Sigiriya: Archaeological Department, Central Cultural Fund and the Law

by Dr. Raja de Silva,
former Archaeological Commissioner

The adverse publicity in The Island newspapers last week regarding the proposed song and dance programme at Sigiriya planned by the Central Cultural Fund (CCF) and Norwegian collaborators brings to mind previous actions of this parental body of the Cultural Triangle Projects. It is more than two decades since the inauguration of the CCF, and the public which perennially feeds its coffers is entitled to be informed of the background and history of the CCF.

The First Decade

The term 'Cultural Triangle' has been in vogue for more than thirty years. One hears of the Cultural Triangle projects, Cultural Triangle tours, and even of a Cultural Triangle hotel. The story of the Cultural Triangle began in January 1969. RDK Jayawardena, Assistant Secretary, Ministry of Education and Cultural Affairs, was also the Secretary General of the (then) Ceylon National Commission for UNESCO and in that capacity attended the UNESCO general conference in Paris in November-December 1968. In exploring avenues of aid from UNESCO for the island, he discovered that there was a programme for assisting in the development of ancient monuments, whereby developing countries could also improve their economy through the development of tourism to their cultural sites. He was told by the divisional head of this subject in Paris that an official report was first necessary from us and, if UNESCO was satisfied, they would send experts to the country to examine the feasibility of the proposed project.

On his return to the island in January 1969, RDK Jayawardena contacted me, as Archaeological Commissioner (AC), briefed me on the possibilities of UNESCO funding, and requested a report for passing on to UNESCO. The report was the first step that set in motion the phases of the scheme that in due course came to be known as the UNESCO-Sri Lanka Cultural Triangle Projects.

Cultural Toursim, as the term indicates, entails the development of tourism through the appropriate exhibition of cultural monuments and sites, with its attendant earning of foreign exchange. In 1970 there was a period of planning and programming by officials of the Government under the chairmanship of Lakshman Jayakody, Deputy Minister of Defence, who proposed the name Cultural Triangle for the large area (within the triangle formed by Anuradhapura, Polonnaruva and Kandy) to be developed by the projects there. In the 1970s experts from UNESCO visited the island, examined our proposals and sent specialists on short missions connected with the projects.

A joint Cabinet Memorandum, prepared by the AC and the Chairman of the Tourist Board and submitted by the Ministers of Cultural Affairs and of Tourism, comprising a ten-year plan of development within the cultural triangle was accepted by the new Government in 1978. Thereby 60 per cent of the required funds were to be provided in the form of UNESCO-engendered funds, expertise and equipment, and 40 per cent by the Śrī Lanka government. The purpose of the projects of the cultural triangle initiated by the Archaeological Department was primarily to make available to it ample funds to engage the required local and foreign personnel and purchase the materials and equipment for the work at hand; all this was not possible with the paucity of the annually voted government funds.

Cultural Triangle projects removed from ASD to Ministry

In August 1979 I retired as AC and, soon after, the Ministry of Cultural Affairs, changed the whole framework of the cultural triangle projects by arranging, without any authority, that the continuing work be directed not by the Acting AC, but by the Deputy AC (DAC). He was based in the ministry for this purpose. This led to the misconception regarding the origin and architect of the scheme; it was voiced through the press by a senior member of the Sri Lanka Royal Asiatic Society.

As advisor, I addressed a letter to the Minister of Cultural Affairs on 8th October 1980 on the subject of Sri Lanka Cultural Tourism stating my misgivings about the new proposals of the ministry. There was no response from the ministry, this advice proved to be of no avail. A fund known as the Central Cultural Fund (CCF), an approved charity, was later instituted by an act of Parliament in 1980 (Ordinance No. 57 of 18 December ) to collect and disburse the necessary funds for various cultural purposes, the first being the projects in the cultural triangle. These comprised the development of ancient monuments and sites at the Jetavanarama and Abhayagiri viharas, the water gardens in Sigiriya, the Alahana Pirivena in Polonnaruva, the cave shrines at Dambulla, and the Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Tooth) and its environs in Kandy.

Consequent to discussions held between Edwin Hurulle, Minister of Cultural Affairs and Ahmadou Mahtar M'bow, Director General of UNESCO, both in Paris and in Colombo, the ten years plan originally proposed was accelerated and shortened to five years. With the inauguration of the projects by J. R. Jayewardene, President, at the Jetavanarama, Anuradhapura on 1st January 1980, the field work of the cultural triangle began under the direction of DAC, who was also appointed Director General of the Central Cultural Fund (DG/CCF) by the CCF and continued working in the Ministry of Cultural Affairs. The latest project to be started was formally inaugurated by R. Premadasa, President, on 28th June 1982 in Dambulla.

The Archaeological Department headed by the Director General of Archaeology (DG/A)—for its first century designated AC—functions under the Ministry of Cultural Affairs. The CCF functions under a board of governors, the chairman of which is the prime minister. This powerful board has the Minister of Cultural Affairs, and five other ministers on it. The S/CA who is also its Chief Administrative Officer (CAO), and the DG/A are members of the Board.

CCF charges fees for public entry to ASD reserves

All visitors are required by an (illegal) order of the CCF to pay it a fee for entering the archaeological reserves of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruva and Sigiriya, which are vested with the AC; the inequity of it! The Archaeological Survey Department (ASD) owns the land but the CCF levies entrance charges (foreigners are charged more, citizens have to pay less) and pockets all the funds—it smacks of an abuse of power which, unfortunately, was accepted without resistance by the Acting AC at the outset. He might have insisted on a percentage of the profits being credited to the ASD for maintenance of the reserves. In fact, it is the ASD which is empowered to levy an entrance fee at selected sites [see Antiquities Amendment Act No. 24 of 1998, section 40(f)]. The CCF Act, however, requires that any income derived from the levy of charges should be credited to the CCF Account. Since 1980 this ever-replenished vast reservoir of funds has been drawn on by the CCF for cultural purposes, the most important in principle, which is the protection of ancient monuments.

CCF funding for archaeological field work by outsiders

Let us look at what happened in practice. After the CCF was set up, two strange things happened. First, as mentioned above, the DAC (while retaining his substantive post) was appointed by the Ministry of Cultural Affairs to a new post of DG/CCF and he was moved to the new office built for the CCF at the ministry. Second, this officer while wearing the suit of the DG/CCF, functioned independently of the Acting AC, financially and administratively, in archaeological matters which were manifestly in the latter's sphere of authority; and he became responsible to the S/CA, not to the AC. The DG/CCF now assumed the powers for the direction of archaeological field operations in the cultural triangle through his newly appointed agents—directors/consultants in the subjects of excavation and conservation—who (with the exception of Prof. P. L. Prematilleke) were innocent of practical experience in field archaeology. Thus the DAC wielded the power bestowed on him by the SCA, whereas the Acting AC was saddled with the responsibility under the antiquities law.

Thenceforth, the law was infringed and continued to be infringed. Let me explain. Until 1998 (when an amendment was made to the Antiquities Ordinance) the only properly constituted authority empowered by law for undertaking the excavation and conservation of monuments on state land (i.e. archaeological reserves) is the AC. His officers, with their long-established traditions and skills, work under his authority. Conservation of protected monuments can be undertaken by others (such as restoration societies, for example) only under the authority of a permit issued by the AC. The Abhayagiri, Jetavanarama, Dambulla vihara and certain monuments in Kandy (e.g. "Queen's Bath" or ulpange) are protected monuments. For 18 years there has been unrestricted misapplication of the law by the agents of the CCF who have been working without the required permits, while the AC looked on largely helplessly from the outset. Representation was made to this effect by me to the three committees of study mentioned in the last paragraph of this essay.

The present D/GA would need to ensure that the provisions of the newly amended ordinance of 1998 are enforced on the agents of the errant CCF, and that they obtain the required permits for excavation and conservation of ancient sites, monuments and antiquities (see section 6 below).

S/CA violates Antiquities Law

But what happened in 1980? The S/CA abused his power by illegally ordering the Acting AC to effectively abdicate his authority: the conduct of field work in the old capitals of Anurdahapura, Polonnaruva and Kandy, and in Sigiriya and Dambulla, hitherto supervised by Departmental officers and trained workers, had (on instructions received) to be handed over by the Acting AC on a platter to the S/CA, only to be passed on to the DG/CCF, who in turn farmed them out to his contracting agencies - private firms of architects, for conservation consultancy, and university academics in archaeology, for direction in excavation. This was admitted by the former Acting AC before the first Dayaratne Study Committee at which I was present. Specifically, the excavation and conservation of ancient monuments on state land (i.e., archaeological reserves in Anuradhapura, Polonnaruva and Sigiriya) by agents of the CCF was ultra-vires the provisions of the antiquities law. In addition, the statutory provisions (obtaining of restoration permits with written agreements according to sections 20 and 21 of the Antiquities Ordinance) were not adhered to by the CCF in connection with the projects at hand. In short, the most powerful CCF rode rough-shod with impunity over the provisions of the existing antiquities law. As for the conduct of major archaeological works in the reserves mentioned above - the Acting AC "folded his tent like an Arab and stole silently away"; the CCF, like a thirsty camel sensing the waters in an oasis, plodded in. When the law is broken, chaos sets in.

Attempt to justify excavations by university professors

A project director of excavations employed by the CCF sought to justify to the Dayaratne committee of study (1994) of CCF activities, the excavations done on CCF funding by university professors such as himself. The basis of claiming legitimacy was as follows:

Assertion. The former Archaeological Commissioner, Saddhamangala Karunaratne had gone on record before two committees of study to say that "permission was given (to excavate) to the Secretary, Ministry of Cultural Affairs, in the Secretary's capacity as Chief Executive Officer of the CCF."

Comment. This is not a true picture of the stand taken by the former Acting AC - he was instructed to do what he had obediently done. See paragraph 5 above.

Assertion. AC may delegate his function of conducting excavations to anyone he pleases, for example a professor - or even his wife for that matter. In support of this assertion, he quotes the proviso to section 6 of the Antiquities Ordinance, which requires that no person shall excavate except under the authority of a licence issued by the AC, provided that excavations carried out by or on behalf of the AC are excepted from this requirement. Since the AC is a member of the Board of the CCF (the argument goes), the CCF excavations were "carried out by or on behalf of the AC." Therefore they are legitimate, he concludes (ref. Memorandum submitted by the Post Graduate Institute of Archaeology to the "Archaeology and Culture sub- Committee" of the Committee appointed to study the work of the Central Cultural Fund from its inception to 1994).

Comment. The fallacy in this argument lies in the fact that the standing of a person to whom the AC may authorise the exercise of his function/power to excavate is circumscribed by section 43—not anyone may be given the authority to excavate— "by any person possessed of special expertise and resources in or for, the exploration, excavation, conservation, restoration or maintenance of monuments, in such areas and on such terms and conditions as may be specified in such authorization."

Assertion. Since the DG/CCF was also the DAC (and later AC) excavation work of the CCF has been legitimate from the point of view of section 43 of the Antiquities Ordinance.

Comment. This assertion is not correct for the following reasons. Even if it be allowed that DG/CCF is entitled to conduct excavations approved by the AC on CCF funds, what happened in practice is quite different: whereas the DGICCF has not conducted excavations, the CCF (the responsible officer being the CAO, i.e., S/CA) has handed out on contract excavations to university academics, designated Director Archaeology in each case, in Anuradhapura, Polonnaruva, Sigiriya, Dambulla and Kandy. Delegation of excavation authority (even if done by the AC) to the DGICCF does not legitimise further delegation by him to third parties. This is a well-known legal and administrative concept - delegatus non protest delegate (delegated authority cannot be delegated). The campaign of excavations done by university professors on CCF funding (1) without being issued licences under section 6, (2) who cannot be authorised to perform the functions of the AC under section 43, has been ultra vires these provisions of the Antiquities Ordinance.

Archaeological Lab

The case of the misuse of UNDP funding for an archaeological laboratory was "the most unkindest cut of all". Following the recommendation of UNESCO Chemical Conservation expert Josef Riederer, the selection of whom I, as AC, had approved (UNDP/SRL/74/023 Technical report No.2, Paris 1977 p.59), for an effective chemical laboratory devoted to conservation problems, US$300,000 was granted by UNDP to the Minister of Cultural Affairs in 1979-81. This was for the specific purpose of upgrading the existing modestly equipped ASD Lahoratory, which had been set up by me in 1952 (File No. SAN/A/11-1-434/7; Director/External Resources File No. TA/83/4/143H & TA/71/5/53D (iii) of 6.2.80). But, these funds were diverted by S/CA (CAO/CCF) to the CCF and the ASD was cut off without a proverbial penny. The height of professional presumption was then reached by the S/CA, when he appointed the DG/CCF as the Director of the Laboratory project. Of course, it is known to one and all that the DG/CCF is a specialist in architectural conservation, not chemical conservation. Under his direction a new chemical laboratory was set up under the CCF in Anuradhapura - an unsuitable siting because of the lack of soft water, steady voltage electricity supply, contact with scientific personnel outside and scientific library facilities. New appointments were made from outside the ASD by the CCF to man the services of the new laboratory - services that were manifestly under the purview of the ASD. Early action was taken by the ASD in 1982 to prevent the Abhayagiri Project of the CCF from using uninformed men and materials for "cleaning" artefacts from their excavations, but this proved to be abortive in the long-term. Several sections of the Anuradhapura laboratory were not long later brought to Colombo and housed in the CCF premises.

CCF Act, Archaeological fieldwork

Now for the theory and practice of the cultural triangle projects from the point of view of the CCF Act of 1980. There is no provision for the CCF, through its agents and employees, to undertake archaeological works or carry out any other functions of the AC, which are specified in the Antiquities Ordinance. On the other hand, the Board of Governors of the CCF is empowered to mee expenses for the cultural triangle and other cultural projects, from the CCF. In short, the CCF is a funding authority, not an implementing authority.

It is paramount that the archaeological objectives of the CCF be achieved under the directions and control of the AC according to the provisions of the Antiquities Ordinance. The cultural triangle projects that are being implemented by the CCF have transformed this national funding body into what has been recognised by the Archaeological Department as a "rival firm" and (as a departmental wag named it) a "karachchal triangle."

It will be noted that this essay is confined to the propriety and legality of the CCF engaging in practical archaeological works after hiring the services of private "architect-conservators" and local university academics, and foreign archaeological consultants. The assessment of the merits of their work over a couple of decades would need to be done elsewhere.

Suffice it to state here that there has been periodical media criticism of the projects of the CCF, which is probably why there has been a total of three committees of study into the activities of this fund. The first (one man) committee which was appointed by the Minister of Cultural Affairs in 1991, had DG Dayaratne, formerly of the Ceylon Civil Service, and former Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Education and Cultural Affairs, as the enquiring officer. The second committee, which was appointed by the Prime Minister in 1993, had Stanley Jayewardena, a member of the Board of Governors of the CCF, as its chairman. (Ref. No. CAI/U11/6/172 of 6.9.93). The third committee, which was appointed by the Minister of Cultural Affairs in 1994, had DG Dayaratne as Chairman and, mirabile dictu, a university professor, one of the archaeological directors employed by the CCF, as a member. It is thus seen that two of these committees were not impartially constituted.

If, in the future, it is considered desirable to assess the work of the CCF, the committee of enquiry appointed by the government should consist of members who are manifestly impartial.

Article originally published in The Island (Colombo) Midweek Review of Wednesday 16 July 2003.

"Sigiriya paintings and graffiti: What KNO Dharmadasa should know" by Raja de Silva
"Sigiriya: Who are these maidens and what is their message?"
"Sigiriya: Palace in the sky or Mahayana Mandala?" review of the author's book Sigiriya and its Significance
"The Sigiriya Ladies. Who were they, why were they painted?" by Raja de Silva
Overview of the author's book Sigiriya and Its Significance home