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Exposed to decay (Part II)

සංරක්ෂණය කල්ගත වීම නිසා විනාශ වෙන කුරුන්දිය.

ආචාර්ය ගාමිණී විජේසූරිය මහතා සමග සිදු කළ විශේෂ සාකච්ඡාව.

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy

Last week, Ceylon Today revealed that the excavated image house at Kurundi Ancient Buddhist Monastery has been abandoned, causing serious damage to the exposed remains. Continuing the discussion Ceylon Today reached out to senior heritage management expert and archaeologist Dr. Gamini Wijesuriya who revealed the reasons for neglecting the conservation work and blamed the Ministry of Buddhasasana, Religious and Cultural Affairs for the tragic circumstances. 

According to Dr. Wijesuriya the monastery belonged to the most popular and widely-spread typology developed in the Anuradhapura Period. Such monasteries constituted several sacred buildings, namely; the stupa, image house, Bodhi tree shrine, and chapter house located in a precinct surrounded by a boundary wall – generally located in an elevated site. Monks’ residences and associated ancillary buildings and service elements such as ponds and bath houses were placed outside the boundary. Such monasteries were in environments consisting of agricultural fields and villages.  Such an ensemble easily provided the identity of a Buddhist monastery, which is currently in varying states of preservation in all parts of the country. Many of them are in ruined conditions and partly buried underground due to neglect for centuries. Not surprisingly, Prof. Senaka Bandaranayake identified them as ‘Sinhalese Monastic Architecture’ in his epic publication on Buddhist remains of the Anuradhapura Period. 

Significance of Kurundi

Kurundi is an exceptional testimony to a typical Buddhist monastery of the Anuradhapura Period, a tradition that originated and evolved over the centuries since the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka in the 3rd century BCE.  Kurundi has a written history dating back to the 2nd century BCE as witnessed from the chronicles and illustrious records of its role in ancient society. 

There is ample evidence to understand the identity of the Buddhist monastery within the larger context of agricultural remains and human settlements. The main sacred compound is enclosed by a boundary wall within which the stupa and image house have already been excavated and their function clearly identified. Unexcavated remains within the compound could well be the Bodhi tree shrine and the chapter house. The other archaeological remains located outside the boundary wall could well be the residential and other service buildings, which are essential elements for the sustenance of a residential Buddhist monastery. These remains provide evidence for the ensemble of its identity as a Buddhist monastery carrying Buddhist religious values, explained Dr. Wijesuriya. 

“In heritage management terminology, the remains of the stupa now standing at the site, is the key attribute or the tangible evidence/architecture associated with relic/stupa worship we should endeavour to protect. It carries and conveys the Buddhist values of stupa worship. The presence of a stupa represents the sacredness of the place for the Buddhist community and is perhaps the most important identity of a popular Buddhist monastery (majority).” 

Dr. Wijesuriya further said that it also represents a specific form believed to be the shape of a lotus and the use of materials such as kabook in its construction. In heritage management terminology, excavated and exposed architectural remains of the image house and remnants, which enclose an image of the Buddha, are the most representative and accurate attributes that carry and convey Buddhist values of image worship. Image house is also one of the most sacred and essential elements of a Buddhist monastery. Believed to be a single-storied structure, it represents a typical plan of a Buddhist monastic image house of the period. 

“Once excavated, remains in the main compound will prove their identity as the Bodhi tree shrine and the chapter house.  There is ample evidence in the country for understanding and comparing the function of such buildings as part of a Buddhist monastery. A comprehensive exploration (and limited excavations as appropriate) and the presentation of the entire monastic complex with facilities for resident monks, pilgrims, as well as visitors, should form the next stage of the development.” 

These activities and the systematic promotion of agriculture and the settlements surrounding the monastic complex could immensely contribute to the sustainable development objectives.

Dr. Wijesuriya also said that, again, from the heritage management point of view, Buddhist heritage sites in ruined condition require a conceptual framework for their development followed by comprehensive exploration and wider consultation. This should be guided by three principles; worship, understanding (interpretation and presentation), and determining the future of the sites.

Lack of conservation

“The main issue I have been asked to comment on is the status of the excavated image house and why it has been abandoned by the authorities. The exposed image house, as explained above, is one of the most important parts of our cultural heritage. There is a popular saying that ‘excavation is a destruction’,” Dr. Wijesuriya said.  

“The things he finds are not his own property, to treat as he pleases, or neglect as he chooses…Destruction of evidence is so painfully easy and yet so hopelessly irreparable”.

— Howard Carter, The Tomb of Tutankhamun (1924)

Indeed, it is a fact, but carefully planned excavation is necessary, like in the case of Kurundi to expose our heritage buried underground. Historically, archaeologists were notorious for focusing on excavation or treasure hunting and abandoning the site, leading to further destruction of remains. In this context, international and intergovernmental organisations – United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) – paid attention to the issue of excavation and the importance of conservation (or reburial as an alternative in certain cases). Guidance on archaeological excavation adopted by UNESCO in 1956 in its ‘International Principles Applicable to the Conduct of Archaeological Excavation’ specifically mentions the need to pay attention to conservation after excavation. ICCROM, at its General Assembly in 1983, passed a resolution as follows; 

Considering that archaeological finds from excavations may far exceed the existing possibilities for conservation, and that these researches undertaken may ignore or be in contradiction with the basic needs of conservation – a situation which can lead to serious damage to the historical and cultural heritage of each country and consequently, of mankind;

Considering on the other hand, that many results of archaeological excavations are not published thus negatively contributing to scientific knowledge and mankind’s history, since valuable information may be lost forever; 

Recommends that the member states;

Take the necessary measures to prevent archaeological sites from being opened up-except in special circumstance – without due consideration being given to the necessary requirements of conservation;

“As clearly stated in the previous article published last week, the image house excavated is being destroyed due to the absence of any action. In my view, such neglect is tantamount to a crime. The remains should be consolidated without further delay. The chief incumbent of the temple has revealed that money was allocated for the excavation as well as conservation of the site, which is fulfilling the first requirement before undertaking any excavations and in keeping with internationally accepted principles. A competent team from the Department of Archaeology (DoA) has excavated the site, and the next task is the conservation and (interpretation) presentation,” Dr. Wijesuriya opined.

The DoA has an excellent professional and technical team, together with the accumulated knowledge of 130 years on the subject, and is capable of conserving the remains of the image house. 

“The current Director of Conservation, Prasanna Ratnayake, is a third of a generation of internationally-renowned conservation professionals to hold the position as the Head of Conservation in the DoA. Ratnayake possesses 25 years of experience in the Department as the Head of the Conservation Division with international training and experience. He and his team in the Department can conserve the exposed remains of the image house to the highest international standards within a short duration,” Dr. Wijesuriya revealed.  

He also said that the team is capable of conservation as well as presentation of the image house. Material remains to be consolidated to protect the site and provide facilities for pilgrims to perform religious acts, interpreted and presented for visitors to understand the characteristics of the image house that existed in the Anuradhapura Period. This will also prevent further deterioration of the ruins. In the process, all evidence uncovered by archaeologists in their methodical excavation can be interpreted and represented either in the premises itself or in interpretative documents. 

As part of interpretation and facilitating religious activities, options for reconstruction can also be considered as has been done in other places by the DoA. 

“Such decisions, however, should be made collectively. Participatory collective decision-making is one of the key principles in modern heritage management approaches, which places people at the heart of the discourse. The International Forum held in 2005 at ICCROM Rome on’ Living Religious Heritage’ established that, ‘it is clear that encouraging dialogue among those involved rather than following prescriptive codes of practice offers a more positive role to conservation professionals to play with regard to living religious heritage.’ This is true for Kurundi as well,” said Dr. Wijesuriya. 

What hinders  the conservation? 

Dr. Wijesuriya has elsewhere highlighted the need to revisit the entire heritage sector to deal with out-dated legal and administrative framework that promotes secularisation, overlooking religious values and ‘archaeologisation’, which looks at all our heritage from the point of view of archaeology as key hindrances to doing justice to Buddhist heritage in the country. In addition, he has also highlighted the need to develop conservation policies for Buddhist heritage based on religious principles and fit into our context. This is true for other types of religious heritages as well. There are competent and educated professionals in the DoA who can follow these principles without waiting for long overdue revisions.   

However, Dr. Wijesuriya observes the immediate hindrance to acts like delaying conservation of the excavated kurundi image house differently. He attributes them to the interference by the Ministry of Buddhasasana, Religious and Cultural Affairs over the last decade. The Ministry has failed to appoint a competent leader for the DoA among those serving with experience, as has happened in the last six decades. Over the last five years, the Ministry has appointed five incompetent and unqualified persons as the Director Generals of Archaeology, which have miserably failed to provide the required leadership to the competent staff of the Department and disrupted all the normal work. 

The latest saga of the series of disruptions done to the DoA is the scheme of recruitment hastily drafted and published by the Ministry, which prevents a single staff member of the DoA from applying for the position! On the other hand, it is clear that provisions have been made for those seeking to supplement their CVs but without any experience in the task performed by the DoA.  The current Minister of Buddhasasana Religious and Cultural Affairs has no clue (or perhaps misguided) about the history and the role of the DoA, which has existed for 133 years. It is questionable how those in the Ministry of Public Administration and the Public Service Commission allow such schemes of recruitment to be approved, breaking all accepted norms in the public service. Dr. Wijesuriya further thinks that the respective institutions owe the public explanations. 

“The Ministry and its henchmen/women appointed as Director Generals cover up their incompetency, claiming it is political interference that prevents 

the conservation of the abandoned 

image house in Kurundi,” concluded 

Dr. Wijesuriya. 

(References: The Future of Heritage Conservation in Sri Lanka in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka, Volume 65, Issue II, 2020 by Dr. Gamini Wijesuriya and Buddhist Heritage in Sri Lanka: Principles for Conservation and Management in Prof. The Felicitation Volume, 2022 by Dr. Gamini Wijesuriya)

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