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Beware the Culture vultures

Archaeologist Raja de Silva’s latest book Sigiriya Paintings not only brings back into focus his theory (some call it discovery) about Sigiriya which he made known six years ago but also brings to the surface intellectual prejudices and animosities that lie buried deep under the cover of academic respectability.

Sigiriya Paintings is no polemic. It is a systematic exposition of this historic complex based on scientific observations and De Silva’s probabalistic interpretations. In his thought -provoking book Sigiriya And Its Significance, De Silva, a former Archaeological Commissioner, wrote that Sigiriya was not Kassapa’s palace and pleasure garden.  It was not a capital of ancient Lanka.  It was not a fortress, but rather a Mahayana-Theravada Buddhist Monastery.  The paintings do not represent Kassapa’s queens or cloud damsels or lightning princesses or apsaras. They depict the great Buddhist saviouress — Goddess Tara.

Every Archaeological Commissioner since Bell (1896) has believed that Sigiriya was a palace or fortress built by Kassapa. To challenge this view needs courage of a high order. The theory that De Silva propounds — that Sigiriya was never a palace or fortress built by Kassapa but a Mahayanist monastery in which he took refuge and later supported — is revolutionary, and required the type of courage that emboldened Copernicus and Kepler to challenge the view that the sun revolved round the Earth.

In De Silva’s book, Sigiriya Paintings, he does not touch on the issue we have raised: academic prejudices and animosities. The only evidence of these prejudices is the absence of criticism of his theory which shakes the foundations of long-held beliefs. These beliefs, built around this boulder fortress or Mahayana shrine, go back in time to the ancient Sinhala Chronicle, the Mahavamsa. De Silva writes that his argument has been ignored:

“No seasoned criticism of my interpretations of the significance of Sigiriya has been published by any local scholar during the past six years, presumably on the theory that what constitutes a snag to the acceptance of one’s own theories is best left alone and ignored. However, foreign authorities and some historians outside the cultural establishment have ventured to make their comments.”

It is indeed a sad state for the country’s historians and those of other allied disciplines to have fallen into. A subject worthy of debate should be taken up and analysed. In Sri Lankan society, a controversy usually creates raging debates, and an unorthodox theory or proposal is often treated like a piece of meat being thrown into a pool full of piranhas.

 Was the De Silva theory left untouched only because of academic reticence and the wish to avoid controversy? Or is it the effect of cash-strapped foreign NGOs thrusting themselves into the field of Sri Lankan academic research? Already, a multi-million dollar Sigiriya Museum has been built near Sigiriya, thanks to the munificence of Japanese donors. The Japanese have given many such contributions in the past few decades, and their motives are undoubtedly honourable. But there are many vultures in this island, including academics that have a yen for Yen. The more researchers there are in the field, the smaller each’s slice of cake. Is this the reason for the reluctance to admit others into the charmed circle?

Archaeology in Sri Lanka had extremely modest beginnings, with pioneering Englishmen working under extremely arduous conditions for the sheer joy of the subject. In his book, De Silva writes about an English engineer who copied the Sigiriya paintings on tissue paper lying on his back on scaffolding for three straight days! Other archaeologists like H.C.P. Bell made tremendous contributions to the heritage of this country. Even after gaining Independence, archaeologists like Senerat Paranavitane, working on limited budgets, made tremendous contributions working out of an archaic building with swinging saloon doors! The establishment of a Cultural Triangle with a Central Cultural Fund (CCF) changed all that. It brought in the irresistible dollar.

The Cultural Triangle was set up by UNESCO under a programme to assist developing countries to preserve their ancient monuments so that these countries could boost tourism. The CCF was set up as an approved charity to collect and disburse funds for various projects, the first ones being located in the Cultural Triangle. Over the years, the CCF took over the functions of the Archaeological Department and began projects which, under the Antiquities Ordinance, belonged to the Archaeological Department. The CCF has muscled into the Archaeological Department and taken over its duties. Sources say that some of the CCF’s excavations and restorations were conducted by people untrained in the work rather than the professionals of the old department.

Sources say that the CCF has become a very productive cash cow, bringing in copious amounts of money that are not being properly monitored and administered. Money keeps flowing into this fund. Even though all archaeological sites are vested in the Archaeological Department under the Antiquities Ordinance, the ticket revenue from visitors to these sites, foreigners included (who have to pay in hard currency), is collected by the CCF. The amounts involved could run into thousands  or even millions of dollars when foreign contributions are considered.

Nominally the Board of Governors of the Central Cultural Fund is headed by the Prime Minister and has many powerful ministers in it. But what degree of supervision and control do they exercise?

Many harebrained plans for Sigiriya have been attempted, but fortunately an alert media has shot them all down. Typical was the proposed ‘Son et Lumiere’ show, which would have reduced the unique Sigiriya  environment to a backdrop for staging a cheap Western extravaganza. But sources say that the geniuses behind ‘Son Et Lumiere’ have not given up, and that the show could be presented in a modified form.

Culture commissars should certainly have the freedom to present their creations, but they have to stay in touch with the public and keep them informed. For example, the people need to be told much more about the multi-million dollar Sigiriya museum that has sprung up. How was this project financed, who made the contributions and who created the exhibits that will be put on display? Not everyone has the time and money to visit places such as Sigiriya.









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