Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Conjectures on conjectures about design in Sri Lankan civilization

I'm on an AC bus headed down the Duplication Road in Colombo. It's a rarity to grab the bus, which costs Rs 50 instead of the Rs 18 I'm used to paying for the ride to Mt. Lavinia. But the payoff is more than AC. It's a clean upholstered seat and a nice sound system with graceful Singhala music accompanying the swaying bus. Let's say it was a long afternoon. Full of intellectual challenge and the overheated excitement of conjecture. 

The Archives at the National Museum were incredible. Like my old botany library at Harvard, my three hours there yielded something like three weeks' work. Something I just have to face. In a couple of weeks we will be traveling again and our return to Colombo for any length of time is indefinite. But with the riches of the library in mind it's a bit more tempting to get back to Colombo. 

So what's up at the Archives? Only countless rare books, treasures you call up by filling out a call card, cheerfully handed to you by the desk associate. We'll see how long they keep smiling. My demands may grow. 

Today I was given the wrong volume of Spolia Zeylanica, the now-extinct journal of Sri Lankan natural history and miscellany, which is where my fellow Fulbrighter Alex McKinley suggested I might want to start. The journal featured articles like "Vitality of the Dragonfly," "A Cobra on the Threshing Floor," "Vocalizations of Flying Squirrels," and "A Lunar Rainbow at Sea &c." The mistaken volume from 1906 I got today had a paper on Sinhalese earthenware by the great historian, aesthete, and philosopher Ananda Coomaraswamy. Incidentally he had a huge Boston connection and a large part of his collections are at the MFA. Another coincidence, he was born in Jaffna just a short way from our guesthouse on Kandy Road. Perhaps most significantly, Coomaraswamy was less prolific about his native Sri Lanka than nearby India. So I was super interested about what he'd say about ceramics here. Oh man. I was just re-reading my own essays on ceramics just this morning!

I'll get back to Coomaraswamy, who is really the star of today's post. But first I want to mention something I've written about before. It concerns my question about Sri Lankan irrigation tanks. My observations and research have started me on a new direction of inquiry. It seems that no one fully understands the complex functionality of the tanks. They are ancient bodies of water that appear simple yet perform number of complex water filtering and distribution functions. What were the secrets of the designers and builders of the tanks?

I've begun to wonder whether the "model" for village tanks might not have been the human body. With their properties of input and output, numerous valves, subtle curves, and their intimate relationships with human communities that used and maintained them, it seems possible that the tanks might have been considered living, even human. Of course this is all conjecture. My library research is in part an attempt to shed light on this question. 

So it was pretty exciting today to find tangential support for the idea in a 1906 article from Spolia Zeylanica. In an article there one C.M. Fernando relates an early fifth century Sinhalese poem from the reign of Pakrama Bahu V. The poet likens the sheet of water from Kotte Lake to the dress of a woman. A human context for a royal tank. A bit of a stretch maybe. But maybe stretching is more of what we need to do in scholarship. 

On to Coomaraswamy. Last May when I went into the field with my driver guide Amara to walk as many tank bunds as we could, we came upon a peculiar tank that got me to thinking. Adjacent to the main tank was a kind of auxiliary body that fed into the spillway, a kind of mini-tank. One that accommodated flow in a special way. It reminded me of dynamic structures I've been building in the sand for many years. The structures take in water from waves that hit the shore. And they are built so that a directed flow of water leaves them. The directed flow is meant to last longer than the intake, kind of like a river. Simple proposition but one that requires a bit of intuitive engineering where I manipulate curves, depths, length, and elevations. Other than mine, which have provided me with endless entertainment, I've never seen these built on a beach before.

I started to wonder if I couldn't translate some aspect of tank hydraulics based on my sand structures. Again, it's a stretch. In fact it's literally a stretch. Tank bunds (dams) are generally shaped differently and the tanks usually have two spillways. Water flows primarily through sluices that are built into the dam, whereas my "dams" are designed to permit flow in but not out. Never mind. The question is general principles of hydraulics and how we can come to understand them in the context of shape and form in the tanks. 

So yesterday in my reading of Coomaraswamy I was struck to see image below. It's simply called a "vaka deka" or double curve. Coomaraswamy reports that it was the ideal shape that Sinhalese craftsman of all trades were taught to master. As the craftsman advanced he moved toward designing a more complex "katuru mala," which, in Coomaraswamy's illustration, can be imagined as a lake holding water with a single outlet--like my sand structure. 

Coomaraswamy reported on the vaka deka and katuru mala in his book on mediaeval Sinhalese art. He focused there on Kandyan art traditions which were practiced centuries after most village tanks in the Dry Zone of Sri Lanka were abandoned. So there is a reasonable chance that the design was not based on direct observations. But he stresses as well that none of the arts produced during that period were based on artists' observation of nature. The idealized shapes and lines they produced represented a long tradition of fairly rigidly practiced rendering, practical or symbolic, but not necessarily realistic. But the vaka deka is realistic. It represents a natural situation, whether flow or growth, that Coomaraswamy describes as "the curve of energy and growth; rhythmic and disciplined, but unsatisfied, ever striving towards an end not yet attained." Romantic words. But this project is a romance. 

Artistic traditions in folk societies are based on long-standing conceptions of nature. The tanks are an example of human built ecosystems, in which nature and humans worked together to harness water resources. So humans in rural Sri Lanka collaborated with nature in the building and design of tank ecosystems. The ecosystems were part of them and they were a part of the ecosystems. 

I doubt that the shape and form of the vaka deka and katuru malu are accidental. My research will pursue what truths I can derive from these iconographic forms, less symbols than templates. But then, the village tank has been the template for Sri Lankan civilization for thousands of years. 

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