This week, The Island will focus on Rock Art in Sri
Lanka depicting reptiles with special reference to the Golden
Recently a study was done by an expert team consisting of
leading herpetologists and an archaeologist.
The study team was headed by Sri Lanka"s leading
herpetologist Anslem de Silva, Indraneil Das of Malasiyan
University and Aaron M. Bauer of Department of Biology,
Villanova University, Villanova, Pennsylvania.
The Sigiriya frescos and some temple paintings from Sri Lanka
represent ancient art forms that are known the world over.
However, there are many artistic creations of a primitive
character, consisting mainly of drawings or scribbling done on
rock surfaces of caves or rock shelters, which need the
attention of modern scholarship.
These caves were earlier used since pre-Christian times as
monastic dwellings in and a few of them are still used by
Buddhist monks to this day. A conspicuous feature of these caves
are the carved drip-ledges on the brow that serve to prevent
rain from dripping into the cave interior; and occasionally, the
donor"s inscriptions are carved in a visible place on the rock.
During the recent study headed by Anslem and the team in the
Nilgala forest which lasted 38 days, seven caves with
drip-ledges were observed, but only in two of them did they
observe rock inscriptions.
Anslem told The Island that these inscriptions
belonged to the second to third century B.C. Subsequently, the
Veddas have begun to use most of these caves until recent times.
The Veddas, until the recent times were a forest-dwelling
aboriginal hunter-gathering group of people. Presently, at
Nilgala Buddhist monks use two of these prehistoric rock caves
as their abodes at Nilgala.
As regards rock art of other countries, although differing in
style and medium, rock art depicting the natural world is
virtually ubiquitous. Among the most well known examples are the
Palaeolithic images of the Ice Age mammals in the Lascaux Caves
of France, but representations of reptiles also are common and
occur, for example, in the rock art of Africa, Australia and
North America, as well as in India.
Such images have been made until recent times, and in some
cases these are still being created by groups of people who
maintain an intimate existence with nature.
During a three year study in Monaragala, Ampara, Polonnaruwa
and Hambantota districts, on the ecology, distribution and
status of rupicolous herpetofauna, including geckos, skinks,
lacertids, snakes and amphibians the team came across an
interesting rock art or "Vedda ash pictures" at Tharulengala
Aranniya Senasana situated in the village of Hulanuge in Ampara
District. It consists of several sketches of reptiles.
Vedda rock art in the cave temple at Tharulengala Aranniya
Senasana situated in the village of Hulanuge in Ampara District.
This primitive art form on rock surfaces were first brought
to light by Sri Lanka"s first Archaeological Commissioner, H. C.
P. Bell, in 1897. Several archaeologists and anthropologists
have ascertained that rock art had been executed by Veddas, the
aboriginal inhabitants of Sri Lanka.
"In fact, Seligmann & Seligmann (1911) reported that the
Vedda women they had interviewed admitted that they had drawn
such pictures while waiting for their men to return from
hunting. Still (1910) reported that the Veddas had informed him
that the rock art had been executed by their ancestors and
contemporary Veddas do not draw. Archaeologists refer to these
drawings as "rock art" (Nandadeva, 1986, 1989, 1992) or "Vedda
ash pictures" (Seligmann & Seligmann, 1911).
The chronology of rock art in Sri Lanka has not yet been
ascertained basing on archaeological or other methods (Nandadeva,
However, Nandadeva (1986) considers these not to be
pre-Christian art as monks had used these caves or rock
shelters, after thoroughly cleaning before use. This fact is
quite evident from Tharulengala rock art at Hulanuge; because
there is evidence that the entire wall of the rock surface
behind the reclining figure of Buddha had been plastered and
painted, possibly during the period 6-10 century AC. Over the
years these have peeled off and still remnants of these plaster
are visible on the rock surface (see figure `C9 with remnants of
Analyzing the vedda rock art including those at Tharulengala
cave, it is clear that human, animal and other objects drawn do
not relate to any particular story or a sequence of events.
However, there is a wide variety of these drawings. This is
especially evident at Tharulengala. Ascher (1961) considers this
as "highlighting the interdependence and dependence of people
and animals within a food-gathering society". However, we feel
that detail study of rock art is important.
As regards the medium used for drawing, the Vedda women have
informed Seligmann (1911) that they have mixed ash and saliva
and drawn the figures on bare rock, using either their finger or
The vedda rock art at Tharulengala too are "Vedda ash
pictures", possibly drawn by their fingers. As an experiment, by
Anslem, mixed ash and saliva and painted a few Vedda symbols on
a granite rock. After it was thoroughly dry, several buckets of
water were poured on it.
However, the ash-saliva mixture remained intact even when
this wetting process was repeated several times over a month. It
should be noted here that the Vedda rock art inside the cave is
protected from rain by drip-ledge. It is unlikely to be directly
affected by water as the test symbols, suggesting that such ash
pictures can be preserved for a few centuries. Taking into
consideration the notes of both Still (1910) and Seligmann &
Seligmann (1911), as well as the experimental evidence of the
permanence of ash pictures, the team assumes that the Vedda rock
art could be about two to three hundred years old.
"In the discussions we had on several occasions with the
descendants of the Danigala Veddas, we were assured that they do
not eat the flesh "gal pahuro" or "gal huna" , but they relish
the flesh of the land monitor and the freshwater turtles," he
The Vedda chief, Randunu Vanniya had assured the team that
they do not eat the flesh of the star tortoise as its carapace
resembles a stupa. They have also informed us hat when hey hunt
they do not hunt the pregnant females. The Vedda rock art do not
depict hunting animals, instead, they have drawn what would have
The Tharulengala vedda rock art do not show any correlation
with what have been drawn, however, the team feels that detail
research is needed to investigate to see whether the many
drawings of humans, elephants, and other animals and objects do
have smaller 'stories" with what the Veddas were recording.
Nandadeva (1986, 1989, and 1992) collated information on rock
art from various scholarly articles, books, annual reports,
newspaper articles and provided a comprehensive list of 41 sites
containing rock art, which he has grouped into three zones.
These were depicting subjects such as humans, elephants,
leopards, sambar, reptiles, and hunting implements such as bows
and arrows, drawn by the Veddas in the eastern, south-eastern,
north central and central hill regions of the country.
Description of the golden gecko rock art
Anslem says that although about 45 species of reptiles are
known to inhabit the Nilgala forest, the dominant species
observed in the boulder outcrops including the prehistoric caves
and rock shelters used by the hermit monks and subsequently by
the Veddas is the Sri Lanka.
Golden gecko (Calodactylodes illingworthorum). This species
was observed in most rocky outcrops, as well as in the caves in
the savannah and the monsoon forests of the Monaragala and
Ampara districts of Sri Lanka. Though the present day Vedda do
not use rock caves or rock shelters, there are several caves of
significance from a Buddhist religious point of view that are
visited by pilgrims.
Golden gecko is common in such caves as in other caves
visited in the Ampara and Monaragala districts, the Tharulengala
cave had a large population of this species, as indicated by
extensive adherent masses of viable eggs and older eggshells. It
is of interest to note that Golden gecko depicted in a rock art
is in the region of its natural distribution.
"Thus, we could assume, that Calodactylodes illingworthorum
would have been common in this area a few hundred years ago," he
Golden gecko is the second largest gecko in Sri Lanka,
reaching 250 mm in total body length (tip of snout to tip of the
tail). In addition, it is the most vocal squamate in the
To be continued
Another unique feature of this reptile is their two large
conspicuous expansions at the tip of their digits and communal
egg laying sites that are used apparently by several generations
of geckos. It is possible that the vedda women would have been
attracted by the unusual features of this species as compared to
the sympatric spotted giant gecko (Hemidactylus maculatus hunae),
which is larger still but less conspicuous because of its more
nocturnal and less vocal behaviour. The pictorial quality of the
main figure of Calodactylodes illingworthorum are fairly
accurate herpetologically, such as the body features like the
curved end of the tail of the golden gecko which is not seen in
other sympatric geckos.
Following are the descriptions of the gecko rock art at
Tharulengala. The team also wish to record that one reptile
figure could be a Talagoya (land monitor, Varanus bengalensis).
Also Figure resembles a star tortoise (Geochelone elegans) and
the incomplete figure resembles the vertebral oval markings of
the Russell"s viper (Daboia russelii russelii).
Thus, the team sees that at Tharulengala Hulanuge. The Veddas
have drawn perhaps the most important herpetological drawings of
rock art in the country.
1. Center is the large gecko, total length from tip of snout
to tip of tail 84 cm. Length of the forelimb 290 mm and the
length of the hind limb 320 mm. Axila to groin 310 mm (Figure
2. Small gecko which is drawn to the left side. Total length
from tip of snout to tip of tail 310 mm. Length of the fore limb
60 mm and from Axila to groin 120 mm (Figure `C9`C9).
3. The Talagoya (land monitor, Varanus bengalensis). Which is
drawn below the elephant (Figure `C9`C9)? The total length from
tip of snout to vent is 290 mm and the tail 300 mm. Length of
the forelimb is 95 mm and the length of the hind limb 100 mm.
Axila to groin 120 mm.
The rock art described and figured here demonstrates that
vedda artists were capable of depicting the golden gecko
realistically enough to allow the modern identification of the
species. Because of the fact the golden gecko is limited to
boulder outcrops which are disjunct from one another; they are
potentially prone to localized extirpation due to natural or
In the case of the golden gecko figures at Tharulengala
Aranniya Senasana, the geckos still inhabit the site, but rock
art has the potential to provide information about the
distribution of Calodactylodes over the last several hundred
years in the areas where these animals are no longer found. Old
eggshell accumulations in cave walls and ceilings also provide
such information, but such evidences are susceptible to erosion
and degradation over time. A thorough cataloguing of the Vedda
ash paintings of the golden gecko should be undertaken and the
information compared with the modern records of distribution of
the species in order to assess the possible range fragmentation
within the last several hundred years.
Reptiles in Vedda rock art
Not surprisingly, the reptiles in Vedda rock art that have
been reported previously include some of the larger and more
conspicuous species. "Talagoya" (land monitor, has been drawn in
caves in Tantrimalai and Andiyagala, Still 1910). The Seligmanns
assumed that the two long figures at Pihilegoda-galge which
might be mistaken for centipedes also are land monitors (V.
bengalensis). They consider that it could be a python (Python
molurus). Python flesh has been consumed by early hunters. The
many vertical lines of the drawings could represent the distinct
ribs of the python.
They consider that the three figures at Kongarayankulum to
be: a shark, a marine turtle and star tortoise. There is
evidence that marine turtles have been brought Anuradhapura from
800 BC. The Ganegama rock art could be a star tortoise. However,
it is only at Tharulengala they could see such a wide variety of
reptiles drawn as Vedda rock art.
It consists of four realistic figures of the Sri Lanka golden
gecko, a figure resembling a land monitor, a figure resembling a
star tortoise and an incomplete figure resembling the vertebral
oval markings of the Russell"s viper.
Anslem strongly believes that immediate attention by the
relevant authorities in Sri Lanka is a necessity to conserve the
Vedda rock art in Sri Lanka.
"We observed that at Tharulengala, visitors have written
their names on the rock surface along with the Vedda art and
visitors touch the ash pictures. Thus, it is recommended that
immediate steps should be taken to install a barrier so that the
visitors cannot reach the ash paintings and to see the
possibility of protecting the rock art by spraying a clear
acrylic coating," he added.
Anslem thanked the Commissioner of Archaeology, Sri Lanka and
the Chief Priest of the Tharulengala monastery, Rev.
Sivuralumulle Dhammasiri for permitting to photograph the Vedda
He is also said that he is grateful to Chris Uragoda, B. D.
Nandadeva and Subasinghe for their valuable comments.