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Friday, 3 March, 2000, 16:59 GMT
Battle to save ancient Sri Lanka
buddha
One site had enough to fill three museums
By Susannah Price in Anuradhapura

Police in Sri Lanka have found a valuable thousand year old carving stolen from one of the island's historic Buddhist sites a few weeks ago.

But after the theft of the piece, the cultural affairs ministry announced that it would increase punishments for stealing from and vandalism of ancient shrines.

monks outside temple
Monks say they have difficulty keeping hold of statues
Sri Lanka is estimated to have up to 30,000 historic monuments and religious sites which are impossible to guard properly.

Ancient cities

Anuradhapura was probably the most glorious of Sri Lanka's ancient cities and flourished as the capital for nearly one and a half thousand years.


We have complained to the police but they have not yet found the thieves

DP Gamlat, Anuradhapura Museum
The ruins of the old city are dominated by enormous dome-shaped stupas or relic chambers, which formed the centre of the vast Buddhist monastery complexes.

The temples and shrines are filled with intricate stone carvings of Buddha as well as temple guardians and royal figures.

Archaologists excavating the scattered sites here have also unearthed pieces in gold, bronze and ivory.

Enough artefacts have been found to fill three museums to overflowing.

And it is only one of the island's thousands of sites.

Vunerable

The director general of Sri Lanka's archaeology department, SU Deraniyagala admits the larger ancient cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa are vulnerable.

temple
The loot sometimes ends up aboard
Touts do their best to persuade tourists to buy what they claim are antique Buddha heads or clay figures.

However the genuine items which have been looted are sold to agents and end up in Colombo or abroad.

DP Gamlat the curator of one of Anuradhapura's museums says expert thieves, such as the ones who broke into his museum in December, know what they are looking for. " Two heads of buddha and a sculpture maybe a boddhivasta, all three are missing."

"We have complained to the police but they have not yet found the thieves,"he said.

Flower sellers line the walk to one of the most sacred shrines in Anuradhapura, the holy Bo tree.

This is believed to be a sapling of the one under which Buddha gained enlightenment.

Historians say that previously the great religious significance of such places discouraged thieves , but in recent years they have become bolder.

In the museum, there are displays of riches found near the stupas.

Many looters are convinced that such ruins still contain hidden wealth.

Looking for jewels

In a recent case vandals attacked 16 statues of Buddha, nearly a century old, smashing their faces and hands in the mistaken belief that there was treasure inside.


You have got to educate the public not to destroy the heritage

SU Deraniyagala, Sri Lankan Archaeologist
The government has set up committees in villages to try to prevent the looting and the penalities for theft or vandalism have been increased.

Security will have to be intensified if the finds at Anuradhapura and other sites are to be completely protected.

But this may not deter the professional thieves.

Dr Deraniyagala believes a fundamental change of attitude is needed.

"You have got to educate the public not to destroy the heritage," he said.

But it will be a long process - and by the time the message filters down to the next generation, much of the heritage may already have been sold or destroyed.

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