Dispute brewing over 'Sigiriya Evening Walk'

The Sunday Leader (Colombo) of 31 August 2003

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti

While an ambitious proposal by the Tourism Ministry to promote cultural tourism by recreating the Sigirya splendour through a "Sigiriya Evening Walk" is being pursued, much opposition is being lodged both locally and internationally with   UNESCO itself declaring that Sri Lanka has not bothered to keep the World Heritage Centre informed.

Declared a World Heritage Site in 1999, it is incumbent upon the Sri Lankan government to abide by the Heritage Convention, says Cultural Officer, UNESCO, Delhi, Prithi Perera.

It is not just UNESCO, at least two key government institutions - the Archaeology Department and the Central Cultural Fund (CCF) have refused to support the move to make the 'evening walk' a reality.

The draft proposal by two Norwegian nationals, Svein Sturla Hungnes and Stein-Roger Bull   was to create an illuminated walk in the Sigiriya water gardens offering a magical new attraction built on the myths surrounding Sigiriya.

Distortion of facts

The performance is to be in four stages, recreating the fabled story of King Kashyapa for an audience of 400. However conservationists allege that some of the scenes proposed would not only disturb the original site, but also distort historical facts.

Some of the key proposals that have been objected include the creating of impressions of iron hammering, bricklaying, producing iron tools, working with clay etc. with 'smoke effects' and the amplification of natural sounds.

Joining the protestors, the Buddhist clergy too have claimed that Sigiriya being a monastic site, some proposed scenes like the illusions of nymphs performing should not be allowed.

But the Tourism Ministry is determined to go ahead with the proposal, drafted with USAID and NORAD assistance to boost tourism in Sri Lanka through a show that goes well beyond the famous sound and light shows. And the argument is that   there was no need for the CCF or the Archaeology Department to object to a proposal that has being sanctioned by the Cultural Ministry.

Speaking to The Sunday Leader, Tourism Minister Gamini Lokuge assures that there would be no performers, no constructions of any sort or artificial sets bought into the site listed amongst the wonders of the world.  

An angry Minister said that the programme was definitely on and a few officials who are unable to grasp the concept should not be allowed to stand in the way of development of the tourism sector that has taken a severe beating due to 20 years of ethnic conflict.

" It will only add value to the site," he said.  

Despite the Minister's protestations, the project proposal claims that   "the after sunset walk would include approximately 120 participants and about 50 technicians and service employees.   It further says that there would be sets, props and costumes produced in Sri Lanka."

Lokuge believes that like India's Red Fort, Sigiriya could be made a classy tourist destination with a show of this nature. But environmental lawyer Jagath Gunawardane argues that the two sites could not be compared, as Sigiriya is a declared sanctuary unlike the Red Fort.

However Lokuge argues that rock climbing has been allowed in Sigiriya without any limitation and the number of climbers daily too could have a negative impact. "If it is fragile, the way our detractors claim it to be, then numbers need to be limited first," he said. "Heritage cannot be conserved by excluding the people. Conservation is people-led," he said, but added that he was unaware whether UNESCO has been notified or not of the proposal which he insisted was "only a proposal and therefore need not be given publicity."

However, recent discussion amongst officials from the Tourism and Cultural Affairs Ministries, Archaeology Department and the CCF proved futile when some officials outright   rejected the proposal, according to sources.

It is learned that sequence six of the proposal was   opposed due to the possible use of drummers along with ritual dancing, left unexplained in the proposal though the concluding remark says that "it is all an illusion." Similarly, sequence seven has "music and sound effects mixed with reading of poems built   up to a final crescendo with sequence eight having the sound increasing to defining climax," all of which have been rejected by authorities for negatively impacting the site.

While the dispute rages, the two Norwegian theatre experts called off their programme a fortnight ago.

It is learned that Director General, CCF, A.P.A. Gunasekera and Archaeological Commissioner, W.S. Wijepala have initially lodged their protest for not consulting the crucial departments under whose custody the site remains.

Consultation required

Archaeological Commissioner, W.S. Wijepala told The Sunday Leader it was the department that discharged duties as the custodian of the site and any decisions concerning a vital site such as Sigiriya should be done after much consultation. "We have concerns about the proposed scenes too which might be simply the imaginary scenes that have little to do with the authentic historic happenings," he noted.

Meanwhile, a USAID spokesman said that their role was confined to that of providing technical assistance, a sentiment echoed by NORAD representatives in Colombo who collectively said that the idea was to assist a programme to revive tourism which included a propjet concerning Sigiriya.  

But all these objections mean that the Tourism Ministry has to include a fresh concept in the new programme to revive local tourism.   A senior Tourism Ministry official said that not only would the Ministry will have to think up a fresh idea to promote tourism in the Sigiriya area if this failed, but would also lose a quick and easy way of generating indirect employment locally.

The CCD and the Archaeology Department have reportedly raised a series of objections subsequently as well.   The inclusion of the images of ghosts not associated with the Kashyapa legacy has been seen as a distortion of historical facts.

In addition, concern has been expressed about radiation problems caused by extreme illuminations, increased activity in the area at the foot of the rock and the creation of an impact much bigger than the mild sound and light show effect.

And joining the protestors are the Buddhist clergy in the area who have reportedly lodged their protest with the authorities for possible causing of disturbance to the site's atmosphere, especially as it is a monastic site.

The Sunday Leader learns that the clergy have lodged their opposition with the CCF urging the project to be halted all together.

"Possible lack of authenticity and possible distortions coupled with disturbances to the natural habitats of species in the sanctuary area seemed not to have figured in this proposal," said Archaeological Commissioner W.S. Wijepala. Added to this would be the possible noise and commotion created by transportation and movements of large numbers of people, he said.

Legal action

Meanwhile, Jagath Gunawardane told The Sunday Leader that the project was objectionable for many reasons, adding that if the Tourism Ministry goes ahead with it, activists will have to seek legal recourse to prevent such action.

He said that under Section 43 (A) of the Antiquities Ordinance, any project concerning a declared archaeological site without an archeological impact assessment (AIA) was a serious breach of the law. He further added that Sigiriya being a declared sanctuary, any disturbance caused would amount to a violation of Section 7 of the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance.

With the government determined to push the project despite mounting opposition it is possible that at least Kashyapa's rock fortress and his legacy would be given a new twist in a bid to promote tourism in the area.

UNESCO not informed

The Cultural Officer, UNESCO, Delhi, Prithiviraj Perera told The Sunday Leader that Article 56 (A) of the World Heritage Guidelines required UNESCO's Heritage Centre to be kept informed of any development plans concerning declared sites.

He said that UNESCO generally objected to any project that affects the site negatively or alters it. "Anything that the site at conservation time did not have and could alter originality is generally objected to."

UNESCO objected to a proposal to create a heritage corridor in front of the Taj Mahal in India for creating a negative visual impact on the original site. "The basis was that Shah Jehan's original construction did not envisage such a corridor and the inclusion would alter its authenticity," he said.

Likewise, he said the "Sigiriya Evening Walk" proposal should have been submitted to UNESCO for observations, and stressed that it was incumbent upon state parties to abide by the Heritage Convention by showing responsibility.   

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World Heritage Site

Sigiriya was declared a World Heritage Site in 1998 due its outstanding universal value.

There are some 754 such sites the world over, out of which 149 are natural sites and 582 are cultural sites while 23 others are declared mixed category sites.

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SLAF project halted

In February 2001, the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) proposed the expansion of its airstrip in Kimbissa, close to the fabled rock fortress.

UNESCO raised serious objections to the proposal for negatively impacting on the boulders and an alternative site was found in Hingurakgoda.

Article originally published in The Sunday Leader (Colombo) of 31 August 2003

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