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