Conservation of heritage in these times of Covid-19 | Sunday Observer

Conservation of heritage in these times of Covid-19

24 May, 2020

Last week we focused on some aspects of intangible heritage of Sri Lanka. We also questioned whether the custodians of this heritage were limited to a select few or whether the protection and conservation of it is the collective responsibility of all the people of Sri Lanka. We took up for discussion the points raised on intangible heritage discussed in an online forum on May 12 titled Urumayasaha Covid-19, (Heritage and Covid-19). On the topic of intangible heritage, this writer emphasized the dire practical need for putting to use our age old indigenous medical heritage in this time of pandemics.

In the weeks to come we will continue to discuss why we should not give up on recognizing and using our indigenous medical heritage when we need it most. We will also continue to discuss the urgent need to revive our ancient values and knowledge of our agrarian heritage to ensure non chemical (non poisonous) consumption so that the immunity of Sri Lankans, as well as the wellbeing of our soil and all its species, do not get compromised in these health and climate challenging times.

This week we focus on the overall importance of creating awareness on responsible ownership of our heritage site protection. This was one of the main aspects discussed at the online forum Heritage and Covid-19 moderated by Dr. Gamini Wijesuriya, former Director of Conservation at the Department of Archaeology and Special Advisor to Director-General of the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM). The speakers included Prof. Gamini Adhikari, Director General of the Central Cultural Fund, Dr. Senarath Dissnayake, Director-General of Archaeology, and Architect D. P. Chandrasekera of the Department of Architecture, University of Moratuwa.

We have historic monuments and heritage sites around Sri Lanka which have lasted through centuries which are representations of who and what we were as a nation. The protection of these sites in the unprecedented times that we saw had required thinking through impromptu, non-conventional routes never exercised before and some of the experiences of the above mentioned speakers had involved mobilizing the closest proximity village communities to function as protectors.

Dr. Senarath Dissnayake pointed out that most persons officially assigned to provide security to these sites  could not report for duty because of factors such as travel restriction between districts necessitated to control the pandemic. Many other related factors had seen the normal administration connected to the protection of these sites totally disrupted, including the payment of salaries.

One practical example taken up was the fact that windows of premises housing ancient frescos, if kept closed consecutively for two months would have been gravely damaged by mould. The solution had been to organise some of the surrounding families and allocate responsibility towards functions such as opening and shutting the windows based on the weather conditions.

The fact that the pandemic caught the country unawares and that thinking through these alternative ways of protecting these sites having to be done in limited time, was emphasized, drawing attention to the complications of using the village community to protect these sites at a time when they too were restricted due to curfew.

The importance of discussing this now when we are trying to slowly restore normalcy, is to prepare ourselves for any future emergencies of a similar nature, given the world is now moving in an unfamiliar trajectory forcing us towards that which we have never been prepared for before.

Sri Lanka has eight sites inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage which include six cultural sites, namely, the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya,  the Golden Temple of Dambulla, the old town of Galle, the sacred Buddhist city of Anuradhapura and  the sacred Buddhist city of Kandy. The two natural sites under the UNESCO World Heritage list are the Sinharaja Forest Reserve  and the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka that includes the Horton Plains National Park and the Knuckles conservation forest. When contacted, Ashoke Herath, Assistant Conservator of Forests of the Forest Department, one of the entities under which the two natural world heritage sites come, said that the Deep Forest Officers, Range Forest Officers and Forest Field Assistants, had continued to function based at the site during the past two months. He said many of the forest flying squads had also relentlessly carried out their official duties and apprehended those who had entered the forest for illegal logging.

Meanwhile Dr. Gamini Adhikari, Director General of the Central Cultural Fund, speaking at the Heritage and Covid-19 discussion, explained how technology had aided the coordination of official duties regardless of Covid-19 limitations, when whatsapp groups created by the CCF officers helped to streamline communication among staff in different districts, extending up to the North and East. This had helped to track the protection of CCF sites as well as aided the carrying out of important administrative duties that needed to be done, even in a basic way, in all locations.

It was also explained that all staff of the CCF had volunteered to continue work with full commitment, despite the disruptions in salary payments caused by the overall macro administration lacuna. This was also a central part of the discussion where the selfless commitment of staff, trainees as well as volunteers, affiliated to heritage site conservation and protection was highlighted with explanations how they had acted above and beyond their official duty.

Creating public awareness on the importance of safeguarding Sri Lanka’s heritage sites as a representative component of each citizen’s individual heritage was a key message of the discussion along with the need to develop strategies to take this message to schoolchildren and youth of the country.

Ultimately the sum up of the discussion boiled down to one thing; that we are all part of our heritage and that the challenge of these times should create a sense of responsibility in all of us and within diverse sectors, including the private sector and academia to help sustain the conservation and protection of these sites in whatever ways possible.

About the author:

Frances Bulathsinghala  is a curricula writer and visiting academic at a National University in Sri Lanka. As a curricula writer she is currently attempting to introduce a new subject on Indigenous Knowledge and Mass Communication, and is affiliated with several South Asian publications.