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Sunday, 25 September 2016

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Dambulla: Urgent action needed to preserve historic site

Sri Lanka is comparatively small, but it has eight natural and manmade sites on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites List. Only a few other much bigger countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Australia and Spain have more sites on the list. This is a matter of pride for Sri Lanka. The World Heritage sites in Sri Lanka are Sigiriya, Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Dambulla (Golden Temple), Kandy, Galle, Central Highlands and Sinharaja Forest Reserve.

Out of these, Dambulla is in the news these days due to a controversy over its state of repair. Dambulla is a mural painting site as well as an archaeological site. A sacred pilgrimage site for 22 centuries, this cave monastery, with its five sanctuaries, is the largest, best-preserved cave-temple complex in Sri Lanka. The Buddhist mural paintings (covering an area of 2,100 m2 ) are of particular importance, as are the 157 statues.

Head of the Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology, Professor Jagath Weerasinghe laments there is no comprehensive conservation program for Dambulla. The Department of Archaeology has just four people to look after this magnificent structure but that is not sufficient. The paint layer in Dambulla is very sensitive to water, chemicals and humidity. It is different from Sigiriya as the inorganic pigments are stuck onto the paintings. These paintings have gone through what is called the natural frescoes reaction.

Conservation

"The Dambulla restoration and conservation program is not in place. There is tension in managing all the archaeological sites especially in tourist destinations such as Dambulla, Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa," says Prof. Jagath Weerasinghe adding the Tourist Board does not have the expertise to manage the site. According to the Department of Archaeology and the Central Cultural Fund, there is a lot of interest in preserving heritage sites because it generates a lot of revenue. Archaeology and History have become popular subjects. He further says that Dambulla is in an uncertain position because the World Heritage Commission was considering de-listing it from the World Heritage List.


Prof Jagath Weerasinghe Pix: Sarath Peiris

He further explains that heritage sites do not belong only to the government and the archaeologists. It also belongs to the villagers and the public. Their aspirations should be incorporated into the heritage management plan. That is where the problem begins because of their old fashioned attitudes. Visitors to heritage sites have increased because the population has increased but the heritage management plan is not addressing that issue.

The Antiquities ordinance is not wide enough to suit the perspectives of 21st Century. There is a conflict between heritage management and traditional custodians. These monuments are linked to many associated communities. In Sri Lanka there is a failure in managing world heritage sites because people have not understood the complexity of the contemporary socio-political context, he noted.

"An inclusive approach which incorporates new ideas and a change of policy for preserving archaeological sites is required. Everybody has an opinion about archaeology. Everyone has an opinion about the past. Archaeology recreates the idea of history and it is one way of knowing and narrating the past. In Sri Lanka Archaeology has never been able to become a seriously scientific discipline. UNESCO has asked Dambulla to have a buffer zone and to develop a comprehensive management plan. None of the World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka has a comprehensive management plan. Community development also takes place through archaeology and heritage management because it brings revenue to a country.

Management

Heritage cannot be preserved by experts alone especially in Sri Lanka where sites are popular and are recreated in popular culture," he observed. UNESCO has expressed concern about the lack of clear management structures and clear lines of responsibilities at Dambulla and in particular the lack of implementation of the Management Plan which increases the problematic of conservation and pilgrim/visitor management of the property, and therefore urges the State Party (the Government of Sri Lanka) to: Establish a site management committee as a matter of priority, including representatives of the government, Temple authorities and the local community, as well as experts, Revise and update the Management Plan based on clearly defined governance and communication structures while incorporating traditional management systems, that sets out the interface between the State and Temple authorities, setting short-, mid- and long-term strategies for both conservation and pilgrim/visitor management, as well as budget planning, and to provide the draft to the World Heritage Centre, for review by the Advisory Bodies and Develop a Conservation Strategy, as part of the revised Management Plan, to address the conservation needs, develop a pilgrim/visitor Management Strategy to control the number of pilgrims/visitors allowed into each cave, as well as a policy prohibiting flash photography within the caves.

UNESCO has requested the State Party to submit to the World Heritage Centre, by 1 December 2017, an updated report on the state of conservation of the property and the implementation of the above, for examination by the World Heritage Committee at its 42nd session in 2018.

 

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