A labourer and a nature lover captured the attention of President Mahinda Rajapaksa this week to halt a controversial plan to set up a snack bar and sanitary facilities on top of the historic Sigiriya rock.
Labourer W. M. Wijeratne, attached to the Central Cultural Fund (CCF) which oversees the Sigiriya, was backed by Deeman Ananda in the campaign.
|Men at work in front of the Lion’s Paw before the project to build a snack bar and toilets was stopped (above and below)
They had initially visited Sigiriya to take measures to protect the wasps there.The two men were, however, forced to stage a sit-in protest on top of the rock to highlight a possible danger to the archaeological site from commercial builders.
Police eventually arrested the men and produced them before the Dambulla Magistrate who released them on bail.
All lawyers in court said they supported the two people’s cause.
The protest prompted the government to rush Archaeology Director-General Senarath Dissanayaka and area politicians to the site to review the situation.
The project was, however, suspended later in the day on President Rajapaksa’s directives. National Heritage and Cultural Affairs Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi confirmed that the project was now on hold, pending further discussions.
The initial protest was launched on Tuesday by seven villagers, who were arrested on the same night. They were released later after being produced before the Dambulla Magistrate.
Villagers said officials might have gone ahead with the project if not for the protests and the media exposure.
W. M. Wijeratne, who was involved in the initial protests, told the Sunday Times that they launched the agitation after hearing reports that a toilet was to be built on top of the rock and a snack bar was to be set up near the ‘Lion’s Paw’, a location in the midway of the rock before reaching the top.
“We observed that they were trying to uproot a large tree on top of the rock and were drilling the rock so that cables could be fitted to transport construction material,” the worker explained. “We were shocked to see the historic Sigiriya rock being drilled,” he said.
The worker said he was aware that he might be suspended from his job because of his role in the protest.
Protester Deeman Ananda, 43, told the Sunday Times that he initially visited Sigriya to look into ways of stopping the wasp attacks.
“It is during one of these visits I saw the rock being drilled. I was surprised that such a historic location was being ruined to put up toilets. I was told that a foreign organisation was behind the project. That is why I started my protests,” he said.
|A hole that had been drilled into the rock for construction purposes
He said he was surprised that only a few people were concerned about the issue. The whole country should have been protesting against this,” he said.
He pointed out that there was no need for a new facility as a toilet was already available at Moragahamula, at the foot of the rock.
Some residents, speaking to the Sunday Times, said they were surprised that construction work had been allowed on top of the rock in violation of rules.
Lionel Gunasekara, 60, said a gazette notification issued in 1978 had banned the putting up of new structures within a radius of 200 metres.
“As Sigiriya is a national heritage site, new structures would need Unesco approval,” he said, questioning the officials’ decision to approve the toilet project. “Our land was taken over to make way for a road construction project and another plot was given to us in the vicinity,” said Lasantha Kelum, 40. He also said authorities prevented his father from putting up a snack bar four years ago.
“How did the law change for this project?” he queried.
Archaeology Department Director-General Dr Senarath Dissanayaka, who visited Sigriya on Thursday, declined to speak to the media.
Matale District MP and Deputy Higher Education Minister Nandimithra Ekanayaka and MP Lakshman Wasantha Perera took part in the discussions held there.
Minister Ekanayaka told the Sunday Times that officials would hold talks with the protesters to resolve the issue.
National Heritage and Cultural Affairs Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi said a final decision would be taken when the issue was completely reviewed during upcoming discussions .