July 2010


Pahiyangala Cave: a journey of evolution
July 2010




The sheer size of the Pahiyangala cave is incredible

Words and Photography: Shehan Ramanayake

Over 30,000 years ago, an ancient populace in the early phase of human evolution roamed the jungles of Sri Lanka. Little was known about them as evidential accounts on their progress, habits or history lay buried under the sands of time. However, in the late 1980's, the unearthing of pre-historic human remains and microliths in a large cave off the sleepy town of Bulathsinhala opened a tiny window to their world, allowing us to imagine how they lived and evolved.

The Pahiyangala cave, rather unfairly, has not had its share of celebratory acclaim on Sri Lanka's list of attractions. Cast behind the imposing shadows of the popular and world famous cultural triangle, few Sri Lankans have heard of the cave, let alone visited it. However, the history of this cave spans a sea of time far greater than most other sites of cultural and historic interest, not only on the island but also in the annals of the evolution of our species.

Our drive took us through Horana, to Bulathsinhala and onto the small village of Yatagampitiya. The moss covered stone steps from the monastery led us up a steep path through a serene, dense, wet-zone forest that bordered the hill in which the cave was situated. After a quick, yet strenuous climb, we wound our way to the mouth of the cave. It took little time to fathom its enormity, as we looked and walked around, getting a feel of the place. True to its reputation of being scarcely visited, we were the only people at the cave that morning, which suited me perfectly. The sense of tranquility was quick to seep in - the only sounds being a light breeze, the odd call of a bird and the quiet yet informative chatter of the honorary curator, Kapu Mahattaya.

The dimensions of the cave are recorded as 175ft deep and 150ft wide while the mouth is approximately 160ft tall. Furthermore, the floor of the cave consists of soil and fragments of disintegrated rock that have fallen from the roof of the cave due to weather over time. The original floor of the cave is believed to be some 40ft below this layer. Between 1986-88, a team of archaeologists made numerous and remarkable findings in and around the cave. These included a collection of skulls and vertebrae of what are believed to be the earliest inhabitants of the cave. In addition, small hunting tools made from rock and bone and proof of fire being used by this people gave an indication as to the phase of evolution at which these inhabitants were.

Many of these items were sent to the US for further study, and carbon dating methods suggests that the time of inhabitation was around 37,000 years ago. Little is known however, about their language, their social mannerisms or whether they were clothed. The common conclusion was that these were a hunter-gatherer society, who used primitive tools and whose diet consisted of small animals, snails and fruit. The cave would have provided adequate shelter from the elements due to its size, which is said to be able to accommodate over 3,000 people. An interesting artefact on display was a slab of stone, which had perfectly shaped circular holes in it. It is believed that this was a stone used to start a fire.

Another, albeit more recent, individual to have inhabited this cave was the famous Chinese Buddhist monk Fa-hsien. He is said to have stopped here during his travels across Asia in the 5th Century AD, during his search for Buddhist teachings. According to his written accounts, Fa-hsien stopped at the island to climb Adam's peak and pay homage to Lord Buddha's footprint at its summit. Though there is no physical evidence of his stay at the cave itself, it is believed that he resided on the island for several months at least and there are indications that he may have used the cave as a resting place. The cave is also referred to as Fa-hsien Lena (lena being a Sinhalese word for ‘cave') after him, and it is believed that ‘Pahiyangala' originated from this name.

The Ven Porogama Thera is said to have made the cave a Buddhist shrine some 450 years ago. Statues of the Lord Buddha and other kings and deities are found inside the shrine on the side of the main cave and are still intact and well preserved. According to Kapu Mahattaya, vegetable and plant dyes were used to draw the murals on the walls of the shrine. Amazingly, the colours and detail of these murals have retained their richness over centuries with little or no restoration. A long, grand reclining statue of the Lord Buddha is found to the side of the main cave area, which has been restored since the time of Ven Porogama. Although visitors are scarce compared to other temples around the island, full moon Poya days are supposed to attract larger crowds who come to pay their respects, listen to bana and observe sil.

Other varied accounts speak of tunnels that lead into the mountain from the back of the cave that are now apparently sealed off. There is also said to be a smaller shrine on the summit of the mountain above the cave to replicate Adam's Peak. However, recent wet weather had made the climb treacherous, as there were no steps, just slippery rock. I imagine a visit in drier times would be very rewarding, especially since the views from the cave itself are quite spectacular.

Unfortunately, many of the remains of prehistoric times have been removed from the cave to proper storage facilities to protect against decay. The head priest of the monastery below the rock is said to be in the process of creating a small museum at the site itself.

Usual accounts of a historical location include an endless list of facts, achievements and conquests of previous kings, leaders and deities who governed or resided at the site, glorified by both story and storyteller to enrich the significance of that location. However, Pahiyangala is anything but glorious. Its understated character throws a sharp contrast to its historic importance. The short list of scientifically proven facts is enough to solidify the value of this site and only adds to the intrigue and mystery of the unknown. The tranquillity provides a perfect magic carpet for your mind to wander back in time and imagine the untold stories of the many people who used this cave during their transitions - whether it were Fa-hsien's transition on his travels through Asia or the day-to-day life of prehistoric inhabitants of the island. If you sit in the silence of the cave for a while, your mind will conjure its own visual tapestry of these people, and illustrate the most poignant fact of all - the journey of man, and therefore, his journey through evolution.

 

 

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    The steps leading to the Pahiyangala cave

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    Many layers of debris excavated to find the original floor of the cave

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    Rock used to make fire in ancient times

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    View from the back of the cave

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    Restored statue of the resting Buddha

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    Statues in the shrine built by Ven. Porogama Thera, in perfect condition

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