Ibbankatuwa: Shrouded in ancient mystery | Sunday Observer

Ibbankatuwa: Shrouded in ancient mystery

The cluster burial grounds.
The cluster burial grounds.

On a recent visit to Dambulla, our vehicle passed a board which indicated ‘Ibbankatuwa Megalithic Burial Site’, about five kilometers before reaching the main town. Not sure what to expect, we made a sharp turn and backtracked a few feet to the entrance.

Unknown to us, this was a very significant place in the magnificent history of ancient Ceylon. After purchasing the “locals” ticket at the counter, we met Subodhini Wanasinghe, an officer attached to the Central Cultural Fund (CCF). After a short walk down a path bordering a wooden stockade-like fence we caught our first glimpse of a very ancient cemetery.

The megalith influence

Every ancient culture had their own rites and burial rituals, which were perhaps an expression of their moral and religious doctrines.

The word megalith comes from the Greek words megas- meaning great and lithos meaning stone. So megalith is basically a very heavy and large stone. Megalithic burial sites have been discovered and carefully excavated in many regions of the world including Turkey and Germany.

The burial systems clearly show human ash kept in clay pots. These were then placed on the floor with grave goods and tools of the deceased (a custom common in Egypt). Four stones made a kind of tomb with a fifth stone taking the place of a lid. In other burial forms “dolmens” were erected.

A dolmen is a large heavy vertical stone. Such dolmen sites are found in Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Jordan and Israel. Burial rituals differ. The Israelite tradition was to be buried with once ancestors, as indicated in the Old Testament. In Talmudic times burial took place in caves, catacombs and sarcophagi (stone coffin).

Galewela Mystery

In Mesopotamia there was belief in ghosts! The Maya buried the dead with maize in the mouth, a sign of a new birth in the afterlife. In ancient Zoroastrianism the corpse was kept exposed to birds of prey.

Neighbouring India also has such megalithic sites with 50 dolmens in Karnataka and 100 dolmens found in Tamil Nadu.

Our forefathers were certainly much refined in their social structure. This is endorsed by the fact that the dead were respectfully remembered. We cannot ascertain as to how they chiseled out these amazingly large stone slabs or how long that process took. But they did have an order in their burial ritual.

The Ibbankatuwa site at Galewela raises many questions. What were these communities doing here? Were they hunters? Why did they focus so much on venerating their dead instead of burying them in the ground? Who made the large clay pots for the ashes to be stored? What was their burial ceremony? Did they believe in an afterlife? Did they visit the cemetery regularly?

The site is believed to be discovered during some survey oriented task in 1970. The 16 acres of land is the settlement of this ancient tribe. The tombs sit in 46 clusters, with each having 10 tombs. The terra-cotta urns and pots vary in size, maybe to show social status or to segregate between adults and children? Excavations were diligently done in 1983/1984 and later in 1988/1990. The museum at the site has handmade replicas of the original pots (which are preserved in a lab).

Carbon dating has confirmed that the tombs originate during 700-400 BC. Some delicate necklaces have also been unearthed here, showing that the women of this bygone era were enticed by primitive fashion.

The stone beads include Onyx, Carnelian and Agate. Some opine that the beads could have come via India, though this cannot be verified. The Ibbankatuwa cemetery is not highlighted sufficiently in tourism marketing and therefore a very important segment of our history remains dormant. The site is a reminder that our ancestors were much more refined and intelligent than common perception.