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Kuragala: A beacon of national harmony

22 Jan 2022

 
  • Sufis condemn being labelled as extremists by YouTube channels and TV stations
  • Agreement reached to allow Sufi shrine to operate: Kuragala Rajamaha Viharaya 
  • No plan to remove existing structures: Archaeology Department
  By Sarah Hannan Public attention has now renewed over the Kuragala sacred site in the backdrop of ongoing construction work receiving personal attention from President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Army Commander Gen. Shavendra Silva along with the blessings of the Chief Prelates of the four Buddhist Nikayas. The work is being monitored by the Chief Incumbent of the Nelligala International Buddhist Centre. The site has been at the centre of contention in relation to which faith it resonates with the most. Popularly known to Sufi Muslims as Daftar Jailani and to the rest of the population as Kuragala, the site holds archaeological significance for Sri Lanka given its geo-location on the Balangoda plateau. With construction of the new Akasa Cheithya style dagoba underway, the country’s Sufi community is raising concerns of moves to bury remnant monuments of the Ziyarams located at the foot of the Kuragala hill, while also decrying attempts by various YouTube channels to paint the Sufi community as extremists.  Speaking to The Sunday Morning, Dewatagaha Mosque Trustee Riyaz Salley noted: “A recent video aired on a popular TV station hinted that extremist factions had settled in the area by force. We condemn their assumption that Sufis are extremists. The Sufi shrine, dedicated to the famous Sufi mystic said to have meditated in the Kuragala caves for 13 years during his visit to the country, has stood there for over a century. We never laid claims on the area itself but have requested time and again that our devotees are allowed to peacefully hold prayers and conduct the flag-hoisting ceremony that we held for over 130 years.”   He was dismayed that groups were trying to create ethno-religious tension at such an ancient site, which has been frequented by Sufi mystics and Buddhist monks since the 14th Century.   The Sunday Morning contacted Kuragala Rajamaha Viharaya to inquire about the ground reality at the site and whether the Sufi shrine would still remain at the site after the construction of the temple was completed. Agreement with Sufi shrine Rukshan, who was designated to attend to phone calls on the day, responded: “We have special permission from the Department of Archaeology to carry out the construction work. We are well aware of the archaeological importance of the site and will not remove or demolish any of the structures that are present. An agreement was reached with the Moulavi in charge of the Sufi shrine, and we have said that they can continue to hold prayers and their religious rites as they see fit.”  Rukshan also stated that once the construction was completed, people from all ethnicities and religions would be allowed to enter the Kuragala Sacred Site and conduct their religious practises at the areas they believe hold significance. “We do not want any division or tension to take place among communities. Look at Adam’s Peak and Kataragama – both these sites allow people from all religions to visit the sacred sites and take part in their religious rituals. It is the vision of our Chief Incumbent that this place will become a beacon of national harmony,” Rukshan elaborated. When The Sunday Morning asked Rukshan if we could speak to any of the Buddhist clergy in charge of the project, he stated that they were not comfortable with providing comments to the media over the phone. Construction outside research area Given that the area was once under the purview of the Department of Archaeology, which named it as a site of archaeological importance, The Sunday Morning asked Department of Archaeology Director General Anura Manatunga whether special clearance had been given to conduct the construction work in Kuragala. “The construction work is taking place away from the areas where research is conducted. Moreover, we have appointed an officer to monitor the construction activity, so we can ensure that the artefacts, inscriptions, or ruins from the older buildings will be protected. Fragments of skeletal remains that we dug out have now been sent to the Natural History Museum for carbon dating. Our archaeologists presume they are at least 16,000 years old, but we have to wait for the completed report from the museum to determine this,” Manatunga explained.  When asked whether there were any plans to remove the Sufi shrine or Ziyarams from the site, he responded: “The monuments and the shrine in question do not come under the purview of the Department of Archaeology. No directive has been issued to remove the structures either.” Manatunga noted that the department was still carrying out research to determine the age of the structures. Therefore, at present, he said there was no plan to remove any of the structures.  State Minister of National Heritage, Performing Arts, and Rural Arts Promotion Vidura Wickramanayaka told The Sunday Morning: “The Government is carrying out restoration and conservation work at a few of the historical sites to replicate the monuments. However, these are done in a way that does not damage the existing artefacts or ruins for which research is being carried out. In terms of what is taking place, the best person to answer your questions is the Director General of Archaeology.” No letter, only phone calls Last Friday (21), a daily Tamil newspaper had reported that Ven. Waturakumbura Dhammarathana Thera had sent a letter of request to the Trustees of Daftar Jailani Shrine and the Wakf Board directing them to remove the shrine and other structures. However, when The Sunday Morning contacted Wakf Board Chairman Sabry Halimdeen for clarification, he stated that the board had received no such letter. “Should there be a letter sent demanding the removal of the shrine and the other buildings and monuments connected to the shrine, it should be sent to the Trustees of Daftar Jailani and the Department of Muslim Cultural and Religious Affairs. The Wakf Board will only be involved if there are any legal provisions addressed. To our knowledge, we have not received such correspondence.”  The Sunday Morning then contacted the Department of Muslim Cultural and Religious Affairs Director I. Ansar to inquire whether they were informed of or were in receipt of such correspondence from Ven. Dhammarathana Thera, to which Ansar responded: “I was contacted by the Trustees of Daftar Jailani Shrine about the issue. They had received several telephone calls from various groups asking them to remove the shrine and other structures. I invited the Board of Trustees of Daftar Jailani to come and discuss the matter with our department. Only three of them turned up and they could not speak for the rest of the trustees. As far as an official letter is concerned, no party has received any such letters from the temple or Waturakumbura Dhammarathana Thera so far.” Removing temporary structure The Sunday Morning also reached out to Ven. Dhammarathana Thera for comment. “The structure in question is the temporary mosque that the trustees have built along the cave. We requested the Trustees of Daftar Jailani to remove the structure built out of aluminium roofing sheets. Furthermore, we offered to build a suitable and appropriate structure to match the architecture of the area and donate it to them so that Islam devotees could visit the Kuragala site and conduct their prayers. We have no objection to people of any faith visiting the site and carrying out religious observances. In fact, we have communicated to the Board of Trustees of Daftar Jailani on several occasions that the site will remain as a multi ethno-religious similar to that of Adam’s Peak.” The Thera also noted that he was yet to receive a favourable response for the request that he made from the Muslim community. He further stated that the residents of Balangoda were willing to peacefully settle this matter and were also in agreement with the Thera on building a structure to complement the area’s architecture. He also explained that when Buddhist devotees visit the Kuragala Rajamaha Viharaya which is under construction, they tend to perceive it as an eyesore since the roofing sheets disrupt the aesthetics of the caves and the inscriptions.  *A detailed account about the site and the disputes around it is listed in the report published by the Secretariat for Muslims in June 2015 titled ‘Of Sacred Sites and Profane Politics: Tensions over Religious Sites and Ethnic Relations, Vol I, Kuragala/Jailani and Devanagala’.  

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