Muslim students desecrate ancient sacred Buddhist monument in Sri Lanka


Shwe Kalaung

On the evening of January 23, 2019, a special police task force arrested seven engineering students, with another subsequent arrest on the morning of January 24, for violating the archaeological Antiquities Act by taking pictures atop an ancient chethiya (stupa) at the large 250 acre Kiralagala Archaeological Reserve in Horowpathana, North Central Province, Sri Lanka. The Kiralagala archaeological site contains many ancient ruins surrounded by jungle with some connecting nature trails. The students were caught because they posted self-incriminating pictures on Facebook. South Eastern University is an all-Islamic university in Oluwil, Sri Lanka, started in the mid-90s for Muslims; it has grown to include a Faculty of Islamic and Arabic Language. This is a key detail not included in most published reports that would be unknown by readers outside of Sri Lanka. The sacrilegious crime was purposefully done by this group of cultural jihadists. manifesting complete disrespect for another religion and culture. The arrested Muslim students are in their final year of study at South Eastern University’s Engineering Faculty, and are intelligent enough to know better. After an appearance before the Magistrate on the afternoon of January 24, the court case against all eight Muslim students has been remanded until February 5, 2019.

An article from Ada Darana on January 23, 2019 details the situation before the final arrest the following morning:

Seven students from South Eastern University have been arrested for posting photographs of themselves standing on the ruins of ancient Kiralagala stupa, the Police Spokesperson stated.

A group of youths had recently taken photographs of themselves while standing on the ruins of Kiralagala stupa in Horowpathana and posted them on social media.

The Buddhist Information Centre had, yesterday (22), lodged a complaint at the Police Headquarters seeking an investigation into the incident and penalization of the youths responsible for behaving in this manner at an archaeological site.

Speaking to Ada Derana, the Director General of Archaeology P. B. Mandawala stated that the subject minister has given instructions to strictly enforce the law on the suspects.

The Kiralagala stupa, located in Horowpathana on the Anuradhapura-Trincomalee road, is said to have been built during 4th or 5th century AD.

In an inscription by King Bhatikabhaya Tissa, this stupa is referred to as ‘Dapathakara Vehera’.

The incident has aroused a great deal of public outrage, coming just after a major Islamic State terror attack was thwarted by authorities; the jihadis would have detonated multiple high explosive bombs to obliterate Buddhist sacred sites in the ancient city of Anuradhapura. These engineering students at the Islamic South Eastern University were fully aware of the strict laws surrounding archaeological sites in Sri Lanka, so this is seen as yet another deliberate act of sacrilege against Buddhists in Sri Lanka, who feel they are the constant targets of jihadists.

Additional information about the sequence of events leading to the arrest comes from online Sinhalese news sources, which state that the zonal officer for the Kiralagala archaeological site in Horowpathana from the Department of Archaeology, Sumith Bandara Ratnayake, found the pictures online and reported the violations to police for investigation on the night of January 22, 2019, leading to the arrests the following night, after the investigation. The eight students have been arrested on charges of trespassing, because written permission from the Department of Archaeology is required to enter these archaeological sites. But there are some more serious charges of desecration from Ordinance 9 in the Antiquities Act, which can be laid on the students for desecrating a sacred ancient monument. Because of a history of inaction, it is feared that the new Director General may not be true to his word of strictly enforcing the law here. Perhaps the court case has been remanded until all the charges can be assessed by the Director General, including the serious charge of desecration, which can be proven from the photo evidence and an evaluation of any possible damage at Kiralagala from this group of Muslim students. According to more accurate information in Sinhalese news sources, the solitary monk at the Buddhist Information Center is reported to have later pursued the case through a complaint after the Kiralagala field officer lodged the complaint with police.

The Kiralagala Archaeological Reserve is a historically important site that contains many ancient ruins surrounded by an ancient jungle forest and natural landscapes, including a famous pond, an older settlement complex predating the arrival of Buddhism, and the remnants of a serene Buddhist monastery. Not many visitors come to Kiralagala because of its remote location in Sri Lanka. There is not much detailed information about this site online, except on a few travel websites and blogs. The approximate size of Kiralagala is reported to be 250 acres, with the surrounding natural landscape, and the Archaeology Department has maintained a good portion of the site despite its remote location. However, some criticism of Kiralagala says that the original archaeological site has been greatly reduced by an invasion of Muslims into the area, preventing the discovery of further ruins, which have been destroyed by their encroaching paddy fields. From an article about the Kiralagala Archaeological Reserve on the website:

The ruins of this Aramaic complex is believed to belonging to the 5th – 4th century BC and covers over 60 acres. But due to recent Muslim invasion of the archaeological site, currently this area is said to shrunk to just 12 acres. The whole area surrounding the site has been taken over by Muslims and converted in to paddy fields.


The Kulumiwakada (Kulumimakada) lies about 4 km from the Kiralagala Archaeology site on the Medawachchiya road. The only ruin you would find there is a conserved stupa on the left to the main route conserved by the archaeology department. This area is too dominated by Muslims and all the land surrounding this stupa has been converted in to paddy fields forever destroying any other ruins which might have existed in the area.

Also, the AmazingLanka article warns visitors that the Muslim caretaker at Kiralagala appointed by the Department of Archaeology has been preventing visitors from taking cameras to the site, which may help to explain the lack of available information online, although this situation may have changed. However, it seems that there is a major problem with inappropriate land use at Kiralagala, which has not been addressed by the Director General. A similar problem is reported at Wilpattu National Park, with the illegal deforestation by large groups of Muslims populating the area, none of whom seem to be respecting the laws in Sri Lanka.

For readers who may be unfamiliar with them, the monument called a stupa (Sanskrit: heap) goes by many names and spellings, such as dagoba, sthupa, vehera, vihara, chetiya, and cetiya. These monuments are iconic in the world of Buddhist architecture, being part of the sacred landscape throughout many countries in Asia. Stupas are mound-like circular structures with a hemispherical dome and a circular walkway either on the exterior or interior of the stupa. For interior walkways, the stupa is hollow on the inside, and the path can go around a central column adorned with Buddha statues, the relics being mounted in the ceiling of the dome. Stupas with exterior paths can be adorned with statues and decorations; the holy relics are inside a small chamber in the monument, and the outside walkway may be enclosed by walls. All stupas contain holy relics. Some stupas have tall central spires extending from the dome, which scholars believe represents a processional bell, but there are many more possible design motifs of a stupa using the same architectural principles of circular dome structure, holy relics and walkway.

The architecture and design of stupas is a constant source of fascination in the Buddhist world; the beautiful artwork associated with a stupa can be exquisite. Stupas are sacred places used for meditation and reflection. Frequently people come to them in order to connect with their ancestors. Stupas are sacred places of active worship by Buddhists. The construction of a stupa was often commissioned by royalty. Holy relics from saints, monks and nuns, or even Buddha himself, such as teeth or bones, are used to consecrate the hallowed grounds of a stupa. Indeed, stupas are located in areas of great significance, such as the peak of a mountain with a splendid view, in which case a person will climb a long staircase to access the stupa to mediate on the panoramic view, sending their mettha to the world below. By tradition, a person will travel the walkway around the stupa in a counter-clockwise direction, as part of the circumambulatory procession. Also, a person must remove all footwear before entering the processional circumambulatory path of the hallowed shrine.

The earliest stupas are simple domes, or mounds, found in India, but Sri Lanka has some of the oldest stupas, thousands of years old, such as the Thuparamaya Dagoba in Anuradhapura. As Buddhism was spread throughout Asia by Emperor Ashoka the Great (268-232 BCE), so was the construction of stupas, from which pagodas later developed as structures around a stupa, and eventually tall pagoda towers. Sri Lanka has some of the world’s largest stupas, called colossal stupas, which started being constructed in the reign of King Dutugamunu (167-137 BCE). The largest colossal stupa is an Archaeological Protected Monument called the Jetavana Stupa, which was built in Anuradhapura around the year 300 AD, and was the largest brick structure in the world. The Jetavana Stupa fell into disrepair and was covered by jungle until 1909, when restoration and excavations began. The ancient Jetavana Stupa and Thuparamaya Dagoba were prime targets for destruction by the Islamic State chapter recently discovered in Sri Lanka, which plotted to detonate multiple high-explosive bombs to destroy the ancient Buddhist city of Anuradhapura. At this remote Islamic State training camp, 100 detonators were recovered by authorities, with 100 kg (220 lbs) of C4 high explosives. More explosives may still be recovered in this investigation.

The Department of Archaeology protects the rich cultural heritage of Sri Lanka through a set of laws from 1940 called the Antiquities Act-Ordinance 9, which has had some subsequent amendments, with major amendment in 1998; in 2005, the fines upon conviction were increased. The Department of Archaeology maintains the properties around stupas, which are under constant environmental strains such as heavy rainfall and vegetation growing in the brickwork. In a single year under tropical conditions, a stupa can be overgrown with vegetation whose moist roots can erode the masonry made of natural materials; however, most of these ancient bricks are stronger than concrete, which is a testament to the longevity of these ancient monuments. Many tourists come to Sri Lanka every year to visit these ancient historical sites, helping to cover the maintenance costs of the Department of Archaeology. Another major cost for the Department is having guards protect the sites from plunder from treasure hunters. Human factors are also responsible for damaging ancient sacred monuments in Sri Lanka, such as vandalism, modern construction or antiquities theft, so Antiquities Ordinance 9 is a way of preserving this history. The Department of Archaeology has stated on their website:

During the year 2010, 342 incidents of arresting persons for violating the provision of the Antiquities Ordinance were reported. Of them, punishment could be imposed through courts to persons in 171 cases and an amount exceeding ten million rupees has been credited to the Government as fines recovered from guilty parties.

More recent statistics about violations from 2017 in a web article by Keshala Dias on January 25, 2018 says:

According to the Department of Archaeology, 290 ruins and monuments were destroyed by various individuals, last year. Director General, Professor P. B. Mandawala, said unauthorised excavations and authorised constructions were among them.

The highest number of damage to property artifacts has been reported from the Anuradhapura District, which stands at 81.

Sri Lanka has almost 250,000 archaeological sites that are protected through these strict antiquities laws moderated by the Department of Archaeology, under the Director General. The documented decrease in violations from 2010 to 2017 is seen as a failure of the current Director General to enforce the Antiquities Act. The new Director General, P. B. Mandawala, assumed the position in May 2017. He seems to lack the initiative to prosecute offences, and is reported to have turned down offers for thousands of new workers to help protect these precious archaeological sites. Indeed, there have been calls by the Sinhalese for him to resign amid protests over his failures. In one publicized case, the new Director General was caught on video running away from Sinhalese protestors who questioned him about his failure to protect Sinhalese and Buddhist archaeological sites. Currently, the Director General has only 200 guards for the large number of archaeological sites, but at least 3000 more are required to stop the damage and plunder.

The Sri Lankan government is considering deploying the home guard, or military units, to protect their archaeological sites. Some people believe that factions within the government are complicit with the looting of treasure, since very little has been done to curb the problem. No doubt the Director General is a dedicated scholar worthy of admiration, but aggressively enforcing the law and operating a government portfolio may be outside of his academic expertise. Improvements are necessary in Sri Lanka to protect the sacred remnants of their unique Buddhist civilization; more measures from the Director General must be taken to preserve the almost 250,000 archeological sites from further destruction.

Let us examine the charges of desecration for the Muslim students more closely. The Antiquities Act -Ordinance 9 (1940) of Sri Lanka defines a monument:

“Monument” means any building, or other structure or erection, or any tomb, tumulus or other place of interment, or any other immovable property of a like nature or any part or remains of the same or any other site where the material remains of historic or prehistoric human settlement or activity may be found; and includes the site of any monument and such portion of land adjoining such site as may be required for fencing or covering in or otherwise preserving any monument.”

In Section 16(1) of the Antiquities Act Ordinance 9 (1940):

The Minister may by Order in writing declare that any specified monument which has existed or is believed to have existed for a period of not less than hundred years, shall, notwithstanding that such monument does not or is not believed to date to a period prior to the 2nd day of March, 1815, be deemed to be an ancient monument for the purposes of this Ordinance.

As a point of interest, a tree can be declared a monument through the Antiquities Act, as sacred trees are often planted in Sri Lanka and across the Buddhist world to commemorate the enlightenment of Buddha under the Bodhi Tree. By the definition in the Antiquities Ordinance 9 (1940), any structure that was constructed before 1815, such as the Depathakara Vehera, is classified as an ancient monument. Further, the Depathakara Vehera is considered to be a sacred ancient monument in the Ordinance that is protected from desecration by an additional set of regulations.

Violations such as desecration from the Antiquities Act Ordinance 9(31), 1940:

Any person who-

(a) wilfully destroys, injures, defaces or tampers with any protected monument or any ancient monument on State land; or

(b) does in, upon, to, near or in respect of any ancient monument which is held sacred or in veneration by any class of persons, any act which wounds or offends or is likely to wound or offend the religious susceptibilities of the class of persons by whom such ancient monument is held sacred or in veneration, shall be guilty of an offence and shall, notwithstanding anything to the contrary in any other written law, be liable on conviction after summary trial before a Magistrate to a fine not less than fifty thousand rupees and not exceeding two hundred and fifty thousand rupees or to imprisonment of either description for a term not less than two years and not exceeding five years or to both such fine and imprisonment.

The Muslims from South Eastern University may face a substantial fine along with a two- to five- year prison sentence. The Director General of Archaeology has already stated that the Ministry will “strictly enforce the law.” There will be no sacred history left in Sri Lanka if everybody begins climbing over the fragile ancient monuments. Anything could have happened on the ancient monument they were climbing on, from the loosening bricks to the weakening the structure or the total collapse of the dome. Also, there may have been further damage caused by these individuals at the site, or even damage to other ancient monuments, as there is a pattern of desecration from the Muslim students; this is the first time they were actually caught in the act, through their own brazen ostentation. Repeat offenders face harsher penalties under the Antiquities Ordinance.

Why desecration? The answer is simple: because the hollowed ancient monument contains the holy relics of a revered Buddhist saint, monk or nun. The stupa can also be considered a tomb in this respect, so nobody with any respect for the dead, saint or otherwise, would pose climbing on top of a gravestone. Stupas are a place of active worship in the Buddhist world, with no real comparison in the West, except maybe for a holy chapel. Upon entry to any sacred Buddhist monument, a person must remove his or her footwear, including socks, before entering the circumambulatory processional walkway of the stupa. This is a common practice thousands of years old throughout all of Asia for sacred Buddhist sites, including stupas, pagodas and temples. A quick glance at the Facebook pictures posted by the arrested Muslims shows that they are all wearing footwear while triumphantly posing on top of the sacred ancient monument. This is deliberate sacrilege, or desecration, as anybody who lives in a Buddhist country in Asia will know to remove their footwear. The Muslims students would never consider entering a mosque without removing their shoes first. One can only imagine the prison sentence in Saudi Arabia for a similar offence, so the final year university engineering students were more than intelligent enough to understand these laws.

The proof of desecration is in their self-incrimination by publicly posting photographs, and in their wearing footwear on top of the ancient sacred monument to which they had no prior written permission to access. However, the desecration charges may not be applied by Ordinance 9 (31) until there is an official complaint from the Sinhalese to the Director General about this desecration. After all, there is no offence if there is nobody offended. The new Director General may apply the desecration charges on the students by his own diligence, or through a letter and/or a petition with an official complaint for the offence from a third party. A formal letter of complaint may be required to push for the additional charge of desecration that is easily proven in this case, since the current Director General is known to work better under direct public pressure. The complaint from the monk at the Buddhist Information Center may have detailed the offence for the Ordinance 9(31) violation of desecration. Since the case has been remanded until February 5, 2019, there is some uncertainty about the details of all the charges as the case goes through the legal system. The current charge of trespassing on the archaeological site alone will carry severe penalties, so the Ordinance 9(31) violation of desecrating a sacred ancient monument will carry a much harsher sentence. Be mindful of this rare situation: the self-incriminating photographic evidence should considerably simplify the prosecution of the case, so a guilty plea is expected here.

Luckily for these lawbreaking cultural jihadists, the Kiralagala stupa, or Dapathakara Vehera, is not listed by the government as a special Archaeological Protected Monument; if it were, they would be facing even more severe penalties. Nonetheless, the Muslim students are in serious trouble for their deliberate crime, as they have willfully posted their pictures on Facebook for the world to witness their desecration of a sacred ancient monument. Whatever happens here, this case is going to be a real test for the new Director General of the Department of Archaeology and his promise to “strictly enforce the law.” Perhaps these Muslims could have used their time at the sacred stupa doing more constructive things such as reflecting on the rich Buddhist cultural history in the Kiralagala Archaeological Reserve or meditating on mettha-loving kindness, or simply just buying a ticket at the entrance gate like everybody else.


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