Rock art in Sri Lanka

This week, The Island will focus on Rock Art in Sri Lanka depicting reptiles with special reference to the Golden Gecko.

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, 1986, 1992).

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 plaster).

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 a stick.

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 added.

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 impressed them.

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 added.

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 country.

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 `C9`C9).

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 anthropogenic causes.

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 rock art.

He is also said that he is grateful to Chris Uragoda, B. D. Nandadeva and Subasinghe for their valuable comments.



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