The saga of Kurundi continues…


Part II

Last week we discussed the conservation of a Buddhist stupa, mainly focusing on the conservation work of the Kurundi Temple’s ancient stupa.

Today, we will continue from where we stopped. Joining us next to talk about the issue at Mullaituvu Kurundi Temple is, Dr. Ishankha Malsiri who is a lecturer at the Department of Archaeology of Buddhist and Pali University.

“Conservation of Buddhist stupas is a very sensitive topic,” Dr. Malsiri said. “This is because, in a ‘Living Culture’, their values and validity continue to thrive. There is no specific topic as ‘Stupa Conservation’ in local and international heritage management charters; hence, we have to consider this within the context of conservation of archaeological monuments.”

The Burra Charter is known to be one of the most important international charters when it comes to the conservation and restoration of sites and monuments. However, when these international charters were made, the living heritage of Asia has not been taken into much consideration. Especially, these charters seem not to be greatly sensitive towards the management of the heritage of countries such as ours, he said.

The conservation knowledge and practices that we have today are mostly European-centred ones. In these charters such as Burra and Venice, the perspective does not go beyond seeing archaeological monuments as mere structures; this perspective conflicts in a country such as Sri Lanka where the heritage is a living one. The incident at Kurundi is the finest example for us to understand this. Kurundi is a place where tangible and intangible heritage aspects are combined. Thus, physical conservation is not sufficient to maintain continuity.

The conservation of the stupa and image house at Kurundi oscillates between traditional conservation and modern materialistic conservation views.

“The legal authority over the Kurundi site is with the Department of Archaeology (DoA). To ensure its protection and other archaeological and research work is the professional responsibility of the DoA. Any other institution or a political party cannot distract that legal authority,” said Dr. Malsiri.

“These archaeological works are not violating the rights of an individual or a group; instead, that is an official intervention in safeguarding a people’s heritage that has a Buddhist cultural identity. If one says the work (conservation, restoration, excavations, publication, and so on), is illegal, what the DoA has done for the past 132 years is illegal, unscientific, and anti-social.”

Conservation is not ‘new construction’

He also said that certain individuals and groups interpret the conservation work at Kurundi as ‘new construction’ due to a lack of knowledge on the relevant subject. Restoration and reconstruction work based on revealed archaeological data clearly comes under conservation and is not at all considered new construction, explained Dr. Malsiri.

The Burra Charter says that all work done to maintain the cultural value of a site is conservation and this includes maintenance, protection, restoration, rehabilitation, reconstruction, and so on. Bringing a place back to its original state as close as possible is called reconstruction. In addition, Prominent conservation architect Sir Bernard Fielden defines conservation as integrated reinforcement and rehabilitation. Internal quality control and prevention of theft and malicious damage are also conservation activities.

Dr. Malsiri also explained that the best way to preserve buildings is to rehabilitate or reuse them abiding by their original purpose. Relocation of decayed parts to maintain their aesthetic harmony is considered in this conservation process.

He also said that those who are bothered about the fairness or justice of the archaeological work practiced at Kurundi Temple should apply these definitions and theories to the work at Kurundi Temple.

“Based on archaeological data, the ancient physical structure was planned to be completed and that is known as the reconstruction conservation method. If monks were residing and Buddhist rituals were practiced there, then that is rehabilitation; which is practicing the building’s original use.  Safeguarding the site and avoiding theft and maintaining the site is also a form of conservation.”

Considering all these, the archaeological work that has been done at Kurundi Temple by any means cannot be interpreted as illegal according to local and international laws or policies. Also, based on these laws and policies, and charters, none of these construction falls under new construction work; they all are archaeological conservation work, Dr.Malsiri emphasised.

Preserving living traditions

“We believe that it must be taken into consideration how the relevant culture has traditionally preserved their heritage in the past when the archaeological heritage of a living culture is subjected to conservation. These traditional knowledge systems are also part of heritage. Local heritage should not be completely subjected to foreign conservation methods. Heritage should be conserved by preserving its liveliness. To continue in a ruined state for a longer time, results in the death of the culture.”

Most of the South Asian heritage is a living heritage and Buddhist monasteries are unique. Dr. Malsiri also said that with time, although they are in ruined status, their religious value continues to exist and does not expire.

“Unfortunately, today we see that some so-called scholars severely ignore the religious value of our heritage.”

Historical deeds are still valid

The ownership of these monasteries was offered to the monks who came and has not yet come from all four directions; agatha anagatha chathudisa lene. Hence, Dr. Malsiri said that these historical deeds still are in effect for the present and future monks. He also said that the DoA and those who are involved in heritage management shouldn’t be doing anything that might harm the validity of this historical deed.

Conservation based on archaeological data

When it comes to Stupa Conservation, the international charters have some interesting mentioning. According to the Venice Charter, the level of restoration should be decided on the nature of the factors. Authentic texts, laws, and policies should be used in this process and it also states that the changes made over time should be respected while preserving the building. When these are applied to the issue at Kurundi, the problem can be solved; the needed restoration work can be done based on the archaeological facts.

“When saying that the time to time constructions of the place should be respected, the 1890s kovil is not considered because it was built by severely challenging the originality and the identity of the building. As Bell and Lewis have described, it is an ‘invasion’.”

According to the Burra Charter, conservation should be minimal physical intervention and should be done with attention to the cultural significance of a building. The building or its function should be a remnant of its historical location. If there is sufficient evidence of the original condition of the physical materials of cultural importance and the physical materials can be brought back to their original condition, restoration should be done. If these are applied to Kurundi Temple, then the physical locations of the buildings have been discovered archaeologically and their original plans are understood. Conservation plans have been prepared by taking into account the existing data. Their cultural values ​​are based on Buddhist ideologies. When considered culturally, the Stupa and Pratimagruha (image house) are considered sacred buildings.

Violating archaeological data is unethical

When a yupa stone or a Gajasthamba was discovered at the Kurundi Temple, it was misinterpreted by some as a Siva Linga. This violates the identity of the stupa. Dr. Malsiri said that it is identified by the name Karavidaka in inscriptions and lying about its identity, according to charters, is an example of violating a palace’s true identity.

 “Even educated people are victims of false propaganda and their learning is being betrayed for narrow political interests,” said Dr. Malsiri. “We regret that the Department of Archaeology of the University of Jaffna has seriously neglected its professional and ethical responsibility in this matter. It is clearly against the ethics and discipline of archaeology. It is coercion of valid, accepted sources and date and misuse of archaeological evidence.

“Whatever a place’s identity, be it Hindu or Buddhist, we must accept it and there is no need to attribute a false multiplicity by force. The archaeological heritage of Sri Lanka is a national heritage of all of us and race and religious differences are unnecessary to study and protect.”

Fielden pointed out that the conservation process is often distorted due to political pressures directed by religious and ethnic groups. This is what happened at Kurundi Temple. Preservation is not just a matter of physical intervention and the intangible process associated with place identity should also be preserved. That is what the ancient kings also did. Unfortunately, in modern conservation, accepting this concept was delayed until the beginning of the 21st century.

Dr. Malsiri also said that it is a serious crime to erase and distort the original identity of a historical site or monument. Religious harmony or coexistence is not allowed to distort a place’s historical identity.

It is important to be sensitive toward communities’ religious needs when conducting conservation. This is also mentioned in international statutes. He also said that there is no obstacle to creating conservation methods that are suitable for one’s country and culture within the basic model.

“Dr. Gamini Wijesuriya has pointed out the need to take into consideration the views of the many heritage-related stakeholders, but it is still foreign to Sri Lanka. The DoA needs to implement this concept now. Even in this issue, the DoA who has the authority over the place seems to be not acting accordingly, which is problematic. The DoA is an institution that has a very strong act and they should not hesitate to implement its authority to protect heritage.”

He further said that some were of the view that antiquities are not essential to be protected and they are not important while some dragged politics into this. Taking these into consideration, new laws should be made for the protection of heritage.

“Also, written or verbal expressions that harm the dignity of heritage sites and monuments and lead to their destruction, and provoking people against heritage sites and monuments should be defined as the destruction of archaeological sites,” concluded Dr. Malsiri.

It is extremely unfortunate and depressing to have been made to fight for the protection of the identity of our heritage and protect them from racist, politically-driven, and narrow-minded individuals.

(Pix courtesy Most Ven. Galgamuwe Santhabodhi Thera)

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy