A Tribute to a Giant – Part 2

Dr. Roland Silva (1933-2020)

By Ama H.Vanniarachchy

“Great leaders think beyond yesterday, deal with the issues of today and focus on addressing the problems of tomorrow.”

Gift Gugu Mona

As Ceylon Today Heritage pays tribute to Dr.Roland Silva, a giant and a genius in Sri Lanka’s heritage sector, last week we journeyed you to his early years and then introduced to you his great service, decoding it under four categories. 

As Dr.Gamini Wijesuriya explained to us, the great service of Dr.Roland Silva can be decoded under the following headings: 

The vision/ Philosophy for heritage

–        Notion of living heritage

–        Self-sustenance

–        Human resources

–        Multidisciplinary approach

–        Principles/ processes/ practices

Placing Sri Lankan heritage on the world Map (Cultural triangle project and the World Heritage List)Improving the institutions/ creating New Institutions/ institutional cultureInternationalism

In our last segment, we talked about his vision and philosophy for heritage and how he implemented it through four main streams. 

His next giant move was to expand the boundaries of Sri Lanka’s cultural heritage far beyond its native borders and to place it on the world map. The result of this effort was the birth of the Cultural Triangle Project and local heritage sites being recognized as World Heritage sites by UNESCO.

Placing Sri Lankan heritage on the world Map (Cultural Triangle Project and the World Heritage List) 

In his own words, as Dr.Roland Silva writes in ‘Battles Lost and Won’, The concept of an international campaign on behalf of a cultural heritage project was born in the Nile Valley in the 60s. This was when the Egyptian government was planning to raise the Aswan dam and collect more water for the people of the country; but by doing so they were endangering the very existence of Abu Simbel, the treasured monument of Ramses II.  The problem with this plan was, if implemented, it would have submerged the Abu Simbel shrine.

As Dr.Roland Silva would explain in his writings, it was at this juncture that the matter was brought before UNESCO as the cultural conscience of the world. An important debate took part; whether the present and the past could live together was the debate. As a result, an attempt was made to tap the conscience of the world in order to promote the dual objectives of feeding the present while at the same time saving the past. 

After the successful attempt in saving Abu Simbel with the intervention of the world led by UNESCO, the importance of cultural heritage sites and monuments were considered as products belonging to the whole of mankind, thus the whole of humanity had an obligation to save them for future generations. 

Following the footsteps of Abu Simbel, the ‘UNESCO Campaign for the Safeguarding of World Cultural Heritage’ was started with another set of ancient sites which were given international assistance in safeguarding, such as Venice and Florence, Mohenjo-Daro, and Borobudur. This paved the path, as Dr. Roland Silva would say, to set the stage for such a campaign in Sri Lanka. The Cultural Triangle Project was the result of this being the 19th and largest project of the campaign. Secondly, it paved the way for placing Sri Lankan heritage sites on the world map. 

Birth of the Cultural Triangle

During the second International Conference on Asian Archaeology held in Colombo in 1969, Dr.Roland Silva and his team prepared a paper titled, ‘A proposal for the layout of the Ancient City of Anuradhapura, Ceylon’, which marks the beginning process of the birth of the Cultural Triangle. Dr. Roland Silva writes that the concluding note of this paper stated, ‘Although ancient sites such as Villa Adriana near Tivoli, Ostia Antica, the old port of Rome, and Pompei are equally as elaborate as Anuradhapura, these are not as extensive. Hence, a project of this nature if presented with a suitable planning program, could easily attract a UNESCO grant for which precedence has already been established.’

After this paper was presented a committee was appointed by the then Minister of Education and Cultural Affairs, I.M.R.A. Iriyagolla, to explore the possibility of proposing Ritigala as a site for development under a UNESCO project. This committee prepared the first Cabinet Memorandum, ‘The Development of Cultural Tourism in Ceylon (1970)’, which proposed Anuradhapura, Ritigala, Polonnaruwa, and Sigiriya. However, this was not tabled until the new government was set up after the elections in 1970. Although for years this was not implemented, in the year 1973 Mr. G. Bolla, Director of Cultural Heritage, UNESCO, visited Sri Lanka and impressed upon the Minister of Cultural Affairs (Hon. M.S.Kulatilleke) and the Minister of Tourism (Hon. P.B.G. Kalugalla), that Sri Lanka has a high potential with regards to cultural tourism and that UNESCO would back Sri Lanka fully on such a program. Then the Cabinet Memorandum was revised and re-submitted to the Ministers. Although the former signed it the latter did not; instead, he kept it for an extended period and returned it for revision ‘on the basis that it was too long.’ 

The process was delayed until the second half of 1977. As Dr.Roland Silva writes, in the year 1978 a major UNESCO Educational Conference was held in Colombo at which the Director-General was present. This was seen as an opportunity to discuss many of the salient features of the Cultural Triangle Project. After a tiresome effort, yet again, the proposal failed. In his own words, An extraordinary irony of fate was that nearly every proposal submitted concerning the Cultural Triangle failed in its first round. So did the Cabinet Memorandum. 

However, after strenuous efforts and convincing discussions held with the relevant parties, a new Cabinet Memorandum was drafted and was all the way up to the UNESCO submission. When the vote was called for the Cultural Triangle in Paris, the well-prepared presentation was so convincing that no one could ever have opposed it. 

Accordingly, S.J.Stultz, the new Director of Cultural Heritage of UNESCO, Paris office, visited Sri Lanka in March 1979 to prepare the work plan and the protocol for signature. This was presented to UNESCO’s Executive Board and then was approved for a campaign inauguration. The then PM of Sri Lanka Ranasinghe Premadasa assumed the role as the chairman of the special committee to guide the campaign. 

The launching of the international campaign was held in January 1980 at Jetavana monastery. It is reported that this event was held in a grand manner with a large number of people witnessing the event. We said to ourselves that there were 3000 monks at Jetavana monastery in its heyday and that for the inauguration of its restoration we must have an equal number;3000 chairs were provided and we had 4000 participants, writes Dr.Roland Silva. He further says We hoped that 100,000 persons would attend and there was double the number on the occasion.

Later, in August same year the formal inauguration of the work of the Cultural Triangle took place at the Historic Audience Hall of Kandy. The Central Cultural Fund was established by an Act of Parliament in order to provide for the administrative functioning of the project and the management of its resources. The scope of work envisaged under the Act does not restrict activities to mere archaeology but has the broadest interpretation of culture. 

Dr.Roland Silva’s vision for the sites to be considered from two points of view; 

firstly, as religious sites with monks and pilgrims playing their part as a religious establishment, and, 

secondly, visitors should be able to enjoy the cultural heritage of mankind in terms of art, sculpture, and architecture. 

Central Cultural Fund was a unique organization in which, the opportunity is provided for the Prime Minister of the country (as the Chairperson of the Fund) to discuss matters related to heritage with relevant ministers and the officials on a regular basis.  CCF can collect its own funds and recycle them for heritage conservation and management. Before the Easter attack, its yearly collection had reached 4000 million rupees.  It helped to build up a critical mass of human resources of all levels needed for the management of the heritage of this country. 

Sri Lanka on the World Heritage List

While Cultural Triangle Project was functioning under the UNESCO Campaign for Safeguarding World Cultural program, three cultural sites in Sri Lanka were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1982: The Ancient City of Polonnaruwa, the Ancient City of Sigiriya, and the Sacred City of Anuradhapura. 

Today, Sri Lanka has six cultural sites inscribed on the UNESCO Heritage List, including the Rangiri Dambulla Cave Temple (1991), the Old Town of Galle and its Fortifications (1988), and the Sacred City of Kandy (1988). UNESCO has also listed two Sri Lankan natural sites on the World Heritage List: The Central Highlands of Sri Lanka (2010) and the Sinharaja Forest Reserve (1988).

In retrospect…

The journey of giving life to the Cultural Triangle Project was not a journey through a bed of roses. It was indeed strenuous and was a path well layered with hurdles. If not for the undiminished courage and determination, and relentless efforts of Dr.Roland Silva and the team led by him, the Cultural Triangle Project would never happen, nor Sri Lankan heritage sites would have been marked on the global map of World Heritage. Starting from the 1980s, the great service of the CCF towards safeguarding the country’s cultural heritage as well as its contribution to the economy and social development is immense. However, it is with great disappointment that we witness the downfall of this once glorious institution due to political interference that commenced in the early 2000s, resulting in hindering its function as an independent and academic institution. The writer doubts, hardly if most of the employees at this once glorious institution, which are mostly political appointments, are aware of this strenuous journey of its founder and his team, and even about the objectives of setting up this institute which was to safeguard the country’s cultural heritage.  

“True leaders don’t give consoling answers, they take constructive actions.”

Amit Kalantri

To be continued…

Picture courtesy – Dr.Roland Silva’s family album 

Uncategorized, Central Cultural Fund, Dr.Roland Silva, Sri Lankan archaeology