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Giving Life to a Lost Legacy

By Ama H.Vanniarachchy

(This article was published in Ceylon Today Newspaper on Feb 13, 2021)

The Sri Lankan heritage sector popularly known as Archaeology is filled with controversial incidents these days. One after the other, there is news going viral about certain archaeological work taking place all over the country. After the controversy at Mullaitivu now it is about Mihintale. 

News about the Mihintale Mihindu Seya which is in a ruined condition, being restored, is indeed good news for the devotee. Masses saw this as a pious act but a few saw this as a political stunt. Some were under the impression that the ‘historical and archaeological value’ of the place would be damaged. Another accusation was that no expert knowledge was consulted in this process.

But what is this so-called historical and archaeological value that will be damaged because a stupa is being restored? 

How could an old stupa being restored damage Mihintale’s value? 

Besides, what is this ‘value’ we are concerned about, and who are the ‘experts’ that should be consulted in restoring a stupa? 

Another concern was also raised regarding who the real custodians of these ancient religious places are. 

What could be the alleged political stunt? 

To know about these issues we contacted several parties who are involved in the restoration work.

Below is the conversation we had with them.

Cultural significance of Arhant Mahinda and the stupa

Chief incumbent and trustee of Mihintale Rajamaha Viharaya Ven. Dr. Walawahangunawawe Dhammarathana Thera said that there were hundreds of stupas at Mihintale so that is why it was called Segiriya or Chethiyagiri which means the “mountain of stupas”. 

“Mihintale was where Arhant Mahinda spent his life. It is also known as the place where he arrived and met King Devanampiyatissa (247 BC – 207 BC). Arhant Mahinda is considered a second Buddha by Sri Lankan Buddhists. After Arhant Mahinda ordained Prince Aritta, the Sri Lankan bhikkhu order was established in the 3rd century BCE. Then Arhant Sanghamitta ordained Sri Lankan women. We experienced a cultural revolution; a renaissance, after the arrival of Arhant Mahinda,” said the chief incumbent.

“Our ancient kings celebrated the parinibbana of Arhant Mahinda with all respect and grandeur. It is a festival of gratitude. This stupa was built by King Uttiya (267 – 257 BC), enshrining the ashes taken from Arhant Mahinda’s funeral pyre.” 

We also reached the Mahamevnawa Buddhist Monastery, in order to learn about the religious and cultural significance of Mihindu Seya. This monastery is involved with the construction work of the Mihindu seya. 

“This sacred stupa was built enshrining the relics of Arhant Mahinda by King Uttiya, in the 3rd century BCE. The story of this stupa is deep-rooted in the consciousness of all Sri Lankans. The message of the Buddha was delivered to us by Arhant Mahinda. Everything we have today related to Buddhism is a result of this arrival. Hence we call him Anubudu. Therefore all Sri Lankans are indebted to him,” a thera from Mahamevnawa said.

He further stated that Arhant Mahinda never returned back to his homeland after he arrived in Sri Lanka. 

“He dedicated his life to us. Therefore, as Sri Lankans, it is our duty to pay homage to him and to venerate his stupa. Out of all the stupas built to commemorate Arhant Mahinda, Mihintale Mihindu Seya is the most significant.” 

“Mihindu Seya, the stupa of our Anubudu, which is in a dilapidated state, will be damaged further if it is left in this condition. I must say that we are not doing this in search of treasures or with any other hidden agendas. The Mihindu Seya should be protected. It is paying our respect and gratitude to him,” clarified the chief incumbent. 

“What is wrong with restoring the stupa of our Anubudu?”

The thera from Mahamewna said that “In the 1950s Prof. Paranavithana conducted archaeological work here. During his excavations, he discovered sacred relics inside the relic chamber. These relics are now kept at the relic house of Mihintale.”

Why restore and whitewash?

“A majority of people will not worship a pile of bricks as a sacred stupa. When the Ruwanweli Seya was in a ruined state, devotees did not perform religious rituals. Hence it was reconstructed. To elaborate and highlight the religious value, we need to plaster and whitewash these stupas,” said the chief incumbent Dr. Ven. W. Dhammarathana Thera.

“For the majority of devotees, a stupa is a whitewashed dome with a kotha. We know for a fact that devotees worship Ruwanwali Seya greatly but compared to that, Abayagiriya and Jetavana stupas are not worshipped much. The reason is that these places are not deep-rooted in the people’s consciousness” clarified the Thera from Mahamewnawa.  

“Although many people visit this place many do not know that this is the stupa enshrining the relics of Arhant Mahinda. It has been neglected for centuries.”

Who are the experts?

Ven. Dr. Dhammarathana Thera said that they are following the advice of experts when doing the restoration work. 

“Archaeologists are doing excavations and research at this place these days. We are following the advice of archaeologists and relevant experts.”

We contacted the Director-General of Archaeology, the Department of Archaeology, and Senior Professor Anura Manatunga to know what exactly is happening at Mihintale. 

“Yes, of course, all work is done following the advice of experts”, the DG said. 

“An ancient place has many values and aspects. Therefore we have to decide how to preserve these ancient places while keeping their values intact. We see that Buddhists prefer if these places are suitable for veneration. Especially in a place like Mihintale because Mihintale is one of the most important places for Buddhists.”

The DG also said that we have to look at the atamasthana and solosmasthana from a religious point of view rather than from an archaeological point of view. 

“When talking about preserving the old tradition that doesn’t mean only preserving bricks. It means the intangible culture. We have to preserve that too.”

However, an archaeologist and former Vice President of the World Archaeological Congress, founder Secretary-General of the Sri Lanka Council of Archaeologists,  an internationally acclaimed heritage management specialist, and former Director Conservation of the Department of Archaeology who is now Special Advisor to the DG of ICCROM, Rome, Italy, Special Advisor to the DG of WHITRAP Shanghai, China and Senior Vice President International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) Sri Lanka Dr. Gamini Wijesuriya said that Buddhist monks are vital experts to give advice on the reconstruction of stupas. 

“I would say consult all relevant ‘groups’ including Buddhist monks. It’s not the exclusive domain of so-called experts. This is a major paradigm shift that has taken place in the archaeology/heritage sector recently.”

Expert in Heritage Conservation and Management, also the current Joint Secretary of ICOMOS Sri Lanka, Dr. Nilan Cooray, said that the definition of ‘experts’ should be a reason of concern. 

“Different people are experts in different skills. Buddhist monks and devotees are experts in their own way, not only in academics. So it is important to get everybody involved. The views of the monks, worshippers, and the public are all important. They should all be considered experts. These are all stakeholders. We have to take a collective approach by bringing them all together. The academic experts are the ones who can give leadership to this group. That is a democracy,” Dr. Cooray further said.

Joining us is former Director of the Post Graduate Institute of Archaeology (PGIAR), Director Archaeology Sigiriya Project/CCF Archaeologist Professor Jagath Weerasinghe said that “We cannot say that the right of management and interpretation of ‘heritage’ solely belongs to these academic experts. That is an imperialist view, or in other words, a colonial thought.”

Whitewash all stupas?

State Minister of National Heritage, Rural Arts and Member of Parliament, Vidura Wickremanayake, said that “Regarding the restoration work at Mihintale Mihindu Seya, I do believe that if we can bring many places including this stupa back to the level which they were in the past, to their original splendor, it will be great. More people will worship these places. The public would like to see them in their original glory rather than as a pile of bricks.”

“However, I think that we can leave a part of the ancient brick stupa of the site for further studies, to understand how it was. We will be restoring Deegawapiya Stupa also. We are coming up with new methods where people can be integrated into this program. We want school children, university communities and the public to get involved in these works. Also, we are thinking of going into public/private partnerships to develop these areas. And at the same time the ministry has embarked on a very ambitious program to name the national heritage sites and national heritage,” explained the minister.

“Although it is important to leave a few of the ancient stupas preserving their archaeological value, we’ll always have to listen to the public interest and what the monks want,” said the DG.

Former DG Archaeology, Dr. Senerath Dissanayaka said that as this place holds great religious significance there is no issue in restoring the upper part of the dome suitable for veneration purposes. 

“It is important to restore places like Mihintale and Deeghawapi which are highly revered. Leaving a few stupas without whitewashing is for future study purposes. The ancient monuments around the Mihindu Seya and the Salapathala-Maluwa should be left intact.”

 Dr. Wijesuriya said that “My personal view is that all stupas are sacred and should be restored (provided we have resources). The stupas are the greatest and incomparable legacy or gift from our ancestors which symbolize our culture and are of the highest sacred significance. This was unfortunately overshadowed by the colonial notion of archaeology that we follow. Whitewashed stupas bring the complete physical and symbolic forms appropriate for the Buddhist to perform religious functions. That has been the demand of the Buddhist community which started restoration since the beginning of the colonial occupation by people like Walisinghe Harischandra through restoration societies.”

Against theories?

“The restoration work at Mihindu Seya is not against any archaeological theories. Public interests are also considered in archaeological work. We will protect our heritage with the involvement of the public and Buddhist monks,” said the DG. 

Adding to this Dr. Cooray said that there is nothing wrong with this restoration work as the purpose of a stupa is religious.

Prof.Weerasinghe emphasized that there is no issue in this restoration work when it comes to the theories within the discipline of archaeology. 

“No one can say that whitewashing a stupa is wrong based on any theories in archaeology. We believe that a stupa can be plastered. That has been widely accepted. And we have practiced it. I can give many examples.” 

The professor further stated that this is not at all a problem within the discourse of archaeology but a conflict between professionals.

Living heritage    

“We acknowledge that Buddhism is a living religion and a living heritage in this country, said the DG.

The Thera from the Mahamevnawa monastery said that “At present, theories of Heritage Management have progressed a lot. Compared to the world, we are not updated. In the sector of heritage management, ancient places are no longer treated as dead sites, if there is a living tradition still existing in the relevant country. If we look at the Mihintale Mihindu Seya, there are great intangible values. The tangible part is the stupa. This is not a mere pile of bricks.” 

“In the discipline of Heritage Management, the world is concerned about the living aspects of archaeological sites. Yet it is unfortunate that we still follow the old tradition,” he further stated. 

He also said that international experts say that we should not freeze a cultural heritage in time. They believe that cultural heritage sites have a right to grow and develop.

“Also we should always understand that the ancient kings who built stupas did not build them for future archaeologists to excavate. The purpose was purely religious for devotees as a pious act. We do not refuse or reject the archaeological value of this stupa. This place possesses great archaeological value. We have to come to a middle ground by preserving the archaeological value as well as the religious value.” 

To be continued…

Chief Incumbent and trustee of Mihintale Rajamaha Viharaya Dr. Ven. Walawahangunawawe Dhammarathana thero

Senior Professor Anura Manatunga, Director General, Department of Archaeology

Dr. Gamini Wijesuriya

Archaeologist Dr. Senerath Dissanayake, former DG Archeology


Vidura Wickremanayake, State Minister of National Heritage, rural arts and Member of Parliament.

Uncategorized, Ama H.Vanniarachchy, BUDDHIST STUPA, Living Heritage, Mihindu seya, Mihintale, Sri Lankan archaeology, SRI LANKAN HISTORY 

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