Controversy over dambulla cave paintings resolved | Sunday Observer

Controversy over dambulla cave paintings resolved

The controversy surrounding the Rangiri Dambulu Raja Maha Vihara popularly known as the Dambulla cave temple has taken a new turn as the temple authorities and the Archaeological Department have reached consensus based on mutual trust to carry out the conservation work of the ancient temple due to intervention by the Mahanayake of Asgiriya Chapter Most Ven. Warakagoda Sri Gnanarathana Thera and the Asgiriya Karaka Sangha Sabha. On the directive of the Mahanayake thera, a fresh agreement is to be entered into shortly between the two parties to resume the conservation work which has been temporarily suspended and also to properly utilize the funds collected daily by the temple, from the sale of tickets to foreigners.

Education Minister, Akila Viraj Kariyawasam told the Sunday Observer that he held discussions with the Mahanayake of Asgiriya Chapter Most Ven.Warakagoda Sri Gnanarathana Thera regarding the issue. An agreement is to be reached shortly on the conservation of the temple paintings and sale of tickets to foreigners. At present, the Archaeological Department is drafting the agreement. When it is drafted, it will be sent to the Mahanayake Thera, following which we hope to sign the agreement between the Archaeological Department and the Dambulla temple authorities, and act with mutual understanding. “After I explained the facts, Mahanayake Thera of Asgiriya Chapter and its Registar Ven. Medagama Dhammananda Thera gave their consent to draft the agreement.”


The Minister said, during the extensive discussion, he explained to the Mahanayake Thera why steps should be taken to conserve the paintings and Buddha statues of the ancient Dambulla temple and safeguard its UNESCO World Heritage status, while a portion of the income gained through selling tickets to foreigners should be given to the temple leaving the balance for conservation work of other temples as recommended by the Mahanayake Thera. “I also pointed out that the Central Cultural Fund has the right to print these tickets. The Mahanayake Thera who promised to discuss with the Register of the Asgiriya Chapter to initiate a program, instructed me to draft the agreement. I also stressed the need to draft an agreement, as otherwise, we can’t move forward and continue these conservation work and issue tickets. Therefore, the agreement would cover all these aspects of conservation, issue of tickets and safeguard the world heritage status of the Dambulla temple.”

Minister Kariyawasam said, at present the conservation work of the temple has been temporarily suspended as the Archaeological Department pointed out that they cannot carry out the conservation without the agreement, as various baseless allegations had been levelled against the Department regarding the conservation of paintings and the till boxes. The Archaeological Department says, they cannot conserve the paintings in the caves without closing them. Even UNESCO has stated that these paintings in the caves should be conserved by restricting access.

He said, the Chief Incumbent of the temple has also agreed to conduct the conservation work in such a manner. We should do so based on the instructions given exclusively by the archaeologists. Therefore, we should have the consent of the Chief Incumbent of the temple to carry out these activities. We however, have no intention to close down the Dambulla temple. I think the Archaeological Department has already drafted the agreement and it will be sent to the Mahanayake Thera of the Asgiriya Chapter. It would pave the way for the Archaeological Department to carry out conservation work on scientific lines.

The Minister said, during the past, tourist tickets for the Dambulla temple had been printed by the Central Cultural Fund. However, this has been changed but the money earned from selling these tickets has not been used to conserve the paintings and protect Buddha statues of the temple. We also instructed the Archaeological Department to seek the expertise of international conservators. The Dambulla temple earns millions of rupees selling tickets to foreigners, every month. According to estimates, the daily ticketing income of Dambulla temple exceeds to Rs. 2 million, subject to fluctuation. Therefore, our intention is to use some of the money for the conservation of the temple while the balance will be given for the conservation of other temples as recommended by the Asgiriya Chapter. According to the statistics of the Central Cultural Fund, the daily income of Sigiriya from tourist tickets amounts to Rs. 10 million. Most of the tourists who go to Sigiriya also visit the Dambulla temple. That is why we are attempting to properly manage these funds collected by the Dambulla temple.


The Minister categorically denied allegations that the Government attempts to take over the till boxes in temples. These are mere speculations carried out by some bankrupt politicians of the Joint Opposition through their close associates. The Government has not done anything to the till boxes. As is customary, the Commissioner of Buddhist Affairs counts and seals these till boxes and hands over the money to the Chief Incumbent of the temple.

The Registrar of the Asgiriya Chapter Ven. Medagama Dhammananda Thera said an environment had been created to remove the Dambulla Rajamaha Vihara Complex from its world heritage status. The cave paintings and Buddha statues have faced gradual deterioration. Therefore, a decision was taken to temporarily close the caves of the historic Dambulla temple to conserve its paintings and Buddha statues. However, this led to a big controversy. Certain sections attempted to politicise this issue and level baseless allegations against the Government. However, the instructions had only been given to temporarily close the caves as the people entering the caves may cause hindrance to conservation work.

He said in order to sort out this controversy, a delegation of the Archaeological Department and the Central Cultural Fund held a discussion with the Mahanayake of Asgiriya Chapter Most Ven.Warakagoda Sri Gnanarathana Thera and Asgiriya Karaka Sangha Sabha on July 14. This helped clarify certain matters and ensure mutual understanding. Education Minister Akila Viraj Kariyawasam couldn’t attend this discussion as he was not well. A couple of days later, the Education Minister met the Mahanayake Thera and myself and held extensive discussions on the issue. During the discussions, emphasis was laid on how to conduct these conservation activities without leading to a dispute. We expect to continue the conservation work through discussions and mutual understanding. It would prevent the Dambulla temple losing its status as a world heritage site. There was imminent deterioration to the paintings of the caves due to neglect. We hope it would not happen anymore as we have reached a consensus to continue conservation activities.

Ven.Dhammananda Thera said we know what the Archaeological Advisory Council had said was that people entering the caves when the paintings and wooden statues are conserved would be causing hindrance to conservation work. Hence, the idea to temporarily close the temple for both local and foreign tourists. It was a statement made in good faith. However, this paved the way to give a wrong impression to the country and some people tried to politicise the issue to attack the Government. Now the issue has been resolved and regular religious activities of the temple will be conducted and people can visit the temple as usual. When some disturbances are caused to the conservation work , a decision was taken to manage the situation in consultation with the temple authorities. In addition, following the recent discussion the Education Minister held with the Asgiriya Mahnayake Thera, if it is necessity steps would be taken to prepare an agreement to further build consensus among the parties concerned.

“Matters relating to sacred places like temples should not be used to gain mere political mileage. Certain sections attempt to politicise even this kind of religious issues. There were certain uncleared matters and we have been able to sort them out through mutual understanding and discussions,” he said.

Trustee of the Dambulla Ancient temple Ven. Ambagaswatte Rahula Thera told the Sunday Observer that the controversy of the Dambulla temple has been sorted out now. A discussion was also held by the Mahanayake of Asgiriya Chapter and Karaka Sangha Sabha with the relevant parties. This led to create a consensus among the parties to take a good decision. We have allowed to commence conservation activities of the temple but they have not started yet. At present, the conservation work has been stopped haphazardly. Actually, conservation work was temporarily stopped due to damage caused to the paintings and wooden statues. Earlier, the manner in which the conservation work was carried out caused displeasure and curiosity among the people who visited the temple. Some of the paintings have faded and turned yellow due to the use of chemicals. If the existing paintings also deteriorate it would cause serious damage to the paintings and Buddha statues and alter their original appearance.

Ven.Rahula Thera said this topic of conservation came to the forefront with some ulterior motives. But we cannot allow them to realise such ulterior motives because these are temple properties consecrated to the Sasana over the past so many decades. This is a Buddhist temple and not a kingdom like Sigiriya. There was speculation that the Dambulla temple will be temporarily closed, but there is no ability whatsoever to close a temple. It is the responsibility of the temple authority to open the temple and conduct its day today religious observances. When speculations were rife that the ancient Dambulla temple was going to be closed, the people were shocked. Some third parties made such statements, without any prior approval of the Chief Incumbent or trustee of the Dambulla temple. This prevented the opportunity that prevailed to amicably sort out the issue. He said we have invited and granted permission to carry out the conservation work of the temple and it is a responsibility vested with the Archaeological Department, but they have not yet commenced the conservation activities. This unnecessary issue was also due to the lack of understanding of certain sections on the true meaning of ‘World Heritage’. Before becoming a world heritage, the Dambulla temple is a Buddhist heritage. Bhikkhus were the guardians of this temple from time immemorial. The issue of Dambulla temple came up due to a comment by the authorities about issuing tickets to foreigners. However, discussions were resumed after the authorities created a dispute with the Chief Incumbent of Dambulla temple. He also explained the true situation.

Meanwhile, the Archaeological Department sources said that a pilot project has been formulated for the entire Dambulla sacred city. According to this pilot project, steps will be taken to conserve the paintings and Buddha statues in caves. Archaeological experts have found four key factors such as, insects, bacteria, water seepage and dust which have caused damage to the paintings and sculptures in the temple. At present insect threat has been controlled 100 percent. The pilot project would provide a permanent solution to these four major issues. Now over Rs.3.5 million worth equipment have been installed in the Vihara to obtain round the clock information on temperature and humidity. In addition, highly informed sources said that nearly 25 years have lapsed after the UNESCO declared Dambulla cave temple as a world heritage site in 1991. However, the historic temple has faced the threat of removal from the world heritage list due to some ad-hoc changes made during the past causing a threat to its historical value.

Advice and suggestions will also be sought from local and international intellectuals to conserve the paintings and Buddha statues of Dambulla temple. The members of the Archeological Advisory Council have laid emphasis on the recommendations made by the International Council on Archaeological Monuments and Places of Reference (ICOMOS) and UNESCO and the reports of Prof Werner Smith, a prominent international conservation expert on archaeology and the reports by the local archaeological experts. It has been suggested to take several key initiatives during the period of conservation which includes instructions to the Central Cultural Fund to fix equipment to measure humidity at the Dambulla Vihara on a daily basis, advise the Central Cultural Fund to instal nets or other covers to prevent the entry of wasps and other insects into the caves, estimate the number of visitors that can be present in the caves at a time and instal automatic gates to control people entering the caves and instal a proper lighting system and CCTV cameras. The Central Cultural Fund has also agreed to bear the total cost of the conservation work.

The Archaeological Advisory Council has also decided to allocate funds for other activities of the Rangiri Dambulla Cave Temple from the Central Cultural Fund money collected through issuing tickets.

Pix: Asela Kuruluwansha