Root causes of the problem
We explored the heritage sites and monuments in the Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka for six months. We understood that the thousands of ancient sites and monuments in these two provinces are highly vulnerable to destruction. For various reasons, these places are exposed to purposeful vandalising, looting, and neglect. One of the biggest threats these sites and monuments face is the belief imposed by some about a mythical Tamil homeland called the Eelam. To prove this baseless myth, those who believe in an Eelam are engaged in purposefully destroying and distorting the ancient archaeological sites and monuments in the north.
Secondly, many of these sites are vulnerable and exposed to treasure hunters. Some of these sites are being looted by them. This is due to the illegal antiquities trade that is happening internationally. Ancient sites and monuments that are situated in dense forest areas, far from human settlements are mostly exposed to treasure hunters.
We also understood that the Department of Archaeology (DoA) needs more resources to provide protection to all the heritage sites in the Northern and Eastern provinces. This issue is understandable. Yet, if so, these issues should be addressed and plausible solutions should be given.
Construction work and agricultural work also sometimes have been seen as a cause of damage to heritage sites in the North and East. Recently, it was reported that bulldozers damaged some ancient ruins in a land area in the Mahawei L zone under the Mahaweli Development Project. Once the destruction was already done, the DoA was informed. The issue here is that prior to work, an Archaeological Impact Assessment (AIA) should have been issued by the DoA after assessing the site. We wonder why the DoA is not interested in conducting AIAs and why other Government institutes such as the Mahaweli Authority couldn’t be bothered to coordinate with the DoA prior to starting development and agricultural work.
In today’s segment, we shall try to understand these issues that act as challenges in protecting Sri Lanka’s cultural heritage, especially focusing on the Northern and Eastern provinces. We will also talk with heritage management experts and look for possible solutions to sort out these issues. We will also be doing a survey to see the public opinion on this, including the Tamil civilians living around these ancient sites.
The Eelam myth and its root cause
We have discussed the damage this causes to the heritage sites in the Northern and Eastern provinces. We also report incidents of vandalising of ancient archaeological sites and monuments that happens frequently in these two provinces.
One of the main forms of vandalising we see is that land encroachment and the building of small Hindu kovils which later turn into permanent kovils on these ancient sites and monuments. The problem here is not building a Hindu shrine within a temple. This must be cleared.
In Sri Lanka, within the Sinhala Buddhist culture, within the Sinhala Buddhist society, since the Polonnaruwa Period, Hindu religion and Hindu culture have been in existance. The Tamil language, Tamil culture, was and is a part of Sri Lanka’s culture. We cannot deny that.
Also, there were Hindu shrines in Sri Lanka after the Polonnaruwa Period. After the medieval period, we witness that, especially after the Gampola Period, Hindu shrines were built inside the Buddhist temple premises. Moreover, statues of Hindu deities were placed inside the Buddhist image houses beside the statue of the Buddha. Hence, Sinhala Buddhists have always practiced religious coexistence and harmony. Four devalas are placed within the premises of the Kandy Sri Dalada Maligawa, the most sacred Buddhist temple in Sri Lanka. Peraharas of gods is a significant part of the main Buddhist peraharas in Sri Lanka.
The beautiful Siva devalas, Vishnu devalas, and statues of Siva, Parvati, Ganesh, Vishnu, and many other Hindu gods and goddesses are cherished and protected by all of us as we consider them our heritage. We do not see them as artefacts belonging to another religion or race and do not attempt to demolish these structures.
The same should be applied to the Buddhist heritage of Sri Lanka’s north and east. However, we have seen that the sites of these ancient places are been encroached upon by groups of people building kovils, with the intention of converting them into Hindu kovils. This has been happening now for about a century. With time, these small shrines are being developed into permanent buildings.
To sort this out we need to address the root cause of this. The Director General of Archaeology is reluctant to enforce the laws pertaining to archaeology to prevent these incidents from happening. His argument is that we cannot hurt Tamil civilians. However, our studies proved to us that the Tamil civilians do not see these ancient Buddhist monuments as a threat. In fact, in many cases, they are not even bothered about their existence. Also, in some cases, they protect these places. Then who cause these disputes? These disputes add fuel to the country’s burning ethnic issue. Who benefits as long as there is animosity between the Sinhala and Tamil people?
We have understood that the religious devotion of innocent Tamil people is being used and manipulated by politicians of the area and is being used as bait.
Why do these politicians target ancient Buddhist heritage sites? It is due to their need for a separate Tamil-only state. These ancient sites and monuments are the strongest evidence to show that a historical Tamil homeland did not ever exist in the Northern and Eastern provinces. Hence, those who stand for separationist ideologies see the heritage sites as a threat. Erasing them from the face of the earth is the solution they see to eliminate the threat.
However, what is important to understand is that irrespective of their religious identity, these heritage sites are the heritage of all the citizens of Sri Lanka. It is important that all races living in Sri Lanka understand that these ancient sites are their own heritage and it is important that they all protect the heritage instead of destroying it.
Reports of Cyril Mathew and Ven. Ellawala Medhandha Thera reveal that Tamil people living around ancient sites were very hospitable to them, and even joined them in exploring these sites. Some Tamil Hindu priests have even protected some ancient Buddhist monastic sites.
Those who encourage Tamil people to build kovils exactly on Buddhist heritage sites are racist politicians who stand for a separate Tamil-only state. They are the people who actually even do not care for the wellbeing of Tamil civilians but only for their own. These are the very people who oppress their own people by indigenous laws such as Thesavalamai and the horrible caste system. These are the racist politicians who lodge Police complaints against Buddhist temples in the North and East and harass the Buddhist monks who reside in these temples. They are not the voice of ordinary Tamil civilians.
We also must emphasise the need of a community-based heritage conservation policy in Sri Lanka. This is where we must make sure that the Tamil civilians of the area actively take part in protecting the ancient sites and monuments in the North and the East. Under this, they also financially benefit when tourism is being promoted while the levels of their sociocultural aspects also can be uplifted.
We also must always make sure to extinguish the flames of the burning bridges between the two communities and unite the Sinhala and Tamil people. In this task, heritage can play a vital role. Heritage can play the role of ambassador of peace between the two communities in Sri Lanka.
To understand more about the role of heritage in establishing peace between the Sinhala and Tamil communities and to understand the root causes of the Eelam myth, we spoke to Piyasiri Amarakoon who has conducted extensive research about the Eelam concept, its history, and growth. He has been doing research on this since 1976 the year that the Vaddukoddai Resolution happened and has published his work. Amarakoon is a retired accountant in the Government service.
“I have discovered that the British played a major role in the ethnic issue we are facing today and they are directly responsible for this national issue we are experiencing today.”
He explained that the British under their ‘divide and rule’ policy created a rift between the Sinhala and Tamil communities in Sri Lanka. As he explained, minorities of Sri Lanka were not discriminated against during historical, medieval, and post-medieval times. Instead, they were protected by the Sinhala king. Presenting examples he said that villages were established for Catholics in Wahakotte and Galgamuwa areas by king Senerath of Kandy. Muslims were settled near harbours and in the Kandyan Kingdom.
“It was the policy of the British to create animosity between the Sinhala and other minorities who lived in Ceylon during that time,” said Amarakoon.
According to his studies, the ethnic issue we are facing today has no roots that run back beyond the time of British rule.
“Due to this dangerous myth created by the British, I see a threat not only to the territorial integrity of the country but also to the archaeological sites in these areas.
“According to Hellmann Rajanayagam and written in two books by Ratnajeevan Hoole, the British built 300 Hindu kovils in the Jaffna peninsula only at the expense of the British.”
Talking further about these newly-constructed British Hindu kovils in Jaffna, Amarakoon said that it was the Portuguese who first demolished Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka, including temples in Jaffna. By the time the British arrived, most of the Buddhist temples in Jaffna were already destroyed. He also said that in Sri Lanka, we had Buddhist temples and Hindu shrines together, within the same premises. But what the British did was not renovate the demolished temples, but build completely new kovils on the temple premises, forever hiding the evidence of Buddhist temples.
Simon Casie Chetty and Baldaeus write that there had been 159 villages in the Jaffna peninsula, but the British built 300 kovils for 159 villages, which is notably a large amount.
“We must find out why exactly these 300 kovils were built in Jaffna by the British,” said Amarakoon.
“I believe these new kovils were built on the ancient lands of already demolished temples. I need to research further on this matter. Also, these 300 kovils need to be identified and I suggest that name boards should be fixed at those premises.”
Secondly, the British brought down officers from Madras to work in Ceylon known as Aumildars and they were appointed to higher positions than the native officers. This created a dispute in society. Also, the British tax policy stirred the local community. Therefore, an uprising happened in 1797/98 against the British iron rule.
During this time, the newly-appointed Governor Fedrick North, requested a brief report about the judicial and revenue administration. It also must be noted that to resolve the uprising he accepted all demands of the rebels. The then Colonial secretary Hugh Cleghorn of Ceylon submitted a report to North. In that report, he wrote about the people of Ceylon. In this section, he wrote that on this island two races divided the country and lived separately. This is being misquoted by separationists. This was used by the racist politicians when they first demanded the Eelam before the Indo-Lanka Accord was signed. Quoting this, they demanded that this separate state should be given to them. However, we have clear facts to prove that this document is a false one fabricated by the British. In this same section, the document says that the Sinhalese people are descending from Siam. Therefore, this document can be easily discarded as false and fabricated information.
(To be continued…)
By Ama H. Vanniarachchy