THE UNSUNG HEROES by Bernard VanCuylenburg

THE UNSUNG HEROES by Bernard VanCuylenburg


To the point, beautifully written, Bernard brings to us all the poignant story of these very people, “The Unsung Heroes”, part one & two, and Bernard, I have recorded these two songs myself, BUT, nothing but the BEST, to provide the musical background for your BEST, regarding the BEST of the “Unsung Heroes” of ancient Sri Lanka. Here he is, Ladies & Gentlemen, the BEST “Country” Singers, singing two beautiful songs, relevant to the superb article by Bernard VanCuylenberg. Please listen to the lyrics & the way he sings every song he has ever recorded. They might be love-songs, but, to me, he is singing of everyone we have chosen to forget. Pardon me, but this is for all our “Unsung Heroes”

  Desmond Kelly.

  Star of eLanka.


When Wilhem Geiger translated The Mahavamsa and The Culavamsa , he made a statement which adequately expresses my personal sentiments regarding the complexities of the ancient recorded history of Sri Lanka. Geiger remarked “Not what is said, but what is left unsaid is the besetting difficulty of Sinhalese history….” I can well understand his frustration, and within the limited space of this article will try to deal with many unanswered questions in Sri Lanka’s long and glorious civilisation. Sadly, these questions will forever remain answered. The ‘Unsung Heroes’ I refer to are not the great kings which ruled ancient Ceylon the resplendent island, but the engineers, architects, master craftsmen, artists, builders, and the rest of the intelligentsia, whose masterpieces evoke the worlds admiration today. It was they who gave ancient Ceylon – or Taprobane  – first world status.


Pliny the Elder the Roman author, naturalist and philosopher referred to ancient Ceylon as “another world”. He should know, as through his contacts in the ruling hierarchy, he heard about the Sinhala Ambassadors present in the imperial court of Emperor Claudius who ruled from 41 AD to 54 AD . There is a theory among historians that being diplomats and thus VIP’s, these ambassadors from far away Ceylon (or Taprobane) may have been privy to the Emperor’s plans to invade Britain. ( In 43 AD the full might of the Roman army landed on the beaches of Kent and thus began the conquest of Britain).  It was Annius Plocamus a Roman tax collector from the Mediterranean who facilitated direct trade and the first contacts between imperial Rome and ancient Ceylon. The great chronicle The Mahavamsa states that King Bhatika Abhaya who ruled the island from 38 BC to 66 AD despatched an embassy to Rome and got down coral from the Mediterranean sea to be cast over the Maha Thupa. The “Maha Thupa” referred to is none other than the  Ruwanveli Seya dagoba built by the great King Dutthu Gemunu who ruled the country from 161 BC to 137 BC. This small island far away in the Indian ocean loomed very large in the eyes of imperial Rome…….

The chronicles credit various kings with many public works, specially the mighty irrigation schemes which bear ample testimony to the level of  ancient Sri Lanka’s hydraulic engineering skills. The very design of these tanks as confirmed by engineers today, show that these ancient geniuses had an in-depth knowledge of hydraulic principles, and in the construction of these works, showed a deep knowledge of trigonometry. Sadly, there is no record anywhere of a single name of the engineers responsible for planning and executing these colossal projects. The Kalawewa tank built during the reign of King Dhatusena has an embankment 3.25 miles long, rising to a height of 40ft. By means of a canal, the waters of the Kalawewa augmented the water supply in the reservoirs at Anuradhapura. This canal known as the ‘Jayaganga’ is 50 miles long and is an amazing feat of hydraulic engineering because the gradient in the first 17 miles in its length was a mere 6 inches to a mile !  Who was the engineering genius responsible ? His name was never recorded for posterity and he remains one of the many unsung heroes. There is another example  – The Parakrama Samudra (Sea of Parakrama) in Polonnaruwa.  Constructed during the reign of the great King Parakramabahu the 1st, the 40 ft. embankment of this tank is 8 1/2 (eight and a half) miles long, and the masonry involved contains stone blocks weighing 10 1/2 tons ! (ten and a half). Again I pose the question, who was the master engineer who initiated this gigantic project ? This genius whose skill amazes modern engineers  today is another unsung hero because his name has never been recorded. I have asked myself the same question whenever I gazed across the waters of the Minneriya tank which was constructed during the reign of King Mahasena, known as the tank builder..

Work on a total of 16 tanks commenced during his reign from 274 – 301 AD, although many were completed long after his reign. And again the haunting question  – Where did the ancient enginers get their knowledge of complex irrigation  and hydraulic technology ? Who were these geniuses ? We shall never know. Nor were their talents confined to Lanka’s shores. In Kashmir there is an ancient historical record called “The Rajatharangani”. It is recorded  in this document that in the 8th century, the rulers of Kashmir sought the help of Sinhalese engineers to design and and build reservoirs in their kingdom. Another tribute to the technical expertise of the ancient Sinhalese ! On a visit to Thailand a few years ago I made a special trip to the medieval city of Sukhothai for one particular reason. In ancient Thailand’s historical records there is a section which dwells on the trade between medieval Ceylon and that country. In Thai chronicles it has been recorded that the King of the period contacted King Vijayabhau who was ruling Ceylon from the capital Polonnaruwa requesting for aid to construct the dagobas in Sukhothai. Sinhala Engineers and architects were then sent to Thailand to comply with the Kings request. The ancient dagobas of Sukhothai  bear a close resemblance to the dagobas of medieval Polonnaruwa in shape and form…….These are just two classic examples of ancient Ceylon’s “foreign aid” to other nations over 1500 years ago………..and there were many.

I have spent hours gazing at the beautiful image of what must be one of the world’s best examples of a carving out of living rock   –  The Aukana Buddha standing 42 ft. in height near the Kalawewa tank. The peace and serenity on the face of the enlightened one has been sculpted with a skill surely inspired by the divine and bordering on the miraculous, because to simply call it a “masterpiece” is an  understatement. The master sculptor must have walked a thousand miles as he paced up and down surveying his work from all angles, and supervising the workmen and other sculptors as they worked on this project, over a thousand years before Michaelangelo ignited the Italian Renaissance in Europe with his carvings in marble. The Aukana Buddha has been sculptured to soothe the soul and visitors to the site today gaze in wonder and awe at stone come to life in the form of the Buddha. As for the master sculptor, the world will never know his name.

And who was the chief architect, the chief engineer, the foreman of works, the goldsmiths and the craftsmen responsible for The Brazen Palace (The Lovamahapaya) constructed during the reign of King Dutugemunu ? There is an entire chapter in The Mahavamsa describing this building which on  completion had nine storeys. The chronicler at the time wrote “In the most beautiful of palaces there were nine storeys. All the rooms were overlaid with silver and various gems. A gem pavilion was set in the middle of the palace with pillars consisting of precious stones . A bordering of pearl network ran around the pavilion. In this pavilion there is a throne of ivory with a seat of mountain crystal……”  This sounds like a building from a land of enchantment in a fairy tale. But this is how it was. No one will ever know who executed this wonder which must have been one of the best in the ancient world.

Down throught the ages, an aura of mystery has clung to the ancient cities and archaeological sites of Sri Lanka. The unimaginable commitment of resources that went into these major construction works  attest to the wealth of the land and power of the kings. If only the chroniclers had left us with the names of some of the engineers, architects, artists and mathematicians of ancient Sri Lanka to give them the glory they deserve, it would surely have enriched our heritage. The names of the builders and engineers of the great cathedrals of medieval Europe and artists of the Italian Renaissance are known to the world. But the master brains of ancient Sri Lanka will sadly forever remain unknown. I will conclude with another wonder of the world which barely merits mention in the Culavamsa  – The rock fortress and garden city of Sigiriya.  How does one explain the fact that of such a monumental undertaking, not one single detail regarding its construction is described in the chronicle ?  It is one of the most magnificient archaeological sites in the world, and in its golden days was one of the most beautiful garden cities in Asia  – perhaps even in the world. Even its very name is mentioned in just four places and the paucity of detail regarding its construction is astounding ! The Engineering genius and chiel architect  responsible for this wonder must have been inspired and even aided by the Gods in this herculean task  – if they were not  Gods themselves !

In the next instalment I will continue to pay tribute to the intelligentsia of a civilisation which ranks on par with that of ancient Greece and Rome. An intelligentsia which gave the world some of the most spectacular monuments ever conceived by the human mind, when Ceylon was a first world nation in another time…….




In a secluded and beautiful site in the ancient city of Polonnaruwa lies one of humanities most magnificient artistic achievements. When I first laid eyes on it as a schoolboy many years ago I thought I was looking at a vision from a fairy tale……a fantastic ethereal sight from another world. These are the world famous sculptures known as “The Gal Vihara”, referred to in the Culavamsa as “The Uttararama”.  There are two statues of Lord Buddha in the seated and recumbent position, and one of the beloved disciple Ananda in the standing position. The extraordinary skill of the unknown sculptor who executed this masterpiece leaves one at a loss for words. Gazing at the timeless serene expression on the faces of these statues is I found an emotional experience which resounds in the soul like an organ chord. This unknown sculptor brought dead stone to life. Sadly, the Culavamsa does not give us much detail regarding these statues, and this is what the chronicler at the time wrote “Likewise the ruler of men had the Uttararama built. By breaking down the rock, he bringing into play every kind of skilled work , had three grottoes made by expert craftsment.” The ‘ruler of men’ he refers to is King Parakramabahu 1st, and of course, the craftsmen and the master sculptors names are not recorded. Thus we will never know which artistic giant was responsible for this masterpiece. Today, over 950 years later, the world still marvels at this miracle in stone.

I wish to mention a poignant detail which gives us an insight into the soul and sensitivity of this man, whoever he was. A few years ago the Gal Vihara was being restored under the auspicies of the Cultural Triangle restoration project funded by UNESCO. When the statute of the beloved disciple Ananda (in the standing position) was being restored, workmen found that the sculptor had even carved teardrops under its eyes…..after all this was Ananda grieving over his dying Master. One can practically feel the pain in his heart and the depth of his emotion as he worked the stone. Today the Gal Vihara stands majestic as ever in  enchanted surroundings and the world owes this unsung hero a debt of gratitude.

Over a thousand years before artistists like Leonardo Da Vinci, Raphael, and Michaelangelo worked on their classic works of art   – The Last Supper and the Sistine Chapel to mention just two  –  an unknown artist or artists, created a dazzling world of colour and wonder in a pocket of rock in the palace complex of Sigiriya. These paintings which are the earliest surviving examples of Sri Lankan art have delighted the world for over 1500 years. Still retaining their original colour, and shrouded in mystery, these paintings are silent witnesses to the grandeur of Sigiriya’s golden age.  What is not widely known is that amazing techniques in painting these frescoes were used  by the artists in King Kasyappa’s court. Wet plaster was first applied on the surface to be painted after which the artists began their labour of love. This meant that they had to be 100% accurate because if a mistake was made, it could not be corrected once the plaster had dried.  The painters of the famous Ajantha frescoes in Indian on the other hand painted on hard dry plaster leaving room for any corrections, if mistakes were made !

Sri Lankan had her own “Sistine Chapel” in the rock pocket at Sigiriya before that of the Vatican in Rome. Originally there were 500 frescoes. These beautiful paintings fill one with emotion . The eye is never wearied and the heart never sated. That they were painted by the hand of man is hard to imagine. I almost believe they were painted by the Gods ! Living, lovely breathing women…….How sad that while the artists of the western world are known to us, the artistic geniuses of Sigiriya will forever remain anonymous…..Unsung heroes.

The archaeological treasures of Anuradhapura are testimony to a civilisation magnificient in its complexity and on par with the best in the ancient western world for sheer brilliance. Capital of ancient Ceylon from 437 BC. to 726 AD. it ranked with  Babylon as one of the great cities in its time. A few years ago I spent some time in Egypt of which two full days were at the Giza plateau pondering the mysteries and marvelling at the grandeur of the Pyramids. It suddenly occurred to me that the Ruwanveli Saya and the Abhayagiri dagoba in Anuradhapura were both taller than the third pyramid at Giza, and were wonders of the abcient world. The Abhayagiri dagoba constructed during the reign of King Vattagamini Abhaya (Valagamba) was an engineering marvel. The foundation of this edifice carries a weight of over a million tons of bricks. Yet today, there is no evidence that this structure has sunk even one inch ! Yes, the skills of Ceylon’s ancient engineers were near superhuman, and though the chronicles do not record their names, they live on in their monuments. The beautiful Vatadage at Medirigiriya is another jewel in the crown of Sri Lanka’s cultural treasures. Built during the reign of King Aggabodhi the 4th in 667 AD, it is poetry in stone. The Culavamsa  says much about King Aggabodhi, and nothing about the genius who gave us this gem. The Vatadage has stood serene for over 1300 years  – silent testimony to a master brain. I have to conclude by going back to the Gal Vihara when I last visited it on a visit to Sri Lanka fifteen years ago. I spent one whole day here in quiet contemplation of these statues which express deep religious belief and it was almost twilight when I left. I gazed once more at the face of the enlightened one radiating peace and love with a heavy heart because I had to leave. In the silence of this hallowed site, voices from a distant past called to me. Beautiful spirits from an ancient world  – perhaps another time  – enfolded me in a mantle of love and I experienced an inner peace not of this world. As I turned to leave, the words of the Buddha as recorded in the Dhammapada echoed in my ear….”All things in life are fleeting……” I held back a tear at the agony of parting, because I could stay here forever……

The American author Helen Keller who lost her sight at the age of nineteen following a debilitating illness, perhaps summed up the sentiments expressed in these two articles when she wrote “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart…….”





Bernard VanCuylenburg.


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