Deliwala robbery incident

By Ama H.Vanniarachchy

On the 12th morning it was reported that some valuable artefacts at the Deliwala Kotawehera temple, Rambukkana were stolen. Among the stolen artefacts were some golden and crystal caskets which were kept inside the house of relics of the temple. As the Director-General of Archaeology, senior professor Anura Manatunga said to us, it is reported that seven golden caskets and 3 crystal caskets were among the stolen.

Deliwala Kotavehera is not an ordinary temple and the stolen artefacts are not ordinary ancient objects. The temple is one of the oldest temples in Sri Lanka with a rich legacy. The stolen artefacts are unique and invaluable. This is no doubt the gravest antiquities robbery of our times.

What the DG says…

The DG said that he was informed about this incident on Saturday and then he has informed the zonal archaeology officer (of the Deliwala area) and the Sabaragamuwa province assistant director of the DOA. Saturday evening he visited the site. The police investigation is going on now and he said that the police investigation is satisfactory.

Answering a question, the DG said that they have a security system to protect the country’s cultural heritage such as regular checkups of sites and he also mentioned the police unit of the DOA.

“However, we intend to strengthen these further in the future.”

When asked if the DOA is planning measures to tighten the security of Deliwala kotawehera, he said that the DOA should make plans to ensure the safety of all archaeological sites of the island, but not only of Deliwala Kotavehera.

“We cannot make any assumptions”, said the DG about the current status of the stolen artefacts. “Let us hope and pray that nothing terrible will happen to the most precious golden casket”. 

He also said that public awareness is important in protecting the country’s cultural heritage.

When we enquired if the DOA is planning to introduce a proper security system using modern technology, the DG said that it is impossible to have a security officer or a security system for each and every stone pillar or statue.

“That is not practical. It is like every man walking on the road has a bodyguard. People should play a role in protecting them.”

 Answering a question about if they have made any plans to inform this grave matter to the UNESCO, the DG said that, he is unable to answer such questions due to certain limitations.

We next contacted senior archaeologist and professor emeritus T.G.Kulatunga, a former Director of the CCF and a well-known and well-revered figure in the field of archaeology.

Rare and unique artefacts should be provided security

The professor emotionally explained to us that the unique golden casket which is known as the Deliwala ran karaduwa, was a beautiful and rare artefact. It had a yupaya, chathraya, mugdha wedhiya and a kuchcha wedhiya, which are parts of an ancient Buddhist stupa.

“This small golden casket is a model of the earliest stupa styles of India and Sri Lanka.”

“Rare and unique artefacts like this should have been kept in the Colombo National Museum for their safety.”

He explained that keeping such a valuable and rare artefact in the temple without any security is a flaw. According to reports, the DOA says that they have given two safes but the stolen artefacts were not kept in them under lock and key. Providing safes does not end the responsibility and the duty of the DOA then and there, said the professor.

They should have monitored the security process. The temple CCTV system was broken and was not fixed.

The DOA and the monk is equally responsible

“What is the responsibility of the DOA and of the temple monks? Both parties, the DOA and the monks are responsible for this crime”, said the professor.

It is also reported that these valuable and rare artefacts were exhibited on special occasions. Artefacts with a national and international value and rareness like this, should not have been treated in this way.

“The monk has acted irresponsibly as he has exposed these invaluable artefacts to such a risky situation.”

We must learn a lesson

As the professor explained, we must learn a lesson from this incident and take measures to ensure the safety of our cultural heritage. He explained that the ancient caskets found at Neelagiri were taken under the custody of the DOA after the sacred relics were enshrined in the stupa. This is a good practice that should be followed. He stated a few more examples such as the Jethavana gold plates (ran pathiru), the Abhayagiriya ashtamangala bronze bowl paththare, and the Dedigama bronze elephant lamp which are rare and therefore considered as a national treasure, are at the Colombo National Museum.

It is more appropriate that rare artefacts like this should be removed from the original place and kept at the National Museum under security if the original place of discovery is not safe.

“We need to reconsider our laws and policies with regards to cultural heritage and take this incident as a lesson”

The professor further said that, if this would not be recovered it is an unrepairable grave loss.

We also contacted archaeologist Dr.Gamini Wijesuriya, who was in charge of the conservation work as the Director Conservation of the Department of Archaeology and is now Special Advisor to the DG of ICCROM, Rome, Italy, Special Advisor to the DG of WHITRAP Shanghai, China, President International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) Sri Lanka.

“Perhaps this is the most serious theft of a heritage object that happened in the country and I hope the authorities will take necessary action.”

Be aware of the illicit traffic of heritage objects

As he explained, illicit traffic or theft of heritage objects is an internationally known notorious activity. He questioned if we have done anything to inform the international community/ UNESCO, under the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property which has been ratified by Sri Lanka in 1981?

Dr. Wijesuriya explained that whether we should excavate sacred objects, leave them in situ, or transfer them to the capital city are debates that should take place among all concerned parties and not leave to outdated fraternities who view them as dead archaeological objects only. 

“These debates should take place in the context of some of our heritage as part of a living religious tradition”, he further explained.

Dr.Wijesuriya also said that “There is no such debate either on the significance of the heritage let alone their future. We don’t have any assessment of significance attached to different heritage. For some, all of them are dead archaeological objects and are treated under outdated legislation and through outdated management systems left by colonial masters.”

As he explained, this is the status of the entire heritage sector which needs revisiting and reorganizing to fit into the modern-day.

“The heritage sector is like an old bullock cart riding on a road in Colombo without recognizing the numerous changes”, he said. “Improved roads with signal lights, many vehicles running all over, and in the digital world. The Bullock cart was an ingenious creation that served the space and time it created and afterwards under certain circumstances, but it is not the vehicle for the 21st century.”

Amila Bandaranayake, a former assistant lecturer of archaeology at the University of Ruhuna, joined us next to share his views on this grave issue.

He said that this incident once again proves that we do not have a successful practical program to safeguard our archaeological heritage.

We need a Heritage Protection Force

“This is the most disastrous antiquities robbery of our lifetime, and the archaeological values of the stolen objects are immeasurable.”

“If an artefact / or an archaeological site is being stolen, destroyed or damaged, that is considered a crime”, ” he said. Before such crimes would happen again, there should be a practical program such as forming a Heritage Protection Force which they have proposed to the DG and to the minister, Vidura Wickramanayake, last year.

He explained that as far as they are aware, the reporting of the crime and the legal process has not been done properly. While the investigation is still in its very early stages, information such as the states of the investigation, and details of the evidence was exposed to society. He feared that this could compel the perpetrators to permanently destroy or disfigure the stolen objects and the evidence or clues that are still there.

“Newspapers reported that DNA evidence has been revealed at the crime scene at Deliwala. Such news about evidence and clues found could give ideas for perpetrators to plan their next crimes in a more organised and secretive way.”

During investigations and other activities carried on at the crime scene after the robbery, important forensic evidence might get damaged. This could be due to the poor knowledge and lack of training on criminology and forensic science that archaeology officers have. For example, when a crime like this happens, the perpetrator naturally leaves his identity at the crime scene. This evidence is usually fragile and hard to be noticed and within the first or two days, this evidence has a tendency of being destroyed and perhaps even within a few hours such as to scents.

“We doubt if the archaeological officers who are in charge of these sites are aware of such things. If the crime scene is handled in a wrong way, we might lose important yet fragile evidence in seconds.”  As Bandaranayake further explained, until the police officers arrive at the crime scene, it is the responsibility of the archaeology officer to consider all these and keep the place intact.

It is impossible to think that officers who have no training in criminology and forensic sciences could protect our heritage. Hence we will have to expect more graver robberies, raids, and vandalizations and we have to prepare to face them.

A word from the writer…

If the temple monk kept these valuable artefacts under his custody, it is definitely his responsibility to make sure they are safe. Also, as there is a zonal archaeology officer, and an assistant director of the Sabaragamuwa province, who is in charge of this archaeological site, are equally responsible for the loss. They should regularly monitor the safety of the artefacts. We must also make the best of modern technology to protect our cultural heritage and we need to update and re-assess our terms and understandings of cultural heritage and archaeology.

The disunity and miscommunication we have among the heritage sector in Sri Lanka also have a great negative impact on our cultural heritage. Also, lack of knowledge, practical training, and loopholes in the legal system adds to this. Furthermore, we hardly see that the senior archaeologists/heritage specialists are being consulted and their knowledge and wisdom is being utilised in recent heritage management issues in the country. 

Additionally, it is important to be alert of the illegal antiquities trade that is happening internationally and make sure these heritage objects will not leave the country. Praying and hoping does not help recover the stolen artefacts at all.


According to prof. Paranavithana the antiquity of this stupa dates back to the 1st century BC. Based on the Brami lettering on the bricks and the size of the bricks archaeologists are of the view that these bricks belong to the period of King Dutugemunu (161-131 BC).

In 1957, five stone caskets were discovered during excavations. One of them contained a golden casket of about 7-8 cm tall in the shape of a miniature Stupa as well as two small reliquaries made of crystal. According to archaeologists, this small gold casket dates to the 1st century BC.

Another remarkable discovery of this place is the piece of silk cloth, unearthed during excavations in the years 2000-2001. Judith Cameron from the University of Canberra, Australia analyzed the cloth and the results revealed it as one of the oldest pieces of clothes found in Asia and it is dated to the 2nd century BC. 

Uncategorized, Ama H.Vanniarachchy, Deliwala robbery, Sri Lankan archaeology