Monday, 26 October 2009


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A chronicle of Polonnaruwa:

Changing the dimensions of writing history

“There is a billa coming to take you away, hush my little child hush”, says a village mother to her inconsolable child. Though no one has seen a billa, or no grown-up believes that there’s such a creature, it is imagined to be a frightening figure in a gunnysack robe coming to take unruly little ones away. This term found in our folklore has been there for centuries with us.

The folklore indicates that the term has come from South India. There was a tribe by the name of billa in South India some Centuries ago, during the Anuradhapura period of our history. Billas are said to have sailed to Lankadeepa, after landing, they had stolen in to the villages in the night and had taken away grown up Sinhala males to India by force. These males had the know-how of tank building Billas seemed to have wanted nothing else from them but their expertise of tank building!

This seemingly unbelievable folklore itself is one little clue of the magnitude of the know-how of our forefathers and how widespread their fame was in the region.


I came across this interesting little story in a long essay on agri-irrigation created environment in Polonnaruwa, contained in Pulathisi Wansaya, an invaluable compendium of 54 essays. Pulathisi Wansaya -History of Polonnaruwa is a publication of Cultural Affairs and National Heritage Ministry issued to mark the Sahitya Kala Mahothsvaya held in Polonnaruwa in last September.

Edited by Nihal.P. Jayatunga, Media Advisor to the Ministry, the 4/1size 947 page work covers a wide range of themes: geography, history, archaeology, architecture, water management and irrigation, habitats, population, natural environment and tourism. All topics are discussed in connection with the past and the present of the district of Polonnaruwa.

Every one of the twelve chapters consists of four, five or more essays, each dealing with a subject one entirely different from the other, though strictly focusing on Polonnaruwa. Most of these essays are authentic records based on research, showing the transition of the district to the modern age from the ancient kingdom. Polonnaruwa was the second kingdom of Lanka.

Some of the notable essays are: geography and water resources, agricultural colonies, political history, Magha invasion and the fall of Polonnaruwa kingdom, archeological research, monuments, agro-irrigation environment in Polonnaruwa and Mahaveli waters, epigraphs, folklore in Thanamalvila area, Muslims in the area, education, health services and tourism.

Some essays are good indices of the physical demographic, economic and socio-political status in the district which in turn would indirectly provide guidelines to take some of those wrong ‘development’ drives back to the correct track.

‘Environment created by agro-irrigation’ in chapter four is a warning signal of the danger which the tanks and the eco system connected to the tanks have faced by now.

“As the tank has been there for hundreds or perhaps thousands of years without any breakage those who benefit from the tank or even those who do not expect any benefit from it, seem to be of the opinion that the tank would not need any service or renovation by way of technological subtleties occasionally in the least. Nothing will happen to the tank whatever is done to it’ seem to be the uncivilized idea of them’.

The tank is already dead now. People are not aware of it. A felled tree would not immediately show the symptoms of dying. This is true in the case of a tank too. It takes time for people to be cognizant of the dying tank. But, by that time it would be too late.”(Translation)

The essay points out that it is advisable to take into consideration the observations some foreign government servants have made in connection with the irrigation system in the country.

In 1885, Assistant Government Agent of Badulla, on assignment of the Ceylonese Government prepared a report on the irrigation system of the dry zone. In the report he says:

It is possible that no other part of the world is there to be found within the same space, the remains of so many works of irrigation, which are at the same time, of such great antiquity and of such vast magnitude as in Ceylon, probably no other country can exhibit works so numerous and at the same time, so ancient and extensive within the same limited area as this island.

Sir Emerson Tenant, a civil servant and a writer on Ceylon says:

The stupendous ruins of the reservoirs are the proudest monuments which remain of the former greatness of the country.

In the mid 1800s, renovation of tanks in the North were assigned to Engineer Sir Henry Parker. In his book Ancient Ceylon, he marvels at the engineering expertise of ancient Sinhalese that the Sinhalese were the first inventors of the valve-pit or sluice gate.

“Since about the middle of the last Century, open wells known as valve-towers when they stand clear of the embankment and valve-pits when they are in it, had been built at numerous reservoirs in Europe.

Their duty is to hold valves and the lifting gear for working them by means of which the outward flow of the water is regulated or totally stopped. Such also was the function of Bisokotuwa of the Sinhalese engineers; they were the first inventors of the valve-pit more than 2100 years ago”.

Here is a quote from Sir Henry Ward, a Governor in colonial Ceylon in this article.

“...and there can be no doubt that the run off water is regulated by one of those ancient sluices, placed under the bed of the lake which they were constructed, though modern engineers cannot explain their action”.

The essay mentions several other European engineers who have made observations of Sri Lanka’s ancient irrigation technology: Sir Ivers, Blair and R.L. Brohier.

When the marvels of irrigation technology of our forefathers were held in high esteem by total strangers to our culture, our local experts did not consider them as such worthy exercises. There may not be any other reason for them not to have kept any records or notes in the least of the remains of the irrigation works of our ancient tanks.

Detailed study

It was Henry Parker who saved for us the detailed study of the valve-pits of the tanks in North Central Province. Martha Pricket, an anthropologist has done a study of a valve-pit of Parakrama Samudra.

The article ends with a hard-hitting criticism of the Mahaveli Scheme which started in 1970s and which turned the eco system of the area topsy-turvy.

The fist few pages of ‘Agriculture and small industries in Polonnaruwa’ graphically present the life of new colonies. The traditional attam which every farmer helped every other one in the traditional village in turn, in activities connected with paddy cultivation and harvest gathering didn’t exist in the colonies. They had to hire labour which came from nearby villages or at times, far away places. These people stayed back for days or weeks. The writer who grew up in the colony as a young boy reminisces the busy mornings and nights in a household of the colony thus:

“During the days of harvesting or threshing our houses were like the smithies of the devil. People are asleep all over outside, even in the compound. Meals are cooked for 20-30 people as if it were for a wedding or for a householders’ mourning a death. In those days we who are used to sleeping until the sun falls on our backsides wake up early for the noise in the kitchen.

Activities in the kitchen are like that of the proverbial devil dance in the gourd. We hear scraping of coconuts, throwing coconut shells to a corner of the kitchen, making of tea, the sound of mammoties, hoes sickles and other farming tools being pulled and pushed. Men and women taking the tools to suit the type of work of the day leave for the field. We are free from mother’s yelling ‘oh! devils do your homework’ or her twisting of our ears until urine rushes out of the bladder. Five-acre field where work was in rapid progress was a more pleasant place than the school where the teacher’s cane reigned.”(P.539-540 translation)

The account on the cultural pattern of Polonnaruwa is an attempt to reveal the myth of ‘modern development’ in the agricultural colonies ‘Rice suppliers to the nation’ as these people were known, are a set of lonely people, points out this essay.

At an event of death they feel this sense of loneliness most acutely. To alleviate this situation, the people of the colonies have set up ‘Marnadara Samithi’ or societies of aid at an event of death of a colony member.” They are the most successful NGOs in the district”.

The lukewarm interest to caste system and ethnicity and racism are another two characteristics of the colony people. A racial violence if any, occurs among people in the colony, evidences are there that such situations have been kindled by people who have come from out.

There are a number of sociological issues which have negatively affected the people. Lasciviousness, suicidal tendency and violence mostly due to quick loss of temper and excessive and unnecessary spending of ones earnings are foremost among them.

Modern fashion

Another prominent social trend is imitation of any modern fashion be it clothing, hairstyles or any other modern fashion, without any sense or sensibility. Motorcycle is also a part of this fashion scene. Communication centres where phonographic videos and CDs are available on sale or rent, and tele-shops selling mobile phones and accessories abound here.

In conclusion the writer points out: this culture which is only 66 years old and still in a transition period, is like a collage collectively created by a group of amateur artists. But still no one could lookdown on this culture- the culture of Polonnaruwa as ‘colony culture’ because it has been fashioned by the very pattern of existence of these people.

The essay on tourism is a comprehensive presentation of the possibilities of developing the tourism industry in the district. The writer shows how tourism industry could be developed taking the six nature parks in the district as the basis. The parks are Minneriya, Kavudulla, Somawathiya, Maduru Oya Vasgamuwa and Flood Basin National park.

Leisure activities such as wildlife and nature photography, wildlife safari, biodiversity studies, adventure sports, nature trails, camping and hot air ballooning could be developed in association with these parks, says this essay.

The essay, “Polonnaruwa; an examination of the external factors that worked on its identity” sheds a new light of the popular concept that the kingdom of Polonnaruwa had the influence of South India in its art, architecture, literature etc. This essay suggests otherwise.

It points out thus:

The external connections developed not with South Asia, but with Southeast Asian countries. These connections were so powerful as to influence the politics of the day. There is enough evidence to show that the artistic and architectural trends exchanged between Lanka and Southeast Asia so as they had influence on both countries.

Especially among the monuments built in the 12th Century in Polonnaruwa: Thuparamaya, Thivanka Pilimageya and Lankathilake Pilimageya show close architectural affinity to the architecture in Vathsri Jum house of statues of Sakodaya tradition in Thailand. Vathsri Jum house of statues was built during the reign of Liu Thai (1347-1370). Bell has stated elsewhere that the architectural design of Pothgul vehera shows influence of contemporary Cambodian architecture (translation).

This work of monumental significance on Polonnaruwa would not have been complete without an essay on the current political scenario and the political leaders on whose political and strategic decisions the fate of the district would certainly rest. ‘The role of elections and the MPs of Polonnaruwa’ is a summary presentation of 60 years of Parliamentary politics in the district.

It tells the gradual socio-political development of the district from the establishment of agricultural colonies which is an indirect result of Donomor Government introduced to the country in 1930s to the present times with the profiles of current members of Parliament. It is interesting to know that three of these peoples’ representatives are the sons of first agricultural colonies in Polonnaruwa.

Agriculture Minister Maitripala Sirisena is a son of one of the initial land beneficiaries in the district. His father, Pallewatte Gamaralalage Sirisena was an ex-serviceman in World War 11, who received land from the agricultural scheme established for those who fought in the War. Agri Sales Development and Consumer Services Deputy Minister Sirisena Gamlath is also a son of an ex-serviceman who received land from this scheme. Member of Parliament from JVP S.K. Subasinghe too comes from a family of first settlers of the first agricultural colony in the district, Minneriya agricultural scheme.

Pulathisi Wansya is the history of Polonnaruwa; it focuses more on 20th Century and the first 9 years of the 21st Century- the present times. Many essays are reliable indicators of the socio-cultural climate and warning signals to the policymakers of development. Even without any of these qualifiers, it is an interesting reader which enlightens you on this ancient kingdom of Lanka which at the same time provides you with a fact-report on the present situation of the district.

A painstaking task, Pulathisi Wansaya is the new history of Polonnaruwa in record.

- Malini Govinnage

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