Archaeologists call for halt to defacement of Lumbini heritage sitesConcerned over the construction of structures, Unesco threatens to put Lumbini on ‘Heritage in Danger’ list.
The Department of Archaeology (DoA) has issued directives to the authorities concerned for the immediate removal of statues constructed in Sagarhawa and a cowshed in Dohanikot of Kapilvastu district.
Stating that the recently sculpted stone statues and the new cowshed affect the heritage sites with historical, archaeological and cultural significance, the department wrote to the Lumbini Development Trust (LDT) and Kapilvastu Municipality instructing the removal of the structures.
The construction of the stone sculptures and the cowshed compromises the structure and integrity of the archaeologically important places, said Ram Bahadur Kunwar, the DoA spokesman. “The stone sculptures and the cow shed are not in suitable places. We, therefore, instructed their removal,” said Kunwar.
In recent years, new structures have been built in places related to Gautam Buddha and the ancient Shakya dynasty in Kapilvastu, Rupandehi and Nawalparasi West districts. According to archaeologists, increase in human activities and the construction of new structures put the historical artefacts and their knowledge under threat of erosion.
The government instituted the trust in 1985 with the goal of exploring, excavating and conserving archaeological sites, including Lumbini, in Rupandehi, as well as areas in Kapilvastu and Nawalparasi districts. The trust is also responsible for implementing the Lumbini Master Plan.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unseco) enlisted Lumbini, the birthplace of Gautam Buddha, in the World Heritage List in 1997. Unesco has also expressed its concerns regarding the human activities and construction of various structures in the Lumbini area.
The extended 45th session of the World Heritage Committee held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia from September 10-25, 2023 decided to seek a clarification from the LDT. Accordingly, the World Heritage Committee wrote a 10-point letter to the Lumbini Development Trust seeking clarification before February 1, 2024. The trust has replied to the World Heritage Committee before the set deadline.
It is learnt that Unesco repeatedly wrote to the LDT expressing serious concerns about ongoing construction of several structures in the Lumbini area. It also warned that the heritage site could be put on the ‘Heritage in Danger List’ which could result in its removal from the ‘World Heritage Sites’ list, according to a highly placed source at the LDT.
The UN agency expresses its concern about the construction of a meeting hall with a capacity of accommodating 5,000 people in the area. As per the instruction of then prime minister KP Sharma Oli, the construction of the hall began four years ago near the Lumbini-Taulihawa road section. The hall is now in operation.
The 17 stone statues in Sagarhawa, which the LDT plans to promote as a tourist site, were built by 15 renowned sculptors from all over the world following a national sculpture workshop and conference held by LDT from January 8 to January 22.
Highlighting the historical importance of Sagarhawa, Basant Bidari, a senior archaeologist at the DoA, says the place is chronicled in the Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang’s travelogue signifying its importance.
Dohanikot, located in Kapilvastu Municipality, also holds great archaeological value. Currently, a shed has been built over three and a half bigha land (3,386.32 sq metres) in Dohanikot where more than 150 stray cattle are housed. Stakeholders say that waste generated by the cattle can pollute the soil and seep into the ground which still holds fossils from the Shakya era.
Senior Archaeologist Bidari said Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang has mentioned 10 ancient ruined cities around Tilaurakot, and Dohani is believed to be one of them.
“During a geophysical survey, it was found that there was an ancient human settlement in Dohani. There are structures of tall mounds like stupas and ancient wells,” said Bidari. “The DoA has sent a letter to the Kapilvastu Municipality to remove the shed and cattle to protect the archaeological heritage. The municipality also agreed to remove it as soon as possible,” Bidari added.
The department has also written to the LDT to move the statues from their current location in Sagarhawa to stop the historical, archaeological, and cultural erosion of the heritage sites.
“Changing the appearance of the archaeological sites is not good. Building new structures will deface the historical sites,” said Kunwar, the DoA spokesman.
According to experts, heritage sites should not be subjected to new construction. To carry out any activity at an ancient site, one must first conduct a Heritage Impact Assessment (HIA). The HIA evaluates the impact of new work, and based on that, it is decided whether to start new work in the area or not.
“Sadly, so far no such assessment has been done in the Lumbini area,” Kunwar added.