A senior officer of the DWC revealed that the chief incumbent of the Situlpawwa Rajamaha Viharaya has been attempting to acquire this land since 2009
Akasa Chaitya is one of the best tourist attractions in Yala and the area is inhabited by bears and leopards due to its rocky nature
The Chief Incumbent and the Navy officers tried to inspect the summit of the rock using drones and the wildlife officers opposed this move
Plans were also discussed to build a carpeted road from Situlpawwa Temple to this area along the reserve and to establish a cable car system from the temple as well
Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa recently revealed about an attempt to acquire 12000 acres from Block 1 of the Yala National Park which comprises 14,101 hectares with the support of the Government. After this revelation, environmental organizations and people who adore the national park raised opposition. The statements made by officers of the Department of Wildlife and Conservation (DWC), members of environmental organizations and safari jeep associations and those connected with the tourism industry affirm that Situlpawwa Rajamaha Viharaya chief incumbent is involved in the attempts made to acquire the mentioned land. A senior officer of the DWC revealed that the chief incumbent of the Situlpawwa Rajamaha Viharaya has been attempting to acquire this land since 2009.
There is an old temple on the top of Situlpawwa with a tunnel. Its mouth is blocked by the ruins of the Chaitya and this visit was also to find out about the tunnel. Our purpose was to have this national heritage protected by the Archaeology Department instead of having it hidden in the forest”
Ven. Mataramba Hemarathana Thera Chief Incumbent Situlpawwa Rajamaha Vihara
Hambantota Assistant Director of Archaeology (DA) had sent a letter to the DWC seeking permission to conduct an inspection of the Akasa Chaitya or Elephant Rock in Block 1 of the national park following a request made by the Chief Incumbent of Situlpawwa Rajamaha Viharaya.
Afterwards DWC Director General had granted permission to DA to inspect the renovation activities of Akasa Chaitya that are also happening now. This inspection is taking place subject to several conditions by letter numbered DW/06/01/02/571-ii, dated 04.05.2021 and addressed to Hambantota Assistant Director of Archaeology.
The DWC has mentioned a set of conditions to be observed during renovation activities. Subject to these conditions the DWC has allowed an Inspection Officer, a Development Officer and a driver of the Hambantota Divisional Office of Archaeology to conduct the survey.
A DWC Senior officer said that a team of surveyors visiting Yala Block 1 on July 10 has requested the assistance of the DWC to inspect the area. However, the DWC has refused permission for the inspection at that time because the team of surveyors had exceeded the permitted number of officers from the Archaeology Department by including the Chief Incumbent of Situlpawwa temple, some Navy officers and a group of devotees. However, after receiving orders from a source. that wields much power. the Department had finally granted permission to the whole contingent to inspect the area, according to the senior officer of the DWC.
Akasa Chaitya is located three kilometres from Situlpawwa Temple. “Requests have been made over a long period of time to confer the 12000 acres, where the Akasa Chitya is situated, to Situlpawwa Temple. 78 acres from the Yala National Part was given to Situlpawwa Temple by a Gazette. Attempting to capture this land inhabited by elephants, bears and leopards might create an environment no longer inhabitable for such animals. Such developments would force animals to enter villages.” the senior officer added.
According this officer Akasa Chaitya is one of the best tourist attractions in Yala and the area is inhabited by bears and leopards due to its rocky nature. “24000 monks lived in the area during the Magama kingdom. Therefore a stupa can be noticed on top of every rock in Yala with drip ledges carved out in every cave. This archaeological background runs as far as Panama. If archaeologically valuable places were to be captured to satisfy personal needs there will be nothing left of the reserve,” the officer said.
Recently, permission was given to AD strictly for the purpose of renovating Akasa Chaitya. These conditions clearly stated that other constructions weren’t allowed. The Chief Incumbent and the Navy officers tried to inspect the summit of the rock using drones and the wildlife officers opposed this move. “The Chief Incumbent was more interested in building a new Chaitya (Shrine) than reconstructing the one existing and the AD confirming this said that the Chief Incumbent of the temple had requested either to have the Chaitya renovated or rebuilt. In ancient times there was a tunnel to access this place and it is no longer visible today. The Chief Incumbent wants to rediscover that tunnel and build a new stupa (Shrine) there.
It was discussed during their inspection to excavate the tunnel by reaching the top of the rock by helicopters. They pointed out that the excavation activities can’t be commenced from the bottom of the rock because that would be dangerous. The talk of building a helipad on top of the rock became public following this discussion. Plans were also discussed to build a carpeted road from Situlpawwa Temple to this area along the reserve and to establish a cable car system from the temple as well. If this area is given to the temple the reserve would lose 1/3 of the land and therefore the reserve should be maintained as it is,” he added.
Situlpawwa Rajamaha Vihara Chief Incumbent Ven. Mataramba Hemarathana Thera said that he recently accompanied a group of archaeology officers, wildlife officers, Navy and Police officers and devotees to inspect Akasa Chaitya; which is one of the most important religious places in the country before its renovation begins.
“There is an old temple on the top of Situlpawwa with a tunnel. Its mouth is blocked by the ruins of the Chaitya and this visit was also to find out about the tunnel. Our purpose was to have this national heritage protected by the Archaeology Department instead of having it hidden in the forest. We found the mouth of the tunnel, old rocks, curbstones, ‘Parivara’ rock and two stupas which had been destroyed by treasure hunters,” said the priest.
The priest said, “before excavating the tunnel a drone should be used to inspect the area. That is the duty of the Archaeology Department. Those who made the visit talked about many things; such as building a cable car system, rediscovering the old tunnel after an inspection by helicopters, constructing special routes and rediscovering the old road to Situlpawwa. Those were not my ideas. I was also of the opinion that the old road should be reconstructed and this was only an idea. An Archaeology officer who made these details public had said that the Government was planning to acquire 12000 acres from the reserve. We told about this to the Opposition Leader also and made the country aware of all this. We did not enter the reserve again. Allegations against us reentering the forest to set boundaries and that there were vehicles of the Archaeology Department in the temple premises are false. The Archaeology Department will decide whether to build a new stupa or to renovate the old one and whether to excavate the tunnel or not”.
Kataragama Kadirapura Jeep Association, Tissamaharama Independent Jeep Association and Yala Gama Jeep Association maintained that there people were seen around Akasa Chaitya after 10 July 10. “We looked into this matter. We learned that the Chief Incumbent and some devotees were engaged in surveys around the Chaitya. A jeep of the Archaeology Department was seen in the temple premises. We make a living because of the reserve. This reserve generated around 12000 jobs. If we lose Yala the 12000 employed would famish. Therefore we will not agree to give away even an inch of this land to any institute or anyone.” representatives of these associations voiced. “If anyone tries to take away the land the members of these associations would fight risking their lives. If the temple starts to issue tickets to tourists and take them to visit Akasa Chaitya after its renovation, there will be no one to visit Yala Block 1 and this will destroy the reserve,” Yala Gama Jeep Association President Sampath Galappatti said.
No permission was given to any development activity. I did not give permission to the Situlpawwa Chief Incumbent, Navy officers or any other party to enter the reserve. I do not know how they entered the reserve and who gave them the permission”
Chandana Sooriyabandara DWC Director General
Environmentalist Nayanaka Ranwella said that it was extremely difficult to climb Situlpawwa. “I tried to climb it using ropes, but failed. Renovating a Chaitya in such location is no easy task. Maybe there were stairs or a tunnel during ancient times. I heard that attempts are made to rediscover such access routes. This area is inhabited by bears, leopards and elephants and has gained much tourist attraction. It’s a natural location with an archaeological value inside a national reserve. An old stupa in a reserve should be renovated without damaging the reserve while preserving its archaeological value. But from what I have heard many people have visited the area after the said survey. A special team was employed to probe the matter. Footprints of a group walking from Situlpawwa Temple to Akasa Chaitya were discovered. They have entered the area without the permission of the Department of Wildlife and Conservation. We informed the Department and they should surely look into this,” he added.
When contacted DWC Director General Chandana Sooriyabandara said that permission was given only to conduct surveys regarding renovation activities of Akasa Chaitya. He added that only officers of the Archaeology Department were permitted in this regard. “No permission was given to any development activity. I did not give permission to the Situlpawwa Chief Incumbent, Navy officers or any other party to enter the reserve. I do not know how they entered the reserve and who gave them the permission.
These officers were sent only to operate drones to inspect the top of Elephant Rock (Akasa Chaitya) following a request by the Situlpawwa Temple Chief Incumbent. But they could not operate drones as the Wildlife Department opposed such activity”
Indika de Silva Spokesman Navy Media
“Akasa Chaitya can only be renovated and any further development activity is not allowed. I have not learned yet about the intruders to the area,” said Sooriyabandara.
When inquired about the entry of several Navy officers to Yala reserve, Navy Media Spokesperson Indika de Silva said that the Navy has not contributed to any development activity at Akasa Chaitya. “These officers were sent only to operate drones to inspect the top of Elephant Rock (Akasa Chaitya) following a request by the Situlpawwa Temple Chief Incumbent. But they could not operate drones as the Wildlife Department opposed such activity,” he added.
A source from the Divisional Office of Archaeology in Hambantota revealed that permission had been sought from the DWC to conduct a survey following the request by Situlpawwa Temple Chief Incumbent to renovate or rebuild Akasa Chaitya. “The area should be inspected to see if permission can be given to renovate Akasa Chaitya. No request was made to excavate a tunnel or to build a road. The report of the survey following the inspection would be sent the Director General of Archaeology Department. I cannot comment about the visit made by the Chief Incumbent and the Navy officers as the officers involved have faced various problems owing to this visit.” the source added.
Director General of the Archaeology Department Prof. Anura Manatunga said that no decision had been taken to rebuild or renovate the Chaitya or to build a tunnel to give access to the top of the rock so that renovation of the Chaitya can take place. “We did a survey following the request that was made and no decision has been taken yet’ said Prof. Anura Manatunga.
The news doing the rounds that attempts are being made to lay a track for cable cars and that efforts are being taken to lay wide roads in the area is false. Once the inspection report arrives a decision would be taken whether to give permission to renovate Akasa Chaitya under the supervision of the Department of Archaeology”
-Mahinda Amaraweera Minister of Environment
Environmentalist and Attorney-at-law Jagath Gunawardena said that according to Paragraph 5 of the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance the entry to Yala National Park by the Chief Incumbent and the Navy personnel without the permission of the Department of Wildlife and Conservation Director General is an offence and they can be arrested without a warrant.
“Renovations of archaeological monuments in a reserve should be conducted according to Antiquities Ordinance and Paragraph 6 of the Fauna and Flora Ordinance and construction activities are not allowed inside reserves. Only the Department of Wildlife and Conservation Director General is allowed to construct something new within a reserve and that too should be in accordance with the Fauna and Flora Ordinance.” he underscored.
When we contacted Minister of Environment Mahinda Amaraweera he said that the Chief incumbent of the Situlpawwa Temple had made a request from the Divisional Office of Archaeology in Hambantota to renovate Akasa Chaitya. “What happened the other day was that an inspection was carried out by the Department of Archaeology with the permission of the Department of Wildlife and conservation at this site. The news doing the rounds that attempts are being made to lay a track for cable cars and that efforts are being taken to lay wide roads in the area is false. Once the inspection report arrives a decision would be taken whether to give permission to renovate Akasa Chaitya under the supervision of the Department of Archaeology,” the minister said.