Reconstruct not desecrate Jaffna landmarks


by Shanie


"The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!"

- William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

"Even now the destruction is begun

And half the business of destruction done."

- Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774)

The Friday Forum is a group of concerned citizens who have regularly been drawing attention to issues that are of importance in the life of our nation. The Island this week published a letter that the Friday Forum had written to President Mahinda Rajapaksa about a month earlier. That letter referred to various incidents pertaining to law and order, acts of omission and commission by various political personalities, including the President in pardoning fellow political personalities found guilty by our courts of corruption and even murder. But this column wishes to focus this week on some important environmental issues raised by Friday Forum, issues that should concern everyone of us about protecting nature and our heritage.

Those of us who have visited Jaffna before the war will remember two landmarks in that city which were unique to Jaffna. One was the Jaffna Fort built by the Dutch in 1680 on the site of an earlier but smaller Portuguese Fort. The Fort had within it a magnificent stone church built in the style of the Dutch Kruys Kerks in Wolfendhal and Galle; the spacious Governor’s House which served as the residence for visiting Heads of State/Government, the Prisons, a few houses and a tennis court used by the Fort Tennis Club. The other landmark in Jaffna was the Old Park in Chundikuli. It had the Residency, of the Government Agent, in one corner and a 27-acre woodland consisting largely of mahogany trees but also a variety of flora, some of which were unique to Sri Lanka. The Boy Scouts and Girl Guides used the Old Park for their annual camps and jamborees. The Old Park was legacy left by P A Dyke, a former British colonial Government Agent who had served in Jaffna for 38 years and who died and was buried in Jaffna.

The Dutch Fort

The Friday Forum has quite rightly stressed the need to preserve these two landmarks as heritage sites. The Church and the Governor’s House within the Dutch Fort were magnificent buildings. During the war, the Church was wantonly and sadly destroyed. The belief was that the destruction was done by the LTTE because they did not want the Church which was on high ground in the Fort to be re-occupied by the Sri Lanka Army and use it to attack LTTE positions outside. But reading Ben Bavinck’s memoirs, there is now some doubt about this. But it is a small mercy to learn that the tablets and plaques that were in the Church are now safely lying in the compound of the Cathedral at Vaddukoddai. One of the houses almost on the ramparts of the Fort was occupied by Leonard Woolf when he served as a young cadet in the Ceylon Civil Service, which he describes in his autobiographical volume ‘Growing’. He was later to be the Assistant Government Agent in Hambantota, which experience he describes in a later autobiographical work and is the background to his novel ‘Village in the Jungle’.

It is understood the Dutch Government has given Rs 60 million towards the preservation of the Jaffna Fort. With this grant, the outer walls of the Fort and the moat alongside it is to be restored. There is much history in the Jaffna Fort and it is hoped that the Dutch Government will extend its generosity to restoring the inside of the Fort also to its original state. It appears that there are some who are critical of spending large sums of money in restoring historic buildings when there are more pressing human needs in the North and elsewhere. Such critics seem to have no sense of history. A people no doubt need food and shelter and employment opportunities. But a people without pride in their history, traditions and culture will not have life. So it is important that economic and social development should go hand in hand with cultural development.

The Old Park

The desecration of the Old Park is a sadder story. Here, as Goldsmith wrote in his poem The Deserted Village, the destruction has begun and half the destruction already done. Majestic trees which adorned this landmark site have been cut down and monstrosity of buildings to house sundry government officials and government departments are being built. When protest were made at the initial stage, the military Governor of the North issued a statement, tongue in cheek, that no buildings in the Old Park have been destroyed. Even if some newspapers wrongly stated that the Residency was being destroyed, surely the Governor could not have been unaware that the protests were about the desecration of the Old Park. This tendentious statement of the Governor shows that he at least condones this action, if not being a party to the decision to do so. Obviously, no one from civil society organizations in Jaffna had been consulted or informed. The Citizen’s Committee of Jaffna which is headed by a former Vice Chancellor of the University of Jaffna and the Bishop of Jaffna had lodged a written protest. No one seems willing to take responsibility for taking such an insensitive decision. There is a 19 member Presidential Task Force for Re-settlement, Development and Security of the Northern Province headed by the Presidential sibling Basil Rajapakse. Apparently, this Task Force does not have a single Tamil in it and the only one in it with any sort of connection to the North is the Governor Maj Gen G A Chandrasiri. In such a set-up, it is unrealistic to expect the Archaeological Department and the Department of National Heritage to take any strong stand.

Some years ago, Ranjini Amarasekera, wife of a former Government Agent of Jaffna, wrote in the newspapers about her life in the official residence of the Government Agent in the nineteen seventies: "The Residency apart from its own bakery, the underground tunnels, the place where the personal staff of the GA were mustered in the morning and paid in the evening in the past, had 27 acres of garden land called the Old Park. This place had its own history. Percival Ackland Dyke who had been the Government Agent of Jaffna for more than 36 years had bought the place with his own money and bequeathed it to his successors on an irrevocable deed of gift through Queen Victoria.

"The Old Park had some of the rarest trees. Apart from the giant Mahogany, Nedun, Ironwood, the inevitable Mango and the Tamarind, both of which brought some revenue annually for the upkeep of the garden, there were the Baobab and a tree from South America which had lovely blue flowers throughout the year, growing just outside our bedroom window. This tree was supposed to be the only one of its kind in Sri Lanka.

"The prisoners who were serving simple sentences were brought twice a month to the Old Park. They cleaned up the under bush and cleared the garden of the leaves that had fallen from the numerous trees."

The tree with the blue flowers that Amarasekera refers to is known to botanists as the lignum vitae and remains in bloom throughout the year. Another plant found in the Old Park was the doun palm which, like the lignum vitae, was unique to Sri Lanka. The Old Park was also home to a variety of fauna, including several species of butterflies and hundreds of bats. It is this priceless treasure of fauna and flora that is being destroyed by the thoughtless actions of persons with no sense of history and no respect for our heritage.

The Residency

The magnificent Residency, the home of Percival Ackland Dyke and succeeding Government Agents now lies in ruin, not because of wanton destruction but because of years of callous neglect over the years by persons without a love for history and traditions. The Residency was a fine specimen of British Architecture. It was a two-storeyed building built by Dyke around 1840. According to a writer, it combined the ‘all the features of British architecture at its best - pillared verandas, lofty archways and timbered ceilings. The showpiece was the drawing room upstairs, so immense that it could only be furnished with two sets of furniture, one on each half of the room. The walls were thick and solid, and according to one story they had originally been coated with the white of egg’.

At the entrance to the Residency was a tablet erected as a tribute to Dyke. It reads: ‘This tablet is erected by the Ceylon Civil Service in testimony of their respect for the memory of Percival Acland Dyke, for upwards of 45 years a member of the Sertvice, and for the last 38 years of his life the Government Agent of the Northern Province of Ceylon. Known no less for his untiring devotion to the Public service than for his capacity for administration and the zeal which he displayed in promoting the interests of the people over whom he was placed. He rested from his labours on 9th October 1867.’ Dyke was buried in Jaffna.

This column therefore joins the Friday Forum in urging a re-think on the planned work in these historic landmarks. We urge the halting of all further building construction work and the felling of trees in the Old Park. We also urge the restoration of the Residency and the buildings within the Jaffna Fort to their original state. As a matter of policy, any work in connection with such historic sites throughout the country must only be after extensive consultation with the local community, with the Departments of Archaeology and National Heritage, with the Central Environmental Authority and concerned civil society organisations. Such decisions cannot be left to unthinking bureaucrats, civilian or military.

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