By Raja de Silva
The exhibits of the Potgul statue at the National Museum Colombo, and the Archaeological Museum Polonnaruva, have not (according to good authority) been labeled identifying it as a sage or a sovereign. This is not satisfactory, for museums are educational institutions whose heads are expected to be scholars who can decide which of the reasoned published interpretations is likely to be the correct one. Furthermore, the visiting public would now be misled into believing that no scholar has hitherto been able to identify the statue from its clear iconographical features.
Regarding the second possibility mentioned above, are the relevant authorities reluctant to publicise that the statue represents a Brahman sage or the great Sinhala king Parakramabahu I, who are both derived from Indian genes, the latter’s grandmother Tilokasundari being from Kalinga?
The Central Cultural Fund, which had taken charge of archaeological works in Polonnaruva thirty years ago, has this to say about the identity of the figure known as the Potgul Statue sited north of the Potgul Vehera in Polonnaruwa: “The Location of the site and the statue on the bind of the lake makes one wonder if it is a likeness of the great tank-builder and builder of the lake, King Parakramabahu himself. It could also very well be a representation of the sage Pulasti, after whom Polonnaruva was named Pulastipura”
(PL Prematilleke and LK Karunaratne 2004, Polonnaruva, CCF, Colombo.)
Paranavitana (1933), my Old Chief, in his younger days found evidence at the site to support the observation made on stylistic grounds by P.H. Vogel, the eminent orientalist, who inspected the statue in 1925, that the image dates from a period earlier than that of Parakramabahu I (1153-1186), In Paranavitana’s words:
“On the rock on the site of which the statue is carved, and immediately behind the head of the figure, there are distinct traces of some old writing. The letters have been shallowly and rather carelessly incised; and not more than three or four can be made out with certainty. But they are enough to ascribe the writing to the eighth or ninth century. The remaining traces of writing are scattered over an area of about 3 ft by 3 ft and they do not seem to have formed a single record as one line is at right angles to the other”.
Paranavitana did not specify what the legible letters were, but discussed the possible origin of these writings and concluded that they may have been scribbling of the artisans who carved the image. Thus, Paranavitana concluded that the sculpture belonged to the eighth or ninth century AC.
In 1952, however, Paranavitana changed his mind about the subject and date of the statue. The sculpture (he said) represented a king; the object held in the hands was interpreted as the yoke of a cart symbolising the yoke of state or of justice, which a king was wont to bear; it was further concluded on the basis of style, and by comparison with the Gal Vihara images in Polonnaruva, that the statue belonged to the twelfth century AC. By implication, Paranavitana indicated that the statue represented Parakramabahu the Great (1153-1186), and so it was that the chief state archaeologist who gave weight to a popular belief. In his last reference to the subject, Paranavitana (1971) stated that in a document that he had recently read, it was recorded that this was a portrait of Vijayabahu I (1055-1110).
It is accepted that, often, with the development of research on any subject, earlier conclusions may have to be changed yielding place to new. This is a tenet of scientific enquiry. However, if any new theory does not accord with the relevant facts, then the theory has to be modified, if not discarded. It is not possible to reconcile the interpretation of a twelfth century dating for the Potgul statue with the fact of the existence of writings dated to eighth/ninth centuries on the rock surface, which were obviously contemporaneous with the carving of the statue. Hence, unfortunately Paranavitana failed to relieve us of our perplexity regarding the new dating of the statue; for he did not refer in his later (i.e.,1952) paper to the earlier (1933) find of dated inscribed letters on top of the rock.
I am unaware of any other person reporting on the existence of these letters, which were clearly of importance in assigning a date and, by implication, the identification of the statue. My enquiries from professionals interested in the subject also proved negative. No one else appeared to have seen the writings on the rock. While serving as Advisor to the Archaeological Department, I had both the time and the inclination to search for these elusive relics of a millennium ago. The exercise was undertaken in the company of my aides Wilson, Laboratory Attendant and Jayasekera, Modeller; we were equipped with the tools of our trade to track down the writings, if they existed.
The boulder which bears the status on its prepared south face is the southernmost of three contiguous rock outcrops which gain in height from north to south. The top surface of the boulder under consideration, about 11 feet high by the statue, is not easy of access. With the support of a helping hand, one can reach it by clambering onto the north boulder, smartly stepping on to the middle rock, and finally jumping across (or being helped on) to the large south boulder nearly three feet away, which rises in the southern and eastern directions.
To our great satisfaction, we found the writings. They were not seen behind the head of the statue, as stated by Paranavitana; they were observed towards the eastern side, i.e., the right-hand side of the statue on viewing it. I was able to recognise five Sinhala letters which resemble those of the eighth/ninth century script.
Exact impressions of them were taken using a cold-setting translucent synthetic resin (Technovit, Kulzer and Co., Bad Homberg, Germany) and a release agent. The letters so far recognised are too few to be a part of an inscription; they are the letters, ka, ma, na, ra, the ka being the clearest. Preceding the ka is a letter which takes the form of a zig-zag or vertical line. The ka and ma are indited next to each other; below, cheek by jowl, are the letters ra and na. It is interesting to note that the ra is cut as the mirror-image of the Sinhala ra of that period.
A further piece of evidence in support of Paranavitana’s plausible conclusion that the inscribed letters and the carved statue are of the same date was forthcoming: the head-dress of the statues and its backward projecting (i.e., northward) rock backing are at a higher level than the rest of the rock boulder in the vicinity. This would indicate that the rock surface there was removed to provide the excrescence for the required sculpting of the head-dress. Therefore, the writing that can now be seen on the rock surface must have been indited after its original level was lowered purposefully. It follows that the writings were indited after the work on the rock had commenced.
There is no alternative but to conclude, as Paranavitana did in 1933, that the Potgul statue belonged to the eighth or ninth century, and therefore cannot represent Vijayabahu I or Parakramabahu I.
The statue should be taken as that of a sage. Which sage? Claudio Sestieri (1958) Acting Archaeological Commissioner disagreed with Paranavitana’s identification of the statue and documented reasons why the object in the hands could not have been designed as a yoke, and concluded that the statue did not represent a king. I stated in 1976 (Guide to Polonnaruwa, ASD) that the Archaeological Department favoured the interpretation that the statue is of a brahmanical sage; that the names of Agastya, Kapila and Pulasti come to mind; that Agastya is discarded on account of the absence of his usual iconographical attributes of the pot and the necklace (Siri Gunasinghe 1958). It appears that the two foreign authors of the Central Cultural Fund 1982 Guide were unaware of the official guide published by the Archaeological Department in 1976.
Since then, I have had second thoughts about Agastya. It would appear that there was, in fact, a historical figure called Agastya, an Aryan hero who came to South India (i.e., south of the Vindhya mountains) and was later worshipped as a Tamil sage. Agastya finds mention in the ancient Indian epics Mahabharatha and Ramayana, and it the ancient Sanskrit texts known as the puranas. It appeared desirable that enquiries be made in two directions. First, are any iconographical features known that would enable one to conclude that a certain statue was made to represent Agastaya? Second, can any literary connection be found between the rishi Agastya and Sri Lanka, particularly Polonnaruva? Thus latter thought had struck Siri Gunasinghe for he states that at no time was there any mention of this sage in the literary works of the Polonnaruva period or any other period of our history.
Let us take a closer look at the iconography of Agastya. Gunasinghe admitted that in some respects the iconography of the Potgul statue would certainly indicate Agastya, but the absence of the necklace of berries (aksamala) and the water pit (kamandaly) ruled him out. This weighty conclusion needs scrutiny. Is it stated any-where that these particular attributes are a sine-qua-non for Agastya images? Is there any literary evidence to show that an image of Agastya may bear in one hand or in both any object other than the necklace and the water pot? Are any images of Agastya known and accepted as such even though the necklace and/or the water pot are absent?
I am indebted to Dr. James C Harle, formerly of the Indian Institute, Oxford (one of my viva voce examiners for the doctorate) for sending me copies of an important paper on Agastya by KA Nilakanta Sastri (1936). This paper has assisted me in answering the questions raised above. According to the Vishnudharmottara-purana,and sixth century AC work on the arts, Agastya should be portrayed as carrying a necklace of berries and a water vessel. In terms of the Indian silpa worked on architecture and sculpture by Manasara, datable at least to about the seventh century AC, an image of Agastya should have a staff in the right hand and a book in the left; or there need not be a staff in the right hand but both hands may be similarly shown holding a book (ch. 57, vv. 15 – 18) (emphasis added). This conforms to the iconography of the Potgul statue, and it was first published by me in an article titled “A closer look at the Potgul statue” in the Ceylon Daily News of 24 January 1978. A copy of that paper was given to Dr. James T. Rutnam and his included this information in the booklet published by him in 1979 under the title The Polonnaruwa Colossus. A critique of an ancient statue (Tirumakal Pr., Chunnakam).
We now see that Gunasinghe’s interpretation that Agastya must always carry his necklace and water-pot no longer holds water. There is, in fact, an image of Agastya in the Siva temple of Tiruvadudurai, South India (tenth century AC) where the water-pot is replaced by a book in the left hand and a necklace is carried in the right hand.
It is now germane to look for any connection between Agastya and Sri Lanka. In his book titled God of Adam’s Peak (1958), Paranavitana referred to a statement in the Balaramayana (a drama by Rajasekara, a north Indian poet of the ninth century AC) that there was an abode of Agastya on Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka. He suggested that a cult of Agastya must have been observed by early Sinhala people before they embraced Buddhism. Godakumbure, has drawn attention to Anrgharagava, a ninth century Sanskrit work by a poet named Murari, in which there is mention of an abode of Agastya in Simhaladvipa (Sri Lanka).
The former name of Polonnaruva was Pulatthinagara (refer Mahavamsa) which can be translated as the city devoted to the sage, Pulastya. In the Vayupurana, a Sanskrit Indian work assigned to the fifth century AC, it is mentioned that Pulastya and his wife, Priti, had a son named Dattali and that Agastya was a reincarnation of this son. This indicates a close relationship between Pulastya, the patron saintly personage of Polonnaruva, and Agastya. Turning to Tamil literature, we find a legend contained in the preface to the Tolkappiyam, datable to about the fourth century AC, where it is stated that Agastya, before he travelled from North so South India in order to restore the balance that had been upset by the devas assembling on Mount Meru in the north, went to meet Pulastya, who gladly gave him his sister, Lopamuda, in marriage. By this token, Agastya was brother-in-law to Pulastya to whom Polonnaruwa was devoted in antiquity.
To return to the Vayupurana, Agastya’s abode is located on the Mandara mountain in Malayadvipa across the seas from India. The author describes the six islands around Jambudvipa (India), and one of them is Malayadvipa. This island (he goes on to say) contains the well-known Tri-kuta mountain, with its beautiful hills and valleys. On one of its extensive slopes is the great city of Lanka, and on the east of the island is sited a great Siva temple in a holy place called Gokarna. Now, the anglicised form of Trincomalee is derived from Tri-kona-malai (tri-kuta mountain), and Gokanna-tittha was the old name for Trincomalee where the great Siva temple of Konesvaram is situated. This topographical information about Malayadvipa would leave no doubt in one’s mind that this island is to be identified with Sri Lanka. It must then follow that it was an ancient belief that the rishi Agastya had an abode in Sri Lanka.
The conclusion from this study is that the Potgul statue was in existence before Polonnaruwa became the capital of the Sinhala kings, and that it was a representation of the sage, Agastya.
De Silva Raja 1976. Archaeological Guide to Polonnaruwa, Colombo: Archaeological Departments.
Godakumbure 1971. Personal communication.
Gunasinghe Siri 1958. Cey. Journal Historical and Social Studies 1(2): 180-191.
Nilakantha Sastry, KA 1959. Land-en Volkenkunde Deel 76-471-545.
Paranavitana S 1933. Ceylon Journal Science 2(3): 229-234.
Paranavitana S 1952. Artibus Asiae 15: 209-237.
Paranavitana S 1971. Art of the ancient Sinhalese. Colombo: Lake House Investments p.138.
Paranavitana S 1958. The god of Adam’s Peak.
Ascona. Artibus Asiae Supplementum 18.
Sestieri PC 1958. East and West 9(3): 233-237.