Giving Life to a Lost Legacy-Part II

By Ama H.Vanniarachchy

(This article was originally published in Ceylon Today Newspaper on Feb 20, 2021)

The stupa restoration work at Mihintale gave rise to many discussions about the country’s heritage and archaeology. 

It was clear that many have misconceptions about the country’s cultural heritage and it was sort of a shocking revelation to know that those who represent the discipline still hold on to outdated theories and concepts, and also refuse to move forward with new knowledge. 

The discourse of heritage management includes the country’s cultural heritage in the process of sustainable development. 

However, this has become almost a dream because of those who still adamantly hold onto a colonized version of archaeology. 

In last week’s article, we presented the cultural significance of the place and discussed why whitewashing and restoring ancient stupas is important, who are the experts to be consulted for a stupa restoration work, whether all ancient stupas should be whitewashed, whether this type of work is against theories, and what the concept of a living heritage is. 

Those discussions addressed mostly the philosophical issues that lead to the restoration of a stupa in Mihintale and stupas in general. 

This is the second half of the discussion we had with relevant experts which will further explore theoretical and technical aspects of restoration, also bringing some international perspectives.

The need to look at heritage and archaeology in relation to the present has been a major debate over the last two to three decades. This shift is vividly described by Prof. Stephen Shennan who was the former Director of the Institute of Archaeology of University College London – a centre of excellence in archaeology and an institute where the majority of senior Sri Lankan archaeologists have had their education or association.

According to Prof. Shennan, the notion of heritage has gained an important place in archaeology but, “Over the last thirty years, perceptions of the significance of archaeological sites and their contents have shifted. They have become less important as sources of information about the past and more important as a special kind of material stuff existing in the present with which people can interact in different ways for different reasons and invest with their own meanings. Those meanings generally have a basis in the fact that the archaeological material comes from the past, but the specific meanings imputed may have little or no foundation in the specifics of archaeological evidence.”

Archaeological heritage and people 

Archaeologist and former Vice President of the World Archaeological Congress, founder Secretary-General of the Sri Lanka Council of Archaeologists,  an internationally acclaimed heritage management specialist, former Director- Conservation of the Department of Archaeology who is now Special Advisor to the Director-General of International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), Rome, Italy, Special Advisor to the Director-General of World Heritage Institute of Training and Research for the Asia and the Pacific Region (WHITRAP) Shanghai, China and Senior Vice President of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) Sri Lanka Dr. Gamini Wijesuriya said that People began to move away from documentary or informational values of archaeological sites. 

He explained that categories of heritage expanded, and people began to conceive heritage based on intrinsic or attributed values. Heritage was viewed in relation to the present and many people-centric values began to play a dominant role. Religious heritage was one such category. The international forum on Living Religious Heritage: conserving the sacred held in 2005 in Rome echoed some of these concerns specifically referring to stupas in Sri Lanka.

“What distinguishes religious heritage from secular heritage is its inherent ‘livingness’, that the religious values carried by a stupa embodying the living Buddha, for example, can only be sustained by ongoing processes of physical renewal of the stupa. In ensuring continuity of forms, in effect, ‘living’ heritage values are being elevated above the more familiar ‘documentary’ or ‘historical’ heritage values. The primary goal of conservation becomes continuity itself, based on processes of renewal that continually ‘revive the cultural meaning, significance, and symbolism attached to heritage’.

 “This was a response to those who consider ruined stupas (or heritage) are only documents that provide information for their academic work. In Sri Lanka, all heritage places were viewed as ‘archaeology’ due to the existing law of 1940 and practices left by colonial rule. This is why we still fail to understand that stupas are not a pile of bricks but a sacred precinct with relics inside covered with whitewashed domes built of bricks. I have called this phenomenon the ‘archaeologisation’ of heritage.” clarified Dr. Wijesuriya.

Value of a ruined stupa

Dr. Wijesuriya said that restoring a stupa does not degrade the historical value but on the contrary, it can enhance the value.

What is this so-called historical or archaeological value? We questioned. 

“Values are central to why something is important to a particular individual, group, or society and has become the widely-accepted basis for defining heritage. Generally, values are considered intrinsic or ascribed by individuals, groups, or a society, and are conveyed through tangible or intangible attributes (monument, materials, religious practices, and so on)”, Dr. Wijesuriya said. 

Historical value is one of the fundamentals and popular since the invention of the modern conservation practice. We can call a certain heritage place a historical value because its tangible or intangible manifestations give us a sense of the knowledge of the past. 

Historical knowledge generally derives from written sources such as chronicles and inscriptions and can be supplemented by archaeological inquiry. We can call a certain heritage place an archaeological value because its tangible or intangible manifestations can give us a knowledge of the past and its social process (mostly interpreted by archaeologists) by application of archaeological methods. All these are about knowledge and interpretations but can enhance the value of a place and social identity.

Historical and archaeological are only two classes of values. There are many other values to a given heritage place. Some of them such as religious values are strongly linked to contemporary society and bring greater benefits to them. 

However, there is no degradation of historical or archaeological values through restoration. 

Restoration decisions should be made by assessing all values collectively but always end up with compromises since there is no mathematical formula to apply and get an answer. There are well-established principles and technical aspects of restoration that aim to preserve all values, which will be discussed below.

Does the archaeological landscape get distracted? 

Dr. Wijesuriya said that the archaeological landscape will not be distracted by living monuments and renewed religious functions, but it will rather be enhanced. There are many such places. 

“On the other hand, classifying Mihintale as an archaeological landscape is an insult to the cradle of Buddhism in the country. It’s a sacred landscape with the highest national significance.”

Preserving the past for the future

There is a modern global discourse on preserving the past for the future, which originated in the West in the mid-19th century. This has evolved substantially and is still being evolved. 

Commenting on conservation, the current Joint Secretary of ICOMOS Sri Lanka Dr. Nilan Coorey Emphasised, “If someone thinks that we should not restore this ancient stupa and that we must keep it in the ruined state as it is now, I think that is wrong. These stupas are really a part of the living cultural heritage of this country. A living religious heritage has many values. If we look at Mihindu Stupa it has many archaeological and architectural values. Therefore we have to be very careful when restoring these ancient stupas. It is vital to make sure that no archaeological data is destroyed when restoring the stupa.” 

There were various concerns he raised. 

“A question arises about the original appearance of this stupa. How did it look originally? Was there a hatharas kotuwa or was it a pillar on the top of it as in Mauryan stupas? We have to find out exactly what a Buddhist stupa looked like in the 3rd century BCE.  However, we can follow the structure of the Buddhist stupa we know today. When stupas were restored during ancient times, the current style was followed. So we can practice that.”

“What’s important is to take the ancient bricks into consideration. A compatible motor mixture should be used to match these ancient bricks. If modern cement were used, it would be a disaster.”  

He further suggested some philosophical considerations. 

“Connectivity and continuity are both equally important aspects of living heritage. Why do we protect Sri Maha Bodhi so much? It is because we value the idea of connectivity. Connectivity represents archaeology. We need to understand and accept that.”

“Recreating an old wall or a carving or an architectural structure is easy, but we do not want to destroy the connectivity by doing so. Therefore, it is important to preserve the connectivity while doing all restoration work.”

Former Director of the Post Graduate Institute of Archaeology (PGIAR), Director – Archaeology of Sigiriya Project/Central Cultural Fund Archaeologist Prof. Jagath Weerasinghe explained what we have to understand is that there is a deep connection between archaeology and heritage in Sri Lanka and that is an inseparable connection.

He also explained the role of the expert. 

“We also can say that the role of a heritage management expert is to manage and facilitate the interests of different groups and individuals. It can also be seen as a task of managing conflicts that arise between many interest groups.

“Taking into consideration our case study, which is Mihintale Mihindu Stupa I would like to explain it as follows; We know that Ruwanwaliseya, which is very popular among devotees, was a restoration work done by the stupa restoration society. The objective was solely to fulfill the needs of the devotees. There are certain principles that should be implemented in conservation work that is changing and evolving. The ancient bricks and the remnants of ancient plaster are archaeological data.  Through comparative study, we can assume the shape of the stupa. We can do analogical reasoning to understand the original existence of a stupa. There is historical data and archaeological evidence to believe that these stupas were whitewashed.” 

Dr. Wijesuriya who directed the restoration of two major stupas in the country, namely Yatala and Mirisawetiya, explained that there are well-established principles and technical aspects followed in restoring stupas, developed and implemented over the last 60 years. These principles aim to respect the historical, archaeological, and religious values of a stupa. 

Once a decision is made to restore a stupa at a conceptual level, preparation of the restoration plans starts for which the Department of Archaeology is a depository of knowledge and expertise. 

This involves a thorough study of the sites, their history and environs, and material remains followed by archaeological and comparative studies to help determine the final profile of the stupa. 

When there are different layers of construction which is the case in most stupas, restoration plans are based on the last stage of construction while preserving the earlier stages and bricks intact inside. In some cases, such early stages are preserved and displayed. Restoration plans are then referred to a technical study to ensure that the new structure is stable, can sustain in the given site, the integration of old materials with new material, and the quality of new materials and techniques used. 

In the process of implementation removal or damages to ancient materials are done only at the most appropriate level. Restoration can only proceed if the resource is available which can come from a variety of sources. The experienced staff of the Department monitors the restoration work. At different stages of taking decisions, restoration plans are referred to the Advisory Board of the Department of Archaeology.

Dr. Gamini Wijesuriya

Archaeologist Professor Jagath Weerasinghe, former Director of the PGIAR, Director Archaeology Sigiriya ProjectCCF


Uncategorized, Ama H.Vanniarachchy, BUDDHIST STUPA, Living Cultural Heritage, Living Heritage, Mihindu seya, Mihintale, Sri Lankan archaeology, SRI LANKAN HISTORY