One Who Used ‘Love’ Instead of ‘Law’

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy | Published: 2:00 AM Jul 31 2021
Echo One Who Used ‘Love’ Instead of ‘Law’

Part III

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy

Through our previous two segments, we explored the arduous journey of Dr. Roland Silva (1933-2020) who was a genius in Sri Lanka’s heritage sector. His vision and his work resulted in bringing the attention of the world to the rich cultural heritage of this little island and he was able to mark ‘Sri Lanka’ on the global map of cultural heritage. Dr. Silva taught Sri Lanka the concept of cultural tourism as well as the concept of living cultural heritage and introduced to us a unique mechanism to preserve, conserve, and manage our cultural heritage; the Cultural Triangle Project which later became the Central Cultural Fund (CCF). 

The attempt of this article is not merely to remember his great contribution, but also to study his work and strategies and understand how we can apply them to our heritage-related work at present.

 Joining us to share their experience with Dr. Silva are a few of his closest colleagues who feel extremely blessed and privileged to have worked with him.


“His effort to place Sri Lanka on the world map was successful on many fronts,” said an expert in heritage management and conservation Dr. Gamini Wijesuriya. All six cultural heritage sites from Sri Lanka currently on the World Heritage List were made possible thanks to his efforts.

“Thirty years have passed since the last inscription but none of the heritage authorities have been able to successfully nominate a single site from Sri Lanka, despite there being several high potential sites,” he further said. Adding to this he said that this also demonstrates the severe decline of the heritage sector in Sri Lanka which has failed to build on the momentum and great vision he created and left.

Dr. Wijesuriya explained that the International Council on Monuments and Sites popularly known as ICOMOS provides advice, evaluations, nominations, and recommendations to UNESCO for the inscription of heritage sites of Outstanding Universal Value on the famous World Heritage List. “Such evaluations were done by an individual sitting in Paris based on documentary evidence. Dr. Silva insisted that someone must visit the site before making any recommendation which revolutionised the evaluation process,” said Dr.Wijesuriya.

 During his tenure as the President of ICOMOS International, 222 sites were recommended for inscription. As the President of ICOMOS, he chaired the historic meeting held in Nara, Japan, and produced the Nara Document on Authenticity which has heavily influenced the modern heritage discourse.

“He was the first to raise an Asian voice globally. Thanks to the influence of people like him, the world has entered into a new era of conservation and management of heritage. Unfortunately, we have failed to build on his vision supplemented with the international momentum he generated,” concluded Dr. Wijesuriya.

‘Living Heritage’ for architectural conservation

Architect Jayatissa Herath who worked with Dr. Silva for about 10 years as a manager at the CCF said, “The Malwathu and Asgiri temples conservation work is one experience I would like to share.” According to Herath, this was the first time the living cultural heritage concept was introduced to Sri Lanka. The architect explained to us how the architecture of this temple complex is unique; with its roofscape, decorative elements, and internal spacious arrangements. As it was vital to protect the spirit of this ancient architecture, at the same time it was equally important to attend to the needs of the present-day monks. In order to preserve an ancient building, its inhabitants cannot be forced to live in primitive conditions. Also archaeological or heritage evidence and the overall character of the monument should not be put into danger in the name of modern-day facilities. 

Dr. Silva was successful in retrieving the original architecture and the spirit of the place while addressing the needs of present day living styles and adapting to modern requirements in practical ways. Since preserving this historic architecture was a national need, Dr. Silva was able to conserve and attend to any subsequent repair work so as to preserve its original style and ensure the maintenance work. All these were carried out by winning the hearts of the monks by making them aware of the values of heritage in a convincing way. He was also able to build trust between the monks of these two complexes and the heritage practitioners. In this way, the original style pethi ulu roofs, doors, and floors were preserved and maintained. 

Dr. Silva also believed and practiced that modern practical needs of the inhabitants should be addressed in living heritage monument conservation such as providing modern facilities and requirements while maintaining the spirit of the place within its ancient architecture, protecting all historic evidence or with minimal intervention to historic values. Conservation of Jetavana Stupa and Somavathi Stupa in Polonnaruwa are of such living religious monuments.

“A similar strategy was followed in the City of Kandy and in the Fort of Galle when streetscapes were to be conserved,” said Herath.

He believed in collective effort

“Another very important strategy he followed when working was that he would accommodate the ideas and talents of others. He was the one who practically exercised the multidisciplinary approach to Sri Lanka’s heritage sector,” said Herath.

Dr. Silva had steering committees consisting of local stakeholders including some time with local dignitaries for each project which played a very important role in strengthening the work of the CCF. These committees consisted of provincial stakeholder groups, representing all sectors of the area. The committee was informed about the project and its importance. This made them engaged in the project and made them feel as if they too were a part of this and most importantly, that they felt the need to protect the heritage. Stakeholders treated that project as if it was one of theirs.   

Dr. Silva went into all the details of work personally to achieve intended progress. His ability to strategically handle diverse situations was unbelievable.  He was not blind to procedures and regulations. Therefore, he had the capacity to deal with all auxiliary functions such as financial and administrative matters with relevant experts enabling all of them to be steered in the right direction so as to achieve common scientific goals of the CCF as a team, he being the leader. He was a good delegator, team leader and so the best manager in addition to his scientific expertise in the field.

Honest, simple and transparent

Conservation Officer of the CCF Sujeeva Deraniyagala who has five years of experience working with Dr. Silva fondly remembered him as one of her greatest mentors. 

“Dedication to achieving his vision and goals was his most notable leadership quality. He was target-oriented and focused the entire staff towards achieving set goals while leading from the front,” she said. 

“Dr. Silva was very careful about how he would spend the money collected by the CCF and never misused the wealth of CCF. His non-air conditioned, very small office room, simple rubber wood chair and table displayed his well-managed finances,” said Deraniyagala.

An all-rounder…    

Deraniyagala further said that Dr. Silva had great management skills and he monitored all scientific matters of the institute closely as the Director General. Decision making and resources managing are among the many skills they learnt from him.

“He displayed an amazing talent in balancing administrative, finance, HR and resources management, as well as academic and scientific work within the institution.”

Talking about Dr. Silva’s special characteristics as a great leader she said that he never had the habit of getting things done forcefully; he could naturally persuade others to do things.

“The other special quality I noticed in Dr. Silva was his ability to come up with different strategies to different situations and people. He would always keep his cool and we have never seen him losing his temper. He had his own ways of giving punishment especially to those who were absent for monthly progress meetings. These meetings were a must for all at projects and if any supervising officer failed to make an appearance at a meeting, he or she should come to the head office first thing next day and meet him. For those who were working in distant projects such as Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, and Kandy coming to Colombo itself was a punishment. It was very subtle but stern,” said Deraniyagala.

At the monthly project meeting every problem was discussed and solved. These meetings were important as they were his way of monitoring and networking with the entire staff and their work. Deraniyagala also said that he had the habit of addressing issues on the spot, directly and did not believe in pocket meetings. He believed in the collective efforts of all workers. 

A vision to train skilled archaeologists and conservators

Dr. Silva also worked towards strengthening education and training in the heritage sector. Nevertheless, by now this ‘training’ aspect seems to be deteriorating when considered qualitatively.

 “Dr. Silva had a dream of establishing international training institutes in Sri Lanka and he actually did that,” said an expert in heritage management and conservation Dr. Nilan Cooray. During the time before the 1980s, there was a vacuum in the field of archaeology in Sri Lanka, he said. There were a very small number of trained archaeologists and conservators, for which Dr. Silva wanted to find a solution. This was why he came up with the idea of the Post Graduate Institute of Archaeology (PGIAR) and the Architectural Conservation of Monuments and Sites (ACOMAS) programme of the University of Moratuwa.

 These were results of his vision to educate and train the heritage sector of Sri Lanka, said Dr. Cooray. The PGIAR was unique in that it brought all heads of heritage institutions in the country to its board of management so that training needs could be continually assessed and catered for. During its heyday, these training programmes were successful and there were international students as well as international resource persons working here, said Dr. Cooray. Also, he said that these training centres were among the first of their kind in Asia, during that time.

“It was Dr. Silva’s dream to establish these as international training institutes that produce highly skilled archaeologists and conservators.”

Dr. Cooray further said that if we make an effort to revamp these two, we might be able to make Dr. Silva’s vision and dream come true. 

What is the best tribute to him?

Although Dr. Silva implemented a solid plan for Sri Lanka’s heritage sector, it seems as if we are straying from the path he paved. How can we mend our ways, by finding solutions from Dr. Silva’s vision and work, especially focusing on his concept of a living cultural heritage?

“The golden era created by Dr. Silva and his vision has not been respected and followed on. No attempts have been made to build on the momentum,” said Dr. Wijesuriya.

He further said that the spirit of working together, sharing experiences, and achieving a common goal envisaged by Dr. Silva has been shattered by his successors. As a result, the entire cultural heritage sector of Sri Lanka has reached an unprecedented crisis today.

Dr. Wijesuriya also added that the CCF has become ‘a victim of its own success’ but with little or no effort to restore its glory that served the heritage of this country. Also, that the Department of Archaeology has become a victim of the age-old colonial mentality of its successors, whereas the world is moving forward to decolonise heritage and its management.

“Such mentality also continues to jeopardise the living dimensions of our heritage on account of them all being considered as puravasthu.”

The frequent mantra chanted by Dr. Silva – what is needed is ‘Love’ and not ‘Law’ for heritage – is being deliberately ignored by the authorities. 

“Any respect or honour Sri Lankans can place on him will be the complete ‘restoration’ of the heritage sector for the better and more effective management of our heritage; a gesture not for his personal glory but for the present and future generations of this country,” concluded Dr. Wijesuriya. 

(Pix courtesy Dr. Roland Silva’s family album)

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy | Published: 2:00 AM Jul 31 2021

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