Walking Heritage into Future Cities in Sri Lanka

by Gillian Juleff

It’s been a few weeks since returning from our busy and exciting project trip to Sri Lanka. To roll back a little, we originally planned the visit for early May but reluctantly had to abandon the plan following the devastating Easter bombings. Not wanting to relinquish this component of the project, we immediately rebooked our flights for June in the hope that the FCO advice against non-essential travel would be lifted by then. The weeks went by with no change and making plans for the visit seemed like tempting fate to conspire against us. On the very day I set to make a final decision on cancelling the trip the FCO lifted the advice and we were free to travel! This context is relevant because it explains why the entire trip, from booking transport and accommodation to arranging meetings and workshop, had to be put together in little more than a week.

If that was a daunting starting point everything that followed set a positive and affirming upward trajectory. Colleagues and contacts in Sri Lanka, most especially arts and development specialist, Hasini Haputhanthri, responded enthusiastically, making time for meetings and suggesting new contacts. The package seemed slim, we were not coming with funds or infrastructure, we were coming with an idea, a concept, based on the work of Heritage Walk Calcutta – engaging young people in researching their own heritage and disseminating it to a wider public through heritage walking is empowering, for people, for communities and for the social and built fabric of cities. Our aspiration was to take the idea to Jaffna, a city emerging from and reimagining itself after 30 years of civil war.

We met the Historical Dialogues team at their office in Colombo. Photo: Gill Juleff

Sri Lanka and post-conflict reconciliation is firmly on the international development radar. Several well-established agencies are engaged in long term projects addressing aspects of peace-building through memory and history, memorialization and heritage. Through Hasini we met the dynamic team from Historical Dialogues who are doing something similar in and around Colombo. A long morning of lively discussion with them and their extended group opened our eyes to both the potential and the pitfalls of heritage walking in Sri Lanka. An issue that came up in our discussions more than once was ‘profit’. While development agencies and research institutions are not-for-profit organisations, Heritage Walk Calcutta is an ethical social enterprise that charges the public for its walks, and uses the income to fund internships for young postgraduates to research, develop and deliver their own walks. It took careful explanation to demonstrate that this model ensured sustainability but did not make HWC just another tour company. Still in Colombo and again through Hasini, we were also introduced to the research and memory work linked to reconciliation of the well-regarded International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) in Colombo.

At Colombo we met Aousten, an enthusiastic architecture student from Jaffna who is passionate about the history of his city. Photo: Tathagata Neogi

Our idea began to look a little naive in a complex scenario. How could we reach the grass roots and find an audience for our idea? A network of conversations spreading out from colleagues, friends and acquaintances from my own long-standing connections with the island led us to the Sri Lanka Archive of Contemporary Art, Architecture and Design. Based in a beautifully-restored courtyard-style bungalow on Temple Road, Jaffna, the Archive is a non-profit organisation that has a growing library of cultural material open to the public and hosts events and activities. Importantly, it has nurtured a vibrant and enthusiastic community primarily from Jaffna and the surrounding area.

Despite the extreme short notice the directors of the Archive, Sharmini Pereira and Sanathanan Thamotharampillai, took time to listen to our ideas and offered to host our two-day Walking Heritage workshop at the Archive. Through their facebook page we advertised the event and invited people to join us. The Archive opened its space to welcome us, organised tea, coffee and a delicious buffet lunch, and provided the space and facilities for presentations and discussions. The cool, shaded courtyard of the Archive, set back from the hustle and bustle of the street, is a perfect space for informal discussion. However, the sublime setting of the Archive did not take away from the fact that no one in the group of 35+ people, who met there on 23rd June, including ourselves, really knew what they had come to or how the two days would unfold.

The Jaffna Workshop

I had been told in advance that the regular Sri Lanka Archive audience had a voice and was not shy in coming forward in discussion. Even so, the first couple of hours of the Jaffna workshop took me by surprise. The sense of naivety that had started to come upon me in Colombo was now looming larger. The short blurb that I had rattled off to introduce and contextualise the workshop programme started with the statement – ‘there is nothing passive about heritage and it is not a commodity. Heritage is more than monuments and elite histories … ‘. Other work I’m involved in has made me realize that in the UK especially conventional approaches to heritage are very much proscribed and contained. Unless it is packaged and presented to us as a commodity we often fail to recognise heritage. I needn’t have feared the same would be the case in Sri Lanka!

The beautifully restored courtyard style bungalow of the Sri Lanka Archives of Contemporary Art, Architecture and Design in Jaffna, the venue of our two-day Walking Heritage workshop.
Photo: Tathagata Neogi

We started with a general introduction session which quickly veered away from our set programme into a lively and heated debate on heritage in Sri Lanka, what it means to different communities and how it is used and presented. Passions were high as some made the case for looking forwards to a future of collective heritage while others vehemently asserted that that denied minority communities their own distinct heritages. I looked to defuse and distract the debate but, quietly and wisely, Hasini advised to let the conversations happen. They are an essential element of the reconciliation processes. Equally challenging was the less than enthusiastic reaction from many in the group when I introduced myself as an archaeologist, and one who had many years ago worked on the great World Heritage sites of the Cultural Triangle. This was the voice of communities denied and side-lined by the dominant and authorised narrative that had generated vast income and put the country’s World Heritage on the international map of cultural tourism, but had also, at its extreme, help to fuel ethnic division.

It was a daunting opening session but Hasini was right, it was important, it give us a shared platform on which everyone could be open. Ice had been broken and the tea-coffee break that followed was abuzz with chatter. We then all settled back to hear Tintin and Chelsea tell the story of Heritage Walk Calcutta. New perspectives on heritage began to emerge, new ways of thinking about heritage, and researching and presenting local heritage. This and a delicious lunch set us up for the afternoon session which we titled ‘Brainstorming Jaffna’. We broke into small groups and brainstorming it was! The aim was to think of the ‘Top 10’ heritage sites in Jaffna and then think of all the other heritage, including the unknown and the untold; the heritage of industries, communication and economy; the festivals and arts; and the unexpected. When we came together again at the end we were treated to a wealth of ideas and experiences ranging from the history of the earliest printing press in Jaffna to the kite festival and the bizarre annual arrival of bamboo flotsam, including whole shacks, all the way from Burma on Indian Ocean currents to the shores of Kayts island!

The 19th century Kachcheri Building in Jaffna, one of the town’s most famous historic landmark. Our walking tour of Jaffna started from here on the second day of the workshop.
Photo: Tathagata Neogi

Day two had us all up in the early morning to meet at the old Kachcheri at the start of a walk through the city led by our Jaffna participants. The Kachcheri is an obvious starting point. As the majestic colonial district secretariat it is high in the ‘Top 10’ Jaffna sites. Sitting in an area of open parkland that was the old administrative centre alongside the main road into Jaffna, it is highly visible and with its abandoned roofless halls and colonnades, and walls pock-marked by bullets it is a poignant reminder of its more recent fate during the civil war. From there, and with our newly attuned heritage walk sensitivities, we traversed important routeways past the Bishop’s House and serene old seminary compound, passing schools and churches that made up the elite areas of the city, and past less well known structures such as the WWII air raid siren plinth by the roadside.

The St. James Church in Jaffna. Photo: Tathagata Neogi

Our path led us to St James Church where an introduction to the historical importance of the structure morphed naturally into a personal anecdote about a narrow family escape on the day that the nave of the church was bombed during the civil war, into walking among the carpenters and craftsmen now restoring the church, into another anecdote about a building opposite the church with a darker, more recent history as detention centre from where people ‘disappeared’, reminding us that the fabric of heritage, memory and the past is multi-layered and closely woven. After that we deserved a hearty and noisy breakfast at a roadside café. We finished our walk with a visit to the earliest and still operational Catholic printing press where we watched newspapers being compiled and folded by hand, as they probably have been for many generations.

By now it was getting hot and we retreated to the cool of the Archive for tea and coffee and a wind up session. Ruth Young (Leicester University) gave a presentation on Historical Archaeology which introduced the idea of investigating the physical remains of more recent everyday lives and communities, and brought us full circle from our opening debate on authorised heritage narratives and the archaeology of dominant elites. The group that said their farewells at the end of the workshop went away with new insights on heritage and enthusiasm to explore and promote their own heritage. I left feeling it had been one of the most worthwhile experiences of my working career.

About the Author:

Dr Gillian Juleff is a Senior Lecturer at University of Exeter’s Department of Archaeology. She is the Principal Investigator of the Walking Heritage into Future Cities project.

Author: Tathagata Neogi

Tathagata Neogi is an archaeologist and ethnographer with a PhD from University of Exeter. He is also the Founder of Heritage Walk Calcutta, an academic-run for-profit social enterprise offering historical walking tours in Kolkata, India.

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