Midweek Review
Anuradhapura: A disappointment!

by Vijaya Jayasuriya
Visiting Anuradhapura (A’pura) after almost 45 years (!) since my first ever journey there in my early boyhood, I was quite justifiably expecting to see a resplendent city maintained as a fine showpiece of our ancient historical heritage. Yet alas! Almost all my optimistic hopes were shattered to smithereens witnessing the parlous state of most of the sacred religious sites, the once brimful tanks showing signs of imminent drying-up, a hopelessly primitive highway leading to the city from Dambulla and most of all, the heavily degenerated ethos of the city dwellers more often than not making an utterly desperate effort to eke out a living fleecing the unsuspecting visitor thereby tarnishing the image of the place.

What the American visitor (Daniel R. Rauchman: ‘The Island’: 7-8-2002) had to say about Anuradhapura is the impression that he had got from a foreigner’s viewpoint visiting it probably for the first time in his life, yet my account here constitutes a downright disappointment of the high hopes one would have cherished to see the greatest and probably the most important of our ancient capital cities in view of the billions or perhaps even quadrillions we may have dumped in both local and foreign funds in the name of modern development projects during the half-century since independence and also considering the tremendous volume of patriotism professed by our rulers of many successive regimes.

Let’s first take the approach to the city from the direction of Dambulla. It is indeed a serious misnomer to call it a ‘highway’, though it is flamboyantly called A 9 (part of being A 13 from Galkulama), for there is little evident improvement of it whatsoever ever since fifties when my maternal uncle’s brand new ‘Opel Record’ streaked along without many potholes or roughedges to break our ribs! Not that the road is too bad to be coasting on, but it is indeed a pity why it has not so far been made a four-lane highway in line with say, the Wadiyamankada (in Western Province)—Battaramulla road or even Colombo-Katunayake speed way. I could hardly imagine myself to be travelling towards an important ancient city perennially thronged by loads of tourists when our bus had to slow down while negotiating a bend with a slower one in front and therefore jibbing at overtaking in the face of oncoming traffic. Surely our political celebrities with their blotted egos do enjoy the chopper rides for the mere asking at public expence and they do not give tuppence for spending a billion on a stretch of land with sparce population thus fetching few votes by road improvement! What uncouthness!

A’pura is our most important ancient capital city sanctified by a tradition of tremendous service rendered to Buddhist civilization as well as agriculture by a long line of great monarchs. Spanning a period of between 3rd Century BC and 11th AD, chief among these kings were Devanampiyatissa (Isurumuniya, Thuparama, Thisawewa); Uththiya (Ambasthala Chethiya), Dutugemunu (Mirisavetiya, Ruvanveliseya and Lovamahapaya); Walagamba (Abhayagiriya and Lankaramaya); Mahasen (Jethavana Viharaya) and Dhatusena (Aukana) who made a unique contribution to the establishment of the great ‘Theravada’ Buddhism with their stupendous achievements in the form of a vast amount of artistic and architectural feats marking their true devotion to the doctrine. The sheer awe-inspiring sight of these creations is testimony also to the spiritual standards that they had attained during this bygone era that had even facilitated, according to our ancient chronicles like Mahavamsa, the emergence of monks who achieved the highest spiritual plane of ‘arahath’ in this tiny island of ours.

If our post-independence rulers had had an iota of such spiritual frame of mind without the hanky panky of just making offerings (of flowers to the shrine and Mercedeses to the gullible Sangha), this country would never have fallen into the sordid morass of moral, political, economic and spiritual degeneration we are currently going through.

A telling example of this spiritual decay in A’pura is the pathetic state in which the famous ‘Samadhi’ statue is currently allowed to exist. An epitome of the Buddha’s four well-known personality traits (‘Sathara Bamba Viharana’) i.e. Karuna, Meththa, Muditha and Upekkha and thus being powerful source of inspiration for anyone aspiring to higher mental capacities, this statue should be kept in the highest esteem by all practising Buddhists. (We know how the late Indian Prime Minister Javaharlal Nehru on his visit to A’pura stood in stark silence looking at the statue awe-struck and rapt in admiration of it).

What is the condition of this valuable artistic creation today? I was simply flabbergasted to look at the sheer derelict state of the surroundings receiving only just the slightest perfunctory care. Considering how most newly erected Buddha statues, e.g. the one at Colombo Viharamahadevi Park and another facing BMICH are kept in spick and span condition and in view of the way most other sacred places are maintained, the way Sri Lankan ethos has taken nowadays is quite clear: even religion being abused as a means of just protection and material gain rather than a way to sublime bliss. It is true that the Buddha also preached how to lead a good worldly life (‘Singalowada Suththa’) through Buddhist principles, yet to merely use religion as a private chattel or to make a mystique of it for gaining one’s hedonistic ends is taking mean advantage of it forgetting the central aim of the doctrine.

It is bounden duty of practising Buddhists as well as official custodians of the ‘Samadhi’ statue in ‘Mahamevuna Uyana’ to make it a place of worship and meditation that can inspire the minds of particularly the plebeian crowds who require external stimuli to take to such higher-order mental activity. I think our Sandha as a community is directly responsible for the tragic neglect of this spiritual aspect of Buddhism in their preoccupation with promoting popular Buddhism what with various types of pujas, pleadings etc. How many of our hordes of Buddhists today really appreciate the value of ‘Dhamma’ as a way of gaining spiritual peace through renunciation of material pleasures? No end of ‘bana’ or ‘Bodhi pujas’ will never help them gain such heights while only active practice of tenets of ‘Dhamma’ can do it. Very few places like Maharagama Dharmayathanaya appear to be serving the devotees in such a manner and this is hardly emulated by our monk community at large.

All tanks, particularly the two major ones - ‘Thisa Wewa’ and ‘Nuwara Wewa’ had reached their lowest levels it being drought season and according to residents of the city we talked to, Malwathuoya the only river feeding these tanks is getting less and less of rain resulting in them being reduced to mere ponds. Apart from world environmental conditions, a criminal campaign of deforestation all over the island with not only the connivance but even active patronage of politicians is obviously wreaking havoc on our watersheds and it is high time politicos representing this area took cognizance of this fact and got cracking if they at least have yet to fulfil their own political aspirations!

As for the neglect of the major Buddhist canon of ‘Ahimsa’, A’pura is no exception compared to other parts of the country and in certain cases worse than them. I had the sight of yokels engaged in hauling in innocent fish using hand-nets in all the tanks we visited now that the creatures are trapped in shallow waters. One would very well argue that farming and fisheries make strange bed-fellows with religion and my humble rejoinder is that this is the crux of most of our problems today - hedonism and nihilism taking a heavy toll on all positive human values. As another example I have heard that a vast area around A’pura has become a major supplier of cattle for slaughter houses in Colombo and other places! Of course, for these sinners religion is one thing and livelihood is quite a different kettle of fish!

While the vendors we encountered were mostly similar to their cohorts elsewhere, some of them proved to be diabolical money-grubbers! One boutique keeper charged us Rs. 28/- for a small 500ml. bottle of water that costs only Rs. 20/- in Colombo, while the tea room at the ‘Vishrama Shalava’ where we stayed was so unscrupulous as to sell us a mere cup of ‘kahata’ without sugar at Rs. 3.50 that would not cost even a rupee in our areas. The three-wheeler drivers whom we patronised off an on in our outings in the evenings were luckily very considerate people (a ‘freak’ one would say by Colombo standards!) Who only charged a nominal fare and even went out of their way to give us an ample description of many places we visited.

The archaeological museum should have been a fine experience had we only been able to visit it without having to leave in a hurry. Yet whether it is that good old Department founded by such a legendary personage like H. C. P. Bell and brought to its zenith by none other than Dr.Senerath Paranawithana, or the controversial ‘Cultural Triangle’ that is responsible for the upkeep of the religious sites, it is indeed a stupendous task to protect this unique heritage like our own private lives - the sad state of paintings and other works of art at places like Gadaladeniya etc etc and the plunder of valuable artefacts the latest reported being from Ruvanveliseya premises just a few days ago - displaying notoriously lax security arrangements speak volumes of how seriously we are taking the whole business. There is the perennial excuse of lack of funds, yet why then do we continue as just figure heads until the last of what is in our charge disappears?

The Cultural Triangle appears to be performing a Herculian task with loads of ancient ruins strewn all over places and sometimes neatly stacked nearby. In spite of complaints of misdeeds by contractors etc. Work appears to be moving at a steady pace. Here too only realization of the value of what is involved through a sense of spirituality can prevent waste - a misgiving that was lingering in my mind watching the work in progress was whether the AID programme will last till we finalize the work on these sites! My fears stem from experience in the field of education where we happen to implement programmes and new syllabuses depending more on the vagaries in donor agencies than on realistic needs analyses!

All those visiting A’pura are not pilgrims, the majority often being tourists while most locals too go there seeking fun and frolic. This is quite understandable in view of the trend popular Buddhism is taking these days, yet it is a heartening fact to see that there are also many young people worshipping the sites with immense devotion. The young residents of the city whom we happened to consult for directions on our many treks around also proved to be very considerate and helpful often going out of their way to provide us with guidance. The saddening fact therefore is that it is this type of younger generation we adults keep misleading day in day out by our depraved and unholy ways of living - wanton destruction of lives and the environment etc.

Any souvenirs you can take away from A’pura? Well, we did not have the chance for want of time to step into any posh places in the ‘New Town’ if at all selling anything like curios, and were only able to talk to the vendors who had a little display of them near the sites. Although many of them appeared to be works by dilettanti and therefore not fine objects of art, they announced extremely prohibitive prices as if they were imagining them to be masterpieces and rarely did we notice even affluent-looking tourists cast more than a casual glance at them! We must not on the one hand underestimate the value of our craftsmen and should see to their likelihood too, yet on the other hand the locals visiting the city should have a chance to buy a memento at an affordable price like what we experienced visiting several places in Kandy the other day.

Finding lodgings in A’pura is more often than not a bit of a hassle for the visitor. We tried Tourist Board in Colombo prior to our journey, yet they were closed on that Saturday! When most of the private sector is in full swing on Saturdays nowadays, and also taking the cue from the good old CWE, why can’t the TB people have at least two clerks in their Head Office at Galle Face just being considerate of the visitors? Even the Dutugemunu Rest had their office at Pettah closed on that Saturday making us desperately hunting for accommodation, and none of the places had some decent rooms to offer us, while certain ‘hotels’ raised our eye-brows with exhorbitant price-tags like Rs. 2000 per day with just bed and breakfast/dinner.

What we managed to find at last was the Ratnamali Rest where a luxury room cost Rs. 900 per day with neither AC nor a mosquito net! Only a decent bathroom was available while there were no bedside switches nor rugs at the entrance or anywhere else. With hordes of mosquitos swarming around you for which only the ceiling fan was recommended by the management, isn’t the charge a little too high? Yet we had to put up with it for want of any other option.

Anuradhapura is undoubtedly our major Buddhist centre of worship and the spiritual upliftment one derives being there is a unique experience in one’s life. Its vast expanses of open land dwarfing any other site like Kataragama or Kandy, the large number of places of significance and the exceptional diversity of attractions i.e. stupendous dagebas, statues, exquisite stoneworks like moonstones and take more than a month to cover if given proper attention. My greatest disillusionment about this great city is the fact that the most important advantage we can derive from it - i.e. the promoting of one’s inner purity rather than external forms of worship is hardly being given scope the way the places are run by the authorities. This is of course part of the duty of the Sangha as well as the trustees who look after these sacred places. Even the uglier seamy side of life here often highlighted by our national press could hopefully be greatly discouraged if this type of spiritual aspect were emphasised in the management of affairs in this city.