Poson reflections: Save our heritageView(s):
Week after week, the country’s archaeological sites, our national heritage, are ransacked by organised gangs. Treasure hunters in Sri Lanka no longer waste their time furtively chipping away at ancient monuments with rudimentary implements. They hire large, conspicuous, backhoes. They also bring a kattadiya who conducts rituals to appease the deities before the dastardly deed is done. The sites are predominantly ancient temple complexes; one might as well appease the gods with a few offerings before one desecrates sacred ground.
The gangs also include one or more inhabitants of the village in which the site is located. There are often external financiers who aspire to profit from the exercise with minimum risk to themselves. Some military and police personnel and local politicians are said to be involved but information about such cases is less forthcoming.
With more than an estimated 200,000 historical sites spread around Sri Lanka, the miscreants’ playground is large. Yet, enthusiasts who routinely visit these locations say so much destruction has already been done that there is little left to plunder. Everywhere they go, the treasure hunters have been there before.
There is considerable “activity” now in the newly liberated Eastern jungles around Thoppigala. These areas were largely inaccessible during the war years. Therefore, not only is this relatively virgin territory — if you discount the plundering that went on before the conflict began — there are thousands of remains scattered around.
There is heightened awareness among these criminal networks about the monetary value of ancient artifacts especially in the international market. Sri Lankan Buddha statues are openly traded on the internet with little or no information about their source.
Oriental artifacts are a rave in Western homes. When the ‘Arab Spring’ broke out in Egypt, the Cairo National Museum was ransacked. Many of Egypt’s priceless originals were spirited away to Western museums during colonial rule. In Cambodia, invaders of yore destroyed artifacts as vengeance, but more recently, after the chaotic rule of the Khmer Rouge, anarchy prevailed; and villagers broke the heads off the remaining Buddha statues and sold them for a pittance.
The auctioning by Bonham’s of London in April of a “sandakadapahana” or moonstone believed to be of the Anuradhapura period has added to the frenzy at home. Although a Sri Lankan expert based in Britain dismissed the moonstone as a replica, it fetched a massive £553,250 or about Rs. 110 million.
Not two months later, a group of robbers “disguised in military clothes” walked into the Herath-Halmillewa Raja Maha Viharaya in Kebetigollewa and spirited away its moonstone after gagging and binding the local guards. This was no random act.
Police later claimed to have found its remains, after the robbers had broken it apart to search for treasure. But archaeology experts are yet to substantiate that the rocks displayed to media by police are indeed pieces of the missing “sandakadapahana”. Is there a state of anarchy in Sri Lanka as well insofar as these artifacts are concerned?
For the most part, this mania over antiques is a continuation of that European tendency to collect and hoard that has led them to deprive poor nations of their heritage for centuries. Diplomats in the past smuggled out valuable artifacts in their luggage, which passed unchecked through Customs. Much before that, colonialists, notably the British, freely plundered territories under their control. Even today, these governments refuse to return stolen property to their rightful owners.
Treasure hunting is today committed with such chutzpah that it lends credence to the presumption that powerful people are involved. Increasingly, sophisticated equipment is used such as modified and unmodified metal detectors and laser guns.
There also seems to be help in getting the artifacts out of the country. According to a source, some authentic ancient sculptures can fetch up to a million dollars. With so much at stake, those in the know contend that none of this can be done if influential persons were not backing the operation.
Corruption among key government officials, including police, is a critical component. Complicity is another. Despite this clearly being an organised crime — and therefore easier to crack– investigators have failed to draw the net. Demand is fuelling supply and the chain remains firmly intact.
The understaffed Archaeology Department is overwhelmed. It does not have an inventory of artifacts and for the most part does not know who owns what or where a particular item originated.
Antique shops have not been questioned. Moreover, it is not an offence to possess or sell artifacts; it is only illegal to steal them. It would require even more resources to determine which of their ample stocks, if at all, were illegitimately acquired.
The Department is yet to take stock of all the historical sites in the country. A survey has just been initiated in the East with assistance from university students. A draft amendment to the Antiquities Ordinance is with Cabinet and envisages increased punishment to wrongdoers. But with the law and the justice system being the way they are — riddled with delays and loopholes — this is not likely to deter the organised networks.
Repeatedly, the experts stress that the answer lies in instilling a sense of pride among Sri Lankans in their national heritage. There is scant awareness about the inestimable value of historical sites and ancient artifacts. Once destroyed, nothing can restore them to their former glory. This has to be consistently drilled into the people from an early age – at village, town and city levels.
Despite the exaggerated religious zeal nowadays, nary an eyelid is batted about the free-for-all, financially motivated rape of ancient Buddhist and Hindu sites. If the authorities cannot stem the flow, perhaps the public can, through vigilance and persistent pressure.
One thing is clear: This destruction must end. Or, as someone remarked, the Ruwanveliseya will be stolen one day and nobody’s jaw would really drop. While new temples are built, forget not our heritage on this blessed Poson Poya day.
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