Salvaging Rajagala from being lost forever

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Daily News (Sri Lanka)
Friday, October 7, 2016 – 01:00
Zahrah Imtiaz

Within the dense forests of Rajagala in Ampara, a team of Archaeologists from the University of Sri Jayawardenapura are uncovering an 800 year old Buddhist monastery, bringing it back to life- one dig at a time.

The site spanning over 1,025 acres of forest, rocky hills, Stupas, Refectory, Uposathagra (Building devoted to religious observances), a hot water bath house and cave dwellings is said to have been built during the 1st Century BC. The team has been successful in discovering over 50 cave dwellings, leading them to believe that around 500 monks would have resided in them.

“It is interesting that some of these caves have the inscription “Seethalena” which depicts the name of cool cave,” said Director of Conservation and Maintenance, Prof Prashantha B. Mandawala.

According to Prof Mandawala’s research, the monastic complex was vacated due to the South Indian invasions in 1215 AD and it has since then gradually deteriorated due to natural causes and also due to vandalism by treasure hunters in the recent past.

Among other unusual inscriptions found at the site, Prof Mandawala also highlighted that they had found inscriptions on one of the Stupas which read that, the ‘ashes’ or ‘relics’ of Arahat Mahinda was enshrined within the stupa.

“This is the only such written statement to be found in Sri Lanka so far,” said Prof Mandawala.

He also pointed out that the monastery, unlike any Buddhist Monastery in the world, had the ‘Chakra’ usually carved on to the structure of Buddha’s foot, instead erected on a stone behind it. “This is very unique and not seen anywhere else in the world. It is common practice to carve the chakra on to the foot, but here it is separate,” he said.

The team has thus far found 80 odd such items of archaeological significance.

The excavation of the Rajagala Monastery is currently scheduled to go on till 2020 and while the discoveries are monumental in the archaeological scene of Sri Lanka, they do not come cheap. The Department of History and Archaeology at the University of Jayawardenapura has estimated a total cost of Rs.344.10 million to complete the project.

Making Archaeology relevant

This massive undertaking has been spearheaded by the Vice Chancellor (VC) of the University, Prof Sarath Amaratunga.

“The Department of Archaeology knew of the Rajagala site for some time but they did not have the money to excavate. The University thus decided to undertake this project and we applied for a US Embassy fund for the money. We also approached the government with the idea and they too provided us with a certain amount of funds,” explained Prof Amaratunga.

Since excavations have begun, students from the Archaeology department have had the opportunity to have practical experience in the field and it has also opened up opportunities for students from other local and international universities to come learn on site.

“The other issue we have is that we don’t have a proper laboratory to test the samples and date them in Sri Lanka. We have to send them abroad. So we have asked for more funds from the US Embassy to set up a laboratory within the university,” said the VC.

The new laboratory is to be open to all and the university will also open it up to other faculties. The laboratory which is to come under the office of the VC is in par with the University’s project to build a Rs 4 billion Faculty of Technology; the first of its kind in Sri Lanka. The faculty will offer the degree of Archaeology Engineering to train Archaeologists with specialist engineering skills to undertake excavations.

“At present we have a vacuum for such specialists in the country. Most Archaeologists are only trained in social sciences and do not have the expertise to study structures. This will open up many job opportunities,” the VC pointed out.

The VC seeks to turn the university to a centre of archaeological research in the country, while infusing modern technology and innovations in its undertakings.

“This is an area our country can capitalise on. One of the fastest growing industries in the country is tourism and we have a lot of unexplored areas we can capitalise on. We still mostly depend on areas like Kandy, Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura, but we shouldn’t just depend on these few places. There are plenty of unexplored areas we can discover,” said Prof Amaratunga.

He suggested that the best way to make use of our cultural and natural assets was to have the government develop a national tourism development plan with the involvement of all stakeholders.

“It’s not just Sri Lanka Tourism, but the universities, other institutions, the industry and other stakeholders must be involved,” he said.

Extending tourism into unexplored areas of the country, according to Prof Amaratunga would also contribute to regional development.

In the bid to increase the employability of the university’s graduates, the university has decided to offer degrees of archaeology which can be taken together with subjects such as hospitality and tourism.

“I spoke of a master plan because we are going to have a big problem when all the students who study generic degrees get out and find that they have no jobs,” said Prof Amaratunga.

Apart from Rajagala, the University has also worked on a complete survey of the old buildings at Galle Fort to develop structural and architectural plans. These plans were given to the libraries, government and owners who did not possess these plans. They are also working on the Jaffna Fort development plan.

“Through this project at Rajagala we have shown that even a small department can do great things,” said Prof Amaratunga.

Detailed description of Rajagala monastery excavations by Prof Prashantha Mandawala

The monastic remains in Rajagala could be identified on the mountain which is about 346 meters above the mean sea level spread across about 1,025 acres declared as an Archaeological Reserve.

Archaeological Activities

Rajagala Meditation Forest Monastery has not been inhabited since the fall of the Anuradhapura Kingdom in 1215. During the 800 years of neglect, the monastery has decayed due to natural causes and man-made intervention, especially as result of treasure hunting. Almost all the monuments including the approach stairways have been destroyed due to the accumulation of earth and root penetration. The treasure hunters have dug holes in all monuments including stupas and caves and some of these holes are about 15 m deep. Since the Department of Archaeology felt that it is the correct time to commence archaeological activities in this great exceptional monastery, they did request the Sri Lankan Government to allocate fund from the annual budget.

The Sri Lankan Government accepted the request and allocated Rs. 10 million in the year 2012. Department of Archaeology did commence work in June 2012, but soon realised that they lacked manpower and resources to handle the work that has to be carried out at the site.

Since it is essential to commence work immediately, the Director General of Archaeology invited the Department of History and Archaeology of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura in July 2012 to take over the site to provide necessary archaeological services urgently. The academic staff of the Department of History and Archaeology visited the site in July 2012 and decided to take over the site as it is urgent to commence the archaeological activities in order to protect the site and review it to its ancient glory to present it to national and international visitors. Over and above the academic members of the department also felt that it is their utmost responsibility to serve the nation with their experience in the field of history and archaeology.

Keeping this in mind an agreement was signed on August 22, 2012 between the Vice Chancellor of the University and the Director General of Archaeology for the “Procuring or Furnishing the Archaeological Investigations, Archaeological and Architectural Conservation, Infrastructure Facilities, Landscaping, Layout, Maintenance, Security, Public Relation, Construction and Administration Services at the Rajagala Archaeological Reserve” and the site was taken over on September 01, 2012 by the University of Sri Jayewardenepura.

Work Programme

The initial work programme was to conserve the monuments identified with in the common area only. After the work commenced in September 2012, the project authorities did a detailed study to identify the monuments at the site and it was felt that it is quite urgent to continue the restoration and protection work within the entire archaeological reserve as the other monuments are also in a state of dilapidation. As such, it is quite evident that it has become very urgent to commence conservation and restoration work within the entire archaeological reserve in order to mitigate the decay processes and preserve all the identified monuments in the monastery together with its cultural landscape. Urgent action needed to be taken before it totally deteriorated and dispread which will be a harmful impoverishment of the heritage of Sri Lanka. The entire archaeological reserve of Rajagala is unique and irreplaceable property which belongs to the entire nation. Hence, it demonstrates the importance of safeguarding it urgently and quick action has to be taken before it vanishes due to natural and man-made deterioration processes.

As such, University of Sri Jayewardenepura appointed the following project directing team, for direction of the activities of the Rajagala Archaeological Project.

Prof. P. B. Mandawala – Director in Charge of the current AFCP project and the Consultant Director of Conservation and Maintenance

Prof. Padmasiri Kannangara – Coordinating Consultant Director

Prof. Karunasena Hettiarchchi – Consultant Director of Exploration and Research

Dr. Alexander Kapukotuwa – Consultant Director of Archaeological Excavation

Ven. Dambara Amila Thero – Coordinator of the Spiritual and Ethical Development Centre

Archaeological Principles to be followed during Preservation Activities

At present there are about 80 different types of monuments that have been identified. All these monuments will be handled as a separate item of work. The work is proposed to commence by documenting the present situation graphically and photographically. Thereafter, initial estimates will be prepared separately for each building. The ground operations will commence next.

The first step is to mitigate the damage threatening the site, identified as Preventive Conservation. The project team will remove all threatening vegetation of each and every monument and will take steps to prevent further access of roots from nearby vegetation and take steps to maintain them without allowing further growth of vegetation through maintenance. Thereafter, the accumulated earth on the structures will be removed in order to identify the legible character of the monument. The exposed monument will be recorded graphically and photographically. A proposal will be prepared in order to identify the proposed interventions. The main theme of the conservation principle would be to carry out an intervention to present the monument in a legible state from which the user is able to identify its character without hindering its archaeological value. All national and international conservation principle are being followed in the proposed intervention.

The main objective of the project is to preserve the architectural remains and the cultural landscapes of the ancient meditation monastery of Rajagala by arresting deterioration processes and carrying out interventions to revitalize the ancient character of a forest monastery for the enjoyment of the present and future societies and to revive it as a spiritual and ethical Development Centre.

Future

After the completion of conservation on the built heritage, it is necessary that its status quo be maintained as per the initial conservation objectives such as its authenticity and perhaps its function. This will necessitate a wide range of preventive conservation activities. These should be set out in a maintenance manual for the each and every monument and to the entire site as a whole. The monitoring of the latter should be established on the basis of daily, weekly, quarterly, semi-annually, annually and five-yearly.

Total Cost Estimate to complete the currently identified work programme in the year 2020 is Rs.344.10 million (Revised in 2016). The Expenditure Incurred up to the end of December 2014 is as follows:

In 2012 – Rs. 6.6 million

In 2013 – Rs. 15.4 million

In 2014 – Rs. 33.5 million

In 2015 – Rs. 36.3million

Total – Rs. 91.8 million

Budget for the work programme in the year 2016 is Rs. 85.6 million

Cabinet on August 05, 2015 decided to allocate Rs. 51 million commencing from 2016 to 2019 and Rs. 6 million in 2020 for the completion of the current identified work programme.

According to the two proposals submitted by the University of Sri Jayewardenepura to the American Ambassadors Fund for the Cultural Preservation Large Grant Programme for the year 2013 and 2015, a sum of Rs. 35 million has been allocated for the conservation activities of the Rajagala Archaeological Reserve.

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