De-conspiring the inscription
Posted on February 24th, 2024

Ama H. Vanniarachchy Courtesy Ceylon Today

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy

The recently-discovered Dimbulagala Rock Inscription became immensely popular in the country due to many reasons. It was instantly labelled by media as the, ‘largest inscription found in Sri Lanka’, and, ‘difficult to read and interpret’. 

Accepting many of these ‘lucrative’ claims at face value social as well as mainstream media jumped into conclusions labelling it as, ‘difficult to read’, ‘full of mysteries’, and ‘an inscription that will be turning the history of Sri Lanka upside down’. Mainstream and social media also fuelled the spread of rumours that claimed the Department of Archaeology (DoA) is hiding the truth and the mysteries this inscription unveils, and thereby giving birth to many conspiracy theories. Some media reports even claimed that the DoA has failed to read the Dimbulagala Rock Inscription as the Department lacks expertise. Some reports even claimed that the likes of Jayantha Pathiraarachchi – social-media-popular individuals with no professional background in reading inscriptions and the ones who are responsible for misleading the public and severely distorting the Sri Lankan history – should be ‘consulted’ to read and interpret the Dimbulagala Rock Inscription. 

The task of reading, copying, and interpreting the inscription in question takes a great amount of time as it is a very large rock inscription and is located in a difficult-to-reach spot on a rock. Also, no inscription has been read, copied, and interpreted overnight, and the results weren’t published within a week or two. It is a painstaking task that should be performed carefully by experts in archaeology and history. 

To know the truth about the Dimbulagala Rock Inscription Ceylon Today contacted Prof. Karunasena Hettiarachchi who is on the committee that was appointed to read and interpret the inscription. Prof. Hettiarachchi is an eminent Sri Lankan scholar in archaeology and history. He is attached to the Department of History and Archaeology of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, and has conducted extensive research on the history of Sri Lanka. He is known as an expert in reading inscriptions and is the author of a large number of research publications. 

An accomplished academic for the job 

Prof. Hettiarachchi has been working with the DoA as an expert in reading ancient inscriptions since 1991. It was in the year 1991 that the then Director General of Archaeology late Dr. Siran Deraniyagala handed over the responsibility of copying and reading the pottery pieces unearthed at the Anuradhapura Salgahawatta (Citadel) excavations. This pottery is known as the first pottery pieces discovered in Sri Lanka that has letters on them. Prof. Hettiarachchi who was a final-year university student during that time, took estampage of the letters and read them. He also has read and interpreted all the inscriptions at Rajagala. Prof. Hettiarachchi has also re-read all the inscriptions at Mihintale and has compiled the findings in a book, which will be published soon. 


The recently-discovered inscription is located close to the Dimbulagala Aranya Senasanya, approximately about 2.5 kilometres away from the monastery. The inscription is on the face of a rock slope. Prof. Hettiarachchi said that it is a difficult journey to reach the inscription and that the inscription is located about 1672 feet above the ground level. The inscription is carved on one of the many rocky hills located in the area. 

He said that the inscription is carved on the flat, slopy face of a rock that has been naturally cracked which is approximately 52 feet wide and 20 feet tall.

The discovery of the inscription occurred in July 2023 when two villagers went to the forest to collect bee honey and saw the large inscription which was half covered in vegetation. Following the discovery, the regional archaeology office was informed, which conducted the basic survey and confined the information. Then, the DoA was informed and as a result, in August 2023, T.D.A. Dayananda, an officer at the DoA, visited the site to do the initial survey on the inscription. 

There are about 10 lines in the inscription, about 1000 letters written in Brahmi script, and about five symbols. The committee that was appointed to read and interpret the inscription collectively decided on the date of the inscription after the research work we did. We carefully studied the letters on the inscription and did a comparative study to decide upon the dates of this inscription. Accordingly, we concluded that the inscription belongs to the 2nd century BCE, which in other words is about 2,200 years old. The inscription could be even older than the 2nd century BCE,” Prof. Hettiarachchi said.

The then Director General of DoA Pradeepa Serasinghe visited the place in September 2023 and as a result, taking estampage of the inscription started in October 2023. By November 2023, the estampage work was completed. 

The stamping process

Prof. Hettiarachchi explained that since it is a large inscription, taking estampage and then pasting the paper sheets together is a time-consuming task and also a task that should be done with extra care. He said that the entire inscription was copied on about 300 paper sheets.

Also, he said that the location of the inscription is inside the dense forest among rocky hills; thus, there are no water facilities or places to stay. Also, as the inscription is carved on a slopy rock face, it is not an easy task to take estampage, he revealed. 

Once the estampages were taken, the sheets were brought to Colombo and then the pasting task was done, which should be done with great care. 

Meanwhile, while the DoA was busy taking estampage of the large inscription, media, and social media were busy creating distorted stories and misleading masses about the inscription. 

It was during this time, that an acting Director General was appointed to the DoA. The Acting Director General Nishanthi Jayasinghe was concerned about these rumours and advised to appoint a committee and submit a basic study report about the inscription, within two weeks. Accordingly, a committee of experts was appointed with Dr. Malini Dias as the co-chair of the committee. 

Other members of the committee are;

Ven. Kanthale Sumitta Thera (Msc)

Buddhi Nagodavithana (Mphil)

Dhammika Priyadarshani (Mphil)

Panura Dayananda (Msc)

Dr. Dahammi Bandara (PhD in inscriptions)

Ajith Athukorala (Mphil)

Champa Wickramaarachchi (Msc)

Namalee Kannangara (Msc)

Nishantha (serves in the estampage section)

Prof. Hettiarachchi also remembered the service of Douglas Bandara who laboured to take estampages of the inscription and coordinated the work during the early days. 

We were called to the DoA on 17 January 2024 to study the estampage of the inscription. Digital photographs of the estampage were taken and we studied them.”

Only 40 per cent of the inscription could be read through the estampages. Most of the letters are decayed. Prof. Hettiarachchi also said that there could be mistakes in the estampage during the process of copying it. It is only through visiting the site, reading it in situ, and studying the surrounding environment (natural and man-made) one can come to a conclusion about an inscription.

However, as we have to submit a report within two weeks, we read the estampage. We also suggested that we need to visit the site and also we need to take a second estampage. Normally, we take two estampage of an inscription to avoid mistakes. Then we compare the two,” the professor revealed. 

What does the inscription say?

Talking about the content of the inscription Prof. Hettiarachchi said that the inscription says about an offering to Buddhist monks. Offerings of caves, and the construction and offering of a stupa is mentioned here. Also, there it mentions the construction of a road and supply of water.

The professor also said that   names of historical figures are mentioned in the inscription. There are male and female names mentioned in the inscription and some of them could be historical figures we all know such as King Devanampiyathissa, his brother Surathissa, or his father Mutasiva. We need more studies and the expert knowledge of historians to find out who these characters are. Names such as Aya Thisa, Aya Sura Thisa, and Aya Siva could be members of the Anuradhapura Royal Family.”

Answering a question the professor said that there is no evidence to link the inscription to Gautama Buddha nor does it say that the Buddha or his relatives lived in Sri Lanka. 

We cannot give instant results when we are reading and interpreting an ancient inscription. It takes time to analyse the words. We consider this as a sacred ancient inscription and a fascinating discovery considering its size,” Prof. Hettiarachchi said.  

Prof. Hettiarachchi also said that the inscription looks very neat compared to many other early Brahmi inscriptions in Sri Lanka. The lines seem to be neat and the letters are neat too and carved in similar sizes. In other early Brahmi inscriptions (in Sri Lanka), the letters are of different sizes and also the lines are not on a straight manner (We have explained this in one of our previous heritage articles).

Also, there can be seen many ‘Upper Case’ letters in this inscription which is unique and rare in Brahmi inscriptions in Sri Lanka. Considering all these facts, we can say that an expert in inscriptions and language has written and carved this inscription and also learned people must have lived in this area during that time, Prof. Hettiarachchi elaborated. 

He also explained that the inscription could be narrating about a banking system that was in use in ancient Sri Lanka. He compared this inscription with the famous Perimiyankulama Inscription, Labuatabendigala Inscription, and Vavuniya – Thonigala Inscription which mention details about Sri Lanka’s ancient banking system. 

He also said that considering the surrounding ancient landscape of the vicinity, this inscription must have been a part of a vast spread of ancient settlements including monasteries, and human settlements. 

The history of Dimbulagala 

The history of Dimbulagala dates back to the earliest days of Sri Lankan history. According to the Mahavamsa, the Great Chronicle, Dimbulagala is referred to as ‘Dumrak Gala’. The chronicle says that Dumrak Gala was an important fortress during the battle of King Pandukabhaya against his uncles. 

Later, it became a Buddhist monastery. 

The Late Professor Anuradha Seneviratna writes in Polonnaruwa; Medieval Capital of Sri Lanka (1998), Dimbulagala is a cave temple dating back to the early centuries of Sri Lankan history. A fair number of inscriptions in Brahmi were discovered from Maravidiya, Kosgoda Ulpota, Namalpokuna, and Pulligoda – Galge giving details about the early cave residences of the hermit monks of Sri Lanka. The traditions of these early monks continue even today at Dimbulagala.”

He further writes, Dimbulagala, in early times, was known differently as Dhumarakkhababbata or Udumbarapabbata or Udumbarasalapabbata. During the Anuradhapura Period, there was an important vihara and the Pali commentaries too refer to this sacred place.

The most remarkable contribution came from Parakramabahu the Great in the 12th century. He carried out a purification of the Buddhist order with the help of Maha Kassapa Maha Thera then residing in Udumbaragiri or Dimbulagala.”

Prof. Seneviratna says that the Bhikkus at Dimbulagala were always assiduous in contemplation and study and in training their pupils to lead a religious life. The learned monks at Dimbulagala gave all possible assistance to King Parakramabahu in his religious undertakings. 

Dimbulagala (caves in Maravidiya and Pulligoda) is also famous for the exquisite wall paintings found at the place that have been dated to the Polonnaruwa Period, by art historians. 

Prof. Hettiarachchi said that during his stay at Dimbulagala, Prince Pandukabhya (5th century BCE) was preparing for a great battle. According to the Vansaththappakasini, a Yakshi named Chethiya, who was the wife of Juthindhara Yakkha helped the prince. The Mahavamsa says that she was a horse-mare. The professor said that by calling her a horse mare, the chroniclers must have meant that Chethiya was a strong and powerful woman.

Pandukabhaya would not have settled here and prepared for war if this area was an abandoned, isolated area. We understand that this was a part of the early urban civilisation of Rajarata and that iron production was done in this area. Prof. Nimal Silva says that Yaksha is the people who were engaged in iron production (Yakada). Pandukabhaya needed strong weapons and armour for the battle and thus, he must have settled in Dimbulagala and worked with Yakshas (those who were engaged in iron production and were strong people) to make his weapons and armour. A large amount of iron production sites were discovered in this area during a survey conducted by the DoA. 

Prof. Hettiarachchi also explained that great monks who were renowned all over the country for their wisdom, Dhamma knowledge, and discipline lived in Dimbulagala since the earliest times of history. He stated evidence from ancient literature sources such as the Asgiri Thalpatha, Mahavamsa, Saddharmarathnakaraya and Rasavahini. 

We are doing research about the Dimbulagala Rock Inscription and the surrounding area. We have presented our suggestions and requirements to the DoA,” Prof. Hettiarachchi concluded.

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