Posted on April 20th, 2024


The Kurundi issue has created an interest in the archaeology of Sri Lanka. Siran Deraniyagala said that   Sri Lanka’s archaeological heritage is divisible into Prehistoric (Stone Age) Protohistoric (Iron Age) and historical periods. This covers an estimated 1 million years or more. The Iron Age appeared at about 1000 BC and the historic period at about 500 BC.

The ancient chronicles set out Sri Lanka’s history in considerable detail since the 2 century BC and less reliably back to the 6 century BC. These chronicles are supplemented by over 4000 inscriptions on stone from the 3 century BC, said Deraniyagala.

The island has shown a high degree of historical awareness.  This historical awareness is a concomitant of Sri Lanka’s almost total immersion in the Buddhist tradition, notably Theravada from the 3 century BC down to the present. This unbroken intellectual heritage manifests itself materially in an extremely rich archaeological heritage. This is very much a living entity and many of the monuments continue to function as places of worship. In managing this heritage the concept of it being a living entity must necessarily take a paramount position.

 For the past 2000 years, rulers have conserved and restored the more important monuments archaeologists cannot intervene in the management of these sites without due consideration being paid to the country’s strong historical consciousness. This is fundamental in the preservation of the archaeological heritage of Sri Lanka, concluded Deraniyagala.

The Department of Archaeology has come in for criticism because of its involvement with Buddhist monuments in the north and east. Tamil Separatist Movement has poured scorn on the Department. They spoke rudely to the Department officials at Kurundi, when there was a confrontation over Pongal.

The Department of Archaeology is not a rogue Department   to be sneered at in this manner. It is a respected government Department, supported by a legal enactment, possessing technical expertise and a long record of good work. 

The true name of the department is Archaeological Survey Department, said experts. The Department    is empowered to inspect sites and gazette monuments as protected monuments or archaeology reserves. There is legal provision for declaring archaeological reserves. All the archaeology sites on state land before 1940 automatically became archaeology reserves of the Department, said Senerath Dissanayake, former Director General, Department of Archaeology.  Now, a survey plan of the site is prepared when a new site is declared a reserve.

The Dept of Archaeology uses two methods to find monuments and archaeological reserves,   through informants and through exploration in selected areas. Surface exploration is followed by excavation  and if   there is archaeological value, the area is marked on a map.

The one inch maps of the Survey Department act as the base document for identifying monuments and sites. During British rule, surveyors had identified a large number of monuments and located them in these maps. A large number of monuments were marked as archaeology reserve in the maps. There is now a massive collection of these maps. Some of the monuments that have disappeared can still be identified with the help of these maps, said Senerath Dissanayake.

By the end of 1989 the list of monuments had increased to over 10,000 and sites to 2700. The Department has also recorded a large number of small monuments scattered all over the country, said Senerath.

The   Department of Archaeology came under attack when Kurundi was getting conserved. The Department was not doing its job properly, critics said. It is important to conduct proper archaeological surveys first. Restoration was done at Kurundi without sufficient evidence, they said.

We are not opposed to archaeological research that is carried out scientifically and professionally. But when the department furthers a political project by building new Buddhist shrines in our area in the name of restoration, we cannot accept that,” said Thurairajah Raviharan, speaking of Kurundi.

The Department of Archaeology dismissed the charge that they were at fault. The conservation at Kurundi is done under me, said an   official, and we are doing it correctly. We are not making mistakes. We are working in a difficult location. Kurundi is in a very difficult area, in middle of a forest, far away from anywhere.

Chinthaka Sandaruwan, another official in the Department of Archaeology also defended the Department. He had been stationed at Vavuniya in 2018-2019. He had done site inspections and maintained records at Kurundi. We worked with great dedication and energy in 2018 and the present team are also working with much dedication in 2022, he said.

A new concept has been introduced to archaeological work, the concept of Heritage’. Archaeology sites such as Kurundi are now considered Heritage sites” not archaeological sites. These archaeological sites are now dominated by international Heritage rules.

Conservation is now regulated   by international agreements, such as the International Charter for the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites, 1964 known as   Venice Charter”. This charter was accepted by UNESCO, ICOMOS and the International Congress of Architects and Technicians of Historic Monuments. 

Sri Lanka we are told is a signatory to this charter and is legally bound to do as it says. I am unable to find out   when we signed this document and whether it really is legally binding.

Through this Charter, external bodies are now telling us how we should   conserve our Buddhist ruins. They do not simply give helpful guidelines and stop at that. They instruct us on when, what and how to conserve. It is not possible to provide universal rules on archaeological conservation.  The applicability of Venice charter to Asian archaeology is therefore under discussion, said Gamini Wijesuriya. ‘

Heritage differs with each country. There are states which enjoy a single undisturbed cultural heritage, like China. There are settler states which successfully replaced indigenous culture with the settler culture, like USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Then there are states that have emerged from colonial rule and find that they are now saddled with two heritages, Indigenous and colonial, competing with each other.

Sri Lanka finds itself with two indigenous cultures, one genuine and the other implanted, both demanding recognition. S Sritharan, TNA MP, said in Parliament that the Sinhalese and Tamils are the two main races in the country and both have their heritage. Equal importance must be given to protecting not only the cultural heritage of the Sinhalese but also of the Tamils.

 Interested parties are now gleefully using the Venice Charter and it’s off shoots to shackle Buddhist   monuments in Sri Lanka. They complain that when the bombed sections of the Dalada Maligawa were re-done, Venice Charter was violated.

 New tiles were laid, new sandakadapahana (moonstone) and new carvings were added, totally in contravention of the Venice Charter. The clash here is between a historical temple as a living heritage where people come to practice their rituals, and the World Heritage view of historical places as unalterable entities fixed in time, said Nira Wickremesinghe.

Earlier it was considered sufficient to protect the monument. Now, under the Venice Charter, the setting and the environment is to be protected together with the monument. ‘Heritage    introduced a new concept of ‘stakeholders’. Stakeholders are the individuals, groups, or organizations that have an interest or influence in the Heritage project.

According to Heritage principles, those living nearby are also stakeholders. In the case of Kurundi, it should be firmly argued that there are no nearby stakeholders. Kurundi is in a forest and archaeology reserve.  A buffer zone is also specified. The nearest settlement is 10 km away.


The Buddhist lobby should use the .Kurundi vihara issue to squash the Venice Charter and other such regulations where Buddhist monuments are concerned. Buddhism is a living tradition in Sri Lanka. There is regular worship in temples, and a pilgrimage tradition which includes historical monuments. Heritage thinking ignores the local pilgrimage tradition, observed Wijesuriya.

In   Sri Lanka there are many ancient Buddhist sites with a long record of historical continuity. When Asian communities built monuments they were aware of the conservation needs and these were built into the process, said Wijesuriya. ‘Loke Arakmena’ in Nissanka Malla inscription has been translated as ‘chief conservator of monuments ‘

There are many references in Mahavamsa     showing concern over monuments and their decay. There were permanent cadres of skilled craftsmen carpenters, masons and superintendents for conservation. There were special villages established for them, said Wijesuriya citing Epigraphica Zeylanica Vol 1, p 8-9 ‘  ( continued)

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