Open season once again for vandalizing historic Gokanna


 By Janaka Liyanaarachchi and

Saman Mallawarachchi

The historic Gokannapura is once again being vandalized by a gang of religious fundamentalists. Tribalism reigns, clearly. Religious extremism, which we have been taught to abhor and condemns, has raised its ugly head once again in what is today called Trincomalee. The law, apparently, does not have any currency in this area. It remains retired in the matter of application.

The area around the Koneswaram Kovil is an archaeological site coming under the relevant statutes pertaining to construction. The archaeological record indicates that the historic Gokanna temple stood where the Kovil now stands. There’s heritage here that goes back to more than 18 centuries. This is why this is an area that comes under the jurisdiction of the Department of Archaeology.

The statutes are clear with respect to any excavation or construction taking place in such an area. It has to have the green light of the Department and moreover has to be supervised by relevant experts. There’s no way that the premises on which the Koneswaram Temple is located can be exempted from these safeguards.

However, it appears that there are people who don’t give a damn about such regulations. It is as though the place has been earmarked for the play of vandals and vandalism. Three years ago there was an excavation in the area to put up a building. What was dug up to put in a foundation ended up with the unearthing of artifacts that were more than 1500 years old. The Department, having got wind of this, went to court to put a stop to what amounted to a wanton destruction of heritage. The court ordered that all construction activity must cease immediately. Several of the perpetrators were sentenced. The Department submitted that if indeed expansion of the temple were necessary they were ready to offer advice and direction. The trustees wanted to dig deep. The Department did not grant permission. That was the end of that discussion.

However, on the 5th of December 2015, excavations have been recommenced secretively at Koneshwaram Temple. The Department has prohibited any building materials such as sand, cement or bricks to be brought into the area. The Army, which has a post within the larger Koneswaram area, was tasked to enforce this order. And yet, there was sand and rock that had been surreptitiously brought into the Kovil area. Department officials who investigated despite protests from the Kovil trustees discovered that the artifacts that had been unearthed three years previously had gone missing. The Department is now forced to seek relief from the courts once again.

The plight that the Department finds itself in is not surprising given the lack of teeth to enforce the relevant acts. However this act of vandalism and barefaced flouting of the law can have repercussions that go beyond the destruction of artifacts that have archaeological value. It can snowball into an inter-religious conflict the country can very well do without. The solution is not to remain silent about it fearing that the sentiments of this religious community or that religious community may get hurt. The answer is to speak the truth of this invasion and have the matter discussed widely, especially with the involvement of the scientific community.

It is now established that the island consisted of many important trading posts strategically located around the coast. A high point at each of these trading ports was marked with a majestic dagoba. Gokanna was one such place. It is a historic pudabima or sacred ground.

The first historical mention of the Gokanna Viharaya was during the reign of King Mahasen (274-301 AD). The area was controlled by the Theerthakas. King Mahasen, it is chronicled, evicted the Theerthakas and rebuilt the Viharaya. The indication is that the Viharaya predates the reign of Mahasen. Subsequently Agbo the Fifth and late still Parakramabahu the Fourth are said to have maintained security forces ‘from Gokanna to Wilgamuwa’.

It was the Portuguese who first vandalized the Gokanna Viharaya. In the year 1624, having taken control of the Trincomalee Harbour, the invaders destroyed the Viharaya and converted a bikkhu to Christianity. The person ‘credited’ with this particular act of vandalism is the general Constantin De Sa’a. The temple was rehabilitated during the reign of Rajasinghe the Second. Eventually, less than 150 years ago, the Koneswaram Kovil was built on the ruins of the historic Gokanna Viharaya. Buddhist artifacts that remained were destroyed or thrown away. The Trincomalee Urban Council even passed a resolution stating that the area be named a Hindu Sacred City. The Bo Tree and related constructions were duly removed/destroyed in 1964. It was not an isolated incident, though. Other places of historic importance in the Eastern Province were also razed to the ground.

The Sansoni Commission went into all this. The then Archaeological Commissioner Raja de Silva established with considerable evidence and scholarship the fact that the Gokanna Viharaya was vandalized and the Koneswaram Kovil built on its ruins. The Commission held that the entire area be considered sacred and all activity adhere to the principle of inter-religious co-existence.

This view was embraced by one and all. No one went to raze the Kovil to the ground. Even opportunistic politicians did not stir up trouble among religious communities. A Buddhist temple was built at a lower elevation. Buddhists who worshipped at the temple would invariable visit the Kovil. Hindus too would worship at both the Kovil and the Viharaya.

Today, however, some vile persons with tribalist mentality are threatening to destroy the peace. They are creating the conditions that religious extremists usually thrive in.

The insanity must be countered with reason and in accordance with the laws of the country.


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