Monday, June 4, 2007

The land of the thousand lakes

In the 5 or more years prior to my permanent migration, I visited this area at every chance I got, when I was in Sri Lanka. There were instances, when I even resorted to catching a public bus within hours of my arrival to the Island to go with my knapsack to this area. This is the Rajarata. It literally translates as "The king's land" and for those who are less knowledgable, geographically it is specifically the Polonnaruwa District of Sri Lanka as it now is. People loosely refer to a larger area covering Dambulla and Anuradhapura also as Rajarata, but I believe it was initially specifically restricted to the lands of the Polonnaruwa period of the 11th and 12th centuries.

Since the end of that period, the cause of which is still under some debate, in 1850, the land area of this District was 95% thick virgin forest sparsely populated by about 6 remote villages with a combined population not exceeding 5000 inhabitants, including those who tended to live in the forest proper away from designated areas of human habitation. There were more wild elephants, more than 10,000 at that time.

As referred to above, it must be noted that at the first millenium AD this was a thriving area with a large population. In this part of the world it was known as the granery of the east. There were large extents of land cultivated with rice paddies, and rice was exported to areas all around in exchange for other goods required by the large population estimated at about 300,000. It is possible that invasions and sackings as well as malaria decimated this population in the centuries that followed.

In Roman Britain a milennium earlier, the population did not exceed 300,000 for the whole island of Britain. In North America there were scattered Native Tribes numbering no more than 2,000,000 on the whole continent. Needless to say, it was a highly sophisticated and desciplined society that was primarily engaged in agriculture with Rice production being the main crop. This crop was used to trade for other goods from India and China along with parts of what is now Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia.

The hereditary rule of kings was the normal order of the day, as in most societies at that time. There were troublesome provinces, invasions from other parts, especially from South India and therefore as in most societies of the time the king's rule was autocratic. There were armies trained to protect the state and buildings as monuments to the king of the day as well as homage to the religion of the day which was Buddhism.

There were numerous temples, monastries, dagobas, schools and seminaries and monastaries, where the sangha or the Buddhist Clergy held its sway over the population and the king who was compelled to work with them for the benefit of the kingdom. It is quite clear from the acheological discoveries and the restorations of today, that the society of the time was an ordered, desciplined and advanced society in its rules and processes in order to ensure a civilized and fair existence for all. A far cry from todays lack of adherence to the rule of law in the area. There did not appear to be any degree of alcohol abuse in that period.

Due to the lack of more documented evidence, as all writing was in Ola leaves that deteriorated with age and humidity, more details of life cannot be gleaned. There is however some stone tablets which are carved with writing that has been translated to corroborate most of what I have noted above.

One obvious relict of the past that is being discovered continously, are the highly sophisticated irrigation methods that were used, whereby rainwater was stored for cultivation throughout the year. There is a period in the year, namely from April to October when it does not rain at all. However cultivation continued because the water was stored in Tanks which are akin to large lakes and which fed the arable lands via a very sophisticated form of sluice gates and gravity fed irrigation. Most of these 1000 lakes are man made and they were designed to hold water, some of which were collected after paddy fields were watered and the run off re-directed for further use on a the normal gravity flow principle. It is therefore said that water was used three times or more before it was allowed to flow into the Mahaweli River prior to flowing into the sea near Trincomalee.

Over the past 100 years these ancient tanks have been discovered and restored to their former glory and when the irrigation engineers attempt to build the sluice gates they find the original gates at the same places they are clearing for the new ones. The engineers of the day were quite sophisticated in their techniques to ensure the maximum benefit of available water for agricultural use.

Due to the requirement of feeding a much greater population today, and the need to increase the land under cultivation, the major construction projects of the 20th century, namely the Mahaweli project, have further created a diversion of water direct from the highlands via underground tunnels from Kandy. They feed the large tanks of the Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura districts. It is therefore fascinating to see the canals and rivers that bring diverted water to the Parakrama Samudra, Minneriya Tank and Giritale Tank. Any excess water or overflow is passed on to Kaudulla and Kantale Tanks through a series of canals. This ensures there is enough water year round for the additional hundreds of thousands of acres that have now been added, primarily at the expense of cutting virgin forests. It has effectively reduced the wildlife of the area drastically. This is all in the name of development and if this pace is kept, the remaining forest reserves will find it hard pressed to save some species from extinction and others from depletion.

It is worthy to note that there were in excess of 10,000 elephants in the wild in this area alone in 1850 and now the best guess is that there are about 750.

It is still almost a secret when I say there are a thousand lakes in the area. In some instances people living in the adjoining village are unaware there is a small tank over the forested hill separating their village from the next. There are very few people in the country who know much about these lakes and there is little if any documentation in this regard. Many of the small tanks are rain fed and support the local village to plant enough acerage with Rice Paddies to feed the village only, leaving little excess to be sold. Additionally the changing weather patterns have drastically altered the reliability of rains, which in the past had allowed cultivation. This has now resulted in many areas being barren for lack of water. These acts (global warming) have therefore impoverished villages which in the past have been able to be self sustaining. I can present a case where this has worsened their quality of life. This in an era where we are supposed to be raising the standard.

It is therefore unfortunate to note that many have abandoned their villages and migrated to the cities in search of more economically feasible methods of support. The main point to note here is that they have migrated not because they are attracted to the cities and the opportunities per se, but because they have been driven out of their homes by circumstances beyond their control. In that respect they are quasi refugees who can no longer survive the harsh conditons that have taken over their previously tranquil lives.

One must also remember that others have also migrated for better conditions, as in economic migrants the world over, who see an opportunity and grab it. The distinction has to be made about those who are forced to leave and those who leave to improve their lives aka economic migrants who sometimes cross borders permanently or temporarily in search of better opportunities.

In light of this I have decided to take the plunge and go into this environment to determine for myself whether I can by example show a way to revive the destruction of the traditional village. I dont know if I can achieve this objective, but I will be better able to understand the pressures facing these people, many of whose grandparents were settled here by the handover of agricultural land.

Students and researches do these exercises as part of their education, but to me it is a complete life, not supported by grants or trustfunds or other means of livelihood. I have to earn every penny from this venture and make it work so I can live a full life, and not one that is incomplete.

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