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THE EARLIEST INSCRIPTIONS
INCE 1883, when Dr. Edward Müller compiled and published for the Ceylon Government the first complete account of the ancient inscriptions then known in the island, much progress in copying others has been made, especially by Mr. H. C. P. Bell, of the Ceylon Civil Service, the present Government Archaeologist, whose excellent and systematic work is of the greatest antiquarian value in preserving complete records of the constructive and epigraphical work of the ancient Sinhalese. There were numberless sites in the jungle where inscriptions have been cut that neither the lamented Dr. Paul Goldschmidt, who was the first to completely overcome the difficulties attending their decipherment,1 nor his successor, Dr. E. Müller, had heard of; and up to the present day many fresh inscriptions continue to be discovered, and doubtless others will be found for many years to come. This is especially the case with those inscribed on rocks lying on the slopes of the less known hills isolated in the depths of the wild jungle, and often at considerable distances from any villages. Even where such sites occur in the immediate neighbourhood of the jungle hamlets it is generally found that little is known of them by the inhabitants, who have no inducement to make a systematic search for ancient remains.
It would be easy to mention many instances of the annoying manner in which comparatively long inscriptions elude observation even when in close proximity to others that are well known. On many rocks one may walk over an inscription without suspecting its presence, until some ray of sunlight illuminating one side of the shallow letters and
1 Translations of some inscriptions had been made by Professor Rhys Davids before that time.
throwing the other into shadow makes the whole stand out in comparative clearness. This fact indicates one of the difficulties of correctly copying the more worn inscriptions. It is often necessary to have light from two different quarters in order to read them; the morning rays to catch one side of some letters, the afternoon rays to display others. It too often happens that the passing archaeologist finds it impossible to devote so much time to the decipherment.
In my own experience an excellent illustration of this difficulty occurred. On two mornings I had examined an inscription (No. 83) cut on the flat top of a rock at a distance of four miles from my temporary station, and had obtained a satisfactory hand-copy of three lines of it; yet though it was evidently incomplete and I had had considerable practice in copying such letters I failed to see any continuation of it. On paying it a third visit one afternoon I found that the light, falling from a different direction, lit up the whole remaining line in such a manner that it could be copied with ease.
A trained eye is also necessary in order to distinguish slight artificial cuts from the natural markings of weather-worn rocks. On one occasion I pointed out to a friend who had accompanied me a very early shallow inscription about five feet from the ground on a weathered vertical face of a large rock, and proceeded to copy it without difficulty; yet my friend assured me that he was unable to distinguish a single word of it. All appeared to him like the natural hollows in the face of the rock.
Dr. E. Müller ascribed the earliest inscription known in Ceylon up to 1883 to either King Duṭṭha-Gāmiņi (161–137 B.C.), or to King Waṭṭa-Gāmiņi (88-76 B.C.); and stated, without giving reasons for his opinion, that the king's title, 'beloved of the Gods,' rather pointed to the latter monarch.1 The date of the first one known at the present day is certainly the third century B.C., and almost contemporary with those of the celebrated Indian emperor Asōka.
It is found at a low rocky hill called Naval Nirāvi Malei,
1 Ancient Inscriptions in Ceylon, p. 25.
and large boulders, a few of which are also on its slopes; the hollows under their sides formed shelters which were improved for the occupation of the monks who took up their residence in them.
There are two other low hills to the south of it, called respectively Tēvāṇḍān Puliyankuļam Malei, and Ērupotāna-kanda, the three being nearly in a line about one and a half miles long. Ērupotāna-kanda is a hill somewhat like Niravi Malei, but bigher, with numerous large boulders on its slopes. The other hill is formed by an immense steep-sided rock, with a high vertical precipice to the east, and a gradual ascent on the north and south-west sides. There are large boulders on its top, which extends in a long north and south line.
On the detached boulders which are scattered about all three hills numerous cave inscriptions are cut, which indicate that this little known part of the island was once the residence of a large community of Buddhist monks. When we seek to learn why such a site should have been selected for cutting what must have been at the time some of the earliest inscriptions in the island, it is found that the explanation seems to lie in the fact that this place was on the line of an early highroad leading from the capital, Anuradhapura, nearly due north-east to the port from which vessels sailed for the eastern coast of India. It is not surprising to find that some of the earliest monasteries were established on this well-known line of communications. The numerous cave shelters and the traditional associations of the Naval Nīrāvi site caused it to be chosen for perhaps the most important of them. At other rocky hills near the same line there are either early inscriptions or other Buddhist remains; while numerous fragments of an early type of pottery and the early coins found at Mulleittivu, on the north-east coast, and described in another chapter, prove that this town also was a pre-Christian settlement.
Of the inscription in question fortunately no less than three copies were cut, each over the entrance of a different rockshelter, or cave, that had been cleared out and prepared for the occupation of the ascetic monks to whose use it was made over. As is seen in other caves that have been used for this