Toilets, tin-roofs trigger archaeological row

By Himal Kotelawala

What has been protected for centuries and needs to be protected for centuries to come in the glorious field of archaeology has led to a debate, protests and conflicts of interest over the use or misuse of modern facilities to achieve this noble objective.

This crisis or conflict of interest has come to the fore in at least three well-known archaeological sites – the Sigiriya rock, the Gal Vihara in Polonnaruwa and the Avukana Buddha statue in Anuradhapura.

At Sigiriya, the debate is over a recent decision to put up toilet facilities on the world famous rock. At Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura, it relates to the roofing over the statues.

The toilet project due to come up at Sigiriya has been put on the hold because of protests from villagers and activists who fear this may damage the archaeological value of the site.Archaeology Director Senarath Dissanayake said the toilet project was funded by Japan and implemented after an archaeological impact assessment was carried out. The toilets were to be built near the Sinhapaada (Lion’s Paws) area.

Gal viharaya in Polonnaruwa: Tin roofs protect the statues but reduce the archaeological value. Pic by Rex de Silva

“Visitors need about two hours to ascend and descend the Sigiriya rock. The lack of toilet facilities was a problem. Archaeologists usually don't appreciate new structures being added to archaeological sites, but there was a practical need there,” he said.

According to Dr. Dissanayake, experts who conducted the impact assessment had that the area near the Sinhapaada was most suitable for the construction of the toilets. “Even the Cultural Triangle Fund officials had pointed out the need for toilets. We found the only suitable place,” he said.

He said the proposal was to cover the toilet's roof with leaves and branches so that from the top it would look like part of the jungle.

However, because of protests, the department and the ministry had decided to suspend the project.
But Dr. Dissanayake stressed the need for toilet facilities and said he had, as an alternative, proposed mobile toilets.

According to Dr. Dissanayake, over the years, several projects have been initiated by the Archaeological Department and other institutions to provide modern facilities for visitors to archaeological sites.

Moves have also been made to further protect these sites by providing artificial shelter such as tin roofs.
He said some people had opposed these moves saying such additional structures might either damage the sites or reduce their archaeological value. A similar fate befell a project to provide shelter for the Avukana Buddha statue, some years ago.

Recently, a roof was built over the statues at the Polonnaruwa Gal Viharaya. There, too, there was opposition but the authorities had gone ahead on the basis that it was essential to protect these statues from the sun.

Dr. Dissanayake warned that there could be a long-term effect on the statues due to exposure to direct sunlight. But these shelters had to be removed later on due to protests.

He said he still believed that both Avukana and the Gal Vihara statues needed artificial shelters to be protected from the sun, though the addition of the artificial roofs might reduce the archaeological value.
“What we could protect for centuries could be destroyed in a short time if we don’t do something about it,” he warned.

Leading Archaeologist Prof. Aruna Manatunga shared these sentiments. “There were some protests initially because some were concerned that the setting up of the roof might cause damage to the rock. But that was a long time ago.

We have taken all aspects into consideration. A roof is necessary to protect the statues from the sun. After the rock heats up, a sudden exposure to cold rain might damage the rock. This was not a problem earlier because there were plenty of shade trees then,” he said.

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