Maha Vihara to be distorted? (Part II)

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy

Last week in the part I of, ‘Maha Vihara to be Dostorted?’, Ceylon Today brought to light how the proposed Maha Vihara project by Robin Coningham and the uninformed conclusions of his suggesting a ‘theocracy’ in Anuradhapura Era. Continuing the discussion, next, we contacted Brigadier (Retired) Athula Hemachandra De Silva of the Sri Lanka Army, who has more than 30 years of service in the military, and held various appointments in operational and non-operational areas including in the Northern and Eastern provinces. He is profoundly committed to protecting and preserving archaeological sites and monuments and ensuring that Article 9 of the Constitution – to upheld protect, preserve, and foster Buddhism. Brigadier De Silva is actively working towards the protection of many threatened and destroyed ancient sites and monuments in the Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka.

Joining us to share his views on the controversial proposed Maha Vihara Project Brigadier De Silva said that, he sees this entire scenario as a threat to the main root of Sri Lanka’s culture and civilisation which is the Maha Vihara Tradition. He emphasised the significance of the Maha Vihara which is the hub of Theravada Buddhism, not only in Sri Lanka but also in the entire Buddhist world.

Taking into consideration the questionable research and interpretations of Buddhist archaeology by Coningham, Brigadier De Silva suspects that this proposed project that Coningham will lead would be a move to uproot the main root of Theravada Buddhism in the entire world under the pretext of giving prominence to the Maha Vihara and scientific archaeological work. He also heavily questioned Coningham’s ‘theocracy’ theory that he suggested to Anuradhapura which is completely misleading.  If Coningham came up with a theocracy theory of ancient Anuradhapura purely based on his limited data and research, he might well come up with further misleading and wrong interpretations of the ancient Anuradhapura civilisation and the Maha Vihara monastery. The danger is that all this work is done under so-called highly scientific work by British archaeologists that will attract the masses. What if another wrong new hypothesis and concept were introduced by Coningham and changed the base and main philosophy of Sri Lanka’s ancient civilisation? Will it distort Sri Lankan history, culture, and political history?

Such projects will be conducted with the involvement of local university students and archaeologists and will be given national and international publicity, giving international and state-level recognition of Coningham’s misleading hypotheses.

Brigadier De Silva also said that in archaeological sites (ancient-built environment) such as Mathota, Kadurugoda, Kuchchaveli, and Kurundi, where archaeological excavations were unable to take place as anticipated were limited. As a result, these areas have been destroyed and encroached upon by organised groups with political patronage and confined to limited areas except Kurundi; even Kurundi and adjoining forest area is currently under threat.

He further said that this Maha Vihara proposal should be read against the backdrop of the intervention by the Executive against the mandate of the Department of Archaeology (DoA) given by the Antiquities Ordinance to restrain them from preserving archaeological sites, which are under severe attack and being systematically destroyed. These neo-colonial experts are arriving in Sri Lanka to re-write Sri Lanka’s historical heritage at a time when the demands made by political groups and lobbyists who continue to advocate a separate mono-ethnic state are being fulfilled. This indicates the target is to destroy the pillars and foundations of this well-established Sinhala Buddhist state by advancing a theory of a Christian-theocracy existing in the Anuradhapura Era while funding is the carrot to get some of the local experts to nod heads in approval as well as to satisfy the agendas of their political masters. Their pin-drop silence as the Archaeological Act and the DoA are getting weakened by their inaction is disappointing and unforgivable, he explained.

About the proposed Maha Vihara project by Coningham

The DoA of Sri Lanka consists of capable archaeologists (excavation experts) and conservators and has an illustrious history of conservation and management of our heritage. Thus, allowing foreign scholars to take leadership in such major archaeological and conservation work belittles the local expertise. As highlighted in the last week’s article, such decisions have to be taken in consultation with all relevant stakeholders and not by an individual, regardless of his experience.

It is a fact that Sri Lanka and other exotic countries that bear a rich legacy should be cautious and strict in terms of allowing foreign scholars into the local shores to conduct their research; Sri Lanka should maintain a strict policy of protecting local data. In most such cases, foreign scholars conduct research in Sri Lanka and under that pretext gather data for personal gains but not for the benefit of the country and its heritage.

Moreover, sensitivity is required when writing about sacred places, especially in Buddhist countries where a unique concept of ‘Living Cultural Heritage’ exists. In one of his articles, Coningham uses the Asoka Pillar in Lumbini, which is sacred to the Buddhist community and frequented by thousands of pilgrims, with a dog standing in front. 

In conclusion, we emphasise the religious significance of Maha Vihara for the entire Buddhist world and that it has been the centre of Theravada Buddhism for more than 2300 years; making it one of the world’s oldest and greatest religious and cultural heritage sites. Thus, it should not be excavated to fulfil personal agendas and/or for political moves and in the end expose decay as it has happened in Sri Lanka and other colonial countries, under the pretext of scientific archaeological work, led by European archaeologists. 

As repeatedly emphasised, we have to overcome the ‘out-dated’ notion that Maha Vihara is an archaeological site. It is one of the most important living heritage places for Sri Lankan society, with a variety of values, and to the world at large with different sets of values. It is part of the sacred City of Anuradhapura World Heritage Site. Planning, research, conservation, and management of such places should be a collective effort guided by the Buddhist monks and those with expertise in Buddhism in addition to archaeologists and conservators. 

Coningham’s statement about the Sri Maha Bodhi tree

Coningham’s statement about the Sri Maha Bodhi tree in the research paper titled, The Earliest Buddhist Shrine: excavating the Birthplace of the Buddha, Lumbini (Nepal), published in Antiquities 87 in 2013, is also questionable. He says that the Sri Maha Bodhi tree in Anuradhapura was, “Replanted, and replenished.” 

One wonders whether this is an intention to downgrade the antiquity of Sri Maha Bodhi and to prove that he found the earliest Buddhist monastery with tree worship, commented archaeology expert Dr. Gamini Wijesuriya. 

Below is what he has further written in the above-mentioned research paper.

“The Sri Maha Bodhi in Anuradhapura; originally planted from a cutting of the Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya, the tree has been replanted, replenished and memorialised over time.” 

Dr. Wijesuriya questions why use the phrase ‘cutting’ and where are the evidence to say the sacred tree was ‘replanted, replenished and memorialised’ in local chronicles.

Conningham continues and says;

“Despite the importance of the Bodhi tree in Buddhism (Bandaranayake 1974; 161) and evidence of their presence during the Early Historic period, bodhigaras have received little archaeological attention (Coningham 2001; 76).”

The story of the sacred Bodhi Tree, reported by the ancient chronicles in Sri Lanka

Coningham repeatedly uses the term ‘cutting’ to imply that a branch of the sacred Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya which was later planted in Anuradhapura. However, as the ancient Pali and Sinhala chronicles in Sri Lanka including the Mahavamsa, Deepavamsa, Mahabodhivamsa, and so on say, the Southern Branch of the sacred Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya was never cut by the emperor Asoka. The chronicles say that the king was reluctant and did not want to cut the sacred Bodhi tree out of respect.

According to the Mahavamsa 18th chapter;

“The great Bodhi tree must not be injured with a knife, ‘how then can I have a branch!’ mused the king.

“So truly as the great Bodhi-tree shall go hence to the isle of Lanka, and so truly as I shall stand unalterably firm in the doctrine of the Buddha, shall this fair south branch of the great Bodhi-tree, severed of itself, take its place here in this golden vase.’

Then the great Bodhi-tree severed, of itself, at the place where the line was, floating above the vase filled with fragrant earth. Above the line first (drawn) the ruler of men drew, at (a distance of) three finger-breadths, round about 10 (further) pencil-strokes. And 10 strong roots springing from the first and 10 slender from each of the other (lines) dropped down, forming a net.”

It is clear that the sacred Bodhi tree, the southern branch of the Great Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, severed itself but never was cut using a knife or axe. Yet, Coningham using the term cutting is misleading. 

According to the Mahavamsa and other ancient chronicles in Sri Lanka, the Maha Bodhi tree in Anuradhapura Mahamegha gardens was planted in the 3rd century BCE by King Devanampiyathissa (250 – 210 BCE). The sacred Bo Tree was brought to Sri Lanka by Arhat Sanghamitra, daughter of the Mauryan emperor Asoka. Since then, the sacred Bo tree, known as the Sri Maha Bodhin Wahanse by Buddhist devotees has been growing at the Mahamegha Gardens, Anuradhapura is the most sacred tree in Sri Lanka and the oldest recorded tree (with a record date and a written history) in the world.

There are no reliable historical records or archaeological evidence to say that the sacred Maha Bodhi tree at Anuradhapura was replanted or replenished at any time in the history of Sri Lanka since the day it was planted in the 3rd century BCE.

“It is recorded that the tree in Bodhgaya was destroyed in the 17/18th century, and a sapling was taken back from Sri Lanka, and that’s what you now see in Bodhgaya,” reminded us Dr. Wijesuriya.

Dr. Wijesuriya also said that although tree worshiping is a known practice in ancient cultures, in Sri Lanka, tree shrines only come with sacred Bodhi trees associated with unique architecture. Bodhighara, or the Bodhi tree shrine, according to Senake Bandaranayake, is, “One of the most ancient Buddhist shrines.” 

“Conninghams’ statement in 2001 saying, “Bodhigaras have received little archaeological attention,” is what Bandaranayake wrote 50 years ago. Roland Silva has a comprehensive chapter on Bodhighara in his thesis submitted to Leden in 1988. Manjusri Vastu Vidya Sastra, a treatise on Buddhist monastic planning dated to the 5th and 6th centuries, clearly identifies Padhanaghara as one of the key ritual buildings placed within the sacred precinct of a Buddhist Monastery. In addition to Sri Maha Bodhi itself and the evidence in Jetavanarama, there is sufficient data to prove that the Bodhigharas were an integral part of a Buddhist monastery.”

We also contacted Prof. T.G. Kulatunga a senior archaeologist and an eminent scholar in archaeology and history, who served the Central Cultural Fund and the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, lending his enormous service to the nation for decades. 

“If Professor Coningham says that, the Bodhi tree in Anuradhapura has been replanted, replenished and memorialised over time, then he should present valid evidence (archaeological, literature or inscriptional, and so on) to support his statement.”

He further said that in Mahavamsa, Deepavamsa, Bodhivamsa, or in any other Sinhala or Pali ancient text, it does not say anywhere that the sacred Bodhi tree at Anuradhapura Mahamegha Gardens was replanted. 

Is Lumbini the oldest Buddhist monastery?

Coningham also says in his research paper titled, The Earliest Buddhist Shrine: excavating the Birthplace of the Buddha, Lumbini (Nepal) that Lumbini is the oldest Buddhist monastery based on his single excavation. Can an archaeologist come to such a conclusion solely based on a single excavation among hundreds of most ancient Buddhist monasteries in South Asia?

Research, excavation, conservation, and interpretation of Buddhist heritage sites cannot be done solely by experts. Similarly, Buddhist sites cannot be interpreted exclusively based on excavated materials. Such data should be supplemented by a thorough knowledge of Buddhism and the history of Buddhism.

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