A review of Sri Lanka’s heritage sector, an urgent need – Dr. Gamini Wijesuriya | Sunday Observer

A review of Sri Lanka’s heritage sector, an urgent need – Dr. Gamini Wijesuriya

11 October, 2020

This is the second part of the interview with Dr. Gamini Wijesuriya, an international activist on heritage.

Q: In the discussion last week you said that ‘Heritage’ is a relatively new term coined with Europe’s new conservation discourse. You said that Sri Lanka needs to break away from heritage related concepts drafted during colonial rule in the 1940s. You said that what we have are antiquities (puravasthu) predated 1815 or those that are older than 100 years. You spoke on the importance of looking at the intangible aspects of these. Could you elaborate further?

A: We have started following the western notion of heritage which was based on the divide and rule policy they followed in general. The Western mind functioned in a manner that divided the tangible and intangible. How can you separate tangible and intangible from the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic which is an ancient monument. It is a sum of tangible (temple building, arts and crafts) and intangibles (rituals, belief, traditions, pereheras, associated with the belief based rituals and craft-making).

It is all these that make it a complete sacred site. It continues to maintain some traditions and practices for over two millennia. Thus, tangibles and intangibles cannot be separated as they form part of the whole. In defining the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic as part of our heritage, what matters most is not that it was built before 1815 or 100 years ago but those intangibles that link people to it and their ancestrally passed down traditions.

My argument was that heritage cannot only be defined by tangibles or based on the date of construction. These divisions came only with the introduction of the western conservation discourse. Some countries have moved away and begun to define, understand and manage heritage on their own terms based on values to their people. Sri Lankan universities should think carefully about this.

We should study Sri Lanka’s ancient structures to find out how these feats were done and if we can emulate such truly ‘sustainable’ structures today.

We must be aware that it is the intangibles or the knowledge, skills and practices that shed light on sustainability, usefulness and adaptability for contemporary usage. Unfortunately, the focus has been to merely study history and archaeology of the tangibles.

Q: You said that the Jetavanarama Sanskrit inscription of the 9th century AD provides advanced traditional conservation principles. Could you explain what these are?

A: It talks about a village where skilled carpenters and masons were living, whose job was to attend to the renewal/ conservation work of religious buildings. In conservation, what we believe is that there should be skilled and knowledgeable human resources if we are to conserve, and sustain our heritage for the use of present and future generations. The lack of such knowledge promotion to build up the required human resources is a global phenomenon.

Sri Lanka’s unique and ancient example tells us what we should be doing. The Jetavanarama inscription speaks of trained staff being appreciated and treated respectfully. They should be experts in their tasks, honing their knowledge to perfection. The inscription refers to ‘clever’ crafts persons. One of the most important aspects of modern conservation is to maintain records of the work. The inscription suggests that ‘duties shall be recorded in the register’. There had been an ‘officer who supervises work’. Inscription underscores that the ‘blame shall be attributed to those who do not perform duties according to arrangement’.

There are more principles we can adapt to modern day conservation practices. However, we need to recognise that the traditions as well as traditional knowledge systems are not static. Therefore, we may have to study them and decide what is applicable and adaptable in today’s context. What should motivate us is the conviction that this knowledge is time tested and meant to be used for generations for the good of the people of the country.

It is in this context that I titled the conference held in 2015 with participants from across Asia to discuss the subject ‘adaptability and applicability of traditional knowledge systems in conservation and management of heritage in Asia’. Countries, such as New Zealand have incorporated these aspects into their law, while China and Indonesia use their traditional knowledge for managing World Heritage sites. The UNESCO World Heritage Committee has since 2005 recognised the traditional management systems for managing World Heritage sites. The Convention on Biological Diversity (1992) has included the use of Traditional Knowledge Systems (TKS) into the convention.

Q: You said that the expanded definition of heritage has led to recognise rice fields in China and Indonesia which have become World Heritage Sites. In contrast, you said that Sri Lanka is struggling to recognise its agricultural / irrigation sites as heritage. Could you explain?

A: We talk much about our ancient agricultural/irrigation systems and are proud about them. They are inseparable and an indispensable part of our living heritage. But we have failed to recognise or list them as part of our heritage. Hani rice fields in China, Subakrice fields of Bali in Indonesia, Ifugao rice terraces in Philippines and Grand canal in China have been recognised as part of their heritage within expanded definitions. UNESCO too has recognised them as part of the World Heritage or the heritage of ‘Outstanding Universal Value.’ Our ancient irrigation/agricultural systems should have been recognised as part of our heritage to inspire and celebrate while using and protecting them long ago.

Q: Despite our ancient ‘Do No Harm’ based heritage of agriculture (where we had natural methods to keep away insects and treated them not as pests but as fellow beings) we and our food today are infested with chemical agriculture which is killing us, our soil and the ecosystem. If we are conserving our ancient agrarian methods, should we not begin with adopting the agrarian philosophy of non violence that we had as opposed to the destructive Chemical agriculture of today?

A: I agree with you. In reverting to our ancient agricultural philosophy, we may also be able to revive some agrarian rituals and practices which were linked to Buddhism. There is a major move in this direction.

A Sri Lankan agrarian system, the “ellangagammana” or Cascaded Tank-Village system in the Dry Zone is designated under the program. The FAO recognises that these ancestral agricultural systems constitute the foundation for contemporary and future agricultural innovations and technologies. Their cultural, ecological and agricultural diversity is evident in many parts of the world, maintained as unique systems of agriculture.

However, there are difficulties of fully reverting to traditional systems.

Q: There have been many sustainable development related discourses in the world. Yet our sustainable practices, such as living in clay houses, using bullock cart, using Oru or Paru, use of nature friendly ways of living, such as using mats, traditional medicine and ancient agrarian methods, are seen as symbols of poverty or backward/non scientific. Do you think that we can genuinely talk of sustainability and heritage until we change our education models to revert back to understanding, appreciating and using heritage practices?

A: What is important for us is to contextualise and integrate lessons from the past in developing strategies and programs. The most critical step is to change our mindsets that heritage indeed can contribute to sustainable development whatever definition we give to it. We need to study and establish how heritage has contributed to improving the livelihood of the people in the past.

These may be applicable or adaptable in today’s context in varying levels but we should look at them through the lenses of the main pillars of Sustainable Development. Heritage in the past have contributed to them in diverse ways. These lessons can be used today to set an example to the rest of the world which is looking for sustainable lifestyles to battle global ills, such as climate change. There is a need to change our education models in schools to include education on heritage practices that we can adopt.

While practitioners have evolved localised approaches based on early practices, educators/academics need to do more to contribute to research or develop approaches to understand intangible aspects embedded in tangible heritage. We can study the work of our ancestors for academic gains but we need to focus on conveying lessons learnt for the benefit of the society to be used. Our education system should be geared to acquire our heritage knowledge and to contextualise to pass it onto students so that this knowledge can be made use of in everyday life. According to the UNESCO convention (2003), intangible heritage means ‘the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artifacts and cultural spaces associated therewith- that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognise as part of their cultural heritage’.

The Intangible Heritage Convention of 2003 in its new ‘Operational Directives related to sustainable development encourages States Parties to safeguard health practices recognised by communities as living heritage and harness their potential to achieve quality health care for all’ for which they have started working with the World Health Organisation (WHO). It is for all these reasons that heritage should be incorporated in education.

Q: In Sri Lanka’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic to make recoveries possible and for prevention, it is well known although not formally recognised, that the quarantine centres used many elements of Sri Lanka’s traditional medicine and diet. How do you link the aspect of heritage conservation to letting the world know that it is Sri Lanka’s traditional medicine system/traditional food that helped us in this difficult time in which the world is badly afflicted?

A: I think the pandemic has provided a great opportunity to send a message to the rest of the world about the significance of Sri Lanka’s traditional medicine and other practices in recovering from threats, such as this. UNESCO and WHO in 2017 has started a dialogue on this.

Q: What is your view on tourism and Sri Lankan heritage?

A: I think there are many areas we need to think and adjust our tourism programs. Authentic Sri Lankan experience is important not only for foreign tourists but more for the locals. We have placed very little emphasis on local tourism which can be a great potential.

We have ignored the local pilgrimage tradition although most of our sites are sacred sites. On the other hand, we have to carefully think of the negative impacts of tourism in society as well as heritage. There is much we can do to give tourism a holistic approach through heritage of Lanka, especially, in the post Covid-19 era.

Careful planning and the extensive use of tangible and intangible heritage could give us a powerful tourism model, and prevent cultural erosion. We could have great potential in this if we plan carefully, at a time when the world is reeling with an unknown future and complicated health based threats. As a country which had the world’s first hospital in Mihintale we have not asserted enough our powerful medical heritage for global recognition especially through tourism.

Q: Last week you said that a definition on heritage should be our own. What about our town planning and construction policy?

A: We have not made a serious attempt to study and integrate the wisdom of our ancestors in areas such as town planning. The late Dr. Roland Silva, my guru had studied the great traditions we had in the past and raised a voice on several occasions on related subjects but there wasn’t sufficient support at national level. He even went on to say that the best solution if we are to go for provincial administration systems would be to revert to the ancient divisions of RUHUNU, MAYA and PIHITI.

Q: Could you comment on Sri Lanka’s initiatives such as to set up the Central Cultural Fund (CCF) and the best way forward for such institutions?

A: The CCF was created for the implementation of the UNESCO Sri Lanka Project of the Cultural Triangle, focusing on the conservation of six identified heritage sites in the country: Jetawanastupa; Abhayagiristupa; Alahana Pirivena in Polonnaruwa; Sigiriya archaeological site; Dambulla cave temple; and the Sacred City of Kandy.

This was a project sanctioned by UNESCO under its program (now concluded) for safeguarding world cultural heritage that started with the successful Nubian campaign project in the 1960s. In many aspects, this project did serve to lay a strong foundation for the future of conservation in Sri Lanka, specifically by developing a much-needed large human resource base and finances. I am subject to correction, but I think the CCF in 2018 collected about Rs. 4,000 million annually as revenue.

The CCF was the brainchild of Dr. Roland Silva, widely acclaimed as the greatest contemporary visionary for heritage, who also designed and implemented the Cultural Triangle project. That project ended in 1997, but, so far, no evaluation of the CCF’s role, function, and how it benefits heritage and Sri Lankan society more widely has been carried out.

I think it became a victim of its own success over the past few years. My own view is that the CCF requires an urgent conservation effort.

In a public lecture delivered at the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka in March 2018, I highlighted many of the issues discussed in two articles, and made the following recommendations which I think are still valid:

1. Organise a comprehensive review of our heritage-related legislation, institutions and resources. This should specifically include the Department of Archaeology and Central Cultural Fund in its focus.

2. Use the accumulated knowledge that we have acquired to explore possibilities for more people-focused approaches; engaging all concerned through transparent processes in making decisions about heritage and, where appropriate, learning from experiences elsewhere in the world.

3. Ensure systematic organisation of matters related to World Heritage.

4. Encourage heritage based professional development and career opportunities for young and mid-career professionals

5. Develop a strategy for building capacity, of not just heritage practitioners but policy makers, communities, and networks as well.