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Adaptation and sustainability integral to ancient civilization

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Ruminations on Sri Lanka’s Ancient Past – Part VI

By Seneka Abeyratne

The evidence assembled by C.R. Panabokke, in ‘Evolution of the Indigenous Village Irrigation Systems of Sri Lanka’ (2010), shows the transition from rainfed to irrigated agriculture took place mainly in the 3rd century BCE. A study by Rukshan Jayawardena, ‘Ancient Irrigation and Related Settlements of the Early Historic Period’ (1997) yields useful information on the growth of irrigated agriculture during this period. There is no reliable evidence to indicate that rice was grown on the island during the ‘pre-Vijayan’ period. First came the village tank. Then came ‘irrigated’ rice cultivation in the field below the tank. By the beginning of the 2nd century BCE, the village tank had become an integral feature of the undulating terrain of the dry zone (Nicholas, C.W. History of Ceylon, Vol. 1, 1959).

Low-humic gleys

As in the past the soils now used for rice cultivation are mainly the poorly-drained low-humic gleys (LHGs), which occupy the valley bottoms and can be puddled. Since the well-drained reddish brown earths (RBEs), which occupy the mid and upper slopes of the dry zone landscape, cannot be puddled like the LHGs, they are unsuited to rice cultivation. In Sri Lanka the valley bottoms are called lowlands, whereas the mid and upper slopes of the undulating topography are called uplands. There is no hard evidence of rice having been grown under rainfed conditions in the dry zone uplands (RBEs) in the protohistoric period.

The evolution and spread of small village irrigation systems in Sri Lanka could be viewed as an internal development that occurred over a long period of time in response to the distinctive agro-ecological features of the dry zone, which were by no means uniform. As noted above, it was the lack of any form of shallow groundwater that necessitated the surface storage of water in the north-central dry zone – the cradle of civilization in Sri Lanka.

A typical village in the NCP consists of the village tank and a paddy field below it. Many experts, including Panabokke, have stated that without artificial storage of water, human existence in the NCP would have been impossible. The village tank provided water for multiple uses during the prolonged dry season, including agriculture. It enabled farmers to combine cultivation of kurakkan, gingelly and other seasonal food crops in the ‘rainfed’ uplands during the Maha season with rice cultivation in the ‘irrigated’ lowlands during the Yala season. This was a major technological breakthrough that greatly enhanced the food production potential of the north-central dry zone in the 3rd century BCE.

Nuwan Abeywardana, R.L. Brohier, R.A.L.H. Gunawardana, R.W. Levers, Rukshan Jayawardena, Madduma Bandara, C.W. Nicholas, C.R. Panabokke, Henry Parker, A.M.P. Senanayake, Sudharshana Seneviratne, M.U.A. Tennakoon, and many others, through their scholarly research, have deepened our understanding of how and why the tank village emerged as the basic unit of settlement in the dry zone in ancient times. Even today, these settlements dotting the hard rock basement terrain of the dry zone continue to play a vital role in preserving its economic integrity and cultural identity. A recent study indicates there are about 10,000 functional village tanks originating from the ancient water-harvesting system in the island (Abeywardana, Nuwan; Bebermeier, Wiebke; and Schutt, Brigitta, Ancient Water Management and Governance until Abandonment, and the Influence of Colonial Politics during Reclamation, 2018).

Tank Cascade System

A tank cascade system could be defined as a chain of small tanks organized within a micro-catchment of the dry zone in Sri Lanka. The tanks in the upper catchment store water from a seasonal stream and convey it to other tanks downstream. The village tank is the lynchpin as it collects water from all the other tanks in the cascade system. The water stored in this manner is used for agriculture as well as other community activities. The proper functioning of the village tank therefore depends critically on the condition of all the other interconnected tanks which drain into it. When they fall into a state of disrepair, the system breaks down.

The number of cascade systems varies significantly from one river basin to another. For example, the Mee Oya river basin has only one associated cascade system. The Malwathu Oya river basin, on the other hand, has 179 associated cascade systems (IUCN Sri Lanka, , 2016). High priority should be given to ensuring the sustainability of the village tank settlements as they have been the backbone of civilization in the dry zone since the 3rd century BCE. Most of the entrenched problems pertaining to management and organization of small tanks identified in a report by Saleha Begum (Minor Tank Water Management in the Dry Zone of Sri Lanka, 1987) continue to remain unresolved.

The narrow inland valley systems carved out on the basement rock terrain is a distinctive feature of the areas comprising Sri Lanka’s dry zone, especially the North-central and North-western provinces. The small tank cascade system is found mainly in these regions, where the undulating landscape is crisscrossed by these inland valleys. This is a good example of the skill-level reached by the local ‘scientific’ community in such areas, in the form of irrigation engineering, soil and water management, and agronomy in the 3rd century BCE.

It is important to note that this development did not occur suddenly; rather, it was an ‘evolutionary’ process that occurred over a long period of time. A key feature of this process is that it produced the kinds of innovations that were suited to the various environmental conditions in the dry zone. Clearly, adaptation and sustainable development were concepts that were not only well understood but also practiced by the pioneers of small-scale irrigation and water management in Sri Lanka.

“Due to the sustainable management structure set up within society, the small tank systems existed intact for more than two millennia…Different layers of management strategies were implemented, blending centralized larger irrigation schemes with locally controlled small irrigation systems. Buddhist temporalities were used to link the hinterland with the main settlements…” (Abeywardana et al, 2018).

Tamil Nadu also boasts of a modest small-tank cascade system, but whether it borrowed the technology from Sri Lanka or vice versa is not clear. An overview of this system is provided in a report by Krishnaveni, M.; Sankari, Siva; and Rajeswari A. (Rehabilitation of Irrigation Tank Cascade System Using Remote Sensing GIS and GPS, 2011). The physical and cultural landscape of Sri Lanka differs significantly from that of Tamil Nadu. Hence, in terms of future research, a study that compares the historical evolution and organizational structure of the tank cascade systems in these two regions would be a useful activity to undertake.

Caption Pic 1:

Tank cascade system. (Image courtesy: Paranage, K. [2018]. ‘Understanding the Relationship between Water Infrastructure and Socio-Political Configurations: A Case Study from Sri Lanka’)



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The ubiquitous Tuk Tuk elevated to ambassadorial level

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The Sri Lankan three wheeler or tuk tuk and the Indian auto rickshaw are equally loved and despised, but used very much in both countries. Over here they have spread to every city, hamlet and even village. Needless to fear there will be no transport to hire when one descends from bus or train. There will always be the little bug waiting for a fare. And once in a while such a vehicle is the only negotiable one on rutty, inclined roads.

Love and hate? Car-less and permanently driverless women love the little three wheeled contraption. They are taken around marketing, shopping, escorting kids home from school. But male car owner-drivers detest them as dangerous clogs in traffic. They see dark pink when a tuk tuk is observed, red being reserved for private bus drivers. Most housewives adopt a three wheeler that makes for convenience, safety and even camaraderie with the guy at the handle bar. It’s good to adopt a known guy. I have two such – the white capped charioteer and the ex-sportsman gone to spread. The former will take me right into a bank or shop if at all possible. Compromises by stopping with no space left between entrance step or door and invariably warns “paressamen, hemin”. The other takes time to enquire after an ex-domestic whom he carefully conducted to visit relatives and my grandson who loved spinning around with his ‘Sampatha.’ These two are definite blessings in life, I count.

The Ambassador’s vehicle

Ambassador from Mexico to India (2015 – 2018), Melba Pria, made a definite statement of her belief in equality and her avowed aim of “promoting inclusion and strengthening public policy in Mexico and abroad” when she commissioned an auto rickshaw as her official vehicle in New Delhi. She had an auto rickshaw custom built for her designed by a visiting Mexican artist, thus earning herself the sobriquet of ‘Auto Rickshaw Diplomat.” A video sent me had her happily riding behind her suitably suited official driver, Jagchal Chana Dugal, flying the Mexican flag and the cab painted carnival bright with flowers, birds, fruit. The driver may have been duly shocked and to an Indian, a lowering of status. He had to learn to drive a lowly vehicle. Pria’s statement was that she considered herself a Delhi-ite and living in the city did what Delhites did – riding auto rickshaws all the time.

Parliament did not allow this type of vehicle in the premises. She promptly sent a letter of protest/request to the Speaker and won her case. In Sri Lanka a three wheeler is considered a lesser vehicle and many places do not allow such to proceed beyond a certain limit. I’ve met this setback when visiting friends in Crescat Apartments. Also, three wheelers are not allowed in the car park of HSBC, Baudhaloka Mawata. They may have their reasons and Nan won’t fight for equality among vehicles, though to her as a woman who uses them constantly, she feels they should be treated on par with other vehicles. Little wonder that such as I retches with disgust when she sees politicos arrive in their massive limousines provided gratis by the government and petrol paid for by people’s taxes.

Ambassador Pria had visited India previously and was an admirer of Tagore. She sat on the lap of Ravi Shankar and played the sitar when her mother was the Mexican Minister of Culture. She even boastfully claims her name is part Indian and means ‘pleasant’. “India is friends, family, home and so many other things, even my doctors are here.” She loves Delhi with its range of cultural activities.”Delhi is many cities within one city but one must be brave to be an outdoors person here.” She cycles too.

Her affinity to the country was shared by her brother, who, when ill, was brought by her to Delhi to consult a doctor. He died but had said he wanted to bathe in the holy waters of the Ganga in Benares. His ashes were given her with the pot draped in an Indian cloth. She went home with a Mexican cloth over the Indian, symbolically. When she was posted to Japan after her stint in India, she took her auto-rickshaw along. However, what I read did not say it was driving her around the streets of Tokyo – very improbable with the Japanese almost maniacal about cleanliness and atmospheric non-pollution.

Antecedents

The tuk tuk that is now ubiquitous in Sri Lanka having invaded the Hill Country too is, with its relatives overseas, a vehicle descended from the two-wheeled Italian scooter – Vespa. Italian aircraft designer Corradino D’Ascania evolved the three wheeled vehicle in 1948 and called it Trivespa. In 1956 a cab or hood was added and it was knows as the Piaggio Ape; ‘ape’ being Italian for bee, the vehicle making a buzzing sound.

In Sri Lanka

Recently the tuk tuk came into prominence. Asked to leave his post, OK, sacked, State Minister for Education Reform, Susil Premajayantha, left his office for good in a hired three wheeler which took him home. Or out of camera sight. Did he transfer to his own vehicle (luxury or not) when safe from media scrutiny? No doubt it was a PR stunt. Was it to show he is just one of us? He has no vehicle of his own? He was quoted in a tv clip saying he’ll get himself a car. Whether a dismissed Minister or not, he is a politician with all its attendant characteristics. No pity felt for this SLFPer who was the first to sign membership of the SLPP.

The lowly but much appreciated three wheeler gained customers since Covid 19 when people were advised to travel in open vehicles and taxi drivers hardly ever lower their windows in their air conditioned vehicles. We heard rumours the tuk tuks were to be taken off streets and imports banned by this government when it was new in office. A trick up its collective sleeve? We need this poor man’s vehicle in this country driven to poverty by persons in power who lived grand and built white elephants beyond their and the country’s means.

Of course you get the odd bod in the driving seat – the inexperienced, even unlicensed driver; the aspiring Formula One speedster; and the Lothario who looks back more than watches the road. The advantage is you can tell him off, exhibiting the umbrella you have in hand. That’s a plus point –being able to hop off a tuk tuk with no doors to delay or keep you in.

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Lady in red: Mysterious painting hidden behind a prominent Lankan’s portrait

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ECONOMYNEXT – At 9 a.m. on December 11, 2021, at the National Art Gallery of Sri Lanka, a portrait of Ananda Samarakoon, who famously composed the national anthem, was lifted off its frame to reveal a perfectly preserved painting of an enigmatic woman dressed in a red saree. Who she was, why she was painted and why she was eventually covered up, remains a mystery.

The painting, unearthed during a conservation project of 239 art pieces, is attributed to Mudaliyar Amarasekara, a towering and pioneering figure in Sri Lanka’s art scene.

The project was headed by Tharani Gamage, Director at the Department of Cultural Affairs, Hiranthi Fernando, Curator at the National Art Gallery, and an Art Restoration and Exhibition Committee comprised of eminent artists and scholars in the country.

Jennifer Myers, an easel painting conservation expert from the US, was brought in to assist with the project.

“So I’m just looking at this painting and I notice that the fabric of the canvas that was on the front was different from the canvas at the back… I was kind of pushing between front and back and I could feel there was an air space,” she says.

The conservationist noticed something unusual about the dust collected at the back of the painting.

“Because it’s a painting that’s done in landscape orientation, the dust should be at the bottom of the frame, but here the dust was collected on the side and that was really odd, so we slowly started taking off tacks from the corner and when we looked underneath, it looked like layers of paint on top of a canvas. That’s when we realised there could be another painting at the bottom.”

According to committee member Professor Jagath Weerasinghe, a mural painting conservation expert, Myers used archaeological principles to determine the existence of the second painting underneath.

“It’s very impressive, and precisely why we wanted to get an expert to help us with this project,” he says.

The newly discovered painting was found as a result of an initiative taken by the gallery to preserve some of its most exceptional pieces. From charcoal and watercolour to acrylics and oil paintings, the collection at the gallery spans two centuries and a diverse mix of mediums.

Professor Weerasinghe talks to EconomyNext about the difficulty of finding qualified individuals for the project.

“There is a lack of experts on easel painting conservationists in Sri Lanka. We do have academically trained experts on mural conservation, and they are the ones who made up the committee. We have trained in places like India, Pakistan and Japan, and we knew we had the practical capacity to pull it off.

“But working on a national collection is a difficult task, and we wanted someone from an internationally accepted programme, who had had academic training in the subject to work on it, which is how Jennifer was brought in.”

Myers, National Endowment for the Humanities Painting Conservation Fellow at the Chrysler Museum of Art, laughs as she tells us her title. “It’s a bit of a mouthful,” she says.

Myers has a degree in Museology, and a background in Archeology, Painting, Human anatomy and Bone Structure, all of which are useful for conservation work, which she studied at the University of Delaware.

“My professors at the university spoke about this project, and I was intrigued. This was an opportunity for me to learn about artists and a country that I didn’t know much about before, which is a personal interest of mine. I also thought I had the skills that the gallery was specifically looking for, so I could bring that to the project as well.”

The diversity of the collection was something that she did not expect.

“It was an amazing experience. I learnt about so many artists that we don’t get exposed to in America that often. The diversity of the collection was greater than I was expecting which was interesting and fantastic. There were paintings from a range of years, styles and there were more contemporary pieces; European and European inspired pieces, which I was surprised to see. It was a collection of surprises.”

The project, taken up by the Central Cultural fund at a cost 1.8 million rupees allocated by the Department of Cultural Affairs, was started in October 2021 and is set to be wrapped up by February 2022. Of the collection numbering 240 (with the new painting), 76 will go up for permanent display in the main gallery, and 88 will be exhibited temporarily in the eastern hall.

Professor Weerasinghe, who is also a contemporary artist and archaeologist, stresses the importance of official backup on cases such as these. “The ministry listened to the word of the professionals. So many artworks have been destroyed because of badly done conservation efforts. That’s precisely why we called in an expert. The decision to value professionalism is the most important thing that happened here. If they didn’t do that, none of this would have happened.”

Mithrananda Dharmasiri, Chief Mural Conservation Officer at Central Cultural Fund of Sri Lanka, touches on the misconceptions around conservation. “A lot of people think, can’t an artist just paint over the damage, isn’t that what conservation is? But conservation is a much more scientific, and a completely different thing.”

Professor Weerasinghe agrees, saying, “That is an important point. A conservator is not a scientist. A conservator is not an artist. A conservator is a conservator.”

Gamage gives us some official perspective on the matter.

“This was a joint effort by the ministry and the Committee and it was pulled off beautifully. This is the first time in Sri Lanka that such a large conservation project is being done, with international collaboration as well, and Jennifer was an invaluable part of the team,” he says.

Though Sri Lanka is home to some of the top mural conservation experts in the world, there is a great need for artists who work in other fields as well. With a humid climate that is especially treacherous to paints and fabrics, a greater effort must be put to protect the national artworks of the country, and give systematic education for those who are interested in the field.

The staff at the gallery are hopeful that the opening, as well as the discovery of the new painting, will revive the underappreciated art scene in the country. Finally set to open to the public in March 2022 after its closure in 2013, the new exhibition and the renovated buildings are a tribute to the great artists and artworks that were once hidden away.

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HOW NOT TO RUN AN ELECTION (1950s)

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by Chandra Arulpragasam

I must admit that my experience of elections is limited only to one district (the Batticaloa district), long ago (in the 1950s), and not at the national level. Moreover, as the second Returning Officer, I played second fiddle to the Government Agent, who was actually in charge of the Parliamentary Elections at the district level. However I was given definite responsibilities: first, for staffing the polling booths with government staff officers of executive rank; second, for supervising the actual process of elections in the polling booths; and third, for the counting of ballots once the voting was done.

My first job was difficult because many Sinhalese officers in those days were reluctant to come so far to a Tamil-speaking district. (This was long before the Tigers became the major political or military force in those districts). I was able to overcome this difficulty because some of my Sinhalese friends shared my interest in jungles and lagoons, and they were eager to come as polling officers to the Eastern Province. I had to officially get them to staff the polling booths; but unofficially, I had also to look after them and provide social activities for them.

On Election Day, I went to monitor the polling places. On one of these monitoring missions, I visited Kattankudi, a Muslim town just south of Batticaloa, where I was actually able to see an act of impersonation for the first time. This case was so outrageous that I will remember it till I die. A pregnant Muslim woman with a sari pulled over her face with only the eyes showing, was challenged. To my utter surprise, ‘she’ was unveiled to reveal a man with a beard and a pillow around his waist, pretending to be pregnant!

Many years later, I used this practical experience (of Kattankudi) to convince SWAPO, the independence movement in Namibia to withhold their agreement to the Turnhalle Agreement. The leader of SWAPO, who became the Prime Minister of Namibia was eager to get my views. I stood by my opinion that they would surely lose that decisive election – for independence – unless they were able to control or at least monitor the whole implementation process of that election. This delayed their independence by about 10 years – until they were able to train the requisite number of workers to monitor the implementation of the whole election process. The experience of Kattankudi went a long way!

To return to my story about the Batticaloa election, I still had to cast my own vote for the Batticaloa town seat. Fortunately or unfortunately, I knew all the candidates for that seat. When I came to the polling station, each of the candidates bowed and smiled, wanting to shake my hand, each of them expecting me to vote for them. I was an LSSP supporter at that time and since there was no LSSP horse in that race, I did not know whom to vote for. I went into the polling booth and impulsively drew a caricature/cartoon of each of the three candidates against their names. I remember drawing a fez cap on the Muslim candidate’s head, and drawing hair on the ears for another candidate (which was his outstanding characteristic) and a moustache on the other candidate. Smiling uneasily and guiltily, I emerged from the ballot booth to engage in small talk with the three candidates.

On Election night, there was a grand counting of votes in the Kachcheri. This was presided over by the Government Agent, but with me in actual charge of the counting. If there was a challenge to any ballot, I would give a ruling on the spot. If it was still contested, it would go to the Government Agent for his ruling. I was dreading that my ballot (with the cartoon of the candidates) would come up for my ruling. It did. And I was the first to shout “Spoilt Ballot”. I heard one of the candidates muttering loudly “bloody fool” – aimed at the person who had cast that ballot! I hastened to agree! The case was reported to the Government Agent, who did not know that his own AGA was responsible for that ballot! I had acted irresponsibly as a presiding officer. On the other hand, it was my own ballot – and if I chose to spoil it, that was my own right!

The night after the election, I invited my friends from the various government departments in Colombo to gather for a social get-together at the Vakaneri Circuit Bungalow. This was about 22 miles north of Batticaloa and situated on a massive rock overlooking the Vakaneri reservoir, which gave water to the Paper Factory. This had been one of my favourite haunts – to enjoy the silence and views of jungle and water.

I had got my friend Carl de Vos, from the private sector, to go up to the bungalow on Election Day and decorate the place, inflate the balloons, etc. – so that it had a festive look even before we arrived. I played a piano accordion at that time – and thus provided the music for singing, dancing and baila sessions. There was much singing of old songs and much drinking of beer. So much so, that the bungalow-keeper when measuring the rain-gauge the next morning (his daily duties in this Irrigation Circuit Bungalow) found to his consternation that there had been so much rain on the previous night (beer converted to urine) that there was danger of flooding – though there had been no rain at all! He grumbled loudly for me to hear: “It is impossible with this AGA dorai”.

Then the “impossible” happened. One of our guests, who had had too much to drink, had slipped and fallen into the reservoir! Knowing that it was deep at this point, that he could not swim and that there were crocodiles in the reservoir, I jumped in and hauled him out quickly – before the crocs could get me!

I heaved a sigh of relief when my election duties had been successfully completed and my social obligations – of playing herdsman to the officers from Colombo – had finally ended.

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