NUWARA ELIYA, the picturesque Sri Lankan hill station known for its fine quality tea, has seen a growing traffic of visitors to what tourist brochures term "the only Sita temple in the world". The recently constructed complex, which is patterned on the m odern south Indian temple, is set in idyllic countryside beside a clear stream. Adjacent to it is another new temple dedicated to Hanuman, the monkey-god, who according to mythology was instrumental in rescuing Sita from Lanka. The location and historici ty of the temples situated in the country's plantation heartland has in recent years given rise to a controversy, which is taking on some divisive overtones in this island nation already torn by ethnic strife.
The Seetha Amman Temple Trust decided some two years ago to build a Sita temple at a spot believed to be the exact place where Sita was held captive by the demon-king Ravana in the Lanka of the epic, Ramayana. Myth has it that Sita, the wife of King Rama , was imprisoned in the Ashoka forests of the region. The temple trustees believe that this is no myth and that Sita's imprisonment at this spot is a historical fact.
Realising the tourism potential of such a temple, the Sri Lankan Ministry of Tourism plans to make it the centre of a sacred site cum pilgrim complex. It earmarked 12.8 hectares around the temple for further development. The move was held up following st rong objections by Buddhist organisations and environmental groups. Both sections have their reasons to oppose the temple, but they agree that there is little historical basis to the story of Sita's imprisonment in these forests.
The president of the Seetha Amman Trust and Central Province Minister for Tourism, V. Radha Krishnan, however offered the following as evidence that Sita once stayed in these parts: the concentration of Ashoka trees - various versions of the Ramayana sta te that Sita's home in Lanka was inside a thick Ashoka forest (Ashoka Vana) - and the discovery about a century ago of three idols, one of which was that of Sita. It is believed that the idols have been worshipped at this spot for centuries. There is als o a belief that Ravana's palace existed somewhere in the vicinity. Clearly, this "evidence" can hardly stand up to any test of historical validation.
This correspondent visited the region demarcated for the "Sita Eliya" project as it is now known. The temple complex is situated approximately 5 km from the Nuwara Eliya town on the road to Kandy. The two new temples exist on a quarter-acre strip of land . One temple is dedicated to Sita, and the other to Hanuman. The Sita temple looks like any modern-day temple with a multi-coloured dome filled with mythological figures. Three new statues - of Rama, Sita and Laxman - have been installed in the new struc ture. On the side closer to the river bank is a small shrine with the three darkened idols which were found a century ago.
The Sita temple in a forest setting.
@ ANUPAMA KATAKAM
"There is a rock on the opposite bank where Sita sat and meditated. Also this Ashoka forest is a clear indication that she came here when she was brought to Lanka," said G.T. Prabhakaran, who is in charge of the temple. There is also a belief that at a p articular point in the stream, the water has no taste. "This is the spot she cursed. You cannot drink the water. Drink it further downstream," one temple worker said. Temple workers are keen to show visitors the spot where Sita bathed, the stone she sat on, and where she prayed. Beliefs here are evidently strong and devotees are convinced that this episode of the Ramayana epic did indeed take place here.
Most places of worship in Sri Lanka (as in India) have legends, beliefs and myths associated with them. These in fact lend a special charm to such places. It is when attempts are made, often with an underlying political agenda, to give legends the stamp of history, that problems and controversies arise. This seems to be happening in the case of the Sita Eliya project.
In fact, many historians of ancient India and Ceylon are of the view that the Lanka of the Ramayana lay no further south than the Vindhyas, and that the geographical position of Sri Lanka as reflected in the Ramayana was an interpolation made after trade routes with the island were opened. Indeed, the historicity of this site was denied by a leading Sri Lankan archaeologist. S.U. Deraniyagala, Director-General of the Archeological Department of Sri Lanka, said: "These are all new- fangled ideas which ha ve the potential to create all sorts of divisions among people." He believes that the issue is "best left alone". He pointed out that there is no scientific or historical evidence to indicate that this area is connected to the Ramayana.
To a visitor from India, where the historicisation of myth has often aided right-wing political mobilisation, the Sita temple controversy build-up rings a warning bell. Indeed there is some opposition to the project from some extremist Buddhist organisat ions. Nearly 42 groups, including the Buddhist Singhala Veera Vidhana, a fundamentalist organisation, have opposed the Sita Eliya project, saying it would lead to the conversion of the township into a "Ramapuraya". In a joint statement, these organisatio ns expressed the fear that as Indian devotees begin to throng the temple, it would become the stronghold of Tamil political interests. In fact, at the time of building the Sita temple the groups protested to such an extent that work had to cease temporar ily. When the issue subsided, the trust completed building the temple and on January 26 this year it was inaugurated by devotees who celebrated the Kumbhabhishekam.
Moreover, the organisations said the pilgrimage site would uproot people living in the area. Would the government provide adequate rehabilitation packages, they asked. However, Minister Radha Krishnan said that when the project gets the green signal "we might have to shift one or two families and not several as the opposing parties claim. This is to build a road but we will ensure safe and secure rehabilitation."
The South Indian style entrance
to the Sita temple.
@ ANUPAMA KATAKAM
Environmental groups have also targeted the move to build a sacred site for tourism, stating that the stream which flows beside the temple is one of the water sources for the area. Construction on its banks would lead to environmental damage and pollutio n, they have said. Sri Lanka's Central Environment Authority (CEA), however, has not entered the fray. Director-General of the CEA L.J. Jayasinghe told Frontline that there is not much the CEA can do even if the Sita Eliya project poses a threat t o the environment. "The project is the responsibility of the Tourism and Forest Ministries - unless they ask for a study to be conducted, the CEA is quite removed from the project," he said.
On the current status of the project, Deputy Foreign Minister Laxman Kirialla said that it is "still alive" and that once the land is acquired the project would be completed. The land belongs to the Forest Department, which fears that developing the area into a tourist-pilgrimage centre could damage the environment. A tourism official said that the project plan was still being worked out. In fact a progress report was presented to the Minister, who will review the report and make a decision.
Radha Krishnan, whose portfolios include Trade, Livestock Development, Hindu culture, Tamil Education and Estate Development in the Central Province, said: "The project's progress is now in the Ministry's court, we have to wait and see what happens." He added that they did not face any antagonism from Buddhist organisations, non-governmental organisations or local residents when the temple was inaugurated and that was a positive sign.
Last year the Sita Eliya project got an additional boost when President Chandrika Kumaratunga announced that Nuwara Eliya, Kandy and Matale would be developed on a large scale for tourism. The Ministry of Tourism estimates that the number of visitors to that region would touch the two lakh mark. The Sita temple site would be a major factor in promoting the province in India. The temple currently attracts some 600 visitors a month - and the number is rising. Several organisations from North India have sh own interest in helping raise funds for the project, said Radha Krishnan. The Tourism Ministry would look into the proposals, he said.
While the Ceylon Tourism Board and the Central Province government have plans to develop the Sita Eliya area on the lines of historical cum sacred sites such as Anuradhapura, Sigiriya and Kandy, they also have ideas of starting other tourist attractions such as golf courses and boating on Nuwara Eliya's lake. Tourism in Sri Lanka is the fourth largest foreign exchange earner, according to a statement issued by the Foreign Minister's office. Between 1994 and 1999, the country earned Rs.80 billion through tourism. Having been declared a thrust industry by the President, various concessions are now offered to tourism development plans, which include hotels, transport and duty-free imports.
Evidently, the issue is discussed widely in the country. Ministers, bureaucrats, businessmen, journalists and tourists are aware of the temple, if not the controversy. In many ways, opposing groups and organisations have kept the campaign active through the media. While they have been successful in keeping the project on hold, they have been even more effective in keeping the issue alive.
Nuwara Eliya's population of 36,000 comprises mainly Sri Lankans of Tamil origin who work as labourers on plantations. Politicians may have their own agenda to make it the stronghold of a particular community. It will be a pity to see this quaint town, w hich was called "Little England" during the colonial period, succumb to the prevalent ethnic tensions in Sri Lanka.