Learning from Gujarat Vav to bring to light dereliction of Rajarata Wew


by Dr. J. Handawela

The dereliction of Rajarata Wew (singular: Wewa) though little noticed by many, has been a cause for concern for those who are aware of its occurrence and of its adverse impacts on the agro-ecosystem of the dry zone of Sri Lanka. They wish that it be brought to light, and the issue addressed. This is an attempt towards it.

As the term Wew is being loosely used to refer to a wide range of man-made water bodies, from small ponds to very large reservoirs, it is necessary to specify it for the purpose of this discussion. They are man-made surface concavities created within small valleys or watersheds, whose stream lines have a wet season flow but dry up as dry weather sets in. Their purpose has been to tame flood flow from heavy rains and thereby accomplish two objectives: one, to help conserve surplus water in the soil around them as ground water for the communities to use during dry weather and, two, to save lowland below from flooding, enabling cropping there. Such concavities, made within even smaller watersheds and called Wila/Pokuna and those built in larger valleys and named Pahala Wewa’ Maha Wewa/Samudra, do not come within the purview of this discussion.

Their dereliction began as a natural consequence of the fall of the Rajarata kingdom in the 13th century, depopulating the area, leaving its Wew without custodians. Since then, most of them remained unattended and subject to the vagaries of weather and invasion by forest growth for almost six centuries. The British, who ruled the area since the19th century, either did not see the value of Wew or feigned so for political expediency. They and their native successors contemptuously disregarded Wew as primitive, and ineffective, as a means for developing the dry zone. Some of them even resorted to erasing even operational Wew off the ground, quelling protests by affected farmers and ignoring wise counsel of those who knew the value of Wew. Most others either praised it as accelerated development, or simply remained silent.

Drawing from my long exposure to the dry zone with interest in its ecology and farming I strongly feel that Wew have their rightful place in the area and that it has to be granted. However my previous efforts to express it have had little effect. Perhaps, presenting the case in isolation has been a drawback. This time I try it by drawing a comparison with a success story: Gujarat Vav.

Gujarat Vav

Gujarat Vav are world famous and widely written about. The book titled Step Wells of Gujarat in Art-historical perspective and written by Jatta Jain and Neubauer, in 1981, provides a good description of them. Vav first began in 3rd millennium B.C. as a well to haul up water from subterranean springs for community use in the cities of Indus valley civilization such as Mohendo-jaro and Dholawira. The term Vav has been derived from the Sanskrit word for well: vapi. It spread to south western Gujarat in 600 A.D. With the full backing of political and religious leaders their construction got accelerated during the 10th to 13th century. They got architectured into five to six storied structures built into the ground and adorned with images of Hindu gods, and named step wells and inverted temples. Maha Rani Ki Vav, now a World Heritage site, was constructed around 1050. Muslim rulers of the area, from 13th to 16th century, did not disrupt Vav except to diminish their Hindu religious significance.

In addition to lack of rain, deteriorating quality of water in surface pools during dry weather too has been a reason for the people to dig deep in search of quality water. Traditionally every Vav/vapi has been identified with the name of a tree, eg. Nimba Vapi: Vav named after the margosa tree (Azadirachta indica) or with the name of its developer eg. Maha Rani Ki Vav.

With the advent of motorized pumps to lift water from deep depths, Vav lost their significance as a means to haul up water, but not their value as a centre that provided a soothing environment for people to gather, socialize, relax and recreate. Elite families continued with the practice of having Vav within their palace premises. Irrigation has not been a key function of Vav.

Rajarata Wew

The term Wew almost identical to Vav too has been derived from the same Sanskrit word vapl.

Reported history of Wew is also old. Legend has it that a leader named Panitha, father of Saman who is now remembered as God Saman, constructed the Wewa that is now being called Yakure in Mahiyangana. Similar to Gujarat Vav, many of Rajarata Wew are also named after trees eg Palugas Wewa: Wewa named after Manilkara hexandra tree.

Rajarata Wew differ from Gujarat Vav in two areas. One is in the water resource base available to them. While Gujarat had a ready source of deep ground water springs for its Vav to tap from, geology of Rajarata is deficient in ground water, forcing the innovators of dry zone watershed farming with Wewa as a key constituent to newly generate ground water from seasonal rain it received. The other is the poor and even stepmotherly custodianship of Rajarata Wew while Gujarata Vav were well patronized by their custodians.

These and other intrinsic information about Rajarata Wew have not seen the light of the day because they have not been studied properly, unlike Gujarat Vav. This could be because of their falling into abandonment for a long period and there after being pushed into insignificance. Another reason could be that scholarly visitors to Rajarata got attracted to far more inspiring ruins of ancient monuments like religious images and temples, fortresses, and large reservoirs, sidestepping the ruins of Wew. In Gujarat, Vav were about the most prominent ancient monuments.

This leaves us with little empirical knowledge about Wew. What is available is mostly on their external appearance, life of the people living close to them and how to use them as a water source for irrigation after they had been converted into irrigation tanks since the early 20th century. However what is relieving in this regard is the availability of archaeological information from which some clues about Rajarata Wew could be extracted.

One such is that by Dr. Shiran Deraniyagala published in the 1980 showing that Anuradhapura had been a prosperous city in 6th century B.C. This was much before widely acclaimed large reservoir construction and large scale paddy irrigation, reportedly, got established in Rajarata.

Therefore, prosperity of Anuradhapura that early was not due to large scale irrigation, and if so it was most likely gained from farming in small watersheds with Wewa as a key constituent.

Then in 4th century B.C. there had been close to 40,000 Wew in the country that enabled farming on their banks, generating a tradable produce surplus leading to the emergence of cities as marketing centers. Most importantly, the widely misquoted edict of King Parakramabahu the Great (1153-1183) clearly states that most of the paddy land in his kingdom were rain-fed, which implicitly meant paddy grown in small watersheds with Wew. The same edict shows his desire for further expansion of paddy farming, understandably with large scale irrigation. Some critics are of the view that implementation of his overambitious plan led to the downfall of Rajarata civilization few decades after his demise. They claim that watershed farming along with Wew was less risky and more stable and contributed a great deal to ancient prosperity of Rajarata. In this regard it is also worth mentioning that archaeologists have not found evidence of extensive paddy farming under major irrigation..

Above observations instilled in me the desire to look out for any direct evidence of farming in association with Wew, while on my visits to remote parts of the dry zone away from irrigation projects.

Such evidence observed on the ground present in sequential order down the slope of small watersheds were remnants of earth bunds laid across the slope and called Vetiya perhaps as the first line of defense against loss of runoff water from upper slopes of the watershed, then gullies plugged in to form wet weather waterholes called Wala , below them small ponds called Wila/Pokuna and at the bottom end remnants of Wewa: its silted bed and the breached bund. They in unison appear to have accomplished flood avoidance and water conservation as ground water within the watershed.

Thus it becomes clear that the Wewa concept of Rajarata addressed a much tougher and wider task than Vav of Gujarat, Tougher, because it had to generate and develop a water resource for it to ensure water security, and wider, because it also had to create the necessary background for farming. In contrast Vav in Gujarat had a readily available source of water to tap from and it was not mandatory for them to cater to farming.

Local residents in remote dry zone villages say that irrigated paddy rice was not the staple food of their ancestors. Rice from Hena, both lowland Wi Hena and upland El Hena, other non-rice cereals mainly Kurakkan, and yams, tubers, herbs etc. from Hena and from forest and game from forest constituted the major part of their food basket. Even the present day farmers in these areas do practice a wide variety of farming both in association with Wewa and independent of it. They include paddy farming on wet periphery of Wewa: Thavalu Wi , paddy grown on bed of Wewa in dry weather: Mada Thavalu Wi , growing a variety of crops in Hena even resorting to lift irrigation from Wewa, if possible.

What next

Once the potential of Wewa concept as a dry zone development option has been established, what critically needed is to look at it without prejudice. The dual role it plays to tackle the dual problem of too much water when it rains and hardly any water when it does not, as has been recognized by Brohier as early as 1934, has to be appreciated. It saves the lowland in the watershed from flood hazard enabling paddy farming there free of flood risk, mostly relying on direct rainfall. Also it diverts the flood water held up in it and on the land above it into the ground to develop a water resource anew in the form of ground water so that people could tap it for their use during dry months.

This calls for a change in attitude, almost an about turn, of those responsible for dry zone development. This does not mean shunning major irrigation, far from it. Wew related watershed–farming can supplement and even complement major irrigated paddy farming.

Today vast stretches of dry zone land remain idle undergoing degradation and turning into wastelands due to absence of direct and positive policy attention on them. They are mostly on the upper reaches of irrigations schemes, both big and small. Most settlement plots fall into this category. Both institutions and the people are little concerned with it and do not know how to manage them. Needless to say that great many projects implemented by various agencies to promote upland rain-fed farming to raise crops in isolation (without linkage to Wewa and watershed) have all failed. Similarly many attempts made to improve the performance of Wewa as an irrigation tank, also in isolation, have met with limited success. Therefore the better option appears to be to handle both these aspects jointly as one. That is watershed farming. An example of it is already at our disposal at Yapahuwa.

Yapahuwa Wew

Yapahuwa is fortunate to have been under continuous habitation even after the fall of the Rajarata civilization. Similarly the area, particularly around the rock fortress has been spared by government sponsored major irrigation development. Therefore it appears that the people there continue with the pre 13th century system of using Wew, unhindered by development imposed on the dry zone since the 19th century. From atop the rock fortress it is possible to get a clear picture of it with Wew ,each of them surrounded by paddy land below and settlement plots and Hena lands on its banks and above it. These Hena lands are not burnt up parched plots which most of its detractors paint them to be , but crop fields including terraced paddy plots.

It must be emphasized that the only source of water for the area is rainfall. People there are relatively well to do. Drought is not a problem because shallow ground water charged by the farming system takes care of their water needs. The kidney disease that is worrying farmers in most areas of the dry zone is little known here. For those interested in visualizing how Wew need to be managed as a constituent of the watershed it is home to, an ascent to the top of the Yapahuwa rock fortress is well worth the effort.

The way forward

What is suggested is not merely slipping into the past, but to look at the concept without prejudice and give it a chance to show its worth. Yapahuwa is there to learn from. Build upon it by infusing new knowledge emerging in agroecology research. Given the opportunity, Rajarata Wew can serve the country and earn world fame, same as its sister Vav in Gujarat.

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