By Bernard VanCuylenburg

     “Archaeological History”, The Maduru Oya Marvel.

After firstly, viewing the magnificent “flowing-flag” of “My Lovely Island Home”, as I call her, then reading through the most magnificent story of the “Mother Of Marvels”, as I would prefer it to be known as, written by, who I would simply describe as one of the very best “writers” to put pen to paper, Bernard VanCuylenberg, proudly, stolidly, soundly, a Sri Lankan Burgher with an unconditional love for the little “Pearl Of The Indian Ocean”, just as Neil Jayasekera (the flag-waver) & “your’s truly” are, as well.

     We are all a part of “history”, folks. Like it, or not, the history of our entire world will someday fade into nothingness, but, until then, it is the solemn duty of every-one of us, to respect the “time” the Almighty has given us, and not forget to remember everything that has made little old Mother Earth “great”.

     Bernard “goes into history” here, from various angles of the globe. All the facts & figures are there. Putting it mildly, this guy would have to be one of the most ardent Archaeologists who, is not one, by trade. He is simply a “teacher” wishing to impart his wide knowledge of Archaeology (and English)to pupils who are, in my opinion, the luckiest in the World, to be taught by an absolute guru.

     And so, without impinging into an excellent series of articles, suffice to say that here, we come into a “common-sense”, down-to-earth, lesson from an “Arch-aeologist” at heart, as to WHY Sri Lanka stands to lose it’s status as one of the most important Archaeological Phenomenons  of the Ancient World. A tiny bit of God’s Earth that has achieved SO MANY GREAT THINGS, is now losing it’s grip on the essential events of a bygone era. The beautiful Land, the fabulous architectural achievements, structures dedicated to the Lord Buddha, statues, even, not properly taken care of,  and now showing signs of deterioration, achievements, proudly, the pride of this Planet, already losing due recognition through sheer ignorence (the don’t care, attitude, I call it). Wake up, Sri Lanka, wake up, my lovely Island home. If you do not, the “Goodnight Waltz” will probably the last beautiful song you will hear.

   Desmond Kelly (Lankan Aussie & proud eLanka supporter)


Peeling back the layers of history, archaeologists spanning the years, have made sensational discoveries  which have been immortalised in the collective human conscience. To set the scene for this article, I am compelled to venture to lands further afield  – far away from resplendent Lanka –  and cite a few examples where archaeological discoveries have set the human spirit aflame and caused a sensation around the world. The stunning discoveries made by the engineers and surveyors when the Maduru Oya scheme was first undertaken in Sri Lanka will resonate with some discoveries made in other lands. One of the most famous was the discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamen who ruled Egypt from 1360 – 1350 BC. in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. On the point of giving up after a fruitless search and colossal expense, the persistence of two archaeologists, Howard Carter and  Lord Carnarvon finally paid off when in 1922 the tomb was discovered with Carter uttering the  words which expressed his sentiments at that moment …..”My eyes have seen marvellous things…..” So great was this discovery that they spent a decade emptying the tomb of more than 3000 objects many of which needed on-the-spot conservation. But there have been other discoveries lesser known but equally important. I spent a whole day exploring the Valley of the Kings and later visited the exhibits from the tomb of King Tutankhamen which covers practically the entire third floor of the Cairo museum. It is a visit I highly recommend to anyone travelling to that part of the world. 

When the Egyptian civilisation had already declined, and when the Roman empire was lapsing into its long dark night, a civilization unknown to the west 6000 miles away from the heart of Rome was approaching its peak.  By the fourth century AD the Maya had begun to build a chain of magnificient cities and temples throughout the rain forests of Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico connected by paved roads constructed by Mayan engineers. The decline of the Maya commenced in 925 AD after which these cities were lost and forgotten, wrapped in greenery, smothered by the rain forests. Then in the year 1839 an American lawyer and diplomat John Stephens, and an English artist Frederick Catherwood breached the jungle fastness and rediscovered the miracle of Maya civilization. On penetrating the jungle’s thickness and discovering these cities Stephens said “I thought I  was looking at a scene from another world….” I followed the trail of Stephens and Catherwood during two visits to these countries and have stood open-mouthed, gazing in awe at these colossal temples and buildings, noting all the while that the engineers of ancient Lanka were as competent and in some respects superior to their Mayan counterparts.  The discoveries of Stephens and Catherwood sent ripples of excitement throughout the West.


The third example was the discovery of the tomb of Lord Pacal who ruled the Mayan city of Palenque in present day Mexico from 615 – 683 AD. In 1952, the noted Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz made one of the most significant discoveries in the entire history of Mayan archaeology. He and some workmen were working deep in the Pyramid which contained the Temple of Inscriptions for four long seasons, when on this particular day a small section of the floor partially collapsed. Shining a floodlight through the opening, Ruz peered inside and was convinced that somewhere deep in the bowels of the pyramid was the tomb of Lord Pacal. He and the workmen dug to a depth of 75 ft and after back breaking toil discovered a vaulted stairway which led to a room which contained a limestone slab with intricate carvings. Lifting the slab Ruz states what happened next when he realized the breath taking implications of his discovery ” I was gazing at the death face and the corpse of Lord Pacal…….”  He found himself face to face with one of the most powerful rulers in Palenque’s entire history, having discovered Lord Pacal’s tomb. Ruz was the first human being to enter the tomb after a period of 1269 years. The death mask of Lord Pacal is now in the National Museum of Anthropology and History in Mexico city, and well worth a visit.

I cited the above examples in an attempt to convey the deep emotion, and spine tingling excitement , when one is transported back to another world and another time, and the lives of the people of that period in some way reach out to touch ours. In the 1980’s, engineers and surveyors working on the Maduru Oya scheme made an astonishing discovery which proved beyond a doubt that the engineers of ancient Lanka were among the best in the world at the time, if not THE best. A short note on the geography of the Maduru Oya delta is relevant at this point. The delta which begins south of Polonnaruwa ends in the district of Batticaloa. The total acreage of the delta is a little over 120,000 acres. The Maduru Oya river bisects the delta but lack of water was always a problem to irrigate the entire area. The Government of the day decided to divert the waters of the Mahaweli from Kotmale , Ulhitiya and  Randenigala, across the Mahaweli basin to Maduru Oya by way of a cross basin diversion.  Following this diversion and a dam built across the Maduru Oya, sufficient water was generated for cultivation. And then came the sensational discovery…….

Detailed research was conducted to locate a site for the proposed new dam, after which the engineers went to undertake this task with the latest scientific equipment at their disposal. Finally, the firm hired for this project located what they thought was the most suitable site to commence building work on the dam. What they discovered was so astonishing that they were almost speechless, and it sent their senses reeling when they found that the ancient Sinhalese kings and engineers had constructed a dam at the identical spot to conserve the waters of the Maduru Oya. It seems that a psychic bridge had been built across the centuries between the ancient engineers and the engineers of the present day, and in a brief moment their lives were intertwined. And this dam was built thousands of  years ago without theodolite (which is a surveyor’s instrument used for measuring horizontal and vertical angles) and modern state of the art equipment. There is no reference to this dam in the Mahavamsa or the Culavamsa, and the experts surmised that the ancient Maduru Oya dam was built long before the Mahavamsa was written, going back  about 2500 years. In proximity to the ancient dam was a reclining statue of the Buddha. The foreign engineers working on this project also witnessed this jaw dropping discovery and were at a loss for words. This once again confirms to me – in my humble opinion – that the ancient Sinhalese were geniuses who possessed the most advanced hydraulic civilisation in the world. I also believe that in engineering, hydrology, architecture, and landscape gardening, the superior knowledge system possessed by those experts has been lost to us forever. Sadly, this unique discovery merited very little attention, although there was a book written which referred to this ancient dam. Unfortunately, the title of the book and the name of its author escapes me. If there was a dam, and a statue of the Buddha, there must be ruins of temples and other buildings in this area awaiting the archaeologists spade. Hopefully these hidden treasures will one day be revealed to the world.


THE MADURU  OYA MARVEL  –   (Part 2). 


 Many people follow their dreams while others go chasing rainbows. Some reach for the stars and yearn for far horizons. But in a physical and spiritual sense, we are all peripatetic on life’s great journey. Many years ago I took a road less travelled, in search of a legend, comforted by the fact that some legends have their genesis in a foundation of truth. The road that I travelled  at that time was in a very poor condition. But the mental and spiritual road I took was paved with gold. I was on my way to the Ras Vehera situated in the sylvan surroundings of Sasseruwa, about seven miles from Aukana. The object of my search was the Sasseruwa Buddha statue. I first heard about this statue and the legends connected with it on a previous visit to Aukana from a peasant  – a true son of the soil, who fired and infected me with his enthusiasm when he related the legends associated  with this statue to me. After he left, I cross checked his story with a monk in the Aukana temple who confirmed every word that I was told. Vowing then to place Sasseruwa on my list of archaeological sites to visit, I was now fulfilling that promise. I had heard that the Sasseruwa Buddha was an unfinished work which for reasons unknown was never completed, unlike the world famous Buddha statue in Avukana.

The Aukana Buddha statue is a beautiful symphony in stone  – a classic work of art, the spiritual energy of which seeps into ones very soul and takes your heart and mind to dimensions of spiritual strength and beauty which words cannot describe. The Sasseruwa Buddha statue conversely, is the unfinished symphony in stone with the final notes yet to be written and played……Beauty they say is in the eye of the beholder and I found it beautiful, but with a beauty tinged with sorrow……There are cracks in the torso, and one of the ears is half finished.  The work is inferior and the statue is incomplete. I observed then that there are holes in the rock which meant that this statue once stood in an image house. It is taller than the Aukana Buddha statue by 10 centimetres, and time, the enemy of many archaeological sites has taken its toll. I still loved it with a  passion and decided to delve into the legends as to why this once potential masterpiece was left languishing and forlorn in the sunken relief in which it was carved. What has been established is that work on both statues, the one at Aukana and the Sasseruwa Buddha were begun during the reign of the great King Dhatusena. And thereby hangs a tale……..a tale which has been woven into the folklore of this area for centuries.

When King Dhatusena ruled the island, there was a School of Sculpture for budding aspirants of this difficult art. The Master in charge was an expert in his field, reputed to be among the best in the country at the time. The students seeking entry to this school were hand picked by the great guru himself, and only the best were chosen. Many persevered in perfecting their skills under the direction of the great Master, and many dropped out, unable to cope with the stringent demands that such a fine art demanded. There was one student in the school who outshone the rest, and his superior talents endeared him to the Master who surmised that one day his young protege would enter into royal service and be entrusted with very lucrative sculpturing assignments in the land. This talented student however, had other ideas. Convinced that he was now as skilled and talented as his guru, he in the  exuberance of youth challenged his teacher to a sculpturing contest. The rules of this contest laid down by a higher authority, decreed that each would undertake the carving of a Buddha statue. Whoever completed his statue first was to ring a bell to signify that the contest was over. It was the Master Sculptor who tolled the bell, and the statue he completed was the one at which the world still marvels today  –  the classic Aukana Buddha in which he has practically brought the stone to life.  It is a work of art seldom equalled. The student filled with despair,  abandoned work on his statue when the Aukana Buddha was unanimously judged the winner, and left his work incomplete   – It stands today, timeless through the ages, maintaining a lonely vigil in its mantle of stone in silent tribute to a novice sculptor who has vanished from the pages of history and only exists in the realms of  folklore and legend. 

There are many differences in both statues, too numerous to enumerate in the brief confines of this article. One legend states that the Sasseruwa statue was started on a sort of “trial basis” as a forerunner to the Aukana statue. King Dhatusena decided to match his masterpiece the mighty Kalaweva tank, with a classic Buddha image, and work originally began on the Sasseruwa statue which was to be his  ‘piece de resistance’. But as the work progressed, he had his doubts regarding the strength of the rock and expressed his concerns to the master sculptor. The latter however continued work on the statue, but sent his gifted student to commence work on the Aukana Buddha. This legend to me lacks credibility, but when history is not documented and records are not maintained, legends are born, and legends give rise to conjecture. Today the Sasseruwa statue stands  lonely in history, as it does in beautiful Sasseruwa. I left Sasseruwa with an ache in my heart, but full of admiration for the Master Sculptor and his student. What a glorious legacy we have inherited from both these unsung heroes………


The medieval capital of Lanka Polonnaruwa, attracts thousands of visitors each year. How many dwell on an ancient wonder which perhaps merits only a passing glance ? This is the Book of Stone (Galpotha) which was indited on the orders of King Nissanka Malla who ruled from 1187 – 1196 AD. It is the largest book of stone in the world and records the achievements of King Nissanka Malla. Twenty-six feet in length and four feet in breadth, there are seventy-two lines on its surface, and more than four thousand three hundred letters – by far the longest in the world !  Wherever there are huge ancient monuments in stone, it is recorded that the blocks of stone were quarried and transported over long distances. For example, the bluestone used to build  the megalithic complex of Stonehenge which stands on Salisbury Plain in England, have been traced to a Welsh quarry 130 miles northwest of the site. The sarsen slabs which one sees today were transported from the Marlborough Downs, twenty miles away. I have seen giant stone slabs (which were not used due to cracks in the blocks)  in the quarries near Aswan in Egypt from where the blocks to be used were hauled over long distances to build the Pyramids and other monuments. Conversely, King Nissanka Malla’s Book of Stone records the fact that it was carried from Mihintale more than sixty miles away to Polonnaruwa by the strongest men in his army. This Book of Stone is another tribute to the skill and ingenuity of the ancient Sinhalese craftsmen and builders.


There is a tradition which suggests the existence of a pilgrim road known as the Kadiligama highway which ran from present day Kandy, through Gampola and Ginigathhena all the way to Adams Peak.  Any traveller who would care to turn off at the 28th milepost on the Ginigathena – Ambagamuwa road (on the way to Nawalapitiya, or conversely, on the way to Hatton from Nawalapitiya ) will find two weather worn rocks at a place called “Akuru Ketu Pana” with an inscription dating to 1100 AD attesting  this fact. This pathway was built during the reign of King Vijayabahu 1st who ruled from 1059 – 1114 AD. The rock inscriptions confirm this story.

The pathway has long vanished, but my biggest fear is whether this valuable piece of history is still preserved. It is only one of several gems of  ancient Lanka’s glorious past which if not  maintained for future generations, will disappear in the mists of time.


One notable feature of ancient Lanka’s rich historical tapestry was the vast network of giant tanks and reservoirs which were vital for a thriving civilisation which depended on irrigation. Her irrigation engineers were more than equal to the task. They were giants in their field, and the best in the world. It would be no exaggeration to say that they were the “think tanks” of the time, unequalled in tank building and all facets of hydrology. Many of the tank builders like King Mahasena, King Dhatusena, and King Moggallana the 2nd owe their place in history to the superhuman efforts of  these experts. There is another tank builder who is credited by The Mahavamsa for having inaugarated the construction of twelve reservoirs and canals during his reign, most of which are in the Anuradhapura region. He is King Vasabha who ruled the island from 127 – 171 AD. Perhaps the masterpiece of these projects is The Elahara Canal. The Mahavamsa mentions this canal in the chapter on the reign of King Vasabha’s reign. This canal was used to take water from a tributary of the Mahaweli ganga the Ambanganga, to Anuradhapura and its environs. This canal stretched for a distance of thirty miles from a weir across the Ambanganga.

The length of this canal is testimony to the competence and advanced knowledge of the ancient Sinhala engineers. One hundred and ninety years later, King Mahasena used this canal as the main source of water supply for the Minneriya tank which he constructed.

Everything you do becomes your memory and your memory becomes your story. The story then becomes your history  – and history lives on. What a rich legacy we have inherited from our ancient Kings, artists, engineers, sculptors, poets and painters. Their stories became history which is now our rich legacy. We are the custodians of this legacy and safeguarding it for future generations is a sacred duty. Approach these ancient sites with the reverence they deserve, specially the sites where there are statues of The Buddha. Tread softly and very gently……history lies beneath your feet.



I read a story about a student asking his teacher, a sculptor whose fame was renowned throughout the land, a question which undoubtedly was on the minds of many students of this difficult art. “Please tell me Sir” he said, “How do you make such beautiful idols from stone ?” To which the teacher replied ” Idols and images are already hidden within. All I do is remove the unwanted stone”. It seems that this sculptor was also a philosopher. In reality, it is a certainity that this question may have been asked by hundreds of students down the ages when sculptors in ancient Lanka created  masterpieces a thousand years before the flowering of the Italian renaissance. To set the scene for the crux of this article I have to wind the clock further back in time to the 6th century BC  –  a period which gave the world some of the greatest names in history which resonate to the present day. It was the century in which King Nebuchadnezzar ruled the Babylonian empire from 562 – 605 BC. and in which the Greek mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras formulated the “Pythagoras theory”. The Persian empire was founded by Cyrus the Great. Perhaps the shining light of this era was the birth of Siddharta Gautama the Buddha  in 563 BC.

It was also the century where a resplendent island on distant shores kissed by golden sunshine and endowed in abundance with the blessings and bounties of nature, was taking her place on the world stage in engineering, hydrology, the arts, building techniques, mathematics and every other field of endeavour conceivable. Because, according to archaeologists, the ancient sluice discovered at Maduru Oya which was discovered in 1981 can be dated back to the sixth century BC. At least the upper sluice which is 30 ft.high and 30 ft. wide with a length of 220 ft. dates back to this period. The lower sluice is believed to be older than that ! Time, measured by the brevity of human life seems to lose its common perspectives before this marvel of hydraulic engineering which vividly recalls the splendour of a civilisation whose achievements reached stellar heights even before their history was committed to writing. In view of this find, further discoveries may open the door to a whole new period of Lanka’s history which may be much longer than has been credited. The Maduru Oya marvel is further proof of the incredible intellectual achievements of the ancient Lankan engineers. 


King Parakramabahu who ruled from the medieval capital of Polonnaruwa from 1153 – 1186 AD. was one of the greatest and most exulted kings that ever sat on a royal throne. Better known as “The Great” his achievements cannot be detailed here in the limited space of an article. But his giant programme of reclamation and development is one that is often overlooked, because the giant Parakrama Samudra (Sea of Parakrama) takes prominence.  This programme was not limited to Polonnaruwa and its environs, but extended island wide.  The existing irrigation tanks and reservoirs which  suffered considerable damage during previous invasions from South India were first repaired. Then came his crowning glory – The Parakrama Samudra which opened up thousands of acres for irrigation. This restoration and reclamation programme was phenomenal by any standards, and has never been equalled. The records state that 1400 tanks were restored, and a further thousand enlarged. 3,621 canals were repaired and 34 new canals built. A map of the country during his reign would have showed an island with a network of tanks and reservoirs, linked by a delicate and ingenious canal system, far in advance of the irrigation systems of North India and Burma at the time.

In historical terms I can only think of one canal in the ancient  world which is on par with King Parakramabahu’s sterling achievement , and that is the Grand Canal waterway in China which is a shipping canal still in use. It is an engineering masterpiece which I saw during my travels in China. Built in three stages between 485 BC – 235 AD. it reaches a length of 1780 kilometres. (1107 miles). The first major British canal was the Manchester – Bridgewater canal built between 1761 and 1766. But the canal network of King Parakramabahu was a spider web of aquatic  wonder. It would not be an overstatement to say that in medieval Polonnaruwa, the economic development and the islands prosperity were defined by one word  – water ! Just for the record, the wall which he extended  to protect the medieval capital of Polonnaruwa was 84 miles in length. Today it would easily protect modern London ! The original wall was built by King Vijayabahu 1st in 1073 AD when he transferred the capital from Anuradhapura.


The engineers of King Dhatusena had tremendous foresight, and what they constructed was built to last. After the Kalawewa was built, they made a canal to carry the waters of this mighty tank to augment the supply of the reservoirs in Anuradhapura. The canal was called “The Jayaganga” which was fifty miles in length. It was, and is an amazing technological feat because the gradient in the first seventeen miles of this canal is a mere six inches to a  mile!  There are numerous historical sites  – many unknown and unclassified  – which are some of the greatest  of archaeological treasures, crucial to an understanding of the past. The artists, sculptors, architects and engineers who executed these works sometimes relied on their own creative vision, and today we revel in the serenity and grandeur of their labour.


King Bhatikabhaya ruled the island from 38 – 66 AD. A world away in the heart of Rome, the Emperor Claudius Caesar was head of the mighty Roman Empire. East is east and west is west and the twain did meet because during his reign, King Bhatikabhaya despatched a diplomatic mission headed by an Ambassador and three diplomats to the court of the Emperor Claudius Caesar in the year 42 AD. The Romans were very impressed by their visitors from a distant land and in his description of ancient Lanka, the distinguished historian Pliny  the Elder writing about the island of Taprobane stated “The island of Taprobane is known as a second world”… ….” Pliny did not meet the Sinhala diplomats but obtained information about them from his contacts at the Imperial court who had met these  officials.  Claudius Caesar is best remembered in Roman annals for his invasion of Britain in 43 AD, and it is very probable that the diplomats from Lanka would have had first hand knowledge of the planned invasion of Britain which was one of Emperor Claudius Caesar’s greatest foreign policy triumphs. A few years after the Ambassador and the mission returned to Lanka, Pliny the Elder met an untimely death in the eruption of Mt.Vesuvius in 79 AD. The passage of time has not dimmed the memory of these employees of King Bhatikabhaya’s Foreign Service, though their names are not recorded in the Mahavamsa. And today we are the poorer for it because there are a myriad questions which  will never be answered..

The roads less travelled and roads that are travelled often in a historical context, the stunning archaeological sites and the anticipation of more sites awaiting the archaeologist’s spade, the memory of a time when ancient Lanka was a developed nation on the world’s stage…..all these give us a tantalising insight into the splendour that was ancient Sri Lanka.






Bernard VanCuylenburg.


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