The Museum gallery space will feature temporary exhibitions related to exploring contemporary issues pertaining to religious freedom in Sri Lanka.
A Song of Broken Icons
Abdul Halik Azeez
Abdul Halik Azeez’s video installation ‘A Song of Broken Icons’ is an exploration of syncretic and contested sites of religious worship in Sri Lanka. In an audiovisual pilgrimage tracing sensory paths from Jaffna and Trincomalee through Dambulla, Kandy, Devanagala and Adam’s Peak to Deegavapi, Jailani and Katharagama in 2021. Each location is remarkable for its importance to multiple ethnoreligious groups on the island. Capturing the sights and sounds of worship and their entanglements with everyday life and economic activity in the local communities, Azeez’s films invoke a portable image house offering a glimpse into the social worlds of these sites. This palimpsest of diverse aural and visual impressions, projections and aspirations hint at their histories and present of social and political contestations.
Production support for this effort was extended by Imaad Majeed.
This exhibition serves as a preview for an upcoming permanent exhibition on syncretic religious sites in Sri Lanka which will feature a range of archival material and oral histories charting their vibrant histories and present-day significance.
A Song of Broken Icons
The Daftar Jailani mosque is situated on the Kuragala is a rock formation on the Balangoda Plateau which is of deep archaeological significance, on account of evidence of prehistoric settlements as well as Brahmi and Arabic inscriptions. The name Jailani is derived from the Sufi saint, ‘Abd al-Qādir Jīlānī (1078-1166), who is considered to be the founder of the Qādiriyya, a Sufi order. It is believed that the saint spent 12 to 13 years meditating in a rock cave at Daftar Jailani before serving as a teacher and jurist in Baghdad. Although the saint is buried in Iraq, the shrine at Kuragala is considered a place for veneration.
With Sinhala Buddhist nationalist claims to the site gaining momentum since the 1970s, it has become the subject of ongoing contestation.
Temple of the Tooth (Dalada Maligawa), Kandy
The Temple of the Tooth is one of the most sacred sites for Buddhists in Sri Lanka. The Tooth Relic that is housed at the temple attracts pilgrims from across the island as well as overseas. The Dalada Maligawa also houses four devales or shrines dedicated to the guardian deities Skanda, Vishnu, Natha and Pattini worshipped by Hindus and Buddhists. The Esala Perahera or annual procession in Kandy is centred on the Temple of the Tooth.
During the Sri Lankan civil war, the Temple of the Tooth relic and various peripheral buildings were severely damaged in a bomb attack by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on the 25th of January 1998. The restoration of the temple was enabled by substantial public support and was completed in August 1999.
This archaeological site located in Chunnakam, Jaffna comprises a collection of small Buddhist stupas. Elisabeth Harris notes that this site was rediscovered in the 1910s by “a British civil servant, J.P. Lewis, and a Sinhala civil servant, Paul Pieris”. Both argued that the presence of Buddhist stupas in the Jaffna peninsula was evidence that the North and East of Sri Lanka had once been Sinhala-Buddhist areas. In 1972, based on Lewis’ and Pieris’ claims, the national Department of Archeology began reconstruction work on Kantharodai. The stupas, for which only the foundations remained, were reconstructed in the same style as the stupas in Mihintale (a temple in the South).
The claim that Kantharodai was a Sinhala-Buddhist site has been rejected by Tamil scholars. Based on excavations of the site, Siva Thiagarajah argues that Kantharodai was a trade centre during the megalithic period with strong ties to similar megalithic settlements in Tamil Nadu. He maintains that the Kantharodai site predated the emergence of the Sinhala language and people group and that it was the capital of ‘Naganadu’, which encompassed a third of the island at the time. He points out that excavated evidence at Kantharodai and other Buddhist sites in the North point to an “early Dravidian or Tamil culture,” and the presence of Mahayana Buddhism within the Tamil community, similar to the contemporary Amaravati Stupa in Andhra Pradesh, India.
Kanniya Hot Springs
The Kanniya Hot Springs/Wells in Trincomalee have been historically associated with Hindu tradition. Before 2014, the legend of Ravana was closely associated with the Hot Springs. In 2014, the site was taken over by the Department of Archeology, and the official narrative describing the site was revised to claim that the wells had been part of a Buddhist monastery. The Hindu temple, already damaged from the war, was neglected, while a new Buddhist temple was constructed in the vicinity.
In 2019, the Department of Archeology set out to excavate and build a Buddhist stupa at the site of the Hindu temple. When local politicians and citizens gathered to protest, they were resisted by the Police with a court injunction that had been obtained based on the claim that such a protest would stir communal tensions. As a result, the protestors were prohibited from proceeding to the site of the wells and the temple.
The Hindu temple on-site was eventually destroyed. Due to continued protests and an appeal to the President, the construction of the stupa was halted. Despite this, Hindu devotees report continued hindrances from the Police and monks, impeding their ability to access the hot well and the Hindu shrine.
Deegavapi remains a highly-contested site due to the ethnic segmentation in the administration of Ampara and geography of Deegavapi, the political economy of land shaped by the Gal Oya irrigation project, and other inter and intra-ethnic political competitions and land disputes such as the demarcation of “forest lands” and “archaeological sites” among others.
The Raja Maha Viharaya and the Parivara Chaithiya are the key focal points of the Deegavapi sacred geography. According to the Mahavamsa, Deegavapi was sanctified by the Buddha on his third visit to Lanka.
The Rangiri Dambulla Raja Maha Viharaya dates back to the first century B.C. It is the best-preserved cave temple complex in the country. The Golden Temple (Rangiri Dambulla Uyanwatta Rajamaha Viharaya) is a modern extension built at the base of the rock.
In 1990, the Central Cultural Fund (CCF) initiated plans to secure World Heritage status for the Dambulla Rock Temple, which was granted on 13 December 1991. The area has featured prominently in the rise of inter-religious tension and anti-Muslim sentiment following the civil war on account of ongoing disputes over the Masjid-ul-Khairiya Jummah Mosque and the Bhadrakali Hindu Temple.
Adam’s Peak known as Sri Pada or Samanala Kanda is of extraordinary significance to Sri Lanka’s diverse ethno-religious and indigenous communities. Buddhists believe that the footprint on ‘Sri Pada’ (holy footprint) is that of the Buddhas. Meanwhile, Muslims believe it is the footprint of Adam, left at the place to which Adam fell when he was banished from the Garden of Eden. Hindus believe that the god Shiva left his footprint while ‘dancing to create the world’, referring to the mountain as Sivanolipatha Malai (Lord Shiva’s footprint on the mount). Certain Christians believe that the footprint belongs to St. Thomas, who is also believed to have introduced Christianity to Sri Lanka. The significance of Hinduism in relation to the site has been revived due to the prominent role played by the Up-Country Tamil community in the Adam’s Peak pilgrimages.
This archaeological site located in the Mawanella area of the Kegalle district has been claimed by both Buddhist and Muslim communities, resulting in a series of ongoing conflicts. The Devanagala rock bears two inscriptions. One inscription, from the Polonnaruwa period, refers to Parakramabahu the Great granting a village to one of his military chiefs as a reward for vanquishing the King of Myanmar. The second inscription, from the Kandyan period, refers to King Vimaladharmasuriya granting land in the village of Ruwandeniya to a Buddhist monk as a reward for aiding him in ascending the throne.
While local Buddhist and Muslim communities enjoyed periods of coexistence and friendship, there have also been tensions stemming from economic rivalry. The contestation of the Devanagala site emerged in the post-2009 years, in a period that saw the rise of anti-Muslim rhetoric on a national level by extremist groups. Disputes over Devanagala continue, and no acceptable solution has been reached to date.
The Kataragama/Kadirgamam temple complex in southern Sri Lanka, viewed as a symbol of multi-religious syncretism, was declared as a sacred site in 1963. Here, Buddhist and Hindu devotees seek the blessings of the deity Skanda (‘Kataragama’) among others. Kataragama is also home to the tomb of a Sufi saint, as well as being significant to the island’s indigenous Veddah community. The Kataragama shrine is also the endpoint of the annual Paadayatra pilgrimage that begins in Jaffna. This journey is made by those who belong to Sri Lanka’s diverse ethno-religious communities who make offerings to Skanda.