Ghouls stalk Sigiriya Water Gardens again

by Gamini Weerakoon

(November 30, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The Water Gardens of Sigiriya are once again being stalked by ghouls who want to make this unique landscape - a World Heritage Site declared by UNESCO - into a gaudy night carnival. This stunning manifestation of nature's beauty, left to itself for centuries after its ancient monarchs and monks departed, retained its unique features until discovered by the British who in their good sense left it basically untouched for future generations to take in its natural splendo-urs.

But with the creation of the so called Central Cultural Fund in the '70s, some academics and pseudo archaeologists have been attempting to contribute their two-cents worth and convert this pristine architectural wonder, adding on modern day vulgarities, to make it look a gaudy fun fair city. The ostensible purpose is said to be to earn scarce dollars from tourists for the government.

Cheap stunt

Last week a well known environment lawyer, Jagath Gunawardene, was reported objecting to the revival of the proposal for staging 'cultural shows' at the rock fortress for the purpose of attracting tourists. He had said that there were plans to put up spotlights on the famous rock. The rock is a part of an animal and bird sanctuary and loud music and bright lights would have a devastating effect, he had pointed out.

Even Shalin Falcons, an endangered species, breed in the crevices of the rock. There were deer, elephants and other mammals living in the sanctuary. The Ministry of Cultural Affairs has not put up an impact assessment report on the wild life. 'Nowhere in the world have they used cheap stunts as this to attract tourists to World Heritage Sites,' Gunawardene had said.

The proposals to 'modernise' Sigiriya became known around 2003 which resulted in a public uproar. Environmentalists, archaeologists, historians and nature lovers made vigorous protests against the proposed move which was called: 'Sunset Walk In Sigiriya.'

The concept had been envisaged by two foreign experts, Sevin Sturia Hunges and Stein Rogers-Bull. It envisaged Sigiriya gardens to have daily visitors numbering 400; flood lights flashing down from the rock into the gardens below; electric trains to take tourists around the moat surrounding the rock; illuminated trees; soldiers dressed up in ancient regalia dating back to the days of King Kasyapa; music to be piped in to work up the tempo of sunset walk; choreographed nymphs dancing with water flowers in hand and ending up like the Apsaras in the frescoes above.

All this may be highly entertaining to tourists seeking cheap thrills and some of our noveau riche local-yokels but is this the culture we want to project to the outside world as Sri Lankan culture?

Perhaps the plans for the sunset walk may have undergone changes since 2003. But the people must be made aware of what will be staged. Sigiriya is not only the heritage of the Ministries of Cultural Affairs and Tourism but the heritage of all Sri Lankans.

Different cultures

Perhaps Sri Lankan culture is changing. No longer do we appreciate the simple and aesthetic values as is evident in the elegant sculptures and architecture of Anuradhapura. These simple but elegant values were retained by us till the '70s when loud music, loud colours and gaudy/vulgar shows became the order of the day.

Earlier Buddha statues sculpted from granite were far and few between and sculptors followed the ancient guidelines and traditions. Now it is the age of the Concrete

Buddha. 'The taller, the better,' as a reader had recently pointed out. Perhaps they will match the cut-out political productions of Mervyn Silva at Maradana junction!

In 2003 definite alterations to structures at Sigiriya were attempted but after the outcry we are informed that they were halted. The question now is whether these 'improvements' will be renewed.

If 400 visitors are to be permitted entry into Sigiriya what would be its impact on the environment? Tourists may not come - for sometime at least. But what of the ubiquitous Hi-Ace van kothu-rotti eating generation polluting every known landscape of Lanka from Horton Plains to the beaches?

Would Sigiriya be inundated by them during the day and now at night as well?

Whither Archaeological Dept.?

The Archaeological Department dating back to the days of the legendary H.C.P. Bell and others was looking after our ancient cities and temples quite well till the advent of the Central Cultural Fund. The Archaeological Department, under the Antiquities Ordinance, had full jurisdiction over these sites but now the Cultural Fund that has emerged has muscled in and is collecting funds from visitors which is illegal.

Even poor vendors such as vatti-ammas are compelled to buy tickets and this money goes to this Cultural Fund. Tourists openly object to double standards - an exorbitant rate for them and another for the locals.

Then and now

It would be of interest to readers what a Sri Lankan academic wrote to the Indian journal Frontline in 2003 on Sri Lankan architecture.

'We are concerned that archaeology had turned out to be a money spinner. There are some archaeologists trying to push out an agenda for a large private role in management of museums and World Heritage Sites. The priorities of our hoteliers and tour operators are totally different and I am not too happy about the integrity of the private sector in Sri Lanka. Archaeologists must be in control of the heritage sites for many good reasons. I have nothing against the private sector involvement in certain areas which we have strictly under our control.'

The writer of those comments was Prof. Sudharshan Seneviratne, at that time, the head of the Peradeniya Faculty of Architecture. Today he is the Director General, Central Cultural Fund that much before his appointment to the fund, muscled into the Sigiriya complex. The question that would interest readers is: Would Prof. Seneviratne be still concerned about 'archaeology turning out to be a money spinner'?

If so he should leave the natural environment of Sigiriya untouched, leave the Apsarasin peace and let the wild animals roam their traditional habitat freely.
- Sri Lanka Guardian