Animals and plants as part of the Cultural Heritage of Sri Lanka

By Ama H.Vanniarachchy

“In Sri Lanka, there grows to this day, a tree, the oldest historical tree in the world which we know certainly to have been planted as a cutting from the Bodhi tree (in Bodhgaya) in the year 245 B.C.”

– H.G. Wells

“Animals and plants are protected globally as part of the natural heritage or the environment. For instance, a few elephants left in Sinharaja are considered as attributes of the Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) for which the forest is inscribed on the World Heritage List”, started Dr.Gamini Wijesuriya, Former Director of Conservation, Department of Archaeology, Special Advisor to the Director-General of ICCROM, Rome, Italy; Special Advisor to the Director of WHITRAP Shanghai, China and the President of ICOMOS Sri Lanka.

He also said that their protection of them is an obligation of the government and that there are numerous examples.

However, apart from the natural and environmental significance of animals and plants, they too have a great cultural significance, which makes them an important aspect of our cultural heritage. This is why after the demise of the celebrated tusker Nadungamuwe Raja, President Gotabaya Rajapakse announced that measures should be taken to declare the late tusker as a National Treasure. Prior to him, the tusker known as the Maligawe Raja or the Raja tusker of the Temple of the Tooth, Kandy was declared a National Treasure, in recognition of his valuable services to the religion and culture of Sri Lanka by president J.R.Jayewardene in 1986, two years before the death of Raja.

Elephants, in general, have a great cultural and religious significance in Sri Lanka, and therefore, some of the tuskers who carry the sacred relic casket are considered holy and a great national and religious importance is placed upon them.

Talking about trees that have a high cultural value for Sri Lankans, the sacred Bodhi tree at Anuradhapura tops the list. Dr. Gamini Wijesuriya enlightened us that Under the Antiquities Ordinance of 1940, a tree can be declared as an ancient monument and that it was done deliberately to declare the sacred Bo tree as ‘heritage’ and to protect it.

Sections 16 and 17 of the Antiquities Ordinance No. 09 of 1940: (1) Where it appears to the Minister that any tree, whether growing in State land or any other land, is of such historical or archaeological importance, that it is necessary in order to secure the preservation or protection of such tree that the provisions of this Ordinance relating to ancient monuments should apply to such tree, the Minister may, by Order in writing, declare that such tree shall be deemed to be an ancient monument for the purposes of this Ordinance. (2) Upon the publication in the Gazette of an Order under subsection (1), the tree to which the Order relates shall be deemed to be an ancient monument and all the provisions of this Ordinance relating to ancient monuments shall, mutatis mutandis, apply to such tree as if it were an ancient monument

As per the List of Archaeological Protected Monuments in Anuradhapura District of the Department of Archaeology, the Jayasiri maha bodhi tree is a Protected Monument.

There are a number of trees in Sri Lanka that are not officially declared as National Treasures, Heritage, or Protected Monuments, yet are considered as valuable and cherished treasures by the nation. There are a large number of Bo trees and Banyan trees and Na trees in Sri Lanka (in temples and devalas) that have religious importance and are being venerated.

The first tea plant planted by James Taylor, the first Rubber tree planted in Sri Lanka, the largest Pus wela in Sri Lanka which is in Korathota, the Banyan tree which had a close association with Gajaman Nona (a celebrated Sri Lankan poetess of the 18th century), a notable number of historical trees in Colombo Viharamahadevi park and in other botanical gardens in Sri Lanka has great cultural importance, yet are not being protected as Heritage or officially declared as important assets of the Sri Lankan Cultural Heritage.

Even the elephants, although we venerate and cherish the temple elephants, wild elephants are not being taken good care of and are often subjected to brutal treatment and very few measures are taken to protect them. The Sri Lankan leopard, another important nature gift we have, is not being protected nor being considered our cultural heritage. And the list goes on.

The problem is that in Sri Lanka when it comes to Cultural Heritage, we hardly consider the natural heritage as part of our cultural heritage. It seems as if we have separated the archaeological monuments from their natural environments as well as their intangible aspects, which has led to many confusions today, in the field of archaeology and heritage management. As we have separated the archaeological monuments merely as physical objects and devalued their cultural, religious, social, and environmental elements, many of our sites and monuments seem to be isolated dead objects.

We seem to be unaware or forgotten that cultural heritage includes tangible culture (such as buildings, monuments, landscapes, books, works of art, and artefacts), intangible culture (such as folklore, traditions, language, and knowledge), and natural heritage (including culturally significant landscapes, and biodiversity).

In contrast, in countries like Japan, animals and plants are considered their cultural heritage and some of them are being officially declared National Treasure. Great attempts are successfully taken to protect them. It is actually fascinating to witness how certain special trees are protected in Japan during the winters, to keep them safe from the harsh cold weather conditions. China, thanks to its great conservation measures taken, has been able to protect the Giant Panda which is a valued cultural and natural asset of Chinese culture. Similarly, India has also successfully protected their pride, the Royal Bengal Tiger, through tiresome efforts. 

As this is a novel subject for the masses in Sri Lanka, we at Ceylon Today Heritage, contacted Dr. Nobuko Inaba, Professor Emeritus, University of Tsukuba, who is also a visiting professor of The Open University of Japan and a special advisor to the Director-General of ICCROM, to know more about this subject and to know how this is happening in Japan.

Prof. Inaba is trained as a conservation architect and architectural historian and has received her doctoral degree from the Tokyo Institute of Technology. She gained practical knowledge and experience in heritage policy development and management while serving in the Japanese government’s Agency for Cultural Affairs and its affiliated research institute from 1991 to 2008, including the period from 2000 to 2002 while she worked for ICCROM seconded by Japan. From 2008 to 2020, she held the position of Professor of World Heritage Studies at the University of Tsukuba.

Are animals and plants considered a part of the cultural heritage of humans?

“Animals, plants, geological features are parts of our cultural heritage categories together with buildings, archaeological sites, gardens, towns, villages, agricultural lands, arts, objects, and other classical types of cultural heritage, as well as intangible heritage”, said professor Inaba.

She also said that the category of animals, plants, and geological features is called ‘natural monuments’.

As she explained, the origin of the category of natural monuments in Japan dates back to the 1919 law for the protection of ‘historic sites, places of scenic beauty and natural monuments. Because the category of natural monuments was combined with historic sites, it has been kept in the cultural heritage system up to now. She also said that the 1919 law was amalgamated into the other law for the protection of arts and buildings, and the current cultural heritage law was established in 1954. The categories of the law have been expanded continuously from tangible heritage to intangible heritage, towns, villages, and agricultural landscapes.

“The protection methodology of natural monuments is basically not different from that of nature conservation. We prohibit any activities that threaten their existence such as hunting. We protect their environments and provide necessary support and surveys.”

 How does it happen in Japan?

“Our nature conservation system by the Ministry of Environment has a similar protection system for animals and plants. Internationally,  the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) determines one of the protection area categories as natural monuments.”

“Some European countries such as Germany and France had the category of the natural monument but I understand that they were amalgamated into the contemporary natural conservation system as IUCN is keeping it as one of the categories of protected areas,” prof. Inaba further said.

She also explained that, since the category of the natural monument in Japan has remained in the cultural heritage system, the criteria that catch their associations to culture are kept such as sacredness or well-known status through culture (writings, paintings, etc.).

Some of the examples prof. Inaba presented are the sacred deer in the historical city of Nara, or individually identified cherry trees noted for their special forms and their cultural associations within each local culture.

What happens by declaring plants and animals as national heritage?

“Cultural heritage is not dealing only with materials or dead things. For example, in the intangible heritage system, there are skills, festivals, traditional customs, etc. These are only transmitted by living people.”

As prof. Inaba explained, it is impossible to stop them from changing. It is a system to encourage and promote continuation.

“If the identified skills are high arts (dances, music, etc.), we won’t stop the artists as the possessors of skills to train themselves to higher stages. If they are village festivals, we have to accept changes as long as the core values are kept.”

When asked if this process can help protect the natural resources such as plants and trees, prof. Inaba explained that as people, animals, and plants are not immortal, the importance is to support the continuation.

“If they are skills, the responsibility of the identified possessors (living treasures) is to train the next generation. If they are animals and plants, probably the methodology is not so different from that of nature conservation.” 

It is important to prepare the system with separated layers designed with needs identified for categories.

“We can’t deal with villages with villagers, agricultural landscapes with farmers, or animals in the environment the same as architectural monuments”, prof. Inaba concluded.  

“Here is your country. Cherish these natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage, for your children and your children’s children. Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin your country of its beauty, its riches, or its romance.”

Theodore Roosevelt

Dr. Nobuko Inaba, Professor Emeritus, University of Tsukuba,

Dr. Gamini Wijesuriya

Giant Pandas, China

Miharu Takizakura, one of the three giant cherry trees in Japan.1

Raja tusker with J.R_Jayewardene & Nissanka Wijeyeratne (By Anuradha Dullewe Wijeyeratne)

The sacred Bo tree, Anuradhapura

The scared deers in Nara, Japan

Uncategorized, Ama H.Vanniarachchy, animals in culture, cultural heritage, nature and culture, Sri Lankan archaeology, SRI LANKAN HISTORY