|Wednesday, 8 January 2003|
Portrait of a scholar: Dr. Senarath Paranavitana
by Andrew Scott
This pen portrait seeks to revive the memory of Dr. Senarath Paranavitana, that small-made intellectual giant who left an indelible mark in the annals of Sri Lanka's history in recent times.
He was born on 26th December 1896 at Metaramba, Galle and he had his early education at the Metaramba Government school and later entered Bona Vista school in Galle. He studied oriental languages at Ranwaligoda Pirivena in Heenatigala. He was a school teacher at the Udugampola Government school and joined the Department of Archaeology in 1923. He married in 1930. Dr. Senarath Paranavitana received his Ph.D in 1936 and was appointed Commissioner of Archaeology on 1st October 1940 in which capacity he served diligently till December 1956. The next year (1957) he was appointed Prof. of Archaeology at the Peradeniya University.
Dr. Senarath Paranavitana was a pre-eminent archaeologist this country has ever produced and for this unique personality archaeology was both a vocation and a leisure time activity which he enjoyed very much throughout his long and very productive life which stands out as a shining example for us, his countrymen, to follow.
He always appeared as a very ordinary person irrespective of his high intellectual attainments and world recognition and was friendly towards all who came in contact with him. Dr. Senarath Paranavitana was also very active and punctual throughout his public career.
I nostalgically recall three very memorable meetings I had with this intellectual giant with so humble qualities. In the first occasion I virtually 'bumped' into him at a second hand book-shop in Colombo, browsing through some old books. The second was when the late D. B. Dhanapala, the doyen of journalism then, assigned me to interview Dr. Senarath Paranavitana which was a very challenging task for a budding journalist.
The third was at Peradeniya's intellectual rendezvous, the Peradeniya University, at the time this institution was dominated by persons of high intellectual calibre and unquestionable integrity.
He started life as a teacher but at that time no one would have ever thought that this frail looking teacher would ever come to the limelight in the field of national and inter-national archaeology and even Dr. Senarath Paranavitana himself may not have thought of his in the formative stages of his distinguished career.
It all happened by mere chance. While being engaged in teaching Senarath Paranavitana had seen an advertisement made by the Commissioner of Archaeology at that time, A. M. Hocart, calling for a few young people to be trained in archaeology.
In reply to this advertisement Senarath Paranavitana had hastened to apply and to his dismay he was selected as a trainee under the eminent archaeologist, A. M. Hocart, who took a special interest in imbibing young Paranavitana with a thorough knowledge about the art and science of archaeology creating in him a love for the national treasures buried under the earth.
Discovering the promising propensity of this young Sri Lankan scholar, Hocart sent him to India for further training and studies in his chosen field and even in India, where he came under the direct influence of world renowned archaeologists John Marshall and epigraphist Krishna Shastri of Mohenjo Daro fame, Senarath Paranavitana, the small-made Sri Lankan student, outshone all others surprising even his superiors. In addition to several other monumental works on archaeology Dr. Senarath Paranavitana is best known for his tome on Sigiri Graffiti. He dedicated his entire life to unravel certain mysteries and unfounded beliefs about archaeology and brought lustre to the entire ambit of Asian archaeology with special reference to the archaeology of Sri Lanka infusing a new lease of life to this once drab subject.
Dr. Senarath Paranavitana was a rare Sri Lankan who was destined to explore the buried history and archaeology of this country and his monumental books contain a wealth of information of the pristine glory of this country. Even today they serve us as useful sources of inspiration to both the scholars as well as the students. In addition he contributed to various national and international journals on sensitive areas of archaeology.
He devoted his entire life to the study and research in archaeology and connected areas spread over several years and the fruits of his intensive research culminated with the production of several monumental works which are outstanding even today as inspiring examples of erudite research and dedicated scholarship.
This self-made man of learning and wisdom passed away creating a void in the cultural and intellectual life of this country. His life provides inspiration to the public servants of today who should, in addition to their official duties, engage in worthwhile academic pursuits beneficial to the country.
Dr. Senarath Paranavitana was a truly cultured son of our soil who by his meticulous research enriched the knowledge of Sri Lankan history and archaeology, kindled a love for the country in the hearts of the old and the young and made Sri Lankans realise the importance of our glorious past.
We Sri Lankans owe a deep debt of gratitude to Dr. Senarath Paranavitana whose 106th birth anniversary fell on December 25th. He was a remarkable historian, erudite scholar and an eminent archaeologist who mesmerised wide audiences with novel ideas about history, archaeology and allied subjects. The best scholars, the best archaeologists, the best epigraphists and the best philologists of the world acknowledged him as an authority in all these fields. He made archaeology a living thing and though Dr. Senarath Paranavitana is no more his breathing spirit continues to be among those present.
Produced by Lake House