Pomparippu Ancient Burial Site – පොම්පරිප්පු ආදී මානව සුසාන භූමිය

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Funeral urns excavated from Pomparippu, Puttalam

Funeral urns excavated from Pomparippu, Puttalam
Image source : serendib.btoptions.lk

The Pomparippu burial site has aroused considerable interest ever since its discovery by A.M. Hocart during the course of his survey of the Puttalam – Mannar coast in 1923 – 24. A number of urn burials were excavated by Raja De Silva in 1956 in the course of a detailed archaeological survey undertaken by the Department of Archaeology. However, it were the excavations carried out in July and August 1970 by Vimala Begley, Bennet Bronson and Mohamed Mauroof as part of a project to study the pre-and proto-history of Sri Lanka undertaken by the University of Pennsylvania that revealed much of this lost culture.

According to Vimala Begley (Ancient Ceylon. 1981) indications are that the burial ground covered about 3-4 acres of land. She estimates that the site may contain about 8000 or so burials containing the remains of 10,000 – 12,000 people.

She opines that the burial site represents a large and settled population whose habitational remains must be within a short distance of the burials, perhaps to the east towards the Galge Vihara complex, although so far no serious attempts have been made to locate the burial-related habitation area.

The excavations unearthed a total of 14 burials containing the skeletal remains of about 23 persons. The urns (which are between 40 – 90 cm in diameter) had been placed in pits and sealed with limestone boulders. The bones had been disarticulated before burial and it appears that the bodies were exposed to the elements for some time before interment.

Unlike the bones which were placed in pots or at the bottom of the urn, the skulls were often placed in dishes of Black-and-Red Ware. The grave goods buried with the skeletal remains reveal a highly developed material culture. Artefacts discovered include metal jewellery such as copper bracelets, paste beads, chert tools and in one instance, a leaf-shaped iron blade.

Some archaeologists have attempted to relate the urn burials with its characteristic Black-and-Red Ware such as those found at Pomparippu to the iron age burial complexes of South India and postulate a Dravidian origin for the culture.

However, according to Begley (1981) there exists a number of differences between the ware found at Pomparippu and the burial sites of South India, such as the absence of burnishing in the case of the local ware. Besides, the technique of manufacturing Black-and-Red Ware has been known in various parts of the world and in different ages.

The local technique may have been the result of independent development or an adaptation from a foreign culture, perhaps neighbouring South India. This would have taken place as a result of culture diffusion and not necessarily as a result of a common inheritance.

Unfortunately we have no means of carbon-dating the burials as no charcoal samples have turned up. The fragile condition of the bones also make them unsuitable for dating purposes. Raja De Silva (Smithsonian Seminar on pre-and proto history of Ceylon. 1970) assigns the urn burials to C.200 B.C.- 200 A.C.

Begley (1981) suggests a late date for Pomparippu considering the choronological sequences of the South Indian graves. It is believed that the culture arrived in the coastal areas of peninsular India at a relatively late date, perhaps a few centuries before the Christian era.

Considering the fact that the culture could not have influenced Sri Lanka before it reached the coastal areas of South India from such regions as Karnataka, Begley”s suggestion in favour of a late date still holds ground. When we take the history of the iron-using Black-and-Red Ware culture in peninsular India we find that it was a relatively recent one.

According to Agrawal and Kusumgar (1968) the culture was an intrusive one and succeeded the neolithic at Hallur (Karnataka) around 945 B.C. This culture evidently spread from the Deccan into the fertile plains of Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Tamil Nadu and survived until the early Christian era. However, Black-and-Red ware has also been found as far north as Chirand (Bihar) and a number of Harappan sites such as Lothal and Rangpur.

Sudarshan Seneviratne (Ancient Ceylon. 1984) holds that the burial culture of North-West Sri Lanka has been influenced by the urn burial complex of the Vaigai-Tambapanni plains, the traditional land of the Pandyans.

According to the Mahavansa, an ancient chronicle of Sinhalese royalty compiled around the 5th century A.C. the founding father of the Sinhalese nation, the Aryan Prince Vijaya (c.6th century B.C.) espoused a Pandyan princess from Madura while his 700 followers also took wives from that country. It is possible that the urn burial practices crept into the island with this large scale immigration of people from the Pandyan Country.

A.Parpola (Studia Orientalia. 1984) has shown that the Pandyans were an Aryan dynasty that had established themselves in South India. However, the iron-using, Black-and-Red Ware culture appears to have been Dravidian. As such we may have to suppose that this culture was adopted by the Aryan Pandyans and later transferred to Sri Lanka with the commencement of trade and marital relations between the two countries. Besides, there are valid grounds for supposing that the Pre- Aryan indigenous inhabitants of the island belonged to an Austro-Asiatic people, today represented by the Veddhas.

According to the Mahavansa, the island was inhabited by a folk known as Yakkhas (spirits) prior to the Aryan invasion of the country led by Prince Vijaya of Bengal and his 700 followers. These Yakkhas are generally identified as the ancestors of the Veddhas.

Lukacs and Kennedy (1981) hold that there is some genetic affinity between the late stone age people of Bellan-bandi palassa (who are related to the present day Veddhas) and the iron age folk of Pomparippu.

Seneviratne (1984) also draws attention to the fact that Veddha pottery-making methods closely resemble the techniques employed for manufacturing the Pomparippu ware. It is thus possible that the Pomparippu and other urnfield folk belonged to an amalgam of human races comprising such peoples as the Sinhalese, Dravidians and Ved dhas.

The proximity of the sites to the sea coast would have facilitated trade with neighbouring India thus attracting a variety of peoples and cultures from the mainland. However, for this hypothesis to be tenable, we will still have to presume that the aboriginal Veddha folk comprised a significant, if not the major component of the iron age population, given the present state of anthropological knowledge.

These various peoples may have been later assimilated into the Sinhalese fold through the adoption of the dominant Sinhala language introduced by an Indo-Aryan, Prakrit-speaking folk from Bengal around the 6th century B.C. or perhaps even earlier.

Also See

Map of  Pomparippu Ancient Burial Site

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Driving Directions to Pomparippu Ancient Burial Site

Route from Colombo to Pomparippu

Via : Negaombo – Puttlam
Distance : 176 km
Travel time : 4-4.5 hours
Driving directions : see on google map

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