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Excavating truth

Involving people in heritage preservation is important says the professor

WHO IS the new age archaeologist? Is it Indiana Jones at a temple complete with whip and machete or the studious Howard Carter peering through an opening at the gold and treasures of King Tutankhamun's tomb. "I interpret archaeology as a social activist and a humanist. An archaeologist is necessarily one who is sensitive to cultures and reads into the past with no parochialism, " says Dr. Sudharshan Seneviratne.

Professor of Archaeology and Head of the Department at the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka, Seneviratne received his University education in India - his B.A (Hon.) degree from Hindu College, New Delhi and was the first Sri Lankan to receive both the Masters and Doctoral degrees from the Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Wanderlust teamed with academia has helped Seneviratne over the past three decades uncover the mysteries of Sri Lanka and India and make a lasting contribution to cross regional studies and interpretive archaeology. A member of a number of policy making committees in his home country, he is Director of the UNESCO-World Heritage site, the Jetavana at Anuradhapura. The twice Fulbright professor who recently spoke on his work on the Jetavana at the library hall of the Department of Archaeology and Museums said, "As an archaeologist and historian it is my honour to share my knowledge."

Speaking on the culture of restoration and preservation in Sri Lanka, he said that seven cultural sites, one natural site and the incomparably beautiful colonial site at Galle which houses the only existing intact Dutch Fort in the world, enjoyed unprecedented protection. "Sri Lanka has a transoceanic culture in its monuments. No archaeological site can be touched by anyone in Sri Lanka. This stricture helps immensely in protecting existing sites and ones yet undiscovered." He added that charging an entry fee in dollars and university departments adopting a site helped maintain these heritage spots.

What Seneviratne found very surprising about our heritage filled twin cities was that not one of its hundreds of monuments, forts and palaces was listed as a world heritage site. "It's not just the city. Even Andhra Pradesh, which has a dear place in my heart is not featured amongst world heritage sites. If the Pallava temples of Kanchipuram could qualify why not those of the Kakatiyas of Warangal? These sites are the pivotal points of the southern civilizations."Seneviratne however stressed that to acquire a world heritage status, Hyderabad's monuments still had a long way to go. "There are a number of clauses to be fulfilled, one of the most important being a partnership with the surrounding ecosystem. Heritage monuments should include a certain amount of landscaping." The professor also outlined that involving the local community to be the guardians of heritage was important. "In Sri Lanka we carry out administrative programmes in which the main stakeholders are children. Through UNESCO clubs we get them involved in preservation work. In Kandy, where I live, each school maintains a section of the city."

The professor believes that archaeology has a definite say in conflict resolution. "The conflict in Sri Lanka has not seen any wilful destruction but there has been a lot of damage to monuments by both factions. Cadets in defence academies have to now compulsorily undergo a course on how best to preserve monuments that may fall into areas under conflict."

Seneviratne also says that excavating has its funny moments. "I was stumped when I came across a wine jar in a Buddhist vihara. Don't ask me what it was doing there. But one of the pleasures that an archaeologist enjoys is the aesthetics of nature."

The professor who seems to have found the balance between archaeology and the academe found the Charminar charming and says that beyond crypts, ciphers and civilizations there is "an unmistakeable romance about archaeology".


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