The recent and sudden resignation of the Director General of the Department of Archaeology of Sri Lanka has now become a major topic of discussion. It was widely discussed in the media and social media in Sri Lanka.

The resignation was prompted by a land dispute that has been happening in the Kurundi Buddhist Monastery and many other ancient Buddhist sites in the North and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka for over the past couple of years.

Cultural heritage; a threat to prove the mythical Eelam

As we have extensively explained in many of our previous articles the destruction of ancient sites in the country’s North and Eastern provinces is driven by the belief of a mythical, traditional Tamil homeland. The rich archaeological sites and monuments, including the thousands of inscriptions scattered all over these two provinces, act as obstacles to proving the existence of a traditional Tamil-only homeland in any part of Sri Lanka.

Therefore, the destruction of these sites and monuments is paving the path to erasing these pieces of evidence from the face of the earth. Thus, since the seeds of separatism were spread in this land by racist politicians, these archaeological sites and monuments were seen as a threat and these valuable sites and monuments have been the target of many who believe in this vicious dream of a separate state.

Hundreds of ancient sites and monuments in the North and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka are being destructed for decades and we have presented many incidents with details in our previous heritage articles.

Kurundi and politics

Kurundi, a 2nd-century BC ancient monastery situated in the Mullaitivu District, faced many threats since the heritage management work started at the place. Racist politicians opposed the relic placement religious festival last year and continued to disturb the conservation work going on.

After the many disputes created last year, things took a greater negative turn with the resignation of the Director General of Archaeology and the heated discussion between the former Director General, the President, and the Tamil politicians who view this site in a racist point of view. The final result of this dispute was the decision of the Director General to hand over his resignation. This also marked that including Kurundi, many other ancient sites in the North and Eastern provinces fell into a greater threat than they were before.

What we just witnessed was the inability of the Department of Archaeology to protect Sri Lanka’s national heritage and the veto power of the parliamentarians and their desire to go beyond the law, the Archaeology Act of the country, disregarding the protection of the country’s national heritage. We also witnessed the seeds of racism growing further after this incident.

Tamil Buddhists in Sri Lanka

After this incident, discussions about Tamil Buddhists, King Manavamma, Pottakutta, and other sites in the North and Eastern provinces also came into the highlight. While some strongly opposed to the idea that Tamil Buddhists lived in Sri Lanka, some came up with the idea that Kurundi was a Tamil Buddhist temple.

However, as we have extensively discussed in many of our previous articles, Kurundi or Kurundavashoka was an ancient temple built by a Sinhala king named King Khallatanaga in the 2nd century BC and continuously flourished until the early 13th century CE as a major Buddhist monastery supported by Sinhalese kings and Sinhala monks.
The Kurundi Atuwa or the Kurundi Commentary was written at this temple. It was a large and major Buddhist monastery during the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa periods. The name of the monastery has always been Sinhala but not Tamil.

However, we also must admit that Tamil Buddhists lived in Sri Lanka, although they were a minority. This incident or any other incidents stirred by racist politicians should not be a reason for the public to create hatred between the Sinhala and Tamil communities and vent their anger on the general Tamil public. We all clearly know that these acts are stirred and even sometimes staged to create hatred between the Sinhala and Tamil communities as a political stunt by Sri Lanka’s politicians.

We request our readers to go through our previous articles to understand the history of the Tamils in Sri Lanka and how Tamil Buddhist scholars, especially Tamil monks, have greatly contributed to Buddhism in Sri Lanka and South India.

Pottakutta and Manavamma

During this discussion wich led to theresignation of the Director General of Archaeology, the names of Pottakutta and Manvamma were highlighted. The mention of them at this very point is interesting. Pottakutta was a Tamil minister who enjoyed great power as a minister during the 7th century CE, and misused his powers in the Sinhala king’s court. After King Aggabodhi IV’s death, a Tamil chief minister named Pottakutta gained power. He prisoned the Yuvaraja and coroneted the rightful ruler Datta who was a mere child at the time as the king so that Poththakutta could rule the kingdom in secret. After two years, young Datta died and Poththakuta decided to again appoint a puppet king. As a result, someone named Haththadata was made king and Piththakuta continued to rule the kingdom by controlling all the strings of the puppet king. However, after six months into Haththadata’s rule, he died on the battlefield.

It was during this chaotic time, Prince Manavamma rose to power. King Manavamma was a great king and during his time, the Sinhala kingdom once again was able to enjoy a golden era. He was powerful, wise, and skilled. He led the country towards a great period. Most importantly, he was able to end the rising powers of these Tamil generals who would create puppet kings, interfere in the country’s politics, and create internal conflicts and chaos.

Mentioning Pottakutta and Manavamma at this crucial discussion, and at this crucial moment of Sri Lanka’s politics, is interesting; was it a mere coincident or was intended?

Why the UNHRC saw archaeological work as a threat?

This incident also made us understand how the Department of Archaeology failed to fulfil its duties. Last year, when the department was engaged in heritage management work in the North and Eastern provinces, the High Commissioner of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and reports of the Office of the High Commissioner and the Secretary General of its 49th session, titled ‘Promoting Reconciliation, Accountability and Human Rights in Sri Lanka’, commented on the archaeological work happening in Sri Lanka, especially in the East.

These statements intend to say that the archaeological heritage, especially in the East, is a reason that the minority communities living in those areas are tense and the archaeological conservation work can cause dispute among communities.

When such a bizarre report was published, we foresaw that these are echoing the grievances of racists who saw the country’s national heritage as a threat but not as priceless and valuable pieces that can be contributed to the country’s sustainable development. This report was also an alarm of upcoming troubles and we foresaw that. We urged the department to take measures to gazette our national heritage sites and monuments and have a national policy to protect our national heritage.

When we mock our own identity; we mock ourselves

We also saw the danger of our cultural heritage being mocked by politicians, media, and people. To some, this is merely a political stunt or just another piece of news. But we see a graver issue. Sri Lanka mocks its heritage; its cultural values and its cultural and national identity. For a nation that is already suffering from a national and social identity crisis, mocking its cultural heritage is a grave issue.

Heritage is also not only about our past, but it is also a very vital aspect of a country’s economic and sustainable development. We have forgotten to make the best use of this and gain economic benefits out of our heritage. Instead, we fight to grab the lands that belong to heritage sites, we fight over their ethnic identities and then we laugh at them.

A message to the next DG

We also saw how the former Director General of Archaeology failed to defend the country’s cultural heritage. He was unable to provide direct and solid answers when asked by the president. When the Tamil politicians were raising concerns, the Director General failed to defend the archaeological sites. We fail to understand why it happened that way.

However, we emphasise that the successor must be someone who could defend the country’s heritage bravely in front of any politician no matter what happens; someone who would not betray the heritage for any reason and in front of any politician. 

Dr. Ishankha Malsiri, a lecturer at the Department of Archaeology of Buddhist and Pali University, joined us to share his views on this incident.

“This incident is shocking in two ways. First is the insensitivity and the lack of knowledge about the country’s history and archaeology of our politicians who govern this country. They are executing their powers and coercion unnecessarily and inappropriately over academic matters. 

“The second is the failure of academics to protect their dignity and personality in front of professional politicians. One must study how H.M. How Sirisoma gave evidence before the Sansoni Commission which shows how academics should be brave, and direct in front of political power”, said Dr. Malsiri.

“Archaeological heritage belongs to all humankind. No one has the right to undermine it based on narrow political interests. It must be said that the President’s statement underestimates the entire field of archaeology. The archaeologist is one who deals with physical evidence, not one who betrays his principles to serve political interests. Through this event, it is inevitable that the existence of the archaeological heritage of this country will be severely challenged. This clearly encourages those who vandalise archaeological sites and monuments.”

Dr. Malsiri also explained that determining the existence of an archaeological site is an academic process for archaeologists; not a task for politicians.

“Provisions for the protection of heritage areas and monuments are clearly mentioned in the Archaeology Ordinance. Directly or indirectly influencing the dedicated officials, making unnecessary inducements or threats, and so on are also considered as aiding in the destruction of antiquities.”

 He also said that the ability of the executive to grant presidential pardons to those found guilty of destroying antiquities and adversely affecting the field of archaeology should be immediately abolished. If not, it will be very difficult to avoid threats from political leaders who are under the grip of separatist politicians.

“We have come to a point where the line between political activism and the existence of national heritage must be clearly defined. Also, equipping the Buddhist monks and the Tamil community with knowledge about the history and archaeological heritage of this country is a need of the hour,” concluded Dr. Malsiri.

(Pix courtesy Kurundawashoka Raja Maha Vihara, Mullaitivu)

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy