Dambulla’s Golden Temple Faces Global Disgrace

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By 2017-07-02

BY GAGANI WEERAKOON

A fresh tug of war has erupted between State authorities and Bhikkhu hierarchies over the ownership of Golden Temple in Dambulla which is recognized as the largest, best-preserved cave-temple complex in Sri Lanka with Buddhist mural paintings (covering an area of 2,100 m2) and 157 statues, being dropped off the list of World Heritages by the UNESCO.

The administration of Dambulla Temple has apparently not allowed the officials of the Central Cultural Fund (CCF) who had been deployed for maintenance at the world heritage site to enter the premises.

The paintings of the Dambulla Cave Temple, thus in danger due to unnecessary involvement into the activities of the Archaeology Department, acting Director General of Archaeology Prof. P.B. Mandawala alleged.

He said the murals at the cave temple in Dambulla were peeling off; paintings had faded and were exposed to the mercy of Mother Nature, due to lack of proper programme to protect them. He also said the layer between the stones and plaster has become wet and is on the verge of collapse. The increased level of hydrogen and uncontrolled gathering of pilgrims inside the temple and high humidity had aggravated the situation. Plaster on the walls was falling and high voltage camera lights had endangered the paintings.

"The people who had been employed for the restoration work at the Dambulla cave temple have been withdrawn on the orders of the Temple authorities. The intervention of the Central Cultural Fund and the Archaeology Department was necessary to preserve this temple but all officials of the two public institutions have been withdrawn by now," Prof. Mandawala said while warning legal action would be taken against those responsible if things get worsened.

Assuring that the historic Dambulla Rock Cave Temple will not be taken over by the Government, Secretary, Ministry of Education Sunil Hettiarachchi said a confrontation was not necessary for that issue and all parties involved in it must realize the situation and work accordingly as the preservation of the Dambulla Cave Temple was a duty towards the nation.

"It was incumbent upon Minister Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, the Ministry, the Director General of Archaeology and the Director of the Central Cultural Fund to preserve the Dambulla Rock Cave Temple and that they should not be deviated from the process," Hettiarachchi said responding to remarks by Chief Prelate of Rangiri Dambulu Raja Maha Viharaya Ven. Dr. Godagama Mangala Thera.

The chief prelate who is also a senior member of the Karaka Sangha Sabha of Asgiriya Chapter addressing media accused the government of attempting to acquire the temple.

Anunayake Thera of Asgiriya Most Venerable Wendaruwe Sri Upali Thera, Secretary General Asgiriya Chapter Venerable Medagama Dhammananda Thera and Viharadhipathi of Dambulla Raja Maha Vihara Venerable Dr. Godagama Mangala Thera opposed what they called a government plan to entrust the management of the Dambulla Raja Maha Vihara to the Central Cultural Fund (CCF).

What happened?

The World Heritage Committee of UNESCO at its 40th session in Istanbul, Turkey held in 2016 expressed "serious concern" about, the lack of implementation of an agreed management plan for the Golden Temple of Dambulla.

It directed Sri Lanka, as the State party, to submit to the World Heritage Centre by 1 December, 2017, an updated report on the state of conservation of the Golden Temple and of the implementation of prescribed recommendations. The report will be examined by the World Heritage Committee at its 42nd session in 2018. Similar reports were studied at its sessions in 2014.

The Golden Temple of Dambulla has been under scrutiny for several years because of modern developments taking place in close proximity to the ancient caves.

The World Heritage Committee decision expressed serious concerns about the lack of clear management structures and clear lines of responsibilities, and in particular the lack of implementation of the Management Plan which increases the problematic of conservation/visitor management of the property.

It draws attention to a monitoring mission made to the Golden Temple by the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS).

The ICOMOS mission that was at the Temple from 11 to 15 March 2015 requests the State party to implement following recommendations:

1) To continue with the research and identification of solutions for the problematic issues affecting the property, with the help of local and international experts in the relevant fields.

Currently, the State Party needs to designate a stone and wall painting conservator. ICOMOS, ICCROM and the World Heritage Centre could assist the State Party in identifying appropriate international experts.

2) To revise and update the Management Plan based on a clearly defined governance and communication structure that sets out the interface between the State and Temple authorities, and which includes short-, mid- and long-term strategies for both Conservation and Visitor Management, as well as budget planning (except for the long-term aspect).

3) To improve the management of the site, a site management committee should be created which includes representatives of the government, the Temple authorities and the local community, as well as experts. This committee should meet at least bimonthly, to discuss and decide on all matters related to the conservation and management of the World Heritage property of the Golden Temple of Dambulla. In the case of an emergency, the committee could meet spontaneously. The State Party should inform the World Heritage Centre on the establishment of this committee once in place.

4) To establish a tourism management strategy within the coming year, especially including the maximum number of persons allowed entrance into the caves at once. The five caves are all different in size, and the control of visitor numbers allowed in each is crucial to managing the area.

5) To introduce and enforce, as soon as possible, a policy prohibiting visitors from using flash photography inside the cave, as this is one of the main causes of the change in colour of the paintings.

6) To set up security checks in order to prevent visitors from entering the property with any potentially harmful items.

The conservation and management of World Heritage and other cultural heritage properties is controlled by 'Antiquities Ordinance'.

In its January 2015 report on the state of conservation, the State Party had indicated several threats including working relationship and coordination between the temple authorities and the principal heritage management authorities; continued deterioration of the paintings due to lack of system for monitoring of the elements and features; misunderstanding and lack of confidence in the Temple Authorities on the approach to mural painting conservation by the principal heritage management authorities; the rapidly decreasing traditional skill and talent of the direct descendants of the Master Painters suggests that if this trend continues, the traditional knowledge of preparing paint using natural materials will also be lost in the near future and lack of focus in conservation and presenting the attributes of the property.

Is it all about money?

Following a visit by Education Minister Akila Viraj Kariyawasam to the Temple, Ven. Dr. Mangala Thera who assumed duties as the Viharadhipathi in a letter dated 21 February 2017 stated that, an immediate investigation should be conducted into it and legal action taken against those responsible, irrespective of their status or position, if a sum of Rs 7,300 million to Rs. 10,950 million accrued from the sale of tickets to visitors at the Rangiri Dambulla Viharaya over the past two decades have been misappropriated as alleged.

In his letter, Venerable Thera clearly stated that the said amount has not been credited to the temple Fund.

Meanwhile, then Director General of Archaeology Prof. Senarath Dissanayake in a written complaint to the Minister Kariyawasam on 21 February 2017 requested an investigation into illegal construction within the archaeological site against UNESCO recommendations and on the revenue generated by issuing tickets to foreigners who visited the site since 1996.

"Even though our department charged a visitor fee as per the powers by the Section 40 (e) of Antiquity Ordinance to levy an entrance fee where it is considered necessary at selected sites or visitor centres; the Viharadhikari of the Temple Ven. Inamaluwe Sumangala Thera stopped the department from doing so since 1996. Venerable Thera started charging that fee and the newly appointed Viharadhikari (has also commenced collecting fees since 12 February 2017," he stated in the letter which, has also been forwarded to IGP requesting to carry out an investigation.

Responding to these complaints, Commissioner General of Buddhist Affairs Nimal Kotawalagedara in a communique dated 2 March 2017 to the Secretary of Education Ministry has informed that collection of funds and carrying out auditing of finances is a subject falls under his purview as per the Buddhist Temporalities Ordinance.

He also pointed out that the Department is in possession of account details of Golden Temple of Dambulla, thus the accusation by the Director General of Archaeology was misleading public.

However, due to this confusion Prof. Dissanayake has sought legal advice from the Attorney General's Department in February 2017 and the AG's Department has, according to sources, informed that as per the Antiquities (Amendment) Act No. 24 of 1998 the DG has powers to levy a fee.

According to statistics the daily income of the Golden Temple of Dambulla is approximately Rs 1.5 million. However, the Department has been given only Rs 280,000 by the temple authorities to carryout preservation activities. Rest of the expenses were borne by the department and the CCF alone.

(PIX BY CHARMINDA RODRIGO)

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