Restoring or ruining?
By Kavan Ratnatunga
Heritage, natural, cultural or constructed, is inherited by us from our ancestors and we should endeavour to pass it on to future generations, carefully preserved in a way that everyone can enjoy its original beauty.

A few weeks ago, on a trip with the Archaeological Society I wondered why someone had built a Mahayana Temple at Dambulla. I was shocked to see that it was at the base of the historic rock. The huge golden statue was clearly foreign and out of place. Below the statue was a museum and cyber-cafe. The cyber-cafe had closed early that evening due to the lack of patronage, probably because it cost Rs. 5 a minute. It clearly catered only for the foreign tourists.

On the side there was an entrance with a fake rock surface, which looked like something from the House of Horror, at any carnival. This was the entrance flight of steps up the rock. I can just see the tourists on a rushed trip around the island being shown this new statue and thinking they had visited Dambulla, ignorant of the glorious temples and paintings on the top of the rock.

I was glad to find that part of the original climb up the Dambulla rock had been preserved next to the Archaeological Museum. However, the natural beauty is broken by this huge painted concrete statue. I say this with no disrespect. A Buddha statue needs to be artistically built to give that feeling of peace when you are near it. Many knowledgeable people pointed out the basic errors of even the posture of the hands of this Buddha statue. Should our heritage sites be for sale to any rich foreign nation that wishes to stamp its culture at Lankan sites? How do the temple authorities allow it? I was told that construction at Dambulla was contracted at Rs 20,000 per square foot. It clearly seemed the well-known process of over-valued foreign aid.

Restoration of Buddhist sites is a controversial issue. For some of us the beauty is in the structures as they were built, surviving many centuries of wind and rain. Many see the need to rebuild the sites as places of worship to their former glory. Ruwanvelisaya is one such clear example. Early photographs taken in the late 19th century show its former glory, now buried under concrete.

More recent restorations such as at Jetavanaramaya tried to arrest the decay while preserving the glory of the ancient site. What has been done in Dambulla is neither. It has neither preserved nor rebuilt the heritage of Dambulla.

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