Harindu Muthukumarana, in The Island, 16 October 2021, where the title reads “A legend who rewrote Sri Lankan history: Eulogy for Dr. Deraniyagala” +++
On Tuesday, 05 October, 2021, as the sun rose above the horizon it may have felt like a usual day in Sri Lanka. But the morning broke a tragic news as it gloomed the nation and it left a deep void in the field of archeology. It was for none other than to the demise of Dr. Siran Upendra Deraniyagala.Anyone who has an interest in the history of Sri Lanka doesn’t need an introduction to Deraniyagala and his service. I find him, that rather than investing his energy on archaeology he invested his soul. This set an example for every human to work hard with integrity on what you had embarked on.
Budding of an archaeologist along with his father
When thinking about Paleoanthropology in Africa the renowned Leakey family comes to our head where the parents and their children had done remarkable research in that criterion. If that so, in Asia it would be the Deraniyagala lineage that had the astounding research on Paleoanthropology.
On 1st March,1942, Siran Deraniyagala was born in Ratnapura as the third son of parents, Dr. P.E.P Deraniyagala and Prini Molamure. His grandfather was Sir Paul Edward Pieris Deraniyagala alias, Sir Paul E. Pieris who served as a District Judge in Matara, Kegalle, Kandy and Kalutara. Though Sir Pieris was professionally linked to the legal field, he had a passion on doing research on 16th -19th century history in Sri Lanka and made notable publications related to those. His work was well reputed that he received various awards and honours from western countries including the Knight Bachelor on Queen’s Birthday Honours 1952.
Siran’s father, Dr. P.E.P Deraniyagala was a zoologist who also specialied in paleontology. After the brief discoveries in 19th -20th century on paleolithic remains by Paul Sarasin, Fritz Sarasin, Charles Hartley and Edward James Wayland, it was Dr. P.E.P Deraniyagala that did intense research on the paleontology of Sri Lanka. It was his research that opened the door to the prehistoric chapter in Sri Lanka. Young Siran used to accommodate on his father’s research expeditions which inspired the youngster to follow his father’s footsteps.
As a passionate youth after completing his education at S. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia, he was admitted to the University of Cambridge, where he obtained a BA and MA in Architecture and Sanskrit. He completed a postgraduate diploma at the Institute of Archaeology, University of London. He passed with distinction and was awarded the Gordon Childe Prize.
Sri Lankan statesman the late. Lakshman Kadirgamar once said in his speech at the Oxford Union, describing himself, that “Oxford was the icing on the cake… but the cake was backed at home”- referring to Sri Lanka. I think this quote also applies to Deraniyagala as well, since his first experience with archeology is linked with his father’s expeditions prior to university education.
Embarking on great expeditions
Deraniyagala joined the Archaeological Department in 1968 as Assistant Commissioner in charge of excavations. His functioning in the latter capacity was primarily research-oriented with emphasis on Sri Lanka’s prehistoric period (beyond 1000 BC) while pioneering in its protohistoric (1000-500 BC) and early historic (500 BC-300 AD) archaeology as well. The substance of his contribution to knowledge is set out in the abstract to his PhD at Harvard University in 1988. Doctoral dissertation was based on his research excavation in ancient shore dunes at Iranamadu Formation which trace back to more than 130,000 years ago. The thesis has been hailed as a landmark in the archeology of South Asia, and it has transformed Sri Lankan prehistoric studies. In later time he was awarded with honoris causa doctorates from Sabaragamuwa and Peradeniya Universities.
He was well known for research on Anuradhapura citadel and at Fa Hien cave. Deraniyagala’s work continued as Adviser in Research Excavtions (1983-92) and as Deputy Director-General and the Director-General (1992-2001) to Archaeological Department. Deraniyagala’s position as the Director General marked a milestone in the Archeology Department, which it was the only time where father and son had served that position. Even after retirement Deraniyagala never gave up his work-related to archeology; instead, he did continue and at most time he had a busy schedule.
Over his lifetime, he had been awarded with many local and international awards. On 7th September 2020 the Department of Archaeology opened its research and teaching museum named after Siran Deraniyagala.
Transparency on research
Research involves molding facts out of observations. It is a common thing that some facts that are composed get subjected to criticism. This could be due to various reasons. In 1988 Deraniyagala found potsherds belonging to 600-500 BC with Brahmi inscriptions. Many foreign experts did not believe it because it was known at that time Brahmi inscriptions were absent before the Asokan period (268-232 BC). Deraniyagala invited experts from Cambridge University to come and study the excavation site to check whether he was wrong. As those foreign experts came and researched on that site, even they later agreed on Deraniyagala’s theory. Similar incident happened at Kuruwita Batatotalena Cave excavation by Deraniyagala.
These events signify Lord Buddha’s quote: “Be your own lamp, seek no other refuge but yourself, let truth be your light”.
Farewell of the legend
It is eye-opening to notice that just one day after the 49th death anniversary (October 4th) of Prof. Senarath Paranavithana, Dr. Siran Deraniyagala passed away. He was 79 years old at the time. His funeral was held at his residence “Ekneligoda Walauwwa” on 10/6/2021. The President’s condolence message was read by the Governor of Sabaragamuwa Province Tikiri Kobbekaduwa.
Initially Sri Lankans were mostly proud of their 2,500 years old history but thanks to Siran Deraniyagala and his father a 38,000 years old history got unveiled.
Dr. Siran Deraniyagala, Sir may you attain the supreme bliss of Nirvana!
+++ Tharindu Muthukumarana Author of the award-winning book “The Life of Last Proboscideans: Elephants” email@example.com)