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Three cornerstones of local culture

by Gamini G. Punchihewa

Lanka, as it was called in the past, was ruled by kings and queens who were the heirs to a stupendous hydraulic heritage. Our ancient irrigation engineers not only built small, medium and even large reservoirs, but also built long excavated irrigation canals.

They had the ingenuity of diverting major rivers like the Mahaweli river, Malwatu Oya, Kala Oya (Rajarata), and even as far as the Walawe ganga, Kirindi Oya, Menik ganga, nestling in the epic Ruhuna Rata down deep south. Relics of thee massive ancient irrigation works are still to be seen, some restored, while others augmented later in the course of such irrigation works in modern times.

The first king to rule Lanka after Vijaya was Panduvasudeva at Vijithapura, in the pre-Christian era of the 6th century. His consort Subaddhakacanna who came from North India brought six brothers alongwith her. These six princes, it is said in our chronicle - Mahavamsa, later founded six kingdoms. These places they had founded were named after them. Such settlements were Anuradhapura after prince Anuradha, Rama in Ramagama, Rohana in Rohana - present Ruhunurata, Uruwela in Uruwela (near the mouth of Malwatu Oya), Dighau in Dighau - present Dighamadulla (in the Gal Oya valley) and Vijitha - Vijithapura - Rajarata. It is recorded in authentic historical chronicles that the first small tank was built by prince Anuradha (at Anuradhapura) that had existed close to the banks of Malwatu Oya in Anuradhapura in the 6th century BC. The building of tanks and reservoirs had their roots mostly in the dry zone wilderness, where the rain-fall came only in two monsoonal seasons covering Raja Rata and Ruhunu Rata.

With the construction of that small tank built by prince Anuradha, it became virtually a forerunner for the ancient Sinhalese irrigation engineers to be acquainted with the skills of building more and more reservoirs of much more dimensions, as the years rolled on and on. During the reign of king Pandukabhaya (son of Panduvasudeva), of the 5th century BC, the king built a larger tank called Abahaya weva in Anuradhapura. It was named so, in the fondest and grateful memory of one of his eight uncles Abahaya (six of whom were killed in battle) after which he was crowned as king of Lanka making Anuradhapura his capital in the 5th century BC. Abhaya Vapi is today known as Basuwakkulama, lying close to the great Ruwanveliseya Dagaba. The ancient concept of building tank, reservoirs and irrigation canals revolved around three significant cultural, and religious features. They were the dagaba, weva (tank) and rice field (keth yaya). The dagaba became the hallowed symbol of Buddhism in moulding the religious reverence among the ancient people. While the tank which served farmers with water for their rice fields the keth yaya provided the staple food - rice for the people. Even in ancient times, stone edicts were etched on stone pillars (like those found in Anuradhapura, the Kondawattuwan tank (of ancient Digahamdulla region - presently the green valley of Gal Oya), where it was proclaimed that irrigation water would be taxed, alongwith paddy fields and unlawful tapping of irrigation water was prohibited. This particular stone edit dates back to the reign of King Dapulla - IV of the 10th century AD. Such royal decrees were proclaimed by the kings, on the ancient Rajakariya system of administration.

Prof. J. B. Dissanayaka, in his Water In Culture - The Sri Lankan Heritage (1992), has explicitly defined these features of the tank and keth yaya: "the tank village is the first four types of agricultural settlements in the dry zone that Nur Yalman distinguishes, the other three being, the Mountain Village of the Central Hills, the rain dependent villages, in the eastern province and the chena villages." He further says: "The tank village consists, typically, of our main components: (a) the tank (vaeva), (b) the stretch of paddy field (kumburu yaya), (c) the jungle (haelaeva), (d) the cluster of houses (gam godella)."

Buddhism was introduced to Lanka by Arahant Mahinda (son of Asoka - the Emperor of India), when the contemporary king here was Devanampiyatissa of the 3rd century BC. This pious king not only kindled the spread of Buddhism, and building stupas, but also irrigation tanks. Tissa Weva in Anuradhapura (originally called Jaya Vapi) was partly built by King Pandukabaya. During the reign of king Devanampiyatissa, Jaya Vapi was enlarged and named as Tissa Weva. The tank was originally named as Jaya Vapi by king Pandukabaya to mark the victory over his six uncles in battle. On his coronation day he made his consort Suwannapali his queen. He made his capital in Anuradhapura in the 5th century BC. The long irrigation canal that was excavated from Jaya Vapi was also named as Jaya Ganga.

Next in line came the building of more irrigation tanks. King Vattagamani Valagamba, of the first century BC, built Nuwara Weva in Anuradhapura. King Vasaba of the first-second century AD, is mentioned as a builder of tanks for irrigation and for bathing purposes. Water was conveyed by means of subterranean canals. All the irrigation tanks around the city of Anuradhapura like Tissa Weva, Nuwara Weva and Nochchaduwa weva were harnessed by exploiting the waters of the Malwatu oya. King Mahasena of the 3rd century AD is ranked as a great tank builder. His largest tank was the Minneriya tank, followed with other tanks like Hurulu weva, Kavadulu weva and Kandara weva. Altogether he had built 16 irrigation tanks.

King Mahasena also exploited the waters of the Mahaweli ganga and diverted the waters of Amban oya by building a 55-mile long stone canal called Elahera-Minneriya-Yodei Ela.

The canal took its waters to feed the distant reservoirs like Kantale in the eastern province. The canal was said to be even navigable as it lay close to Trincomalee. As a mark of respect to the great tank builder king Mahasena came to be known as Minneri Deiyo.

A shrine was built on the furtherest end of the Minneriya tank. About three miles away lies another historical landmark called the Orubednisiyabalawa.

As this canal was navigable the royal boat was tied to a Siyambala tree that had stood on its banks on its moorings. This 1,500-year-old tree can still be seen. During the British regime too it was protected by constructing an iron railing around.

The Devale dedicated to Minneriya Deiyo lies beside it.With the transgression of the Mahaweli projects, all these regions are studded with rice fields and farmers' cottages - thus restoring the past glories of the ancient hydraulic heritage to its position.

Next comes king Dhatusena of the 5th century AD as a great tank builder. He exploited the waters of the Kala Oya and named the reservoir as Kala weva which was his 'treasure trove'. For this stupendous tank Kalaweva, he had to pay the price of his life as he was killed by his son Kassapa.

This unique but marvellous piece of irrigation feat culminated in the construction of its solid embankment which itself ran into three miles in length. The Minnipe Ela was built in king Dhatusena's reign of the 5th century AD, by putting up a stone anicut on the rapids of Mahaweli ganga in its diversion. In later years, it was further extended during the kingships of Aggabodhi I (6th century AD) and Sena III (9th century AD).

Culawamsa refers to Minipe Ela as 'Yaka-Bendi-Ela' meaning the canal that was built by the Yakkhas of the past who were the ancestors of the Veddahs.

Under the Mahaweli projects, the down stream of Minipe anicut was exploited and its waters have been diverted along the newly constructed right-bank trans-basin canal.

When the waters recede, some relics of this ancient stone sluice surface.

In the Polonnaruwa period, we come across another dynamic tank builder, namely Parakrama Bahu the Great, of the 12th century AD. He built the vast tank called Parakrama Samudraya by diverting the waters of Amban ganga (a tributary of Mahaweli ganga).

We are reminded of his immortal words on the fruitful exploitation of the water resources in our land. "Not a single drop of water received from rains should be allowed to escape into the sea, without being utilised for human benefit."

Parakrama Samduraya remained the largest reservoir until the Gal Oya river (nestling in the ancient Dighamadulla division), was harnessed in 1950. Its resultant vast reservoir was named as Senanayake Samduraya after the first Prime Minister of independent Ceylon D. S. Senanayake. With the launching of the Mahaweli projects in 1978, the second largest reservoir is Randenigala reservoir build down the rapids of the Mahaweli ganga, off the ancient Minipe anicut. Even in ancient times, the upper reaches of the Mahaweli ganga, towards the eastern sector (close to the Trincomalee shore), at a place called Dastota (Kalingapura) towards the Polonnaruwa region on its eastern flank were exploited as well.

During the British times, particularly during the tenure of Governor Sir Henry Ward (1850s), neglected ancient tanks in the Raja Rata, Ruhuna Rata and even Maya Rata were restored. D. S. Senanayake then started restoring ancient tanks and settled farming communities in the surrounding lands. Such colonisation schemes were launched in Minipe, Elahera, Minneriya, Polonnaruwa and Ruhunu Rata. Dudley Senanayake, followed his father's footsteps in restoring ancient tanks and settling farming families in colonisation schemes and multi-purpose river projects like Uda Walawe. Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike launched the Chandrika Weva colonisation scheme in the Embilipitiya area by damming the Hulanda Oya. Its tank was named Chandrika Weva.

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