HCP Bell’s 1917 Report on the Lost “Gal Aliya” or “Rock Elephant” at Anakallu, Thamankaduwa

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By H. C. P. Bell, C.C.S. (Retired.)

Published on the Ceylon Antiquary And Literary Register Vol.3 (July 1917)

To the nations of Western Europe being seen b ut rarely—perchance in an occasional war, or at special Triumphal Processions and Amphitheatre Shows of Ancient Rome—the elephant, save that its physical power and perfect docility when trained were recognised, was usually just “ tetra et immanis bellua!

As such—“ monstrum, horrendum, informe, ingens ”—it is connected by more than one
classical writer with Ceylon, “ India’s utmost isle, Taprobane” :

Insula Taprobane gignat tetros elephantos.

But in the East, from the dawn of history, it has been otherwise.

In India, in Ceylon, and in the Further East the elephant, whether in his native wilds or as tamed to play honoured and invaluable part, not in ‘‘war’s dread arbitrament ’’ alone but at State Functions of Court and Religious Festivals, and, doubtless, as frequently put to useful labour suited to his immense strength, has been familiar to the Oriental from boyhood : thus has be ever aroused awe (at times culminating in deep reverence) rather than fear unalloyed.

No need to multiply proof for what is truth of universal acceptance in the East. Suffice it to cite but two pertinent instances, attesting the semi-adoration attached to “our lord the elephant” by Orientals.

In Indian mythology we have “the wonderful Elephant Airavata” the ocean-churned vahana, or “vehicle,” of Indra, “king of the gods ;” whilst Ceylon’s Great Chronicle, the Mahdwansa, gives us the romantic legend of the incomparable Kandula, to whose aid King Dutugemimu owed the capture of Vijita-pura stronghold and the death in single combat of his rival, the Tamil usuper Elala.

From this established reverence for the elephant followed naturally its representation in Art and in Architecture, sacred and secular.

Thus, in Ceylon ancient art, we find him reproduced, from very early times, in the ornamental embellishment of structures.

Witness, inter alia, the fronting-elephant bosses, in alto relieve, lining the off-set “chapels” of the large Dagabas at Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa ; the profile bas-reliefs on plinth slabs, &c., of more than one edifice at the latter Capital,  and even at the more moden Siriwardhana-pura, or Kandy; and, above all, the finely executed elephant figurines passing across the field, with the other three beasts (horse, bull, lion) symbolical of the Four Quarters, on staircase “moonstones” at the earlier Capitals.

Full-front elephant relievos, though usually of stucco, were employed to hold up the revetment of the “salapatala maluwa” or inner paved platform, of Ruwanveli Dagaba, as well as the stylobates of other structures at Anuradhapura (Jetawanarama Toluvila) and more modern sites, e. g. the warder elephants of the dagaba basement at Gadaladeniya Vihare, Central Province.

These, and other instances which will readily occur to those acquainted with the “Ruined Cities,” are, nevertheless, all of a stereotyped form of relief-carving (high, medium, and low) repeated ad libitum wherever desired.

Instances of the four “cardinal-point” animals (East, elephant, South, horse. West, bull, North, lion) sculptured in the full-round is of very rare occurrence : though the delightful little kneeling figures, surmounting pilasters on guardstone terminals to stairs of sacred buildings at Anuradhapura, go far to redeem the want.

A single specimen of the couchant elephant, in limestone and of no great size, with one of the lion, was unearthed amid the Ruwanveli Ruins in 1901.

But of the elephant in his natural environment, untrammeled by conventional adaptation to sacred edifices, few examples of the sculptor’s art seemingly exist in the Island.

Apart from the full-front bas-reliefs, roughly blocked-out, above the pokuna at Isurumuniya Temple at Anuradhapura, one such gem of pure genre carving may be seen at the ruins, little visited, below the bund of Tisa-vewa tank.

This “ spirited and life-like ” piece of low relief sculpture is noticed in the Archaeological Survey, Annual Report, 1901 (p. 6), where a photographic reproduction of the scene is given :–

The sloping face of the rock (a breadth of 32 ft. in all) on either side of this strangely cramped, round-back, chamber has been carved into wondrously realistic bas-reliefs in perfect keeping with the pokuna. These represent elephants in a lotus-covered tank. On the rock slope, to the right, three elephants are shown lazily disporting themselves in the water, undisturbed, amid lotuses and fish ; on the left the scene is vividly changed— some sudden alarm has roused the elephants ; one seems to be scenting danger, the other two are already in full flight. This absolutely unique piece of carving is, without exception, the most spirited and life-like to be seen anywhere among the ruins of  Anuradhapura.

The dark-grey granite “Gal Aliya ” at Katupilana, the subject of this Note, holds a position half way between the alto relievo figurines on guardstones and the whole-round figure above mentioned.

It is in reality a full-sized elephant sculptured from bed rock, which here fringes the left bank of the Mahaveli-ganga river. The pseudo-beast, fronting and in exceptional relief, owing to the perfectly adapted situation and surroundings, its size and its attitude—half submerged with head slightly turned up-stream as though reconoitering before wading or swimming across the river—looks, from a short distance, very much in the flesh and very much alive.

The isolation of this unlooked for tour de force of animal sculpture—just possibly the irresponsible freak of some skilled stone mason—has left it virtually unknown to Europeans. Very rarely, a chance sportsman, or Government Officer,  when in the neighbourhood, may have been induced to go out of his way to examine the figure, from curiosity ; for it is off the usual track for those desirous of crossing the river to the Moor villages Katuwan-vila and Alincha-potana, the nearest totapola, or ferry, being somewhat further down stream.

Such an opportunity fell to the writer when, as Archaeological Commissioner, he was on tour in the Egoda Pattuwa of Tamankaduwa in 1897, and camped at Muttugalla a few miles off.

A notice of the visit to the ‘ Gal Aliya ” appears in his Diary of September 23rd :–

September 23rd. In the morning [from Muttugala] 1½ miles to the totupola, or ferry, and crossed the river (Mahaweli-ganga; to the west side by oruwa (canoe). The nearest village is Katuwan-vila, inhabited by Moors, which lies a short way from the right, or Egoda Pattuwa, side of the river.

Then cut our way up-stream along the left bank for a quarter of a mile to some rocks, where the Gal Aliya or “ Rock (-cut) Elephant ” is to be seen.

There are, at this point, seven or eight boulders, all more or less small, and close together. Along the sloping base of one, (which rises S. E. and is about 15ft. above the present high-water level, but falls away at an angle of 45 degrees on the land side) runs a groove, or “ set” for wall foundation ; and at the south end of the boulder are cut to either side nine shallow steps with mortices for pillars. Evidently a building of some sort stood here—very likely a Mura-ge, or Guard-house,” intended to overlook the river.

The “Gal Aliya,” so called, is carved cut of a small rock, which projected into the river slightly, a few feet higher up-stream. The gradual wear of the bank had buried all but the head of the figure. Had the silted earth behind dug out, and found that of the elephant only 6ft. backwards from the head had been carved, and that the animal’s back sloped down one foot in three.

The elephant almost directly fronts the stream, facing S-S.E. It is said by the guides to be cut in a kneeling attitude, with its head slightly inclined to the right (i.e. up-stream). The head is wonderfully well carved on the whole, and very true to life, both in its outline conformation and size. Owing to the river being now in flood, all below the eyes and ears is under water. No inscription could be discovered on the adjoining boulders, to afford seme clue to the probable age of this unique example ot life-size animal sculpture. Photographed what showed of the beast with a merry Moor youth (who seemed to ‘‘enjoy the ride ”) on its back ‘ ; and took seme above-water measurements of the bead :—

Top of head to furthest part of back (2ft. slope) 6ft. 0in.
Back of ear to back of other ear, across forehead. 7ft. 5in.
Top of ear to top of other ear, over the skull3ft. 10in.
Back of ear to eye3ft. 3in.
Ear2ft. 7in
Eye socket 9in. x 6in

Ten years later (1907)  Mr. H. Storey, the well-known sportsman, published the following fuller account in his Hunting and Shooting in Ceylon'” (pp. 145—6), together with a reproduction of the photograph taken by the writer in 1897 :  :—

On the way down the river (Mahaveli-ganga) we had the luck to find the water so low that I was able to show Camcrou, a perfect view of that extraordinary relic of antiquity known as the “ Elephant’s Head.” This is such a curiosity that I have no doubt ray readers will pardon the digression if I give a short account of it. On the west bank of the river, at a point nearly opposite Katuwan-wila village (which is on the east bank), are some boulders, some of them in the water, others just on the edge of it. One of these boulders, just at the water’s edge, has been admirably carved into an excellent representation of a life-sized elephant’s head and shoulders, trunk curved round towards its side, tusks and all complete.  The river is seldom so low’ as to uncover more than half of it ; but this time it was completely uncovered down to the “ pedestal ‘ so as to expose the fore-feet, which are, unfortunately, badly carved, representing the elephant as getting up from the kneeling position. There are signs on the rocks above it of there having been possibly a small building of some sort, but not a trace of inscription : and absolutely nothing is known of the meaning or origin of this mysterious head. There it has been lor centuries, at times buried under the water, but generally half submerged, looking exactly like an elephant having a bath or commencing to wade across the river. We pulled our canoe right up to it, and examined the whole thing very carefully. I had seen it before, but Cameron had not, and I could hardly tear him away from it, so great vias his interest. Mr. H- C. P. Bell, the Archaeological Commissioner, has a photograph of it half submerged, with a native boy sitting on the head, and the life-like illusion is perfect.

Mr. Storey has been good enough to supply a further short Note, which, to some extent, supplements the above interesting description :—

On the occasion when I saw the Katupilana “elephant,” with Mr. H. S. Cameron of “ Syston Estate,” in 1904, the river was at its lowest and the carving was uncovered to the bottom. When the whole head is seen, it does not lock so well as the upper unsubmerged half of it appears in your photograph. The tusks are not well carved, being also only in relief, and made to curve towards, I think, the right side. The animal is represented as rising irem the round but the legs and feet are poorly executed ; not at all in proper proportion to the head. Altogether the figure shows up at its best with, say, only about two-thirds of the head above the water.  I noticed sockets cut in the rock above the carving, possibly for supporting some sort of a roof.

These questions naturally cross the mind.

For how many centuries of the Island’s history has this “silent monarch of the forest” stood in his wooded seclusion and natural haunts, gazing up river ? How came he to be fashioned and located at a site now so obscure ? What was the true raison d’etre of this unique sample of
fauna sculpture ? Was its creation due to the pure foible of a vain gal waduwa,  or does the “ Rock Elephant represent the petrified representation of some erstwhile ‘‘Kandula” whose deeds his Royal Master desired thus to perpetuate amid environment so congenial to his living compeers?

Neither rock record, nor palm-leaf chronicle, affords any clue. The secret of the Gal Aliya of Katupilana remains inscrutable. Will it ever reveal itself ?

Ille, velut pelagt rupes immota, resistil ;
Quae sese, multi s circumlatrantibus undis,
Mole tenet.
He standeth like some sea-girt rock,
Moveless, athwart the waters’ shock ;
And, anchored by his ponderous form,
Massive, resists the beating storm.

Also See

Map of  Ancient Lifesize Stone Elephant Carving at Anakalluwa (approx location)

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