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Old sunken boats



by Somasiri Devendra

(continued from last week)

Underwater archaeology also took us inland into rivers. I well remember the first expedition we undertook, which was a modest one carried out by a band of enthusiasts. A newspaper report filed by a local correspondent was headlined ‘Gemmers unearth ancient canoe’. It said that `Gem-diggers in the river Kuru had come up with a Teppama or a boat, about 300 years old, at Gamage-Tota at Teppanawa, in the Ratnapura electorate, while searching for gem veins, deep down in the river.’ We hastily boarded a pick-up truck with our gear and went in search of the place.

It was off Kuruwita and by judicious questioning we were able to find the site. What we found was interesting. The gem-miners were there. They had been digging their pit on the bed of Kuru Ganga, the water level being low during this dry season. About 15 feet below the riverbed, they had come across this ‘log’. Such logs were prized as very good firewood. This was about thirty feet long but they could not see it properly in the pit on account of the muddy water. Because of its size, they had obtained a jack to lever it out of the water, but they failed. Then they lowered a large saw and cut it in two, and that is when they found out that it was a log boat.

As was usual in such instances, the event was a three-day wonder and everybody around had come to see it. Among them was the village schoolmaster who had got the local newspaper correspondent to report it. He had made a linguistic connection between the village name (Teppanawa) and a type of watercraft (teppama) without knowing that the latter was no log boat. The gem-miners had wisely kept the two pieces in the water, and that is where we came in.

The river was sluggish, with a sandbank having formed on one side and the water flowing along a channel on the other bank. We were thus able, with minimum effort, to float the two pieces onto the sandbank and set about photographing, measuring and examining it. It was a log boat all right, with no signs of having had an outrigger. The wood was spongy, but surprisingly the heartwood had not separated itself from the sapwood on one end, as it generally does. It was a pity they had to saw it in two, but even this had its advantages. The clean crosscut gave us a perfect cross-section of the boat and showed that the hollowing-out process had not been done with sophisticated instruments. Perhaps this might help us to learn from it.

The village-folk were very helpful to us, working alongside us and bringing tea in a kettle. My daughter, an artist, soon got into a sarong from the closest house and sketched the two pieces in detail, such drawings being more valuable than photographs. We made our report to the Department of National Museums, which retrieved the two pieces. Now conserved, they are being exhibited at the museum in Ratnapura.

Paruva craft

Another day, a group of us went in search of the vanished paruva craft to the Kelani Ganga. How big a part these craft had played in our history and culture, and how soon they have been forgotten! There was no genuine one to be seen, but we did not return empty-handed. Our first stop was at a timber shed where, the owner said, he had been commissioned to build one decades ago, but the man had run short of money. He showed us the two log-boat chine strakes (iri kaduwa), which he had hollowed and were still stored in his loft, along with the broad planks he had bought for the craft.

Most interestingly he showed us the metal (copper) fittings of a sunken paruva they had tried to salvage, but failed. It was still there, he said, half out and half in the water. We managed to trace it and it was a really magnificent wreck, lying there like a stranded whale. It was massive, well constructed of good wood but no one could have pulled it out of the river. We went through the familiar routine of photographing, measuring and interviewing people, while small boys played around us, taking us as a good excuse not to do their homework! We saw the last, but poor, remaining craft in the shape of the waeli paruva used for sand mining. But most importantly, we were told how to get to the house of “Bomba Sira”, the last builder of these craft in that area.

With some difficulty we found him in his house. Too old to work maybe, but he was not too old to talk. It took some time to get his mind to run on the same groove as ours. He had built both the madel paruva of the coast and the very different paruva of the rivers. The river paruva, according to him was 50 feet long. The reason for keeping to this length was not clear to me till I found the reason years later.

Apparently in the 19th. century, there were toll gates along the river at which boatmen had to pay customs duty depending on the size of the craft. The lowest rate for a paruva was payable only if it was less than fifty feet long, and therefore the size became standard. Sira was able, with no reference to any notes, to give us the exact quantities of different materials needed to build one, such as the number of coils of rope, cadjans, bamboos and nails, and the type of wood used. He introduced us to the jargon of the boat-builder, giving us the names of every part of a paruva. Once again I was thankful that I had tapped a reservoir of oral history before it was lost forever. My mind went back to Hiriwadunna and the idea of the flow of water from one tank to another in a cascade. I felt privileged to have had this good fortune.

More sobering was my encounter with the younger generation at another boat site. I was in the Archaeological Department, when word came that a “big ship, with walls and rooms” had been found at Attanagalu Oya. It was apparent to me that it could be no more than a iri kaduwa of a paruva, with its vertical strengtheners carved. The rest of the description was the usual mixture of ignorance and fantasy.

When I visited the site, it wore a carnival atmosphere, with people from everywhere clambering to see this “ship”. People were walking all over the remains of the craft with shoes on, damaging whatever had been saved by time. The sheer irresponsibility and disrespect for one’s heritage was irritating, grating on one’s sensitivity. We shooed all of them away and got down to the business of measuring, sketching and photographing. It was really large, being 60 feet long. I reckoned it would have been a near 100 feet long in its day.

It was subsequently raised by crane, upon a purpose-built cradle, and transferred to the Colombo Museum where, unfortunately, it is being allowed to rot away. It was radio-carbon dated to the 9th century AD. More than a thousand years ago, such craft would have been plying the then-gushing rivers of the Maya Rata, bringing cargoes of forest produce from the thick rain forests to the river mouth ports, particularly along the Kelani Ganga where communities of foreign traders resided.

It is to this century that the first Arabic inscription found in this country can also be attributed. It speaks of the death of an Islamic cleric who had been brought down to teach the correct tenets of his religion to the Arab traders in Colombo.

Further up the river, at Kelanimulla ferry in 1952, another very large log boat, which had an outrigger attached, was found and placed in the Colombo Museum. It too had been dated to the second century BC, about the time of King Kelani Tissa. Maya Rata, long written-off as a forested and uninhabited land, is providing us with new clues and waiting for its history to be rewritten.

Maritime history

Did the people of Sri Lanka venture out to sea and, if so, in what type of ship? It was this question that drove me to the study of boats, ships and maritime history. I have found the answers to my satisfaction. Perhaps the most satisfying was the discovery of the yathra dhoni and its study.

I discovered that Sri Lanka had absorbed the maritime traditions from all over the Indian Ocean, and maybe even from beyond. I found that even into almost the middle of the twentieth century, we have had functioning sailing ships of several types. In the south was the yathra dhoni with its characteristic outrigger. In the east, in Muttur, I found the Arab-Indian battal, large, undecked, sailing craft that brought the harvest from the Mahaveli delta to Trincomalee harbour. It was characterized by the single large Arab-Indian lateen sail hoisted from a pulley atop the for’ ard raking mast.

I would see them sailing daily past the balcony of my house and did not ever think of them disappearing so soon. But a scant 10 years later, there was none to be seen and there were many who did not even remember them. I was left with only one memento, a photograph taken by a fellow naval officer.

However, the ships of the north, the thoni of Jaffna, were to prove more rewarding. Though the last of its kind, the Annapurani, had been built and sailed to England around 1930 (there is a photograph of her in the Suez canal), there is none remaining to be seen. James Hornell, world authority on traditional watercraft, had seen and photographed them, when he had been working for the Fisheries Department in Sri Lanka in the 1930s. He had also studied the customs and traditions connected with their construction.

The thoni was a strange craft, in appearance very much like a 19th century English man-of-war. False gun-ports were painted along the sides. Masts were fitted with square sails and there was a towering bowsprit with a multitude of sprit sails. On board, the picture was very different and the scene was much the same as on a yathra dhoni of Dodanduwa, with cargo hatches with split bamboo thatching covering most of the deck space, and cooking facilities and water casks in the after deck.

Up in the, bows again was quite different, dominated by the bowsprit and with the stem coiling backward in the spiral called the surul. On this was painted the three horizontal white stripes that one sees worn by Hindu Saivites on their foreheads, marked in ash. Below the surul was a little shrine room, containing the image of the deity sacred to the ship’s owner, a little stone quern or grinding stone for smashing of coconuts as in a temple, and other paraphernalia that adorn a shrine. Unlike the ships of the Sinhala people, who offered prayers to all the gods, the thoni neither launched nor would undertake a journey without a religious service performed by a member of the crew who officiated as the poosari.

It was off Ambalangoda that we were told of a mysterious shipwreck that appeared and disappeared under the seabed from time to time. Again we were pursuing a newspaper story. We found no wreck, for it had disappeared under the sands again, but we were able to study the artifacts that had been collected (some sold to dealers) by the fishing community nearby. There was a small cannon (sold), cannon balls, a bronze deity (sold), metal cooking vessels and Chinese porcelain, grinding stones, small coconuts (some broken), astrolabe (a mediaeval European navigation instrument) much repaired, several antique hand tools, weights and quantities of cowries and other shells. The likelihood, given all the above and Hornell’s description, is that she was a Jaffna thoni coasting southward before changing course westward to the Maldives. It was a post-colonial wreck, to judge from the cannon, cannon balls and astrolabe. So here we may have the first Sri Lankan shipwreck.

The Amugoda Oruwa, Hercules, Avondster, and the Ambalangoda shipwreck are all victims of the unforgiving sea. And now, the “Mansions of the sea”.


(Excerpted from Jungle Journeys in Sri Lanka edited by CG Uragoda)


Glimmers of hope?



The newly appointed Cabinet Ministers leaves Cass un-uplifted. She need not elaborate. She wishes fervently that Dr Harsha de Silva will leave party loyalty aside and consider the country. Usually, it’s asking politicians to cast aside self-interest, which very rarely is done in the political culture that came to be after the 1970s. Thus, it is very unusual, completely out of the ordinary to appeal to Dr Harsha to forego party loyalty and do the very needful for the country by accepting the still vacant post of Minister of Finance. We are very sorry Eran W too has kept himself away.

Some of Cassandra’s readers may ask whether she is out of her right mind to see glimmers of hope for the country. She assures them she is as sane as can be; she does cling onto these straws like the dying man does. How else exist? How else get through these dire times?

What are the straws she clings to? News items in The Island of Tuesday 24 May.

‘Sirisena leaves Paget Road mansion in accordance with SC interim injunction.’ And who was instrumental in righting this wrong? The CPA and its Executive Director Dr Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu. It is hoped that revisions to the system will come in such as giving luxury housing and other extravagant perks to ex-presidents and their widows. Sri Lanka has always lived far beyond its means in the golden handshakes to its ex- prezs and also perks given its MPs. At least luxury vehicles should not be given them. Pensions after five years in Parliament should be scrapped forthwith.

‘Letter of demand sent to IGP seeking legal action against DIG Nilantha Jayawardena.’ Here the mover is The Centre for Society and Religion and it is with regard to the Easter Sunday massacre which could have been prevented if DIG Jayawardena as Head of State Intelligence had taken necessary action once intelligence messages warned of attack on churches.

‘CIABOC to indict Johnston, Keheliya and Rohitha’. It is fervently hoped that this will not be another charge that blows away with the wind. They do not have their strongest supporter – Mahinda R to save them. We so fervently hope the two in power now will let things happened justly, according to the law of the land.

‘Foreign Secy Admiral Colombage replaced’. And by whom? A career diplomat who has every right and qualification for the post; namely Aruni Wijewardane. If this indicates a fading of the prominence given to retired armed forces personnel in public life and administration, it is an excellent sign. Admiral Colombage had tendered his resignation, noted Wednesday’s newspaper.

‘Crisis caused by decades of misuse public resources, corruption, kleptocracy – TISL’.

Everyone knew this, even the despicable thieves and kleptocrats. The glaring question is why no concerted effort was made to stop the thieving from a country drawn to bankruptcy by politicians and admin officers. There are many answers to that question. It was groups, mostly of the middle class who came out first in candle lit vigils and then at the Gotagogama Village. The aragalaya has to go down in history as the savior of our nation from a curse worse than war. The civil war was won against many odds. But trying to defeat deceit power-hunger and thieving was near impossible. These protestors stuck their necks out and managed to rid from power most of the Rajapaksa family. That was achievement enough.

Heartfelt hope of the many

The newly appointed Cabinet Ministers leaves Cass un-uplifted. She need not elaborate. She wishes fervently that Dr Harsha de Silva will leave party loyalty aside and consider the country. Usually, it’s asking politicians to cast aside self interest, which very rarely is done in the political culture that came to be after the 1970s. Thus, it is very unusual, completely out of the ordinary to appeal to Dr Harsha to forego party loyalty and do the very needful for the country by accepting the still vacant post of Minister of Finance. We are very sorry Eran W too has kept himself away. As Shamindra Ferdinando writes in the newspaper mentioned, “Well informed sources said that Premier Wickremesinghe was still making efforts to win over some more Opposition members. Sources speculated that vital finance portfolio remained vacant as the government still believed (hoped Cass says) Dr Harsha de Silva could somehow be convinced to accept that portfolio.”

Still utterly hopeless

Gas is still unavailable for people like Cass who cannot stand in queues, first to get a token and then a cylinder. Will life never return to no queues for bare essentials? A woman friend was in a petrol queue for a solid twelve hours – from 4 am to 4 pm. This is just one of million people all over the country in queues. Even a common pressure pill was not available in 20 mg per.

Cassandra considers a hope. We saw hundreds of Sri Lankans all across the globe peacefully protesting for departure of thieves from the government. The ex-PM, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s answer to this was to unleash absolute terror on all of the island. It seems to be that with Johnson a younger MP stood commandingly.

Returning from that horror thought to the protesters overseas, Cass wondered if each of them contributed one hundred dollars to their mother country, it would go a long way to soften the blows we are battered with. Of course, the absolute imperative is that of the money, not a cent goes into personal pockets. The donors must be assured it goes to safety. Is that still not possible: assuring that donations are used for the purpose they are sent for: to alleviate the situation of Sri Lankans? I suppose the memory of tsunami funds going into the Helping Hambantota Fund is still fresh in memory. So much for our beloved country.

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Ban on agrochemicals and fertilisers: Post-scenario analysis



By Prof. Rohan Rajapakse

(Emeritus Professor of Agriculture Biology UNIVERSITY OF RUHUNA and Former Executive Director Sri Lanka Council of Agriculture Research Policy)

There are two aspects of the ban on agrochemicals. The first is the ban on chemical fertilisers, and the second is the ban on the use of pesticides. Several eminent scientists, Dr Parakrama Waidyanatha (formerly the Soil Scientist of RRI), Prof OA Ileperuma (Former Professor of Chemistry University of Peradeniya), Prof C. S. Weeraratne (former Professor of Agronomy University of Ruhuna), Prof D. M. de Costa University of Peradeniya, Prof. Buddhi Marambe (Professor in Weed Science University of Peradeniya) have effectively dealt with the repercussion of the ban on chemical fertilisers which appeared in The Island newspaper on recently.

The major points summarised by these authors are listed below.


1. These scientists, including the author, are of the view that the President’s decision to totally shift to organic agriculture from conventional could lead to widespread hunger and starvation in future, which has become a reality. Organic farming is a small phenomenon in global agriculture, comprising a mere 1.5% of total farmlands, of which 66% are pasture.

2. Conventional farming (CF) is blamed for environmental pollution; however, in organic farming, heavy metal pollution and the release of carbon dioxide and methane, two greenhouse gases from farmyard manure, are serious pollution issues with organic farming that have been identified.

3. On the other hand, the greatest benefit of organic fertilisers as against chemical fertilisers is the improvement of soil’s physical, chemical and biological properties by the former, which is important for sustained crop productivity. The best option is to use appropriate combinations of organic and chemical fertilisers, which can also provide exacting nutrient demands of crops and still is the best option!

4. Sri Lanka has achieved self-sufficiency in rice due to the efforts of the Research Officers of the Department of Agriculture, and all these efforts will be in vain if we abruptly ban the import of fertiliser. These varieties are bred primarily on their fertiliser response. While compost has some positive effects such as improving soil texture and providing some micronutrients, it cannot be used as a substitute for fertiliser needed by high yielding varieties of rice. Applying organic fertilisers alone will not help replenish the nutrients absorbed by a crop. Organic fertilisers have relatively small amounts of the nutrients that plants need. For example, compost has only 2% nitrogen (N), whereas urea has 46% N. Banning the import of inorganic fertilisers will be disastrous, as not applying adequate amounts of nutrients will cause yields to drop, making it essential to increase food imports. Sri Lankan farmers at present are at the mercy of five organizations, namely the Central Department of Agriculture, the Provincial Ministry of Agriculture, the Private sector Pesticide Companies, the Non-Government organizations and the leading farmers who are advising them. Instead, improved agricultural extension services to promote alternative non-chemical methods of pest control and especially the use of Integrated Pest Management.

Locally, pest control depends mostly on the use of synthetic pesticides; ready to use products that can be easily procured from local vendors are applied when and where required Abuse and misapplication of pesticides is a common phenomenon in Sri Lanka. Even though many farmers are aware of the detrimental aspects of pesticides they often use them due to economic gains

We will look at the post scenario of
what has happened

1. The importation of Chemical fertilisers and Pesticides was banned at the beginning of Maha season 1 on the advice of several organic manure (OM) promoters by the Ministry of agriculture.

2. The Ministry of Agriculture encouraged the farmers to use organic manure, and an island-wide programme of producing Organic manure were initiated. IT took some time for the government to realize that Sri Lanka does not have the capacity to produce such a massive amount of OM, running into 10 tons per hectare for 500000 hectares ear marked in ma ha season.

3. Hence the government approved the importation of OM from abroad, and a Company in China was given an initial contract to produce OM produced from Seaweed. However, the scientists from University of Peradeniya detected harmful microorganisms in this initial consignment, and the ship was forced to leave Sri Lankan waters at a cost of US dollar 6.7 million without unloading its poisonous cargo. No substitute fertiliser consignment was available.

4. A committee in the Ministry hastily recommended to import NANO RAJA an artificial compound from India to increase the yield by spraying on to leaves. Sri Lanka lost Rs 863 million as farmers threw all these Nano Raja bottles and can as it attracts dogs and wild boar.

Since there is no other option the Ministry promised to pay Rs 50000 per hectare for all the farmers who lost their livelihood. It is not known how much the country lost due to this illogical decision of banning fertilisers and pesticides.


1. Judicious use of pesticides is recommended.

2. The promotion and the use of integrated pest management techniques whenever possible

3. To minimize the usage of pesticides:

Pesticide traders would be permitted to sell pesticides only through specially trained Technical Assistants.

Issuing pesticides to the farmers for which they have to produce some kind of a written recommendation by a local authority.

Introduction of new mechanism to dispose or recycle empty pesticide and weedicide bottles in collaboration with the Environment Ministry.

Laboratory-testing of imported pesticides by the Registrar of Pesticides at the entry-point to ensure that banned chemicals were not brought into the country.

Implementation of trained core of people who can apply pesticides.

Education campaigns to train farmers, retailers, distributors, and public with the adverse effects of pesticides.

Maximum Residue Level (MRL) to reduce the consumer’s risk of exposure to unsafe levels.

Integrated pest Management and organic agriculture to be promoted.

1. To ensure the proper usage of agrochemicals by farmers

All those who advised the Minister of Agriculture and the President to shift to OM still wield authority in national food production effort. The genuine scientists who predicted the outcome are still harassed sacked from positions they held in MA and were labelled as private sector goons. The danger lies if the farmers decide not to cultivate in this Maha season due to non-availability of fertilisers and pesticides the result will be an imminent famine.

The country also should have a professional body like the Planning Commission of

India, with high calibre professionals in the Universities and the Departments and

There should be institutions and experts to advise the government on national policy matters.

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Thomians triumph in Sydney 



Nothing is happening for us, at this end, other than queues, queues, and more queues! There’s very little to shout about were the sports and entertainment scenes are concerned. However, Down Under, the going seems good.

Sri Lankans, especially in Melbourne, Australia, have quite a lot of happenings to check out, and they all seem to be having a jolly good time!

Trevine Rodrigo,

who puts pen to paper to keep Sri Lankans informed of the events in Melbourne, was in Sydney, to taken in the scene at the Sri Lanka Schools Sevens Touch Rugby competition. And, this is Trevine’s report:

The weather Gods and S.Thomas aligned, in Sydney, to provide the unexpected at the Sri Lanka Schools Sevens Touch Rugby competition, graced by an appreciative crowd.

Inclement weather was forecast for the day, and a well drilled Dharmaraja College was expected to go back-to-back at this now emerging competition in Sydney’s Sri Lanka expatriate sporting calendar.

But the unforeseen was delivered, with sunny conditions throughout, and the Thomians provided the upset of the competition when they stunned the favourites, Dharmaraja, in the final, to grab the Peninsula Motor Group Trophy.

Still in its infancy, the Sevens Touch Competition, drawn on the lines of Rugby League rules, found new flair and more enthusiasm among its growing number of fans, through the injection of players from around Australia, opposed to the initial tournament which was restricted to mainly Sydneysiders.

A carnival like atmosphere prevailed throughout the day’s competition.

Ten teams pitted themselves in a round robin system, in two groups, and the top four sides then progressed to the semi-finals, on a knock out basis, to find the winner.

A food stall gave fans the opportunity to keep themselves fed and hydrated while the teams provided the thrills of a highly competitive and skilled tournament.

The rugby dished out was fiercely contested, with teams such as Trinity, Royal and St. Peter’s very much in the fray but failing to qualify after narrow losses on a day of unpredictability.

Issipathana and Wesley were the other semi-finalists with the Pathanians grabbing third place in the play-off before the final.

The final was a tense encounter between last year’s finalists Dharmaraja College and S.Thomas. Form suggested that the Rajans were on track for successive wins in as many attempts.  But the Thomians had other ideas.

The fluent Rajans, with deft handling skills and evasive running, looked the goods, but found the Thomian defence impregnable.  Things were tied until the final minutes when the Thomians sealed the result with an intercept try and hung on to claim the unthinkable.

It was perhaps the price for complacency on the Rajans part that cost them the game and a lesson that it is never over until the final whistle.

Peninsula Motor Group, headed by successful businessman Dilip Kumar, was the main sponsor of the event, providing playing gear to all the teams, and prize money to the winners and runners-up.

The plan for the future is to make this event more attractive and better structured, according to the organisers, headed by Deeptha Perera, whose vision was behind the success of this episode.

In a bid to increase interest, an over 40’s tournament, preceded the main event, and it was as interesting as the younger version.

Ceylon Touch Rugby, a mixed team from Melbourne, won the over 40 competition, beating Royal College in the final.

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