Paradise Lost: The Bombing of the Temple of the Tooth -- a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Sri Lanka

By Coningham, Robin; Lewer, Nick | Antiquity, December 1999 | Go to article overview

Paradise Lost: The Bombing of the Temple of the Tooth -- a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Sri Lanka


Coningham, Robin, Lewer, Nick, Antiquity


Introduction

That archaeology has played a significant role in the creation of nation-states around the globe is well attested (Diaz-Andreu & Champion 1996; Kohl & Fawcett 1995; Gathercole & Lowenthal 1994). From Smith's manipulation at Great Zimbabwe (Garlake 1973) to Mussolini's second Roman empire (Guidi 1996) and the Nazi quest for homelands (Arnold 1992), archaeology has been used to legitimize expansion. Physical remains have equally been used to support the dismemberment of larger units as illustrated within the former USSR (Kohl & Tsetskhladze 1995; Puodziunas & Girininkas 1996). Whilst the past has also been used internally within nation-states to promote one social grouping to the exclusion of others (Jones & Pay 1994; Silberman 1989), a worrying recent phenomenon is the destruction of monuments which are perceived to represent the past of others. Such attacks have been met with widespread condemnation as illustrated by the response to the demolition of monuments in former Yugoslavia (Chippindale 1992; 1994; Chapman 1994), the obliteration of the Babri mosque at Ayodhya (Mandal 1993) and the Taliban threat to the Bamiyan Buddhas (SPACH 1997). In stark contrast, the bombing of one of Sri Lanka's holiest Buddhist shrines, the Temple of the Buddha's Tooth in Kandy, on 25 January 1998, has attracted little comment despite its UNESCO World Heritage status (FIGURE 1). The purpose of this paper is to place the targeted site in its historical context and to discuss the island's military and political background in order to understand its selection for destruction.

[Figure 1 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The political and military context

Over the last 25 years the Government of Sri Lanka has faced challenges from two sources: firstly in 1971, and again in 1988/89, the Sinhalese Jathika Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) a revolutionary Marxist organization which also mixed elements of Sinhala chauvinism. The JVP were effectively destroyed in a bloody fight with the security forces in 1989 (Gunaratna 1995; Chandraprema 1991). Secondly, from the early 1970s, and with an increasing degree of ferocity, militant Tamil groups have been fighting for an independent country, Tamil Eelam or `Tamil homeland', to be established in the north and east of Sri Lanka. Tamils represent 18% of the island's population and Sinhalese 74%, the balance being made up of Muslims and Burghers (Tambiah 1986: 4). Whilst most Sinhalese are Buddhist and most Tamils Hindu, there are minorities of Christians within both (Tambiah 1986: 4). It should be stressed, however, that this conflict is not necessarily a religious war but certainly one of secession from a state which is perceived to be dominated by the Sinhalese and Buddhism (Tambiah 1986: 126).

One Tamil group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), now dominates this battle (Gunaratna 1994; Swamy 1994). A turning point in the conflict occurred in 1983 when anti-Tamil rioting, prompted by the killing of an army patrol by Tamil militants, caused many deaths and the displacement of thousands of Tamils, both internally and to the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Whilst most of the fighting, frequently characterized by acts of cruelty on both sides, has been concentrated in the Northern and Eastern provinces, the LTTE have carried out assassinations and the bombing of civilian and economic targets in the capital Colombo which have resulted in large numbers of civilian casualties and damage running into millions of dollars (FIGURE 2). Recently these have include the killing of President Premadasa (1993) and the bombing of the oil storage depots (1995), the Central Bank (1996), a commuter train (1996) and the World Trade Centre (1997). The LTTE was also blamed for an attack on the sacred Bodhi Tree at the ancient city of Anuradhapura, and the murder of 30 Buddhist monks in the Trincomalee district (Wickremeratne 1995: 275).

[Figure 2 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Since the mid 1970s there have been numerous political and military attempts at ending the conflict, both from inside and outside the country. …

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