High-Rise Eyesore to Cast Shadow Over Nation’s Cynosure

By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan | Published: 2:05 AM Mar 27 2021
Focus High-Rise Eyesore to Cast Shadow Over Nation’s Cynosure

By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan

Disturbing the vast expanse of natural greenery in the surrounding area, a concrete monstrosity comprising 108 residency units, along with a rooftop and a swimming pool, is rising up in the vicinity of the historically significant UNESCO World Heritage Site, Sigiriya Rock. 

It is located at an archaeological excavation site known as the Pothana Cave site, where prehistoric skeletons were discovered. 

Ceylon Today learns the luxury apartment is situated about 1.9 km from Pothana. 

From the summit of Sigiriya, one could enjoy a 360 degree panoramic view of the surrounding countryside, which includes the dense tropical jungle, irrigation tanks, paddy fields and Pothana Raja Maha Vihara, where the cave is located. 

Tourism associations sent a joint letter recently raising concerns to Secretary to the Ministry of Urban Development, Sirinimal Perera, over the new complex. The letter has been undersigned by President of Sri Lanka Association of Inbound Tour Operations Thilak Weeerasinghe, President-Hotel Association of Sri Lanka, Sanath Ukwatte, President-Travel Agents’ Association of Sri Lanka Channe Wijemanne and Sri Lanka Tourism Alliance Malik J. Fernando. It states that many in the industry are horrified to see a seven-floor 108 apartment complex being built in proximity to and highly visible from the famous rock fortress - the most visited tourist attraction in the country and World Heritage Site (WHS).

A promotional video for The Kingdom, Sigiriya by the developer Global Housing and Real Estate, claims: “Enjoy your own luxury star-class suite overlooking the Lion Rock”.

With the site being flat and featureless, the multi-storey structure is very visible from all sides. The 360 degree view from the top of Sigiriya and Pidurangala currently showcases green jungles, water bodies and mountains; spared from the sight of any man-made structure.

This is about to change with the new apartment complex. With the President correctly identifying tourism as a thrust industry and the primary foreign exchange earner in coming years, the unplanned development of ill-suited structures in front of the most instantly recognisable symbol of Sri Lanka tourism will ruin such plans and many livelihoods that depend on the industry. 

They appeal to the authorities to intervene and halt construction, which is at an advanced stage, pending an investigation, and to urgently develop and strictly implement national planning guidelines to ensure that development is compatible to the location and is sustainable. 

Laws governing World Heritage Sites

According to the Central Cultural Fund (CCF), the buffer zone demarcation of the archaeological site keeps extending when excavations are conducted from time to time and currently the construction site is located in the newly extended buffer zone. 

However, when contacted, senior archaeologist and President of International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMS), Dr. Gamini Wijesuriya, said, “Demarcation of the buffer zone of Sigiriya Rock has not been officially registered and also the buffer zone does not extend its demarcation from time to time gradually unless UNESCO has to approve the extension.”  At international level (in 2016 OG- Operational Guidelines) a WHS has three sections. The Property: with boundaries as demarcated in a map and registered with UNESCO (part of the nomination). Buffer Zone: As appropriate to act as extra protection for the property but with boundaries demarcated and registered with UNESCO, to provide regulations to control activities. Broader setting: That can have impacts (visual etc) on the property but no demarcation, he added.

This explains how the archaeological importance and reputed heritage sites in Sri Lanka are facing imminent danger due to poor maintenance and lack of clarification in preserving these sites as any State body may issue permits to property developers, which is a growing threat altogether.  

Director General of CCF Prof. Gamini Ranasinghe explained that areas belonging to archaeological importance are not only governed by State laws but also traditional laws, ethic and policies. He added that there are squatters in Anuradhapura’s Pooja Nagara (inner city), but the Department is unable to move them out. “We cannot demolish their shops or houses. Even after relocating them, another group would come claiming ownership of that area,” he said.  

He added that CCF comes under the Department of Archaeology (DoA) and he has no document on laws and regulations governing heritage sites and directed Ceylon Today to contact the DoA. He also said that parties don’t come to CCF for approval for any construction. 

However, the Government Information Centre website quotes: “When an Archaeology Impact Assessment (AIA) survey is carried out, quotations will be opened in the presence of the apex body that is mainly Director General of DoA or PGIAR, and DG of CCF and the President of Association of Archaeologists. 

Also, when Ceylon Today contacted the DoA DG Prof. Anura Manatunga to ask whether an AIA and Heritage Impact Assessment (HIA) were done on the luxury complex, he said he needs time to verify the information from the relevant regional offices. However, he had two solid days to get that information to the Media, but failed to do so.

When contacted, the officer in charge of AIA at the Colombo Archaeology Department noted that she needs to find out who was in charge of this particular project’s AIA in 2017 and that she has to refer to them. 

Ancient Kingdoms vs. ‘Modern’ Kingdom 

Meanwhile, the Marketing Office of Kingdom Residencies said the structure consist a ground floor plus four storeys with a roof top and that all clearances have been obtained. When queried, they said they were issued regulations and have followed them, and that all would fall in place as the complex is under construction. They said they have currently finished two floors and that several housing units are already sold with more bookings incoming.  

Photos on their website showed Sigiriya Rock completely visible to those inside the building and units are being sold based on this marketing point.

The modern residency by the Global Housing and Real Estate, just 5 km to Sigiriya Rock, turning off at Inamaluwa Junction to Pothana (where the building is situated), on the Dambulla-Polannaruwa Road, does not blend with the aesthetic setting of an ancient kingdom Sri Lanka boasts to international visitors. 

Sigiriya Rock is a Sri Lankan symbol, attracting travellers which generate revenue of over Rs 1 billion from ticket sales alone. Tourists who want to experience ancient heritage sites definitely are not looking forward to see modern buildings which are aplenty in their own countries. 

Several persons have already questioned the DoA who assured they will investigate the luxury apartment. When Ceylon Today visited CCF, who maintains the Sigiriya Rock property, to get the basic rules and regulations that govern the site, they had nothing to offer. They said it was under the DoA’s jurisdiction and referred us to contact them.

The luxury complex seems to be completely exposed to the ancient fortress. A video on the property developer’s website contains 3D renderings of the luxury rooms offering views of Sigiriya Rock. 

The location surrounding the towering ‘Lion Rock’ is well preserved to express the visual dominance of the fortress and offers scenic panoramic views. If they are showing an attractive view with Sigiriya as a selling point, then it is serious as building the apartment complex in close proximity to the rock. 

It has come to light that permission and all documentation had been completed during the tenure of former Minister of Megapolis Champika Ranawaka in 2017. But construction began in 2020, when the country was paralysed during the height of the pandemic. 

“The structure became visible to the public only recently,” Dambulla Pradeshiya Sabha (PS) MP Saman Moremada said. 

The wider setting and impact assessments clause of Operational Guidelines (OG) of the Department of Archaeology (OG 118bis) says: Notwithstanding Paragraphs 179 and 180 of the OG states Parties shall ensure that Environmental Impact Assessments, HIA, and/or Strategic Environmental Assessments be carried out as a pre-requisite for development projects and activities that are planned for implementation within or around a World Heritage property.  

These assessments should serve to identify development alternatives, as well as both potential positive and negative impacts on the Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) of the property and to recommend mitigation measures against degradation or other negative impacts on the cultural or natural heritage within the property or its wider setting.  This will ensure the long-term safeguarding of OUV, and strengthening of heritage resilience to disasters and climate change.

On Impact assessment OG110: An effective management system depends on the type, characteristics and needs of the nominated property and its cultural and natural context. Management systems may vary according to different cultural perspectives, the resources available and other factors. They may incorporate traditional practices, existing urban or regional planning instruments, and other planning control mechanisms, both formal and informal. Impact assessments for proposed interventions are essential for all World Heritage properties.

Moremada added that so far the Dambulla PS has no reports whatsoever on the building protruding amidst the jungle. “At the last meeting I raised the issue and still none have any information regarding these luxury residencies. He said he personally checked with the Dambulla Urban Development Authority (UDA) who revealed that the proprietor was issued with a permit and the nearby Air Force Base has also given clearance to go ahead with the construction. He added that UDA mentioned it as a four-storey building with a ground floor and that it was located near a paddy field. 

Reportedly, the UDA official has issued rules and regulations to the property developer to grow trees around the complex and have creepers grown on the wall. But Moremada notes, “Where do you find such tall trees that would cover such a tall building and how can creepers cover the broad glass walls through which the Sigiriya Rock is visible (based on the website graphics).

Frescoes in danger 

Photography is not allowed due to the light sensitivity of the ancient frescoes and broad glass walls would reflect sunlight on the fortress’s side where the frescoes are. “They are already damaged due to sound and pollution and the sunlight, reflecting from glass walls of the modern complex, could trigger visual pollution,” President of the Cultural Triangle Hoteliers Association Saliya Dayananda noted. He said the number of floors should be reduced even if clearance is acquired. “Such thinking should go beyond State laws. Even in Italy, urbanisation has ruined archaeological sites and here they have gone to the very doorstep and if this allowed, others would follow and make it into a modern city,” he said and added that officials have told him that the technical committee has approved the modern complex. He noted the Kandalama Hotel is owned by one proprietor and he is bound to follow rules and regulations but if this housing complex is sold to private owners, they will not come under any restrictions.

Some hoteliers also noted that the housing complex’s owners could evade taxes by selling, renting apartments to foreigners online. Also since it’s a residency, they could obtain domestic use power and water supply, which is not the same for hotels. 

The local community’s lack of awareness of the role of the Sigiriya buffer zone has been mentioned in the 2010 draft titled ‘Sigiriya World Heritage Site Management Plan’. This place sets out the strategy for the protection of the Ancient City of Sigiriya for the present and future generations. It says, although not implemented, a Development Plan for Sigiriya WHS, which was prepared by the UDA in 1989 on the invitation of the CCF. This plan covers the entire Inamaluva Korale of the Dambulla Division, which is the buffer-zone of the Sigiriya WHS (whether this buffer zone is adopted or not is yet to be known). Sigiriya WHS has a single legal owner and that is the DoA who is directly and solely responsible to the Government for the site’s protection and management. The Buffer-Zone has numerous ownerships ranging from the local community to Government institutions, the Sri Lanka Air Force and to individuals and institutions involved in hospitality trade, which presents a serious challenge with respect to its management.

The report also explains that numerous ownerships of the buffer zone with diverse interests presenting many difficulties and challenges for the management.

One of the objectives drawn in the report was that Statutory Control Objective 3: To ensure the statutory control over the buffer-zone so that it makes the most appropriate provision of not only the need to preserve the Outstanding Universal Value (OUV), but also the request of a living cultural landscape as a setting to the Sigiriya WHS and to retain the buffer zone, predominantly as a natural cum agrarian landscape in order to give the most appropriate setting to the Sigiriya WHS.

Pothana: an archaeological site

By  Ama H. Vanniarachchy

Pothana and Inamaluwa are located in the vicinity of Sigiriya. Sigiriya was an ancient kingdom. It was a capital city. Its archaeology and heritage does not limit to the rock and the gardens. Pidurangala, Ramakale, Mapagala, Ibbankatuwa are all highly important historical places around Sigiriya. Mapagala is an important historical place. Pidurangala and Kaludiya Pokuna are similarly important Buddhist archaeological sites. Ibbankatuwa is a prehistoric site.

Pothana – a couple of human skeletons were found at the archaeological site. These skeletons belong to the prehistoric period of Sri Lanka and these are radiocarbon dated as 4,000 years before present (YBP).  The prehistoric population that lived in Pothana is being identified as a hunter-gatherer population and shared similar characteristics of the contemporary prehistoric populations that lived in Bellanbandi Palassa, Batadombalena, Belilena and the Fa Hien Cave.

Considering all the historical and archaeological data of Sigiriya (the entire area, not restricting only to Sigiriya and the gardens), Inamaluwa and Pothana it is evident of its highly crucial role in the country’s culture, history, archaeology and heritage as a whole. Hence, without a Heritage Impact Assessment conducted by professionals, we cannot ‘assume’ that this piece of land has no archaeological value; or, assume that this construction does not damage the heritage of Sigiriya and its vicinity.

Moreover, as this is the public’s heritage, not the heritage of any authority, the public has the right to know if a Heritage Impact Assessment has been conducted, and the results of it. The Department of Archaeology should answer this. This cannot be taken lightly as this is something to do with the ‘people’s heritage’.

By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan | Published: 2:05 AM Mar 27 2021

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