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18th October 1998

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Dambulla mural copies still in storeroom

What price conservation?

By Chamintha Thilakarathna

Where are the copies of the Dambulla murals? Why aren't they on display, as planned?

Sixteen years after the inauguration of the project to reproduce the world famous Dambulla Raja Maha Vihare murals, the copies are still not on display. Reluctant officials at the Cultural Triangle office told The Sunday Times that they are in a storeroom of the incomplete museum, located at the foot of the caves. And no, they cannot take the copies out- they are under lock and key.

Dambulla Raja Maha Vihare: listed as one of Asia'a most valuable heritage sitesThe project was begun in 1982 with the aim of protecting the original murals which were deteriorating at an alarming speed. A main reason for the decay was the large volume of visitors who come to see the beautiful cave temple (listed as one of Asia's most valuable heritage sites under UNESCO) and the heavy percentage of carbon dioxide emitted due to lighting of oil lamps. The plan was to copy all paintings in the temple and display them at the museum which was being built for this purpose, so that visitors could view them at leisure.

Inamaluwe Sumangala TheraChief Incumbent of the Dambulla Rajamaha Viharaya, Inamaluwe Sumangala Thera complains that neither the mural copies nor the preservation of the murals has been successfully done. "The original murals have been damaged in the copying process and the entire project has been a complete waste. In addition the officials from the Cultural Triangle assured us that they would improve the facilities at Dambulla but we are faced with the exact opposite now," the Thera said.

Artist Kushan ManjusriThe four major caves at Dambulla hold some 22,000 square feet of paintings. Artist Kushan Manjusri who took up the task of copying the murals, said that although the deadline was 1992 they completed the project in 1993. Since then he has not been involved in the project.

"We found it difficult to continue the work and recruited students from Heywood Fine Arts School. We were promised that the copies would be put into 12 volumes for library purposes and displayed shortly," he said.

"The aim of reproducing the murals was to reduce the stress on the original. We hoped to have a research centre along with the museum displaying the copies, so that the real murals would be saved from any damage that could be caused accidentally or intentionally."

But the sad reality is that hundreds of people still visit the caves at the Raja Maha Vihare unwittingly causing damage to the murals while the copies remain locked away.

The Murals of Dambulla Raja Maha VihareEspecially on Poya days, there is no crowd control and the heat in the caves becomes well nigh unbearable. Many murals have suffered and some are discoloured and peeling off as a result.

So, when can the public actually see the copies in the museum? Not for a while, it seems.

In 1993, 200 workers were employed to set up the museum in Dambulla to the tune of Rs.7.6 million.

But in 1998 what one finds is a two-storey building which has not even been fully fitted with proper windows, grills and other basic facilities.

Even the staircase to the exhibition room now being used as the store room is still under construction.

Officials of Design Consortium Ltd, the official conservators, say that the Cultural Triangle did not provide enough funds and they have had to spend millions from company coffers on the museum which was to house the mural copies. "Supplies have not arrived although a deadline of November has been set for the completion of the museum.

Maintenance and security is a big problem. The work could have been completed in two years if the Cultural Triangle did not stick to outdated mechanisms for conservation.

Bureaucracy is another reason for the delay," said Prof. Lakshman Alwis Director of Design Consortium Ltd, who has been involved in the project with the Central Cultural Fund since its inception.

"We have been issued deadline after deadline and all we can say is that it is difficult to say when the museum can be completed." Why? Prof. Alwis explains that funding is a big problem when it comes to projects of this nature. "No specific amount is allocated. It is done in such a manner that the total funds in the Central Cultural Fund are distributed on a priority basis among the Cultural Triangle projects. So, if something more important comes up then, this gets sidelined. Besides, this project is not among the Triangle officials' major concerns."

"We have been given a recent deadline of November, that is next month, to complete the museum to store the copied murals.

"It needs to be specially facilitated, with controlled humidity, temperature etc. to preserve the canvas copies for a long time. All this needs funds." Prof. Alwis said.

For five years now, the copies of the murals have been left in a storehouse which is not the ideal place for them. And neither the artists, the priests nor the architects are satisfied with the situation.

Deputy Director, Preservation of the Cultural Triangle P.B.Mandawela cited lack of facilities to display the copies as the reason.

He said, "The work is done on the money collected at the temple from tourists. This is in no way sufficient to build a museum with advanced facilities." The copies, he says, are kept in a room where humidity and temperature levels are controlled.

Although they are not accessible to Sri Lankans, both officials and artists agreed that they have been taken for exhibitions abroad a couple of times.

Manjusri maintains that since the project was almost completed there is no question about funding. He said he has come to learn that there is little or no maintenance of the copies. "If this continues our work will turn out to be a waste for the copies need to be attended to carefully," he said.

According to Manjusri, the paint was imported as was the linen canvas from Belgium and the sable hair brushes from Mongolia and Manchuria.

The copies were done in acrylic as this paint was the most resistant to ultra violet rays. Such was the care taken. The conservation and the copying projects were done simultaneously to be completed at the same time. The concept was for the copies to be transferred to the well equipped museum soon after their completion.

Meanwhile the Archaeological Department has also launched a fresh conservation project to the irritation of Sumangala Thera who accuses conservators and artists of causing extensive damage to the murals. The Department has now moved in to conserve the murals.

Asked why another similar project was launched before the previous one was over, Ms. N.A.Wickremesinghe of the Department said, "if they did the work well we needn't redo the work."

Inamaluwe Sumangala Thera who has been requested to take over the responsibility of the murals and copies from the Cultural Triangle has refused to do so.

"I have written to the Cultural Ministry that I am not prepared to take the murals into my custody unless a recognized institution gives me a full description of the state that they are in at the moment for I have no confidence in the work that was done and I will have to answer to officials for all the damages caused," the Thera said.

But what does this mean to us, the general public who eagerly await to see the mural copies?

Simply that another project has been prey to the tug -o-war of officials and bureaucracy and another sorry tale of good intentions not materializing due to lack of funds.

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