COLOMBO: Ever since Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948, successive Sinhala-dominated governments have been launching projects to encroach on areas dominated by the minority Tamils and Muslims both to change the population pattern and to claim historical rights to those lands.

Apart from re-settlement projects called “colonization schemes” by the Tamils, the Department of Archaeology has been used to find evidence of ancient Sinhala-Buddhist settlements in these areas. The Archeology Department has not only claimed land for excavation, but has threatened the existence of a number of Hindu temples.

There is an on-going row between Sinhalese Buddhists and Tamil Hindus over a bid by the Department of Archeology to excavate and erect a Buddhist Stupa at the site of a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Ganesha, near the Hot Springs in Kanniya in Trincomalee district.

There has been resistance to this project for some time now, but particularly after President Maithripala Sirisena allegedly ordered the department to put up a Stupa there.

On June 6, the Director General Archeology, Dr.P.B.Mandawala, ordered the district authorities to put up the Stupa regardless of any opposition to it. This resulted in the Tamils launching a peaceful agitation on the spot to draw attention to the issue, which they consider to be of utmost importance to the Tamils of the North and East.

On Tuesday, a group of 2000 Tamils led by the Hindu religious leader Thengayilai Swamigal Agathiya Adigalar , Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP, S.Sritharan, and Tamil National People’s Front chief P.Gajendrakumar, made a determined effort to proceed to the Hindu temple in defiance of prohibitory orders.

Police had obtained a court injunction against the protest from the Trincomalee magistrate’s court, by arguing that the protest would cause communal tensions. But as the injunction notice was served in Sinhala only, hundreds of Tamils attempted to make their way to the site as planned.

Although the injunction stated that nobody should be allowed to enter the hot wells premises, only Tamils were stopped from entering. Sinhalese traders and counter-protesters were allowed to enter, with police protection, the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO) chief Sri Kantha said.

“Two representatives, Saivite leader Akarthiyar and the landowner of the Kanniya temple Ms Kokila Ramani, were assaulted by Sinhalese traders who splashed them with hot tea, when they were summoned by police for mediation talks,” Sri Kantha said.

Tension mounted as the Adigalar and the Tamil MP Sritharan got into a heated argument with the police officers. A clash between the Tamils and a group of Sinhalese gathered there was averted after the police allowed the Agathiya Adigalar and the trustee of the Ganesha temple to go to the temple and the Hot Springs to worship.

But the Sinhalese gathered there in numbers threatened to kill the Swami and the kovil trustee, Virakesari reported. Trouble was averted through the intervention of an official from the Chinmaya mission located in Jaffna.

At the end of it all, Agathiya Adigalar read out a statement in which he pointed out the religious importance of the Hot Springs and the Ganesha kovil adjoining it for Hindus, and said that protecting the two is of utmost importance for the existence of the Tamils in their traditional homeland in Sri Lanka’s North and East.

The Adigalar regretted that no political party or civil society organization has taken up this and the connected issue of the progressive Sinhalization of Tamil areas in the North and East.

He pointed out that successive post-independence Sri Lankan rulers have been using various government departments to encroach on the lands and religious sites associated with the Tamils in the North and East.

“The Tamils must unite and agitate peacefully to stop this. We are not against any religion, but we certainly want a Sri Lanka in which all ethnic and religious groups co-exist in harmony,” the Adigalar said.

In a report dated May 29, 2019, The Tamil Guardian reported that the administration of the Pillaiyar temple had filed a complaint with Uppuveli police and informed the Trincomalee District Secretary, who had ordered an immediate halt to the construction of the Buddha Stupa.

However, construction work had continued with the foundations of the Pillaiyar temple being destroyed, residents said.

The destruction and dumping of the temple ruins were condemned by the Association of Hindu Priests in Muttur.

"After the end of war, not only Tamil habitations but also Saivite temples are being destroyed and encroached on. We are saddened by the fact that it is some Buddhist monks who are leading the efforts to destroy Saivite and Tamil history.”

“For example, after Kankuveli Agathiyar Sivan Temple, Kallady Neeliamman Temple, Killiveddy Thirumangala Sivan Temple, and Kooniththeevu Maththalamalai Kundrathu Kumaran Temple in Mutur in the past, we want to point out that their nefarious work is being continued in Kanniya now,” the Association said in a statement.

“Everybody knows from past experiences that such activities will create increased animosity and hatred among religious and ethnic groups of this country and further the conflict.Creating issues between religions is not a righteous thing to do for any monk [of any religion]. Before, the Hindu Priests Association of Mutur strongly condemns this unrighteous act.”

“Furthermore, the Hindu Priests Association of Mutur request the Honourable President of Sri Lanka and Honourable Mano Ganesan, the Minister of National Integration and Hindu Religious Affairs with divine love that they should take immediate action regarding this issue in righteous mind," the statement said.

Discrimination Against Tamil Archeology

Renowned historian and archaeologist Dr.S.Pathmanathan told Daily Express that since the British left in 1948, archeology in Sri Lanka is vitiated by rank discrimination against the Tamils. When he was Professor of History in Peradeniya University, Dr. Pathmanathan had complained that archeological projects that could show an ancient Tamil presence in Sri Lanka were not approved.

“Wherever Tamils lived there inscriptions in the Tamil Brahmi script has been found,” he noted.

What was encouraged by the government were projects that would show early Sinhalese Buddhist presence in what the Tamils say is their homeland. The Kanniya Stupa project is only the latest in the on-going effort at make the North East a Sinhala-Buddhist habitat, Pathmanathan said.

Not surprisingly there is not as single Tamil or Muslim officer in the Department of Archeology, except at its small unit in Jaffna. According to Prof.Pathmanathan this has been the case all long since independence.

“The National Archives too has been discriminating against Tamil records, shifting them to a unit in Kandy to keep them away from the eyes of researchers who visit the archives in Colombo,” the veteran historian of the Lankan Tamils charged.

However, Prof. Pathmanathan granted that there has been a severe dearth of Tamil historians and archaeologists in Sri Lanka. And those few who are in service now lack competence, he said.

According to the historian, the idea of building a Stupa en route to the Hot Springs is to deny Tamils access to the holy Hot Springs.

Writing in 2014 in Groundviews Elijah Hoole says that until 2010 the official history of the Kanniya Hot Springs connected them to the Ravana legend. But the Archaeological Department, which had taken over the springs, reversed this.

“The revised account, available on a signboard only in Sinhalese and English, claims that the wells were part of a Buddhist Monastery,” Hoole said.

“While I do not intend to contest the historical claim of the new information board, it does prompt several urgent questions. What purpose does the government hope to serve by not including up a Tamil translation? If the ‘new’ historical claim is indeed true, would it not make sense to let the Tamil population know? And what archaeological evidence prompted the alteration?” Hoole asked.

President Makes Amends

On Thursday a high level meeting of Tamil MPs chaired by President Maithripala Sirisena, took a number of decisions to end the row in Kanniya.

Held at the request of Mano Ganeshan, Minister of National Integration and Official Languages, the meeting decided that the on-going bid to build a Stupa at the site of the Hindu temple will be suspended.

Since the 32-member archaeological advisory council has no Tamil in it, it will be expanded to include five Tamil archaeologists without whose consent no place will be earmarked for excavation.