Monday, January 25, 2016

An invented landscape in a far corner of Sri Lanka

We arrived in Dehiattkandia at around noon, about three hours after we left Batticaloa. We had had the brainstorm of an idea to catch a bus on the main road that stopped right at Kallady village where our guesthouse is located. That way we didn't have to walk all the way to Trinco Road. It had rained hard at night and this morning in between clouds the sun was hot and the air humid. It looked like the heavy rain could continue any moment. Why not stay close to home grab a ride? It worked. 

The bus sped us west toward Manampitiya and our only inconvenience is that we were dropped in the center of town instead of a km east where the southbound junction for Dehiattkandia was. We saw it go past in kind of a blur and by the time a minute or two had passed we were in Manampitiya center, which is not saying much. Manampitiya's not that impressive. 

Our 1 km walk uphill to the junction east of town was mostly rainy and with traffic, not the most pleasant. Tuktuk drivers kept stopping alongside and one offered to take us to Dehiattkandia, a  Rs 55 bus ride, for 2000 rupees. Manampitiya is close to Polonowurra, one of the top tourist destinations in Sri Lanka, and the closer you get to these kind of places the worse the pressure and tension between foreigners and locals. Or to put it more fairly, the closer you are to tourist centers the more likely you are to be targeted as a potential "customer."

We had chosen Dehiattkandia partly because it's far from the tourist zones but also because it's situated among a number of small tanks. I suspected that these small tanks might be associated with the Mahaveli irrigation and hydroelectric scheme, a massive project Sri Lanka initiated in the 1960s during its struggle for self-sufficiency. The Mahaveli project ended with a number of unintended (or perhaps intentional) consequences, chief among them increased disharmony between the Tamil people in this region and the Sinhalese who were encouraged to move to this area and did so in their numbers. This changed the ethnic demography of the region just east of the Mahaveli Ganga (River) to a majority Sinhalese area. This might be looked at one of two ways (or maybe both). The project was an advance in development and nation-building in post colonial Sri Lanka. Another interpretation is that the new Sinhalese communities (like Ampara, Dehiattkandia, Welikanda and many others) were formed as a bulwark against the Tamil-majority East. I think both truths are there. But the latter is more profound. It led in part to the thirty years' civil war. And it may never be resolved. 

I've seen with my own eyes how this has played out. And given the very negative consequences of this second alternative, which is ugly in many ways, I am nevertheless dead curious how this imposed Sinhalese landscape was imagined and carried out. Given my research interest in tank landscapes I'm especially drawn to the question of how irrigation systems were used to exert hegemony. Even more interesting to me is how they were designed and executed--how they became part of an imagined or re-imagined landscape, and that's what today's afternoon walk was about. 

The hourlong ride to Dehiattkandia from the Manampitiya junction put us in a different world. Gentle Sinhala music accompanied the swaying bus filled with well-fed mothers and young children. The undulating green landscape though not built up did not look particularly poor. We had left the frenetic, sometimes bone-poor east behind. 

Dehiattkandia town reminded me of irrigation-hydro towns I've seen elsewhere, for example in Australia or New Zealand. A bustling town center, a few administrative buildings, banks, traffic roundabouts, and most notably a wide divided road in the center of town. Much like other development towns I've seen, the irony of the planned-out traffic circles and divided roads is highlighted by the fact of very little traffic. Today in Dehiattkandia I saw a handful of private vehicles, if that many. And the roads just a few meters outside of the center were rutted, broken, littered, and in a significant state of disrepair. 

Dehittikandiya had a uniquely Sri Lankan feel, especially in and around the bus station, where at least 100 kids were loitering. Some older, some younger, most with nothing to do on a Saturday afternoon at the end of tuition classes. Those kids spilled into the otherwise empty streets, making the main road headed northeast out of town look more like a teenage pedestrian promenade than a highway. 

Another thing we noticed on the bus to Dehiattkandia and as well in the town was the preponderance of same-age people. We had seen this in Ampara too, where overall people seemed a bit younger. But here in Dehiattkandia there was again the feeling of an engineered community, a place people of a certain age had been encouraged to move during certain years, people who had since borne children or maybe grandchildren in a kind of uniform progression of ages as the years wore on. If young couples were encouraged to move to Dehiattkandia in the '60s and '70s the young people we saw today might have been their grandchildren. Certainly there is good business in weddings here. Our guesthouse banquet hall still had decorations from a wedding that had taken place just a few days before. Also, all five of the TV stations were playing Buddhist religious programming when we tuned in during the afternoon. 

Problematic Dehiattkandia. We decided to walk a km north of our guesthouse, which sits another 1 km north of the town center. At approximately the 2 km mark we came to a bund road to our left. Bund roads are typical enough for village tanks in Sri Lanka and here in Dehiattkandia, which was planned for typicality, the bund road is a must. This countryside was designed to look, sound, taste and smell like the "real thing." A Rajarata landscape comes to mind. With 30,000 small tanks in Sri Lanka, most of them ancient, and a great many of them in the North Central Province, the designers of this landscape had plenty of models to work on. 

Shortly after entering the bund road we came to an unusual sluice, separate from the bund and acting more as a controlled spillway, into which water flowed under the road  and then northbound in a neat canal. 

After this, a steep drop of more than one meter in the road and a wide spillway at this level, out of which no water was flowing. The tank itself seemed neither high nor low but covered with water hyacinths, not a good sign of tank health but rather a symptom of eutrophication. Agrochemicals are rife in Sri Lanka and this was a hint of their use here in this corner of the country. 

Most of the ancient tanks I've seen have one or two spillways. It would be interesting to learn more of how this modern tank was conceptualized with two spillway-type sluices, both independent of the bund, rather than the in-the-bund sluices that typically distribute water to the rice fields below. 

In this tank, as in the modern tank I saw near Giritale a few weeks ago, the escaping water was not used to directly irrigate the fields below. Rather, it was carried downstream elsewhere, to irrigate crops in some other spot as deemed necessary, part of a regional, not local scheme of water distribution and irrigation. 

Perhaps the designers of this modern system took their cue from ancient "cascade" systems in which a series of tanks flow slowly one into the other in a subtly demarcated, naturally-mediated, and low-impact flow through nearly level terrain. Maybe they were inspired by the miles-long Yoda Ela, the giant ancient canal through which water drops at the rate if about an inch per mile. But there is no cascade here and these canals are swiftly flowing. Instead a very widely implemented series of concretized, uniformly wide canals connects water with need and in some places, tank with tank. 

Some other cues were taken from ancient tanks here, put into practice and perhaps enforced legally. Specifically the kattakaduwa, a vegetated natural reserve just below the bund, was part of this tank design. Bizarrely, the naturally-occurring kattakaduwa area of ancient tanks filters water for distribution to the rice fields. But the cosmetic kattakaduwa here is part of a tank scenery, not a functional component of the landscape because water is leaving this tank in a different way. 

The bizarreness is increased on the far side of the bund road where another false sluice (just a spillway whose flow can be controlled) empties into another canal. 

We decided to follow the canal along a very scenic path. On one side were rice fields interspersed with groves of bananas. A Rajarata landscape transplanted here to the Mahaveli Valley. To our left a linear village, each homestead equipped with steps down to the water or its own concretized washing stone, ubiquitous symbols of Dry Zone tanks that are institutionalized here and included as part of the communal infrastructure. 

Also imported to these canal zones are the kinds of angles and curves usually found in Rajarata-style tanks (it's Sinhalese Rajarata where tank culture--Sri Lanka's "hydraulic civilization" reached its zenith and highest density of development. There are places there with on tank per square kilometer). In addition to angles and curves, the same kinds of slots and grooves that I observed in Rajarata have been concretized here. So where ancient tank flow might have been controlled by the placement of a plank of wood between slotted stones, here the design is recruited but I think not for control. That would likely be done upstream as deemed fit by central irrigation bureaus and their engineers. 

Amazingly, the junctures at which water flows here are carefully catalogued and labelled. This is a kind of echo of the epigraphy of ancient tanks, in which ancient or mediaeval Sinhalese script would tell the story of a tank's benefactor and other features of the tank's history. 

Overall this is a chilling scene of a landscape imagined elsewhere and brought to bear in a new place. Is it a "Sinhalese" landscape imposed on a non-Sinhalese place? In many respects yes. Yet I wonder who the designers were and who were the engineers, who painstakingly collected design artifacts from ancient tanks and brought them to bear here. How were these tank features understood and designed by modern engineers? Which policies and guidelines directed their work and where are these documented? 

What is fake and what is real? Is something imposed fifty years ago still a scar? Can we see anywhere else a large-scale imposition of one cultural landscape on another? Is this scene unique to Sri Lanka or are its particulars alone the unique part? 

All thoughts to ponder as we grabbed a banana leaf to cover our heads for the oncoming rain and sat out the worst of the downpour in a fish monger's roadside shed--his cutting stump well worn, the smell of fish from the selling table strong, and fish scales littering the earth floor where we took shelter.  

1 comment:

  1. Though I was borne in the country, I have not seen those places and tanks which highlight the kind of engenearing knowledge that sri lankan had in ancient time.