An object lesson in archaeological conservation
Posted on July 29th, 2020

By Rohana R. Wasala

Buvaneka Hotel? I wanted to renovate the place when I was Secretary to the Urban Development Authority, but the owner refused to give it up for renovation.

  • An amused President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to some young men who asked him, during his campaign tour of the Kurunegala district on July 27, why he kept silent when ‘our kingdom’ was bulldozed.

(The prime minister has appointed an archaeological advisory committee consisting of twenty experts – monks and laymen, archaeologist Ven. Ellawela Medhananda among them – as a first step towards protecting the gravely endangered archaeological heritage of the country, according to live evening TV news from Sri Lanka/July 29. This is a very positive response to public concerns raised over the partial demolition of what is popularly held to be the remains of a royal assembly hall belonging to the reign of King Bhuvanekabahu II of Kurunegala of the 13th century CE.)

The demolition of a part of a building that is claimed to be an archaeological site at Kurunegala on the night of July 14, 2020  caused quite a furore, with the opposition seizing the opportunity offered by the surreptitious operation to sling mud at the government. Why the mayor had to do it in the night in such a hurry is yet to be explained, though. In any case, the controversy that the destruction ignited was manna from heaven for the opposition, which is starved of a proper platform for fighting the election. Aside from this, the main opposition speakers are providing much needed comic relief for the corona-fears-hit audiences across the country through their empty campaign speeches. They have suddenly become champion protectors of the country’s cultural heritage. But it is hardly likely that the senior SLPP leaders would have allowed this act of (apparently accidental) vandalism to be committed, had they had an inkling of it beforehand, particularly in this run-up-to one of the most decisive general elections  held in the country. 

Be that as it may, the episode has drawn the attention of all Sri Lankans to a chronic issue that is directly connected with the national security and the political stability of the Sri Lankan state: the deliberate destruction/vandalizing/encroachment of Sri Lanka’s archaeological sites by treasure hunters and politically motivated individuals. The protection, through preservation and conservation, of the country’s rich ancient cultural heritage is a national responsibility that no government can ignore. There are six main parties who are bound to take an interest in this issue; they are, to list them at random: Buddhist monks, the general public, historians and archaeologists, relevant state officials, politicians in general, and the government including the prime minister the executive president. 

The president laughed when the young men queried him about the Kurunegala affair because he knows that the name ‘Buvaneka’ had been dragged into it by interested parties to embarrass the government (by highlighting its supposed antiquity). With that answer, he pricked the balloon of false propaganda of the opposition. But there is no doubt that he takes the problem that underlies the whole affair seriously. It is very clear that, taken out of that context, it is no laughing matter, though some people may try to make it out to be something trivial and  funny. In fact, the enemies of the country want to represent even the general election as a form of meaningless theatrical entertainment, which in reality this time is the moment of truth for the whole national electorate.  

Incidentally, there are those who are ever ready to attack the recorded history of the Sinhalese in their unique homeland as mere fiction. But knowledgeable local and foreign scholars, from colonial times to the present, have increasingly accepted it as something well authenticated by carefully composed ancient chronicles and orally transmitted folk traditions, both supported by epigraphical evidence and archaeological remains found across the length and breadth of the island. Ill-informed cynics are making the public outrage caused by the thoughtless act a pretext for taking a playful dig at those who are speaking up for safeguarding the rights of the variously besieged majority community. It is a different matter that there are a few political opportunists, fakes, and rogues among them as there are among members of other communities. Recent  evidence unearthed by archaeologists (some of them from foreign universities) has proved that a primitive people who had nevertheless reached a relatively advanced stage of civilization had inhabited the central mountainous region of the island at least some four and a half thousand years ago, which hints at the fact that the history of the Sinhalese is much older than the recorded 2500 years. The Ravana story may be a myth, but it is quite possible that is based on a regal ancestor of the Sinhalese who fought invasions from abroad thousands years before the time that the Mahavansa begins with. Some amateur ‘archaeologists’ in the form of You Tubers, apparently none of them with any expertise in the most difficult domain of archaeology, at various levels of commitment to the discovery of the scientific truth from one hundred percent to zero percent, are turning out videos these days about real or imagined archaeological sites. Some of them have published, for example, pictures of mysterious symbolic shapes carved on a rock in a hardly accessible place and a drawing of what looks like a dinosaur on another rock face, images worthy of being included in Erich Von Daniken’s 1968 classic ‘Chariots of the Gods’. A responsible future government must turn its attention to this so-called ‘Ravana’ aspect of Sri Lanka’s pre-history and bring it under the purview of proper archaeological study. The nation can exploit its potential for the benefit of the country in terms of its economy through the promotion of tourism in addition to contributing to the global store of human knowledge. Equally important, it will serve to ensure the future survival of the Sinhalese as a race with their unique historical identity. So, the uproar raised about the Kurunegala incident by both genuine and mischief-making protestors is not something to be dismissed with a laugh.

There cannot be any dispute about the fact that the structure at the place in question is of archaeological value, though the mayor of Kurunegala, the first citizen of the city, is unaware of it. Ignorance is no excuse for a person who holds such a responsible position. However, the Adhikarana Sanga Nayake Thera of Vayamba,  at a meeting of the Bauddha Upadeshaka Sabhava with the President (July 25) said that the place in question was not an archaeological site, and that it was a big lie to say that it was. He said that there was no ‘raja sabha mandapaya’ (a royal assembly hall) belonging to king Bhuvanekabahu II at that place. In his detailed explanation of its recent history of about twenty years, he described how the premises was leased out by the municipal council during that period and was enlarged and used for various commercial purposes such as running wine shop,a  restaurant, a barber shop, and even for renting out rooms for couples. It was implied that the enlargement of the building by adding rooms, etc was done without proper official authorization. But the monk admitted that the old structure that  originally stood there and apparently still stands there partly damaged or tampered with, was one built more than one hundred years ago, which means that the place should be considered an  archaeological site. An archaeologist who was seen at  the meeting, had stated to a local newspaper on an earlier occasion, that, according to popular tradition, the particular place was where king Bhuvanekabahu II held assizes/adjudged cases (though there was no literary or other evidence to support this.)

With apologies to historians and archaeologists, I would like to suggest, as a lay reader, that  unrelated information available in Chapter XC (90) of the Mahavansa (continued in the Culavansa) lends  credence to the popular tradition that the archaeologist monk mentioned. That particular chapter narrates the goings on in a period of history made noteworthy by such events as the relocation of the seat of government from time to time to Dambadeniya, Kurunegala,  and Yapahuwa, internecine conflicts triggered by succession disputes sometimes leading to torture, treachery and murder, foreign invasions, the forced removal of the Tooth Relic to the captivity of Pandyans in south India by ‘a chief among Tamils, known as Ariya Cakkavatti, albeit he was not an Ariya’, and its eventual recovery through sophisticated diplomacy, cultural activity in the service of Buddhism and the advancement of letters under royal patronage, and the construction of architectural monuments such as the magnificent rock fortress city of Yapahuwa (Subha-pabbata/Subhacala/Subagiri) built by king Bhuvanekabahu I, whose son Bhuvanekabahu II ruled at Kurunegala from 1293-1302 CE. That the latter dispensed justice from a specially constructed assembly hall in Kurunegala is not an improbability. Has any archaeologist tried to compare the architectural features of the alleged  royal assembly hall to those found at Yapahuwa? In view of these facts, talking further about the issue is worth our while. (The Mahavansa references here are based on Mudaliyar L.C. Wijesinha’s translation of 1889.)

The issue involves the accidental or premeditated partial destruction of a heritage building and its complex aftermath. The foreign and local supporters of the opposition may not see any complexity in either, the former because of their ignorance of, and the latter because of their indifference to, the cultural sensitivities and political perceptions of the majority Sinhalese Buddhist community. Hence they might express adverse opinions about the way the six categories of people responded to the incident. 

It is obvious that the mayor found himself caught off his guard when he was confronted with the fact that what was partly demolished was of archaeological value. A minister of the present government, a prominent member of the SLPP (who comes from a business background, and who was a UNP stalwart before he joined the Mahinda camp), rushed to his rescue, which one of his cabinet colleagues publicly criticised. If some irregularity was committed in this instance, which is very likely, there is a common heritage of guilt to be shared by the incumbent and previous mayors, possibly of a different political colour. Prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, it seemed, showed a special interest in the matter as the Buddha Sasana and cultural affairs minister in the caretaker administration. The opposition’s exploitation of the mayor’s blunder to attack the government to gain some propaganda advantage over it, with the elections round the corner, made the PM’s concern in this regard look like a mark of what they probably thought was his desire to engage in some sort of damage control exercise. In my opinion, there was absolutely no need for the government to register a panicked response. What happened was what could have happened under any government, notwithstanding its desire to avoid such embarrassment or to ensure rectification of what went wrong in such a situation. The commercial abuse of that place, and many other similar registered and unregistered heritage sites, for that matter, has persisted for a long time, in some cases, with the connivance of or under the sponsorship of politicians in the local authorities allied to main parties. Party leaders have no control over this. In politically motivated attacks on the country’s ancient Buddhist heritage in the east particularly, government officials become vulnerable to manipulation by well funded extremists through bribery. 

The only solution is to leave matters to the law enforcement authorities so they can take appropriate action. The PM-appointed committee has made some recommendations (conservation of the part damaged while preserving its archaeological features, acquisition of the building by the department of archaeology, requesting the RDA to revise its road widening plan at this point, prosecuting the persons responsible for the destruction, and recovering the cost of conservation from the institutions or individuals responsible for the destruction) which are to be implemented in the short term. Once the building is restored and the problem, whatever it is, that required a part of it to be bulldozed under cover of the night is sorted out, the current mode of its utilization will have to be reviewed, and changes introduced as appropriate. At the meeting he had with the monks of the Bauddha Upadeshaka Sabhava on July 25, the president decided to appoint a committee of experts to propose changes to the Antiquities Ordinance, which should ensure more robust implementation of the law relating to archaeological places, buildings and objects than now. 

Even in the past the president was the only person in a position of power (as defence secretary) who made a meaningful intervention in the problem first articulated by Buddhist monks (for example, Kuragala). Meanwhile, it will be very important to depoliticize and de-communalize the problem of protecting the archaeological relics of the country’s glorious Buddhist past. Most of the vulnerable sites lie in the north and east where the island civilization started as currently understood. Actually there is no threat to them from the mainstream Tamil and Muslim minority communities who respectively dominate those provinces in terms of population numbers, but these peaceful people are held hostage by a few political extremists (separatists and jihadists).  Tamils and Muslims are not confined to these two provinces. More than 50% of them live in the south among the Sinhalese. The protection of archaeological sites has become a political and communal issue, particularly in the north and east, because of the the extremists. The government must enlist the support of ordinary Tamils and Muslims in these areas to overcome the extremists, and then entrust the protection of the archaeological sites to people of all three communities who live there, in addition to ensuring state protection of the same. Places already encroached upon must be re-acquired by the state, and people already settled on them gradually relocated elsewhere with the least inconvenience to them. 

These archaeological remains belong equally to all present day Sri Lankans irrespective of ethnicity. In economic terms, the existence of ancient historical places and objects is beneficial to the people who today inhabit the relevant areas, because they are tourist attractions. Most people are ignorant of the value of these relics of the past. Popular ignorance facilitates the extremists’ anti-national activities. One of the lessons taught by the Kurunegala episode is about the importance of adequate awareness on the part of the officialdom as well as the populace regarding the country’s inestimable archaeological treasures.     

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