Connect with us

Features

WHEN ANCIENT BUDDHISTS SAILED WEST

Published

on

Bhante Dhammika of Australia

One of the most isolated and little-known places in the world is the island of Socotra. Dry, barren and with only a small population, it sits some 380 kilometres off the southern edge of the Arabian Peninsula and the eastern tip of Somalia and is now administered at part of Yemen. Although on one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes it has no port facilities and gets almost no visitors. Nonetheless, it has recently become one of the most important and unexpected archaeological sites for those interested in Indian and particularly Indian Buddhist history.

In the year 2000 a group of Belgian speleologist (Speleology is the study of caves) visited a large cave on Socotra known by the locals as Hoq and made a series of remarkable discoveries. The cave itself is on the northern coast of the island facing out to sea and not only has a wide opening but is more than two kilometer deep and in parts 35 meters high. On the walls of the passage leading to the back of the cave, the cavers discovered to their astonishment a large number of very ancient drawings, inscriptions and graffiti. Careful study of this material since then has shown that the majority of these were made by ancient Indian merchants travelling to and from the Red Sea and beyond. It has long been known that in ancient times merchants travelling from Indian ports such as Sopara, Kalyana and Chaul to the Middle East and further on to Egypt and even sometimes to Rome, passed by and often stopped at Socotra but this is the earliest material evidence of such travelers.

A look at a map will show that the direct and quickest route from ports on the India’s west coast across the Arabian Sea to the mouth of the Red Sea (i.e. Aden) would pass by Socotra. The drawings graffiti and inscriptions in the cave were made with material the visitors would have picked up on the spot – clay, mud and charcoal, probably from torches they carried. So far, 193 inscriptions have been found, one is in Khroasthi and the rest are in various forms of Brahmi and date from the 1st to the 5th centuries CE. Judging from the style (paleography) of the Brahmi scripts used, it would seem that those who wrote them came mainly from Gujarat and the western Deccan. Several of the writers describe themselves as “of Bharukaccha” meaning that they were from the town now called Bharuch which was a port often mentioned in the Jataka. For example, according to the Supparaka Jataka (No. 463) the Bodhisattva was once born into a merchant family from the town.

Many of the visitors to the Hoq Cave also identify themselves as ‘navika’ and ‘naryamaka’ both maritime titles. But perhaps the most interesting thing about the drawings, inscriptions and graffiti is how many of them were written and drawn by Buddhists. This is clear from some of the names mentioned – Buddhanandin, Saṃghadāsa son of Jayasena from Hastakavapra, Saṃghanandin, Buddhasakya and Dharma. Amongst the patronyms are Buddhamitra father of Bhaṭṭikumara, Dharma father of Halla and Saṃgharangin father of Ajitivarman The name Asoka occurs twice, once as the writer’s name and once as a father’s name. Having the name Asoka is not clear proof of a Buddhist background but it is likely.

A second group of inscriptions do not include specific Buddhist names but make direct reference to the religion. Someone named Rahavasu wrote: “For the Lord, the Great Sage” (Bhagavato mahamuṇi), a phrase that would be familiar to some Buddhists even today. Another inscription written by the same Rahavasu reads: “Lord Gotama the Lion.” Perhaps the most remarkable records left by these Buddhist travelers are two drawings of stupas made in the sand on the floor of the cave. Despite being made over 1500 years ago the images are still clear, unaffected by time and the footprints of later visitors to the cave. Beside one stupa is the name of the man who made it, Isaradasa, which is a distinctly Hindu name. It is possible that he worshiped both the Buddha and Siva or that he was a convert to Buddhism. It would seem likely that the stupas were made in order to be the focus of a puja.

Two other inscriptions in the cave deserve special notice because they may have been made by monks. Of five inscriptions made by an individual named Dhruva, one of them includes the words ‘srama[ṇa]sya ma.….’ The end of this inscription cannot be read and the meaning of the part that can be is obscure. But of course ‘samana’ is an alternative word for bhikkhu, i.e. a monk. The second inscription is also obscure but less so. With some reservations it could read “The Saka monk has come here” (sakasramaṇo āga[to]). Saka was the name given to the Indo-Scythian people who migrated into India from the 2nd BCE century onwards. However, it is also possible that Saka could be a version of Sakya and of course Buddhist monks and nuns were commonly called Sakyans, i.e. sons of the Sakyan (Sakyaputta), i.e. the Buddha. Evidence from India dating from the Vinaya onwards tells us that Buddhist monks often linked up with merchants’ caravans and travelled with them. It is possible that these two inscriptions are evidence of monks travelling with seafaring merchants to lands far beyond India.

Many questions about the Buddhist visitors to the Hoq Cave remain to be answered. Did they just make short trips to the cave or did they reside there for extended periods, perhaps waiting for the monsoon winds to carry them on their way? Why did they leave the things they wrote or drew in the cave’s deep, utterly dark interior rather than in the wide and airy opening? It will take scholars years to write the full story of the cave and its visitors.

In his edict of the year 256 BCE King Asoka mentioned the Buddhist missions he had dispatched to Syria, Egypt, Macedonia, Cyrene (modern Libya) and Epirus (modern western Greece). However, it is not known if these monks ever reached their destinations – the project may have been abandoned half way through or met with disaster. And there is no records from the lands they were sent to of their arrival and no evidence of any impact they may have had. In popular writing and internet sites it is often claimed that there was a Buddhist monastery in Alexander, the great cosmopolitan city in Egypt. There is however, no evidence either literary, epigraphical or archaeological of this. It is known that Indians settled in places such as Myos Hormos and Berenike on the Red Sea coast but no archaeological evidence of their presence has so far been found and of the several Indian inscriptions found on the coast none mention Buddhism.

The first explicit evidence we have of a Western knowledge of Buddhism is comments made by the Christian theologian Clement of Alexandria, who lived in the late second or early third century CE. Did he have direct contact with Buddhists or people who had direct contact with them? Did he come to know of Buddhism from second-hand information he heard from travelling merchants or diplomats? The truth is that we simply do not know. It is not even certain that the two inscriptions from the Hoq Cave that include the word ‘samana’ refer to monks, and even if they do this would not prove that the monks got to as far as Egypt. Nonetheless, the recent discoveries from Socotra do prove that Buddhists played an important part in the movement of goods and possibly ideas from east to west in ancient times.



Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Features

Sinharaja world heritage

Published

on

Conservation Outlook Assessment: Significant Concern

By Professor Emeritus Nimal Gunatilleke

Continued from Yesterday

 

Water diverted from Ampanagala reservoir to Muruthawela will be used to meet the irrigation deficit of Muruthawela and Kirama Oya systems and the balance will be transferred to Chandrika Wewa, through existing LB canal of Muruthawela scheme up to 13.8 km and a new canal of 17.0 km. After that, the water requirement of Hambantota harbour is to be transferred to Ridiyagama tank through the Walawe river and Liyangasthota anicuit. However, due to the extreme length of the diversion through the three-river basins of Nilwala, Kirama Ara and Urubokka Oya, it will lead to a massive conveyance losses of the diverted water while on the way to the Walawe basin. Furthermore, enormous costs associated with its construction, a failure to fully realise the intended outcomes due to a shortage of water budget will simply be a burden that Sri Lanka cannot afford with her current economic condition, according to Eng. Prema Hettiarachchi. It may be worth recording that the water ingress into the grouted tunnel of the Uma Oya near Ella has still not been fully repaired, even though the Uma Oya project is nearing completion. An expensive lesson to be learnt on the nature of the weathered geological structure, lineaments and implementing its unexpected and costly mitigatory measures which will eventually to be paid back by this and future generations of tax payers of this country.

According to the Irrigation Department web site postings, Mahaweli Consultancy Bureau has initiated the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA), but due to the unavailability of concurrence of the Forest Department, revised TOR has not been issued by the CEA. Therefore, due to the unavailability of updated TOR, the EIA study has been delayed.

Environmentally, the most contentious issue highlighted in the news media is the proposed construction of a RCC dam at Madugeta to build a reservoir for which around 79 ha of forested (and some agricultural) lands in Sinharaja and a portion of prisine riverine forest in Dellawa would be inundated. On the Sinharaja side of the proposed Madugeta reservoir (right abutment) at present there are home gardens and small-scale tea plantations in addition to good riverine forests. In contrast however, proportionately a larger area of luxuriant forest of Dellawa, which is a part of the new ‘Sinharaja Rain Forest Complex’ would go under the chain saw for this reservoir construction (left abutment). The Geo-engineering report of May 2019 on GNDP has revised the siting of the dam to a more favourable location with supposedly reduced impacts but they forewarn that the three core-drilling along the proposed dam axis that had to be temporarily abandoned due to protests made by the villagers, need to be completed to confirm the geological suitability for the dam site.

 

Are there any Environment-Friendly Alternative Options?

As an alternative site for a dam on Gin Ganga, Eng. Nandasoma Atukorale (Specialist Engineer [Hydropower]) has proposed a location at the confluence of Mahadola with Gin Ganga at the village of Mederipitiya, way back in 2006. According to him, the riverbed at this site is 261 masl and have a catchment area of 132 km2. He proposes the construction of a 35 m high concrete gravity type dam that would form a reservoir with a storage capacity of 65 million cu.m and a potential discharge of 320 million cu.m of water annually which could divert 293 million cu. m of water to the SE Dry Zone. Most importantly, this region passes through a relatively narrow section of the river which is ideally suited for a dam according to him. However, geological suitability and socio-economic impacts of local communities need to be investigated, beforehand.

Quite interestingly, Eng. Athukorale claims that ‘although it is not economically very attractive, another 200 million cu.m of water could be diverted to the Nilwala basin by constructing a dam across Gin Ganga at the downstream of the confluence with Dellawa Dola at the village of Madugeta, with an 8000 m long tunnel which could be considered at a later stage provided further water shortages are experienced in the area’.

 

Now that the proposed Madugeta reservoir is receiving heavy criticisms from the environmental front, wonder whether Mederipitiya option proposed by Eng. Athukorale could be revisited for the diversion of Gin-Nilwala river water to the SE Dry Zone.

In a research paper titled ‘Comparison of Alternative Proposals for Domestic and Industrial Water Supply for Hambantota Industrial Development Zone’ Eng. Prema Hettiarachchi makes a comparison among three irrigation projects Kukule Ganga, Gin-Nilwala and Wey Ganga to convey water from the SW wet zone to SE dry zone.

She proposes yet another option that is probably still on the drawing boards to be considered which is the Wey Ganga diversion in Ratnapura District. According to her, this could meet the industrial and drinking water requirement (154 MCM + drinking water) of Hambantota metropolitan area at a significantly lower cost and with less damage to the environment. Further, there is a possibility of augmenting this scheme by diverting a part of Kalu Ganga catchment at a later stage.

Eng. Hettiarachchi further states that ‘by comparing the workload, it could be estimated to be nearly one third that of the Gin-Nilwala diversion. The Wey Ganga diversion can be carried out at a significantly lower cost by local agencies. That can also address the water scarcity of Hambantota metropolitan area including the requirements of international harbour and proposed industrial development zone with the relatively less environmental damage which is a major issue with respect to large scale projects. Construction period will also be less since the workload is less and can be carried out by the local agencies’.

What I have strived to show with this detailed irrigation engineering information available on public domain in the form of research publications, is that the Madugeta reservoir option is not the only one available for taking water from the wet zone rivers to the SE Dry Zone which is indeed a legitimate requirement for agricultural and industrial development of that region.

Pre-feasibility studies have been conducted on these options since 1968 and a considerable wealth of technical information is already available with the Irrigation Department. Apparently, according to knowledgeable irrigation engineers, there are more environmentally friendly, and cost-effective options with greater assurance of water conveyance to the SE Dry Zone available for consideration. It is often the case that during pre-feasibility studies of these large engineering projects, environmental concerns are given the least priority. Steady supply of water during extreme drought events which are becoming more frequent depends very much on the nature of the vegetation cover of the watershed area. These environmental aspects need to be critically evaluated before such costly projects are designed. As an example, although, the major engineering work of the Uma Oya project has been almost completed, its cost-effectiveness is yet to be seen with a denuded watershed, a potential of heavy soil erosion on top of the unexpected heavy expenditure on tunnel boring and other engineering works.

Biologically speaking, the Dellawa Forest Reserve is an integral part of Sinharaja Rain Forest Complex representing the pristine climax forest vegetation of SE wet lowlands and provide a vital connectivity link to adjoining Diyadawa forest of equal significance via the remains of Dombagoda forest. Therefore, clearing a riverine strip of this forest for the construction of Madugeta Reservoir would lead to an irreparable and irreplaceable damage to its characteristic riverine/flood plain forest vegetation.

On the other hand, pledging a reforestation initiative of a much larger area with Hevea rubber as a compensatory measure proposed by the political administration is totally unacceptable. Preserving intact forests in protected areas has no substitutes or replacements. Furthermore, the Natural Heritage Wilderness Area act and the binding articles of the UNESCO Convention on Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage to which Sri Lanka is a signatory, clearly state that causing direct or indirect damage to a natural heritage is legally not permissible.

In summary, the Sinharaja World Heritage Site is already in a state whose biological values are threatened and/or are showing signs of deterioration and significant additional conservation measures have been recommended to restore these values over the medium and long term. Adding more threats like the construction of reservoirs inside protected areas at this stage would inevitably downgrade the values further to a ‘critical conservation outlook’ which is not what the citizenry of Sri Lanka and the world at large would acknowledge as ‘sustainable development’.

The author of this article is a member of the National Sustainable Development Council of Sri Lanka and he thanks Dr Jagath Gunathilaka of Peradeniya University for providing the geotechnical information described herein. The author can be contacted at .)

 

Continue Reading

Features

US seeking way out of Afghan killing field

Published

on

As the Biden administration makes its initial moves to extricate the US’ remaining security forces personnel from Afghanistan, it would do well to ponder on former US President John F. Kennedy’s insightful comment on foreign policy: ‘Domestic policy can only defeat us; foreign policy can kill us.’ This is a rare nugget on the nature of foreign policy.

Considering the high costs, human and economic, a country could incur as a result of blundering on its foreign policy front, Kennedy could be said to have spoken for all countries. However, there is no denying that the comment is particularly applicable to expansionist powers or ‘hegemonic’ states.

Sensible opinion is likely to be of the view that the US decision on quitting Afghanistan should have come very much earlier; may be a couple of years after its bloody misadventure in the conflict and war-ridden country. Considering the terribly high human costs in particular the US’ 20 long years in Afghanistan have incurred, the US could be said to have committed one of its worst foreign policy blunders, overshadowing in severity the blood-letting incurred by the super power in Vietnam. However, in both theatres, the consequences for the US have been of unbearable magnitude.

The US death toll speaks for itself. At the time of writing more than 2,300 US security forces personnel have been killed and over 20,000 injured in Afghanistan. Reports indicate that over 450 Britons have died in the same quagmire along with hundreds of similar personnel from numerous other nationalities. Apparently, it took an exceptionally long period of time for the US to realize that Afghanistan for it was a lost cause.

The lesson that the US and other expansionist powers ought to come to grips with is that it would not be an ‘easy ride’ for them in the complex conflict and war zones of the South. The ground realities in these theatres are of mind-boggling complexity and Afghanistan drives this point home with notable harshness. Power projection in South-west Asia and persistence with its ‘war on terror’ were among the apparent prime objectives of the US in Afghanistan as well as in Iraq but what the US did not evidently take into consideration before these military involvements were the internal political realities of these countries that are not at all amenable to simplistic analyses and policy prescriptions.

The Soviets ought to have come to grips with some features of the treacherous political terrain presented by Afghanistan in the late eighties but their principal preoccupations were related more to the compulsions of the Cold War. Simply put, the Soviets were bent on preserving the ‘satellite’ status of Afghanistan and their war effort was aimed at this in the main. Preparing Afghanistan for democracy was not even least among the Soviet Union’s concerns, of course.

However, the same does not apply to the US. The latter helped the Mujaheddin in the task of getting rid of the Soviet presence in Afghanistan but its aim was also to have a US-friendly regime in Kabul that would be a veritable bridgehead of US power and influence in the region on a continuous basis. In other words, the US expected the regime which replaced the Soviets to be pro-Western and essentially democracy-friendly. The US did not in any way bargain to have in Afghanistan Islamic fundamentalist regimes whose political philosophies were the anti-thesis of democracy as perceived in the US and practised by it.

However, the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban regime which eventually came to power in the mid-nineties in Afghanistan, once the Soviets withdrew, defied all Western expectations. As is known, the Taliban was not only repressive and undemocratic but was staunchly opposed to everything Western. There were no hopes of the Taliban working towards Western interests. Besides, the US did not expect to see in Afghanistan a country dangerously divided on ethnic, tribal and religious lines. The problems of Afghanistan have been compounded over the years by the coming together of the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda and these groups have world wide Islamic fundamentalist links.

It has been the aim of the US to have in Kabul religiously moderate, pro-democratic regimes but as developments have proved over the past few decades these administrations have not been in a position to hold out against the Taliban. In fact, it is the Taliban that is veritably at the helm of power in Afghanistan currently and years of futile attempts at trying to contain the Taliban have brought home to the US and its allies that they have no choice but to talk to the Taliban in order to secure some respite to effect ‘an honourable exit’ from the bloodied land. This is where matters stand at present.

However, as pointed out by commentators, it is the Afghan civilian population that has suffered most in the decades-long blood-letting in the country. Conservative estimates put the number of Afghan security forces personnel killed in Afghanistan at around 60,000 to date and the number of civilians killed at double that figure.

Accordingly, the Afghan people would be left to face an uncertain and highly risk-riddled future when the last of the US security forces personnel and their allies leave Afghanistan in September this year. The country would be left to its own devices and considering that the Taliban will likely be the dominant formation in the country and not its legitimate government, the lot of Afghan civilians is bound to be heart-rending.

There is plenty to ponder on for the US and other democratic countries in the agonies of Afghanistan. One lesson that offers itself is that not all countries of the South are ‘ready for democracy’. This applies to very many countries of the South that already claim to be democracies in the Western sense. Southern ‘democratic’ polities defy easy analysis and categorization in consideration of the multitude of identity markers they present along with the legitimacy that they have achieved in the eyes of their states and populations. What we have are dangerously volatile states riddled with contradictions. Relating to them will prove to be highly problematic for the rest of the world.

Continue Reading

Features

The Soul

Published

on

The Soul (also known as Ji hun) is based on the sci-fi novel ‘Soul Transfer’, written by Jiang Bo in 2012. The novel was widely popular and inspired director Cheng Wei-Hao to adapt the tale into a movie. The story is about a married couple who are determined to uncover the truth behind strange activities in their community. According to the official synopsis for the film from Netflix, while investigating the death of a businessman, a prosecutor and his wife uncover occult secrets as they face their own life-and-death dilemma. The film stars Chang Chen, Janine Chang and Christopher Lee among others.

Continue Reading

Trending