THE MADURU OYA MARVEL - AND ROADS LESS TRAVELLED [ Part III ]
I read a story about a student asking his teacher, a sculptor whose fame was renowned throughout the land, a question which undoubtedly was on the minds of many students of this difficult art. "Please tell me Sir" he said, "How do you make such beautiful idols from stone ?" To which the teacher replied " Idols and images are already hidden within. All I do is remove the unwanted stone". It seems that this sculptor was also a philosopher. In reality, it is a certainity that this question may have been asked by hundreds of students down the ages when sculptors in ancient Lanka created masterpieces a thousand years before the flowering of the Italian renaissance. To set the scene for the crux of this article I have to wind the clock further back in time to the 6th century BC - a period which gave the world some of the greatest names in history which resonate to the present day. It was the century in which King Nebuchadnezzar ruled the Babylonian empire from 562 - 605 BC. and in which the Greek mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras formulated the "Pythagoras theory". The Persian empire was founded by Cyrus the Great. Perhaps the shining light of this era was the birth of Siddharta Gautama the Buddha in 563 BC.
It was also the century where a resplendent island on distant shores kissed by golden sunshine and endowed in abundance with the blessings and bounties of nature, was taking its place on the world's stage in engineering, hydrology, the arts, building techniques, mathematics and every other field of endeavour conceivable. Because according to archaeologists, the ancient sluice discovered at Maduru Oya which was discovered in 1981 can be dated back to the sixth century BC. At least the upper sluice which is 30 ft.high and 30 ft. wide with a length of 220 ft. dates back to this period. The lower sluice is believed to be older than that ! Time, measured by the brevity of human life seems to lose its common perspectives before this marvel of hydraulic engineering which vividly recalls the splendour of a civilisation whose achievements reached stellar heights even before their history was committed to writing. In view of this find, further discoveries may open the door to a whole new period of Lanka's history which may be much longer than has been credited. The Maduru Oya marvel is further proof of the incredible intellectual achievements of the ancient Lankan engineers.
THE WATER WORLD OF KING PARAKRAMABAHU
King Parakramabahu who ruled from the medieval capital of Polonnaruwa from 1153 - 1186 AD. was one of the greatest and most exulted kings that ever sat on a royal throne. Better known as "The Great" his achievements cannot be detailed here in the limited space of an article. But his giant programme of reclamation and development is one that is often overlooked, because the giant Parakrama Samudra (Sea of Parakrama) takes prominence. This programme was not limited to Polonnaruwa and its environs, but extended islandwide. The existing irrigation tanks and reservoirs which suffered considerable damage during previous invasions from South India were first repaired. Then came his crowning glory - The Parakrama Samudra which opened up thousands of acres for irrigation. This restoration and reclamation programme was phenomenal by any standards, and has never been equalled. The records state that 1400 tanks were restored, and a further thousand enlarged. 3,621 canals were repaired and 34 new canals built. A map of the country during his reign would have showed an island with a network of tanks and reservoirs, linked by a delicate and ingenious canal system, far in advance of the irrigation systems of North India and Burma at the time.
In historical terms I can only think of one canal in the ancient world which is on par with King Parakramabahus sterling achievement , and that is the Grand Canal waterway in China which is a shipping canal still in use. It is an engineering masterpiece which I saw during my travels in China. Built in three stages between 485 BC - 235 AD. it reaches a length of 1780 kilometres. (1107 miles). The first major British canal was the Manchester - Bridgewater canal built between 1761 and 1766. But the canal network of King Parakramabahu was a spider web of aquatic wonder. It would not be an overstatement to say that in medieval Polonnaruwa, the economic development and the island's prosperity were defined by one word - water ! Just for the record, the wall which he extended to protect the medieval capital of Polonnaruwa was 84 miles in length. Today it would easily protect modern London ! The original wall was built by King Vijayabahu 1st in 1073 AD when he transferred the capital from Anuradhapura.
The engineers of King Dhatusena had tremendous foresight, and what they constructed was built to last. After the Kalawewa was built, they made a canal to carry the waters of this mighty tank to augment the supply of the reservoirs in Anuradhapura. The canal was called "The Jayaganga" which was fifty miles in length. It was, and is an amazing technological feat because the gradient in the first seventeen miles of this canal is a mere six inches to a mile! There are numerous historical sites - many unknown and unclassified - which are some of the greatest of archaeological treasures, crucial to an understanding of the past. The artists, sculptors, architects and engineers who executed these works sometimes relied on their own creative vision, and today we revel in the serenity and grandeur of their labour.
"A SECOND WORLD"
King Bhatikabhaya ruled the island from 38 - 66 AD. A world away in the heart of Rome, the Emperor Claudius Caesar was head of the mighty Roman Empire. East is East and West is West and the twain did meet because during his reign King Bhatikabhaya despatched a diplomatic mission headed by an Ambassador and three diplomats to the court of the Emperor Claudius Caesar in the year 42 AD. The Romans were very impressed by their visitors from a distant land and in his description of ancient Lanka, the distinguished historian Pliny the Elder writing about the island of Taprobane stated "The island of Taprobane is known as a second world......." Pliny did not meet the Sinhala diplomats but obtained information about them from his contacts at the Imperial court who had met these officials. Claudius Caesar is best remembered in Roman annals for his invasion of Britain in 43 AD, and it is very probable that the diplomats from Lanka would have had first hand knowledge of the planned invasion of Britain which was one of Emperor Claudius Caesar's greatest foreign policy triumphs. A few years after the Ambassador and the mission returned to Lanka, Pliny the Elder met an untimely death in the eruption of Mt.Vesuvius in 79 AD. The passage of time has not dimmed the memory of these employees of King Bhatikabhaya's Foreign Service, though their names are not recorded in the Mahavamsa. And today we are the poorer for it because there are a myriad questions which will never be answered..
The roads less travelled and roads that are travelled often in a historical context, the stunning archaeological sites and the anticipation of more sites awaiting the archaeologist's spade, the memory of a time when ancient Lanka was a developed nation on the world's stage.....all these give us a tantalising insight into the splendour that was ancient Sri Lanka.
[ This concludes the Maduru Oya trilogy ]
Written by : Bernard VanCuylenburg