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Restoration of Sigiriya frescoes vandalized in 1967



Excerpted from SIGIRIYA PAINTINGS by

Raja de Silva , Retired Commissioner of Archaeology

On the morning of October 15, 1967, the Archaeology Commissionner, Dr. CE Godakumbure, instructed me to go immediately to Sigiriya and take necessary action to remove the green ink (S. theentha), which, according to an incoherent message received from the Overseer, was understood to have been splashed on the paintings in the fresco pocket by vandals during the previous night.

I arrived that evening at Sigiriya with my conservation staff and the onset of the rainy season of the North-East Monsoon, and with liberal quantities of chemicals for the removal of ink. I was informed that the priceless paintings had been daubed not with ink but with a green paint. The paintings were inspected the next morning in the company of the Police, who had locked with a new padlock, the door leading to the fresco pockets at the head of the spiral staircase, after their investigations the previous day. It appeared from the police investigations that the vandals had surmounted two locked gates and opened the final padlocked door of the fresco pocket with a key.

The greatest problems of conservation and restoration that were faced at Sigiriya were those attendant on the vandalism that took place in October, 1967 when a commercial green paint was daubed on 14 of the 19 paintings extant in the fresco pockets (five in pocket A and 14 in pocket B). 12(a). In addition two of the disfigured paintings had been physically damaged beyond repair, by hacking away the head of one figure (pocket B, No. 3) and the portion above the waist of the next (pocket B. No. 4). 7(a), 10, 10(a). The very next painting (pocket B, No.5) was stabbed at with a pointed instrument – “the most unkindest cut of all”.

The paintings in pocket A which had been covered by the daubing of green paint were Nos. 3 and 4; the panels in pocket B which had been similarly disfigured were Nos. 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 and 13. Broken fragments of the painted plaster were strewn on the floor of pocket B and the paint had trickled on to the lower parts of the ground and the floor of the other pocket as well. Much of the paint had not dried and the cool weather due to the monsoonal rains had inhibited the drying process. No test for the removal of the paint were possible as the chemicals brought from Colombo were for the purpose of removing ink stains, misconstrued as the material strewn on the paintings (the Sinhalese word for ink being the same as that for paint). A full photographic record in black and white and in colour was taken together with samples of the paint and the broken plaster, and conservation team returned to Colombo on 16 October.

No time was lost in conducting experiments for the expeditious removal of dry and drying paint from the fragments of the Sigiriya plaster (without damage to the original painted surface) and from similar wall surfaces in the laboratory. The keystone of the tests was to devise a method of dissolving the paint and removing it from the surface of the wall before the dissolved paint solution had time to penetrate into the lime plaster (intonaco). A suitable method of treatment was successfully devised in Colombo, and the conservation party left for Sigiriya on October 19.

On October 20, a successful method of cleaning the greater part of the vandals’ paint was devised in the fresco pockets and by end of the day about half the area of pocket B, No. 10 was cleaned. In patches where the original paint layer had fallen off in the past revealing the intonaco, there was a light blue colour due to the constituent of the paint of this colour; which turned out to be Prussian Blue, being absorbed in such areas. On returning to Colombo on October 21 a conference was held the next day chaired by the Minister of Education and Cultural Affairs; in immediate response to a Government request from the International Centre for the Study and Preservation of Cultural Property, Rome, for the services of the best available expert to restore the paintings, Luciano Maranzi, an alumnus of this Centre was selected and had arrived in the Island for a period of two weeks.

The Smithsonian Institution, Washington, had readily agreed to bear the expenses involved. After briefing the Minister and discussing the problems involved whilst in Colombo, Maranzi, Raja de Silva and his technical staff left for Sigiriya the next day with materials for restoration from the Archaeological Laboratory as well as from Italy. Maranzi conducted experiments for two days and devised a quicker method of cleaning the paintings than had been used a few days earlier by de Silva, with the use of the same solvent, trilene. Maranzi expressed no great surprise at this coincidence as he recalled seeing me at the Rome Centre in 1956 when I was on a short training course there.

Maranzi, however, used to good effect other materials too that had been brought by him, and adopted a faster and more efficient method of cleaning the paintings than we had used. Maranzi and the Archaelogical Survey Department (ASD) staff worked in the fresco pockets from early morning till fading light of the evening (food being brought up daily) until November 3, 1967; he left the Island on November 4 after completing the initial part of his programme of work and advising us on how to continue the restoration work pending his return in 1968.

The programme of restoration and conservation was phased out as follows:



. Removal of the yellow and green constituents of the vandals’ paint


In this process, the modern restorations carried out by the ASD were also largely removed, the exception being the resistant green paint, easily recognizable as not original from slight impasto nature, that may have been done by the “lasting spirit fresco medium” recorded by Bell.

The method adopted by Maranzi was the application of Decapex (Nitrosmalti, Via Quattro Novembre, Roma) a jelly like proprietary brand of mild paint remover. A small pad of cotton wool was then dipped in trilene, firmly held with the fingers and thumb and drawn across the painted area already treated with Decapex. By repetition of this procedure, the green and yellow constituents of the vandals’ paint were removed. On conducting this part of the cleaning operation, it was found that in certain areas where the original paint had fallen off in the past (and the intonaco had been exposed) the blue constituent of the vandals’ paint had been absorbed on the intonaco, and was resistant to the paint remover. However, dark growths of algae around some of the panels as well as most of the restorations of the ASD were removed.


2. Consolidation of the plaster of the physically damaged figures

An emulsion of polyvinyl acetate, Vinamul (ICI, London), known locally as Chemifix, further diluted with water was introduced using a hypodermic syringe and needle at the broken edge formed by the destruction of parts of B3 and B4. The exposed rock surface (seen to be pitted all over as a “key” for the laying of the ground) resulting from the vandalism on panels B3 and B4 was plastered with a mixture of sand, lime and polyvinyl acetate emulsion. Before the work was completed on B5, a memento in the form of two coins of the day engraved with the names of Maranzi and de Silva and dated March 25, 1967, were inserted in the fresh plaster mix at the edge of the broken ground of the wall painting, to be found at some distant date when the applied plaster is removed or falls away.


3. Removal of the resistant Prussian Blue


This constituent of the vandals’ paint can be decolorized by the use of alkalies. The application of inorganic alkalies such as even very dilute sodium hydroxide can lead to complications later due to the conversion of any excess into sodium carbonate. The Rome Centre advised the use of a volatile organic base, normal butyl amine, which was found to be satisfactory for our purpose. The application of the amine entailed the use of a cotton-wool padded glass rod.


4. Restoration by Maranzi of the areas exposed by the removal of modern restoration work by the ASD.


The “many lamentable pitting” on the paintings found by Bell had been modeled in and touched up in his time by using modern colours that extended beyond the repaired areas. The white frame left on the removal of Murray’s tissue papers had been restored using colours that did not blend well with the background colour laid on the plaster in ancient times. All these having been removed in the cleaning process of 1967, Maranzi did the minimum amount of restoration necessary, using emulsion paints (Reeves polymer colours) and Aqua Tee acrylic polymer emulsions (Bocour Artists, Colombo, New York). This work was done in an acceptable manner. so as to enable the viewer to recognize which areas had been restored. SM Seneviratne, Draughtsman and MWE Karunaratne, Photographer, assisted Maranzi in this part of the programme.


5. Application of a Preservative Coating


The painstaking and unstinted assistance given by SM Seneviratne, MWE Karunaratne, and RA Wilson, WK Samaranayake and Lokubanda of the Archaeological Laboratory, is placed on record.

Maranzi returned to the country on March 4. 1968 to personally undertake the remaining phases of the restoration work, i.e., touching up, and the application of a preservative coating of an easily removable synthetic resin, Paraloid B72, dissolved in trilene. This served also to enhance the clarity of the paintings. Maranzi copied (from existing photographs) in the fresco technique, the damaged panels B3 and B4, on an asbestos sheet plastered with a lime mix – the only example of a fresco painting in the country, which is exhibited in the archaeological museum, Sigiriya. He left Sri Lanka on April 11, 1968. It may be noted here that we were able to obtain Maranzi’s services on several later occasions, when he trained our conservation staff, and restored our paintings elsewhere in the country.

Maranzi had come, revivified the divine females of the fresco pocket to their pristine beauty, and had departed, leaving these specimens of ancient pictorial art for present and future generations to delight in. The entire nation and lovers of art outside our shores are surely indebted to him for the excellence of his restoration work.

On May 8, 1968, the fresco pocket was ceremonially opened to the public by the Minister of Education and Cultural Affairs in the presence of a distinguished gathering and thousands of citizens, after a historic meeting held at the Audience Hall Rock.

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Sinharaja world heritage



Conservation Outlook Assessment: Significant Concern

By Professor Emeritus Nimal Gunatilleke

Continued from Yesterday


Water diverted from Ampanagala reservoir to Muruthawela will be used to meet the irrigation deficit of Muruthawela and Kirama Oya systems and the balance will be transferred to Chandrika Wewa, through existing LB canal of Muruthawela scheme up to 13.8 km and a new canal of 17.0 km. After that, the water requirement of Hambantota harbour is to be transferred to Ridiyagama tank through the Walawe river and Liyangasthota anicuit. However, due to the extreme length of the diversion through the three-river basins of Nilwala, Kirama Ara and Urubokka Oya, it will lead to a massive conveyance losses of the diverted water while on the way to the Walawe basin. Furthermore, enormous costs associated with its construction, a failure to fully realise the intended outcomes due to a shortage of water budget will simply be a burden that Sri Lanka cannot afford with her current economic condition, according to Eng. Prema Hettiarachchi. It may be worth recording that the water ingress into the grouted tunnel of the Uma Oya near Ella has still not been fully repaired, even though the Uma Oya project is nearing completion. An expensive lesson to be learnt on the nature of the weathered geological structure, lineaments and implementing its unexpected and costly mitigatory measures which will eventually to be paid back by this and future generations of tax payers of this country.

According to the Irrigation Department web site postings, Mahaweli Consultancy Bureau has initiated the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA), but due to the unavailability of concurrence of the Forest Department, revised TOR has not been issued by the CEA. Therefore, due to the unavailability of updated TOR, the EIA study has been delayed.

Environmentally, the most contentious issue highlighted in the news media is the proposed construction of a RCC dam at Madugeta to build a reservoir for which around 79 ha of forested (and some agricultural) lands in Sinharaja and a portion of prisine riverine forest in Dellawa would be inundated. On the Sinharaja side of the proposed Madugeta reservoir (right abutment) at present there are home gardens and small-scale tea plantations in addition to good riverine forests. In contrast however, proportionately a larger area of luxuriant forest of Dellawa, which is a part of the new ‘Sinharaja Rain Forest Complex’ would go under the chain saw for this reservoir construction (left abutment). The Geo-engineering report of May 2019 on GNDP has revised the siting of the dam to a more favourable location with supposedly reduced impacts but they forewarn that the three core-drilling along the proposed dam axis that had to be temporarily abandoned due to protests made by the villagers, need to be completed to confirm the geological suitability for the dam site.


Are there any Environment-Friendly Alternative Options?

As an alternative site for a dam on Gin Ganga, Eng. Nandasoma Atukorale (Specialist Engineer [Hydropower]) has proposed a location at the confluence of Mahadola with Gin Ganga at the village of Mederipitiya, way back in 2006. According to him, the riverbed at this site is 261 masl and have a catchment area of 132 km2. He proposes the construction of a 35 m high concrete gravity type dam that would form a reservoir with a storage capacity of 65 million cu.m and a potential discharge of 320 million cu.m of water annually which could divert 293 million cu. m of water to the SE Dry Zone. Most importantly, this region passes through a relatively narrow section of the river which is ideally suited for a dam according to him. However, geological suitability and socio-economic impacts of local communities need to be investigated, beforehand.

Quite interestingly, Eng. Athukorale claims that ‘although it is not economically very attractive, another 200 million cu.m of water could be diverted to the Nilwala basin by constructing a dam across Gin Ganga at the downstream of the confluence with Dellawa Dola at the village of Madugeta, with an 8000 m long tunnel which could be considered at a later stage provided further water shortages are experienced in the area’.


Now that the proposed Madugeta reservoir is receiving heavy criticisms from the environmental front, wonder whether Mederipitiya option proposed by Eng. Athukorale could be revisited for the diversion of Gin-Nilwala river water to the SE Dry Zone.

In a research paper titled ‘Comparison of Alternative Proposals for Domestic and Industrial Water Supply for Hambantota Industrial Development Zone’ Eng. Prema Hettiarachchi makes a comparison among three irrigation projects Kukule Ganga, Gin-Nilwala and Wey Ganga to convey water from the SW wet zone to SE dry zone.

She proposes yet another option that is probably still on the drawing boards to be considered which is the Wey Ganga diversion in Ratnapura District. According to her, this could meet the industrial and drinking water requirement (154 MCM + drinking water) of Hambantota metropolitan area at a significantly lower cost and with less damage to the environment. Further, there is a possibility of augmenting this scheme by diverting a part of Kalu Ganga catchment at a later stage.

Eng. Hettiarachchi further states that ‘by comparing the workload, it could be estimated to be nearly one third that of the Gin-Nilwala diversion. The Wey Ganga diversion can be carried out at a significantly lower cost by local agencies. That can also address the water scarcity of Hambantota metropolitan area including the requirements of international harbour and proposed industrial development zone with the relatively less environmental damage which is a major issue with respect to large scale projects. Construction period will also be less since the workload is less and can be carried out by the local agencies’.

What I have strived to show with this detailed irrigation engineering information available on public domain in the form of research publications, is that the Madugeta reservoir option is not the only one available for taking water from the wet zone rivers to the SE Dry Zone which is indeed a legitimate requirement for agricultural and industrial development of that region.

Pre-feasibility studies have been conducted on these options since 1968 and a considerable wealth of technical information is already available with the Irrigation Department. Apparently, according to knowledgeable irrigation engineers, there are more environmentally friendly, and cost-effective options with greater assurance of water conveyance to the SE Dry Zone available for consideration. It is often the case that during pre-feasibility studies of these large engineering projects, environmental concerns are given the least priority. Steady supply of water during extreme drought events which are becoming more frequent depends very much on the nature of the vegetation cover of the watershed area. These environmental aspects need to be critically evaluated before such costly projects are designed. As an example, although, the major engineering work of the Uma Oya project has been almost completed, its cost-effectiveness is yet to be seen with a denuded watershed, a potential of heavy soil erosion on top of the unexpected heavy expenditure on tunnel boring and other engineering works.

Biologically speaking, the Dellawa Forest Reserve is an integral part of Sinharaja Rain Forest Complex representing the pristine climax forest vegetation of SE wet lowlands and provide a vital connectivity link to adjoining Diyadawa forest of equal significance via the remains of Dombagoda forest. Therefore, clearing a riverine strip of this forest for the construction of Madugeta Reservoir would lead to an irreparable and irreplaceable damage to its characteristic riverine/flood plain forest vegetation.

On the other hand, pledging a reforestation initiative of a much larger area with Hevea rubber as a compensatory measure proposed by the political administration is totally unacceptable. Preserving intact forests in protected areas has no substitutes or replacements. Furthermore, the Natural Heritage Wilderness Area act and the binding articles of the UNESCO Convention on Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage to which Sri Lanka is a signatory, clearly state that causing direct or indirect damage to a natural heritage is legally not permissible.

In summary, the Sinharaja World Heritage Site is already in a state whose biological values are threatened and/or are showing signs of deterioration and significant additional conservation measures have been recommended to restore these values over the medium and long term. Adding more threats like the construction of reservoirs inside protected areas at this stage would inevitably downgrade the values further to a ‘critical conservation outlook’ which is not what the citizenry of Sri Lanka and the world at large would acknowledge as ‘sustainable development’.

The author of this article is a member of the National Sustainable Development Council of Sri Lanka and he thanks Dr Jagath Gunathilaka of Peradeniya University for providing the geotechnical information described herein. The author can be contacted at .)


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US seeking way out of Afghan killing field



As the Biden administration makes its initial moves to extricate the US’ remaining security forces personnel from Afghanistan, it would do well to ponder on former US President John F. Kennedy’s insightful comment on foreign policy: ‘Domestic policy can only defeat us; foreign policy can kill us.’ This is a rare nugget on the nature of foreign policy.

Considering the high costs, human and economic, a country could incur as a result of blundering on its foreign policy front, Kennedy could be said to have spoken for all countries. However, there is no denying that the comment is particularly applicable to expansionist powers or ‘hegemonic’ states.

Sensible opinion is likely to be of the view that the US decision on quitting Afghanistan should have come very much earlier; may be a couple of years after its bloody misadventure in the conflict and war-ridden country. Considering the terribly high human costs in particular the US’ 20 long years in Afghanistan have incurred, the US could be said to have committed one of its worst foreign policy blunders, overshadowing in severity the blood-letting incurred by the super power in Vietnam. However, in both theatres, the consequences for the US have been of unbearable magnitude.

The US death toll speaks for itself. At the time of writing more than 2,300 US security forces personnel have been killed and over 20,000 injured in Afghanistan. Reports indicate that over 450 Britons have died in the same quagmire along with hundreds of similar personnel from numerous other nationalities. Apparently, it took an exceptionally long period of time for the US to realize that Afghanistan for it was a lost cause.

The lesson that the US and other expansionist powers ought to come to grips with is that it would not be an ‘easy ride’ for them in the complex conflict and war zones of the South. The ground realities in these theatres are of mind-boggling complexity and Afghanistan drives this point home with notable harshness. Power projection in South-west Asia and persistence with its ‘war on terror’ were among the apparent prime objectives of the US in Afghanistan as well as in Iraq but what the US did not evidently take into consideration before these military involvements were the internal political realities of these countries that are not at all amenable to simplistic analyses and policy prescriptions.

The Soviets ought to have come to grips with some features of the treacherous political terrain presented by Afghanistan in the late eighties but their principal preoccupations were related more to the compulsions of the Cold War. Simply put, the Soviets were bent on preserving the ‘satellite’ status of Afghanistan and their war effort was aimed at this in the main. Preparing Afghanistan for democracy was not even least among the Soviet Union’s concerns, of course.

However, the same does not apply to the US. The latter helped the Mujaheddin in the task of getting rid of the Soviet presence in Afghanistan but its aim was also to have a US-friendly regime in Kabul that would be a veritable bridgehead of US power and influence in the region on a continuous basis. In other words, the US expected the regime which replaced the Soviets to be pro-Western and essentially democracy-friendly. The US did not in any way bargain to have in Afghanistan Islamic fundamentalist regimes whose political philosophies were the anti-thesis of democracy as perceived in the US and practised by it.

However, the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban regime which eventually came to power in the mid-nineties in Afghanistan, once the Soviets withdrew, defied all Western expectations. As is known, the Taliban was not only repressive and undemocratic but was staunchly opposed to everything Western. There were no hopes of the Taliban working towards Western interests. Besides, the US did not expect to see in Afghanistan a country dangerously divided on ethnic, tribal and religious lines. The problems of Afghanistan have been compounded over the years by the coming together of the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda and these groups have world wide Islamic fundamentalist links.

It has been the aim of the US to have in Kabul religiously moderate, pro-democratic regimes but as developments have proved over the past few decades these administrations have not been in a position to hold out against the Taliban. In fact, it is the Taliban that is veritably at the helm of power in Afghanistan currently and years of futile attempts at trying to contain the Taliban have brought home to the US and its allies that they have no choice but to talk to the Taliban in order to secure some respite to effect ‘an honourable exit’ from the bloodied land. This is where matters stand at present.

However, as pointed out by commentators, it is the Afghan civilian population that has suffered most in the decades-long blood-letting in the country. Conservative estimates put the number of Afghan security forces personnel killed in Afghanistan at around 60,000 to date and the number of civilians killed at double that figure.

Accordingly, the Afghan people would be left to face an uncertain and highly risk-riddled future when the last of the US security forces personnel and their allies leave Afghanistan in September this year. The country would be left to its own devices and considering that the Taliban will likely be the dominant formation in the country and not its legitimate government, the lot of Afghan civilians is bound to be heart-rending.

There is plenty to ponder on for the US and other democratic countries in the agonies of Afghanistan. One lesson that offers itself is that not all countries of the South are ‘ready for democracy’. This applies to very many countries of the South that already claim to be democracies in the Western sense. Southern ‘democratic’ polities defy easy analysis and categorization in consideration of the multitude of identity markers they present along with the legitimacy that they have achieved in the eyes of their states and populations. What we have are dangerously volatile states riddled with contradictions. Relating to them will prove to be highly problematic for the rest of the world.

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The Soul



The Soul (also known as Ji hun) is based on the sci-fi novel ‘Soul Transfer’, written by Jiang Bo in 2012. The novel was widely popular and inspired director Cheng Wei-Hao to adapt the tale into a movie. The story is about a married couple who are determined to uncover the truth behind strange activities in their community. According to the official synopsis for the film from Netflix, while investigating the death of a businessman, a prosecutor and his wife uncover occult secrets as they face their own life-and-death dilemma. The film stars Chang Chen, Janine Chang and Christopher Lee among others.

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