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The Saga of Kurundi

Sri Lanka’s vast number of ruined temples scattered all over the Northern and Eastern provinces are silent witnesses and solid pieces of evidence of the territorial integrity and the history of the North and the East. However, some separatist groups openly express their hatred towards these ruined temples solely because they want to fulfil their narrow political expectations. This is also why the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) expressed its displease over Sri Lanka’s archaeology work in the North and East. While many of them are being destroyed and vandalised, some are turned into kovils. While vandalising archaeological ruins is illegal building something new over them is not just illegal but unethical. 

These places were forced to be abandoned for centuries due to various reasons. In the 20th century, Buddhist monks were forced to leave their temples and villagers were forced to leave their homes due to violence forced on them by extremists. During these times and during the 30-year internal conflict, these places were further destroyed. Many of the ruined granite pillars and carved stones were used in other buildings as stepping stones or walls.

Although some attempts have been made to document these places and restore them before the war, after the late 1980s, all attempts had to be stopped due to the rising power of the LTTE. Some attempts were once again made once the war was ended.

It would be extremely wrong if we do not mention the tiring efforts and sacrifices of Purawidya Paryeshanashuri and Purawidya Chakrawarthi, Most Venerable Ellawala Medhanda Thera in saving these places. Before him, some British civil servants and archaeologists during colonial times have reported about some of the abandoned sites in the North and East.

Among these many places, The Kurundi ancient Buddhist monastery or the Kurundawashoka temple in Mullativu was the centre of attention in the last few weeks. However, with a great effort of the Buddhist monks, devotees, lawyers, and the Department of Archaeology (DoA), justice was served to the temple and the DoA was given permission to continue with their archaeology work at the place.

The great pressure put upon the Director-General (DG) of Archaeology by the public left him with no other choice but to conserve the heritage without being influenced by socio-political forces.

The fearless sacrifices of the Most Venerable Galgamuwe Santhabodhi Thera who is the caretaker of this ancient temple must be mentioned as, if not for him, this incident would have gone completely unnoticed.

Today, Ceylon Today is bringing up the ‘Kurundi incident’ for a few reasons. One is to remind the relevant authorities that their primary duty is to protect the country’s ancient heritage. If the law is insufficient or unclear the authorities have the power to take steps to strengthen the archaeology law. They also can and should involve Buddhist monks, senior archaeologists, historians, and scholars in the decision-making process. This is why a Purawidya Upadeshaka Sabhawa is gazetted for.

Secondly, it is to remind the entire country about the great threats faced by ancient places in the North and the East.

Thirdly, it is to educate the public about a few things such as what heritage management, conservation of a stupa and the living heritage of Sri Lanka, are. For this last purpose, we contacted and had a discussion with a professional.

(Articles and videos about the history and archaeology of the place were widely shared and as we previously did two lengthy discussions about the place and about the yupa stone at the temple, we shall not repeat all that here.)

A 2nd century BC Buddhist temple

Kurundi temple is first mentioned in the 33rd chapter of the Mahavamsa which says that King Khallatanga (110 – 104 BC) built the Kurunda Pasaka temple. Locals also believe that Buddha has visited this place. A stupa, an image house, an inscription of a Sinhala king belonging to 9th – 10th century, and statues of Buddha, and Bodhisattva were found at this place.

The 1895 Manual of Vanni says that the term Kurun-gama is mentioned in the inscription and that, “The later Tamil residents built a temple here, and they demolished the vihara built by Sanghabodhi and other buildings, and removed nearly all the bricks and the stone works to it.

It further says that, “Stones were removed from Kuruntanurmali in 1858 I believe, to build the Mullivaikkal temple. The doorway of that temple is constructed of carved stones from Kuruntanurmalai.”

There are many notes from local and colonial scholars about the purposeful vandalising of this place.

Until 2009 Kurundi temple was a forbidden place to step into. Politicians are those who oppose the archaeology work at this place and who deny accepting the place’s Buddhist identity despite all the evidence. (It should be mentioned that this is not the first time the politicians demanding Buddhist temples to be removed from the North and the East).

Today, it is identified that the entire monastery land is spread across more than 400 acres.

 The archaeology work was started in 2021 and the plan was to complete the stupa conservation based on the proposed plan (by archaeologists). On the day of enshrining the sacred relics of the Buddha inside the stupa, Parliamentarians of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and their supporters disturbed this event and force-stopped it. They claimed that the place belongs to their ‘homeland’ and the temple in fact, is an ancient kovil (which does not tally with archaeological and historical sources).

 The chain of events that followed was witnessed by the whole country and in the end, the DoA was allowed to continue with their archaeology work at the place without any disturbance.

With all this happening, the news went viral on social media. Some were of the view that new constructions of an archaeological site are illegal and thus, should be removed. Some even criticised the conservation of the stupa, enshrining relics, and placing a Buddha statue.

To know more about this, Ceylon Today contacted prominent archaeologist Dr. Gamini Wijesuriya.

Religious value and livingness of heritage

Dr. Wijesuriya suggests that what distinguishes religious heritage from secular heritage is its inherent ‘livingness’. The religious values carried by a stupa embodying the living Buddha, for example, can only be sustained by on-going processes of physical renewal of the stupa.

“The primary goal of conservation becomes continuity itself, based on processes of renewal that continually, ‘revive the cultural meaning, significance, and symbolism attached to heritage’.”

Dr. Wijesuriya stresses the differences between ‘religious heritage’ and ‘heritage’ by noting that religious heritage has been born with its values in place, while with other forms of heritage, we need time and distance to be able to ascribe values to heritage.

These differences will cause the conservator to ask different questions in defining heritage values in the two different situations; for religious heritage, what values are already recognised by the religious community and for secular heritage, what process (involving whom?) will be needed to define these values.

Religious community vs conservation community

Dr. Wijesuriya explains that conflict can arise between the traditional values of a religious community and the goals of modern conservation. Modern conservation philosophy is rooted in contemporary secular values.

The interaction between maintenance of religious values and conservation of the cultural values of a place is also examined by Dr. Wijesuriya, with reference to Buddhist sites in Sri Lanka.

If responsibility for the religious heritage is retained by the ‘associated community’, then its protection is assured from within, while benefiting from the conservation expertise acquired through dialogue with the conservation community.

“The contemporary debate in Sri Lanka justified the restoration of stupas to their original form, not only because of their historical significance but also so as to retain their religious function as the home of important relics of the Buddha and his followers,” says Dr. Wijesuriya.

Living religious heritage is of particular importance, given its vital role in conveying, expressing, and sustaining the faiths which give spiritual identity, meaning, and purpose to human life.

Understanding living religious heritage requires recognising that the intangible significance of tangible religious objects, structures, and places is the key to their meaning. The tangible and intangible cannot be separated since all cultural material has intangible value.

Conservation of Kurundi Stupa

“Kurundi is a heritage site under the existing law of the country which is identified as an archaeological reserve. What you do with such a site is given in the Antiquities Ordinance under which, reconstruction of a stupa is not prohibited,” he says.

He also says that there is no universal law that defines what you do with a heritage site or an archaeological site. There are certain, normative documents available internationally that are mostly developed by the Western world and are also being challenged and discussed in their inadequacy.

“What you do with such a site is a context-dependent endeavour and decided by the national authorities based on the existing legislation. Sri Lanka still relies on legislation and management systems left by the colonial rulers seven decades ago with minimal changes to suit the modern-day context.”

He further says that as a result, decisions for the reconstruction of stupas are taken in an ad-hoc manner as there are no mechanisms developed for broader consultation. Reconstruction of stupas is an important subject for which Sri Lanka should have developed a broader set of principles based on their significance instead of taking ad-hoc decisions by different groups.

“However, this doesn’t prevent the DoA from undertaking the reconstruction of a stupa in an archaeological site as has been done since the ‘60s.”

From an international perspective, interventions of a site such as Kurundi should be based on an assessment of all its values and not just its archaeological value, emphasises Dr. Wijesuriya.

Being part of a living heritage site, all its values such as historical, religious, and archaeological; have to be taken into account when defining different conservation interventions. Considering the religious significance of a stupa, Buddhist community decided to reconstruct stupas that are in ruined conditions, which is a long-established tradition in this country.

In ensuring continuity of forms, in effect, ‘living’ heritage values are being elevated above the more familiar ‘documentary’ or ‘historical’ heritage values. The primary goal of conservation becomes continuity itself, based on processes of renewal that continually ‘revive the cultural meaning, significance, and symbolism attached to heritage’.

Such discussions have led to many conclusions:

As a result, efforts to conserve tangible and intangible living religious heritage deserve particular support for their role in supporting and testifying to the nature of our search for the fundamental meaning of human existence.

The care of this heritage is primarily the responsibility of the religious community for whom this heritage has importance, at local and/or global levels. The conservation of living religious heritage is ideally initiated by the religious community and carried out in collaboration with conservation professionals and all those concerned.

Religious values in a multicultural context are also discussed.

“Respect for religious values in a multicultural context (or of particular orientations within a single religion) is essential for promoting peace and tolerant society and is best promoted through strengthening interfaith dialogues on conservation issues,” says Dr. Wijesuriya.

“Of course, strengthening dialogue between conservationists and the religious community is not sufficient if the religious community does not speak with one voice.”

He says that this dialogue must bring together all those involved within both the conservation field and the religious community.

Dialogue must be organised to build understanding and better sympathy for the different points of view which may exist in various multi-cultural contexts, and which may need to be reconciled as a part of efforts to protect religious heritage.

“Unfortunately, our heritage management systems have not developed in the country to cope with such situations as they are still following the age-old principles,” Dr. Wijesuriya expresses his concern.

As he explains, in a given heritage site, what is happening is material interventions in the form of reconstructions which differs from case to case. In Japan, the entire palace of the 8th century was reconstructed on foundation stones discovered through archaeological excavation.  

“In Sri Lanka, we have reconstructed many stupas with the addition of large amounts of bricks to regain the form suitable for worship. Principles for such interventions are still being discussed with no coherent agreements at international levels. As one of our veterans, Paul Philippot has said, conservation is cultural decision-making. We should be prepared.”

To be continued…

(Pix courtesy Pathum Paranawitharana)

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy

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