Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Traditional Tank village system:

Saving water - lessons from the past

We were a nation that treated nature with respect, and conserved and well understood the values of natural resources. We behaved as a member of the 'family of nature', and did not try to destroy the web of life. That was a fundamental of our civilized culture centered on the concept of tank, dagaba, temple and village. As a result of foreign invasions, internal

Family of nature

conflicts, changes as a result of globalization. today our inherited traditions are vanishing. But the fragrance of our great culture provides us strength to fearlessly face the future.

Restore the past

Thus we have to learn from the past, we have to restore the past concepts to match the present.

Our forefathers considered water as sacred, so they laid many taboos and regulations on usage of water for water preservation and to stop water pollution.

Sri Lankans for about three thousand years knew the technology to fully utilize water in agriculture, the great King Parakramabahu's words not to let one drop of water go waste without making the fullest use of it - proves that.

The dry zone which is 2/3 of the entire island inherits highly technical irrigation systems. Among them "Tank Village System" was a giant pillar that held past agricultural society.

Thus in the past most of the villages were built near a tank.

Then the use of land in such a village was conducted in a methodical way conserving the whole environment. The tank village system becomes special in that case, which is not similar to the civilizations that were built around the river valleys in other countries.

These human settlements in the dry zone were built, while finding strategies for the shortcoming of water and they succeeded in using farming methods according to many weather vagaries by shifting the cultivation time and selecting farming practices according to the seasons.

Depending on the water levels land was divided as forests, the chena that can be cultivated by rainwater, the paddy field which was cultivated using tank water, the tank and its ecological system and the hamlet which is in a place appropriate for habitation.

Our forefathers considered water as sacred. Pix: Dr. P. B. Dharmasena

Depending on the water levels land was divided as forests, the chena that can be cultivated by rainwater

According to the seasonality of rains they cultivated chena and paddy lands.

Kekulama (dry sowing), Bethma (shared cultivation) and thavulu govithena (tank bed cultivation) show how they change their cultivation according to the changes in the environment. This proves their sensitivity to the environment.

Thus the old farmers cultivated their chena using rainwater while harnessing the paddy field using tank water. They also had home gardens, thus all the needs of food, medicine and clothing (by cotton plantation) were fulfilled. Groundwater was not used in agriculture assuring a continuous supply of water. An adequate dead storage of water was in the tanks in the dry seasons for the use of humans and animals.

Agricultural system

The old agricultural system was built on sharing and caring; which means in the hamlet (gamgoda), the houses were situated nearby assuring protection, where in cultivation they helped each other.

They did not engage in environmental pollution, and in this tank system they had taken utmost attempts to conserve the environment.

In a tank water is retained by blocking the natural water resources, which is in a confluence and then the speed of evaporating is limited as the tank is deep.

The land lows were used in paddy cultivation with the use of tank water. The whole premises of a tank that holds water is considered as the tank bed, and at the same time there was a part in the tank which becomes dry in the dry seasons.

The farmers used this in paddy cultivation, but in a methodological way. When considering how our forefathers divided the ecological system of a tank, it proves how they managed and conserved all the macro and micro parts in nature. They are.

Gasgommana, tree belt is the upstream land strip above the tank bed, accommodating water only when spilling, reduced evaporation and was a wind barrier.

It was full of tees like large trees such as kumbuk, nabada, maila, damba, and climbers such as kaila, elipaththa, katukeliya, kalawel, and bokalawel was a breeding and living place for some fish species. These tree belts also act as a border between wild animals and humans.

Kattakaduwa, interceptor is a reserved land below the tank bund. It consists of three micro-climatic environments: water hole; wetland; and dry upland, therefore, diverse vegetation is developed. This land phase prevents entering salts and Ferric ions into the paddy field. The water hole referred to as 'yathuruwala' minimizes bund seepage by raising the groundwater table.

Village garden

It appears to be a village garden, where people utilize various parts of the vegetation for purposes such as fuel wood, medicine, timber, fencing materials, household and farm implements, food, fruits, vegetables etc

Perahana filters the sediment flow coming from upstream chena lands which is a meadow developed under tree belt.

Iswetiya or potawetiya is constructed at either sides of the tank bund to prevent entering eroded soil from upper land slopes. It is an upstream soil ridge.

Godawala is a manmade water hole to trap sediment and it provides water to wild animals. Kuluwewa is not used for the irrigation purposes, but a large reservoir only traps sediment. It provides water for cattle and wild animals.

Natural stream

Tisbambe is a fertile land strip found around the settlement area (gangoda) and does not belong to anybody, mostly used in sanitary purposes.

Tree species such as mee, mango and coconut. are grown in a scattered manner.

Kiul ela, drainage is the old natural stream utilized as the common drainage. It removes salts and iron polluted water and improves the drainage condition of the paddy tract.

It is not difficult to understand how our forefathers used developed technology in preserving water, earth, trees and animals.

As they have understood the interdependency of all these sources they could manage them well without doing any harm. Still we are not late as our precious technology has not vanished. Then it is time for us to follow such unique Sri Lankan technologies in our development project.

(The article is based on an interview with Dr. P. B. Dharmasena, former Deputy Director Research, Field Crops Research and Development Institute, Mahailluppallama)

Tracing the Australian Aboriginal drawings from history:

Alluring art

The world’s largest island and s mallest continent, Australia, is a land of vast contrast. The people with dark chocolate colour skins; the Aborigines knew how to survive in this harsh climate.

All occupied parts of Australia, adapting incredibly to the harshness of the desert interior by digging small wells and memorising their locations, along with other natural waterholes, through folklore and ritual. They learned how to make long, straight spears by digging out straight roots hidden deep in the ground, reaching out from low desert shrubs as they could not find significant trees in these desert areas.

Tracing the roots
With the use of stone tool technology and painting, Australia’s Aboriginal culture probably represents the oldest surviving culture in the world; which means until 1960s the Australian Aboriginal practised most ancient stone tool technology practised by humans. The rock art tradition, mainly as paintings in rock shelters and as engravings on exposed rocks, has continued to the present. Even the body decoration and accouterments those worn in ceremonies to this day are painted similarly in rock shelters in northern Australia again revealing the great age of Aboriginal culture.

The arts great paintings, lengthy songs and dances (corroborates) accompanied by stories that continue for days like great operas- strict law and order and religion are some main features of the Aboriginal culture. Then how can we say that they did not have elements of civilized culture though they did not build large stone monuments, did not farm animals and did not cultivate the soil for crops?

As a result of the harsh living conditions the aborigines were nomadic and had to keep moving from place to place to allow them to find enough food to survive.

Kangaroo is a common sight in the Australian landscapes. Pictures: and

Naturalistic art style on rock

A circle might represent any important person or place

With the Rainbow Serpent mythology recorded in rock shelter paintings believed to be 7,000 years old in the Kakadu National Park region and ancient rock art which shows many arts and Ancestral Beings (deities or gods) prove that Australia’s Aborigines belongs the longest continuing religion in the world. Rock art became the way to record Aboriginal culture as they did not have a formal written language. At the same time their history was passed down orally and also through songs and dances.

Aboriginal have a belief of the creation period that important ancestral beings formed the land and created the people, plants and animals; which is referred to as the ‘Dreamtime’. Much of Aboriginal art relates to stories of the Dreamtime. To teach the people their laws and ceremonies these ancestral beings are often depicted via the art with human, animal, plant or combined forms. There is an enormous variety o f Aboriginal art. Each region has its own particular style

Traditional Aboriginal art is carried out using primitive methods because of the nomadic lifestyle simple tools like the chewed end of a twig was used as a brush. Colour was held in the mouth and sprayed over a hand held on a rock; the painting style was simple dot paintings or x-ray style. In ‘X-ray’ art mainly the internal anatomy of an animal is drawn. Feathers, blood other natural items were used, depending on where the people lived. Some of the most beautiful Australian Aboriginal art using a naturalistic art style is found in the rock art across northern Australia. Many Aborigines living in many regions today still live a part traditional life so have the laws of their ancient culture and still practice their traditional art form.

The art style of each region has been passed down through the generations. Each mark is symbolic. For an instance an a arc shape might represent a man or woman sitting at their campfire, or it may represent a boomerang. A circle might represent any important person or place, or even represent the story of important event that took place. Dot Painting Style is also a special kind of art inherited by Aborigines. The use of dots was once particularly seen on body decoration also can be seen among Aboriginal especially in their ceremonies.

There are designs and decorations which are applied to the bodies and especially constructed head dresses of actors: to secret-sacred ritual objects that are stored near the ceremonial grounds; and often to shields, boomerangs and other weapons which are not, alone considered dangerous. But in a ceremonial situation they sing the correct secret-sacred chants. Then they are believed to partake of mythological forces. Thus, the dancers and the objects they use are thought to become imbued with supernatural power. Only initiated men are allowed to take part in these ceremonies. Women have their own traditional ceremonies.

With the influence of the white settlers the lifestyle of the Aboriginal changed. Brutal massacres and the introduction of diseases, alcohol etc. ccccc racked their culture. Over the generations the Aboriginal have adapted to the white man’s culture but in many remote communities traditional culture is still carried out. The wider art world has discovered Aboriginal art and today traditional Aboriginal art is much sort after by art lovers around the world.

It commands a high price and many primitive artist of today are earning large amounts of money for their art. Naturally the colours the artists use today are not the original colours but large range of colours. Then questions arise. With this modern version of traditional art will the traditional arts disappear? Or do we have to make use of those traditional arts in order to broaden the margins of arts?