by Sachi Sri Kantha, November 5, 2022
Guruge’s conclusion was, “…at some point in the pursuit of this goal of filling gaps in history,…Paranavitana stepped beyond the thin line which separates reality from the imaginary.”
Oct 4th marked the 50th death anniversary of Senarat Paranavitana (1896-1972), renowned Sinhalese epigraphist and the former archeological commissioner of Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Currently available details in the Wikipedia about his life and either illustrious or notorious career, leaves much to be desired. As such, I offer this review of his career as depicted by his junior contemporaries. Information has been gathered from diverse sources, which are acknowledged, at the end.
Paranavitana’s Profile (extracted from the eulogy by Marcus Fernando, in 1973)
I provide below four paragraphs from a eulogy written by Marcus Fernando, from Colombo, to the journal Artibus Asiae.
“Paranavitana was born at Mataramba, Galle, Ceylon, on December 26, 1896. When he was six years old he passed the Second Standard in Metaramba School, and then went on to study Sinhala and English at Buona Vista School in Galle. In 1910 he began studying Sanskrit and Pali at Ranvalagoda Pirivena, Heenatigala. In 1923, after serving for three years as a teacher in a provincial school, he joined the Archaeological Department. He was already able to quote from memory long passages of Sinhala, Pali or Sanskrit poetry that might be relevant to whatever subject was being discussed; and though he started from humble beginnings, with no friends or relatives in high places to lend him a helping hand, he soon began to impress his superior officers. He was given an extensive training in India under Sir John Marshall in various disciplines connected with archaeology, including epigraphy, numismatics, museology, excavation, conservation, and archaeological administration. He took part in the excavations at Mohenjodaro. He even spent some time in gaining practical experience in the chemical treatment of antiquities. In 1926 he was appointed Epigraphical Assistant in the Ceylon Department of Archaeology, and a few years later became editor of Epigraphia Zeylanica. In 1936 he received the degree of Ph.D from the University of Leyden.
To Paranavitana his life was his work. The ten months’ holiday he spent in Eorope (1936-37) was wholly devoted to furthering his knowledge of archaeology and serving the interests of the Department. He visited the museums and archaeological sites of Europe; he found time to read the proofs of vol. IV, part 4, of Epigraphia Zeylanica, which was then being printed in England. And he gave two important lectures on archaeological work that had recently been done in Ceylon. One of these, sponsored by the India Society in London, was presided over by the Rt. Hon. W.G.A. Ormsby-Gore, Secretary of State for the Colonies. The other, under the auspices of the Association Francaise des Amis de l’Orient was delivered at the Musee Guimet in Paris. In 1962 Paranavitana toured the United States, lecturing at several universities.
He had an extraordinary memory, and the ability to achieve a high degree of mental concentration. But these assets would not have been of much avail without the zeal he put into his work. He became the firs Ceylonese to hold the highest position in the Department first in an acting capacity (1932-35) and later as Archaeological Commissioner (1940-1956). He had much harder circumstances to contend with than his predecessor, but acquitted himself as well as the best of them. Although primarily an epigraphist and philologist, he also achieved world renown as an archaeologist and historian. Ceylon archaeology owes him a great deal. He excavated and ‘conserved’ a large number of monuments, i.e. consolidated the surviving structure sufficiently to preserve it. He made it Departmental policy to conserve at least one monument of each type in the country. He always took pains to bring back as much as possible of the ancient look of a site by reviving its ponds, moats etc., and growing the appropriate trees. He shed light on many problems in the island’s history, and he was able to reconstruct several episodes in it that had not been well understood.
The epigraphy of Ceylon was his special field. In his first academic paper, published in 1926 in Epigraphia Indica, he edited and translated a Tamil inscription discovered in Ceylon. In the decipherment and interpretation of inscriptions written in Old Sinhala and its Brahmi precursor, which predominate in Ceylon, he was an unmatched anuthority; and he was no less at home in Pali and Sanskrit.”
No doubt, Paranavitana was prolific. A number count provided by Fernando indicates that the Paranavitana Felicitation volume (1965) contains a bibliography compiled by Goonatilaka listing “some 250 entries”, up to the year 1963. These included books, pamphlets and reports.
The dictionary defines an eulogy as “speech or writing in praise of person etc. esp. funeral oration; (expression of) praise.” By definition, an eulogy, need not be factual or critical. It is written ‘in praise of a person, who had died recently’.
An early red flag by Oliver William Wolters in 1979
Oliver William Wolters (1915-2000) was a British academic and historian affiliated to Cornell University. He raised an early red flag on Paranavitana’s fiction. While criticizing the ‘blind acceptance’ of Paranavitana’s reports on interlinear inscription by M.C. Chand Chirayu Rajani in 1979, Wolters observed:
“I am perplexed that M.C. Chand should suppose that ‘some of Paranavitana’s sources of interlinear writing [on Sri Lanka inscriptions] will have to be used as plaster to cement the whole of the [Srivijaya] story together’. He is referring to interlinear inscriptions that only Paranavitana has claimed to decipher…Until I am encouraged by epigraphers in Sri Lanka to believe that the interlinear inscriptions actually exist I shall continue to disregard historical reconstructions that depend on Paranavitana’s evidence [Footnote 37: see the discouraging comments by; R.A.L.H. Gunawardhana, Ceylon and Malaysia: a study of Professor S. Paranavitana’s research on the relations between the two regions, reprinted from the University of Ceylon Review, 25, 1-2 (1967); W.M.Sirisena, Sri Lanka and South-East Asia, Political, religious and cultural relations from AD c.1000 to c.1500, Leiden, 1978, pp. 4-5] My reason for suspicion is that his evidence purports to supply unexpected answers to specific and troublesome problems that defied Paranavitana’s generation of scholars.”
Prof. Kingsley M. de Silva’s recognition of the fraud in 1981
In his 1981 book ‘A History of Sri Lanka’, as an appendix to chapter 6, Prof. K.M. de Silva had added the following details:
“For Paranavitana’s theory of the Malaysian origin of the Kalinga dynasty, see Paranavitana, ‘Ceylon and Malaysia in Medieval Times, JRAS (CB), n.s. VII (1), 1960, pp. 1-42; Nicholas and Paravitana, A Concise History of Ceylon (Colombo, 1961) especially, pp. 237-46; and Paranavitana, Ceylon and Malaysia (Colombo, 1966).
This theory has been comprehensively demolished by a number of scholars: R.A.L.H. Gunawardane, ‘Ceylon and Malaysia: a study of Professor S. Paranavitana’s Research on the Relations between the two regions’, University of Ceylon Review (hereafter UCR), XXV, 1967, pp. 1-64; K. Indrapala, ‘Review of Ceylon and Malaysia by S. Paranavitana’, JRAS (CB), n.s., XI, 1967, pp. 101-6; S. Kiribamune, ‘Some reflections on Professor Paranavitana’s contribution to history’, Ceylon Journal of Humanities, 1(1), 1970, pp. 76-92; S. Nilakanta Sastri, ‘Ceylon and Sri Vijaya’, JRAS (CB), n.s., VIII (I), 1962, pp. 125-40; and W.M. Sirisena, ‘The Kalinga dynasty of Ceylon and the theory of its South-East Asian origin’, CJHSS, n.s. I(1), 1971, pp. 11-47.
W.M. Sirisena, op.cit., in fn. 6, p. 12, adds:
‘Paranavitana has claimed to have discovered some interlinear inscriptions the contents of which confirm his theories. So far no epigraphist other than Paranavitana has been able to see any such interlinear writing.’
These interlinear ‘inscriptions’ may be described as being at best a bizarre invention of a fertile but declining imagination, at worst an unscrupulous hoax deliberately devised to discomfit a set of persistent critics.”
Ananda Guruge’s treatment of Paranavitana’s historical fiction
A devastating lengthy review on Paranavitana’s three books, namely Ceylon and Malaysia (1966), The Greeks and the Mauryas (1971) and The Story of Sigiri (1972), and his scientific integrity was published by Buddhist scholar Ananda Guruge in Vidyodaya Journal of Social Science in 1996. Serious scholars of Sri Lankan history deserve to study this contribution of Guruge. As such, I provide a pdf file of this paper. Apart from Introduction and Conclusion, it contained following sections.
Identification and description of the texts in Sanskrit
Nagging doubt on authenticity
Examination of Paranavitana’s Greek and Latin references
Hoax or Hallucination?
Why in Sanskrit?
Initial experiment with Sanskrit poetry
Sundarivrttanta – the only poem in ‘Interlinear Inscriptions’
Prose compositions; style and contents
In each of these eight sections, Guruge presented evidence after evidence to demolish Paranavitana’s so-called ‘interlinear inscriptions’. Guruge’s conclusion was, “…at some point in the pursuit of this goal of filling gaps in history,…Paranavitana stepped beyond the thin line which separates reality from the imaginary.” In a left handed compliment, Guruge added, “He has left behind two major works of historical fiction and that too in classical Sanskrit. This is an impressive accomplishment. As in the case of all historical fiction, there is a kernel of fact and this kernel gets embellished and sharply focused as the fertile imagination of the novelist gives life to it. If full translations, rather than his analytical essays, were available, those not reading Sanskrit could have appreciated the creativity of the author. Paranavitana should have presented these works as fiction in Sanskrit….”
In defense of Paranavitana’s academic standards
Raja de Silva, who was also served as an Archaeological Commissioner of Sri Lanka, subsequent to Paranavitana’s tenure, had written in 2021,
“Paranavitana was roundly criticized by latter day scholars for his study and publication of later interlinear writings on old inscribed stones. I replied to several of these critics and defended Paranavitana from the insinuated charge that there were no interlinear writings and he was therefore an intellectual fraud. My defense of Paranavitana was titled ‘Paranavitana and the interlinear writings’ in my book Digging into the past (2005: 203-216), where I showed that his peers CE Godakumbure and Saddhamangala Karunaratne had both accepted that there were interlinear writings on stones.”
Though I have yet to read Raja de Silva’s defense, it is not at all water-tight. I wonder, why Raja de Silva chose to publish his defense of Paranavitana in his own book, rather than in a peer-reviewed archaeological journal of repute, and why he cites only the names of Paranavitana’s two junior contemporaries at the Archaeological Department.
Last year, I read an audacious view by one Sirisaman Wijethunge, who had served as an Assistant Director of Archaeology in Sri Lanka, that Paranavitana deserved a Nobel Prize! For what? According to this ignoramus Wijethunge,
“Do you know that he [Paranavitana that is] had to climb over the Sigiri rock from the foot of cliff at least two times a day to carry out this grand task? In the end, he could complete the book, and it was published by the Oxford University Press. Here, my question is why it was not accepted as a high level literary accomplishment adequate enough to award the Nobel Prize? These graffiti include songs by people from 1500 years back; they embody the letters of our ancestors. If the book was published by such world academia, why did the Nobel Committee disqualify his book for the Nobel Prize. This question still baffles me.”
It seems to me that this ignoramus guy is clueless about the Nobel Prize categories. Archaeology per se is not a scientific category which is recognized by Nobel awards. If Paranavitana had to be recognized for publishing a book on Sigiri graffiti, then it had to be considered in the Nobel award for Literature. Wijethunge seems ignorant of the fact that, to be considered for a Nobel prize, first a candidate had to be nominated for the prize. He needs to verify whether Paranavitana ever received any such nominations for the Nobel prize in literature, while he was alive.
A Fence-sitting View
While delivering the Senarat Paranavitana memorial lecture in 1996, de Casparis observed the following thoughts.
“As we all know, Paranavitana devoted some of his most penetrating studies to ‘Ceylon and Malaysia’ in ancient times. These studies were in part based on his reading of beautiful Sanskrit verses which he deciphered between the lines of Sinhala inscriptions, such as the great stone inscription of the Lankatilaka temple of the Gampola period. Few scholars have accepted his readings and interpretations. Thus, K.A. Nilakanta Sastri, RA.L.H. Gunawardana and K. Indrapala have given strong arguments to prove that Paranavitana’s conclusions cannot be accepted simply because no one else has been able to check the correctness of his readings or even the very existence of these interlinear inscriptions.
Yet, although the present author agrees with these criticisms, he feels that Paranavitana had a sharp intuition about the relations between this island and the world of South East Asia, including the Malaysian peninsula. Even while rejecting the details of Paranavitana’s arguments he feels that his main conclusions can still be retained.”
On Paranavitana’s Personal Library
What happened to Paranavitana’s personal library has become an urban myth among Sinhalese. While I was living in Peradeniya (circa 1977-81), I was familiar with a rumor, that ‘Tamils had purchased it and destroyed the library to punish Paranavitana for the nonsense he had spread about Sinhala hegemony over Tamils.’
To a query on Paranavitana’s library, Wijethunge had commented, “He had a good collection of books, but all of them got lost. You know, Dr. Paranavithana hadn’t any children, his wife also died before his death. So, there wasn’t any responsible person to keep his valuable items. At first, there was a request from the Archaeological Department to acquire those books. But then it was rejected by some officers of the Department, because all the books under the charge of the late Commissioner were already at the Department. Anyway, all his books got lost. It is said that they were burned by some people when they were kept in another place by someone else.”
Here is one bit of fact, which I could locate in the H.A.I.Goonetileke’s ‘A Bibliography of Ceylon (Sri Lanka), vol. IV (1983) under entry 181. It reads,
“Paranavitana, Senarat. The Library of the late Prof. Senarat Paranavitana. Colombo, Public Trustee Office , 82 p. (Mimeographed text).
A listing at random of the 1217 items in the famous scholar’s library, left to the Public Trustee for disposal on his death in October 1972. The library was sold in 1974 to the Jaffna Archaeological Society for Rs. 35,000.00 and is now housed in the Jaffna Campus Library at Thirunelvely.”
The Jaffna Archaeological Society was established in May 1971, by K. Indrapala, V. Sivasamy and A. Kandiah. It is my conjecture that Dr. James Rutnam (1905-1988), the then President of the Society, was probably the one who organized this purchase of Paranavitana’s personal library.
What made Paranavitana to commit such an academic fraud?
In concluding his elaborate expose on Paranavitana’s academic fraud, Ananda Guruge noted as follows:
“Without getting embroiled in an abstruse discussion pertaining to his mental and physical health and any medication he was on, one may not be able to examine in full the state of the mind of Paranavitana, when he embarked on, and laboriously completed, this massive task of producing a substantial amount of Sanskrit writing during the closing year of his life. All the literary evidence of language and style and the modernity of the contents and the underlying knowledge base compels one to come to the conclusion that every word presented as found on “interlinear inscriptions” is written by none other than Paranavitana himself….”
After a passage of 42 years following Paranavitana’s death, in a footnote to his lengthy study on Mahakasyapa, published in 2014, Vincent Tournier (then at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London; currently an Associate Professor at the French School of Asian Studies (FEO, Paris) let the secret out as follows:
“At some point during the 1960s and until his death in 1972, Paranavitana seems to have suffered from some kind of mental disorder, which led him to forge a number of epigraphic documents in Sanskrit, the so-called “interlinear inscriptions”, which he used to justify his earlier theories. This sad alteration of the scholar’s state of mind, leading to damaging consequences on Sinhalese historiography, has been analysed in detail in Guruge (1996) and Weerakkody (1997, 183-195) [I am grateful to Michael Willis for providing me with the latter reference]…Paranavitana’s fallacies have no place in a scholarly work….”
I can infer that current view on Paranavitana scholarship is split into three streams:
(1) admirers – those belonging to Paranavitana’s intimate circle, juniors at the Archaeological Department of Sri Lanka and students. e.g: Charles E. Godakumbura, Saddhamangala Karunaratne, Raja de Silva, Sirisaman Wijethunge.
(2) ‘fence sitters’– while accepting the criticism of detractors also pay homage to Paranavitana. e.g: J.G. de Casparis.
(3) critics/detractors – this list is lengthening, beginning from O.W. Wolters, James Rutnam, R.A.L.H. Gunawardhana, D.P.M. Weerakkody, W.M. Sirisena, Ananda Guruge, K.M. de Silva, Vincent Tournier.
Though Prof. KM. de Silva has pointed out the names of two Tamil historians/ephigraphists, K. Nilakanta Sastri (India) and Prof. K. Indrapala (Sri Lanka) in raising doubts about the spurious claims of Paranavitana, I would infer that the credit for exposing Paranavitana’s academic fraud goes to Sinhalese historians and Buddhist scholars like, W.M. Sirisena, Ananda Guruge (1928-2014), Prof. R.A.L.H. Gunawardhana (1938-2010) and Prof. Don Patrick Mervyn Weerakkody (1945-2013). The impressive stand they took in defending academic integrity in history writing above ‘Sinhala ethnic flag waving’ deserves an applause.
De Casparis J.G: Senarat Paranavitana memorial lecture: Sri Lanka and maritime Southeast Asia in ancient times. Journal of Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka, 1996; new series, 41: 229-240.
De Silva K.M. A History of Sri Lanka, C. Hurst & Co, London, 1981, pp. 77-78.
De Silva, Raja. Senarat Paranavitana, the gentleman I knew. The Island (Colombo), Feb 7, 2021. https://island.lk/senarat-paranavitana-the-gentleman-i-knew/
Fernando M: Senarat Paranavitana (1896-1972). Artibus Asiae, 1973; 35(3): 273-275, 277.
H.A.I.Goonetileke’ ‘A Bibliography of Ceylon (Sri Lanka), vol. IV, Inter Documentation Company, Zug, Switzerland, 1983, p. 15.
Guruge Ananda W.P.: Senarat Paranavitana as a writer of historical fiction in Sanskrit. Vidyodaya Journal of Social Science, 1996; vol. 7 (1 &2): 157-179.
Rutnam James T: Some aspects of the history of archaeology in Sri Lanka. Presidential address, Jaffna Archaeological Society, Nov 9, 1974, 11 pages.
Tournier V. Mahakasyapa, his lineage, and the wish for Buddhahood: Reading anew the Bodhgaya inscriptions of Mahanaman. Indo-Iranian Journal, 2014; 57: 1-60.
Ravindra Wijewardhane: I wonder why Dr. Paranavitana was not awarded the Nobel Prize – Sirisaman Wijethunge, ex-Assistant Director of Archaeology. Sunday Observer (Colombo), Oct 3, 2021.
Wolters OW. Studying Srivijaya. Journal of Malaysian Branch of the Royal Society, 1979; 52(2): 1-32.