02 January 2023

Colours and textures of living heritage

Tharindu Amunugama, my friend and travel companion who captures things Sri Lankan from unbelievable angles and light-shade play knows heritage. Well, he knows a lot of other stuff too, but he has tasked himself to spend as much time as he has left in his life exploring his country. Simply because it is so beautiful, he says.

He frequently quotes the following line penned by the late Jean Arasanayagam: ‘I love this country. I don't want to live anywhere else. My skin has taken the colour and texture of this island…’ So we travel when we can or rather I travel with him when I can for he somehow finds the time and the companions with whom to head out of his home in Ratmalana for a few days almost every week.  

I remember in particular a visit to Menikdena. It is one of the monasteries of the Sihagiri Bim or the Sigiriya Region what includes Pidurangala, Ramkale, Enderagala and Kaludiyapokuna, and belongs to the Late Anuradhapura Period and it said to have been built during the reign of King Kittisirimegha (555-573). Tharindu had been there before and suggested we go.

We had spent the previous night at a friend’s place in Buduruwakanda, a few kilometres from Galgamuwa on the road to Anuradhapura. Tharindu wanted to photograph Sigiriya at dawn from the other bank of the reservoir. He wanted to capture the reflection of the rock upon the water in the particularly soft light of daybreak. We got there on time. He took his pictures. We had the whole day before us. We didn’t have any specific plans. He just said ‘Menikdena.’ We went.

The Menikdena Archaeological Reserve and Arboretum is less than an hour away from Sigiriya and lies between the scenic Menikdena Wewa and the Nikula range. The area is ‘peopled’ for where there is water and land, there is paddy, there is community and continuity. It has heritage written all over it.

‘Not heritage machang — living heritage!’ According to Tharindu.

‘This stuff is not dead, it’s not in the past. It’s alive. I once visited some lesser known ruins; and there, in the middle of the jungle, and came across a few people making an offering to a bo gaha. It’s always like that.’ 

He is correct. There are flowers placed on broken altars, there are a few lamps which must have been lit not too long ago and will probably be lit again, there are signs of worship like that. These places are not people-free or worship-free.

Heritage is a word which, especially when associated with archaeology, brings to mind remnants of past civilisations. Ruins. To be visited and be duly persuaded to imagine that other time of lived places, where people went about doing the diurnal just as we do in the social and cultural realities we live in.  

Heritage sites are named. Their histories are written down. They are places to be visited. Places to be photographed. And yet there are places that are alive in so many ways and for so many reasons. This, as Tharindu says, is almost a given when it comes to archaeological sites of religious significance in Sri Lanka.

Buddha Bhava, Kudumbigala, Namal Pokuna, Kawdagala, Buduruwagala, Kaludiya Pokuna, Pulligoda Galge,  Danigala, Kosgaha Lena and Lenawara Rajamaha Viharaya are some of the places Tharindu has taken me. Some are known and some are not. Some are close to villages and have bhikkhus in residence or in temples close enough. Some are deep within thick jungles. They too are visited by the devout although not as frequently. Signs of their passing abound.  

Heritage is never buried beyond recovery by treasure hunters. Heritage has a greater chance of survival if it is alive. The Archeological Department plays an important role amid numerous constraints, but where place has significance not limited to history, where artefact has life because meaning embedded in it can be and is read and appreciated by the devout we can speak not of heritage but living heritage.

Artifacts have after-lives
they are downed by vandalism,
forgotten through neglect
abandoned on account of decay,
but the dhaatu of the dhamma
makes for resilience and rebirth
the devout gives renewed life
and worshipper and object of worship
walk into timeless unities
within sansaric labyrinths,
tarry awhile and then move on.

There is a vandal. There is also a protector of meaning who sees him/herself not as a custodian of a physical entity but as a pruthagjana is persuaded to believe that there’s succour to be obtained in simple acts of worship and devotion.

There had been heavy rains. The reservoir was spilling. We bathed in the spilling waters which left untouched the colour and texture of this island that has been inscribed upon our skin.  

And today, I remembered once again and very fondly too, Jean Arasanayagam, and said softly, ‘I too love this country and don’t want to lie anywhere else, Aunty Jean.’ She would have heard, I am sure, wherever she is right now. Tharindu would agree.



Other articles in this series:

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart The allegory of the slow road