Exploiting Our Heritage

Nov 11, 20145 min read

Heritage exploitation

daya dissanayake

People have been creating monuments for several millennia. Reasons may have been many. Today when new statues are made the reasons may be entirely different. When the Japanese erected a memorial to former president Jayawardene it was out of respect and gratitude, for his famous speech during the conference on the San Francisco Peace Treaty in 1951.

Monuments are also erected in competition with rivals, or in imitation, because others are erecting them, sometimes before someone else erects some other statue in a prominent place. People also want to outdo each other. They want to erect taller larger monuments.

The Samadhi statue at Monaragala in Ridigama is an idea that had come to the mind of a Buddhist monk, Ven. Egodamulle Amaramoli thero. The creation of the sculpture from the 70 foot rock was undertaken by the Tamil Nadu artiste M. M. Sthapathi, who with his team had commenced work twelve years ago. Sthapathi, who too had been deeply saddened by the destruction of the Bamian statues in 2011, had been happy to undertake the task of creating the tallest Samadhi statue in Sri Lanka.

The reasons for the destruction of the Bamian statues are not very clear, even though the most commonly accepted explanation is religious rivalry, because a few people wanted to wipe out a part of their country's history and heritage. It could have been just the evil nature in man. We find it even in some children who just take pleasure in destruction, in destroying his toys, in torturing and killing innocent insects and small creatures, and some children never grow up.

The task undertaken by the monk was itself Herculean, if I may borrow a word from an alien culture. He had the imagination, and the vision to see the Samadhi Buddha seated on the face of the massive rock. But he had to find the stone carvers from India, probably because they had more experience in handling such large sculptures. In India the tradition of carving large statues in stone has continued uninterrupted, mainly in Andhra and Tamil Nadu.

The destruction of statues too had been occurring from the time man began to erect them, and due to many reasons. Today in our country such destruction is still happening because misguided misinformed people believe there are treasures hidden inside these ancient monuments.

Whether the image is like Gautama Buddha who had lived 2600 years ago, or if the statue was an exact replica of the Samadhi statue in Anuradhapura would not matter to the devotees who have begun to visit this new sacred space. For them it is an image of the Buddha, and the image would help them contemplate on the teachings of the Buddha.

Apart from the religious value of the image, for our historians and anthropologists this would have given a wonderful opportunity to study the process of the carving and placement of a religious sculpture in ancient times. The rituals and practices from the beginning which could have been performed at initiation and continue to be performed at various stages throughout the process. It would also be interesting to have studied the thoughts and feelings of the person who initiated the process, his fears and worries about the skill of his stone carvers, about raising funds, about acceptance of his work. It could have helped us to understand the minds of the ancient kings and the artistes who created such great works of art.

The social anthropologist could have studied the gradual change in the villages and nearby towns as the work progressed and people from all over the country began to visit the site. Once it became a local tourist attraction there would have developed gradual changes in the surroundings, the trade stalls coming up near the temple, the little cottage industries for artefacts and food items and how these changes will continue to occur as the statue is completed and opened officially for tourists both local and foreign.

The temple is collecting donations from the visitors because they need funds to complete the task they have begun. Perhaps no one would have expected it to have taken thirteen years already and would take many more months for completion. However the priest at the Monaragala temple did not insist on a "donation". The lady at the counter did not even suggest that we make a donation, even though they needed funds.

Yet the question arose in my mind for the justification of the collection of Rs. 750 from a foreign visitor to see and photograph a statue which had been carved 1600 years ago. In reality we should be proud to let people around the world see this miraculous creation made by our ancestors, and which had stood the test of time for so long. Such an act, which would have arisen due to 'Tanha' or craving, demeans and insults the ancient craftsmen and the king who had initiated the project, never expecting anyone to earn money out of it.

In the case of the ancient statue, the premises and the statue were protected and conserved by the Department of Archaeology, and the money which the monk was collecting was apparently for the maintenance of a temple at the entrance to the ancient heritage site. The funds which were insisted upon would not only leave a bad feeling in the minds of the visitors, but such funds would only ruin the landscape and destroy the heritage value of the ancient sculpture. This is the sad situation we find at many heritage sites in the country.

This is also one more reason to develop digital images of such heritage sites, so that visitors need not face such unpleasant situations.

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