The Archaeological Department: A symbol of ethnoreligious aggression?
The three- decade- long war polarized the Sinhalese and Tamil races. Sinhalese and Tamils look at each other as enemies, with mistrust and it is a tendency that continues. In 2009 the devastating war was brought to an end. The expectation since then was to build reconciliation between the races. But the initiatives taken by government machinery in this context tends to destroy such expectations. This is an allegation made by the Tamils.
While there are many factors behind the polarization of Sinhalese and Tamils, we shall now look specifically into the allegations made against activities of the Department of Archaeology:
Though the Department of Archaeology commenced its work in 1890, groundwork related to archaeological surveys began many years earlier, during Hercules Robinson’s governance. In 1868, seven years after archaeological surveys started in India, a committee to study the ancient architecture of Sri Lanka was appointed by the government. In 1871, with financial and other assistance from the government, valuable photographs of buildings, primarily in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, were obtained.
In 1873, Governor William Gregory issued orders to make a complete survey. In the same year a site survey was made. Based on the pioneering efforts of J.G. Seminar, a book named Archaeological Remains of Anuradhapura , comprising the ruined dagobas and buildings was published in 1894.
Though Sri Lanka is a tiny island in the Indian Ocean, it has over Two Hundred and Fifty Thousand archaeological sites and unique ruins. This is where the services of the Department of Archaeology is very essential as an Antiquities Law No. 9 of 1948, Antiquities (Amended) Law No: 24 of 1998, Law for Enhancement of Fines (Amended) No; 12 of 2005 and Law for Recovery of Government Possessions No: 7 of 1979 were passed to protect archaeological sites and these laws are implemented.
The Department of Archaeology, is entrusted with the farsighted task of improved management of archaeological rights in Sri Lanka, support management of archaeological rights of the country and function as primary monitoring establishment. In the post- war environment, this department, with the intent of ethno-religious aggression, wants to excavate thousands of archaeological sites in the North and East, and is rushing with its excavation work. This has become a curse to the reconciliation process according to present allegations.
Owing to the situation in the pre-2009 war days, the Department of Archaeology was unable to function in most of the North and East. But, after the war ended in 2009 the situation changed. The Sinhalese and Buddhist priests visited North and East in large numbers. The Tamils allege that with the help of many thousands of military personnel stationed in these areas and the support of government machinery such people now occupy their ancestral lands.
It is alleged, the history of the North and East is distorted and new stories and a new history are in place. The main Tamil parties say the activities of the Department of Archaeology are also supportive of this. During the past years, it was observed that Buddha’s statues and Buddhist viharas were erected at the sites demarcated by the Department of Archaeology. The Tamils, their political leaders and civil organizations strongly oppose this, because these actions are planned Sinhala/ Buddhist expansionism.
In spite of erecting statues and Buddhist viharas, the Forest Department, Mahaweli Development Scheme and various other government establishments are colonizing Sinhalese people under the pretext of economic development schemes and expansions. Tamils are protesting and demonstrating against this.
While talking about the Archaeological surveys conducted in North and East, Director General of the Department of Archaeology, Professor Senarath Dissanayake gave the following information:
“In the North, excavations in Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu and Vavuniya Districts are still not complete. Continuous excavations have to be done in these Districts. In Jaffna about One Hundred sites are identified through surveys. In excavations done partly, 270 sites in Mullaitivu and 230 sites in Mannar are identified. Likewise though 450 are identified in Ampari in the East, only about 250 sites have been included in the Gazette Notifications. In Batticaloa important archaeological sites are identified. In Trincomalee though a few sites are identified no excavation was done so far. I refute the allegation that the Department of Archaeology prioritizes Buddhism and is concerned more in identifying Buddhist monuments. The Archaeological Department has no religion and does not prioritize any religion. The object of its activities is to protect archaeological sites that represent the historical heritage of the country. It is wrong to make allegations about the sites discovered or identified through surveys that may differ in number related to ethno-religious ratio in the country” he said.
Regarding the allegation made by Muslims and Tamils that neither a Tamil nor a Muslim was appointed to the Task Force created by the President to protect the Archaeological sites in the East, Professor Senarath Dissanayake says;
“The Task Force was appointed by the President with the object of providing us additional cooperation to do our work expeditiously and efficiently. This task force will begin its activities from Batticaloa. It is wrong to misinterpret this. Due to the three-decade old war archaeological sites in North and East were not properly identified. Many places have become jungles owing to this. Further, some of these places have been damaged and buried in the ground. Hence, the employees of the department alone cannot try and identify these places. So, the assistance of the forces is sought to do this work. Beyond this, the forces will not interfere in the other activities. The government created the task force comprising only government officers. Including me, the other officers in the force are the Defense Secretary, Commissioner of Lands and Commissioner of the Survey Department. These officers will publicly notify the general public about their decision regarding their work. There is no need to be disturbed about this. Anyhow, now there is a cabinet decision to include two Tamil speaking people in the task force” he said.
Professor Senarath Dissanayake further says “ For each and everyone our activities will appear in varying angles when these activities are painted as ethno-religious ones. In the North as well as in the East, religious sites and symbols of another religion are erected on top of the monuments of a religion. In the North there are Hindu temples on top of some traces of Buddhism. In Kooragala, a Mosque is erected in the land belonging to Buddhism. There are problems like this. We are, as the Department of Archaeology and not supportive of a race or religion. We are only protecting these sites. We are functioning based on the country’s right to inheritance”.
But, Tamil academics and activists who reject Professor Senarath Dissanayake’s statement allege, the Department of Archaeology by its very activities is destroying the antiquities of many Hindu temples in Tamil areas of the North and East.
During the Good Governance regime and the previous one, through special Gazette Notifications, under Section 16 (Chapter 188) of Antiquities Ordinance No: 823/73 of Sri Lanka identified that in many Hindu temples in the North and East there are symbols related to Buddhism.
Amongst them, Odduchuddan Thanthonri Easwara Temple, Manthai East Poovarasangkulam Pathirakali Amman Temple, Kumarapuram Sri Sithtiravelautham Murugan Temple, Kumulamunai Anchaneiyar Temple, Pandian Kulam Sivan Temple, Vavunikkulam Sivapuram Srimalai Temple, Kumulamunai Kurinchikumaran Temple, Mannar Thirukketheeswaram Temple, Myliddy Portugese Church, Othiyamalai Vairavar Kovil, Mulliyavalai Kumarapuram Murugan Temple, Trincomalee Thennamaravadi Kanthasamy malai, Neeraviyadi Pillaiyar Temple, Pulmoddai Rice Mill Malai Temple, Vedukkunari Malai Athi Sivan Temple, Mutur Soodaikudah Mathtala Hill Murugan Temple, Trincomalee Koneswarar Temple, Moondru Murippu Kannaki Amman, Sivapuram Sivalayam, Manthai East Athi Sivan Temple, Kunchumappa Periyasamy Temple, Sri Malai Neeliyamman Temple, Kanniya Hot Wells Pillaiyar Temple, Batticaloa Thanthamalai Temple, and Batticaloa Kachchakodi Swami Malai are included. Tamil activists and academics question that identifying these places as archaeological sites is religious aggression.
They also allege that all construction work at the historically well-known Koneswaram temple of Trincomalee has been obstructed by the Department of Archaeology since 2015. They have announced that this site belongs to Buddhism and 99% of the construction work done in the temple premises is illegal. Similarly, the Kanniya Hot Wells under the administration of Divisional Secretariat, Town and Environment was brought under the Department of Archaeology during the previous government. Only the foundation of the historical Pillaiyar Temple remains now.
Even when the Department of Archaeology says there is no discrimination in their functions to identify archaeological sites and excavate them and that their approach in the North and East is same as in South, it is a form of Sinhala Buddhist aggression, say the people, political leaders and civil society activists who fight against the actions of the Department of Archaeology. These actions of the Department of Archaeology will have a negative impact on the reconciliation efforts. It can be observed that this damages the confidence of the minority people. It is essential for the Department of Archaeology to assure that its functions are beyond ethno religious differences.