THE UNSUNG HEROES - Part I
When Wilhelm Geiger translated The Mahavamsa and The Culavamsa , he made a statement which adequately expresses my personal sentiments regarding the complexities of Sri Lanka's recorded history. Geiger remarked "Not what is said, but what is left unsaid is the besetting difficulty of Sinhalese history...." I can well understand his frustration, and within the limited space of this article will try to deal with many unanswered questions in Sri Lanka's long and glorious civilisation. Sadly, these questions will forever remain answered. The 'Unsung Heroes' I refer to are not the great kings which ruled this resplendent island, but the engineers, architects, master craftsmen, artists, builders, and the rest of the intelligentsia, whose masterpieces evoke the worlds admiration today. The chronicles credit various kings with many public works, specially the mighty irrigation schemes which bear ample testimony to the level of ancient Sri Lanka's hydraulic engineering skills.
The very design of these tanks as confirmed by engineers today, show that these ancient geniuses had an in-depth knowledge of hydraulic principles, and in the construction of these works, showed a deep knowledge of trigonometry. Sadly, there is no record anywhere of a single name of the engineers responsible for planning and executing these colossal projects. The Kalavewa tank built during the reign of King Dhatusena has an embankment 3.25 miles long, rising to a height of 40ft. By means of a canal, the waters of the Kalavewa augmented the water supply in the reservoirs at Anuradhapura. This canal known as the 'Jayaganga' is 50 miles long and is an amazing feat of hydraulic engineering because the gradient in the first 17 miles in its length was a mere 6 inches to a mile ! Who was the engineering genius responsible ? His name was never recorded for posterity and he remains one of the many unsung heroes.
There is another example - The Parakrama Samudra (Sea of Parakrama) in Polonnaruwa. Constructed during the reign of the great King Parakramabahu the 1st, the 40 ft. embankment of this tank is 8 1/2 (eight and a half) miles long, and the stone masonry involved contains stone blocks weighing 10 1/2 tons ! (ten and a half). Again I pose the question, who was the master engineer who initiated this gigantic project ? This genius whose skill amazes modern engineers today is another unsung hero because his name has never been recorded. I have asked myself the same question whenever I gazed across the waters of the Minneriya tank which was constructed during the reign of King Mahasena.
Work on a total of 16 tanks commenced during his reign from 274 - 301 AD although many were completed long after his reign, and again the haunting question - Where did the ancient engineers get their knowledge of complex irrigation and hydraulic technology ? Who were these geniuses ? We shall never know. Nor were their talents confined to Lanka's shores. In Kashmir there is an ancient historical record called "The Rajatharangani". It is recorded in this document that in the 8th century, the rulers of Kashmir sought the help of Sinhalese engineers to design and and build reservoirs in their kingdom. Another tribute to the technical expertise of the ancient Sinhalese.
Written by : Bernard VanCuylenberg