‘No bail for preying on ancestry’
They put our only chance to converse with our ancestors at risk.
Today you get to hear and read about them more often than you used to.
They are treasure hunters, but definitely not of Indiana Jones or
universal mummy movies fame of the movies.
Ven Ellawala Medhananda Nayaka Thera
Treasure hunting is illegal. Even in movies, it is only OK as long as
the artefacts go into a museum. The local artefact thieves are not even
private collectors who love antiquities.
According to consummate Archaeologist Pura Vidya Chakrawarthi Ven
Ellawala Medhananda Thera, the so called 'nidan horu' or antiquity
thieves carry out their illegal digging operations based on unconfirmed
information gathered from some uneducated villager or some 'kattady
raalas' (black art practitioners).
These sneaky scoundrels find a victim who would believe one of their
well-knitted treasure stories, usually about a treasure trove hidden by
a king under a landmark in the area. To locate this spot they talk about
'Kada Im Poth.'
"'Kada Im Poth' are those used in ancient times to mark land
divisions with stone posts. There are no treasures buried under these
landmark posts, although some fools still seem to believe so," explained
Ven Medhananda Thera. There is a brand of antiquity thieves who base
their illegal excavations on the information of the 'Nidan Wadula'.
"This book has no author. It is more akin to 'Arabian Nights',
consisting various horrific tales collected over many years by various
authors. It contains stories told by villagers. They had dreams of
finding wealth by way of unearthing hidden treasures. So they told these
stories as in the 'Arabian Nights' or any other fiction."
As pointed out by Medhananda Thera, what really happens is that those
who seek to amass wealth by unearthing hidden treasures, take these
stories to their hearts because they are blinded by greed.
The artefact thieves and treasure hunters have bored holes in ancient
Dagobas with mechanized backhoes, broken up century's old Buddha
statues, crushed stone inscriptions and cracked ancient paintings and
pots, all to make a potential lucky strike of some gemstones, jewels or
gold nuggets inside them.
Artefact damaged by vandals
Treasure hunting has left a long trail of damaged Dagobas across the
island, especially so in isolated forest areas in the Northern and
Eastern Provinces. They have become bold enough to threaten Buddhist
monks in isolated forest temples before they illegally dig near or at
They even carry out well-engineered heists at national museums.
The recent artefact theft at Colombo National Museum was one of them.
Police is yet to trace the suspects even after having offered a reward
of Rs 1 million to a person who would provide correct information about
Treasure hunters are a major threat to archeology in Sri Lanka, they
are a menace to the country's national heritage. According to Police
spokesperson Ajith Rohana, for the period up to May this year alone,
Police have arrested 360 persons in 107 cultural artefact theft cases.
They were arrested while they were illegally excavating at protected
We asked Museums and Maintenance Deputy Director M A J R Madagammana
of the Archaeological Department about the situation. "There is a need
to intensify the security for archaeological sites in Sri Lanka with
over 200,000 archaeological sites throughout the country," he said.
Department of Archeology is currently taking steps to make imprisonment
unavoidable for any person who wilfully destroys, injures, defaces,
trades or tampers with objects of archaeological importance, he said.
Ellawala Medhananda Thera has made a proposal to President Mahinda
Rajapaksa and the Department of Archeology to introduce a law to
confiscate properties of artefact thieves.
Madagammana said, the Department is seriously looking into these
proposals. "The Department has stepped up action to amend the
Antiquities Ordinance to make a jail term mandatory against artefact
thieves. "We have already prepared proposals in this regard on National
Heritage Minister's instructions. The draft is now with the Legal
Draftsman," said Madagammana.
People who get arrested for treasure hunting, are usually village
folk. They are said to be from low income families, yet they pay fines
of up to Rs 250,000 when they are produced before courts for their
offenses. How can this be possible?
"This is because they have moneyed bosses who would spend on their
behalf. The key operators of artefact thieves seem to get away after
paying fines for their workers. We expect that this would stop once we
make imprisonment mandatory against antiquity thieves."
When Egyptian museum in Cairo was robbed last month during a violent
protest, the authorities at the museum said that nothing was stolen. In
the case of the Colombo Museum artefact theft, the authorities announced
that the artefacts were stolen and revealed the list of stolen pieces.
Egypt took steps to secure their archeological storehouses by deploying
Just as Egypt's upheaval provided an opportunity to artefact thieves
to harm the museum in Cairo, Sri Lanka's political upheaval in the
Northern and Eastern Provinces has provided local treasure hunters an
opportunity to dig ancient heritage sites in the jungles. Madagammana
said, they feel the need to take additional measures to protect those
archaeological sites, which are hidden in the jungles and the forests in
the North and East.
"Treasure hunters have destroyed most of the monuments. These are
priceless monuments they destroy to quench their lust for wealth. Most
of them do this thinking that they will eventually lay their hands on a
Count-of- Monte Christo scale treasure," he explained.
"I have known no one who has ever come to that, except those who try
have perished for the last 40 years that I have worked at the Department
of Archeology," he pointed out. "They have hollowed out ancient Stupas,
destroyed priceless Buddha statues. You cannot give commercial value to
artefacts," he added.
Police Spokesman SP Ajith Rohana
Treasure hunters have gone on a spree, digging in the forests and
jungles of the Eastern and Northern Provinces especially after the
LTTE's defeat. This is how Ellawala Medhananda Thera reflected on the
fate of the archaeological sites in the Northeast:
"I saw the damage myself. The LTTE had left nothing. They had used
some of the ancient Chaityas to store rice and food for their troops.
They had built bunkers and installed communication equipment upon them.
“In Thoppigala Kundanamale Kallady Pashanathabbatha Vihara, they have
set up heavy weapons. They have destroyed most of the archaeological
monuments in the North and East. Kumbakaranamale Chaitya in the
Mullativu Ampakaman was used as a food store and Wedivetttukallu
Chatyaya was used by them as a bunker."
Are there any treasures of immense value hidden among these ruins
that the treasure hunters should strive so hard to find them?
The truth is that if there had been any valuables, such as gems or
jewels inside these ancient monuments, they had been robbed during the
period between third and fourth century BC, during South Indian
invasions by Maaga and many others that followed.
The country's history provides us details of how ancient Viharas were
destroyed under various kings that ruled the country. There are no more
valuables to be taken away. Isn't it true that some Dambaran Buddha
statues (pure gold Buddha statues) had been recovered by archaeologists
during their excavations?
“This is a much-publicized myth. There are no Dambaran Pilimas (pure
gold statues). Some monks are partly responsible for spreading such
false notions in the minds of the public. You cannot find pure gold
statues anywhere in the world, explained Medhananda Thera.
Museums and Maintenance Deputy Director M A J R Madagammana
“I once visited an ancient temple at Paluhangamuwa in the Kurunagala
District where it was claimed they had found two Dambaran Buddha
statues. Upon inspecting I found that they were ordinary brass statues.
I told the temple monks to announce that they were mere brass statues. I
had to explain to them that they put their lives in danger by
publicizing the two statues as being pure gold.
“Even unearthing a gold plated statue is extremely rare. Of the
Kandankaariya Chetiya found in Trincomalee and Deeghawaapi Chetiya in
Ampara, built by King Kanitthatissa of the Anuradhapura era, we could
only find two very small Karanduwas (caskets) made of gold. They were
hardly two inches across.
"If that is what we could find from a Stupa built by a king as
important as Kanitthatissa, what can we find from other ancient Chaityas?"
asked the Thera. The kingpins in artefact thefts spend much more money
than that. "There are no valuables. There are only sacred archaeological
objects among what is left. Do not destroy them and deprive the nation
of the knowledge of its ancestors and their heritage," he pleaded.
Commenting on the accusations that some persons in authority involved
in some artefact thefts the Thera said, "These accusations are clearly
fabricated by those who oppose the government. This has become their
latest ruse to discredit the government. If there was some artefact
theft or illegal digging somewhere, they try their best to accuse the
As pointed out by SP Ajith Rohana, artefact theft cases have received
wide publicity because Police is doing much to prevent artefact thefts.
According to him the Police is conducting constant raids and detections
to prevent these theft. "We have established vigilance committees in
each Grama Niladhari Division to address the problem. We have our own
surveillance mechanism to thwart any illegal digging activity carried
out by treasure hunters."