Dr. Roland Silva, Architect, Archaeologist and World President of ICOMOS | Sunday Observer

Dr. Roland Silva, Architect, Archaeologist and World President of ICOMOS

Dr. Roland Silva
Dr. Roland Silva

Dr. Roland Silva was born at Giriulla in the Kurunegala District on June 5,1933. He was educated at St.Joseph’s College where he was the Head Prefect and Captain of athletics, basketball and volley ball. He continued his studies at the oldest school of architecture in London and won the RIBA Exhibition at the Part I Examination.

Thereafter, he completed Part II and Part III and became an Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). In 1958, he became the first Sri Lankan to obtain a postgraduate qualification in Indian Archeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University of London under Prof. K.de B. Codrington. He was then appointed Assistant Commissioner (Architect) in the Department of Archaeology, Sri Lanka on January 4 1960.

In 1967, he proceeded to the University of Rome on a UNESCO Fellowship and completed the Postgraduate Diploma in the Conservation of Monuments and Sites and through the same Fellowship proceeded to Amsterdam for his Ph D under Prof. J.E. van Lohuizen. As the Professor passed away, he moved to Lieden University and finished his doctoral studies under Prof. J.G. de Casparis publishing a thesis titled, ‘Religious Architecture in Early and Medieval Sri Lanka’. Apart from his work in the Department of Archaeology, he was able to persuade his promoter, Dr. Justin Samarasekera, Chief Architect, Public Works Department, to urge the Institute of Practical Technology and the Ministry of Education to provide a course in Architecture for Sri Lankans.

The response was positive. Dr. Roland Silva (being one of the more recent professionals to return in 1960) was asked to prepare a curriculum for the course which was established in 1961. With his further contributions to Architecture as s visiting lecturer and a mentor to the University Department, he was conferred, Doctor of Science (Honoris Causa) in 2000, and later appointed the Chancellor of the University in 2008. The Sri Lanka Institute of Architects, in recognition of Dr. Silva’s contribution to Sri Lankan Architecture awarded the Gold Medal to Dr. Silva in 1997 and also made him a lifelong Fellow of the Sri Lanka Institute of Architects.

Sri Lankan Archaeology

To capture in one sentence Dr. Roland Silva’s contribution to Sri Lankan Archaeology would be to say that not a single stupa in Sri Lanka, except for the Ruvanvelisaya and Mahiyangana which were renovated before, had been conserved or restored without the hand of this great patriot. His first task in the Department of Archaeology was to continue the excavation and the restoration of the Kataragama Kirivehera which was completed in 1969. The restoration of the Somavathi Stupa was started in 1966 and completed in 1981.

He excavated 52 small stupas at Kantarodai and conserved each of these soon after excavation in the 1960s. He completed the conservation of the Dedigama Kota Vehera in 1966 and the Yudaganava Kota Vehera in 1989. The Rankot Vehera at Polonnaruwa was conserved by 1992. The Digavapiya stupa was conserved up to thirty feet by 1989. The world’s tallest stupa at Jetavana was completed to the top of the hataraskotuva before he retired in 1995. The work on the conservation of the Abayagiri Stupa, which is only next in height to the Jetavana stupa, was started and a trial section of the dome and a large portion of the hataraskotuwa were completed before 1997. The Mirisavetiya was restored before he retired in 1995. The Dakkhina Stupa was conserved by 1976.

It was Dr. Silva who undertook to conserve most of the shrines that were excavated by certain persons motivated by curiosity and who had abandoned these monuments. If any work was started at a site, he made sure that all the edifices that had been dug into through scientific inquiry or by treasure hunters were properly conserved and the other facilities of the site, like fences, roads, footpaths, buildings and signboards were all set in place.

The biggest need of the Department of Archaeology was resources and despite a possible break with tradition or convention, he was ready to persuade the Minister of Cultural Affairs to submit a request to the Cabinet to establish a new organisation for culture, namely, the Central Cultural Fund. The exception here was that the head of this organisation was to be the Prime Minister of the country. With the Prime Minister being the head of a government, the new organisation was able to bring together six Ministers of the Cabinet, namely, Finance, Culture, UNESCO Matters, Tourism, Hindu Affairs and Muslim Affairs together with the Deputy Minister of Cultural Affairs as well.

The country had never had such a mini-cabinet and so the generator of the idea, Dr. Roland Silva was appointed its Director General.

With this major uplift of culture, Sri Lanka was able to qualify to be on the World Heritage List and ended up with six out of a then world total of around four hundred. All these efforts raised the income for Archaeology from under Rs. 20 million in 1980 to an additional sum of Rs. 1,100 million by 2011.

The establishment of the Central Cultural Fund opened many doors for archaeology apart from finance. One was the academic upgrading of scholars in Excavation and in Conservation. For the first time archaeological excavation was opened to the universities. The six sites of the UNESCO International Campaign were assigned to six universities. Each site was assigned twenty five young archaeologists. These new recruits had to be trained in Field Archaeology and so a Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology had to be established with even an amendment to the Higher Education Act that made it an Institute of Excellence or an independent body comparable to a u niversity. The trainees were thus given time off over the weekends with subsistence and travelling to qualify at postgraduate level and to pursue their studies up to doctoral level as well. Even the Consultant Architects assigned with the task of conservation were also given twenty five young architects, each with the same facilities provided for the excavators and their weekend training was conducted at the University of Moratuwa.

The Central Cultural Fund also established over a dozen ‘Charity Companies’ with friendly nations, to harness resources such as specialists, to collect replaced equipment at advanced institutions for archaeology field work and in the laboratories and obtain other help which included funds.

The largest single contributor to the Cultural Triangle Project was the World Food Program which met 50 per cent of the wage of the near 5,000 labourers for over 15 years. The Director General of UNESCO in its Third International Appeal on behalf of the Cultural Triangle told the near 200 member states of the World Body of UNESCO in Brussels thus, “The Government of Sri Lanka has demonstrated its support for the campaign by designing the Board of Governors of the Central Cultural Fund which is composed of the Prime Minister as Chairman together with six Ministers and several other high level officials to co-ordinate and manage the campaign activities, campaign organisation is a model of efficiency with clear lines of authority, rapid decision-making mechanisms and excellent co-ordination of work at all six sites. The highly committed staff is by now well experienced in all aspects of campaign management.”

International Monuments and Sites

Dr. Roland Silva’s contribution to the Asian region and the world is equally substantial. As early as 1975 he was selected by UNESCO to write a report on the Buddhist Vihara at Paharpur in Bangladesh.

The report ended with Paharpur being declared a World Heritage Site becoming another International Campaign. UNESCO sent Dr. Silva the same year to Thailand to report on Ayuthaya, Suchothai, and Non Campet. Out of these sites, Suchothai was selected for an International Campaign and three of the other sites declared as World Heritage.

In 1984 UNESCO invited Dr. Silva to write a report on Cultural Tourism in the Maldives. It was after this report that the tourist boom began in this island archipelago. Later in 1999, the Maharashtra State invited Dr. Silva to recommend a program on Cultural Tourism there.

This report resulted in a US $ 22 million investment. However, Dr. Silva’s biggest contribution to Monuments and Sites was his continuous agitation that the International Council of Monuments and Sites, which he said should be International and not merely a Mediterranean Club.

This was taken more seriously than was intended. At the ninth General Assembly of ICOMOS in Switzerland in 1990, the winds suddenly changed, and Dr. Silva was elected the President of this World Body. Within minutes of the election the first executive committee meeting was held and instead of the customary courtesies, he drew up a full program for the next three years.

This was the method of operation that was to follow during the next three years. The very next General Assembly was held in Colombo which was the first time ICOMOS came to Asia.

Still people at ICOMOS remember this to be the finest ever. In 1993 Dr. Silva was re-elected President for another three years in Colombo.

The next General Assembly was in Bulgaria and for the first time in the history of ICOMOS, Dr. Silva was elected President for a third and final term.

During Dr. Silva’s tenure of nine years, it might be noted that the membership of ICOMOS had grown from 67 to 112.

The scientific committees that specialised in the various disciplines covering Monuments and Sites had risen from eleven to twenty four. For the first time, all meetings held every three months were located in different countries.

These efforts of Dr. Silva were appreciated by the General Body when he was conferred the coveted international Gazzola Prize for Conservation in 1999 which is offered only once in three years.

This was the first time that a President of ICOMOS had been awarded this honour. Russia, in recognition of Dr. Silva’s work elected him to be the first foreign member of the Architectural Heritage Academy. Brazil too, in turn named Dr. Silva as a Permament Member of Brazil’s Council of Monuments and Sites.

Four outstanding contributions of Dr. Silva’s nine years as President of ICOMOS are, (a) the two hundred and twenty two Monuments and Sites that he chaired on behalf of UNESCO. (b) the declaration of the Robben Island Prison, where Dr. Mandela was incarcerated for twenty seven years to be a monument condemning apartheid forever. (c) chairing the decision to declare Hiroshima and Nagasaki as World Heritage Sites with a view to abandoning the use of the atom bombs for ever (d) to chair an academic session in Nara with forty eight countries in redefining the term ‘authenticity’.

This was because the definition of ‘authenticity’ had not considered a Japanese tradition that replaced all temple-roof-timbers once in every twenty five to thirty years and that those that are removed are treasured as relics.

Consequently, the Japanese Government had not offered any of their wooden monuments for World Heritage Listing until the term ‘authenticity’ was re-defined.

The Japanese Government in recognising Dr. Silva’s contribution in conservation conferred on him the Fukuoka Cultural Award for Asia in 2004. Sri Lanka recognised Dr. Silva’s contribution to the country and the world and honoured him with the highest citizens award, the ‘Deshamanya’. He is also the recipient of the ‘Vidya Jothi’, consequent to initiating the establishment of the Central Cultural Fund.

The Council of Archaeologists in Sri Lanka, in recognition of Dr. Silva’s contribution to archaeology conferred the Gold Medal on him in 2000. The research of Dr. Roland Silva is covered in over 350 books or academic publications.

The writer is Former Media Consultant – Central Cultural Fund and Former Asst. Director- Department of Archaeology.