We, of our time, have played our part in the perseverance, and we have pledged ourselves to the past generations who have preserved intact for us this glorious heritage, that we, too, will strive to be faithful to the end, and pass on this tradition unblemished.
– Eamon de Valera
Last week an emotional speech was made in Parliament by MP Udaya Shantha Gunasekera regarding the leasing out of 2148 acres, out of land belonging to the Wattegama Raja Maha Vihara granted under the Buddhist Temporalities Ordinance No.19 of 1931 as Amended, to a German Company Ethimale Plantation for planting of sugar cane. The MP claimed that this has led to the destruction of an ancient archaeological site belonging to the Kavantissa Era in the Second Century BC, by bulldozing and depriving the peasants of Uva Wellassa their ancient traditional farm lands. Valuable artefacts such as stone pillars and other ancient artefacts have been removed.
Previously, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress Leader Minister Rauff Hakeem in Parliament, requested for the appointment of a Parliament Select Committee (PSC) to look into allegations of destruction of archaeological sites and forests. In order to avoid communal tensions arising from these allegations the Minister noted that this is an immediate necessity. He made this request when Environment and Mahaweli Development Deputy Minister Anuradha Jayaratne and Education Minister Akila Viraj Kariyawasam brought to the attention of the House that the destruction of archaeological sites was a matter of concern in the North and East. The Deputy Minister told Parliament that a total of 94 archaeological sites in Ampara, Trincomalee and Batticaloa had been destroyed during the period from 2013 to 2017.He said, out of them, 47 sites were in Ampara, 30 in Trincomalee and 17 in Batticaloa. The Deputy Minister further said it had been identified following a census that Ampara had 430 archaeological sites that needed to be protected. Commenting on the issues surrounding the Wilpattu forest, it was noted that the President had appointed an independent committee to look into complaints by the people after declaring forest lands North of Wilpattu as a reserve. He said the report of this Committee was due within a month, adding that it would help to resolve the remaining problems in Wilpattu. The issue came up as Chief Opposition Whip and JVP Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake pointed out that the Government should have made direct and immediate intervention when the issues of the Wilpattu forest clearing and destruction of archaeological sites in the East cropped up. “Had the Government dealt with these issues immediately and more effectively, the intervention of other organizations or groups would have been unwarranted”, he said. Education Minister Kariyawasam pointed out the conduct of the Archaeological Department over the past years was highly questionable, adding that its inefficiency and apathy contributed to the sad state of affairs of the country’s archaeological heritage. ‘Now we are restructuring this Department. Many vacancies in it had not been filled in the past, but we have now taken measures to fill them,’ he said.
It was reported in the media that Ven. Medhananada Thera, an archaeologist of repute, had lamented the destruction and pillaging of the archaeological treasures of ancient Sri Lanka. The Thera referred to Diyathithawela Nandimitra Aranya and of Kudimbigala in Seruwila in particular, and a number of other places that have been dug for treasures and some others fenced up for habitation. The tragedy of this ongoing vandalism is not only the permanent loss of the heritage for the entire human race, but also more importantly the likely distortion of the historiography of the nation. Undoubtedly it will assist those who would like to rewrite the history of Sri Lanka in the future so as to trivialize and relativize the proportionate contribution of the ancient Sinhala civilization to the history of this ancient country. It is well known that the destruction and pillage of ancient civilizations has been big business for thousands of years. There were numerous episodes in the colonial history of colonized nations where the imperialists looted the valuables of their respective colonies, which many are even today blatantly refusing to return by recourse to some anachronistic common law of property, which is disgraceful.
Developing countries, such as Sri Lanka, find it impossible to stop this trade; that is in the multi-million-dollar mark, without adequate safeguards at the sites and the ports from which they make the exit. Laws alone, which are not effectively policed, will not stop the pillage. Sri Lanka, as a nation, will be made the poorer if the plunder of our heritage is not prevented. The Department of Archaeology along with the Minister for National Heritage must bear the responsibility of protecting every bit of our history especially when the revisionists are keen to rewrite the history of the land for political mileage.
The Department of Archaeology commenced its duties in 1890. However, the ground-work related to archaeological activities took place many years before, during the governance of Sir Hercules Robinson. In 1868, seven years after the initiation of an archaeological survey in India, the then Ceylon Government appointed a Committee to obtain information regarding the ancient architectural works of Ceylon. In 1871, an excellent series of photographs of the principle structures of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa was taken with the financial and other assistance provided by the Government of the Island. H.C.P. Bell commenced his duties by dividing the field of Archaeology into various sections. However, his main duties dealt with exploration. Thus the archaeological excavations revealed artefacts of exceptional value. Attention continued to be paid to rock inscriptions and to their study. Explorations undertaken at Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa yielded results of exceptional interest. The discovery of murals in 1897 at Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa proved most rewarding. In 1898, a Commission was appointed to consider the whole field of Archaeological activities. Archaeological activities of Sri Lanka can be categorized into two periods of time. The initial period is the Colonial period whilst the latter is the Independent period. The Colonial period was administered by British officers whereas the Independent period was managed and administered by Sri Lankans. The first Sri Lankan to be appointed the head of the Department was Dr. S. Paranavithana.
The objectives of the Department include identification of the archaeological heritage of Sri Lanka through exploration, documentation of movable and immovable archaeological properties in Sri Lanka, implementation of the provisions of the Antiquities Ordinance and the Cultural Properties Act and the protection of the archaeological heritage of Sri Lanka. Although complaints have been made, regarding the inability of the Department in protecting the archaeological heritage of Sri Lanka, it has been said that this is due to the inadequacy of human and material resources provided to the Department by the Government which should be addressed by the Minister in charge.
In a recent development, International Law has begun to recognize, for the first time, destruction of historical monuments as a war crime. The International Criminal Court in The Hague has opened war crimes proceedings against an Islamist militant accused of leading in the destruction of historical monuments. The charges reflect a heightened global concern about the safety of antiquities across the Middle East and North Africa, including in UNESCO world heritage sites. Islamic State and al Qaeda affiliates are increasingly launching deliberate assaults on treasured religious monuments. Statistics for 2013 are alarming. There were 39 incidents reported in the first 37 days of the year alone. Officials warn that, not only is ‘treasure hunting’ rapidly increasing, it has become more organized, blatant, widespread and sophisticated. Laser guns are among the latest equipment employed in illegal excavations –an indication of just how well these operations are now financed.
In conclusion, it must be stated that it is the bounden duty of the Government as well as the people to safeguard the ancient archaeological sites of Sri Lanka for the benefit of the future generations to come as quoted at the outset.
(The writer is an Attorney-at-Law with LLB, LLM, MPhil (Colombo)