Battle To Save Dambulla Temple

by   Dileesha Abesundara

The Rangiri Dambulla Temple has a significant place in world history and it was declared a world heritage site in 1991. However, today there is great controversy surrounding the Rangiri Dambulla Viharaya and some are trying to make this issue a political tool.

According to the Archaeology Act, the Dambulla temple was gazetted as a scientific monument in 1957 while the Dambulla Len Viharaya was declared an archaeological scientific site in 1976. As this temple came under the purview of the archaeological department it was maintained by them. However, with the commencement of the Central Heritage in 1980, one of the projects commenced by the Central cultural  fund was the Dambulla Len Viharaya.

A UN committee has now focussed its attention regarding the degradation of the Dambulla Viharaya frescos and the substandard maintenance plan for the archaeological site. According to a report issued by UNESCO, some of the caves require urgent repair and maintenance and due to the greater emphasis on tourism the tranquillity and sacredness of the site has been jeopardised.

Pointing out that the responsibility of preserving the archaeological Dambulla site was the responsibility of the government, Cultural and Education Minister Akila Viraj Kariyawasam said the funds obtained from visiting foreigners should be utilised for the preservation activities of the cave temple.

“Due to the stoppage of the preservation activities there is great uncertainty with regard to the Dambulu Len Viharaya. Recently, the Chief monk has asked the Central Cultural Fund and Archaeological Department officers to leave the premises. Now we have removed them from there. There are many Buddhist sites around the country and we are trying our best to allocate funds for the maintenance and preservation of these sites,” he said.

Prior to this UNESCO had conducted surveys in 1997 and 2000. Expressing his views regarding the Archaeologically significant Dambulu Len Viharaya, Director General of the Central Cultural Fund, Prof. Prishantha Gunawardena said, “They have notified the world heritage committee regarding the plight of the Dambulu Len Viharaya. However, as there was no action taken, the World Heritage Committee for the last time, sent a team in 2015, to inspect the site and give a report on the current situation with regard to the Dambulla temple. This team has not given their report to the World Heritage Committee regarding the dangerous situation prevailing at the site. Based on that report the Committee had sternly warned the Sri Lankan Embassy in France regarding the proper maintenance of the temple. The subject Minister too had been notified. The minister has been called upon to issue a detailed report on the preservation mechanism proposed and the maintenance of this site, urgently.  It was according to that request that we have been making these plans together with the minister. As the preservation activities should be done scientifically, the Cultural Ministry has taken measures to obtain the services of an international conservation expert, Prof. Vernan Smith. He has detailed his observations regarding the Dambulu Len Viharaya.

Explaining the details in Prof. Smith’s report, Prof. Prishantha Gunawardena said, “His report suggested that urgent conservation measures should be taken and in order to conduct research activities, it was required to stay at the location. Most of the paintings at the Dambulla caves are done using natural substances such as clay and juices of plants. Hence it is not possible to determine right away that this is the preservation method we should use. The restoration might take around 7-8 years.  The UNESCO and Professor’s report have both suggested that the number of tourists allowed to visit should be restricted as even the breathing of humans could have an effect on the paintings and the colours could fade as a result. Furthermore,  a comprehensive management plan for the site should be formulated and the authorities and the clergy should work together in preserving this heritage site and prevent it from ruin. The Dambulu Len Viharaya can still be saved as a world heritage site only through a proper conservation and management strategy,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Director General of the Archaeological Department Prof. P. G. Mandawala said the World Heritage Committee has notified them of the extensive damage to all five caves and of the urgent need for restoration of this archaeological site.

He said the World Heritage Committee was meeting  in Poland from July 1-12 and would focus their attention on the Dambulu Len Viharaya issue as well.

There are five caves in this cave temple and its ownership is with the Asgiri Chapter of the Siyam Maha Nikaya. The Chief Prelate of the Asgiri Chapter has appointed Dr. Godagama Mangala Thera as the administrator of these caves.

From 1980 the conservation of these caves were implemented by the Central Cultural Fund and tickets were sold to visitors with the approval of the monks.

However, in 1996 the issuing of tickets with the approval of the monks had to be stopped. It was reported to the Director General of the Archaeological Department that entrance tickets were sold at that time by the temple monks. However, according to the 1998 no 10 Archaeological  Act amendment, paragraph 10, the responsibility of issuing entrance tickets rests with the Director General of the Archaeological Department. Funds collected by archaeological sites of the cultural triangle was vested upon the central cultural fund by the 1980 no. 57 Cultural trust fund Act.

Many tourists and local visitors visit the Dambulu Len Viharaya as it is also located on the way to Sigiriya.

The daily earnings of this cave temple is around Rs. 1.5 million. At the time it was notified that the entrance ticket sales would be stopped, the rate of an entrance ticket was $ 4 (Rs. 600). Today the entrance fee is around Rs. 1500. Hence had the Central Cultural trust fund carried our ticket sales from 2009 to 2017 their income should have been Rs. 1,800 million. But from 1999 to 2015 the ticket sales are indicated as Rs. 38 million. This was revealed in a letter sent by the Buddhist Affairs Commissioner General through the Secretary to the Education Ministry Secretary. The Education Minister said the Buddhist Affairs Ministry Secretary had then been notified to conduct an audit in this regard. Furthermore,  from 1996 to date only Rs. 2,80,000 has been spent for the preservation activities of the temple.

Furthermore, the current Chief Incumbent of the temple Godagama Mangala Thera had through a letter on 2027/02/16, requested the Education Minister to conduct an inquiry to determine if the funds had been misappropriated.

During a meeting with the Education Minister the Chief Incumbent had also presented a site preservation and development proposal to the minister. The monk had agreed to utilise the funds collected through entry ticket sales for its development.

However, the current crisis erupted with the proposal to have the Central Cultural Fund taking over ticket sales and utilising that money for the conservation and development of the cave temple site. Some allege that the government is trying to make use of charity of the people while others allege that some are trying to use this for political gain.

However, the dying Buddhist cultural sites and culture can only be restored if both the Clergy and politicians join hands to work together for the collective effort to preserve Buddhism and its heritage.

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