Sigiriya, pride of Sri Lanka; under risk

Sigiriya, pride of Sri Lanka; under risk is an article about the threats and challenges caused to this World Heritage site due to a construction within the vicinity of this precious archaeological site. The incident was first revealed by Ceylon Today. The major investigation and results were originally published in Ceylon Today newspaper in the links below.

In this blog page you can read the report by journalist/ archaeologist Ama H.Vanniarachchy.

Pothana: an archaeological site

By  Ama H. Vanniarachchy

Pothana and Inamaluwa are located in the vicinity of Sigiriya. Sigiriya was an ancient kingdom. It was a capital city. Its archaeology and heritage does not limit to the rock and the gardens. Pidurangala, Ramakale, Mapagala, Ibbankatuwa are all highly important historical places around Sigiriya. Mapagala is an important historical place. Pidurangala and Kaludiya Pokuna are similarly important Buddhist archaeological sites. Ibbankatuwa is a prehistoric site.

Pothana – a couple of human skeletons were found at the archaeological site. These skeletons belong to the prehistoric period of Sri Lanka and these are radiocarbon dated as 4,000 years before present (YBP).  The prehistoric population that lived in Pothana is being identified as a hunter-gatherer population and shared similar characteristics of the contemporary prehistoric populations that lived in Bellanbandi Palassa, Batadombalena, Belilena and the Fa Hien Cave.

Considering all the historical and archaeological data of Sigiriya (the entire area, not restricting only to Sigiriya and the gardens), Inamaluwa and Pothana it is evident of its highly crucial role in the country’s culture, history, archaeology and heritage as a whole. Hence, without a Heritage Impact Assessment conducted by professionals, we cannot ‘assume’ that this piece of land has no archaeological value; or, assume that this construction does not damage the heritage of Sigiriya and its vicinity.

Moreover, as this is the public’s heritage, not the heritage of any authority, the public has the right to know if a Heritage Impact Assessment has been conducted, and the results of it. The Department of Archaeology should answer this. This cannot be taken lightly as this is something to do with the ‘people’s heritage’.

Who is responsible?

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy

Sigiriya’s cultural landscape and the ecology makes it one of the most archaeologically sensitive areas of the island. Studying the history and archaeology of the area makes one understand that Sigiriya actually was a hub of the country’s civilisation. What is unique about Sigiriya is that its history dates back to the prehistoric period and continues throughout the historic period of Sri Lanka.

It should also be noticed that most of this area has not yet been subjected to extensive research apart from the excavations in Sigiriya, Aligala, Pothana, Pindurangala to name a few. Even the conservation work in such places is not satisfactory. It is sad indeed, as we know for a fact that Sigiriya is the highest income-generating cultural heritage site in Sri Lanka and also known as an icon of our culture and heritage. Hence, it is the duty and the responsibility of the public and the governing bodies to ensure Sigiriya’s safety. 

Sigiriya’s archaeological and historical value is not limited to the rock and the fortress. The surrounding sites such as Mapagala, Millagala, Pindurangala, Pothana, Aligala, Ibbankatuwa, Kaludiyapokuna, and areas such as Inamaluwa, Kimbissa, Dambulla reveal the vast spread of ancient human activities. Also, the many man-made tanks of the surrounding area are evidence of the ancient agricultural prosperity. Hence, its urban development and human activities did not limit only to the area referred to as the ‘rock fortress.’ 

Iron technology in Sigiriya

The surrounding area of Sigiriya is known as one of the earliest locations where iron was produced and distributed in the country. The CCF and Ministry of Culture and the Arts’ 2011 publication, Sigiriya Museum, states that 35 iron production sites have been found in the area, including major industrial centres, using rows of furnaces based on a bellows- driven multiple-jet technique.

Prof. Senake Bandaranayake writes in his book, Sigiriya: City, Palace, Gardens, Monasteries, Paintings, “The earliest evidence of human habitation within the environs of the main rock is in the Aligala rock shelter, which lies immediately to the east of the Sigiriya rock. This is a major prehistoric site, with an occupational sequence starting nearly 5,000 years ago and extending up to early historic times. It is also one of the sites associated with early iron production in Sri Lanka, dating from around 900 BC.”


This is an ancient fortress built using massive granite cubes. The massiveness of these granite blocks shows the advanced nature of iron technology used during that time. 

Buddhist monasteries around Sigiriya

Pindurangala, Enderagala, Ramakele, Manikdena, Kaludiyapokuna are important ancient monasteries. Ruins of an ancient Buddhist monastery can be seen on the top of Habarana Rock. 

Prehistoric Pindurangala, Aligala and Pothana

Excavations at Aligala revealed that it was part of a prehistoric settlement, as human remains, animal and plant remains, stone tools and grinding stones were discovered. 

Pothana is another prehistoric site in which many important discoveries were made, including a large number of animal bones, stone tools, a couple of human skeletons and plant remains. Archaeologists identified these remains are belonging to the Mesolithic Period of Sri Lanka and dated them as old as 6,000 BP (Before Present). 

Kashyapa would not have chosen the rock as his abode and as his capital, if not, for the fact that the area was an urban landscape, well connected with the country’s harbours, trade cities, and other main cities. The Sigiriya Museum publication further says, “The Sigiriya basin is defined by a horizon rim of mountains. The Greater Sigiriya area is a cultural landscape showing many layers of human occupation over a period of 10,000 years or more, from prehistoric times to the present day. It was an extensively populated region, with many archaeological monuments, irrigation works and settlement and production sites.”

Hence lays the importance of Sigiriya and its vicinity. Therefore, without a HIA and an AIA how can any archaeologist merely ‘assume’ that this area has no archaeological or historical value? Moreover, Sigiriya being a World Heritage site, isn’t it important to conduct a proper HIA if new permanent constructions are to be done in the vicinity? 

A WH property has three sections:

1. The property: with boundaries as demarcated in a map and registered with UNESCO.

2. Buffer zone: As appropriate to act as extra protection for the property, but with boundaries demarcated and registered with UNESCO. Need to provide regulations to control the activities.

3. Broader setting: That can have impacts (visual etc.) on the property, but no demarcation (see paragraph 112 of OG) (topography, natural and built environment, elements such as infrastructure, land use patterns, spatial organisation, and visual relationships). 

Management of the broader setting is related to its role in supporting the Outstanding Universal Value.

According to UNESCO, “Outstanding Universal Value means cultural and/or natural significance, which is exceptional as to transcend national boundaries and to be of common importance for present and future generations of all humanity.”

As per paragraph 112 and 118 of the Operational Guidelines (OG) of the World Heritage Convention which is to be abided by Sri Lanka as a signatory, an integrated approach to planning and management is essential to guide the evolution of properties over time and to ensure maintenance of all aspects of their Outstanding Universal Value. Also, that the State Parties shall ensure that EIA, HIA, and/or Strategic Environmental Assessments be conducted as a prerequisite for development projects and activities that are planned for implementation within or around a World Heritage property. 

Wild goose chase

When Ceylon Today attempted to know if an AIA was conducted on the land, it was like a wild goose chase. The relevant officer at the DoA enlightened us that she is unaware of it, as she is only aware of the AIAs done after 2020. She further said as this was done in 2017, the then officer in charge must be located first. 

When asked again, Prof. Manatunga ‘assumed’ that the new construction work ‘must’ have violated the conditions given in the approval by the DoA, but he was not sure about it, and further must study the documents which ‘should’ be at the Kandy Regional Office.

The CCF was also unaware of the Sigiriya buffer zone, whether it is demarcated and registered or not. According to the PM and the DG CCF the buffer zone extends when new excavations are done. However, technically, unless it is requested to the UNESCO, a buffer zone doesn’t get extended by itself. 

The DG Archaeology is under the impression that if buffer zones are to be demarcated, the entire country will be needed to demarcate as a buffer zone and  that without referring to documents, he cannot be sure if a buffer zone was registered at Sigiriya or not. 

Well, it seems as if the old work records of these two institutes (DoA and CCF) are not archived, not accessible, or the officers are only aware of the work they as individuals do, but not of the work of the institute as a whole. 

Are the guardians of our heritage truly guardians?

The role of the DoA and the CCF in protecting the country’s cultural heritage is called into question in this incident. They were unaware of this work until it was exposed and even after the utterly careless response shown is thoroughly disheartening. It seems as if no officer is responsible to protect the heritage. No one is aware if approval was given, an assessment was conducted, and no one knows where the relevant documents are. This is indeed pathetic and disgusting. 

We see news of new excavation work commencing all over the country these days. Yet, when asked about legal aspects of safeguarding our heritage, and measures taken to protect them, suddenly all authorities wash their hands of responsibility. It seems as if Mr. Nobody conducted AIAs, signed documents, and passed approvals. 

Moreover, as this is the public’s heritage, and not the heritage of any authority, the public has the right to know if a Heritage Impact Assessment and AIA have been conducted, and the results of it. The Department of Archaeology should answer this. This cannot be taken lightly, as this is something to do with the ‘people’s heritage.’ While the Department of Archaeology has the direct responsibility to protect World Heritage property, the day-to-day operation of the system is a good deal more complicated, with various other parties involved. 

Additional source by Dr. Gamini Wijesuriya, President/ICOMOS Sri Lanka. 

Uncategorized, Pothana, Sigiriya, Sri Lankan archaeology