SL is among top ten countries with highest number of artefacts and heritage sites but the facilities for their protection are among the lowest
National Heritage Minister Jagath Balasuriya in an interview with the Daily mirror revealed the plight of the ministry when protecting and conserving national heritage sites and artefacts in Sri Lanka. He also briefed on the depths of laws implementing on those who destroyed valuables and the future of Sri Lanka’s national heritage.
QWhat are the challenges you and your ministry face with regard to protecting artefacts and heritage sites?
One of the main challenges we face is the lack of a sufficient work force. Sri Lanka is among the top ten countries of those that have the highest number of artefacts and heritages sites. We have more than 250,000 heritage sites. It is hard as well as unrealistic to deploy employees to guard each of these sites. We will need at least 250,000 employees, if we are to protect each site individually. We cannot afford that with the little amount of funds we receive; the other challenge we face.
Other than the little amount of funds we receive from the Treasury, we have no main source of income to use for protecting heritage sites and other archaeological purposes. Although our Ministry and the Archaeological Department are solely responsible for the protection of artefacts and heritage sites, we have insufficient funds because a government department cannot get involved with collecting money. That was why the Central Culture Fund (CCF) was established, so the department can acquire funds from it.
However, only the Archaeological Department was put under the purview of the National Heritage Ministry without the CCF, when the Ministry was demerged from the Culture and Arts Ministry’s portfolio. Therefore now we are left with no income but the responsibility of protecting heritage.
Taking the matter into consideration, President Mahinda Rajapaksa directed the Culture and Arts Ministry to give 25 per cent of the CCF funds to us annually. So far we have not once received the entire 25 per cent, its either 10 or 15 per cent of funds that we have been given .
The Ministry of Culture and Arts, too, has its own expenses for numerous curricula but whoever holds the Archaeological Department should also get the CCF. However, in the meantime, a cabinet approval was given for the formation of another fund to use for archaeological purposes but we are yet to receive the approval of the parliament to proceed.
QAre existing laws sufficient when taking legal action against culprits who destroy artefacts?
The laws and regulations pertaining to the destruction of artefacts are adhered to the Antiquity Ordinance, which is a strong and strict one. According to the Ordinance amended in 1998, an offender could be imprisoned for 2 years, fined for an amount not exceeding Rs.50,000 or both for destroying heritage assets.
When people have no income, they tend to find the easiest way to get hold on to some money by selling artefacts or ransacking heritage sites for valuables. First of all the opinion of these people should be changed. We are having a discussion with the Education Ministry to add a fraction about national Heritage to a main subject like social studies to educate students and to change their opinion towards protection of our heritage.
It’s true, when the laws and regulations get stricter, people would fear to commit crimes. We are considering to amend the Ordinance through discussion between archaeologists and eminent scholars to bring strict laws among other regulations to protect heritage. But strict laws alone will not mitigate the destruction of heritage.
QDoes the ministry possess enough authority to take immediate and credible actions to stop the on-going destruction?
If there is an incident of ransacking a heritage site or smuggling artefacts, an officer of the Arcaheological Department will go there to inspect and then complain to the police. We also have an Archaeological Police unit established at the Archaeological Department Head Office in Colombo. It has about 80 officers. But they will also have to interact with the local police when investigating into a certain incident in some area.
It is the police who can take action against the culprits. The presence of the archaeological officer is also a must to determine the damage and what the offences were that culprits have committed because police officers are not aware of the subject.
QIt is reported that there’s a tendency of destroying heritage sites with or without knowing their importance because of growing human habitats. What steps have you taken to stop this?
There should be a compromise between the National Heritage and the Development actions. For an example, if there is an artefact in the way of construction of an expressway, either the artefact should be removed and then protected at another place or the expressway should change its direction.
If we looked at the situation in Kuragala, it was a complicated issue. There are pre-historic sites at Balangoda and Pahiyangala as well as Kuragala in the same area. Then there is a Buddhist monastery built in the mediaeval era and then a Mosque from the British period. Muslims believe the mosque is of an Iraqi saint.
The excavations at the site had revealed that there were pre-historic roots which went beyond the mosque. We have given more than 20 acres to the mosque. If we can reach a compromise and can shift the mosque to another place within the 20 acre plot of land, we can continue the excavations.
QAccording to media reports the Archaeological Department is facing serious problems with regard to protecting archaeological sites with lack of resources and manpower especially against robbers who are using sophisticated equipments and the latest firearms? What is your view?
It is a difficult task to protect sites and artefacts given the insufficient human resource issues and low funds. The police with 80,000 personnel are having a hard time controlling the crimes in the country as it is. It would be hard to control these incidents if people didn’t change their opinion towards heritage in a good manner.
QWhat became of the captured artefacts from a site?
The valuables are being brought to Colombo. For instance, we found many valuable artefacts from the excavations in the Neelagiri Temple and they were placed in the Archaeological Head Office in Colombo.
Artefacts which we can’t bring here are placed in the areas they were found, with protection. If it’s a painting, one could replace it with a replica and steal it. Most of the museums in Europe get robbed of paintings. But what we have here are mostly statues and most of them are built of stone. Robbing and replacing them are very difficult. However, some rob statues and people keep doing it. The issue is that there are many antique collectors and sometimes people get deceived with replicas.
QWhat happened to the robbed valuables from the Colombo Museum?
Some of the stolen valuables have been sold and some were found. No matter how hard we try these things could happen. When the Mona Lisa Portrait was stolen and replaced with a replica at the Louvre Museum in France, authorities couldn’t figure out the difference for two years. The Louvre is a heavily guarded museum. But I’m not making excuses, we have been taking precautions. We have established a Police post with more officials at the museum premises and Police also patrol at the premises frequently. We have upgraded the security with an alarm system and also upgraded the CCTV camera system.
QIt was reported that the Colombo Museum was in a dilapidated state and that about 3.5 Mn rupees was spent monthly to prevent the wooden structures from being damaged by insects. What have you got to say on this?
We constantly use disinfectants, but we have not been granted permission to use that much money. With the collapse of the wooden staircase, a committee of specialists was appointed to look into the condition of the museum and to determine how it should be changed. The committee will focus on the security of visitors as well as the valuables.
We started to inspect the museum including the wooden structures of its roof. The entire Museum is being inspected for further changes and developments.
Instead of ascending the stairs as groups, the children had run through it altogether as there had been so little time left for them to explore the museum. However, the building which was built in 1836 had not been renovated properly. That has been a major cause for the collapse of the wooden staircase. Later on, President Mahinda Rajapaksa allocated funds for the renovation of the museum.
QWhat is your opinion on using archaeological sites for commercial purposes?
We have allowed for a Laksala outlet at the National Museum premises and it is a huge crowd magnet. Some sites like Sigiriya are used for teledramas and other commercial purposes on certain conditions. Sometimes some factions go beyond the conditions and violate those, creating issues. We send whatever the income we get from these events, to the Treasury. But the issue, is we don’t get the entire amount back. We don’t have an income to develop sites, at the end.
There are also practical issues we face when deciding to uplift facilities at sites. The wasp attacks at Sigiriya are frequent and harm visitors. We have tried traditional ways like ‘Thewa Krama’ to send them away. We can also use latest technology to remove them but some are against it, claiming it would affect others animals too. Some people are against the establishing of elevators at Sigiriya although it would benefit the visitors.
QThere is an allegation that our archaeological sites due to their poor maintenance have failed to attract tourists and help the growth of tourism in the country? This indirectly deprived considerable income to the country? What do you think?
The Archaeological Department had come with a new approach and is in the process of upgrading sites.
However, speaking of uplifting the facilities for tourists, I think there isn’t much we could do. The Economic Development Ministry is also making provisions to uplift the status at heritage sites but there aren’t enough Hotels at the provincial level. We can’t look into these issues. What we do is protecting the sites.
However, making provisions for sites are carried out by several ministries and institutions including the Economic Development Ministry, Culture and Arts Ministry and the Irrigation and Water Resources Management as well as our Ministry. Collaboration is needed for the development of these sites. The CCF and the Archaeology Department should be put together for us to do more.
QWhat steps have you taken to safeguard the national heritage? What would be the future of our heritage?
We are mulling to use satellite technology to protect our heritage. We would be able to unearth heritage in less than 15 minutes and also to discover hidden heritage within forests and even under the ocean. We will be able to monitor buffer zones to prevent artefacts and sites being destroyed. We will be able to monitor the happenings even within forest sites from a Centre. Dr. Sanath Panawenna, the Head of the Arthur C. Clarke Institute offers great assistance in the initiative. At the moment we don’t have a satellite but the Arthur C. Clarke institute and the China based HIST institute are making arrangements to introduce the technology here. A contract has been signed with them. A team has already been sent to China to study the technology at HIST. It will be a revolutionary step in the history of Sri Lanka’s national heritage.