Giving Life to Cultural Heritage

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy

We are blessed with the legacy of a diverse intangible heritage as well as a vast tangible one scattered all over the island. Since the ‘culture’ that once gave birth to this heritage is still very much alive and the descendants of the creators of this heritage still inhabit the island, the cultural heritage of Sri Lanka can be seen as a ‘Living Heritage.’ The monuments and sites are not mere dead objects but centrepieces of a still-alive rich legacy of the islanders. 

Therefore, how fair is it to treat these places as mere monuments made of brick and stone? How fair is it to detach them from the intangible intellectual and spiritual value systems, turning them into lifeless objects? While the world is concerned and turning towards a heritage management system blending them with a touch of local consciousness, and concerned about things such as disturbing the dead as unethical, are we still going to dig out people out of their final resting places and place them in glass boxes? While world archaeology is concerned more about ethics and being sensitive towards the religious practices and beliefs of locals, are we still going to ‘dig’ ancient stupas and take out the relics, to be displaced? 

When ancient capital cities such as Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, and Sigiriya were ‘rediscovered’ during the colonial period, these places were hidden beneath dense forests. During the time of such discoveries happening in Sri Lanka, ‘Archaeology’ popularly known as the ‘rich man’s hobby’ was a task known for its adventurous, exciting nature. Also, this was a more refined and tuned word for the task of ‘treasure hunting.’ 

Hence, the ruined ancient capital cities of Sri Lanka were seen as exciting, mysterious and marvellous places by the colonial civil servants while in contrast they were still sacred places for the natives. This was the beginning of a slight rift between the two parties, in which the more refined and financially sustained party took over the other. This is why we still look at these ancient places as mere monuments and sites, but not as places with a living legacy. 

Still for us the idea that Jethavanaramaya is being white washed and venerated is slightly shocking. Even the restoration work at Maha Stupa was done with much objection and criticism rising during the time. When the Dalada Maligawa or the Temple of Tooth, the most sacred Buddhist shrine in Sri Lanka was bombed 23 years ago (25 January 1998), the construction work faced similar yet milder arguments regarding the restoration work. Therefore to know more about this we 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, Senior Vice President International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) Sri Lanka. 

Sri Lanka’s living cultural heritage

“A living cultural heritage can be characterised by the continuity of the original function or the purpose for which they were originally established. Such heritage maintains the continuity of community connections, which continues to evolve in the form of tangible and intangible expressions and is taken care of through traditional or established means. This would mean that living heritage is strongly linked to a community (core community) and the sense of change is embraced”, explained Dr. Wijesuriya. 

The usability of some buildings and monuments changes or deteriorates over time. But there are some places that do not expire with time. Temples have such unchanging utilities and values.

Why should heritage be protected?

According to Dr. Wijesuriya, heritage is our legacy and identity. They tell us who we are. We inspire and learn through heritage. Heritage is to be celebrated. “The most important component of heritage is to use it for the present for our spiritual and social purposes. It is a reflection of our entire Sri Lankan civilisation. Heritage should contribute to society and towards sustainable development.”

Local legacy of conserving old buildings

Ancient kings did restoration work at Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa and other places. During these works, the temples were restored to their original splendour to maintain a religious ambience. However, today our conservation work does not aim to return these places back to their original state. 

Dr. Wijesuriya stated that we had a system of conserving old buildings. “King Parakramabahu I had a minister in charge of restoration,” he said. “Even after Polonnaruwa was chosen to be the capital city, Anuradhapura remained sacred and important. Therefore, there was a minister in charge of such work. During the time of King Nissankamalla there was an officer in charge of restoration and his position is mentioned as Loke-Arakmena. 

“We also have literature talking about ancient restoration traditions. The Jethavanarama inscription reveals details about an entire village dedicated for people who were doing conservation. This inscription mentions details for example about their work and salaries. We had the tradition. The Buddhist monks were the leaders,” Dr. Wijesuriya explained.  

Why are we not following our traditional ways?

Answering our question Dr. Wijesuriya said that during the mid-19th century, when we were taught about the modern conservation knowledge, this movement was built against the religious revival occurring in Europe. While this new knowledge was being introduced to us, some of our ancient religious buildings were being restored to their original form. They were accused of destroying ‘ruins’ and were called ‘pious vandals.’  The modern conservation practice focussed on their aesthetic and historical aspect only. Hence the religious value was ignored. 

“What went wrong was that once we were ‘gifted’ with this new knowledge we immediately embarked on that completely. We never took time to look at the system we already had. This was the global situation. Conservation is now called ‘managing continuity,’ explained Dr. Wijesuriya. 

“Africa started talking about the importance of traditional knowledge systems. They were the first to do that. Based on that, organisations like ICCROM suggested that there are traditional knowledge systems that we should use. So from 2005 particularly when it came to the management of World Heritage, UNESCO acknowledged traditional knowledge systems, and made it into their operational guidelines. So that it became official. Now there are  World Heritage Sites (WHS) being managed with the help of traditional knowledge systems. This already was there in countries like Japan at national level. But global recognition came only after 2005. We had raised this concern from about 2000 so now we have the opportunity to talk about it. We are not saying to throw away international principles. We have to develop our own which is now happening in countries like China, Indonesia and, New Zealand.”

Why are we reluctant  

“We were complete Western products,” stated Dr. Wijesuriya. “We were all immersed in that Western knowledge system for decades. We haven’t made an effort.”

Changing attitudes

“Traditions are not static. They are dynamic. These traditions have to be put into modern day context,” said Dr. Wijesuriya.

“We have to collectively assess values of heritage places. It has to be done collectively with religious authorities, relevant community groups and authorities. We have a lot to do to decolonise many things.” 

World Heritage Sites

When the Dalada Maligawa was bombed 23 years ago it was listed as a WHS. Did that help the restoration work? We asked Dr. Wijesuriya who played a lead role in the restoration work of the Dalada Maligawa. We also wanted to know what benefits a site has when it is listed as a WHS.

“World Heritage is about recognising natural and human made places of Outstanding Universal Value by the international community. When a site is on the WHS list, it is placed on the world map and gains recognition. You have the attention of the entire world. There is international support such as emergency funds, technical advice and utilisation of the international community for help. Responsibility of protecting such sites lies with the Governments but strongly recommends the engagement of all relevant policy /decision makers, practitioners, communities and networks. When you have a site on the WHS list even the public can directly complain to UNESCO, this is one of the greatest advantages. For the restoration work at Dalada Maligawa we didn’t need support from UNESCO as we were self-sufficient,” Dr. Wijesuriya clarified. 

He further said that, during the peak of the 30 year war, there had been a proposal to expand the air strip in front of Sigiriya. “UNESCO was informed about this. Therefore they sent a mission to Sigiriya to assess the situation. The expert view was that ultrasound impacts on Sigiriya can be damaging to the site. This was the view of the mission and UNESCO accepted that. When the Government was informed of this, they gave up on the idea. Under the World Heritage Convention, UNESCO has the power to monitor the status of conservation of sites on the List.”

Allegations against conservation work at  Ruwanweliseya 

Dr. Wijesuriya stated that such allegations come from some sections of archaeologists and conservators who suffer from the colonial mentality and are not exposed to what is going in the world particularly in the archaeology/heritage sector. 

“The other reason is that we do not have our own understanding and definition of heritage that suits us,” he said.  

“Ruwanweliseya is the right approach, there should be a continuation of the age-old tradition,” he said. “Jetavana or Abhayagiri will never be able to be maintained until fully covered. Brick being a weak material the structures were meant to be covered up with plaster and white wash. Of course there are practical problems such as money. But a stupa is a place of veneration.”

A stupa is to be venerated, not to be dug

“I feel it is a terrible thing to dig the relic chamber of a stupa,” emphasised Dr. Wijesuriya. “Strange that people are not objecting. The mentality behind this is perhaps that protection of heritage is the Government’s responsibility. No, they belong to people. In America there is a law to prevent excavation of burials. Now Native Americans are asking that the 69,000 skeletons excavated by archaeologists be re-buried. There are many examples. Once in Lumbini there was a suggestion to excavate to find the roots of the Sal tree under which Prince Siddhartha was born. I raised the question what if you don’t find the roots? Are you going to say this is not Lumbini? It is a sacred place so let the mystery remain.

“Going back to the destruction of stupas, I am shocked to see it happening. During the restoration, once a researcher suggested digging and seeing the Jaya-konthaya at Mirisavetiya. Roland Silva, the then Director General was very firm and I was too. We didn’t let it happen. Who has the right to dig inside a relic chamber? It is a sacred place. On the other hand there are scientific methods to carry out if you are curious.”

 “A cetiya (stupa) should be treated as a living Buddha. All the respect and honour that one pays to the Buddha should be paid to the cetiya as well.” 

– History of Buddhism in Ceylon, scholarly work of Prof. Ven. Walpola Rahula Thera 

It is peoples’ heritage…

“We don’t look at places in a holistic manner, and collectively and transparently decide on what it is about. That is why other countries have started writing statements of significance to each heritage place. I call it ape uruma oppuwa. In many countries to list a site, you have to have such a statement with all details to justify its significance for the public. All conservation decisions are taken based on this statement,” clarified Dr. Wijesuriya.

“There is a paradigm shift in the global heritage sector moving from the care of heritage to that of pursuing the well-being of both heritage and society as a whole by placing people at the heart of the discourse,” concluded Dr. Wijesuriya. 

The original article was published on 31 January 2021, Ceylon Today Newspaper. The link for the original article is bellow;

The Sinhala version of this article is published on;

Will Jethawanaramaya ever return to its original splendor

Dr Gamini Wijesuriya

Uncategorized, Living Cultural Heritage, Living Culture, Sri Lanka, Sri Lankan archaeology, SRI LANKAN HISTORY