Selling culture - the Sigiriya issue

by Tharuka Dissanaike

The Daily News (Colombo) editorial page of Wednesday 3 September 2003

The Tourism Ministry has found itself in hot water. Not for the first time too... By trying to implement a tourist attraction show in Sigiriya without the involvement of key departments dealing with culture and archeology, the Ministry has managed to draw ire not just from activists who oppose the project idealistically, but also their own counterparts in the government.

The Sigiriya Evening Walk was described in detail in most weekend newspapers, the media too taking a critical and activist view of the project, along with Buddhist monks and conservationists. The proposal, fine tuned by Norwegian consultants was to have a 'magical, illuminated walk' in the garden area of Sigiriya close to the start of the steps.

The walking tourist would then be treated to a full-scale reproduction of Kashyapa's dramatic history and the making of his fortress kingdom. The attractions would include bathing beauties, elephants and labourers toiling over the construction.

Other than disturbing the site, creating opportunity for artifact thieving and mindless vandalism, the night walk is also accused of distorting real history in its story line. Much of what is popularly known of Kashyapa is myth, the Mahavamsa having accorded this King a very minimal mention. So any dramatic reproduction of Kashyapa's life has to be swathed in inaccuracies.

The wasps, others pointed out, may not like the noise and disturbance of a night walk around the resting rock. And what of the surrounding wildlife in the Sigiriya sanctuary?

But the most crucial issue, as I see it, is the lack of consultation and cooperation among the key players.

The Archeology Department cannot be ignored. They are after all, the custodians of the site and any damage wrought upon the site will become their responsibility. Sigiriya is especially well protected after several attempts of vandalism, which once left the famed cloud maidens painted on the rock splattered with black tar.

The Central Cultural Fund (CCF) together with UNESCO spent over a decade trying to restore the water gardens, ponds, fountains and the moat to something akin to its former glory. Today it is sheer pleasure to walk through the moat, the gates and the gardens to reach the rock. But the CCF was also ignored abominably over the night walk issue.

As usual each department has a different story and a different peg to hang the blame on. But the papers quoted an angry Tourism Minister vowing that the walk will go ahead, despite the NORAD-funded Norweigian consultants bowing out of the project in the face of growing protests. One wonders if the scenario would have been different provided the Archeology Department and the CCF were involved from the inception....If our public service was not such a mess of professional ineptitude and secretly guarded projects.

Sigiriya undoubted is one of the country's best Tourist attractions. No one protested when the Tourist Board launched, some years ago, a project to popularize the site by calling it the eighth wonder of the world. Tourism industry and the rest of the country cheered on- everyone considered it to be a good idea.

Archeologists like Senake Bandaranayake, who have devoted a lifetime of work towards Sigiriya, often considered the site to be under exploited for well-developed Tourism. An idea was mooted many years ago to have a sound and light show along the lines of such demonstrations done in Agra Fort and Red Fort in India. The tourism industry supported this venture heartily. But eventually the 'sound and light' idea became the controversial evening walk.

Conservationists point out that India's sound and light shows are in urban locations, not in the deep jungle like Sigiriya. Kashyapa's rock needs special consideration since it was a monastic site before the King made it his fortress and of recent times, an important sanctuary for wildlife.

There is no doubt that the tourism potential that Sigiriya and other archeological sites of Sri Lanka are grossly under exploited. But can we please start from the small things.

A travel agent recently complained that there is not even a clean toilet at many sites, despite the high dollar cost of entrance tickets.

Toilets (even paying one's are fine), clean refreshments, rest rooms for tired climbers, recreational area for families should be provided.

Tourists both foreign and local- would greatly appreciate clear, simple brochures and booklets giving information of the significance of the site, which they can carry home. What we have for sale at the moment are rather dull, academically-written and uninspired booklets which only archeology students may think of purchasing.

Banning polythene from sites will be a good idea, instead of wasting much man-power in trying to clean up after littering locals. No plastic bottles, no plastic wrapped food packets inside the boundaries of historical sites. Such prohibition will open the eyes of the public as well.

These are little things that archeology custodians and the tourist industry must consider before they launch into ambitious projects that run into inevitable controversy.

Article originally published in The Daily News (Colombo) editorial page of Wednesday 3 September 2003.

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