The Heritage of Hydraulics
Juliet Coombe learns that great minds leave incredible legacies like the Polonnaruwa tank to the world and that a thousand years on it is as vital as ever to the farmers in the dry zone.
Man constantly attempts to recreate Eden and there are many examples of such endeavours throughout history and the world but there is one example in Sri Lanka that sticks out and was discovered, quite by accident, by the British army in 1820. A Lieutenant Fagan no less, commanding a brigade from Batticaloa to Minneriya, and fortunately with a considerably more civilised outlook on life than the previous army of savages that swept through like a tsunami, and turned the city upside down, committing the most heinous crimes known to man and leaving it absolutely destitute having gouged out the eyes of its King before torturing him to death – a treacherous serpent with pure evil and envy in its heart.
Before the great kingdom of Polonarruwa was destroyed, the place had become famous throughout the world for the ingenuity and attitude to water and nature in general. Walking around the site I learn how the Romans traded here for the gems, Arabs for the spices and even the Iranians came to do business as recently in a archaeological dig a great deal of Iranian pottery was discovered. “Not even a single drop of water that comes from the rain must flow in to the Ocean without being made useful to man,” King Parakramabahu was heard to say, making him one of the first recorded recyclers and creators of a hydraulic civilisation. He was also credited with building three huge river dams so that the use of water could be controlled minutely for all the inhabitants and extended the Elahera canal so that the three large irrigation tanks of Minneri, Kaudulu and Kanthale were all linked together, thus completing an impressive array of water engineering feats that were both highly technical and beautiful to behold, and described thus, “a giant blue ribbon wrapped around a mystical garden city that even by todays terms was ahead of its time,” and on a huge scale, “It is of such a width that it is impossible to stand upon one shore and view the other side.” Other canals were constructed to discharge additional water from swampy lands to make them suitable for paddy cultivation.
As well as farming hundreds of varieties of rice, they harvested honey from bees both to eat but also, interestingly, to seal their fresco pictures in the picture houses and on caves, as honey is a well known preservative and can last for millennia in the right mix and conditions. Living as part of nature this civilisation would have been aware of the dangers of monoculture and the need for diversity to support all the different creatures within an ecosystem; they would certainly not have needed to be encouraged to sow wild flowers to save the bees, something we are being warned might signal the end of a huge range of plants and indirectly animals, even many of us, in our world today.
Furthermore, the King’s boulder gardens reflected the Eden like majesty of the place, and were built with defence moats, though sadly these were not capable of repelling the rapacious barbarians, in 1215 AD, of the South Indian King Kalinga Magha, a malingerer who couldn’t be bothered to create his own slice of paradise, instead destroying another’s and its people.
During the time of great King Parakrambahu’s largesse also extended to establishing alms halls to feed the poor, and promoting intellectual debate and the discussion of new ideas through scholarly teaching to everyone. Besides building a great city he was also an expert physician, to boot, building stone baths for healing with oil, as well as a hospital and special halls for attending sick people, truly a great philanthropist and visionary.
But his skills and those of his people go beyond these hydraulic marvels and in some cases tap into them, like the arrangement of gravity fed pipes and water channels that are used for creating open air domestic showers downstream of the dams or from the vast water tanks. The rooms of these ancient palaces and temples were also built thick and made to last with the added bonus of having excellent insulation qualities that negate the need for aircon as even in the heat of the day the thickness of walls keep the rooms cool. Similarly, houses were to some extent built with open ends to allow and facilitate the free flow of air through them both to keep them cool and to prevent the build up of harmful house dusts. Another revolutionary and extraordinarily visionary invention of the time involved the strategic placement of statues opposite windows within houses and inserting gemstones in their eyes, which would reflect the light, entering through the windows as the sun rises, and sending light around the room, so brightening it up with colours and being like a free electricity supply.
As with many great civilisations they left records, via stone inscriptions on giant books the most famous one being the ‘galpotha’ stone book weighing 25 tons, which was brought over 90km from Mihintale by elephants rolled on logs. It took a year to get the stone book to the city and is a fascinating read as it covers many aspects from wars that took place to the cities rules and regulations. All in all this was a very advanced civilisation that fully appreciated and lived within nature’s needs and constraints, helped the poor and needy, was extremely sophisticated with its engineering, and recognised the importance of spirituality as a key part of the healing process. Some say the Great King was inspired from Pali inscriptions from temples in the area even older than the ancient ruined city we see today.