The ancient Sri Lankans worked with water at every scale from the tiniest trickle to the deluge off a spillway. They were stewards of water. They managed water, persuaded water to do what it does naturally, rather than simply impounding it and releasing it. Their descendants do the same.
Contemporary agricultural practices reflect many changes, especially in the use of machinery, hybrid strains of rice, and chemical interventions like fertilizer and pesticides. But in terms of water, many of the old ways remain.
I saw rivulets of water running through fields, channels of water dug and maintained by hoe, valves and slots and slabs and dikelets all maintained by hand. This kind of labor-intensive engagement with water is part of a profound knowledge of the substance and how it works.
I was drawn to the shapes through which water was managed. These ranged from straight lines and surprising 90° angles to the gentlest curves. A compendium of water channels of Sri Lanka would be an encyclopedia of curvature.
This brings me to thoughts on the tanks, 30,000 mysterious, gorgeous bodies of water built by humans since antiquity and still at work irrigating and improving the land. No master plan existed for their development but a master intelligence, a mastery of water and its ways, was the basis for their phenomenal success.
We see the tanks today as bodies of water. We understand many aspects of their dynamic nature--their complex ecology, their pulsating chemistry, their functionality as agents of environmental betterment. But do we understand their inner dynamics? The flows, the pressures, and the movements inside the tanks? Do we understand the structural basis of these processes?
I started this project as an exploration of small tank landscape. Part of landscape is contemporary human use and utility. We see it in broad daylight, in the movement of people and their artifacts. Part of landscape is hidden and historical. We must infer it through careful observation and guesswork. How the tanks were formed, how common hydrology practices were used to construct monuments of water, and how these designs persisted for millennia, almost self-perpetuating, are the questions that flood my mind.