“We, of our time, have played our part in the perseverance, and we have pledged ourselves to the dead 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

The very recent dispute at the ancient Kurundi Temple is an eye opener in many ways for Sri Lanka’s heritage management sector.

Last week the Department of Archaeology (DoA) started an Agro-Archaeology and an Irrigation Archaeology Unit, yet again slightly misunderstanding the role of the Department of Archaeology and failing to address the priorities of the heritage management sector. Also, the highly ‘archaeologisation’ process of Sri Lanka’s cultural heritage, forgetting or neglecting to bring amendments to the ordinances, delaying listing of national heritages, and gazetting and marking of protected sites and monuments are damaging Sri Lanka’s cultural heritage further.

Last month, when the President’s Palace was damaged, the media reported that the Department of Archaeology has said that it was not gazetted as a protected monument by the time the destruction occurred, hence no legal action can be taken. However, it must be noted that as it is a monument that is older than 100 years, based on the Antiquities Ordinance, the place naturally has some protection and cover under the Act.

Even when the Kurundi incident occurred, when there were so many discussions about the place, some being misinterpretations about its identity and the conservation work, the DoA acted lethargically, for some reason rejecting to issue any official statement about the incident, allowing more and more misconceptions to grow.

This incident also revealed that if law and order prevailed, under the Antiquities Ordinance, Sri Lanka’s cultural heritage can be protected, if it is enacted properly. Therefore, the DoA must be concerned about serious heritage management work.

The Kurundi incident also opened the eyes of the nation and made them see the many threats faced by the heritage in the North and East. Along with the Kurundi incident, a long list of similar incidents of the past and currently happening came into the limelight.

It is no secret that the many ancient sites and monuments of the North and East and some places such as Kuragala and Devanagala are facing threats caused by religious extremists and racists.

When the Kurundi incident arose, some on social media twisted the incident to say that it was a fabricated incident to provoke racism by Buddhist monks and Sinhala racists. However, in no time it was proven that these accusations were false. We must note that revealing the damages or threats to a heritage site, is not to provoke racism, but to protect the country’s national heritage. Therefore, twisting the truth and misinterpreting such incidents shouldn’t be done.

This incident also made us realise the important role media can play in protecting the country’s cultural heritage, by reporting the truth and facts and by being non-bias.

Thus, realising our responsibility and duty toward the country’s cultural heritage, we will embark on a journey, to explore the scattered ancient sites and monuments in the country’s North and East. This, by any means, is not to provoke racism or spread hatred. We will report the events of history as it was, purely and solely based on archaeological evidence and accurate historical records. We will not be biased towards a race or a religion or any political view, nor shall we give space to myths and fables.

Ruins don’t lie

Archaeological evidence does not lie and their true identity cannot be faked. If a statue was discovered at an ancient temple in Jaffna, Kilinochchi, or Mullaitivu, and it is identified as a Buddha statue or a Bodhisattva statue, it is a fact. That cannot be twisted and be given a false identity. If a stone inscription found at Oddusudan or Pottuvil or Vavunyia reads as if it was a place offered to monks by a king bearing a Sinhala name, that is a fact. These readings or interpretations were given following accepted theories and methods. Hence, fighting over such facts, and twisting the truth is baseless.

Also, twisting or distorting the identity of a place or monument can be defined as violating the rights of a community and going against ethics.

In a country like Sri Lanka, as there are disputes regarding cultural heritage, a best practice that can be followed is to conduct studies and excavation and exploration work by both Sinhala and Tamil communities, including scholars, clergy, and the public, together. These studies should be unbiased and solely based on accepted theories and methodologies.

Why the North – East heritage is under threat?

Before we travel to the Northern and Eastern provinces, let us briefly see why these places are under severe threat.

A country’s archaeological evidence and its culture play a vital part in its socio-cultural, political, and economic aspects. They are also indicators of the land’s and a nation’s identity, a nation’s right over land, their inheritance of land, and territorial integrity. Thus, cultural heritage is always dragged towards sensitive and complex issues such as racism, nationalism, and national identity.

In Sri Lanka, as there had been an ethnic conflict that still continues, the cultural heritage has been the target of certain groups and individuals. The Northern and Eastern parts of Sri Lanka are the central focus of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. As the Tamil politicians would claim, that part had been a traditional Tamil homeland for thousands of years. Based on this thought, in the 1930s/40s, Tamil politicians opposed when the British initiated irrigation and agricultural projects in the Northern plains. Based on this thought they stood against the Sinhalese farmers in the Northern plains and gradually started a mild ethnic cleansing process to drive away the Sinhalese and also the Muslims from the North and the East.

It is unfortunate that these thoughts occurred in the minds of these early politicians as they spread thoughts of hatred and racism between the Sinhalese and Tamils. We also must note that these were not the general thoughts of the Tamil public, but only of vicious politicians, and also, nourished by the British rulers who enjoyed ‘divide and rule’. We have evidence of the past, and the present to prove how Sinhalese and Tamil people have always lived in harmony in Sri Lanka for centuries, and how the Buddhist and Hindu cultures, beliefs, and traditions are interwoven, giving birth to a unique local culture.

The thought of a Tamil homeland in the North and East of Sri Lanka, grew with time until it led to a group of people demanding a separate state; the Elam. This Elam spreads in more than half of the island and under that, they demanded the Sinhalese be removed from those areas, as they demanded a pure Tamil ethnic state. The devastating result of this vicious demand was the birth of the Liberation of Tamil Tigers for Elam (LTTE). They fought for 30 years demanding the island to be separated into two states and completely evacuate the Sinhalese from the North and East. Although in 2009 the military of the LTTE was defeated, their ideology was not crushed. They are still very much alive and well-nourished.

Cultural heritage and Elam

Well, it is because the country’s cultural heritage is the biggest threat to proving the existence of a Tamil homeland in the North and East. A large number of Pali, Sinhala, and Sanskrit ancient texts and inscriptions are the biggest obstacle to proving the historical existence of a Tamil homeland in the North and East. This means, based on archaeological evidence, a claim of a Tamil Homeland and the existence of a pure Tamil ethnic kingdom of the North and East, clearly collapses. In a summary, archaeological evidence reveals that Elam is a mythical concept and did not exist in reality. No matter how many distorted stories are written and published by certain scholars, these facts cannot be changed.

This is why for decades, the many sites and monuments in the North and East are being destroyed and vandalised. During the war, for almost three decades, in the areas that were under the control of the LTTE, many sites and monuments were either destroyed or kovils were built on them.

During post-war times, these places were once again open to the public. Buddhist monks, devotees, and scholars would visit these places and practice their religious rituals. However, while all this was happening, Tamil politicians and racist groups would express their hatred towards these monks and devotees and even filed court cases, lodged complaints against them visiting, and even claimed the identity of these places to be something else. Once again, we emphasise that the easiest and most transparent way to solve the identity issue of these places is to conduct studies on these sites and monuments involving both Sinhala and Tamil communities.

During the people’s protests and pride walks held in Colombo last months, some were holding slogans saying that the ‘Buddhisization of the North-East- Traditional Tamil Homeland’ must be stopped and ventured their anger against the archaeology and Buddhist work happening in the North and East. Based on archaeological and historical evidence, there is nothing new to ‘Buddhisize’ in the North and East of the country. The vast number of temples scattered in these areas bears the place’s historical identities. It is not that in recent times, monks or the Sri Lankan Government or the Sinhalese are going to the North and East to set up temples. They have always been in those areas and what is being done now is reviving them and reconstructing them; as any heritage place should be done.

The UNESCO and local archaeology and heritage management laws, policies, and ethics encourage protection, preservation, and documenting of Sri Lanka’s cultural heritage. And under any explanation or logic, Sri Lanka’s cultural heritage cannot be seen as a threat to peace, religious harmony, or reconciliation. In contrast, they are actually ambassadors of peace and harmony.  As we say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, similarly seeing Sri Lanka’s cultural heritage as an obstacle to peace or as an indicator of racism is in the minds of those who see them as such.

Let’s unite and protect ‘our’ heritage

We also must insist that we do not intend to say that Sri Lanka or the North and East should be a state purely of one race or one religion. The beauty of Sri Lankan culture lies within its cultural diversity. Hence, all the ethnicities, races, religions, and communities that contribute to this cultural diversity should be able to live in Sri Lanka in harmony, together, not in a separate state.

Also, we clearly emphasise the need of moving toward a people-centred management approach to these sites and monuments. It is important that the communities living in these areas understand and accept these sites and monuments as a part of ‘their’ heritage, as a part of ‘Sri Lanka’s National Heritage’. It is also important to understand the many economic and social benefits these places have for them.

The History of Sri Lanka’s North and East

The modern-day Northern Province consists of five districts; Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mannar, Mullaitivu, and Vavuniya. The modern-day Eastern Province consists of three districts which are; Ampara, Batticaloa, and Trincomalee.

Almost all of the modern-day Northern Province has been the ancient Uttara Passa or the ancient Northern area in historic times, while most of the modern-day Eastern province belonged to the ancient Ruhunu Rata.

To be continued…

“History is for all of us to discuss. All history is our common heritage to discuss and analyse.”

—Ken Loach

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy