One of Sri Lanka’s foremost conservation experts, Nilan Cooray talks to Smriti Daniel about the challenges of restoring ancient monuments to their former glory.

First as a project manager, then as the assistant director, Cooray was part of the team that laboured to restore the World Heritage Sites of Anuradhapura, Sigiriya and Kandy under UNESCO’s campaign to safeguard the Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka. Not only did this involve becoming well acquainted with World Heritage standards,but for a few months it also required that Cooray climb up and down Sigiriya’s 1,200 steps at least thrice a day. At the top, the now iconic water gardens lay in ruins, their conduit sand ponds packed with silt. Close by, the Dambulla paintings demanded attention, as did a dozen other sites.

“We were learning how to carry out mega-projects for the first time,” Cooray says looking back. “These were the biggest heritage programmes we had undertaken in this part of the world, and it was a steep learning curve.” Beyond the technical challenges of the task, Cooray says they had all the issues of a sometimes recalcitrant workforce to deal with. But in the middle of this, he would find moments of great personal significance. “When you excavate a monument for the first time, when you are touching it, you know you are among the first to do so after centuries. That gives you a feeling of connection with the people who made it, who lived in it so long ago. For me it has been a privilege to work on these sites.”

Yet, in its everyday manifestation, Cooray’s work is a catalogue of mundane obsessions. Between 2003 and 2009, much of his focus lay on restoring the Abhayagiri Dagoba. The structure dated back to the 1st century BC and was once over 100m high. Today, it is celebrated as one of the great constructions of the ancient world, rivalling the pyramids of Giza in scale.

“It is the second largest brick monument in the world and so our challenge was to make the right kind of bricks,” says Cooray, explaining that the ancient technology no longer existed in Sri Lanka and that the department had been using the standard bricks introduced by the British in all their projects.  Turning to the brick-makers of Bangladesh, the Sri Lankan team built a kiln in Anuradhapura that could produce bricks that were thin and long (approx. 16 inches x 8 inches in size and only 2inches deep) in keeping with the kind preferred by the ancients. “They were very thin compared to the modern brick, but the surface area is more, and so the compression strength is more,” he explains.


He is perhaps most pleased with the work he did on the Shait Gumbad Mosque in Bagerhat. “It was the first time I had worked on an Islamic building,” he says, explaining that Shait Gumbad is one of the largest ancient mosques in this part of the world, and was constructed totally out of bricks. Though Shait Gumbad literally means 60-dome mosque, it in fact has 81 domes.  On site, Cooray found he had to contend with additional columns, heavy leakage, and crumbling terra cotta decorations. Again, restoration hinged on getting the details right – this time it was hunting for gargoyles or water spouts that would allow water to drain off the roof of the mosque.

However, it requires more than experts like him to bring a monument fully back to life. Changing times and a grimmer global economy have made Cooray an advocate for rethinking not just how, but why we conserve.

“The earlier theory is that we would conserve a building and turn it into a museum or public space but that way a building is unlikely to generate enough funds for its own maintenance.” The venue in which our interview takes place – the former asylum now known as Independence Arcade – is a perfect example of how such efforts could be made sustainable, says Cooray.