Where ancient history takes shape

By Kumudini Hettiarachchi, Pix by M.A. Pushpa Kumara

Four men and two women are taking shape, not through exercise, but through skilled hands, while in another area the serene features of the Aukana Buddha are being tenderly coaxed out of stone or wood.
In a building up on an incline, a paramparika potter is patting layers of clay into shape, while novices pore over masks or carvings, learning the finer points of different crafts.

Many who speed by the smilingly gesturing lasses of Kajugama at Bataleeya would hardly notice the hustle and bustle on a sloping two-acre area, with statues of all shapes and sizes strewn around the garden and a spacious sales centre alongside the Colombo-Kandy Road.

Here lies the Antiquities Replica Centre, Bataleeya, Pasyala, managed by the Central Cultural Fund (CCF) under the guidance of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs and National Heritage.
Patiently turning out one of the pre-historic humans (7,000-8,000 BC) found in excavations at Pallemalala, close to Hambantota.

Explaining that this is the only institution in the country that produces authentic quality and immaculate replicas of artefacts, CCF Director-General Prof. Sudarshan Seneviratne stresses that its main objective is to revive the lost traditions of craft technology and enhance the appreciation of such creations.

The ability to buy quality replicas will prevent people from looting our artefacts, he said, adding that the centre will also empower youth from traditional craft families and others to sustain these crafts. The centre is the umbrella not only for the production unit but also for the academic unit and the sales centres, one on the site itself and the other at the National Museum in Colombo.

The replicas of the six people, shorter than present-day Sri Lankans (only about 4 ½’ in height), are being turned out after the study of bones such as skulls and limbs of pre-historic humans (7,000-8,000 BC) found in excavations at Pallemalala, close to Hambantota. These are for the Maritime Archaeology Museum being set up at the Galle warehouse.

This, however, is not the only “job” of the centre. It has been at the forefront of many international events held in Sri Lanka and also abroad, to give a glimpse of Lanka’s past glory and grandeur, which usually is available only at our ancient sites.

Just last year, Anuradhapura’s famous Isurumuniya Lovers and the standing Buddha statue in the Ruwanveliseya maluwa area; Polonnaruwa’s medicinal trough (beheth oruwa) and the Lotus Pillar at the Nissankamalla Mandapaya; the Yapahuwa Lion; and the Sacred Footprint of the Buddha displayed at the National Museum in Colombo graced the exhibition halls in Japan during a joint Sri Lanka-Japan heritage show.

Of course, they were not the originals but exact look-alikes crafted from fibre-glass by the skilled hands of those who willingly toil at the production unit at Bataleeya. Begun way back in 1997 by the ministry, the centre was initially where people underwent training in sculpture, painting and brass castings and carvings in making replicas, says CCF Assistant Director Bhagya Vithanage who is in charge of the institution now.

It was in 2004 that it came under the CCF, with the courses increasing from three to six subjects and covering wood and stone carving and ceramics. In 2005, with a dire need for quality replicas, the centre expanded to have under its roof a production unit with five past students taking up the responsibility.
Now four years and 20 people later, many are its achievements accomplished not only with skilled hands but also through dedication and a love for the work.

The first major break came when the National Olympic Committee of Sri Lanka wanted the centre to craft a huge 9’ Olympic lamp in fibre-glass for the South Asian Games held in Colombo in 2006. “It was a challenge,” concedes Ms. Vithanage, adding that they sought advice from the Colombo Dockyard with regard to the technology in making the burners. The challenge paid off and now this lamp has been given pride of place as a permanent fixture at the Sugathadasa Stadium.
The Olympic lamp at the Sugathadasa Stadium

Using cane structures and fabric, they also made five mascots in the form of Lanka’s national bird, the jungle fowl, which strutted proudly in the opening procession. “People could get into the fowls and make them walk,” she explained. The games’ symbol, a pora-pol karaya on a dolawa, was also their creation.

The Rankoth Viharaya in Pelmadulla is another place where the public can view the skills of the centre. For in 2007, the late Dharmadasa Wanniarachchi, who was Governor of the Wayamba Province and Chief Dayakaya of the viharaya had commissioned the replication of Polonnaruwa’s Gal Vihara complex there. “The scale is one-third of the original,” says Ms. Vithanage.

Before undertaking any project, the craftsmen, if possible, visit the sites and study and take measurements of the objects that need to be replicated. Later armed with photographs, they make moulds and finally replicas using a variety of media such as fibre-glass, terracotta, copper, bronze, ceramic, wood and stone. The ability to visit sites and see for themselves the artefacts gives these craftsmen an edge over others. Their replicas are authentic because of that.

Recalling another daunting task they had undertaken, Ms. Vithanage talks of the 6” ath pahan (elephant lamps) they produced for NERD. Known as gedi pahan, it was an engineering feat in ancient times, she says, explaining that the oil is filled into the stomach of the elephant and falls drop by drop from its navel. All in all they made 1,250 pieces.

It is also a 5’ statue of the Buddha in the Samadhi posture similar to the one at Abhayagiriya in Anuradhapura that the centre created out of a solid block of dolomite that President Mahinda Rajapaksa gifted to China in 2007.

As we walk across the compound, masked Ranjith Dissanayake, 27, is working with the different forms of pre-historic man, Madhawa Somaratne, 28, is skilfully planing the shape of two wooden oruwas, Jayamalika Chandrasoma, 28, is surrounded by small plaques with the Dutch insignia, P. Gunasena, 59, is shaping pottery and Nishantha Ariyawansa is sweating it out melting copper.

“This is what I wanted to do from the time I was a little child,” says Ranjith, which view is echoed by all and sundry, some of whom have learnt the craft from their fathers.

With future plans of propelling the centre towards intricate beadwork, after studying the treasure-trove of beads unearthed at Tissamaharama and also the Jethavana area in Anuradhapura and coin work based on the ancient currency of Anuradhapura, the feature that is evident is the passion with which all tasks are undertaken. A passion reminiscent of what the ancients achieved in sculpture, paintings, the list goes.

For those at the centre, their works are a labour of love…….not just replicas but objets d’art, unique in their own right.

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