The Maduru Oya Marvel - And Roads Less Traveled [ Part 1 ]
Peeling back the layers of history, archaeologists spanning the years, have made sensational discoveries which have been immortalised in the collective human conscience. To set the scene for this article, I am compelled to venture to lands further afield - far away from resplendent Lanka - and cite a few examples where archaeological discoveries have set the human spirit aflame and caused a sensation around the world. These examples will resonate with the stunning discovery made by engineers and surveyors when the Maduru Oya scheme was first undertaken in Sri Lanka. One of the most famous was the discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamen who ruled Egypt from 1360 - 1350 BC. in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. On the point of giving up after a fruitless search and colossal expense, the persistence of two archaeologists, Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon finally paid off when in 1922 the tomb was discovered with Carter uttering the words which expressed his sentiments at that moment ....."My eyes have seen marvellous things....." So great was this discovery that they spent a decade emptying the tomb of more than 3000 objects many of which needed on-the-spot conservation. But there have been other discoveries lesser known but equally important. I spent a whole day exploring the Valley of the Kings and later visited the exhibits from the tomb of King Tutankhamen which covers practically the entire third floor of the Cairo museum. It is a visit I highly recommend to anyone travelling to that part of the world.
When the Egyptian civilisation had already declined, and when the Roman empire was lapsing into its long dark night, a civilization unknown to the west 6000 miles away from the heart of Rome was approaching its peak. By the fourth century AD the Maya had begun to build a chain of magnificient cities and temples throughout the rain forests of Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico connected by paved roads constructed by Mayan engineers. The decline of the Maya commenced in 925 AD after which these cities were lost and forgotten, wrapped in greenery, smothered by the rain forests. Then in the year 1839 an American lawyer and diplomat John Stephens, and an English artist Frederick Catherwood breached the jungle fastness and rediscovered the miracle of Maya civilization. On penetrating the jungle's thickness and discovering these cities Stephens said "I thought I was looking at a scene from another world...." I followed the trail of Stephens and Catherwood during two visits to these countries and have stood open-mouthed, gazing in awe at these colossal temples and buildings, noting all the while that the engineers of ancient Lanka were as competent and in some respects superior to their Mayan counterparts. The discoveries of Stephens and Catherwood sent ripples of excitement throughout the West.
The third example was the discovery of the tomb of Lord Pacal who ruled the Mayan city of Palenque in present day Mexico from 615 - 683 AD. In 1952, the noted Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz made one of the most significant discoveries in the entire history of Mayan archaeology. He and some workmen were working deep in the Pyramid which contained the Temple of Inscriptions for four long seasons, when on this particular day a small section of the floor partially collapsed. Shining a floodlight through the opening, Ruz peered inside and was convinced that somewhere deep in the bowels of the pyramid was the tomb of Lord Pacal. He and the workmen dug to a depth of 75 ft and after back breaking toil discovered a vaulted stairway which led to a room which contained a limestone slab with intricate carvings. Lifting the slab Ruz states what happened next when he realised the breath taking implications of his discovery " I was gazing at the death face and the corpse of Lord Pacal......." He found himself face to face with one of the most powerful rulers in Palenque's entire history, having discovered Lord Pacal'a tomb. Ruz was the first human being to enter the tomb after a period of 1269 years. The death mask of Lord Pacal is now in the National Museum of Anthropology and History in Mexico city, and well worth a visit.
I cited the above examples in an attempt to convey the deep emotion, and spine tingling excitement , when one is transported back to another world and another time, and the lives of the people of that period in some way reach out to touch ours. In the 1980's, engineers and surveyors working on the Maduru Oya scheme made an astonishing discovery which proved beyond a doubt that the engineers of ancient Lanka were among the best in the world at the time, if not THE best. A short note on the geography of the Maduru Oya delta is relevant at this point. The delta which begins south of Polonnaruwa ends in the district of Batticaloa. The total acreage of the delta is a litle over 120,000 acres. The Maduru Oya river bisects the delta but lack of water was always a problem to irrigate the entire area. The Government of the day decided to divert the waters of the Mahaweli from Kotmale ,Ulhitiya and Randenigala, across the Mahaweli basin to Maduru Oya by way of a cross basin diversion. Following this diversion and a dam built acros the Maduru Oya, sufficient water was generated for cultivation. And then came the sensational discovery.......
Detailed research was conducted to locate a site for the proposed new dam, after which the engineers went to undertake this task with the latest scientific equipment at their disposal. Finally, the firm hired for this project located what they thought was the most suitable site to commence building work on the dam.What they discovered was so astonishing that they were almost speechless, and it sent their senses reeling when they found that the ancient Sinhalese kings and engineers had constructed a dam at the identical spot to conserve the waters of the Maduru Oya. It seems that a psychic bridge had been built across the centuries between the ancient engineers and the engineers of the present day, and in a brief moment their lives were intertwined. And this dam was built thousands of years ago without theodolite (which is a surveyor's instrument used for measuring horizontal and vertical angles) and modern state of the art equipment. There is no reference to this dam in the Mahavamsa or the Culavamsa, and the experts surmised that the ancient Maduru Oya dam was built long before the Mahavamsa was written, going back about 2500 years. In proximity to the ancient dam was a reclining statue of the Buddha. The foreign engineers working on this project also witnessed this jaw dropping discovery and were at a loss for words. This once again confirms to me - in my humble opinion - that the ancient Sinhalese were geniuses who possessed the most advanced hydraulic civilisation in the world. I also believe that in engineering, hydrology, architecture, and landscape gardening, the superior knowledge system possessed by those experts has been lost to us forever. Sadly as I recall, this unique discovery merited very little attention, although there was a book written which referred to this ancient dam. Unfortunately, the title of the book and the name of its author escapes me. If there was a dam, and a statue of the Buddha, there has to be ruins of temples and other buildings in this area awaiting the archaeologists spade, perhaps in some future time.......
The part title of this article "And roads less travelled" refers to lesser known archaeological gems which are never featured in the glossy tourist brochures or publicity material. I shall highlight some of these sites in my next article.
Written by : Bernard VanCuylenburg