Lanka’s rich maritime heritage
The United Nations Educational and Scientific Cultural Organisation (UNSECO) has designated Galle as the venue for the proposed field school for Maritime Archaeology for the entire Asia Pacific region. UNESCO has granted US$ 45,000 for 2005 and US$ 1.1 million for the period 2006-2008 Here Mirror Life portrays the glitz of Sri Lanka’s maritime heritage of a by gone era.
By Ravi Ladduwahetty
@ DM / Saturday, September 24, 2005
UNSECO has designated Galle as a maritime centre for the Asia and the Pacific following a research paper by two eminent Sri Lankan maritime archaeologists,Lt. Commander Somasiri Devendra and Dr. Mohan Abeyratne. Galle is to be the centre for a field school spanning the region. The project will kick off in November this year.
A total package of US $ 4.5 million which the UNESCO has provided the Government of China has been channeled to Sri Lanka with the amounts being increased to US $ 1.1 million for the years 2006 and 2007.
This project will be the epicentre for the training of marine archeologists with Dr. Bill Jeffery of Australia’s Townsville University and James Cooke also being on the panel of instructors and lecturers, Central Cultural Fund’s Director of Scientific Research Dr. Mohan Abeyratne told Mirror Life in an interview. Here, historical aspects of Sri Lanka’s maritime heritage is listed below:
The last of our traditional sailing ships
The last Sinhala sailing ships were dubbed as the Yathra Dhonis or Maha Oruwa of Dodanduwa. This is an ancient type of ship in use from the fifth century AD to the 1930s,and carried cargo all over the Indian Ocean. In about 1930, two friends joined forces to build and launch a Yathra that was fated to be the last of her breed. Kariyavasam Patuvata Vithanage Don Siyadoris de Silva, land owner, and Punchi Sinno Marakkalaehe, mariner, hoped that their ship, the Amugoda Oruva, would do brisk business with South India and the Maldives.
To mark her maiden voyage to Male, verses and folklore were composed but alas, she foundered on a reef in Male and was lost. The crew was also missing and presumed dead. However, years later, some of the crew came home, with pieces of the ship as proof. In 1993 the MAU discovered a 4 ft. long, perfect model of a Yathra at Kumarakanda Temple in Dodanduwa. We visited the temple with the Australians who were our trainers, examined it, made measurements. Would such a ship really sail? And how well?
So the measurements were tested on a computer programme, "Macsurf', which confirmed that she was a good sailing vessel. The computer also produced technical drawings (all published in our first report of 1993) which will help us build another Maha Oruwa, some day in the future. Today the model is in the Colombo Museum.
The wreck of a Jaffna ship
Sri Lankan mariners existed in the north of the island too. The Jaffna ships, called Thonis, were large cargo ships, traditional inside in appearance they were copies of European and Indian ships.
They had eyes on either side of the bow, a shrine to god Shiva inside, and a row of false gun-ports were painted along the sides.
Before launching a ship or starting a voyage, a pooja was conducted, smashing coconuts, marking the three Shiva ash-marks on the stem. About four centuries ago, one set sail, again to the Maldives. She coasted south up to Ambalangoda , where she was to change course westward. But she too, became a victim of the sea.
Her bones are sometimes visible under certain conditions and the MAU could not find her on a quick visit. The people from the wadiya close by had taken bits and pieces and sold some. Our team was able to see what was left and list what had been removed. Small iron cannon, a statue of a god, Chinese pottery and brass cooking vessels had been sold. We were able to see the small Maldivian type coconuts smashed at the start of the journey, quantities of cowrie shells (probably cargo), typical Asian cooking implements, cannon balls, pieces of wood, beautiful ivory and iron tools, a collection of weights, and most important, a much-repaired Astrolabe, a medieval European navigational tool. Where are these now, and when can we excavate the ship? Only the MAU can do this, if funds are available.
The Great Basses Silver Wreck
In the early 1960s, Sri Lankan sports divers Arthur C. Clarke, Mike Wilson and Rodney Jonklaas found many shipwrecks. One was carrying a cargo of sacks of silver coins minted in India. She broke up and sank in the Great Basses, or Maha Ravana Kotuwa.
A film Ranmuthuduwa was made using this wreck. But all the tons of silver have been taken out of the island. The great majority were stolen and advertised for sale . They are made into jewellery and are said to be secretly sold in Sri Lanka, even today. MAU investigated the site and mapped it to assess its archaeological value. MAU recovered several hundred coins. which are the only ones officially in this country. We found guns, beads, Chinese pottery, cannon balls and large anchors. MAU must be used to study and protect it. At present it is being exploited by several treasure hunters with metal detectors etc.
Ancient Oru-Paru in inland waters
In 1993, when the first group was under training, a part of an oruwa was found in a small stream in Lathpandura. This was one of the two dug-out chine strakes, called iri kaduwa. It was examined, photographed and papers published but is still there in the stream because part of it is under a bund. Later, other such pieces were found all over the rivers on the western province. The largest was found in the Attanagalu Oya and the wood was dated to the 9th century AD. This iri kaduwa was, fortunately, rescued and is undergoing conservation at the Colombo Museum with specialist advice on conservation provided by the MAU. In the Kuru Ganga an old logboat was discovered and is in the Ratnapura Museum. In the Colombo Museum there is another large oru kanda which has been scientifically dated to be older than the 2nd Century BC.
Anchors from Arab ships - pre-colonial users of Galle port
Ships were sailing around Sri Lanka for many centuries. Galle was one of the many ports in the southern coast - others were Weligama, Matara, Ambalantota, Hambantota, etc. Galle was an important port but became more important after the Portuguese came to India.
It was used by the Arab traders and the Portuguese discovered it only by accident. The MAU discovered the ancient anchorage used by these sailors, and the stone anchors used by them. There were several but the largest one was estimated to be about a ton in weight. It was the first Arab-type anchor found intact with its wooden arms. The wooden parts were sent to Australia for preservation and are ready to be brought back. They were dated to 1390 AD and the stone was examined and found to be likely to be from Oman, where these anchors were made as an industry. The stone anchors are in the MA U Laboratory in Galle.
The underwater survey of Galle Bay - basis for planning the new port
Lakshman Jayakody, then Minister of Cultural Affairs, requested that the Galle Bay be surveyed for shipwrecks before a new port was built here. The work was undertaken by a Sri Lankan-Australian team and a side scan sonar and magnetometer survey was completed - 26 archaeologically important sites were located, including wooden shipwrecks andiron shipwrecks. Many important items were also found. When the time came for the new port to be planned, maritime archaeologists were consulted and the new port was planned so. that the
Advanced training - the Avondster and the Laboratory
The decision was made to establish the MAU after this on a permanent basis. For this a conservation laboratory and a diving station, boats and equipment were necessary. The Netherlands offered to help with advanced training and equipment. The site for training and exploration was the VOC ship Avondster which sank in Galle in 1659. For three years experts from the Netherlands, Australia and Sri Lanka have been working on this site which is of very great interest as it has items from England, Holland, and all over Asia. It tells us much about the history of Galle, of shipping and trade in Sri Lanka, and the way in which ships were built and how people lived on board those ships.
Sri Lanka's international training - the UNESCO field school project
Sri Lanka has led the way in Asia in collaborating with foreign experts while keeping policy and control in our own hands. Visiting maritime archaeologists work with our team, and provide training and equipment. Sri Lanka follows the UNESCO Rules even though we have not yet signed the Convention. Draft Legislation on the subject is ready for presentation to Cabinet. The approach has been held up as an example how a developing nation can enter this field without losing national control.
In recognition of our efforts, UNESCO has proposed to fund a field school in Galle, where Sri Lankan and foreign experts will conduct basis training to trainees from other countries in the Asia-Pacific region. Eventually, the POlAR will conduct a post-graduate course in maritime archaeology. It is now our turn to help other developing nations in the interests of Asian maritime heritage studies.