09 September 2020

Heritage can be and is kept warm

Katu Saeya, pic by Tharindu Amunugama


There’s a word that is unfortunately taken as an inevitable companion of ‘archaeology’. Ruins. Gives the impression of expired shelf-life. To be seen, noted and written about but that’s about it. One does not and cannot partake.  

My friend, travel companion and photographer Tharindu Amunugama believes very little ‘archaeology’ in Sri Lanka is dead: ‘It’s not like the pyramids…here heritage is alive.’

He spoke of a visit to Menikdena, a few kilometers off Dambulla and located between the Menikdena Wewa and the Nikula or Menikdena range of hills. The Menikdena Monastery, known in a different time as ‘Budugama,’ dates back to the reign of King Kithsiri Megha (555-573 AD) according to some, others believe belongs to the 3rd to 4th century AD. 

‘As we walked through the jungle we suddenly came upon a group of people preparing to conduct a religious ceremony,’ Tharindu said. Since then we have had long conversations about history and heritage, dead and alive.  

One evening about a week ago we stopped at Katu Saeya, Mihintale. The archaeological record indicates tools used in the construction of the Mihintale Monastic Complex. There were dozens of people. They were not tourists. They were the devout.

A hundred meters or so away from Katu Saeya, there’s another chaitya, ‘Indikatu Seya’ in which, the record states, are enshrined needles used by the bikkhus of a long time ago to mend their robes. There weren’t people there. No visitors. No devotees. However, placed upon the far end of an altar, there was a Buddha statue, clearly crafted very recently.

These are common in Sri Lanka. It is said that even before Ruwanweliseya was officially ‘discovered,’ there were people who would place flowers, recite gathas and in these and other ways affirmed their faith, found solace. It’s the same with a significant number of forest hermitages. There are caves deep in the jungle inhabited by bikkhus who have chosen a reclusive life of meditation.

Now some might ask ‘what’s does a kapurala have to do with Buddhism?’ since Menikdena is clearly a Buddhist shrine. Another would wonder what aspect of the Buddha’s doctrine is affirmed by the offering of coconuts or even smashing coconuts in the vicinity of a chaitya (Katu Saeya in this instance). Well, the devout reconcile such things according to their understanding and need. Not ours to question or answer. 
What concerns us, right now, is the matter of life and death, things that are culturally dead and historically irrelevant and things that are alive culturally and have bearing on these times.

Sometimes, they seem lifeless. Forty five years ago, visiting Maligawila, I saw the giant statue of the Buddha lying flat on the ground, head severed, perhaps the work of treasure-hunters. It’s restored now to its original posture, and that standing Buddha statue is certainly a sight to behold. Back then few knew about it — it had been discovered not too long before. Today, it’s known and those who want to tick off ‘archaeological sites’ in that part of the country would pencil in the Maligawila Buddha statue, along with Buduruwagala, Dematamal Viharaya, Yudaganawa, Magul Maha Viharaya and Muhudu Maha Viharaya. There are tourists. There are the devout. There are flowers on the altars, there are lamps with wavering flames, there’s the fragrance of incense sticks and there’s the congregation of voices softly murmuring the gathas.

Archaeology is not cold. It can be, but it can also be warm in many ways. It’s brought alive by interpretation and it is kept relevant by functionality. History is not cast in stone, but the eloquence of stone, as Sinharaja Thammita-Delgoda titled a book of photographs taken by the legendary Nihal Fernando, pleases. Teaches. Keep us alive in ways we have perhaps been taught were not possible. 

Other articles in the series 'In Passing...':  [published in the 'Daily News']   
Eyes that watch the world and cannot be forgotten   Let's start with the credits, shall we? 
The 'We' that 'I' forgot 
'Duwapang Askey,' screamed a legend, almost 40 years ago
Dances with daughters
Reflections on shameless writing
Is the old house still standing?
 Magic doesn't make its way into the classifieds

Small is beautiful and is a consolation  
Distance is a product of the will
Akalanka Athukorala, at 13+ already a hurricane hunter
Did the mountain move, and if so why?
Ever been out of Colombo?
Anya Raux educated me about Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (JIA)
Wicky's Story You can always go to GOAT Mountain
Let's learn the art of embracing damage
Kandy Lake is lined with poetry
There's never a 'right moment' for love
A love note to an unknown address in Los Ange
A dusk song for Rasika Jayakody
How about creating some history?
How far away are the faraway places?
There ARE good people!
Re-placing people in the story of schooldays  
When we stop, we can begin to learn
Routine and pattern can checkmate poetry

Janani Amanda Umandi threw a b'day party for her father 
Sriyani and her serendipity shop
Forget constellations and the names of oceans
Where's your 'One, Galle Face'?

Maps as wrapping paper, roads as ribbons
Yasaratne, the gentle giant of Divulgane  
Katharagama and Athara Maga
Victories are made by assists
Lost and found between weaver and weave
The Dhammapada and word-intricacies
S.A. Dissanayake taught children to walk in the clouds
White is a color we forget too often  
The most beautiful road is yet to meet a cartographer