Treasure Hunters And All That!
One of the fast developing contemporary national traits is to compare our national calamities or alleged national calamities with what have happened or are happening in the world beyond us, especially in the Western world.
When Sri Lanka is accused of violation of human rights, harassment and torture of our own people our knee jerk reaction is to exclaim: Look what they did in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. What about Guantanamo Bay? While there is global consensus that gross violations did occur in those places it is indeed poor logic to infer that what is alleged to have happened here is a figment of imagination of our enemies because they did much worse elsewhere.
National museum robbery: peanuts?
This phenomenon of global comparisons is now being applied to other fields. Last week we tuned in half way through a TV talk show on a very controversial topic: The recent robbery at our National Museum and reports of looting of archaeological sites in many parts of the country.
What struck us most in this talk show was the sheer nonchalance of the Minister of National Heritage Jagath Balasuriya who was replying to serious charges made with much emotion by two other speakers on the inability of the authorities to protect these treasures which were part and parcel of our national heritage.
Referring to the robbery at the museum, Minister Balasuriya pointed out that much greater robberies had take place in world famous museums such as at Louvre where even the portrait of Mona Lisa was once stolen. Robberies have taken place in other reputed museums such as in Britain and recently even in Iraq. This was despite the tremendous advanced technology and expertise in security available to them. He did not want to use these robberies at foreign museums as an excuse to what happened in Colombo but nonetheless they had taken place. The authorities have to accept responsibility, the minister conceded.
It was quite a suave performance by the minister, who without saying it, projected the impression that the Colombo robbery was peanuts when compared to those reported from abroad. He then went on to defend the police against allegations of involvement in treasure hunts despite reports that police too have become treasure hunters.
The police, he said had arrested 1,381 persons for treasure hunting, illegal excavations and selling antiques.
Balasuriya in parliament had said that the value of the artefacts stolen exceed Rs 4 million. He listed the stolen items as 68 ancient coins of the Anuradhapura and Kandyan periods, three gold plated coins, a necklace of 48 gold coins, 32 local currency notes printed after 1942, 5 swords, 18 copper rings, a belt belonging to the Nugawela Dissawe and an embossed ring.
Security of the Museum
While the estimated value is not much compared to stolen artefacts elsewhere, of greater national concern will be the security of the museum which is the repository of most of the national treasures in the 2500 year old history of the nation. The magnificent 135-year-old building Italian style edifice built on the orders of Governor William Gregory is one of the most impressive buildings of Colombo that is bereft of grand old monuments. It is now reported to be in focus of the eyes of some authoritarian property vultures that have no concept of culture or heritage.
Its sheer beauty stands out in contrast to modern concrete monstrosities such as the Nelum Pokuna. More important is that it houses the remains of the much vaunted 2500 years of civilisation dating back from Vijayan times to the crown jewels and the golden throne of the last king of Kandy.
Wikipedia says that the museum library has 12 million titles including many rare books and private collections of legends of this country such as those of H. C. P. Bell, the first archaeological commissioner, Hugh Neville, Blake’s collection of Palm leaf manuscripts which were donated by Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike, ancient ola leaf manuscripts in Sinhala, Pali, Sanskrit Burmese, Telugu, Tamil in a variety of subjects including Sinhalese literature, Buddhism, indigenous medicine, astrology, demonology, archaeology, ethnology, oriental languages in addition to separate sections on natural sciences. An 1885 law required a copy of every document printed in the country be deposited in the museum library.
The value of such a storehouse of knowledge can only be appreciated by genuine and dedicated scholars and an educated public committed to safeguard the national heritage. But how safe is the museum and its priceless contents?
How treasures are protected
Former Sri Lankan Ambassador Bandu Silva, a historian in his own right and a former representative of Sri Lanka to UNESCO in a letter to a newspaper stated the security enforced in reputed institutions such as Bibilotheque in Paris. He found a MSS of a work by Totagamuwe Rahula kept in a high security room of the library with bullet proof glass walls and the work itself in a glass case which was unlocked for him and taken out with the greatest of care.
Manuscripts in the Colombo Museum are kept in rooms without air conditioning and on shelves gathering dust, he said.
The fact that robbers gained entry to the museum through its roof and the CCTV system had broken down a few days ago and not repaired demonstrates the gross incapability of Sri Lankans at large taking to hi- tech. A CCTV system not in operation for one night can spell disaster as it did at the museum.
A modern museum obviously got to have a hi-tech security system and trained staff in place 24 hours of the day. And has any one thought of the likely fire hazards to the building?
Cops as amateur archaeologists
Treasure hunters are proliferating in Lanka and roaming not only in the Colombo Museum but in the 250,000 archaeological sites of which only 40,000 are protected. The latest threat posed appears to come from the guardians of the law who are reported to have taken up to part time archaeological excavations, perhaps during off duty hours. Villagers in Siyambalapitiya in the Mahavillachiya region claim they had chased out STF personnel who had arrived with a backhoe and attempted to dig up a treasure in their village tank bund. But the IGP loyal to his men has gone to their rescue. The STF were really sent to the site following reports that treasure hunters were to dig up the treasure, he had claimed but the hardy villagers of Siyambalapitiya won’t buy that story. Another report comes from Moneragala where a police inspector is reported to have led a treasure hunt.
Minister of National Heritage Jagath Balasuriya can’t be complacent saying even the Mona Lisa was once stolen from the Louvre Museum. He got to prevent the looting and detect the culprits. This is a country where paintings have walked out of the President’s House to London auction rooms and even after the miscreants have been traced all are forgiven. The poor criminal who stole the crown of Rajasinghe II from the Kandy Museum in the sixties and melted it into solid gold however had severe justice imposed on him. Now we have only a gold plated copper replica of the crown. The police, the minister said at the talk show had done well and arrested 1,381 treasure hunters. They should do better and find the stolen artefacts of the Colombo Museum.