April 24, 2014

Traditional irrigation in the dry zone of Sri Lanka

Published as Chapter 24 of The Social and Environmental Effects of Large Dams: Volume 1. Overview. Wadebridge Ecological Centre, Worthyvale Manor Camelford, Cornwall PL32 9TT, UK, 1984. By Edward Goldsmith and Nicholas Hildyard.

Sri Lanka’s tanks

Sri Lanka is covered with a network of thousands of manmade lakes and ponds, known locally as ‘tanks’ (after ‘tanque’, the Portuguese word for ‘reservoir’). Some are truly massive; many are thousands of years old: and almost all show a high degree of sophistication in their construction and design. Indeed, Sir James Emmerson Tennent, the 19th century historian, is fulsome in his admiration for those who built them.

In particular he marvels at the numerous channels which were dug underneath the bed of each lake in order to ensure that the flow of water was “constant and equal as long as any water remained in the tank”. Frequently, he notes, those channels had to be cut through solid granite with the most rudimentary of tools:

“Their ruins present illustrations of determined perseverance, undeterred by the most discouraging of difficulties and unrelieved by the slightest appliance of ingenuity to diminish the toil of excavation.” [1]

Today, the majority of the tanks which so impressed Tennent, have either totally or partially silted up. Nonetheless, numerous smaller tanks still survive (although many of these, too, are now partially silted up) and continue to provide the basis for irrigation agriculture in the dry zone of the island.

Large or small, the tanks are generally assumed to be the work of a centralised state bureaucracy – and hence it is argued (pace Wittfogel) that their silting up and subsequent abandonment can be explained by the breakdown of the state. That view, however, is not shared by Sir Edmund Leach, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Cambridge and a leading authority on irrigation agriculture in Sri Lanka. Thus, Leach argues that although the large tanks may have been the work of a bureaucracy, the small village tanks most decidedly were not. Indeed, his own research leads him to conclude that the Wittfogel hypothesis is quite inapplicable to Sri Lanka.

That conclusion is based on three critical considerations. Firstly, Leach argues that the primary function of the large tanks was not to provide water for agriculture – and certainly not for traditional subsistence agriculture. To be sure, the large tanks were used to irrigate farmland in the immediate vicinity of Sri Lanka’s two historical capitals – first Anuradhapura and later (when that city was abandoned) Pollonaruwa – but it was not the peasants who benefited from such irrigation: the land was used principally to grow crops for urban consumption, to supply water to the capital or for purely ornamental purposes. [2]

By way of illustration, Leach cites the massive building programme undertaken by Parakrama Bahu, the megalomaniac king who reigned in Pollonaruwa from 1164 to 1197. Quite apart from building 101 temples and statues, Bahu also constructed numerous tanks. Those tanks, says Leach, were clearly built for the King’s personal aggrandisement and had nothing whatsoever to do with satisfying the food needs of his subjects. “They are monuments not utilitarian structures.”

Given the essentially ornamental nature of the large tanks, it follows – Leach’s second point – that Sri Lanka’s rural villages never actually depended upon the large tanks for their survival:

“When the central government was disrupted and the major tanks fell into disrepair, village life could carry on quite adequately. Each village still possessed its own small-scale irrigation system which was maintained by the villagers themselves.” [3]

That last point brings us to Leach’s third – and most telling – argument against those who would apply the Wittfogel thesis to Sri Lanka. Despite extensive research, he could find no evidence that a centralised bureaucracy ever even existed to run the country’s irrigation works.

“On the contrary, the fact that, in the chronicles of the kings, the various monarchs receive praise for their munificence in repairing village tanks suggests that there was no routine procedure for carrying out such routine procedure on a national scale.” [4]

That is not to say that repairs to the village tank were neglected. Far from it. The crucial point, however, is that the necessary maintenance work was organised by the villagers themselves: there was never a centralised bureaucracy to direct such work or to ensure that it was carried out. As Leach writes,

“From time immemorial, normal repair work to the village tanks has been the ordinary work of ordinary people. Major repairs and new constructions were traditionally undertaken by a specialised caste group of Tamil labourers – the Kulankatti – but these people worked for the villagers on direct contract: they were not employees of the state.”

The running of the village irrigation system was thus firmly in the hands of the local community. Indeed, according to Leach,

“it is only since about 1860 that a centralised Irrigation Department has had the right to interfere on matters relating to the maintenance and use of village tanks.” [5]

Traditionally, much of the maintenance work on the tanks was carried out during the Rajakariya – the forty-day period when every Singhalese villager was required to work free for the King. The Rajakariya should not, however, be seen as constituting a state-run maintenance programme. The villagers were not indentured labourers (a point which was lost on the British who abolished Rajakariya service as a distasteful relic of feudalism) nor were they employed by the state. On the contrary, the work was organised at the local level. Moreover, the villagers had a considerable say in the work they undertook:

“indeed, on one occasion, they refused to dig an artificial lake outside the King’s palace in Kandy on the grounds that it was an ornamental showpiece and should not, therefore, be built with Rajakariya labour.” [6]

We have, then, a very different picture from that painted by historians of the Wittfogel school. The latter, it will be remembered, sought to explain the rise of the state in early ‘hydraulic’ societies by the need for a centralised bureaucracy to run their irrigation works. Without such a bureaucracy, it was argued, irrigation agriculture could not have been practised.

The evidence from Sri Lanka, however, firmly refutes that argument: not only did villages run their own irrigation systems quite independently of the state but – and this is critical – they continued to do so even after the state effectively collapsed. (The more that one learns about traditional irrigation systems, the less the Wittfogel thesis seems justified. Sutton, for instance, has pointed out that all the societies which practise irrigation in East Africa are democratic to the point of not even having a chief. Instead, their system is run by a council of elders which is independent of the main political structures.)

If, therefore, there is any connection between the practice of irrigation agriculture and the rise of the state, the explanation for it must lie elsewhere than in the need for a bureaucracy to run the irrigation works. As Leach asks,

“Could it be that the sociological explanation of why so many of the ancient societies were ‘hydraulic’ is that, in a wide variety of circumstances, hydraulic society lends itself very readily to the development of specialised labour on a non-monetary basis?” [7]

Even that interpretation, however, has its problems. For ‘specialised’ work to be undertaken ‘on a non-monetary basis’ implies – at the very least – the existence of a cohesive community bound together by reciprocal rights and duties. It also implies a common cultural pattern, adapted exclusively to the practice of irrigation agriculture. Such a community is the very antithesis of a state. If, therefore, a state were to arise from it – through the increasing division of labour – then one would have to posit the breakdown of the very communal ties which had previously held it together.

The importance of those communal ties has been stressed by almost all the authors who have studied the traditional practice of irrigation in Sri Lanka. In that respect, it is worth quoting Sir James Emmerson Tennent.

“Cultivation, as it existed in the north of Ceylon,” he writes, “could only be carried on by the combined labour of the whole local community, applied in the first instance to collect and secure the requisite (water) supply for irrigation and afterwards to distribute it to the rice lands which were tilled by the united exertions of the inhabitants, among whom the crop was divided in due proportions. So indispensable were concord and union in such operations that injunctions for their maintenance were sometimes engraved on the rocks, as an imperishable exhortation to forbearance and harmony.” [8]

Significantly, Tennent rejects the suggestion that Sri Lanka’s irrigation works broke down as a result of faulty construction and, in particular, the absence of spillways for draining off surplus water during the rainy season.

“For upward of fifteen centuries the reservoirs, when duly attended to, successfully defied all the dangers to be apprehended from inundation.” Besides, “vast numbers of these tanks, though utterly deserted, remain in this respect, almost uninjured to the present day.” [9]

Instead, insists Tennent, the destruction and final abandonment of the tanks should be seen as the inevitable outcome of social decay – and in particular, “the disruption of the local communities by whom they were so long maintained”. With that disruption came an end to that ‘concord and union’ which Tennent held to be so critical to the running of the irrigation works. The consequences were undoubtedly disastrous:

“The ruin of a reservoir when neglected and permitted to fall into decay was speedy and inevitable; and as the destruction of the village tank involved the flight of all dependent upon it, the water, once permitted to escape, carried pestilence and miasma over the plains they had previously covered with plenty. After such a calamity, any partial return of the villagers, even where it was not prevented by the dread of malaria, would have been impracticable, for the obvious reason, that where the whole combined labour of the community was not more than sufficient to carry on the work of conservancy and cultivation, the diminished force of the few would have been utterly unavailing, either to effect the reparation of the watercourse, or to restore the system on which the culture of rice depends. Thus the process of decay, instead of a gradual decline as in other countries, became sudden and utter desolation in Ceylon.” [10]

It is a warning which the government of modern Sri Lanka would have done well to ponder upon before it embarked on the giant Mahaweli scheme.

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The importance of the tanks

The traditional Ceylonese village was dominated by three features: the temple (dagoba), the tank (wewa) and the paddy field (ketha). Such is the importance of the tank that, according to the late Upalli Senanayake,

“one could not imagine a village in the dry zone without a tank any more than one could imagine it without a temple or a rice paddy.” [11]

Indeed, the tank was judged to be so vital to village life that the term ‘wewa’ was frequently used synonymously with the term ‘gama’ or village. As R. H. Brohier, one of the foremost authorities on Sri Lanka’s ancient irrigation system, puts it:

“People say they belong to Siyambalagaha-Wewa, ‘the Tamarind tree tank’, and not to Siyambalagaha-gama, ‘the Tamarind tree village’.” [12]

Ideally, several different types of tank were built – some of which had nothing to do with irrigation per se but all of which had a critical role to play in the practice of irrigation agriculture. It was, for example, traditional to build a forest tank in the jungle above the village. That tank, however, was not used to irrigate land: on the contrary, its express purpose was to provide water to wild animals and, hence, to reduce the likelihood that they would descend into the paddy fields and destroy the crops in the search for water. Other tanks included:

  • The mountain tank, which was built to provide water for ‘chena’ or slash-and-burn agriculture – a vernacular form of farming now frowned upon (if not actually discouraged) by the authorities.
  • The erosion control tank, or ‘pota wetiye’, which was so designed that any silt was deposited in it before entering the main water storage tanks. Several erosion control tanks were associated with each village irrigation system. All were built in such a way that they could easily be de-silted.
  • The storage tank, of which, traditionally, there were two – one being used whilst the other was being repaired. For that reason, such tanks were known as ‘twin tanks’.
  • The village tank, of which there was one for each village that depended upon a particular irrigation system. All such tanks were connected by canals to the twin tanks. [13]
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Irrigation as a way of life

Paddy growing was not an occupation: it was a way of life, closely interwoven with other social activities. Each stage in the agricultural cycle – from weeding, to ploughing, to transplanting the paddy and, finally, to harvesting it – was accompanied by special ceremonies involving song, music and dance. Indeed, those traditional dances which still survive clearly originated in such ceremonies: they are based on rhythmic movements which visibly symbolise reaping, ploughing and digging.

Significantly, it was the priest who initiated the most important agricultural activities. When the time was deemed auspicious for ploughing, for instance, the temple bell would ring and the whole village would stream out into the fields. The King himself would participate in the ploughing ceremonies that took place near the ancient capitals.

As in all peasant societies, agriculture was very much a family affair. Each member of the family, including the children, had specific responsibilities. One child’s job, for instance, was to drive away any marauding monkeys from the paddy fields: another’s was to look after the cattle and water buffaloes. One or two children would help their father in the fields: the rest would help their mother to harvest firewood, to prepare food and to milk the cows and buffaloes – the girls being specifically responsible for weeding and for making mats.

So, too, there was a tradition of mutual help – ‘attama’ – within the village; neighbours could thus be relied upon to help with pressing, day-to-day chores and, more important still, with the more onerous agricultural tasks. [14]

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The sustainability of the traditional system

Leach points to the great stability of the village and its irrigation system. Whereas governments rose and fell, the village and its tanks remained the same for thousands of years.

“Under Ceylon dry zone conditions, once a village and its irrigation tank have been constructed, it is there forever and since the irrigation area must always remain the same size, the population of the village itself can only vary between very narrow limits.” [15]

As in other traditional societies, the Singhalese regarded their institutions as permanent. Thus, old inscriptions recording donations of land to various temples, stress that they would be valid ‘ira handa pavathina thuru’ – “so long as the sun and the moon are there.” [16]

Under the traditional system, that faith in the future was well founded. As with other peasant societies, the agricultural system was geared to minimising risks rather than to maximising yields. Thus, in order to guard against the upheavals of drought, pests, floods and similar agricultural disasters, farmers would plant a wide variety of different strains of the same crop.

Indeed, Mudyanse Tenakoon – a local farmer and philosopher whom we interviewed in 1982 – recalls that over 280 different varieties of rice were in common usage during his youth; today, however, only 15 survive. Each variety had different characteristics and each was capable of surviving in conditions which would threaten the other varieties. [17] (According to C. Dreiberg [Superintendent of School Gardens], quoted by C. Wright in Glimpses of Ceylon, 1874, three to four hundred varieties of rice were once cultivated.)

So, too, custom prohibited the construction of permanent buildings on prime agricultural land. Only the King and the priests, for instance, were entitled to build brick and tiled houses: everybody else lived in mud huts. That custom was founded on sound ecological principles. Brick houses do not break down when they collapse: instead they sterilise the soil. (Here one might note the terrible damage done by brick-works in Egypt and India. In both countries, vast areas of land have been dug up to a depth of several feet in order to provide earth for bricks.) Mud houses, on the other hand, quickly return to the soil, thus providing valuable organic matter for the fields.. Significantly, Tenakoon still refuses to this day to live in a brick house.

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