery in 1962 of a skull with two horns that led Deraniyagala Senior to identify the Sinhala gavara as the gaur. Sri Lankan legend has it that "the courage of the King's bodyguards was annually tested by pitting them against gaurs kept in the royal preserves for this purpose," wrote Deraniyagala Senior.

The gempits in the Ratnanapura area have also revealed the fossilised remains of the lower jaws and teeth of a Ceylon hippopotamus and rhinoceros. The lower jawbone of the hippopotamus reveals six incisor teeth, whereas the hippopotamus that survives in Africa has only four incisors.

The extinct Ceylon hippopotamus has been named the Hexaprotodon sinhaleyus Deraniyagala 1937. The change in climate from heavy rainfall that fed numerous large rivers and lakes to a more moderate rainfall that reduced the island's waterbodies was probably responsible for the extinction of the world's second heaviest land mammal in the island, thought Deraniyagala Senior.

And, he added, "The extinction of this animal might have occurred sometime shortly after the middle Pleistocene times, since its nearest a relative, the extinct Indian hippopotamus from former lake beds which are now traversed by the Nerbudda (Narmada) River, became extinct in middle Pleistocene times about 500,000 years ago."

The rhinoceros finds indicated to Deraniyagala Senior two species, the older, less developed one, the Rhinoceros sinhaleyus Deraniyagala 1936, which has squarer and lower teeth that the more rectangular-toothed Rhinoceros kagavena Deraniyagala 1956. The former became extinct earlier, in Deraniyagala Senior's view.

With Siran Deraniyagala bringing to mind once again what his father Paul Deraniyagala had once written so extensively and authoritatively about, and with the son calling for a joint Indo-Lankan effort to explore this common past, perhaps it's time something like joint "digs" were started.

Siran Deraniyagala's plea was, "Further investigations conducted jointly by India and Sri Lanka would enhance the preliminary data at our disposal and thereby provide a sound basis for assessing the environment of early humans in India/Sri Lanka during the last million years." Even more than an all-India effort, a Tamil Nadu Archaeological Survey protocol with the Sri Lankan Archaeological Survey might be the way to go to search for our common past.

The writer is a historian and author based in Chennai. (@The Hindu)

WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka