The spectre of ugliness: desecrating sacred spaces




A few months ago, Sri Lanka witnessed on camera the incredulous sight of Buddhist monks in saffron robes running amok in a small, vulnerable, poor people’s mosque in Dambulla. The reason for the attack apparently was that the little mosque was taking up too much of the sacred space of the Dambulla Rangiri Buddhist temple, a feudal landlord owning thousands of acres. The monks in question did not pause to think that their action of unloving unkindness was a desecration of sacred space by any sacred book. In this case, the religion also happened to be Buddhism, based on the principles of non-violence, compassion and tolerance.

Now that some water has flown under the bridge since that incident – although a resolution remains unclear  – it is opportune to ponder on the meaning of sacred spaces to all of us.  I had not been to the Dambulla cave temple since I was a teenager. The last I remember of it is a rather simple whitewashed entrance that led to several caves with impressive statues of a myriad Buddhas, but also of Vishnu and Saman, and magnificent frescoes on the cave walls depicting the life of the Buddha, his past lives, as well as the myths and legends of the island. These images of the Buddha and his life are, of course, sacred art and objects of veneration to the faithful who came from all corners of Sri Lanka.


Buddha in the marketplace


What took me by surprise in the aftermath of the act of violence in Dambulla was a photo of the hideous new façade of the Rangiri Golden Temple, which by itself should constitute a desecration of a sacred space – an insult to the master sculptors and painters of the Kandy period, creators of the art inside the Dambulla caves. Small wonder then that people surrounding themselves with such ugliness would not go around desecrating a humble sacred space of fellow citizens practising another religion. No, I am not being facetious here.

It was in the early 1970s that one of Sri Lanka’s foremost anthropologists, referred to a trend, which he termed “Buddha in the market place”. Newly moneyed people who had one foot in the country and the other in town, (there were barely any cities then) went around with collection sheets and/or persuaded local political leaders to construct garish Buddha statues in many prominent locations, not only confined to the “market place”.  He pointed out that Buddha statues used to be in Buddhist temples, tucked away in little villages or neigbourhoods. This enterprise of bringing Buddhas into public spaces has expanded exponentially during recent times. Is there is any street corner left untouched by one of these mass produced, crude plaster mould statues, adorned with christmas lights blinking furiously into the night? The meteoric rise of street corner Buddhism seems to have some correlation with the rising power of the JHU and their increased political legitimacy in Parliament.

The problem is not only that these people cannot see an empty street corner without wanting to install a Buddha statue there. As of late when they see an empty hill-top, they want to place a statue there too. Sri Lanka’s countryside is studded with beautiful hills, covered in verdant forests or gardens, occasionally dotted by a small white stupa or some other inconspicuous shrine. Lest we forget, the tops of these hills were once sacred spaces to our Veddah ancestors. Climb one of them and even if you are a non-religious person, a feeling of spirituality encompasses you – standing underneath the wisps of clouds floating in a blue sky, with the wind blowing in your hair and the marvellous patchwork of lemon green paddy fields, emerald gardens, specks of houses and shimmering tanks spread below your eyes. But take a glance at a hilltop now and you immediately want to blindfold your eyes. These once sacred hill-tops of the Veddahs are increasingly being desecrated by gigantic, monstrous Buddha statues, with non-compassionate eyes glaring at you.

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Shared spaces of more than one religion


Compare these statues with the work of our master sculptors in stone, such as the Samadhi Buddha in Anuradhapura or the reclining Buddha in Polonnaruwa. We can start weeping for the sadness of it all. Do we, the descendants of a civilization that produced such beauty, have to accept these new monstrosities thrust upon us? What does that say of us? Our renowned anthropologist has warned us that the aesthetic ugliness of these new statues amounts to the “uglification” of the Buddha’s spiritual message and the “inner uglification” of the Buddhist conscience. The once noble Buddhist message and conscience were tenets of our society and culture, regardless of which ethnic group to which we belong or which religion we practice or not.

One reason for this common ground was that many of our holiest of spaces are shared sacred spaces of more than one religion. For centuries, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian shrines have existed side by side. Kataragama and Adam’s Peak are examples that come immediately to mind but think also of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Kandy, Dambulla, Madhu and so on.  Anuradhapura, apparently in its heyday, even hosted Greek and Jewish temples. Visited by thousands of devotees, these spaces have been declared as “Sacred Areas” by the government, which invests in their maintenance and in providing facilities for the use of pilgrims. This by itself is not a bad thing. However, the process of being transformed into official “Sacred Areas” has resulted in a space belonging to small people being taken away by an insidious, dominant form of Buddhism, aligned with state power, creeping into the fabric of these sacred spaces, an agenda relentlessly pursued by fundamentalist Buddhists with political support.

This contrasts with the practice of Buddhist kings in the past who considered Buddhism as a shade giving tree of sufficient largess to nurture and protect all other religions practised by the diverse groups of Sri Lanka.  A sacred space was sacred precisely because it was sacred to all. It was this important principle that was violated by the Buddhist monks in Dambulla and their political supporters. Did anybody in authority take it upon themselves to admonish or punish these monks? Not Malwatte, not Asgiriya, not the government. Apparently the monks conveniently have their own order, which is not under the disciplinary jurisdiction of either Asgiriya or Malwatte.


Taking over shared spaces


Unfortunately these Buddhist fundamentalist attempts are not limited to major “Sacred Areas” or occasionally violent events reported by the media. Smaller, local Hindu and Muslim sacred spaces in the North and East are regularly being eclipsed or taken over for Buddhist temples or hideous statues. This process is even taking place in the deity shrines (devales) of the South. These devales, hosting a series of major and minor deities, are small sacred spaces, local “power spots”, associated with but not controlled by Buddhism.  They have been cornerstones of rural farming communities and their harvest rituals, officiated by part-time priests, the kapuralas. The devales, just as Hindu kovils, are the places where Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims worship side by side, recognizing one another’s gods and goddesses and sharing one another’s bhakthi.

In my wanderings across the country, time and again I have marvelled at how these sacred spaces with their expansive rituals, inclusive of all local deities and their worshippers, nurtured and preserved ethnic co-existence during the worst excesses of the conflict. What were once small tile roofed buildings besides a ficus or mango tree, aesthetically pleasing in their simplicity, are now more often than not hidden by two storey kade facades, occupied and controlled by politically powerful, wheeler-dealer monks, concealed behind saffron robes.

A spectre is haunting our land – the spectre of ugliness. Perhaps it is time to make a stand and put a stop to the desecration of sacred spaces by those with little taste, little bhakthi, little compassion and little tolerance?

Freedom, Religion and Dambulla : A photoessay by Navin Weeraratne


Of threatened shrines and threatened people

This gallery contains images which are displayed in three pages below. Note that the captions are not viewable in slideshow mode.


Dambulla : A must-see photoessay of a day trip by ‘Sootch’ and Navin

NAVIN WEERARATNE : Threatened shrines and threatened people

Gaya’s intro : I had a hard time finding out the real meaning of the events in Dambulla and I failed to get a clear answer. The events were very clearly reported in the Groundviews reports. Yet it was rather strange to see a metal shed sealed off; to me a mosque was an imposing structure in white, much like the mosque near the Galle Fort.

The power of the monk concerned and his history were enough to shock you into wondering how on earth, so many amazing and heartwarming people could live in a small space, where corrupt power-hungry thugs parade themselves with blatant impunity. I felt repulsed. I squinted at the Italian sunlight and tried to talk myself out of believing in the saving grace in Sri Lanka. [Read more…]