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Sandesaya founder J. V. Fonseka: silent and unsung scholar-patriot

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Founder of BBC’s Sandesaya which made one of the earliest Sinhalese broadcasts possible over British radio and the first Deputy Editor of the Sinhala Encyclopaedia- J.V. Fonseka had no parallels. Yet his contribution to Sri Lanka’s cultural firmament is sadly unsung. Sunday Island revisits the life and work of this gentle giant unknown to many today.

by Randima Attygalle

Prof. G.P. Malalasekera in his testimonial of his exceptionally gifted student J.V. Fonseka who graduated in 1931 from the Ceylon University College, stated: “academically, Mr. Fonseka is one of the best qualified of our graduates because, besides his knowledge of Pali and Sanskrit and allied cultures and civilizations, he has made a very good study of the Western classics and has read widely in many fields of learning.” The Principal of the Ceylon University College (present University of Colombo), Robert Marrs endorsed, “I have personally come into contact with his English which is of an unusually high quality… I can recommend him for a favourable consideration in any capacity in which his knowledge of the Eastern Classical languages and of Sinhalese and English will find a place.”

Marrs went on to say he sincerely hoped that whatever profession Fonseka selects, “he will find opportunities of bringing his language gifts to bear on inter-lingual problems of scholarship and literature.” This, J.V. Fonseka or JV/ JVF or ‘Fons’ as he came to be known among diverse circles, proved true.

Joseph Vincent Fonseka was born in Wewala, Piliyandala on May 29, 1908. He came from a long line of teachers of the Wanniarachchi and Samarakoon families of Kotte. His mother, Martha Alwis Samarakoon, was the headmistress of the Horetuduwa Maha Vidyalaya. His uncle was the well-known educationalist H.S. Perera and his cousin, the composer of the national anthem- Ananda Samarakoon. He entered Prince of Wales College Moratuwa from Horetuduwa Buddhist School, and later Ceylon University College. He passed his Inter-Arts Examination in 1926 in Latin, English, Sinhala and Logic. JV’s association with Kumaratunga Munidasa kindled his interest in Pali and Sanskrit which eventually made him lose interest in Latin and Greek. Having read for his B.A. Hons. Degree in Indo-Aryan Studies, JV won an open exhibition at the Final Examination which enabled him to go to England for his post-graduate studies.

Manel Tampoe writing to The Ceylon Daily News in July, 1979 after his death (on May 30, 1979) notes that ‘he belonged to a very small band of university men who in the 1920s, opted to swim against the tide and specialize in Sinhala and the oriental classics, when the majority devoted their energies to mastering Latin and Greek in addition to English.’ She notes that ‘in Mr. Fonseka’s case the choice was doubly remarkable, because he was very proficient in English from the outset…’

JV’s PhD research in the London University was on the Sinhala verb. His supervisor was Prof. R.L. Turner. Although he subsequently studied law, he never completed his finals. His stay in England extended to 23 years, out of which 15 were spent with the BBC. “My father was told he had got his BBC job on my birthday, March 18, 1942,” recounts his eldest daughter, Manel Fonseka. JV’s work at the BBC began with a bi-weekly newsletter- a commentary in Sinhalese on all aspects of British life and institutions and on matters affecting his home country, Ceylon, as viewed in the British press. Sandesaya which was broadcast over BBCs Eastern Service was founded by him shortly after the country gained Independence.

Prof. K.N.O Dharmadasa in his work on JV under the title- ‘The scholar who shunned the limelight: J.V. Fonseka’ in The Island, May 21, 1993, notes that the weekly broadcast from London was received by Radio Ceylon and relayed here every Tuesday evening. ‘It catered to the interests of the expatriates as well as the home listener. Tastefully selected Sinhala folk music added to the programme while its highlight was the London Liyuma or London Letter’ written and delivered by JVF.’ In JVs’ own words, Sandesaya ‘won a coveted popularity among Sinhalese listeners’. Comprising features, discussions, interviews, answers to listeners’ questions, into London Letter ‘were drawn week after week, Ceylonese of all walks of life from cooks and seamen to professors and prime minister, but more especially university students and teachers. I had thus maintained close and unbroken contact with Ceylon students.’

“My father began to lose his hair quite early and was not happy about it.  He adapted something that Krishna Menon wore. He wore a cap outside and a black beret at home. (JV came to know Krishna Menon when supporting the Indian independence movement). My father used to travel to Bush House where the Overseas Section of the BBC was, by tube to Oxford Circus and walk from there. Every morning he’d cross paths with an Englishman who greeted him with “Salaam alai kum”.  And my father simply responded “Alaikum salaam”. Just that, nothing more.

“The traditionally reserved Englishman was extending a warm hand of respect and friendship. And my father never disabused him, nor did it bother him being taken for a Muslim. Incidentally, there were several Muslim and Tamil law students sharing a house with him in my earliest years, one or two of whom became quite famous here.  Crossette Thambiah was one who became a very close friend,” recollects Manel who goes on to add that her father used to interview many visiting Ceylonese icons such as Dr. Lester James Peries, L.T.P Manjusri, Deva Suriyasena, J.R. Jayewardene and many more. She also recounts that the celebrated artist Manjusri later did five paintings for the Fonseka family. “He also had friends through the BBC such as Paul Robeson, Dylan Thomas and Walter de La Mare.”

J.V. Fonseka, Manel Tampoe documents, ‘possessed the sophistication of outlook that made him acceptable to an institution such as the BBC’. Through his programme Sandesaya, he was ‘instrumental in influencing the style of many programmes of the old Radio Ceylon, by providing a model in such respect as dignified yet pleasantly informal tone and suitable diction and intonation,’ says the writer. JV is also credited for having deposited in London, every Sinhalese song that had been recorded here at home. Many songs which have disappeared forever from the Sri Lankan musical firmament have been preserved in London in the collection JV painstakingly built.

Thevis Guruge, Director General of the SLBC at the time of JV’s demise, who spoke at the funeral, remarked: ‘It was Mr. Fonseka who first conceived and put into practice the way to make a Sinhalese radio programme popular amongst listeners. He also made recordings of Sinhalese folk music and various other media, putting them into BBC archives; in this, he performed a valuable service.” Dr. J. Thilakasiri in a letter to JV in 1950 wrote, ‘having heard your newsletter consecutively for several weeks, I found that your style was easy and natural in contrast to the bombastic tone of the announcers of Radio Ceylon. The Oriental section here is in a mess and the quality of the programmes and talks is poor. So I didn’t hesitate to write to the Head of the Eastern Service (BBC) saying how useful the programme is and mentioning your fine newsletter etc. ending with the suggestion for providing an additional half-hour. A friend of mine- a lecturer in Sinhalese at the Varsity also finds your programme and talks interesting and refreshing in contrast to what we get here.’

In keeping with his “very retiring and self-effacing nature and extremely modest character,” daughter Manel notes, a great deal of her father’s writing was published anonymously. “At some stage he began sending articles, poetry, etc., to the press. In 1955, when we returned to Sri Lanka from England, my father’s close cousin, Ananda Samarakoon, told me that he and his brother Cyril, used to hang on the railings by Lake House on days they were expected to appear! He sometimes used the pen-name, ‘Enoch’. I think that must be an echo of Tennyson’s poem, Enoch Arden.” Her father wit

h ‘such a beautiful voice’ which Manel and her siblings were hardly conscious of as children, gifted to them the love of language. “In our childhood he read French, German and Italian to us. And my sisters remember, even now, some of the poetry of Goethe and Rainer Maria Rilke.”

The coming together of her father and English mother, Lily Margaret Walker, 102 today, is rather extraordinary, says Manel. A blue-eyed blonde Lily was in her Women’s Auxiliary Airforce (WAAF) uniform on a station platform in 1939 when JV first saw her. “My mother was born in 1919 in London, daughter of an army officer. She was the eldest of five children and was taken out of school and set to work to help support four siblings. As the war was on the horizon she joined the WAAF. My father, usually reserved, but perhaps encouraged by the slight defrosting of the English during the tensions of war, was struck by this blonde, blue-eyed, young woman, standing all alone, went up to her and asked her what her uniform was. At the time my father was working at the London Auxiliary Ambulance Service where all students had to register to be available for assistance for air raid precaution.”

When it was learnt in Ceylon that JV would be leaving the BBC, Prof. D.E. Hettiarachchi, Chief Editor of the Sinhala Encyclopaedia immediately canvassed for him to be invited to be the Deputy Editor. Having heard of the paradise of his childhood, Ceylon was a dream for his England-born children. “Both we and he were rudely awakened when we actually came,” recollects Manel. She adds that at first her father rejected the idea of returning home when the invitation came, but her mother who had heard such wonderful things about the country for years, urged him to take it up. “I was devastated at the idea of leaving everything I knew and loved. Plus, we had just seen Elephant Walk and I thought cholera stalked the country. But it was decided. My father wrote and accepted, said when exactly he would be arriving and that he would report to work the next day which he did! And then began a very difficult time for all of us.”

Crowds gathered to welcome JV of Sandesaya fame at the Colombo harbour when he arrived with his family in 1955. As JV’s wife Lily who was fondly called ‘Nikki’ recounted in her communication years later, ‘every relative who could make the journey to Colombo was either on the ship or waiting dockside. Press and Radio were there in force. We were garlanded.’ Among the bevy of relatives was Ananda Samarakoon to greet the family so warmly, says Manel. “My father started work the very next day and my mother and the three children were left with his sister in her house in Kotte which appeared to be a jungle to us at that time! Having been wrenched from everything familiar to us in England, we suffered culture shock for quite a while. The bright side was when the Sinhala Encyclopaedia office was transferred to the glorious Peradeniya campus.”

The Sinhala Encyclopaedia became JVs life. ‘If one were to drop in at the Encyclopaedia office at any time of the day, even during lunch or tea breaks, he was invariably seated at his desk,’ documents Prof. K.N.O. Dharmadasa, recollecting his Peradeniya days in the late 50s and 60s when the Sinhala Encyclopaedia was housed in the back rooms of an old building which had been used by the South Asia Command during the war. ‘JVF joined the Sinhala Encyclopaedia when he was 47-years old. His maturity in age, learning and experience would have enhanced the quality of his contribution to the project.’

Prof. H.L. Seneviratne, an assistant editor at the Encyclopaedia who was supervised by JV, writing to Manel Fonseka notes that JV expected ‘stellar performance’ from all assistant editors who specialized in different fields, but never used any compulsion. ‘He was the gentlest of supervisors, and had profound confidence in his assistant editors He himself was deeply committed to work and cheerfully embraced the task of going through and editing the writings of each and every assistant editor, not to mention the commissioned articles from outside specialists. Personally he was extremely kind to his employees ranging from the assistant editors to minor employees.’

Prof. Seneviratne further notes that the only personal matter he recalls JV mentioning to him, ‘which he did with sadness and a sense of rightly felt injustice,’ was the government’s decision to change the opening line of the national anthem composed by his cousin. Ananda Samarakoon’s death soon after was attributed to this act of the government done for superstitious reasons – Namo namo maatha was changed to Sri Lanka maatha in the belief that the former was ‘inauspicious’. “Knowing my father’s complete lack of superstition, I am certain he was disgusted and probably angry about the changing of the original words,” says Manel.

In 1973, although JV retired as the Deputy Editor at 65, after many extensions, he continued to be an external editor up to his death. In November, 1973, Prof. D.E. Hettiarachchi, Chief Editor, wrote to Dr N.M. Perera, the Minister of Finance, urging a further extension. ‘It is by no means easy to find a substitute for Mr. Fonseka… it is men of Mr. Fonseka’s calibre whom we should have on the editorial staff of an encyclopaedia.’

JV who was responsible for most of the actual work of the Sinhala Encyclopaedia was lauded for his ‘singular devotion’ by many of his colleagues. D. P. Ponnamperuma who had worked under him for many years as Senior Assistant Editor wrote: ‘He was not an administrator of service but an example of service. He cared little for his own rights, higher wages or security of service and we now recall instances when he faced even criticism on account of this…Until he was bed-ridden he carried the Sinhala Encyclopaedia not only in his heart but on his shoulders too.

‘One could say there isn’t a single article in the Sinhala Encylopaedia that had not been vetted by his pen. The loss his death left for the Sinhala Encyclopaedia is irreparable. It must be said that the whole nation is indebted to Mr. Fonseka for the success of this project. Educated Sinhala society should deeply regret its failure to show appreciation and felicitate the services of this silent patriotic scholar during his lifetime and it would be at least some consolation if the name of Mr. J.V Fonseka be immortalized with an honorary award or title even posthumously.’

Sadly, the nation is yet to see this unsung hero celebrated in the manner he truly deserved.

 

(Photo credit: Manel Fonseka)



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Features

Ramadan in Sinhala

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A group of musicians, including Sri Lankans, living in Qatar, have come up with a unique concept – ‘Ya Ramadan’ – an original song, in Sinhala.

This project, I’m told, was initiated by some talented musicians, based in Qatar, in collaboration with a local production house, also based in Qatar – Record on Studio.

According to Rubeena Shabnam, who hails from Sri Lanka, they are the first group of musicians, in Doha, Qatar, to do a Ramadan song, in the Sinhala language.

The song all is about Peace and the beauty of the holy month of Ramadan, says Rubeena.

“It’s team work that enabled all of us to come up with creative ideas in making this type of production.”

Those involved in the vocals of ‘Ya Ramadan’ are Ansaf Ameer, Rubeena Shabnam, Faiz Omar, Reena Singhawansa, Dileepa Liyanage and Angelo Anslem.

Music Arrangements were handled by Dileepa Liyanage, while Ansaf Ameer worked on the lyrics, and Shanaz Shabdeen and Angelo Anslem (DOP).

 

 

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Changing O/L and A/L exam dates: More action essential for best results

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By Prof. R.P. Gunawardane

A decision is reported to have been made to change the dates of the GCE O/L and GCE A/L exams with effect from the year 2023. According to this proposal O/L examination will be held four months early in August instead of December and the A/L examination will be conducted seven months early in January instead of August every year.

This plan if implemented properly with the necessary changes in the university admission process coupled with the streamlining of the university academic year in the university system would considerably reduce the delay in the time required for graduation. It is also necessary to develop a well-organized academic program to keep the O/L students occupied after their exam until the A/L classes begin in January next year.

History

In this context, it is of interest to go into the history of these examinations briefly. GCE O/L examination has always been conducted in the month of December every year without any interruption. However, there were number of changes to the period of GCE A/L examination. The GCE A/L examination was held during the month of December until 1970. During this period practical examination for those offering science subjects (Physics, Chemistry, Botany, Zoology) was held in April the following year. These practical examinations were held in the Universities of Colombo and Peradeniya at the time.

In 1972, the GCE A/L examination was shifted to the month of April mainly because of the disruption of education due to the insurgency occurred in 1971. This examination was held in April until the year 1977. During this period yet another significant development took place. Practical examination for the science subjects at A/L was abolished deviating from accepted international practices.

Until the year 1977 it was possible to admit the students who qualified for admission to universities in October the same year. At that time the universities had a regular academic year beginning October and ending in July making the transition from secondary education to tertiary/university education smooth. As a result, the students at the time did not waste much time awaiting admission to the universities. In 1978 the GCE A/L exam was shifted to August for unknown reasons making students to wait more than a year to enter the universities. From 1978 the GCE A/L examination was held regularly in August every year until 2001.

During 2000-2001 period extensive discussions were held in the Ministry of Education and Higher Education and the National Education Commission to review the exam time tables in order to reduce the waiting time for students. After careful consideration of all the issues involved it was decided to conduct the GCE A/L Examination in April with effect from the year 2002.

With the implementation of this scheme the backlog of admissions was also cleared by admitting two batches in the same year. After implementation of this plan the GCE A/L exam was conducted in April every year until the year 2007 making it possible to admit students to universities in the same year. Then supposedly due to administrative reasons this exam was shifted back again to August in 2008, and it is continuing up to date.

Issues

When A/L examination is held in August, it is not possible to begin A/L classes for the fresh students who sat GCE O/L exam in December until September the following year. The class rooms and teachers would be available for the new students only in September. As a result, those who sat O/L examination in December wait for nearly 9 months wasting valuable time in their prime years. Similarly, after A/L examination in August the students have to wait till September or October the following year for admission to Universities under normal circumstances. This state of affairs can be further aggravated in situations where there is a backlog of students waiting to enter different faculties of the universities.

In these circumstances, those students who were fortunate enough to be selected to the universities had to wait periods up to 2 years at home wasting their valuable time. As explained earlier time lag occurs in several stages – after O/L examination, after A/L examination and also due to delays in admission to individual universities. In addition, due to strikes and other disruptions in different universities/ faculties further delays are encountered.

Fixed Academic year for universities

A disturbing feature currently prevailing in the University System is that different universities adopt different academic years/semesters due to various reasons. What is worst is that in the same university different faculties are adopting different academic years resulting in a chaotic situation. It is worth noting that no other country in the world has such a disorder in the university system. An internationally accepted fixed academic year (September/October to June/July) is being practiced in all the countries in the world. Thus, this situation has to be corrected by synchronizing the academic years in all the faculties and the universities in our university system in order to obtain the best benefits from the proposed changes in the national examinations.

It must be stressed that changes in examination dates alone will not solve the issue of long delay in graduation. Simultaneously, the academic year of the universities also should be fixed. Once it is fixed it should not be changed under any circumstance except in a national calamity like the Covid-19 pandemic. Even in such a situation the necessary adjustment should be temporary and restricted to that particular year only.

Thus, the university academic year should be fixed like in all the other countries from September to June (9 -10 months) beginning 2022. Like our school academic year (January-December) this should not be changed under any circumstance. If there are disruptions due to strikes etc. course material should be displayed on line, alternative arrangements should be made for practical/clinical training and the exams should be held as scheduled. This is very essential to get the new batch admitted on time.

In order to implement this program, the examination department and the University Grants Commission have a prominent role to play. The results of both O/L and A/L examinations should be released as early as possible within two months. The admission process should be streamlined to complete the selection process expeditiously by getting the universities also involved in the selection process.

It is a national crime to waste years of precious time of our young generation. Thus, it is absolutely essential to implement an action plan to reduce the waiting time of students at the GCE A/L stage, the university admission level and in the undergraduate program. This will facilitate the smooth running of the higher education system in Sri Lanka.

 

Status of medical education

Related to the same issue, it has been highlighted recently that medical graduates spend a very long period to become consultants due to long delays at various stages of their training program in addition to the delays encountered in the university admission process.

Due to the current status in higher education those who study medicine would be wasting about 5-6 years of their prime time between their O/L exam and the beginning of the internship in the medical career. Even after that they have a long way ahead to become medical consultants.

There is a waiting period before the placement for internship appointment. Then, there will be another waiting period for post internship appointment followed by exams by the PGIM and foreign training. Foreign training component has to be organized by the trainees themselves and there is no formal help or methodology. Even after going through the foreign training program, they may still have to wait for a considerable period of time for their consultant appointments. By that time, he or she will be past 40 years having less than 20 years left to serve the nation as a medical consultant. At this stage this person has spent almost 35 years of continuous school education, university education and professional training. This is rather a pathetic situation prevailing in Sri Lanka today.

In most of the other countries such delays do not exist. For example, in USA most students enter universities when they reach about 17 years. In USA, most professional programs are conducted at graduate level. For instance, medicine, dentistry, veterinary science and even education are conducted as postgraduate courses. In the case of medicine, you need to follow an undergraduate program which includes pre-medical requirements prior to admission to medical school. Then, they should pass MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) to apply for a medical school. Total period of the first degree and MD program is 8 years. Thus, they will be about 25 years when they complete MD. Their internship is combined with specialized training to become consultants. This training lasts for 3-5 years depending on the specialty, except in highly specialized fields such as cardiac surgery, neuro surgery, plastic surgery etc. which may take 6-10 years. For example, one can become a consultant physician at the age of 28 years and a consultant dermatologist at the age of 29 yrs. The situation is similar regarding the average ages of the medical professionals in most of the other developed countries and even in some developing countries. This means that Sri Lankan medical graduate spends over one decade more than an average medical professional in any other country to become a medical consultant!

In most countries students apply for admission to universities in their final year in the high school and similarly, medical students apply for internship and specialization programs in their final year in the medical school. They start the combined internship and specialization program immediately after graduation. They have a highly organized and coordinated systems with a fixed calendar to administer these activities annually.

All the delays encountered by the medical trainees are avoidable if suitable action is taken by the Ministry of Education, the UGC, universities and the Ministry of Health in a highly coordinated manner. Since medical students are graduating at different times in different medical schools at present due to variable academic years, it is extremely difficult for the Ministry of Health to find placements immediately.

It is a national crime to waste many productive years and precious time of our talented young generation due to inaction of our authorities. Thus, it is absolutely essential to implement an action plan to reduce this time lag to a minimum without any further delay. A dedicated and a highly coordinated effort is needed in this direction with the active participation of the higher officials of the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Health and the UGC. Furthermore, it is essential that all the medical faculties have the same fixed academic year immediately so that internship appointments can be streamlined and expedited.

We have seen the rapid increase of waiting period and the delay at the different stages of medical training during the last several decades. It has now become a very serious issue affecting our young generation and the whole nation. Many generations of our highly talented young medical students have gone through this painful process without much protest.

Thus, it is high time for the civil society activists and particularly trade unions like GMOA and FUTA to take this matter up with the authorities and see that appropriate action is taken by the relevant authorities without any further delay.

(The author is a Professor Emeritus, University of Peradeniya, formerly Secretary, Ministry of Education and Higher Education and Chairman, National Education Commission, Sri Lanka)

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Buddhism spread wider, longer and more influentialthan previously thought

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New excavations across Asia suggest…

BY S VENKAT NARAYAN
Our Special Correspondent

NEW DELHI, May 17: New excavations across Asia suggest that Buddhism had spread wider, lasted longer and was more influential than anyone thought till now.

Across Asia, geography is changing history. A slew of excavations and chance discoveries shows that the history of Buddhism, the belief system that flourished from 600 BCE until a decline in the 13th century CE, still contains many surprises.

Newly unearthed sites in Uzbekistan in Central Asia are evidence that it spread farther than previously thought. Stupas and sculptures dating back 2,000 years show that it flowed into new territories earlier. And magnificent monastery complexes are proof that the Buddhist institutions exerted greater influence over commerce, urban development, economic systems and everyday life than previously thought.

Emerging from the digs are stone structures, coin caches, copper plates, mantras punched on gold foil, inscriptions on palm leaf and ivory, colourful murals, and scriptures in at least 20 languages. How did Buddhism, which preached a renouncement of the material world, leave behind such a staggering wealth of physical evidence? KTS Sarao, former head of Buddhist Studies at the University of Delhi, says that a mingling of the sacred and non-sacred was inevitable.

“Monks spreading the Buddha’s teachings would travel along the Silk Road with merchant groups for safety; merchants, in turn, relied on them for spiritual support on these risky journeys,” Sarao told the Hindustan Times. Over time, shrines sprouted at rest stops, becoming a constant in an uncertain landscape. “They grew to include storehouses, factories, banks, and guesthouses, allowing monks to benefit not only from royal patronage but from local commerce, too.”

In Bihar, where the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment, efforts are on to unearth an administrative centre that until now only existed in texts. A monastery headed by a woman has been found there. And in Odisha, evidence of an unusual meditation complex open to both monks and nuns has emerged. In Afghanistan, monasteries located alongside copper mines reveal how rich monks wielded clout over the region.

Clearly, archaeology is recreating parts of the story that aren’t found in the scriptures. Because of the Buddha’s renunciation of material possessions and the self — he told followers he shouldn’t be the focus of their faith — there are key questions that are still unanswered.

Researchers are hoping to confirm whether Kapilavastu, the Buddha’s childhood home, corresponds to the town in Nepal or one of the same name, not far away, in Uttar Pradesh in north India. They’re tracking how his teachings travelled clockwise out of central India, spreading through north-west Asia and then to China and further east over a thousand years.

Says Sarao: “Sri Lanka, Thailand and Myanmar have done admirable jobs of preserving Buddhist monuments.” In India, however, unmarked Buddhist sites are often mistaken for Hindu temples by locals. Idols of Buddha are worshipped as Shiva, Ashokan pillars are taken for lingams. “We should work together to preserve the Buddha’s legacy,” says Sarao. “His teachings are more relevant today than ever.”

Across the arid Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which encompasses much of the north and northwest of Pakistan, lie some 150 Buddhist heritage sites. The area was a major centre for early Buddhist development under Emperor Ashoka’s reign 2,300 years ago.

Italian archaeologists were investigating the province’s northern Swat region as far back as 1930. But digs were abandoned before discoveries could be made. Local teams, back at the site last year, were luckier. They discovered a monastery and education complex, the largest found in the region, and believed to be between 1,900 and 2,000 years old.

Discovered thus far are stupas, viharas, a school and meditation halls, along with smaller cells higher in the mountains where monks could retreat into isolation. Also unearthed were a coin, helping date the site to the Kushan empire (30 CE – 375 CE), which spread across modern-day Afghanistan, Pakistan and northern India and was instrumental in spreading Buddhist teachings. The bonanza: rare frescoes depicting figures in various poses, including the namaskar.

It’s been 20 years since the Taliban destroyed the Buddha colossi in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. They still couldn’t erase signs of Buddhism, which had a large following here until the 11th century. Cave networks, paintings and statuary have been found at six major sites.

In 2008, when the Chinese bought over the world’s second-biggest unexploited copper mine in Mes Aynak, the site of an ancient Buddhist settlement, archaeologists raced to document and salvage the 2,600-year-old monastery that stands there, before it was lost forever. Mes Aynak was a spiritual hub along the Silk Road from the third to eighth centuries CE, a peaceful cosmopolitan pitstop run by monks who’d become rich from the copper ore.

Researchers unearthed monastery complexes, watchtowers, walled zones, jewellery hoards, manuscripts and close to a hundred stupas. One statue of the Buddha, twice as tall as a human, still bore traces of red, blue and orange on the robes. Several copper coins featured an image of the Kushan emperor Kanishka on one side, and the Buddha on the other.

As a result of Afghanistan’s poor infrastructure, mining work has stalled. Archaeologists couldn’t be happier. Their initial three-year deadline for digs has stretched to nearly 13 years already, becoming the most ambitious excavation project in Afghanistan’s history.

In 2016, when a mural was discovered in Termez in southern Uzbekistan, near today’s border with Afghanistan, few were surprised. Uzbekistan was, after all, once part of the Kushan Empire. Its residents were intermediaries as goods flowed west to Rome and east to China.

But the mural was unusual. It was discovered in a stone basement adjoining a pagoda and looked to have been made in the second or third century CE.

Despite its age, its figures in blue and red were remarkably vivid, blending influences from East and West, its angled face shaded to mimic depth. It seemed to be part of a lost larger painting about the life of the Buddha. Researchers drew parallels with murals in Dunhuang, China, an eastern junction on the Silk Road. It was proof that the route didn’t just transfer things, it let art, religion and ideas flow in both directions, too.

The Buddha disapproved of the idea of devotees focusing on him, and so little about him and his life is known. Followers believe that his mother Maya Devi, en route to her parents’, went into labour and gave birth to him (grasping the branch of a sal tree) in the Lumbini garden in present-day Nepal. We know that Emperor Ashoka built the first Buddhist structure there: a pillar inscribed with his own name, the story of the Buddha’s birth, and a date corresponding to the third century BCE.

That spot is now a UNESCO world heritage site. But in 2013, when British archaeologist Robin Coningham excavated inside the third century BCE Maya Devi temple that also stands there, he found that the site (and Ashoka’s story) went deeper. Beneath the temple his team found a roofless wooden space, with signs of ancient tree roots over which a brick temple had once been built. Charcoal and sand fragments were carbon-dated and found to be from 550 BCE, around the time the Buddha is said to have lived. If this was a Buddhist shrine, the timing would make it the first one ever built.

Indian archaeologists are sceptical, though. “Tree shrines have been part of Hindu worship much earlier than the time of the Buddha,” says KTS Sarao, former head of Buddhist Studies at the University of Delhi and a former classmate of Coningham at Cambridge. “It’s not unusual for temples to be renovated and there’s no proof connecting it to the Buddha.”

He adds a further blow: The Government of India does not permit foreign archaeologists to dig here. So, some scholars may exaggerate foreign findings to make them sound as important as the sites they can’t access, he says.

Meanwhile, work continues in Nepal. Coningham’s excavations in the Tilaurakot region, where the Buddha was believed to have lived as Prince Siddhartha, have unearthed the remains of an 1,800-year-old palace complex and walled city. There are courtyards, a central pond and stupas. But still no concrete connection to the Buddha.

When a storm tore through the village of Dalijhara Dhibi in south-western Bangladesh in 1988, it uprooted rows of trees in a mango orchard. The owners decided to plant banana instead, but found they couldn’t. Under the soil was a thick layer of brick. Thirty years later, they tried to plant mango again, and that’s when they decided to examine the bricks more closely. They unearthed a brick structure. The regional archaeological department was brought in.

Three months of excavation later, the orchard yielded an unusual harvest: a 1,200-year-old Buddhist monastic complex. Last year, continuing digs unearthed two temples and courtyards, and 18 residential cells. Fragments of ornamented bricks, terracotta plaques and clay pots show engravings of lotus flowers and geometric shapes.

There are other sites of note in the country. In Nateshwar in central Bangladesh, a 1,000-year-old temple was excavated in 2015. Researchers say the revered teacher and saint Atish Dipankar probably spent time there before his travels to Tibet and China. His life, like the Buddha’s, left no known material evidence. Perhaps that’s changing.

China is hardly short on historic treasures. Local traditions say that the first Buddhist temple there was established in 68 CE. The 339 Kizil cave temples in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region were built between the third and eighth centuries CE and are the oldest in China. They hold two kilometres of narrative murals, calligraphy and painted clay statues that borrow styles from across Asia.

And despite political efforts to minimise it, Buddhist history keeps popping up. Reservoir renovation work reveals a 600-year-old idol of the Buddha; ancient statues are discovered, built into what are now the bedrock foundations of residential buildings; buried boxes in villages are found to contain cremated remains of scholars and monks. And these are just the biggest finds across mainland China from the last five years.

This year, researchers found that the artwork in Dunhuang’s famous caves isn’t 500 years old as believed but at least 700 years old, and it has an Indian connection. Text on an image from Cave 465 was found to be mistakenly pasted backwards.

Researchers flipped it digitally. It turned out to be Sanskrit.

Priests overseeing the renovation of a temple in the Shiga prefecture, north-east of Kyoto in Japan, found history hiding in plain sight last year. Two old pillars bore blurred, sooty images. Infra-red photography revealed images of eight Buddhist saints. Each pillar bears the images of four Bodhisattvas — monks who delay enlightenment to help others find salvation. The photographs indicate they were once painted in bright blue, green and vermilion. Researchers believe these could date to the Asuka period, which lasted from 538 CE to 794 CE, putting them possibly among the oldest known Buddhist paintings in Japan.

In Hazaribagh, 110 km from Jharkhand capital Ranchi, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) identified three mounds last year as having possible links to Buddhism. One yielded a 900-year-old shrine and two subsidiary structures, two metres below ground level. In January this year, digging into the second mound revealed another shrine and monks’ cells. The site’s six sandstone sculptures depicted a seated Buddha and five likenesses of Tara, depicted as the female Buddha in the tantric-influenced Vajrayana Buddhism.

Historians believe the area may have been a religious hub, a stop between Sarnath in Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Bodh Gaya in Bihar. But site security is a problem. Two of the Buddha sculptures were stolen, and recovered by the police only a week later.

In the past decade, archaeologists have unearthed a nunnery (India’s first record of a shelter for women monks) and metal workshops in the village of Vadnagar in Gujarat; a massive 23-chamber monastery and a cache of artefacts on the banks of Sharmishtha Lake; and a stupa, capped with burnt bricks and a chipped-stone entryway, at Taranga Hill.

Last year, Vadnagar discovered that its roots ran deeper. Excavations near a grain godown revealed a well-preserved semi-circular structure resembling a chaitya or prayer hall, and two stupas. All were built or repaired between the second and seventh centuries CE – meaning that Hiuen Tsang, who mentioned 10 monasteries in Anandpura (the town’s old name), may have been right after all.

Archaeologists digging at Phangiri in Suryapet in Telangana in 2019 knew the area was once a bustling Buddhist site. What they didn’t know was that they’d unearth the biggest stucco statue in India there. The life-size Bodhisattva, made from a brick base and covered with sand, lime and other materials, stands alongside stupas, meditation cells, prayer halls, and sculptural panels with Brahmi inscriptions, that date from the first century BCE to the third century CE. Later explorations have yielded coin caches, beads, iron objects and storage jars. The finds indicate that the complexes supported commerce and religion.

Buddhism’s heartland made news this January, when digs at the administrative centre of Lakhisarai yielded the region’s first hilltop monastery and more evidence that the lost city of Krimila lay underneath. Clay seals from the eighth or ninth century CE bore inscriptions pointing to a Mahayana monks’ council, but shows, startlingly, that the vihara might have had a significant population of women, too. The script on a previously unearthed sculpture indicates the monastery may have been headed by a nun, Vijayshree Bhadra.

There are plans to dig at 60 more sites in Lakhisarai. In Telhara, 100 km to the west, the remains of a university older than the fourth century CE Nalanda in Bihar have been unearthed. One terracotta seal shows a chakra flanked by two deer and the university’s name. The government plans to open a museum there soon.

Workers building the Purvanchal Expressway in Mau district last year found a pocket of history along the way: a stone Buddha head, a hoard of coins, terracotta pieces and bricks that hadn’t seen the light of day since at least the 12th century CE.

The cache adds to the abundant evidence of the state’s Buddhist heritage. Scriptures mention the Buddha spending time in cities such as Sravasti and Saaketa. British archaeologist Alexander Cunningham’s surveys in the 1860s and 1890s, and AK Narayanan’s in the 1960s, corroborate the claims.

The writings of Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang, who visited between 629 and 645 AD, record 3,000 monks and 100 monasteries in Ayodhya alone. Land-levelling work for the Ram temple in Ayodhya has revealed artefacts on-site too. Indian Buddhist groups have been petitioning the government to allocate a site for a vihara in Ayodhya, too.

In Andhra Pradesh, the Thotlakonda, Bavikonda and Pavuralakonda complexes, discovered in the 1970s, have offered proof that the region was a hub of commerce and learning. More than 8,000 artefacts and antiquities have been found here in the last three years. In Guntur, 350 km to the south, locals found a polished cup, terracotta roof tiles and a broken parasol from the first century BCE. In the coastal town of Ghantasala, Buddhist-era remains have emerged from fields and school backyards. Locals say there’s enough to fill a small museum.

Buddhism was the state religion when the Bhaumakara kings ruled Odisha between the eighth and 10th centuries CE. Many believe that this was the home of the Buddha’s first disciples. But a surprise emerged in 2018 in Angul district, 120 km from state capital Bhubaneswar. Archaeologists found a monastery dating from the Shunga-Kushan reign between 150 BCE and the first century CE. Bits of brick, sculptures, stupas and a sandstone pillar were found. The site is likely the monastery that is referenced in a copper plate found in the 19th century. The inscriptions mention a space for 200 devotees and habitation for monks and nuns.

Modern monasteries dot the state. The ruins of a Kushan-era temple and meeting hall at Harwan, on the outskirts of Jammu and Kashmir’s capital Srinagar, were discovered in the 1920s and lay forgotten. But in 2000, in Ambaran on the banks of the Chenab, archaeologists unearthed an even older Buddhist stupa. The site’s haul, dating from the first century BCE to the fourth-fifth century CE, included monastery walls, decorative idols and ornaments. One casket at the base of the stupa contained ashes, charred bone, coins and part of a tooth believed to be from a saint.

Researchers concluded that the site may have been a transit camp for monks and pilgrims, and a spot from which the Buddha’s teachings were disseminated to local communities. It is believed to have been abandoned in the seventh century CE, after flash floods and the decline of Buddhism in the region.

In 2009, researchers cleaning the site discovered the stupa’s foundation featured fire-baked bricks, designed as eight spokes, much like the ones in Punjab and Andhra Pradesh — another indicator that it might have been built in the Kushan period.

But there has been no further excavation since.

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