admin On dicembre - 27 - 2013

Exclusive Interview with Dr. Palitha T. B. Kohna,

Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations

by Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi

His Excellency Ambassador Dr. Palitha T.B. Kohona of Sri Lanka, through this exclusive interview depicts the wonders of “The UNESCO listed Cultural Triangle” in his country, tributed at the AIA's International Archaeology Day celebrations:

How was the International Archeology Day conceived and how does it embrace Sri Lanka?

It was hosted by New York’s Hunter College Archaeology students and the National Archeology Society, a very prestigious society with members who are extremely knowledgeable of the subject and are curious and want to learn more about the topic. Sri Lanka has some of the biggest and most ancient archeological sites in the world, the country’s recorded history goes back 2500 years and the pre-history goes back 30 000 years, in fact one of the earliest skeletons of Homo Sapiens comes from Sri Lanka. The country eventually also developed a primitive iron industry: the original inhabitants used iron tools, and then of course there was an influx of migrants from Northern India, who brought with them more advanced technology, tools, architecture and religion. Our first capital was established around 300 B.C., when the King Pandukabaya Tissa unified the various tribes and created a unified kingdom, in Anuradhapura. This place is still inhabited today: on one side you have the vast archeological sites and on the other side you find the modern city. The outer wall of the city was almost 40 miles long, which gives you an indication of how big the city was at the time, it was also very well designed, with some resemblance to modern cities, with a grid system for the roads, four major entrances, gates and then there were quarters for the artisans, soldiers, aristocracy and so on, the city was well managed. Then over the years this city flourished, and its prosperity and reputation grew.

So this is the major site of the Cultural Triangle of Unesco?

Yes, the Cultural Triangle has Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Kandy, as main points of the compass and within them there other main historical sites such as Dambulla and Sigiriya. Anuradhapura has been invaded over and over again by South Indian invaders. Through the years, princes would raise an army and kick-out the invaders, this went on for centuries. In the third century B.C.Buddhism came to Sri Lanka, when the Emperor Ashoka of India, who ruled from modern day Afghanistan to Bangladesh, sent his son, who was a Buddhist monk as a missionary, who converted the king, and subsequently his daughter, who was also a missionary, came along. The order of monks and nuns was thusly established in Sri Lanka. The introduction of Buddhism resulted in a huge effloresce of buildings, culture and progress, throughout the country. One of the key outward manifestations of Buddhism in Sri Lanka is the construction of stupas dagoba, you find them all over the world, but in Sri Lanka they are unique: they’re very simple semi-globular structures, which normally contain some relic argo of the Buddha himself. A king who kicked-out a southern-Indian invader, around 236 B.C. went on to construct the Ruwanwelisaya who rose to 300 feet in the sky, at the time it was the highest brick structure in the world. Then 70 years later a descendent of this king proceeded to build another stupa, taller than the previous one, which became the major centre of learning, which belonged to a different school of Buddhism, where there are Chinese inscriptions. Five thousand students studied there, it was basically a university, not only religion was taught there, but also social sciences, ethics, medicine and a whole range of subjects. In the ancient world, these structures were the tallest and the engineering attainments were impressive, because their weight would have caused them to collapse after sometime or sink into the earth, but none of them did.

Sri Lanka’s engineering skills were proved also in the construction of water reservoirs…

Most of Sri Lanka is considered to be dry, you get rain only during one season three months a year, the rest of nine months tends to get dry, but the society used to be agricultural. Every king considered a duty to ensure that agriculture flourished. So every river and stream was dammed, redirecting water to fields, through canals. So Sri Lanka invented a valve system 2000 years ago to help agriculture.

Besides the stupas what other acquisitions from India are now part of Sri Lanka’s heritage?

The Tooth Relic of the Buddha. Around the third century, when the Buddha died, his body was cremated in a sandalwood pyre, but some parts of his body weren’t incinerated, like the teeth, some bones and hair, which were collected by the kings of Northern India, and distributed amongst themselves. A prince from the city of Udeni, who had become a Buddhist, came to worship the sacred tooth. King Guhaseeva was pleased with him, and let him marry his daughter. The prince was known as Dantha and the princess as Hemamala, they both had to flee from India during one of the attacks and brought the tooth relic with them to Sri Lanka, where it is still kept and revered by thousands of pilgrims from all over the world who visit. Historically this became the symbol of royal power in Sri Lanka, so if you wanted to rule the country, you had to have control over the tooth relic, if not you lost your rights to the throne. Even the British in the nineteenth century, one of the first things that they did was secure the tooth the relic, so the people would stop resisting. Today it is separated from the state and controlled by a religious entity, although the newly elected president always pays symbolic homage to the relic.

Is there another spiritual memento, just as significant as the tooth relic?

Another Buddhist relic is Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi, the sacred fig tree in Anuradhapura, the oldest verified specimen of any angiosperm. This is oldest tree with a recorded history. When the daughter of Emperor Ashoka came across to establish the order of nuns, she also brought with her a branch, or sapling, off the Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya in India, under which the Buddha attained Enlightenment. It has meticulous records of 2000 years, made by the monks, so this is the tree that continued through all sorts of adversities and is still here today, and it is another highly venerated religious object.

What is the United Nations doing to safeguard Sri Lanka’s cultural heritage?

Unesco has a system of listing important sites around the world, once the site is recognised as important, it becomes an obligation of the international community as well as the national government to ensure the safety, security of these sites, that become the heritage of humanity. The eight sites of Sri Lanka, inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage, are the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, the ancient city of Sigiriya, the Golden Temple of Dambulla, the old town of Galle and its fortifications, the sacred city of Anuradhapura, the sacred city of Kandy, Sinharaja Forest Reserve and the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka.


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