A Glimpse of Ceylon History
Posted on February 1st, 2021

By Dr. Tilak S. Fernando

At the very inception, the ‘Ceylonese’ race descended from an Aryan stock towards the 5th century BC.  Historians believe that the natives in ‘Ceylon,’ before the invasion by Aryans were race called Yaksa Clan and the whole Island was governed according to a caste system that prevailed at the time. Mahavamsa revels that Prince Vijaya, from Western India, with his entourage, imposed themselves on the native population of Ceylon, with the help of Kuveni, and settled down in various parts of the Island.

Paddy cultivation was the leading agricultural farming in India during the 5th Century BC.  Therefore, it appears that when Prince Vijaya and his entourage left their native land in search of a suitable terrestrial to settle down, the best destination that suited Vijaya as ‘Ceylon’. Historical records disclose how King Vijaya, with his ruling experience in his own country, quickly adapted similar rulership methods in Ceylon.

Customs & Traditions

King Vijaya was aware of the customs and traditions in ‘Ceylon,‘. Whenever and wherever he established new villages as his reign, and participated in Coronation ceremonies, he always maintained that a Princess from his clan participated with him. To this effect, he sent messages to King Pandi in India, along with gifts of pearls and valuable jewels for princesses. It is also on record how King Vijaya spent, even after his coronation, Rs.200,000 worth of gems and precious stones annually, which affected his fortune to a certain extent.

Upon his coronation, King Vijaya led a pious lifestyle. He ruled ‘Ceylon’ for thirty-eight years preaching and giving sound advice to his subjects by making Tammannawa a Capital City. Although no records reveal to what extent the King was wealthy, the assumption was that with his management and expertise in his own country, the King protected and maintained the self-sufficiency in ‘Ceylon’ during his reign.

The progress or regress of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) has a vivid history both economically, culturally and agriculturally.  It is interesting to note that metamorphoses of a degenerative nature influenced the nation over the centuries, more towards a social and economic facet than a political one.  It is not possible to delve into detail history of an economic deterioration over two thousand five hundred years of history. It becomes difficult to analyse and concentrate on various stages of the nation’s historical development because history is usually a comparison of present and the past. Several historians have categorised the past such as ‘ancient’  and ‘modern‘ history, based on Kingdom theories, and Capital Towns. However, it is possible to classify the economic change into three separate sections and view how history has changed for better or worse!

In ancient Ceylon,  the transport of goods to far way distances became an impossibility in the absence of any vehicles and logistic centres.  Consequently, villagers were compelled to produce their own food that drove them into paddy farming. Paddy cultivation consisted of two stages. Firstly, they had to clear the jungle areas to prepare the ground and separate those into various sections (liyadda) to convert into muddy lands. Farmers depended on rainfall for water. They had to systematically organise themselves for each Kanne and obtained the necessary water stored in human-made drains out of the water collected reservoirs from rainfall. Considering the weather patterns in the Island, paddy farming seemingly became a profession and continued as an industry.

The King

The King was the sole owner of lands in the country. Therefore, it became more or less a practice that every person who earned out of any vegetation from the King’s land had to pay a certain amount as ‘tax‘ to the King dependent on one’s yield from the cultivated land. This tax became the sole income of the King. To maintain a proper record of taxpayers, the King had an authentic record known as the ‘Lakam Mitiya’. It included details of every cultivated land, the owners of paddy fields, the extent of the paddy fields, lakes, waterways and lochs that belonged to every farmer and kept in the Royal Treasury. The Royal assent declared that every official from ‘Adikarm’ up to ‘Vidane’ (ancient official titles) was responsible for their areas to supervise and improve agriculture ( Ref. Vandendiesen).

If one delves into the past, it will be apparent that lakes, lochs, and waterways were constructed systematically by our ancestors. According to the present trend in the post coronavirus pandemic, we need to change our attitudes to be self-sufficient. We need to emulate our ancestors and learn how they expanded irrigation systems sophistically with forward planning as a foremost trend. What is on record in history books state as follows:

An American tourist named Brigalow in  1910, after a successful tour around Ceylon, commented on old Ceylonese irrigations systems as follows:

” Many centuries ago, when the Western civilisation was only in the pipeline or a dream, what Arians had constructed in Ceylon made western engineers shudder. As far as irrigation system was concerned,  water management towards cultivation was astonishing. Compared with the Panama Canal,  what Ceylonese engineers  had  created appears only as Child’s play.”

Ceylon was under the British Rule and a Colony for approximately one and a half centuries.  Up to date, what we see and benefit is out of what the British had achieved in Ceylon – except very recently modern road works and motorways have come up. Unfortunately, since the British left Ceylon,’ local  leaders ‘ became intolerant when sorting good from bad! During the  British era, many British citizens did several tours round the country, both officially and as  pleasure  trips during their free time to study the country. The following is such an array of examples of those Britishers whose ideas were exposed publicly.

In 1815, the Government Agent in Badulla, Mr Bailey, published a worthy report, with the consent of the ‘Government of Ceylon’. It rerecords  as follows: 

It is impossible to witness how those massive water projects constructed by Ceylonese engineers in comparison with any other part of the world. It based on my own opinion. The gigantic irrigation work done by Ceylonese engineers is certainly a rare task.  It is impossible to imagine,  in a tiny country like Ceylon, how such advanced  irrigation engineering had taken place!”

Sir Emerson Tenant had to say about the irrigation in Ceylon in the following manner:

Out of all the gigantic projects in  Ceylon what brings to memory are gargantuan old lakes, which are prominent and mysterious. These are incomparable with any other lakes in foreign countries. For example, the ruins that remain in Ceylon can be compared with the Morris Canal, Egypt’s main town that destroyed. Al Aram lake is considered  as the grandest engineering marvel of the ancient world.

Marub:   ” The enormity of lochs  and lakes bring astonishment to any observer.”

 A recent study shows that what the old engineers in Ceylon had done on lake construction were very useful and much more advanced than waterway construction with modern and up-to-date equipment today. It is interesting to note that during the 20th Century Mahaweli development, Maduru Oya project, the modern engineers faced a problem in locating the Aniket. When they were exhausted, they suddenly came across the sluice used during the Anuradhapura-Polonnaruwa era covered with soil and mud.

Generally, old lakes were constructed so that water naturally flowed from one to another, and the gradient was only one foot over a mile. In certain areas, the slope was only up to six inches per mile. It goes to show how skilful Ceylonese ancestors were.

History further reveals how the old folk did not entirely depend on rain for the water. Farmers found other ways of diverting lake water by cutting drains manually to delay the necessary water supply to their paddy fields.

Another mysterious occurrence was how our ancestors managed to let water flow from lower to higher elevations. For instance, Tissa Wewa is on a much higher hill than the Kala Wewa. However, our ancestral genii managed to let the flow of water to Tissa Wewa by constructing a 56-mile-long ‘Yoda Wewa’ with the gradient of only one inch per mile.

tilakfernando@gmail.com

courtesy: G.H.Perera, Christy de Silva, C.Mendis and R. Brohier

One Response to “A Glimpse of Ceylon History”

  1. Nimal Says:

    I knew a western guy came to Kandy from Canada on an UNESCO mission to see the balu canal made by the king and he was laughing about it at the Queens lounge where I was curious and joined in as usual. He just came to the island just to have a good time. He said all kings in the past in every country had similar things for their own benefit, nothing great about it or we should have been developed enough to split the atom.

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