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Ancient Ceylon's Buddhist Treasures

In the heart of Sri Lanka, a mesa-like rock juts out from a plain, seemingly in defiance. Its walls are almost vertical, and on its flat top, a king built a citadel called Sigiriya in the 5th century AD.

The rock is in an isolated region, not far from the medieval capital of Polonnaruwa, and until recently few people noticed the remains of the ancient gardens, high grottoes, and caves on its eastern wall.

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No one in modern memory had climbed to the top of the rock until about the turn of the century, when a Britisher consumed with a passion for archaeology did so. His name was C. P. Bell; and he had recently been named Ceylon's first commissioner of archaeology. The sheer perpendicularity of the walls to be climbed did not discourage him. He built himself a cylindrical structure made of bamboo and held together with strings. Inside it he placed a ladder, also of bamboo, to help scale the 300-foot walls.

Once on the top, Mr. Bell discovered the ruins of a royal castle. Nothing much had remained but its foundations.

But what intrigued him most was the caves. An assistant lowered Bell into the caves on a chair tied to a rope and there he saw what has astounded art lovers ever since - superbly beautiful and delicately drawn frescoes of maidens, perhaps the most beautiful in all of Asia. This was the beginning of how the Sinhalese people of Sri Lanka began rediscovering their cultural and religious heritage.

Buddhism in Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, has ancient roots. As early as the 2 nd century BC, the Indian emperor Asoka sent missionaries to the island. The arrival of a sapling of the Bodhi tree, under which the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment, followed. Planted in the Maha Vihara garden in Anuradhapura, the sapling grew into a tree, authenticated as the oldest in the world - 2,200 years old.

Beginning over 2000 years ago, Buddhism received the patronage of Ceylon's kings and princes, who built elaborate monasteries and temples. While Buddhism struggled against the influences of Hinduism and mysticism over the centuries and various kingdoms rose and fell, the artifacts of Buddhist worship accumulated for future generations to discover.

The surviving monuments recall the spirit of ancient Ceylon and the extent to which Buddhism is an integral part of Sinhalese cultural identity. For example, in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka's first capital dating from the 4th century BC, the palaces, villas of the nobles, shops, trader houses, and the peasant cottages all testify to what must have been a prosperous city. But it was the inner ring of five major Buddhist monasteries, some housing as many as 5,000 monks, that makes it unique.

At the center of each of these impressive monasteries, colossal Buddhist stupas (dome-shaped shrines) were built. The largest of them, the Jetawanarama, was erected in the 4th century AD and still stands to its original height of 400 feet - 83 feet less than the largest pyramid at Giza, the ancient world's tallest monument.

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Until the 20th century, much of Sri Lanka's history had been shrouded in mystery. Following intrusions by the Portuguese and Dutch, the British arrived and by 1815 subdued the Kingdom of Kandy whose king went into exile in India. But the British focused their attention on the coastal areas, and only a small band of enthusiasts made their way to the interior to surmise what treasures could be found there.

Excavation and conservation of Buddhist monuments proceeded at a very slow pace until independence from British colonial rule in 1948. The neglect of Sri Lanka's past is in the process of being corrected, thanks in part to international assistance channeled through the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Efforts to restore, preserve, and bring to light what still lies underground are now going on in earnest.

The main archaeological area is called the Cultural Triangle. From the 5th century to the British occupation, Ceylon had three major capitals in succession - Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, and Kandy - which form the connecting points of an imaginary triangle.

Most monuments enclosed within the triangle represent testimonials to the strength of the Buddhist faith. The monuments reveal that Buddhist worship takes many forms: as music and dance, as paintings and sculptures on temple walls, as offerings of flowers and incense, and as the flickering flame of oil lamps.

It is a wonder that so small a country could build such architectural giants in addition to its moated cities, beautifully landscaped gardens, fountains, and other works of art. The Roman, Greek, and Persian coins conserved at the Colombo Archaeological Museum hint at an answer. Situated at the southernmost point of the mainland of Asia, all trade between the ancient Mediterranean countries and Peking had to traverse the island's shores. Trade brought substantial benefits and provided the resources for the erection of enormous architectural structures that compete with some of the more outstanding monuments of the ancient world.

Ceylon was so important along the old trade routes that cartographers often exaggerated its size. Although the island is smaller than the state of Maine, a 2nd-century map by Ptolemy drew Sri Lanka about a third of the surface of India.

Much as visitors may be awed by huge stupas and the ruins of once-prosperous cities, what the visitor most notices in the Cultural Triangle is the remains of temples, statues of the Buddha (some of them of enormous proportions), and exquisite paintings on walls of natural caves.

Even today the Buddhist faithful walk long miles, bringing flowers and oil lamps to these sites. They bow before the images and touch the ground with their heads.

There are caves lined with Buddha statues - multiple copies of the same image - along the wall facing the cave entrances. More images appear as paintings on the rock walls and on the ceilings. The Buddha is also shown reclining, in meditation. These figures, frequently huge, sometimes occupy the whole length of a cave or temple or sometimes stand alone in a valley.

Festivals enhance the meaning of Sri Lanka's heritage. They draw attention to the architectural, the artistic, and the religious features of the culture. Particularly significant is an annual religious festival in August that attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims and visitors to the ancient mountain capital Kandy. In the final procession, hundreds of elephants, dancers, musicians, acrobats, and dignitaries march in a tradition that dates back to the 4th century AD.

Kandy's importance is due not only to having been the country's last independent capital prior to British occupation, but also because its Dalada Maligawa temple preserves what is believed to be a tooth of the Buddha, one of the most venerated relics in Buddhism.

Only part of the buried treasures of Sri Lanka have been uncovered. Government officials say there is work enough to last for generations. Some of the workers on the excavations are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of British Commissioner C.P. Bell's assistants nearly a century ago.

The task Sri Lanka faces in giving a second life to treasures hidden for centuries is enormous, more than a poor country with limited financial means can bear alone. But many experts say these archaeological finds are a world, not merely a national, heritage.

It was in this spirit that UNESCO and some countries individually interceded to save Venice from the ravages of pollution. Other such ventures include the preservation of the island of Philae in Upper Egypt and the temple complex of Borobudur in Indonesia.

Moved by this spirit of solidarity, many countries, institutions, and individuals have answered Sri Lanka's appeal for help. The United States, for one, has responded generously. Some American performance groups have turned their earnings over to a special cultural fund. Experts from a number of American universities are currently engaged in excavations or in providing technical instruction. A major role was played by Lever Brothers Company in New York by volunteering its expertise in terms of publicity and fund raising.

''We have many friends in America,'' Roland Silva, director general of the Central Cultural Fund, stated, ''and I am sure we have only to sound them and they will be only too ready to cooperate with us in many other projects.''

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