WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka's History: In Danger of Disappearing

(By Champika Liyanaarachchi - OneWorld South Asia)

Colombo, 22 June, (OneWorld): Environmentalists warn that unchecked vandalism and neglect is destroying thousands of ancient rock caves in Sri Lanka dating back to 30,500 BC, with scores of Buddha statues rendered headless, and paintings defaced.

In the absence of a detailed survey, it is believed there are between 3000-4000 caves of historic importance in the country, bearing testimony to its ancient history and religion.

At a special meeting of the cultural ministry of the central Sabaragamuwa province last week, former Director General of Archaeology, Dr Shiran Deraniyagala, declared that unless the authorities take immediate action to save the caves, important historical evidence will soon be gone.

He alleged there was an orchestrated move to destroy archeological sites to remove precious artefacts.

One of the most priceless relics here is a female body remains in Bulathsinhala, in Kalutara district in the Western province, which testifies to the consumption of rice, maize and salt.

This body remains embedded in a rock dates back to 30,500 BC and is considered the world's oldest proof of consumption of rice, maize and salt.

The rock cave is named after the famous Chinese Buddhist monk Fa-Hien who travelled in India and Sri Lanka from AD 399 to 414. He stayed in this cave for the major part of his sojourn in Sri Lanka.

Today sans security and conservation efforts, its condition is fast deteriorating.

While geometric tool kits are believed to have first been used by the Europeans in 12,500 BC, similar tools dating back to as early as 28,500 BC were found in two caves in lowlying wetlands in the Sabaragamuwa province.

Rock caves played a major role in fostering Sri Lanka's temple-based civilization, following the introduction of Buddhism in the 2nd century BC by Venerable Mahinda, the son of Emperor Ashoka of India.

Almost 70 per cent of the temples and monasteries of the Buddhist monks were cave-based till 500 years or so ago. In addition, for meditation purposes, the monks inscribed religious verses on the walls, while artists painted the temple cave walls with murals and pictures describing their religion.

Laments prominent environmentalist Nihal Fernando who has conducted extensive studies on the rock caves especially in the country's southeast coast, "Treasure hunters have destroyed almost all the Buddha statues - numbering over 100 - in the caves of the southeast coast especially in the areas of Yala and Pothuvil."

He adds, "I have seen hundreds of headless statues here. They blow them up to obtain gems and other treasures they are generally thought to conceal."

This apart, there are several instances where the historic cave paintings, some dating back to more than ten centuries, have been defaced by individuals for no obvious reasons.

Stresses Fernando, "Irreparable damage has been done, without leaving any traces. As most of these caves are in the jungles anybody can deface them without being noticed."

Recently a number of paintings were defaced in the historic Dimbulagala rock cave in the North Central district of Polonnaruwa.

In addition, the caves have fallen prey to misuse. Says Jagath Gunawardena, one of the country's leading environment attorneys, "A large number of caves once inhabited by Buddhist monks are now being used to brew illicit liquor and hide unauthorized weapons."

According to him, the caves face other major threats like rock blasting for commercial purposes and damages by picnickers.

Worse, in what is regarded a national shame, due to the Archeology Department's inadequate budget, a large number of caves here have not even been examined so far.

Fernando points out that calling for people's protection is the only solution, suggesting that village groups should be appointed to conserve them.

Emphasizing the government's negligence in this regard, one of the country's leading archeologists, the Venerable Ellawala Medananda charges, "None of the post independence governments have launched programs to preserve the caves or unearth the historic evidence there."

He remarks, "Every day vital historical proof is destroyed in caves in some part of the country."

The scholar monk alleges there is a planned campaign by anti-Buddhist elements to destroy evidence of the existence of the Buddhist civilization.

But, he regrets, "Nobody seems to be bothered about it."

For his part, Minister of Cultural Affairs, Vijitha Herath who assumed office two months ago, promises, "We are planning to increase allocations for the Department of Archeology from the next budget to address these issues. Few countries can boast of cultural and historical sites like ours."

WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka