Modern art theft has become an increasing problem in Sri Lanka during recent decades. Dozens of cases of art theft and destruction are reported every year. Sri Lanka’s Department of Archaeology has a “Special Unit for Prevention of Destruction and Theft Antiquities” (SUPDTA).
Foreign invaders frequently looted Sri Lanka’s rich Buddhist monasteries already during the Anuradhura period. Also locals have been attracted by supposed or real treasures since antiquity, once performing rituals to propitiate guardian deities of sanctuaries. A belief was there that a violent guardian deity called “Bahirawaya” was in charge of the hidden treasures.
But treasure hunting in excavation areas or even in temples has become a much more specific problem in Sri Lanka in recent years. Today’s treasure hunters do not hesitate do damage ancient stupas and stone inscriptions and parts of the sculptures to remove statues from excavation site. Many incidents are reported where heads or chests of Buddha statues were carved out or broken by treasure hunters who believede that gems or gold are hidden inside artefacts. Tragically, this is a wide-spread erroneous rumor without any historical evidence.
Indeed, treasures were kept below stupas and in some cases also below statues, but not inside statues. However, the modern concept of hidden treasures is derived from local history where kings hid state treasures in certain secret locations during times of refuge in remote areas due to foreign invasions. Their treasures were reportedly hidden in order to recover them in safer times. But, as already mentioned, no examples have been found yet that any of these treasures were hidden inside statues or other works of art. Thus, the destruction caused by treasure hunters in Sri lanka is often not successful art theft but ignorant demolition.
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