Interpreting the Past: A look back at the Potgul statue


by Siri Gunasinghe

Discarding reason and ignoring history have generated a great deal of oversimplification and baseless speculation causing much inconvenience for students of Sri Lanka’s ancient art and architecture. This problem was highlighted recently in two articles, one by Raja de Silva (RdeS)––Potgul Statue in Polonnaruva or Parakramabahu and Agastya Betrayed––in The Sunday Leader, and the other by Bandu de Silva (BdeS)––Pothgul Vehara Colossus: Certainly not an Agastya statue––in The Island.

Identification of archaeological finds has suffered the most as a result of pure speculation. In archaeological studies, such speculation is, of course, not new. In the early stages of archaeological work in SriLanka, speculation was not a concern: convenient labelling of discoveries for working purposes was useful. Burrows pavilion was one such label. There was no harm in naming Abhayagiriya as Jetavana and vice versa until the confusion was cleared much later. Part of Isurumuniya is still called Vessagiriya despite evidence to the contrary. Someone named the Polonnaruva edifice Potgulvehera and we still do not know why. The Parakramabahu statue so-called is still the same in the minds of many people despite all the scholarly denial. But this kind of nomenclature is harmless compared to the more recent, apparently reasoned, speculative identifications of historical objects, because such identifications tend to mislead us by force of authority.

When Bell first saw the Sigiriya murals, he identified the female figures there as Kasyapa’s queens and their maids. The reasons he gave for his identification do not stand analysis. Coomaraswamy said they were apsaras; his reasons were not readily acceptable either. They were both just guessing. More recently, however, we have Paranavitana speculating that Sigiriya was built in imitation of Kailasa, for Kasyapa to live there like Kuvera, citing fancied similarities and parallels between Sigiriya and Kailasa based on Kalidasa’s poetic description of Kailasa, as proof. Paranavitana’s essay on the Moonstone is another laboured but unconvincing metaphysical pronouncement on a simple decorative architectural feature. It is no exaggeration to say that in these and other similar efforts at identifying archeological material, reason and validity of argument have often taken a back seat to unsupported speculation.

The two articles referred to above are the latest attempts at identifying the so-called Parakramabahu statue of Polonnaruva. The authors commit the same error of speculation which, as is to be expected, fails to convince us of the soundness of their arguments.

It is important to bear in mind that this statue, like most others, is not an isolated piece of sculpture. It is obvious that it must have a context which, unfortunately, has not been figured out yet. One might assume that there is a formal connection between this statue, the Potgulvehera, and the associated complex of buildings now in ruins. It is possibile that dedicated excavations in the area and detailed examination of the remains could provide some information on the relationship betwen theses buildings and the statue. It must be emphasized, sadly, that these ruins have not been studied in detail so far. In the absence of an extensive examination of this location, any attempt at identifying the statue must rely solely on its iconography which is, indeed, very limited in scope.

The general tendency to see a connection between our statue and Rishi Pulastya is the result of the use of the name Pulatthinagara to designate Polonnaruva. It has been assumed that Pulatthinagara was so named after the Indian sage Pulastya. One fails to see how this minor figure, a character of hardly any importance in Hindu mythology, could have become such a mighty personality as to become the eponym of a capital city in Sri Lanka and even have a monumental statue carved out of the living rock in his honour. As far as we know, in the Hindu mythological account of Pulastya there is no mention of his having had any connection with Sri Lanka. The few meagre references to Pulastya that one can glean from the Puranas only go to show the weakness of the idea of Polonnaruva being named after him. Yet RdeS regards Pulastya as "the patron saintly personage of Polonnaruva", to whom "Polonnaruva was devoted in antiquity." We do not see any literary or historical basis for such assertions. Despite these assertions, however, RdeS does not claim the Potgul statue to be that of Pulastya. Instead he says that the statue is a representation of Agastya. The causal chain here seems to be a matrimonial one: Agastya had married Lopamudra, Pulastya’s sister. By virtue of being Pulastya’s brother-in-law, Agastya had the privilege of having a statue erected in Polonnaruva in his honour. Needless to say this relegates Pulastya to a secondary place in any attempt to identify the Potgul statue. RdeS does not directly state this, of course, but his reference to this matrimonial alliance can only be seen as an explanation of Agastya’s presence in Polonnaruva. As further support of this rather tenuous position RdeS alludes to an "ancient belief that the rishi Agastya had an abode in Sri Lanka" and goes on to conclude that the Potgul statue had been in existence before Polonnaruva became the capital of the Sinhala kings and that it was a representation of the sage, Agastya.

RdeS seeks support for this conclusion from:

1) A suggestion of Paranavitana that there was a "cult of Agastya" in Sri Lanka, a rather dubious assertion;

2) A personal communication from Godakumbura that an abode of Agastya in Simhaladvipa is mentioned in Anrgharagava (sic) of Murari; and

3) A reference in the Vayupurana to Agastya’s abode on Mandara mountain in Malayadvipa where the Trikuta mountain is also situated with the city of Lanka on one of its flanks. Hindu myths speak of more than one Trikuta. According to these myths Trikuta is just a mountain in the ocean and not on an island. Lanka is a city on top of the mountain and not the island of Lanka. The location of Lanka has been a moot point among Indian authorities for a long time. In any case there is no proof that Malayadvipa is Sri Lanka although RdeS says it will " leave no doubt in one’s mind that this island [Malayadvipa] is to be identified with Sri Lanka."

The identity RdeS would like to establish between Trincomalee and Trikuta mountain or Tri-kona-malai must be re-examined before one can accept it. In reality Trincomalee is only the Anglisized version of Tirukkonamalai in which kona is the Tamil for Gona, the ancient name of Trincomalee. (h, g and k are interchangeable in Tamil); the affixes tiru and malai do not pose a problem. Besides, no mountain with three peaks (tri kuta) can be identified in the topography of Trincomalee.

Because there was "an ancient belief that Agastya had an abode in Sri Lanka", (a statement which has no support from history) RdeS concludes that the "Potgul statue was in existence before Polonnaruva became the capital of the Sinhala kings and that it was a representaton of the sage, Agastya." To be regarded as fact, such a questionable, purely speculative, statement will require a big leap of faith. Besides, such assumptions — they are clearly nothing more than assumptions paraded as facts — could only mislead unsuspecting students of the subject.

It is important to find out, if at all possible, why Pulatthinagara was so named. As mentioned earlier, the assumption is that the city was named after a rishi known as Pulatthi. If Pulatthi is the same rishi known to Hindu mythology as Pulastya, the logical question is why this Pulastya was selected for such an honour. However, we have seen that Pulastya is of so little consequence even in his own native India that one is hard put to find a significant representation of him in all of that country’s art. Besides, there is hardly any reference to him in the Mahavamsa or any other local historical or literary work, which makes it difficult to understand how he could have been accorded so significant a position as to deserve such honours in medieval Sri Lanka. Furthermore, it does not look likely that Pulastya could have been introduced to Polonnaruva even by the Cholas who honoured Siva, but apparently paid no regard to Pulastya himself.

The name Pulatthi applied to Polonnaruva must have had a diferent origin. RdeS’ statement that the "former name of Polonnaruva was Pulatthinagara" is a clear case of putting the cart before the horse. It is in the Culavamsa that the name Pulatthi appears for the first time, that is as late as the 13th Century. On the other hand, the Velaikkara inscription at Polonnaruva of a century or more before that speaks of a temple of the Tooth Relic built by Vijayabahu at Pulanari, an event attested by the Culavamsa as well. It does not require any stretch of imagination to recognize Polonnaruva in Pulanari. More importantly, however, we have Polonnaruva referred to by that very name in many early inscriptions including a 12th Century slab inscription set up during the reign of Vijayabahu I. Polonnakara, Polonnakaru are other epigraphic versions of the name, and they all go much further back in time than the known use of Pulatthi. That there was a sage named Pulastya in India is no more than a coincidence and, in the absence of any historical evidence to the contrary, one has to admit that Pulastya had no part to play in naming Polonnaruva. Pulatthi need not necessarily be taken as the Pali form of Pulastya.

The word Pulatthi, I would suggest, is one of those curious Pali adaptations of Sinhala place names by the chroniclers; in this case Polonnaruva was turned into Pulatthi by Dhammakitti, the author of the Culavamsa. (I must confess I am speculating here, but not without grounds as can be seen from the following place names). Such phonetically unorthodox transformations of Sinhala place names are quite common in the chronicle, e.g. Sankhanayakatthali (Hatnagoda), Badalatthali (Batalagoda), Guttahala (Buttala), Bhimatittha (Bentota), Jambukola (Dambulla), Donivagga (Denavaka), Gangasiripura (Gampala), to name only a few. If Pulatthinagara is merely the distorted Pali form of Polonnaruva, as I suggest, and has no connection to the Indian sage Pulastya, it follow there is no need to assume that the statue at Potgulvehera is a representtion of this Indian sage’s brother-in-law, Agastya, as RdeS assumes.

(aTo be continued Tomorrow)

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