I'm always writing about how things in this part of the world are not as they appear. Yet I think like most people, it's difficult to see beyond my own shortsighted insights when it comes to larger concepts in cultural landscape ecology. Irrigation tanks, which I'm here in Sri Lanka to study, are used to irrigate rice, right?
People who have written about tanks in Sri Lanka acknowledge that they have many purposes and I agree. They have been used traditionally for drinking water, bathing, wildlife refuges, fishing resources, lotus ponds, and the source of edible water plants. Tank silt has been used widely in the manufacture of tiles, pottery, and bricks. Thanks to their differential deposits of soil minerals (due to circulation of water in the tank and subsequent depositional patterns) tanks have also been used as a source of calcium carbonate and perhaps other minerals as well. In contemporary times we've come to understand that they improve the water table and ameliorate climate, things the ancients may have understood too, but in different parlance. Tanks may be misused. For example for washing tuktuks or tractors, both of which I've seen, unbelieving, with my own eyes. I've also seen tank beds misused for building, tropical fish aquaculture, and even grazing pigs.
One thing I've spent less time thinking about is the way tanks and tank bunds (dams) are seen universally as a nexus of beauty. It's strange that I've ignored it because I'm always curious about how people perceive their local environment. I know for example that tanks are widely used as a setting in movies or in the endless music videos you see on buses.They are a backdrop for lovers.
They are also a backdrop for power. In a controversial music video just released (and quickly withdrawn after sharp criticism) a tank bund is traversed by a white horse, its rider carrying the Sinhala flag, as god-kings look down from the clouds at the visage of President Sirisena. The video, which plays I think to a very low cultural and political denominator, was allegedly produced to commemorate and promote Sirisena's first year in office. What does it tell us about tanks?
It tells us something we already know, at least in part. Tanks are seen as wealth and by extension, as symbols of power. The so-named "Magul Pokuna" (marriage pond) tank that I saw the other day near Welikanda was part of a contemporary landscape of power. The tank, like the same-named village, was an outpost, a Sinhala settlement at the borderlands of Tamil Sri Lanka, a statement of hegemony. Might the ancient tanks have represented the same kind of claiming of the territory?
Let's consider a broad jungle landscape of roughly 2500-3000 years ago. It is inhabited by aboriginal peoples (the devilish "Yakas" who lord Buddha brought under control) who by the way have their own religious practices, settlements, and other cultural patterns. The "invaders" (pre-Buddhist people presumably from India) must make a home for themselves in this rich but inhospitable land. In pre-revolutionary America they built stockades. What if here in pre-Buddhist Sri Lanka they built tanks? A tank provides a more or less permanent clearing (like the lawns of old England) across which you can see your if your enemies try to encroach. You can even take refuge on boats in your artificial lake, water and food all around you, until your enemies give up and go away. A tank provides a reliable source of fish and plant food for a permanent settlement. You don't have to venture into the dangerous forest to find game (later you make vegetarianism part of your religion). And the tank, like the dagoba later, is emblematic of your inviolable ownership of this place. Did the tanks evolve to become sources of irrigation? Of course they did. But they have always symbolized the landscape of Sri Lanka, especially but not exclusively in the Dry Zone. Perhaps they began here as a symbol of ownership, hegemony, and power.