Sunday, October 25, 2015

Pre-colonial Sri Lanka – Singapore Relations

Although most people know Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles as the founder of Singapore, he would not have preferred to see the accolade being bestowed upon him. In contrast, he would have preferred to be known as the one who revived an ancient and vibrant city.

In the early 19th century, the British considered more than one option as a possible site of an outpost at the southern end of the Strait of Malacca. The decision to select Singapore was taken on several grounds, and the romantic image of the revival of an ancient city could have played a role.

Temasik, ancient Singapore, occupies an important place in the history of the Malay people, according to the Malay Annals written somewhere in the 15th century and afterwards. The oldest surviving Malay Annal, now known as Raffles MS 18, was written in 1612. The intention of the Malay Annals was to bolster the popularity of the ruling family. Raffles, who came across the manuscript, must have found its story interesting.

According to the Raffles MS 18, the city of Temasik was found by none other than the legendary Sri Tri Buana, the first great Malay king. The Annals tell of several succeeding rulers after Sri Tri Buana. Accordingly, Singapore was a thriving city throughout the 14th century.

Interestingly, Singapore is one of the prominent cities to have been subjected to considerable archeological excavations. A large quantity of 14th century artifacts, including pottery, beads, ‘mercury jars’ and coins speak of a thriving city, based on trade.

According to Malay Annals, the city is thought to have been attacked by Majapahit in Java or Ayuttaya in Thailand at the end of the 14th century. Thereafter, the city declined, culminating by the early 1600s.
A coin from Leelavati (1197-1200) era

Among a number of artifacts found in Singapore are two Sri Lankan coins, both belonging to the reign of king Buwanekabahu I (1272-84). One coin was found during excavations at Parliamentary House Complex before the new Parliamentary House was constructed in the 1990s. The other was unearthed at the grounds of the St. Andrew’s Cathedral. These copper-alloy coins showed a standing figure on one side and a seated figure on the other. Meanwhile, similar coins belonging to the reigns of queen Leelavati (1197-1200) and king Sahassamalla (1200-02) have been discovered in Sumatra.

While archeologists have discovered more than a hundred Chinese coins from Singapore, the two Sri Lankan coins indicate some interesting facts. It could mean that 14th century Singapore was a sophisticated market where more than one type of money was accepted. Furthermore, along with the findings in Sumatra, it is a clear indication that Sri Lankan coins were accepted as legal tender in South East Asia, including Singapore.

The acceptance of the Sri Lankan coins may have been due to its design. The coins with a standing and seated figures were issued in Sri Lanka from the late Anuradhapura era to the late 13th century and follows the similar design of the coins of Rajaraja Chola. The Chola Empire dominated South Asia and even had a direct role in decimating the once powerful Srivijaya Empire in South East Asia. Therefore, its currency was an internationally accepted currency in this part of the world. The Sri Lankan coins had a similar design and used Sanskrit characters. Therefore, they must have also been internationally accepted.

Discovery of Sri Lankan coins in Singapore does not mean that Sri Lanka had diplomatic relations with the Singapore rulers in the 14th century. The political history of Sri Lanka during most of the 14th century is unclear and the indication is that the central government was weak after the Kurunegala period in the 1320s. However, the coins indicate that the trade links connected the island of Sri Lanka and Singapore during this period.

Singapore declined from the beginning of the 15th century. Other ports including Melaka overtook it in the Malacca Straits. During the early colonial era, the Portuguese had plans of constructing a fort in the island. However, this plan did not materialize and the island remained inconspicuous until Sir Raffles chose to establish a trading post.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Former British Governor's Bungalow Cries For Attention

The ruins of the Doric House at Arippu, built by the British colonial government in the early 1800s, and described by Cordiner in 1807 as the most beautiful building in the island, is facing a serious threat due to the erosion of the coast.

Arippu is a small settlement which lies south of Mannar in the north-western coast line of Sri Lanka. On the plains south of Arippu, rise the ruins of a once majestic British era bungalow. Nearby, there is a cement tower. These are the Doric House and the Doric Tower of Arippu.

The threat posed by erosion was nothing new. This threat was reported for the first time several decades ago. The sea has reached the very walls of the Doric House, causing one side of its walls to collapse. However, nothing was done for years, partly due to the prevailing security situation in the area. Recently, a stone barrier was constructed to protect the building. It covers only a section of the beach and seems to be inadequate.

Protecting the Doric House is important since it was once a landmark in the colonial history of Ceylon. Furthermore, it was a living testament of a bygone era, when pearl fishing was a lucrative business in the area. The Doric House was built as a bungalow for the Governor to reside during his trips to inspect pearl fishing.

It is widely believed that the first Governor of British Ceylon, Frederick North, drew the plan of the building. The foundation was laid on March 18, 1802 and it took two years to complete. It was supposed to be finished by the end of 1802, but several difficulties prolonged the completion of the building. It was reported that transport difficulties and awkwardness of the coolies employed (due to the harsh conditions) slowed down work. Financial difficulties arose in 1803 further delaying the work.

North is thought to have resided in the Doric House during one trip after its completion in 1804. He left the island in 1805. However, the Doric House remained a prominent landmark in the area.

Writing in 1807, Cordiner said that this was ‘the most beautiful building in the island’. He provided a detailed account of this building with a drawing made by him. This drawing shows the Doric columns rising on the front and rear porticos. These cannot be seen today. Cordiner also provided the layout plan of the building. Accordingly, there were four small bed rooms on the ground floor. The building had a terraced roof over the upper floor, which could have been an excellent place to watch the fishery activities on the sea.

“The Doric is distinctly marked on few maps of Ceylon prepared during the 19'h century. It was marked as 'House' on Captain G. Schneider's map in 1813 and as 'Dorick' on the map popularly known as John Davy's map in 1821,” Dhanesh Wisumperuma said in his paper ‘The Doric at Arippu’ published in the Journal of the Royal Association of Sri Lanka, Volume LI, in 2005. The building is marked as ,Doric, on both Major General John Fraser's map of 1962 and Arrowsmith's map of 1957, Wisumperuma also pointed out, concluding that the Doric House was a principle landmark in the 19th century.

The end of pearl fishing and several other changes brought an end to the Doric House’s prominence. The road to Jaffna through Arippu became unimportant following the construction of the road through Kurunegala. The building started the long process of decay.

Despite this, it still evoked a considerable deal of imagination. In 1973, RL Brohier mentions it as a “striking landmark on the plain.” There were other references towards early 1980s as well. The outbreak of the war in 1983 brought the building to oblivion.

However, the relative scarcity of records may have led many into falsely believing that the Doric is actually the Dutch Fort of Arippu. However, this theory is totally unfounded as the fort was located at Arippu further north.

Archeological exploration was restarted in the north following the end of the war in 2009. As an initial step, some archaeological sites were Gazetted by the Archaeological Department, thereby claiming the legal rights over the sites. However, extensive research is yet to be done.

The importance of the Doric House is that it connects to a relatively lesser known industry in ancient Ceylon, that of pearl fishing. At any rate, the Mannar coastline has not been subjected to thorough archaeological research. Therefore, it is important to preserve the known archaeological sites as a first step in exploring the unknown depths of Sri Lanka’s past.