Hotel in the Sri Pada range
Posted on November 12th, 2016

By Rohana R. Wasala

Courtesy The Island

The controversy that is raging over the alleged building of what is variously described as a hotel or a holiday resort or a holiday home or just a circuit bungalow by an Arab businessman (a senior official of a proprietary rank in a multinational communications company) in the neighbourhood of the Samanalakanda nature reserve, a world heritage site, has aroused considerable interest among Sri Lankans everywhere, particularly among the young. These young people who come from different ethnic and religious backgrounds charge that the apparent hotel project is a ploy by a Muslim sect to acquire a bridgehead from where to launch a long term encroachment plan upon the exclusive Buddhist place of worship, the  Sri Pada .

The mountain peak known as Samanalakanda is synonymous with the name Sri Pada (the Sacred Footprint of the Buddha, according to Buddhist belief). Buddhists have been visiting the place annually as pilgrims for well over two thousand years. The social media took the lead in arousing public awareness about the alleged hotel project. It seems that the context for the current brouhaha among the general public was mainly created by a popular whistle-blowing radio channel in Sri Lanka. It was the scrupulous investigative work of its team of dedicated young journalists that exposed the questionable enterprise to public scrutiny for the first time in February this year.  According to them, however, it is only one of several such problematic constructions in that particular locality; there are other similar structures which are much closer to the central sacred area situated on the summit and which have been put up with scant attention being paid to the fragile geography of the place.  It is indeed heartening to see such awareness and concern regarding this particular subject among educated young people of all ethnicities, including young Buddhist monks. If properly channeled by the authorities, the power of this groundswell of youthful public opinion will work wonders for the conservation of our country’s natural environment, the preservation of our historical cultural heritage and the stabilization of racial and religious harmony among our people.

What these young activists are agitatedly talking about is something that should engage the attention of all of us Sri Lankans, irrespective of our diverse racial, cultural and political backgrounds. This is the time we should actively demonstrate our shared sense of attachment  to and  proprietorship over our beloved motherland. The Sri Pada Peak Wilderness Sanctuary (SPPWS) and the surrounding area that inevitably feature in this media free-for-all  is of national importance for us in at least two equally important ways:  as an environmentally sensitive region and as an ancient (Buddhist) cultural heritage site.  The ongoing public uproar, in my opinion, offers a golden opportunity for us to prevent a situation that is likely to threaten disastrous consequences for the steadfast Buddhist-Muslim amity that exists in Sri Lanka today, in addition to the problem of the harmful impact that the building of the proposed hotel or holiday resort might have on the environment. I have seen videos on the You Tube that deny the existence of a plan for such a construction at that place. But there is enough circumstantial evidence for us to believe otherwise. Let’s leave it to the government to find out the truth and act decisively. But the problem should be addressed without politicizing it. There cannot be any difficulty in doing so; members of the present administration and those of the previous one bear equal responsibility for whatever has happened or is happening now in this case. Activists including Buddhist monks have been raising objections to what look like aggressive fundamentalist inroads into ancient Buddhist heritage sites, but without any credible responses made being in evidence.

The prevalent public perception is that the construction in question is in violation of legally prescribed environmental regulations. The problem demands a permanent solution, which should also apply to other unauthorized or fraudulently authorized buildings in the area. It would be less controversial if the problem be addressed as an environmental matter, which it primarily is. The politically neutral environmental and legal aspect of the issue is what the aforementioned whistle-blowers rightly emphasize. But the importance of jealously guarding the ancient Buddhist cultural heritage of the Sri Pada zone need hardly be stressed. About this there appears to be unanimity of opinion among all those who show an interest in the matter.

The hotel or holiday resort is to be put up in a private property (known as Peak Field estate, 87 acres in extent) bordering on the scenic Maussakele reservoir in the Murray Grama Niladhari division at Nallathanniya that comes under the Ambagamuwa Divisional Secretariat in the Nuwara Eliya district. The divisional secretariat is said to have permitted a building plan for renovating an old bungalow, a single floor house with five rooms. But the fact that there is a helipad on the property, where the comings and goings of some Arab-looking men have been noted, leads neighbours to suspect that something big is happening there. Nowadays, ordinary people are quite alert to what is happening around them. They know that this is an environmentally protected area as well as a heritage zone, and that people cannot put up buildings there as they please. The associated region is known for its rich biodiversity. Samanalakanda is a watershed from where four rivers (Mahaweli, Kelani, Walawe and Kalu) originate. The mountainous terrain can become prone to landslides if built over without adhering to instructions given by geologists. Already environmental pollution through discarded polythene bags and other rubbish left by visitors is a critical problem in the area.

Alerted by the public outcry, the president, as minister responsible for environmental affairs, according to news reports, ordered the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) to conduct an immediate investigation into the matter. (The fact that the president had to learn about the problem from public media tells us something about the level of professionalism of the government servants and provincial political authorities of the area.)It is reported that the president’s instructions were carried out, and work on the site has been suspended by the CEA since 2nd November. While a permanent solution is being awaited, we may take a brief look at the past and the present of this national heritage site in order to appreciate its importance to us and to humanity in general (to which those Arabs don’t seem to pay any attention).

Sri Pada is one of the sixteen most hallowed Buddhist sacred places (solosmahasthana) in Sri Lanka, among which the Sri Maha Bodhi  and Ruwanmelisaya at Anuradhapura, the Dalada Maligawa in Kandy and the Kelaniya Raja Mahaviharaya at Kelaniya near Colombo are four of the best known. Buddhists believe that the Buddha visited the island on three occasions. According to tradition, it was during his third visit that the Buddha miraculously indented the rock surface on the summit of the peak there with his left foot. The traditional belief is that the actual impression of the Buddha’s left foot is hidden under the rock on which devotees today see an oversized elaborately carved footprint. The Buddhist claim to the peak is very ancient. It is mentioned even in the earliest known chronicles of the Sinhalese such as the Deepavamsa of the 4th and the Mahavamsa of the 5th century CE. King Valambahu (104-76 BCE), a nephew of king Dutugemunu, was the first person to discover the Sacred Footprint.  King Vijayabahu I (1065-1119), renowned for re-unifying the country after driving away foreign invaders, visited this place, and donated the village of Gilimale for providing assistance to pilgrims. King Nissanka Malla (1157-1196), who worshipped at the Sri Pada, left an inscription in a place called Bagawa Lena, describing the services he had performed to promote Buddhism and to help the poor. Shockingly, it is in an unprotected state today. So Sri Pada is an undisputed Buddhist sacred place. Arab traveler Ibn Batuta, who came from Tangiers in Morocco in 1344, says that there was a stairway and iron stanchions with pendant chains to help the pilgrim climbers visiting the place. Stone steps, stairways, handrails, etc , services for pilgrims, renovation of sacred shrines were all done by Buddhist monarchs.  So Sri Pada’s identity as a Buddhist place of worship is beyond controversy.

But people of other religions also have legends that connect the place to their faiths. There is no doubt that their stories originated at much later times. Hindus believe that the footprint is that of their god Shiva. So they call it ‘Shivanolipadam’. Christians and Muslims believe that it is the footprint of Adam, the first man created according to their belief. While Muslims call the peak Al Rohun, Christians use the name Adam’s Peak to refer to it.  Those who visited Sri Pada, like me, many years ago could see signposts with three alternative names: ‘Sri Padaya’ in Sinhalese, ‘Shivanolipadam’ in Tamil, and ‘Adam’s Peak’ in English letters. In those days the existence of several alternative names was not thought to be a problem, as in the case of the name of the country itself: the country was ‘Lanka’ to all locals, but ‘Ceylon’ to foreigners. So ‘Lanka’ was hardly known outside ‘Ceylon’! In fact, it seemed that referring to Sri Pada by three alternative names was an apt way for the custodians of this age-old Buddhist place of worship to demonstrate their characteristically Buddhist tolerance towards non-Buddhists’ right to assert their own conception of the numinous significance for them of what the Sinhalese Buddhists called ‘Sri Padasthanaya’ (Shrine of the Sri Pada). But today it has become necessary to establish ‘Sri Pada’ as the official name of the sacred mount. There is a campaign among  young local netizens active in the informal Protect Sri Pada Movement to revise what is marked as ‘Adam’s Peak’ on the Google map of Sri Lanka as ‘Sri Pada’, which I think is a commendable effort.

Protecting our historic Buddhist cultural heritage from overt or covert aggression should not be criticized as inspired by Sinhala supremacist racism or religious intolerance against anyone. We are probably the only nation state in the world that has stuck to a single religion without a break for nearly all of its recorded history of over two thousand five hundred years. That is something all Sri Lankans can be genuinely proud of. The ongoing movement for the protection of Sri Pada and the Samanakanda nature reserve and its immediate neighbourhood with special attention to its brittle environment and its threatened Buddhist cultural heritage has revealed  that the new generation of Sri Lankans are ready to work together for a national cause ignoring narrow ethnic, religious and other distinctions among them. This is a trend that should be encouraged by all.

One Response to “Hotel in the Sri Pada range”

  1. Nimal Says:

    We should not get excited over an arab moving to that place and make an absurd storey.Arbs knowing their oil running out in a decade is moving to other countries where their investment money is welcomed. Should we worry about the myth of who set foot there, so absurd in this day and age?

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