Photo from tahira’s shenanigans

National parks in Sri Lanka that traverse the lines of nature reserves are held in reverence in the Sri Lankan psyche. Ideas of nature reserves in Sri Lanka are often traced back to King Devanmanpiyatissa, having converted to Buddhism came to the realization that all beings have an equal right to the land and that as the ruler the king was only the guardian of the land, subsequently creating a sanctuary for wildlife in Mihinthale. Since then the idea of nature reserves and national parks in Sri Lanka has come a long way, going through a range of pre-colonial and post-colonial experiences tacking back and forth between western colonial ideologies and indigenous beliefs of sanctity and religion. It is my contention that the establishment of nature reserves in Sri Lanka is an attempt to construct Sinhala Buddhist nationalism through a careful implicit orchestraration of a particular cultural imagination of nature reserves.   I attempt to dissect and deconstruct this imagination through various accounts of nature reserves found in the spheres of media, folklore and politics.

Nature reserves or national parks, are utilised by the Sri Lankan polity to evoke Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. In line with Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, National parks are used to delineate and prove that the rightful owners of Sri Lanka are inherently Sinhalese. This is achieved by using archaeological remains and mythical accounts as evidence associated with a distinct cultural heritage that symbolises Sinhala-ness. Secondly and more recently, I observe that the Peak Wilderness Sanctuary is used to garner grass roots support in warding off international, “foreign” forces detrimental to the culture and the unitary country which the armed forces secured. It is through a potent mix of religion, preserved nature within national parks and social realities that a distinct racialised identity of the Sinhalese is vigorously evoked.

Inscribing Ownership of Sri Lanka through National Parks

Establishing the rightful ownership of the island or parts of the island is crucial to both Sinhalese and Tamil nationalist ideologies. For the Sinhalese, this involves identifying themselves as inherently Buddhist, having historically played a central role in the construction of the Sinhalese identity. The Sri Lankan polity uses and propagates this distinct identity using the Mahavamsa. The link between the Sinhalese and Buddhism is powerfully constructed on the perceived fact that the island was gifted to the Sinhalese by the Buddha for the purpose of propagating the Buddhist philosophy. Within this context National Parks are depicted as reserves or sanctified spaces that hold evidence to the Buddhist “civilization” of the Sinhalese and the struggle of the Sinhalese against the Tamils. In an article in the Daily News, Rupa Banduwadena provides evidence to the above, stating “Sri Pada is a sacred land mark and a perfect gift to Sri Lanka by Sakyamuni (Buddha) and it remains the greatest sacred monument of the Buddhists”. These spaces are also employed to draw distinct lines as to ‘who’ is native and who is alien to the land.

Adam’s peak nestled within the Peak Wilderness Sanctuary is often used to draw the celestial connection between the Sinhalese race and Buddha. The existence of the foot print of the Buddha and the embedded sacredness of a greater force, an inherited responsibility to preserve its sacredness predetermines a visitor’s experience of the nature within the Peak Wilderness Sanctuary. From there on the expectations and excitement of encountering wildlife within the sanctuary is sensationalised from a feeling of innate sacredness. These expectations are predetermined in any visitor who reads about the Peak Wilderness Sanctuary, in an article appearing in the Daily News, Wickramage quotes a Norwegian visitor’s perception of the space: “ [..] Adam’s Peak rises in solitary majesty. From the summit there is an unhindered, panoramic view of the rugged centre of the Island. No one who has experienced the sublime beauty of sunrise on that mountain, can doubt that it is indeed the abode of a god, nor could there be a more worthy repository for Sri Pada, the Glorious Footprint left on the Peak by Lord Buddha, or, as some claim, imprinted there by Adam, or Shiva, or Saint Thomas”. Such poetic articles are commonplace in Sri Lankan literature, with mastery they attempt to give literal meanings to mythical historical accounts.

Professor Senarath Paranavitana, the celebrated Sinhalese anti-colonial archaeologist in his paper, the god of the Adams peak, provided the foundations to ensure that Adam’s Peak remained within the domain of Sinhalese heritage. He successfully disputed the genuine-ness of the Hindu belief of the foot print of Siva (Sivanoli-Padam) atop the mountain. This essentially meant that Hindu Tamils could not claim any genuine relationship to the mountain and the Peak Wilderness Sanctuary, thus firmly nestling the sacredness of the Peak Wilderness Sanctuary within the context of Buddhist philosophy. Paranavitana’s work in archaeology is often portrayed in media as ground-breaking and undisputable research that brought to light the greatness of the Sinhalese Buddhist heritage. Paranavitana, along with Dr. Goldschmidt, a London based Orientalist, J Forbes and W Kinghton portrayed Tamils as exotic to Ceylon whereas Sinhalese were native to the island. Paranavitana devoted his entire career to prove the historical accuracy of the Mahavamsa using scientific tools at his possession. Paranavithana was more driven by the need to prove to himself and the world of the Sinhala Buddhist history of Sri Lanka rather than the propagation of nationalism, his personal drive is to an extent irrelevant, however his work found new meaning in the hands of nationalist politicians and journalists. Paranavitana in his paper, “The God of Adam’s Peak”, narrates, the “king, after remaining in concealment for a time when he was deprived of his sovereignty by the Tamil invaders”. His words associated with the Peak Wilderness Sanctuary configured this space as central to the Sinhalese struggles with the exotic and dangerous Tamils. The portrayal of the Tamils as raiders of Sri Lanka underscored by Paranavitana, Forbes and Knighton are echoed in newspaper articles, Godwin Witane in an article titled “Sri Lankan monarchs who climbed Holy Sri Pada” recounts, “King Valagambahu [..]while he was in exile in the mountain wilderness, better known to our people as “Sri Pada Adaviya, to escape the marauding Cholians”. Banduwardena in an article in the Daily News, claims that Vijaya, the legendary father of the Sinhala Aryan race was directed to the island by the vision of the peak, firmly establishing and entrenching the importance of the peak to the origins of the Sinhala race.

Newspaper accounts of the Peak Wilderness Sanctuary, emphasize the multi-religious and multi-cultural nature of this space resembling a diverse and tolerant nation: “its (Sri Pada) sanctity believed by all four main religion adherents namely, Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Islamists” Witane; “Named the ‘Sacred footprint’ (Sri Pada) and sacred to the devotees of the main religious groups in Sri Lanka […] It is a symbol of the religious and ethnic harmony of the nation because there is no dispute over the site belonging to a particular religion”. Jayawardena quoting Still states “(Sri Pada) ‘cathedral of the human race’ is in reference to the miraculous marvel of the peak that it is venerated universally, claimed as a holy place by all four major religions of the human world”. However readers are soon compelled to realize that the mountain although held in veneration by Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Islamists is firmly within the realm of Buddhism, Witane achieves this by an excessive emphasis of the patronage Sinhalese kings provided in protecting this “sacred” space from Tamils. The article that righteously claimed religious diversity and tolerance in the introduction towards the end states that “The Buddhists had been the custodians of the Peak except for a short period when King Rajasinghe I (came into power)” and depicts king Rajasinghe I as an “apostate” for “embracing the Hindu religion” and claims that “the erosion of his piety and religion King Rajasinghe […] built the Berendi Kovil”. The article continues to narrate, how the “Buddhist General of Kandy Wimaladharmasuriya” refused to destroy Buddhist temples and was subsequently executed by stoning to death by Poosaries (Hindu priests), the article claims that Wimaladharamasuriya is a “martyr for the cause of Buddhism”. Furthermore the article states that “Sri Pada suffered considerably” during the reign of King Rajasinghe and narrates how a monk “roused the Sinhalese Buddhists of Sabaragamuwa against the Saivities […] restored once again Sri Pada to the Buddhists, Where ancient forms of religious fervour persist unbroken to date.” In an ironic twist the article manages to place and configure the Peak Wilderness Sanctuary in the midst of the struggle of protecting the Buddhist dharma. These articles either explicitly or implicitly imply the need for the preservation of these spaces as reminders of the inherently Sinhalese struggle for the protection of Buddhism, it is also noteworthy that biodiversity within the sanctuary was given minimal significance. The account by Banduwardena also endures a similar fate, having introduced the peak as a “cathedral of the human race”, the article goes on to describe the importance of the peak to the arrival of the Aryan father of the Sinhala race and claims the peak as the “most serene holy place where rich Buddhist heritage is preserved”.

These imposed meanings of national parks are not isolated to the Peak Wilderness Sanctuary, S. Lokuhewa in a newspaper article titled “forest heritage [..]”, claims that evidence of the Sri Lankans who can claim to inherit a proud and great history lies hidden inside forests. The article goes on to draw from a book written by a monk on the heritage of the Sinhala Buddhist, and uses stone inscriptions found in the forest as evidence to the “resilience of the ancient culture that extends over two thousand five hundred years and the supreme history which under heavy influence of foreign invasions still managed to protect the Sinhalese language which is used by seventy percent of the population”. Readers of the article are constantly reminded that Sinhalese is still the dominant language in the country and emotionally recounts the struggle the ancient Sinhalese had to endure to protect the language from the invaders. More importantly the readers are informed that evidence of this lies inside forests. Lokuhewa boldly claims that evidence found in the forest shows without doubt even 3200 years ago the language used was Sinhalese, concluding with a reminder that it is the responsibility of the current generation to protect these spaces for future generations. In similar vein E. Wickramanayake in a newspaper article in the English weekly The Sunday Times suggests making national parks a cultural, historical and ecological experience to encapsulate the historical heritage found within National Parks.

Similar meanings of poetics are attributed to Sinharaja. In similar vein to the Peak Wilderness Sanctuary, the struggles of Sinhalese against the Tamils are depicted using historical accounts. L. Chaminda in an article in the Sinhalese daily Divaina, highlights the conflict between the Tamil Chola empire and the part Sinharaja played in the war against the invaders, the article narrates how “King Vijaya Bahu produced arrow and arrow heads in addition to recruiting and organising the army in defeating the Cholas”. R. Jayantha relates Sinharaja to the modern day “Vijaya Bahu”, Mahinda Rajapaksa, describing his visit to Sinharaja the author states, “since the end of the cruel terrorism which grappled the country and the unification of the country, the trip taken to Sinharaja is at times terrifyingly adventurous at times is filled with beauty” (translated). Jayantha in his article somehow manages to link the end of terrorism and Sinharaja, interestingly and rather confusingly Sinharaja was not involved or impacted by the civil war at any point of time. It seems that the author desired to somehow convey that the eradication of the LTTE and the unification of the country allowed citizens to experience nature in a different manner.

The post-colonial Sinhalese have always viewed western influence as detrimental to their interests, these cultural perceptions were propagated and employed by the Sri Lankan polity to drive their own interests. The introduction and the imposition of Christianity during the colonial period were particularly viewed as detrimental to Buddhism. These views were engaged with nature conservation through the media, S. Udawatte in an article in the Sinhala daily Divaina  portrayed the Buddhist influence on the island as being harmonious with the natural world, blaming western colonial masters for the breakdown of the harmonious relationship the Buddhists had with the environment. The article claimed “Sri Lankan citizens have always been kind to the conservation of the environment, it is something we inherited from Buddhism [….] we went wrong when we accepted the law of the white man and ignored our own laws”. The former environmental minister, Champika Ranawaka echoed these perceptions stating that Sri Lankan nature endured much suffering during the reign of the Portuguese, Dutch and the English.

In post war Sri Lanka, the war with the west took a new turn, in particular the European Union and the United Nations were portrayed as enemies of the unitary nation of Sri Lanka. Following the inscription of the central highlands of Sri Lanka as a world heritage site, the Deputy Minister of Environment proudly claimed they won the battle to inscribe the area as a world heritage site. Subsequently the government and media worked to portray the inscription as yet another victory for Sri Lanka in the international area, in concurrence with the successful diplomatic campaign to prevent the war crimes investigation by the United Nations. However some sections of the media opined that the inscription of the central highlands as a world heritage site was an invasion of the historical cultural heritage of Adam’s Peak, in an article titled “will heritage be a curse” ( උරුමය කරුමයක්‌ වෙයිද? ) in the Sinhala daily Divaina, S. Kandumulla states that there is no need for the glorification of Sri Pada by international forces but the ancient-ness, the cultural value and serenity in Sri Pada speaks for itself, the article continues to state that some international forces are driving an effort to destroy the unique national identity and the culture of the nation. Kandumulla concludes by stating that these actions are coordinated by a force drooling to bring upon an imperial policy.

It is clearly apparent that National Parks in Sri Lanka has an underlying lyrical meaning that goes far beyond mere biodiversity conservation. National Parks and Nature Reserves have become political and cultural pawns, employed by politicians and nationalist entities to drive an intricately constructed ideology that vigorously attempts to draw a vertical connection of the Sinhalese to the soil of Sri Lanka.  Naturally the question arises as to who benefits from these sanctified spaces, portrayed as reserves for Sinhalese heritage and underscored by the conservation of biodiversity, demarcated and protected as National Parks. I argue that the elite of the Sri Lankan society, inclusive of the Sri Lankan polity benefit at the expense of the people living in and around National Parks.

Who is on the Buddha’s Payroll 

The government tends to draw upon the importance of conserving nature and culture as a means to establish, demarcate and extend nature reserves. The establishment of nature reserves result in limiting or prohibiting access to local communities that live in and around these areas. There are well documented adverse impacts on local livelihoods through this exercise.

The Ministry of Economic Development, now exercises a degree of control over the Department of Wild Life Conservation, Board of Investment of Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau and the Sri Lankan Tourism Development Authority. The partial amalgamation of the Department of Wildlife Conservation and the Ministry of Economic Development drew criticism from environmentalists, who claim that the Fauna and Flora protection act which now comes under the purview of the Ministry of Economic Development will be exploited for commercial purposes.  The general rhetoric reasons that  in post war Sri Lanka, tourism is to lead economic growth and points out that National Parks that encapsulate biodiversity and cultural heritage are attractive tourist destinations which should be exploited for the benefit of the country. They also claim that development of the tourist industry (ecotourism) will bring in equitable economic development to the nation and more importantly to the areas surrounding the National Parks. Within the context of the political and cultural scenarios prevalent in Sri Lanka, it is unlikely that the benefits gained from tourism led economic development will be equitably distributed. This is especially true where power and authority are dependent on group affiliations, socio-political identities and external factors, which are largely beyond the communities residing in and around nature reserves.

There are a number of documented cases in Sinharaja and other nature reserves where holiday bungalows and “ecotourism” projects have sprung up illegally. Interviews given to newspapers by villagers generally tend to demonstrate that villagers are frightened to inquire as to the legality of such constructions inside these spaces. In a another incident in Sinharaja, Malinda, a reporter for Daily News reports  of a case where individuals affiliated to a government minister had arrived in Sinharaja to conduct a meeting. The visitors had not sought official documentation sanctioning the use of the premises, they had communicated to the forest officer that the minister had booked the premises and continued to consume alcohol, at which point the officers had conveyed to the visitors about the rules and regulations which prohibit the consumption of alcohol. Subsequently the forest officer and a villager had been assaulted. The spaces that are restricted for access by the villagers that they use to meet their daily lives have essentially become retreats for the elite to party in.

National Parks in Sri Lanka are employed by the government to evoke strong emotions of nationhood through the nationalist segments of the populace that ultimately marginalize the minorities, in particular the Tamils of Sri Lanka. They also allow government officials and the social elite to disproportionately benefit from these spaces, with the use of the firmly established power structures which the general populace dare challenge. It is important to note that the challenge of conserving biodiversity while ensuring equitable distribution of income and dignity, without regard to racial differences should be at the crux of the ideology behind National Parks. This is especially relevant to the broader post war state of affairs in Sri Lanka, a nation that profusely market itself as a harmonious multi ethnic country. The politicization of National Parks and the consequent events narrated and analysed in this article demonstrate the complexity of understanding nature and National Parks, how politics of a place can change the cultural perceptions of nature, perceive ecological systems and affect vulnerabilities of the ecosystems and the communities in and around these spaces.