by Premila Canagaratna
For many of us the history of a nation, even if it happens to be our own, can often seem dull and monotonous. But in the latest Studio Times publication, Eloquence in Stone: The Lithic Saga of Sri Lanka, this island-nation's rich and varied history comes alive before one's very eyes; the reader is catapulted head first into the tales of love and war, the intrigues and the conspiracies of those amazing and ancient times. Amazing, I say, because as one looks at page after page, one is struck anew by a sense of utter amazement at the feats of art, engineering and sculpture achieved by our forebears so long ago.
Tracing Sri Lanka's history from the Stone Age (as far back as 125,000 years ago) to the Kandyan period, the last of Sri Lanka's great kingdoms and the last stronghold of the Sinhalese Kings, Eloquence in Stone takes you, the reader, by the hand and leads you from one era seamlessly into the next. Each chapter in Sri Lanka's history is described in beautifully-constructed, and rigorously researched, prose by Dr. SinhaRaja Tammita-Delgoda. His text admirably complements the visual artistry of Nihal Fernando and the Studio Times photographic team. The colour photographs undoubtedly add vibrancy, but the profusion of black-and-white prints, with their own stark beauty, gives added meaning to the very subject of the book.
Each chapter gives an overall view of the life and times of people in that particular era, followed by descriptions of specific sites, monuments and archeological remains which have been attributed to that period. The text is clearly footnoted and all the illustrations captioned, making this not only a work of art but also one of great academic value.
What makes this book stand out for me is that it is not simply a description of the art and sculpture of ancient Sri Lanka; it is much, much more, being also the fascinating story of the people and how they lived. In describing so lovingly the way of life in ancient Sri Lanka, the book cannot help but remind the reader of how radically those ways have changed over the years, and how far out of sync with nature we have become.
Describing Kaludiya Pokuna in Mihintale, for example, the author writes: "Built to capture rainwater as it cascaded off the mountainside, here man used his skill to harness nature and beautify it…The steps, terraces, gardens and pavilions which adorn it have all been built around the rock…It is a perfect example of man in complete harmony with his environment. Another culture would have cut through the rock and removed the boulder. Only we let it be." Another culture? That unspeakable culture is very much with us already!
Another reason why Eloquence is so important and so timely is that it is a much needed record of the archeological richness and variety of this tiny island. Some of the sites and monuments featured here have now become victims to the passage of time and, worse still, fallen prey to mindless vandals and thieves; again, a sign of the times, you might say. Striking photographs of Kudirimalai Point in the Wilpattu National Park, taken more than twenty years ago by Nihal Fernando, show the remains of an ancient temple. Today, after years of neglect due to civil strife, the area is completely overgrown, with hardly a stone left uncovered to even point to its former glory.
Again, Andagala in Gal Oya National Park, once housed a monastery or perhaps a palace. The book gives us a glimpse of it in the form of many huge boulders of stone, a bathing pond and parts of a retaining wall. This site is not known to many in the area and it is not listed even in the Register of Archeological Monuments. Fortunately for future generations, however, Eloquence in Stone may be the only record of its existence.
Eloquence in Stone is, as I see it, truly a labour of love: love of the country, its people, its culture, its art and its famed natural beauty. It is this love that has spurred Nihal Fernando and his team at Studio Times to toil ceaselessly for a decade-and-a-half to place on record their pioneering work within the covers of this ravishing publication. It is also an historical document of immeasurable value to Sri Lanka and its people.
Nihal Fernando says at the end of the book: "This is the dream I have had for the last fifteen years. I want to tell the story of this country and its people. I want to make people think about our past and what we are doing to it before it is too late."
It's high time we Sri Lankans did just that, and Eloquence in Stone is the ideal aid to that long-overdue, and very necessary, cerebral exercise.