Management marvels of a hydraulic civilisation

Monday, 20 July 2015 00:02 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


We started an uncommon search on common sense last week, in looking into the presence of management in the east, well before the west repackaged it. Today’s focus is on our home soil. Highlights of a hydraulic civilisation in Sri Lanka will be discussed with management as the central focus. Let me refer to comprehensive research done by my good friend and a fellow engineering batch mate, Chandana Jayawardana, in this regard. 



Sri Lanka is well-known for its ancient water civilisation. The earliest reservoir referred to in Mahavamsa, the great chronicle of the history of island was the Jayavapi built in the reign of king Pandukabhaya during 377-307 B.C. The construction of larger-scale reservoirs initiated by the time of King Vasabha during 65-109 A.D. and by 500 A.D. involved very advanced hydraulic structures which would have required sound knowledge of key hydraulic principals pertaining to the rainfall, runoff and storage volumes. 

That trend continued till the reign of King Parakramabahu I (1153-1186 A.D.). This long development phase has established a widely spread mosaic system of reservoirs and canals, regulating the water flow. This flow was either extracted from natural stream or received from direct rainfall for agricultural and human utility purposes as well as a means of flood management and soil conservation system. 

Mendis (2002) referring to the functions of the ancient irrigation works notes, contrary to the much-known hydraulic engineering supremacy, that a well-established water and soil conservation ecosystem perspective was evident. Untitled-1


Ownership of the irrigation work

According to chronicle and inscriptional evidences, the ownership of ancient irrigation works has been vested with state, Buddhist monastic establishments, village institutions or with individuals. All minor and major canals and tanks built by the king were the property of the State and their income in the form of taxes on water and fish yield absorbed by the royal treasury. Most probably large irrigation works might be owned by the State considering the scale of labour and the material consumption for such work. 

Ven. Walpola Rahula (1993) notes that the monasteries owned property from about the second century B.C. through royal and private grants of land and irrigation works. The irrigation works so donated were small tanks but there is at least one recorded instance of a donation of a major canal namely the Alahara, to a monastery sometime after its construction. 

One of the inscriptions at Viharagala refers to the donation of Upaladonika reservoir by King Vasabha (67-111 A.D.) to the Ekadorika monastery. Two of the earliest inscriptions, those at Thonigala and Eriyawewa, refer to grants of reservoirs to monasteries by parumakas, the provincial rulers. Perera (1949) noted that from the time of King Lajjithissa (119-109 B.C.) onwards there are many references of grants both of reservoirs and canals to Sangha by individuals.

Since the village tank is an important ingredient of the dry zone settlements, tanks constructed with the communal labour of villagers, were owned by village institutions. Samanthapasadika refers to instances of the construction of reservoirs by villagers and to communally-owned village reservoirs.

Likewise, individuals also owned small reservoirs and canals. Siriweera [2004] identifies the term vapi-hamika found in the Brahmi inscriptions from the third century B.C. onwards denotes a ‘tank-owner’. The Thimbirivava inscription of the third century A.D. refers to a reservoir owned by a family, tumaha kula sataka. 

As mentioned earlier, the grants of reservoirs and canals to the Sangha by individuals because those works were owned by those individuals. The Kahambiliyavava inscription of Vikramabahu I (1111-1132 A.D) indicates that irrigation works owned by individuals continued to exist until the end of the period of the dry zone civilisation. 

From the above description, it is evident that irrigation works were owned by several institutions, depending on the utility of funds for those enterprises. This ownership gave the right to earn revenue from the reservoirs as well as from canals, basically through supply of water and fishery. 


Revenue generation from the irrigation works

Considering the massive material and labour resource input required for the construction as well as maintenance of irrigation works, there should be an adequate income generated from those enterprises. Further Codrington [1937] notes the responsibility of the State for infrastructure development, and some form of State taxation should also be associated in order to fund those endures. The evidences of such taxation methodology have also been noted by the scholars who investigated the contents of ancient inscriptions. 

Two terms have been exclusively used in inscriptions to denote the forms of revenue generated from irrigation work, namely dakapati and bojakapati. They have been used singularly or collectively depending on the context in which they were used. Slab inscriptions, such as Angunukola-vihara inscription, Molahitiyavelegala inscription and Galvewa inscription mention the term dakapati singularly.

There were several slab inscriptions highlighting the application of bojakapathi, such as Galkovila inscription of Bhathika Thissa [140-164 A.D.] and Ruvanvali dagaba inscription of Gajabahu [112-134 A.D.]. Some slab inscriptions mentioning both dakapati and bojakapati such as Nagirikanda rock inscription.

There was also a well-organised system of distribution of water to ensure and equal share for all cultivators during periods of scarcity. Codrington (1937) identifies three types of paddy fields categorised for the purpose of taxation from 12th century A.D. – utthe, meda and pesse, in decreasing order of the soil fertility.

As mentioned in the commentary Vissuddhimargasannaya, the farmer’s share of water was called diyamura and for this he had to pay a stipulated amount to the water supplier. In the early Anuradhapura period, this was called dakapati and in the late Anuradhapura period, diyabedum.

From the above discussion, it is evident that there were several economic transactions associated with the ownership of the irrigation work and usage of water. Owners of a single component of cascade could earn by supplying water or fish yield to the downstream users. In the same time he had to pay for water he received from upstream suppliers. 

Arumugam (1957) identifying the importance of small-scale village tanks notes that the village reservoir is the provider of all the material needs of village life, thus when the reservoir breaches, the village migrates to a different location. 

Panabokka and others (2002), analysing technical data of several cascades in detail, notes the different water spread areas reservoirs varying from more than 80 hectares to less than 10 hectares. Based on the above evidence, it could be assumed that a cascade was consisting of different scales of reservoirs. The ratio of total reservoir capacity to the command area is another parameter used to calculate the difference in the size of reservoirs. 

Thennakoon (1986), highlighting the functions of small reservoirs, notes apart from irrigating cultivation, they provided multiple uses including augmentation of ground water table in order to keep the domestic well water supply at a minimum level during the protracted dry season. Another function of some reservoirs was the sill tapping, which were known as kuluwewa, during the rainy season. 


Ecology and economy balance 

Based on the above discussion, it could be concluded that the ancient irrigation system in Sri Lanka possessed a sound economic footing, additional to the much-explored technical background. Interested parties might have invested in irrigation enterprise and sometimes diverted the returns of their investments to the maintenance and upliftment of Buddhist monasteries.

Thinking the massive numbers of monks resided in monasteries like Mahavihara, Abhayagiri, Chethiyagiri which is known as Mihintalaya today, etc., there should be a continuous fund flow for their susceptibility and the revenue from the reservoirs might have fulfilled that requirement. 

Returns on those investments were subjected to regulatory process. The regulating bodies might have used the water rates to decide the capacity of reservoirs and cannels. This was an essential feature in an irrigation system like the one prevailed in ancient Sri Lanka, in which many reservoirs and cannels were interconnected in the forms of cascades. 

The personal interests of the owners may not be aligned with the optimum operation of cascades. If individuals were allowed to construct irrigation structures as they wish, such strategy will adversely affect the sustainability of interconnected cascade. Such phenomenon could be prevented by manipulating water rates by the regulating bodies.


Way forward

The management marvels of “hydraulic Sri Lanka” tell us a clear message. Rather than being dependent on Western nations for knowledge and skills, a serious and focused approach should be there to unearth our indigenous “best practices”. Taking such best practices to the next generation by appropriately adapting to socio-technical needs is a must. 

The starting point perhaps is the appreciation of what we had, and the acknowledgement of what we have forgotten. Awakening towards an indigenous management outlook, naturally fitting to the local needs and also flexible to global needs, is the sure way forward. 

(Dr. Ajantha Dharmasiri is the Chairman and Director of the Board of Management of the Postgraduate Institute of Management (PIM). He also serves as an Adjunct Professor in the Division of Management and Entrepreneurship, Price College of Business, University of Oklahoma, USA.)