Tuesday, October 13, 2015

An amazing walk through unexpected terrain

We found ourselves with an extra day in Vavuniya waiting for an afternoon train. Janet had a great idea--let's take an early morning walk before it gets too hot! Great thought, and this freed us from waiting for morning "room tea" at 7, which always arrived lukewarm and a strangely pasty breakfast sambol that must have been made in a blender. My friend Ramya Chamale Jirasinghe says they haven't been exposed to much tourism in Vavuniya. Understatement of the year but just the same the young people at our guesthouse, who barely have a word of English to their name (can't criticize them for that--my Tamil is nonexistent), did their best to make us comfortable and happy. 

Just the same a morning walk sounded delicious so out the door we walked by about 7:00. We repeated our walk from the day before, north to the next train station in Thandikulam, this time skipping some of the twists and turns as Thandikulam was actually our jumping off point for exploring an unknown countryside. 

Getting to Thandikulam we walked along footpaths worn into the soil along the railroad bed. To one side as we moved north appeared to be a squatter community, built in the no-mans-land alongside the tracks. If this was a sqatter community, as Janet noted, it looked fairly affluent. Well dressed people were leaving for work on motorcycles. Children in uniform were on their way to school. People who were busy cleaning their verge smiled as we passed. Nevertheless it was pretty much the smallest path we had been on. 

Janet in her wisdom reminded me we were up in the Vanni to explore tank landscapes and, stupid me, I had forgotten to read the map the other day in all the heat of the afternoon. Thing is, I had forgotten to read the topo maps of Vavuniya I'd photographed a year or two ago at the Harvard Map Library. It was those maps that piqued my interest about peri-urban settlement around tanks in the Vavuniya area, something I was super pleased to remember!

A few steps north of the railway station, on the other side of the road, there were two paths we could have chosen. The first was smaller and not as nice looking but my trusty scout Janet noted a channel next to it that looked like it might hold water part of the year. A few steps in and her prediction held true. Here was a wide, and as we continued along the bund road, increasingly watery extension of the tank, the signal of a classic bell-shaped tank, which indeed this was. 

Thandi Kulam turned out to be a watery beauty, filled with bird life- cranes, eagles, cormorants, storks, and in the still partly dry catchment peacocks. Cows roamed the catchment as well and in muddy parts I wondered if we were seeing elephant tracks. 

Human activity on the bund road was intense, with people on scooters, bicycles, or tractors passing or overcoming us every few seconds it seemed. Several people stopped to talk to us. With their few words of English they managed to communicate welcome, as well as wonder and appreciation for the beauty of their own environment. 

From the vantage of the bund road we were pleased to see a well-developed perahana and gasgommana, part of the touweleh or catchment area. Here for the first time it was easy to make out the arc of the "protective girdle" of trees that my friend Dr. MUA Tennakoon describes. A peaceful and I can say awe-inspiring piece of human landscape replete with deep potholes on the bund road, a strategically placed Hindu shrine halfway across the road, and magnificent kumbuk trees close to the bund. On the opposite side, a well-preserved and wide kattakaduwa, one with plenty of standing water and even an area of water on the far side with pale brown alkaline water. How the tanks manage to retain this filtering function through the simple seepage of water is a mystery to me and as far as I know, to anyone who has studied the tanks. 

(We need to discuss this more in terms of tank morphology and function, and to consider how this inquiry is an extension of the previous elucidation of the "cascade system," which for the first time articulated the indigenous, vernacular landscape in a context not of a countryside that needed to be exploited or built over (as the British colonial administration might have seen it) but one that requires maintenance, attention, and nurturing).

Our walk was long and hot and our frequent stops made to admire the landscape drew it out into a sumptuous experience of observation and appreciation. 

When we reached the east end of the bund road (we had begun just a few steps off of the A9 highway) we were in a new, more deeply rural environment than we had experienced until now. Our goal to penetrate deeper and deeper into the countryside "on our own steam" was being fulfilled, and with great results. We were lost!

Just by continuing to the next vantage point and the next we passed a landscape of rice cultivation irrigated by large-diameter tube wells, the fields still dry and fallow. It was neither a promising landscape nor one that had any outstanding landmarks but we moved through it, not "forward" through it but in a kind of meander that defined itself as we went. 

Hotter and hotter it grew and we without bearings until a new visual sensation arose--a tank nearly empty and all but abandoned. This tank is not on google maps. If I can find the 1:10,000 topo map I'll need to check if I can locate it there. A long, typically concave, almost rope-shaped structure, more a dike than a dam, enclosed a barely extant puddle of water. Once this must have held much more water. Now cows strayed along the bund leisurely, in search of shade or succor. 

We noted how once again, we were wandering through the remains of an ancient landscape. Janet noted that this nearly extinct bund was not, as she originally thought, a geological formation. Instead, it represented, as in all of the bunds we have observed and walked upon, a community-based human landscape that dates back perhaps 2000 years. Today's villagers and cultivators are the heirs of landscape their ancestors built centuries ago. I still wonder. How do people here respond to these landscapes? 

Are they ignored? Appreciated? Seen as an obstacle? How do we in our civilization see cities and landmarks that our ancestors built?

Bravely I think, Janet encouraged us along the bund to a very small road. On one side it led to fenced-in property. If we followed it to the left we seemed to walk in the direction of an all but hidden village.  

We were hot and tired and a small store looked like it offered relief. We asked for a coke and we were offered a 2-liter bottle, more than we could handle even as hot and thirsty and hungry as we were. Two 175ml glass bottles were proffered, one random Pepsi and one random coke, and we drank them down with the straws we were given. More than satisfied, we asked the young men delivering candies in a brand new van which way to the A9 and they pointed laconically to the southeast. 

A little uncomfortable, we followed their instruction, though it seemed A9 should be the other way. A walk down more village roads revealed more bicycles, scooters, people on foot, cows, dogs, smoke, corrugated roofs and fences, and a large pink school I thought mistakenly I might have passed on a previous walk. 

A little further and we discovered another of the Australian mitigation aid signs we saw the other day on the Vavuniya Kulam. A bit further and a large ditch to our left indicated some sort of seasonal waterway. And finally. The great Moment of our walk (truthfully one of many)--a rise along the path indicated we were on the bund road of the Vavuniya Kulam!

This may sound peculiar and maybe it is just indicative of our own approach to exploration, but to be on this long (over 1km), high, gracefully curving, monumental and historic dam sparked our imagination and enthusiasm. To our right lay an expanse of rice fields that reminded us this must have been a royal (not village) project. To our left the monumental, magnificent, tank. In front of us lay Vavuniya, at its helm the green mosque we had seen the other day. And behind it, the city. 

The bund path held more than just magnificent views and thoughts of an imperial past (I haven't even had a chance to write about the exciting  Archeology Museum in Vavuniya). The way held pathos as well. Two boys on a scooter bearing large sheets of plate glass along the way, a couple of old guys lounging in the shade of a shrine on the path, bathers below shouting their greetings. 

As we rose slightly to the town, Bazaar Street lay at our feet. The ancient gateway to Vavuniya, a city living in the past and present. 


No comments:

Post a Comment