Dalada Maligawa road: There’s more than meets the eye
Posted on January 31st, 2015

By Rohana R. Wasala

Courtesy The Island

In his opinion piece in The Island (24-01-2015) Professor O.I. Illeperuma urges the authorities to re-open the Maligawa road immediately. I, for one, share  Professor Illeperuma’s great concern with the problem of air pollution in Kandy that has led to an increasing incidence of respiratory diseases particularly among school children attending schools in the vicinity. To show how sharply the air pollution levels in Kandy dropped when this road was re-opened for traffic in 2002 after it had been closed since the 1998 January bombing of the shrine, he writes:

When Hon. Ranil Wickremesinghe opened this road to traffic in 2002, there was a drastic drop in the air pollution levels. The particle concentration dropped by nearly 70% and the sulphur dioxide levels, too, dropped by about 50% after the roads were reopened.”

Here it is not clear whether the drop was exclusively due to the opening of the Maligawa road or whether  it was the result of all previously closed roads including this one being re-opened. Anyway, no problem. Point taken. Professor Illeperuma also writes:

Again, the former president was not in favour of this move since he did not understand the seriousness of this issue and considered only the pilgrims who visit the temple of tooth.”

The professor is saying that former president Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa was not in favour of re-opening the Maligawa road because he did not understand the seriousness of the problem of vehicular air pollution in Kandy, but cared only about the pilgrims who visit the temple of tooth”. (The lack of respect for the special person and the sacred place mentioned – both objects of open and veiled attacks respectively outside this context, too – reveals the writer’s prejudice, which detracts from the sincerity of his appeal.)

To dismiss Mr Rajapaksa’s support for a permanent closure of the road in question (which is a fait accompli now) as due to his ignorance of the gravity of the air pollution problem, is, I’m afraid, not correct. A ruler is duty- bound to be sensitive to different aspects of a problem, not one,  and is responsible to all the people of the country for his decisions and actions; a scientist’s obligations are different. A scientist can play only an advisory role here. As to the acquiescence of  Ven. Malwatte Mahanayake Thera about its re-opening, that is his opinion. Ven. Asgiriya Mahanayake Thera is the other custodian monk of the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic and shares equal responsibility for its service maintenance and physical protection as a place of worship of all Buddhists the world over. He does not want the old road that used to be there re-opened. Let them decide this between them. But they cannot ignore the opinion of other stakeholders, including the lay custodian, the Diyawadane Nilame, and the provincial and central government authorities.

Opinion on this matter is divided; but opinion about the urgent need to significantly relieve, if not totally eliminate, the longstanding air pollution problem in Kandy is not divided; there is 100% unanimity of opinion about that both among those who clamour for re-opening/reconstructing the old road stretch near the door step of the Maligawa and among those who oppose it. How to ‘re-open’ a non-existent road is also a problem. So the authorities must  patiently find another option that satisfies both sides. It is not wise to allow personal prejudice (based on political, religious, academic or social grounds) to obfuscate a sensitive issue.

But I am not saying that Professor Illeperuma is intentionally asking the new administration to do something unpardonably rash in strike while the iron is hot” fashion. My usual impression of him is as a gentle human being devoted to his professional work as a scientist/ a university chemistry professor. He is right to express his personal opinions and preferences to which he is perfectly entitled; he may do so even when he wants to dispense his expertise for the benefit of the country/fellow humans; but he must the decision-makers to make their choice of method in answering his concerns. He is probably unaware that the Maligawa road controversy could provide an opportunity for certain mischievous elements with anti-Buddhist axes to grind to come to the scene.

There is more than meets the eye here. Not all those who feel sincerely concerned about both sides of the issue (the vital problem of public health and the protection of a cultural monument) may be mindful of this. There is a need to pay special attention to the preservation of the country’s Buddhist and other cultural and historical monuments. Before writing this, I just dipped into the Wikipedia to check what it says about the Maligawa, and found this amidst pieces of authentic information: The temple sustained  damage from bombings at various times but was fully restored each time.” Bombings? But it doesn’t say bombed by whom or when. As far as I know, the Maligawa was bombed only once, and that was on 25 January 1998 causing the destruction of the lives of some sixteen or so early morning devotees that happened to be there at the time, and of the façade of the edifice including some valuable sacred artifacts  inside. Whoever entered that bit of (mis)information must have done so out of ignorance; and there is no need to feel paranoid about this. We need not worry too much about the Wikipedia being abused through concocted information by individuals either for or against Sri Lanka for their own purposes. Anyone interested can edit these entries, and tell the world the truth. The Wikipedia is an invaluable resource available free for all including young intellectuals (with a knowledge of English and a grasp of the country’s history, but unlike certain colonial clones of an earlier age) who want to brighten the image of our nation in every sphere by volunteering as editors.

The importance of the Dalada Maligawa as a cultural and historical relic to the Sinhalese Buddhists and to all other fair minded Sri Lankans as well need not be reiterated. It was originally a royal palace complex, where the Tooth Relic was enshrined, close to the residence of the king, because the custodianship of the relic was then considered a prerequisite for claiming sovereignty over the country. It has been declared a UNESCO cultural heritage site, suggesting that it is recognized as part of the cultural heritage of all civilized humanity. I wrote about this nearly five years ago (‘Why the Maligawa road should not be reopened’, The Island, 23 July 2010). The Maligawa was built around the end of the 16th century under the auspices of King Vimaladharmasuriya (Konappu Bandara, a Sinhalese prince, brought up as a Catholic, and trained as a soldier by the Portuguese, the first European invaders of the island, among whom he found refuge having fled from a troubled Kandy due to internecine strife among the nobles there; he later returned, re-embraced his native Buddhism, and established himself as king, frustrating the attempts of his Portuguese mentors to subjugate the kingdom). So, it is more than five hundred years old and is also historically important as an early symbol of resistance to European political and cultural invasion. What used to be called the Maligawa road until recently was made during the British occupation. It comes in verbal tradition that a track was built round the lake for British soldiers to ride their horses in defiance of the normal custom that even the king never rode on horse back near the Shrine of the Tooth Relic before. The Kandy-Tennekumbura road running adjacent to the Maligawa was probably an extension of the same track away from the lake. If the British built a big Christian church where the Tooth Relic Temple stands now, would they have desecrated it by constructing a thoroughfare passing near its gate without looking for alternative routes to circumvent it? The imperial policy was to kill off the local culture, to kill off the native language, to kill off the independent spirit of the people they were exploiting, all of which they did with a fair measure of success. The Dalada Maligawa was a prime target to desecrate. The occupying power could thus humiliate the people to whom it was the foremost place of worship. During the 1818 Rebellion the British made a special effort to recover the hidden Tooth Relic. It was only when the ordinary people were convinced of the fact that the British were in possession of the Sacred Tooth Relic that they resignedly accepted British rule.

The road was not made for the Maligawa, Professor Illeperuma says. Yes, that’s true, for it was built against it. But there are two questions that we must find answers to: Is the closure of the Maligawa portion of the Dalada Vidiya  the only factor responsible for increasing air pollution? Isn’t there an alternative to re-opening it as a solution?

First, let me take up the second question: Isn’t there an alternative…? Yes, there is. I myself pointed this out about sixteen years ago (as something that had been proposed even before that during President Premadasa’s time) in an article entitled The Kandy Lake and Its Future” (The Island, 26 November 1999): build a bridge across the lake at its narrowest point (which is close to where the Central Province Provincial Council Office Complex is/was? for this may have been shifted to Kundasale already?). Six months later, The Island (13 June 2000) reported that the then Ministry of Transport and Highways was considering a proposal to build a bridge across the lake. But, it was abandoned, apparently on the pretext that such a structure would be an eyesore, that it would harm the scenic beauty of the spot that the lake enhances. This is not an acceptable reason for not going for that easy solution. The sensible leaders of the new government must revive this proposal and carry it out as soon as possible, after examining due environmental and feasibility reports and getting the approval of the Maligawa authorities and others concerned. We have our own qualified young engineers who can do it without harming the beauty of the place, but instead adding to its beauty.

Let us prioritize the three demands involved here in this way: As a healthy life, especially for our children, is more important than anything else, let us give precedence to the need for relieving the air pollution problem; the second is the case of preserving the sanctity of the Maligawa; the least is the aesthetic aspect. A bridge will meet all three demands. Dr Lakshman Ranasinghe, in his very sensible response (The Island, 27 January 2015) to Professor Illeperuma’s opinion piece, proposes the construction of  a metal tunnel from the Trincomalee Street (i.e., D.S. Senanayake Street) to the Ampitiya turnoff. I appeal to the authorities as urgently as I do above regarding the bridge proposal to consider Dr Ranasinghe’s idea also and any other novel proposals offered by others, and make a final decision.

Now, to answer the first question, i.e., Is the closure of the Maligawa portion of  the Dalada Vidiya  the only factor responsible for increasing air pollution?: The answer is a clear ‘No’. Traffic congestion has other causes. The streets of Kandy are cramped for most of the day with vehicles and pedestrians. The general indiscipline of both drivers and pedestrians adds to the problem. Under an efficient, no-nonsense young DIG, some time ago, (I don’t know what the situation is today) Kandy was almost free from traffic congestion; both drivers and pedestrians were made to behave. Then there is unauthorized pavement hawking in addition to unauthorized structures obstructing pedestrian and vehicle movement. In Kandy’s narrow streets some businessmen park their vehicles at their shop-fronts; they don’t use the excellent car park built at enormous cost, because they are averse to walking the short distance from their shops to the car park. President Premadasa had the William Gopallawa Mawatha built between Kandy and Gatembe, even ignoring expert opinion against it, as a matter of urgency to ease the perennial traffic congestion on the old Kandy-Peradeniya road which is at a slightly higher elevation.  When these two roads were made one-way streets, they became safer and faster, and the traffic congestion disappeared. Only for a short time. Businesspeople didn’t like it. The authorities buckled under pressure, instead of answering their concerns by constructing a couple more link roads between the two roads which are only a few metres apart. Those who are agitating for the reopening/rather the reconstruction of the ‘Maligawa road’ are probably unwittingly serving the interests of the business folk who are being now inconvenienced, instead of helping to find a less controversial solution. A new bridge has been built over the Mahaweli at Katugastota to remove the usual traffic bottleneck that existed there for long decades previously. Different governments have done a great deal to solve this problem; but yet the problem remains. In addition to making roads and bridges wherever possible, imaginative, peaceful ways of tackling environmental pollution (including sound pollution which is a similarly sensitive issue in Kandy) must be found.

6 Responses to “Dalada Maligawa road: There’s more than meets the eye”

  1. sena Says:

    may be MR was thinking then how politicians, their in tow high ranking officials and highly placed priests can arrive in their helicopters and luxury vehicles and moved freely around the protected space around maligawa, while we the commoner go round and round on the winding road around the lake and get dizzy and at the same time pay higher bus fees

  2. sena Says:

    all these difficulties around kandy you mentioned is one reason MR lost election in kandy area by wide margin. While he was spending heavily in hambantota and Colombo, not a cent was spent in kandy

  3. Nimal Says:

    Rohana
    Thank you very much for bringing this to the attention of people.Closure of the road by the maligwa is a great harm to the people in Kandy as people have drive 4 miles around the lake, thus causing much inconvenience and air pollution.Housing of the relic of Lord Buddha was done by the colonials to strengthen the noble traditions of the country, where the supressed Sinhalese were given their rightful place and their right to their country.
    What is happening now is a scandal and being used to divide and rule our people and to suppress the innocent people.
    They use the presence of the maligawa to deliberately restrict people, say for instance if someone wants to put a structure like a hotel or even a home, there are restrictions.while the cronis have no such restriction.
    A Muslim man who bought a run down cinema wanted to put a hotel but was refused but a crony of the regime was allowed on the same spot, where MR went to open the new hotel. Examples like this is endless and the silent majority in the town is angry.
    This particular restriction is used by the politicians and the cronies as a privilege to show off to the humble people and they are more equal than the humble people by having special passes to use that road. Are we to say that the privileged people are pure enough to trample the so called sanctity of the maligawa?
    It is so polluted, because Kandy is in a valley two of my family members died of respitorey diseases and so are many. My elder brother too suffers from acute bronchitis due to pollution. I was there 3 months and then two months after leaving SL I still suffer from bronchitis.
    I am glad the Malwattha Prelate is against the closure and he a decent and understanding person, a true Buddhist.
    We must follow the teaching of Buddha not his tooth. Chinese too tried to ridicule the noble faith by bringing a big tooth of the size about 3 inches in somewhere in 1950s and the people fell for it by lining up for miles and we the young ridiculed it openly and they took it away very quickly. They tried to ridicule the Buddhist countries in revenge for the opposition by these countries to the invasion of the ancient monasteries in Tibet.
    Good Buddhist people should not allow politicians and other crooks use the noble faith to control people,supress people and to exploit it to make money. It’s strange how the conniving politicians are allowed to exploit a religion like this.

  4. Wickrama Says:

    Rohana,

    Made the correction in Wikipedia.

  5. NAK Says:

    A bridge across the lake at the point where the road levels off with the lake would cut the distance by half.
    The distance across would be roughly 100m.
    in the mean time authorities can open the road during rush hours until a bridge is built.
    It may look a bit ugly but since other concerns are also important we’ll have to bear with it I guess.

  6. dingiri bandara Says:

    Opening this this road may help.The big problem is there are too many vehicles in the country. What we need is a master plan to reduce vehicles and traffic. I have no doubt that we have smart, intelligent, qualified people in SL who can come up with a plan. We only need the political will and of course money.

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