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Exposed to decay (Part I)

සංරක්ෂණය කල්ගත වීම නිසා විනාශ වෙන කුරුන්දිය.
ආචාර්ය ගාමිණී විජේසූරිය මහතා සමග සිදු කළ විශේෂ සාකච්ඡාව.

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy

The Kurundi Ancient Buddhist Monastery in the Mullaitivu District is probably one of the most discussed ancient monasteries and heritage-related issues in recent times in Sri Lanka. This Buddhist monastery with a rich history that runs back to the 2nd century BCE, was once a well-flourishing Buddhist centre that kings, queens, and ministers patronised.

During the 30-year-long internal conflict against the terrorist group, the LTTE, thousands of ancient monuments and sites in Sri Lanka’s Northern and Eastern provinces were neglected and destroyed. During these 30 years and the years followed the end of the internal conflict, these places were further abandoned and subjected to purposeful destruction. Although some of these ancient places were re-discovered and attempts were made to revive them during the last decade, minimal attempts were made to revive the ancient Buddhist monasteries in the north and the east, which are a very few in number. Kurundi Ancient Buddhist Monastery in the Mullaitivu District is one such ancient place in the Northern Province which isn’t gathering the attention it deserved to have due to its historical importance. 

Beginning of conservation work 

In the year 2020, Ven. Galgamuwe Santhabodhi Thera became the Chief Incumbent of the ancient temple and if not for the Thera’s great sacrifices the injustice and violence faced by this ancient temple would have surely gone unnoticed. 

Following the endeavours of Ven. Santhabodhi Thera, the Ministry of Buddhasasana, Religious and Cultural Affairs and the Department of Archaeology (DoA) finally paid their attention and concern to this precious ancient monastery, and took measures to preserve and restore the place. The former Secretary of the Ministry of Buddhasasana, Religious and Cultural Affairs Dr. Kapila Gunawardhane should be remembered for his devotion and dedication. 

The President of the Bauddhaloka Foundation (Guarantee) Ltd, Jagath Sumathipala, is the generous patron of all the archaeological work that is presently happening at the Kuruindi Ancient Buddhist Monastery. 

The Bauddhaloka Foundation signed an MoU with the DoA to sponsor the excavation and restoration of the site and started the excavation of the stupa mounds in January 2021. Upon completion of the excavation in May 2021, they started the restoration of the stupa. The excavation work of the image house of the Kurundi Ancient Buddhist Monastery commenced in March 2022 and was completed in May 2022. The necessary labour contribution to complete the work in such a short time was mainly provided by the Sri Lanka Army (24th Lion Regiment of Alampil Army Camp).

All excavation work was supervised and conducted by the Vavuniya Regional Archaeology Office and the Excavation Unit of the DoA, following the advice and guidance of the Director General of Archaeology. 

A deliberate delay

However, Ceylon Today learnt that the conservation work of the ancient image house (pilimageya) is being delayed, deliberately, mainly for political reasons. Yet, although racism and politics play a big role in delaying the Kurundi image house conservation, the lack of a national policy in Sri Lanka’s heritage sector and in the DoA also plays a significant role in this delay. 

As the conservation work of the image house is being delayed, the excavated land of the image house, including the exposed soil layers and unearthed stone objects, is exposed to heavy rains, heat, and soil erosion. 

To know more about this situation and to understand the scenario, Ceylon Today contacted the Chief Incumbent of the temple Ven. Santhabodhi Thera, senior heritage management expert and archaeologist, Dr. Gamini Wijesuriya, and archaeologist Chandima Ambanwala. Following is the discussion we had with them. 

Left to erode 

The Chief Incumbent of the Kurundi Ancient Buddhist Monastery, Ven. Santhabodhi Thera shared his views on the latest situation at the temple. 

“The wall around the image house has started to collapse in certain places. Some of the stone pillars are tilted to the side due to soil erosion, as a result of heavy rains. We have fixed props to prevent those pillars from falling.”

The Thera also said that if there had been artefacts such as beads on the top surface, which surely must have been washed away due to soil erosion. Therefore, archaeological conservation of the image house should happen at the earliest to stop further damage to the excavated image house. 

Due to political reasons…

When we asked about the delay of the conservation work, the Thera said that this was due to the political tension that was created at this place. 

“As a group of people claims that an ancient Hindu temple existed at the Kurundi Ancient Buddhist Monastery site, once the conservation work starts at the image house, authorities speculate that political tension would happen here as this group may distract and oppose the conservation work,” Ven. Santhabodhi Thera said.

The Thera explained that once the archaeological conservation of the image house commences, it will once again prove the place’s Buddhist identity, which will be the reason that certain groups will try to challenge it. It is due to this fear that the archaeology conservation work has not been commenced. 

“Nevertheless, there are some archaeology officers who are willing to go ahead with the conservation work of the image house despite all the challenges and speculated conflicts,” the Thera said. 

Ven. Santhabodhi Thera further said that when the excavations were commenced at Kurundi, there was a conservation programme and that funding was also never an issue as the Bauddhaloka Foundation generously funded the heritage management work at Kurundi Ancient Buddhist Monastery. The above-mentioned reason is the only obstacle the Kurundi image house conservation work is facing. 

Next, we contacted Ambanwala who is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Archaeology and Heritage Management of the Sri Lanka Rajarata University, Mihintale. 

A recent restoration trend

There has been a trend in Sri Lanka’s heritage sector for the past few years, to conduct archaeological excavations at ancient sites, especially at ancient Buddhist monasteries. Under these ‘excavations’, many ancient Buddhist stupas and image houses all around the island, were excavated. We asked what he thinks about this trend in the heritage sector. 

“During the last couple of years, there has been a notable discourse about Buddhist architectural heritage in Sri Lanka. This could be seen as a result of the situation that arose due to various social and political trends that occurred in Sri Lanka. In my opinion, Buddhist sacred architecture has been directly affected by the destruction due to various reasonable natural reasons as well as the tendency of vandalising and distortion due to the planned activities of various groups.”

He further explained that excavating sacred Buddhist architectural structures could be seen as a response or a result of the social discourse as an alternative to this trend of destruction. It can also be recognised that there has been a trend of reviving ancient Buddhist architectural structures during the past years.

He also said that the clergy and devotees who are connected to these religious places took a big part in such revivals and restorations, and generously supported such work. This trend can be seen as a positive trend in preserving Sri Lanka’s heritage places. 

“However, viewing and considering these places from a mere archaeological and heritage conservation perspective, is problematic,” said Ambanwala. 

Wanting to know more, we asked him about what are the problems he sees in the above-said perspective. 

Lack of long-term plans 

“There are many issues. One is that no matter how good the intentions may be, there are no long-term plans and organised structured plans. The main and serious issue is that no measures are taken to conserve the unearthed architectural structures during a given timeframe. This causes severe damage to the unearthed architectural structures. These ancient stupas and image houses are more than 1000 years old and they are sacred objects that are venerated by people who live in a living culture. Or, they are sacred objects that people of Sri Lanka’s living culture are eagerly waiting to venerate,” Ambanwala elaborated.  

Even undergraduate archaeology students are very well aware that excavating an ancient architectural structure and abandoning it exposed accelerates the decaying process by a hundred times. Thus, a well-planned preservation and conservation plan is compulsory.

“A person with common sense would clearly understand the gravity of this because these ancient structures were under the soil for many centuries, sometimes even thousands of years and during this time the decaying process is under control and stable. Once these structures are unearthed and exposed to natural conditions such as rain, atmosphere and sunlight, heat, humidity and so on, it is similar to enabling a speedy decaying process,” explained Ambanwala. 

“We have many examples of such situations in recent times. The Kawudagala Stupa in Welikanda was excavated but was not followed up by a conservation process. The stupa was destroyed by treasure hunters. Another example is the image house at Kurundi Buddhist monastery. If anyone visits this place now, they can witness the damage caused to the image house after it was abandoned after excavations,” revealed Ambanwala.

Who is responsible  for this situation? 

“The Director General of the DoA is to be blamed for this damage because the Department is the pioneer institute that is responsible for protecting Sri Lanka’s ancient heritage and it is also the institute that has all the authority to take action for the safeguarding of the heritage. It is the duty and responsibility of the Department to safeguard the ancient heritage sites and monuments in Sri Lanka,” Ambanwala responded when asked who should be responsible for the prevailing issue. 

He also said that although the Department is doing fairly great in preserving the country’s heritage, it also has to acknowledge such blame and accusations. Also, the Department must intervene and preserve these architectural structures and hand over these Buddhist places to the devotees who are a part of Sri Lanka’s living culture, under the observation of the DoA. 

“If not, we witness how these architectural structures are being decayed day by day, at a great speed and such destruction can be seen as a ‘licensed – destruction of the heritage’, which is a very grave situation. Therefore, the Director General of the DoA and the DoA cannot wipe their hands off of the responsibility of protecting Sri Lanka’s heritage of the people on behalf of the people,” concluded Ambanwala.  

To be continued…

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