Kuragala Controversy Deepens
By Camelia Nathaniel
Kuragala has been the centre of another dispute between the Buddhists and the Muslims of this country for a considerable duration of time. While the Muslims claim that Kuragala belongs to them and that Sufi saint, Sheikh Muhiyadeen Abdul Qadir Jilani (d. 1166 CE, in Baghdad), renowned throughout South Asia as the founder of the Qadiriya order, is said to have meditated for 12 years after paying his respects to Srī Pada, the Resplendent Foot. Large crowds of Tamil-speaking Muslim devotees attend the annual kandoori festival, signifying Sufi devotionalism in Sri Lanka. According to the Muslims, the shrine has inscriptions dated back to 10th century and Muslims believe the visiting Muslim traders in the past used this place as a resting place and shrine.
The Buddhists claim that the Kuragala Monastery dating back to even before 2nd century BC is a national treasure, and in recent times the Muslim fundamentalists have taken over the site and destroyed the evidence of Buddhist heritage. Director General of the Department of Archaeology Senarath Dissanayake stated that excavations in Kuragala Archaeological site are conducted with precision, adding that if there is a necessity to remove the mosque due to excavations, they have already obtained the approval to relocate the mosque to an alternative location.
Speaking to The Sunday Leader convener of the Sinhala Ravaya Organization Ven. Maagal-kande Sudantha Thera said that the Department of Archaeology, the Budhasasana Ministry and several other organisations had met and discussed the issue of Kuragala and subsequent studying of the archaeological ruins had come to the conclusion that the location was of archaeological significance and that the mosque had to be removed from there.
“The Muslim shrine there is illegal. The Sinhala Ravaya monks have no desire to occupy this site nor are we preserving these for our children, but we are mediating on behalf of all the Buddhists in this country and we are fighting to save our heritage. That is why we want the unauthorised Muslim shrine be removed. We have been raising this issue for a long time but the authorities did not pay any attention to the issue. This is why we decided to go there in April and take action to remove the illegal shrine ourselves. However the police stopped us from doing so and we finally ended up in court. However later upon careful investigation of the archaeological significance of the site, the president had issued orders to relocate the Muslim shrine. However to date nothing has happened and we are waiting to see what will happen. However we also have our suspicions that this is another eyewash and that nothing will be done eventually. There are also other political forces who are trying to prevent the removal of the mosque.
There is a court order to remove all illegal constructions including the mosque. All we are asking is that our heritage be preserved and protected. Excavations by the Department of Archaeology have revealed that a prehistoric man had lived there several thousand years ago. All we ask is that this site be preserved for our future generations. We have no animosity against the Muslims, but we only want our heritage preserved. We are not under any political influence or agenda, but if the authorities fail to take any action regarding this issue, then we will be compelled to take action. However if we decide to take action it will be seen as stirring racial tensions, but we will do everything possible to preserve our heritage,” said Sudantha Thera.
Meanwhile the Minister of Arts and Culture Nandimithra Ekanayake said that a decision has been taken to remove the mosque and to relocate it at another location. But he did not elaborate when this will be done. The Minister said that Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe had appointed a committee to investigate the location since there were protests demanding to remove the mosque. He said that the committee had assembled on April 21 and discussed with the Muslims about the mosque relocating at another place since the report produced by the committee had proved that the mosque had been built in an ancient Buddhist Archaeological site. The minister also agreed to provide one million rupees to reconstruct a mosque at another location.
Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) Chief Executive Officer, Dilantha Withanage told The Sunday Leader that his organisation has been asking for the mosque to be removed since the mosque was an illegal construction. “We don’t want to create any tension and the moment we protest against any injustice against the Buddhist population, we are branded as Buddhist extremists and troublemakers. But in reality we don’t want to create any tension between the various religious groups, but we only want to protect our heritage. We have lost faith in all politicians and think that they act based on political agendas. Therefore we are waiting to see what action the government is going to take regarding the removal of the Kuragala mosque.”
The Department of Archaeology has conducted extensive excavations at the Kuragala site and uncovered evidence that the caves at the site had been a Buddhist monastery during the period between 3rd Century BC and First Century AD. Some of the caves had been inhabited by the humans in the pre-historic period.
During the excavations, the archaeologists had found stone tools, fossilized bone fragments and a complete human skeleton which was later sent to the University of Oxford for DNA and other testing, and according to the Archaeology Department, the skeleton would be returned to Sri Lanka once the scientific testing is over. Investigations have revealed evidence to prove that humans lived in the Kuragala caves had close links with coastal areas. This theory was reached as they had found sea shells, shells of clams living in the sea, indicating that the humans who lived there during the prehistoric times had consumed them. The Department of Archaeology will be conducting further excavations to study the settlement patterns of the prehistoric man.
Meanwhile Muslim Tamil National Alliance leader Azath Salley speaking to The Sunday Leader on the Kuragala issue said that there were several discussions held before too and expressed displeasure over the comments of Minister Nandamithra Ekanayake. “I have met with the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe regarding the statement made by Ekanayake. Recently some parties had placed a Buddhist statue in one of the caves, ‘Jimm Roack’ and I informed the Inspector General of Police and he took immediate steps to remove this statue and arrest those who tried to place it there. There are destructive elements who are trying to stir up tension between the Buddhists and the Muslims and once again create racial and religious tensions.”
According to present trustee of Jailany, Roshana Aboosally this site was handed over to the Archaeology Department in 1972 by a cabinet order.The department erected a signboard stating that this site was an ancient Buddhist monastery. It also issued a notice stating that the Muslims worshiping Kuragala will not be affected by any conservation work of the site. “Regretfully, contrary to the assurances given that the archaeological inscriptions will not be harmed, after the site was taken over by the Department of Archaeology, the tablet with ancient Arabic inscriptions that was well in tact when it was handed over, had been broken in half with a crow bar.”
Jailani is said to have been a place of Muslim refuge and Sufi meditation since the beginning of the 4th century of the Islamic era. A dervish tombstone and some Arabic inscriptions discovered at the sites would seem to support this view. However, the present infrastructures of the Jailani shrine are of 20th century origin.
According to Roshana, Muslims have been visiting this site since ancient times to rest on their way to Adam’s Peak in South of Sri Lanka and then began treating it as a holy site of Islam’s greatest saints, “Sheikh Mohiyadeen Abdul Qadir Gilani who meditated on a ledge here accessible through a cave known as ‘Soranga Malai’ or the ‘Mountain of the Cave’. This site was handed over to the Archaeology Department in 1972 by a cabinet order.
The department erected a signboard stating that this site was an ancient Buddhist monastery. It also issued a notice stating that the Muslims’ worshiping Kuragala will not be affected by any conservation work of the site.
During a visit to Kuragala, by the former Defence Secretary he said that all extraneous buildings in the site should be removed for conservation work although the buildings were there before the handing over of the site to the Archaeology Department. He also directed the Director General of the Archaeological Department to form a committee comprising officials of the department, the trustees of the mosque and the Maha Sangha to reach an amicable settlement on the removal of the buildings. However the Defence Secretary assured the Muslims the mosque built in 1922 will not be affected, and the Director General too emphasise that the mosque will not be harmed under any circumstance and that the Muslims can conduct religious observances as they have been doing in the past,” she said.
According to Roshana, the Muslim religious ceremony held annually at Jailany, the annual kandoori festival, has been taking place uninterrupted since 1890. However she said that it was only after the local MP at the time in 1972 decided to construct a Dagoba on the site that the issues began. “In my opinion there are only two inscriptions and no other evidence to support the theories of Buddhist relics there. However the Muslims and the Sinhalese of Balangoda have lived peacefully together and have endured without any divisions of caste, creed, ethnicity, religion and even politics. Therefore I appeal everyone to safeguard the peace in Balangoda and our beloved country,” Roshana said.