Friday, January 8, 2016

Fooled by a perfect tank: design triumph or cheap imitation?

Tucked well into the countryside about 3 km from our guesthouse, my knowledgable, considerate driver Susil drove me to Phambalawewa, a village tank suggested to us by my landlady. Once we were on the bund road the characteristic feeling of elation took hold and I asked Susil to meet me on the other side. 

A beauty of a village tank, lovely (though lotus-less) sheet of water shaped like a dagoba, forest all around, a distinct forest reserve just below a perfectly curving bund. What more could I ask for? I was fooled into thinking this was an ancient tank. 

The clues came later in 20-20 hindsight. The lovely allee of same-aged kumbuk trees, planted equidistant from one another just inside the bund, as prescribed by a well-informed irrigation engineer, someone who came to the design process with more than book learning. Probably with lots of first-hand knowledge through field work or life experience. Kumbuk belongs. 

Then there was the single sluice where usually there are at least two or three. The sluice well-protected inside a locked gate, about 2/3 across the tank-not at the usual halfway mark. The drainage pattern also might have provided a clue. This sluice poured abundant water into a channel that turned left and carried the water off to unseen fields. The rice fields I could see took up less space than I would have expected from a tank this size, which I later learned irrigates some 2000 acres of paddy. 

The perfectly curving bund led to a well-designed spillway with a delightful pedestrian bridge along the tank side. What wonderful foresight the ancients had, I thought, designing a walkway for times when the road would be impassible with high water. The lovely reeds at this shallow end of the tank lent an air of tranquility along what had to have been, I assumed, a stone structure that was copied faithfully by contemporary engineers. 

As I wandered behind the kade to catch a picture of an unusual Ganesh, Susil had a word with an older gent sitting in the shade on a chair. He told Susil the tank was built during the time of C. P. deSilva, the Minister of Lands and Irrigation, as well as other related offices, from 1956-1970. Possibly this tank was developed part of a nationwide irrigation scheme connected to the harnessing of the Mahaveli River for electricity and increased rice production. It certainly wasn't ancient!   

I was fooled by what looked to be a "perfect" tank which was, in retrospect the product of contemporary design mimicking an ancient irrigation template. Immediately I wondered how this tank stood up to neglect and silting compared with the 30,000 ancient tanks dotting the island, and I considered this particular body of water in the context of our national projects in the USA. Did the engineers who designed this tank go deeper than just the "look" of an ancient tank? Was this a design triumph (as ancient village tanks are) or just a cheap imitation?

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