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Pre-Vijayan Agriculture in Sri Lanka

by Prof. T. W. Wikramanayake

(July 20, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) According to the Mahavamsa, when Vijaya and his followers arrived in Sri Lanka about 500 BC, they were met by the god Upulvan, in the guise of a mendicant, who informed them there was nothing to fear as the country had no humans, only yakkas. Vijaya later married Kuveni and lived with her for 10 to 15 years in Tambapanni, the north- western coast of Sri Lanka, between Mannar and Puttalam. His followers cultivated rice on the banks of livers flowing into the sea in that region, moved eastwards, along the rivers, and founded villages in various parts of the country. This account gives credit to Vijaya and his followers for having introduced agriculture to Sri Lanka.

But the story, as related in the Mahavamsa, is full of contradictions. The entire episode of Kuveni is omitted in the Dipavamsa, a chronicle written about 200 years before the Mahavamsa. Kuveni, a non-human, was spinning under a tree. After the slaughter of the leaders of a tribe of Yakkas, with the assistance of Kuveni, Vijaya and his chiefs donned the clothes the Yakka leaders had been wearing. Kuveni speaks of nagaras inhabited by her tribe. Sitisavattha and Lankanagara are mentioned. These "non-humans" grew cotton, spun it into thread and used a wheel. Kuveni herself appears to have been a fascinating lady whose ideas, tastes and language harmonized with the princely character in which she appeared to Vijaya, with innumerable ornaments, and made a curtained bed decked with a canopy, refinements inconceivable in an ordinary hunter/ gatherer population, leave alone a tribe of yakkas and demons. Spinning and weaving cotton and hence its cultivation as a regular crop was a well-known feature of the Harappan-Mohenjodaro civilization of the Indus Valley, two thousand years before Vijaya. In the Karnataka region of India, during the early Iron Age, cotton was grown, spun and woven, and was a sufficiently common commodity to have assumed, as part of its usefulness, the role of a assisting a woman potter in her activities.

The Legend of Vijaya, as related in the Mahavamsa, is not the only story we have for the peopling of Sri Lanka. Fa-Hsien, a Chinese Buddhist Monk walked from north China to India across the Gobi: desert, in 5th Century AD visiting Buddhist monasteries in several regions of north India, Afganistan, and Deccan and Sri Lanka. He was a Mahayanist and would have collected information about Sri Lanka from the monks in the Abhayagiri monastery. Their story is different from that in the Mahavamsa, written about 500 AD, by a monk of the Mahavihara sect.

"The country was not originally inhabited by human beings but only devils and dragons with whom merchants from neighbouring countries traded by barter.... And, from the merchants going backwards and forwards and some stopping there, the attractions of the place became widely known, and the people went thither in great numbers, so that it became a great nation."

Studies carried out during the past century permit us to write the story differently. Homo sapiens evolved in Africa and moved to all countries in the world. There is evidence that early hominids lived the Himalayan foothills about two million years ago and moved to peninsular India about 600,000 years ago. Pre-historic settlements existed in Sri Lanka 300,000 to 40,000 years ago. Homo sapiens would have walked to the southern-most tip of the peninsula that later separated from the land to become Sri Lanka. Even after the final separation, land bridges created whenever the sea level dropped, and crossing the Palk Strait by seacraft during the past 50,000 years, would have led to an unimpeded gene flow and complex patterns of miscegenation, between pre-historic peoples of South India and Sri Lanka. There is a remarkable resemblance between tools of the Mesolithic people of the Pamban coast of South India (which is directly opposite the Tambapanni Coast) and of Sri Lanka. In both coasts there was fishing for pearls and other marine products. The pearls and chanks collected in Sri Lanka were larger, and this would have brought the people of South India to Sri Lanka.

Towards the end of the second millennium BC new cultural elements (that included metal technology, village settlements and the beginnings of sedenterised village culture, use of the horse, new pottery types and new burial types and the Sanskrit language) spread from the north-west corner of India, southwards and eastwards, and reached South India and Sri Lanka. Trade along the east and the west coasts of the peninsula and South India promoted the spread of this Early Iron Age culture and also community movement from South India to Sri Lanka. Evidence points to the movement of people between the Pamban and Tambapanni Coasts leading to the rise of urbanization and the emergence of states.

Among the first settlements established before 800 BC by these immigrants were those along the Tambapanni Coast. They would have been occupied for decades. At Pomparippu, near the mouth of the Kala Oya, and in several sites within the Wilpattu wild life sanctuary have been unearthed burial sites very similar to the urn/cairn burial complexes unearthed in the Vaigi Plains in the land of the Pandyans (in South India). Pomparippu is the earliest and best preserved burial site, with an estimated 8000 burials of about 12000 persons. Those buried here would have been from large centres, probably Tambapanni and Uruwala.

Burial sites

Early Iron Age burial sites have also been unearthed in the Jaffna peninsula and islands between Jaffna and South India. Jaffna would have been populated by migrants crossing over directly to Jambukolapattana, a port on the northern coast of the Jaffna peninsula. Jaffna was called Nagadipa by South Indians. The Nagas were probably the migrants to Jaffna from the opposite coast. The Nagas were a tribe from north-east India who seem to have migrated to South India and mixed with the Pandyans, and later moved to Sri Lanka. Nagas were associated with water and fertility. In the Sanchi area in north-east India Naga sculptures were located on or close to ancient dams and reservoirs to ensure adequate rainfall and, in turn, agricultural success. These sculptures are anthropomorphic, with serpent coils up the back and a canopy of serpent heads above the Naga head. In Sri Lanka, too, Naga sculptures have been found by the side of tanks and reservoirs, only the coiled serpent with several serpent heads but no deity. Several names in early inscriptions have the word Naga and Naga appears in names used in present day.

Those settled in Tambapanni would have cultivated grain in river estuaries, cultivation being restricted to alluvial soils on either side of rivers flowing into the sea between Mannar and Puttalam. The soil on the rest of the coast is a heavily-drained whitish sand (the rogo soils), unfit for cereal food crop cultivation. As the population and, therefore, the demand for food increased the migrants would have moved eastwards along the rivers. In the interior they would have come across red and yellow latasols suitable for a variety of crops. Digging below the red/brown earth would have exposed ferruginous gravel. The reddening of the soil was probably due to the oxidation of red haematite in this gravel. Such gravel is found in the north-west and north-central provinces and in the Jaffna peninsula. The clayey formation of the brown earth as well as the red-brown earth contained limonite and haematite, oxides of iron. Iron was also available as nodular iron containing stones in the dry zone. In Mantai (near Mannar) and Kandarodi (in Jaffna) are several ancient sites with evidence of iron smelting. These early migrants not only introduced settled agriculture but also started industrial exploitation of mineral resources, probably for the extraction of copper (found with iron), a demand for which existed in the west and elsewhere, as ornaments, plates, for inscriptions and for mirrors. The proto-historic Iron Age in Sri Lanka and South India was manifested by extensive and sophisticated network of settlements linked by trade in manufactured copper and, iron and in marine products, with West Asia and beyond. The dawn of the Iron Age radically increased the carrying capacity of Sri Lanka, resulting in increased migration to the island around 1000 BC.

Archaeological findings indicate that by 800 BC Anuradhapura was an Early Iron Age town, about 10 hectares in extent, with evidence of rice cultivation and artificial irrigation systems. Excavations show an overlap of the Mesolithic phase with the Early Iron Age, pointing to a physical as well as a cultural fusion between the Hunter/Gatherer indigenous population with the iron-using migrants, the Pandyans and the Nagas. Many of the indigenous people would have joined the migrants and taken to agriculture. Those who did not, would have continued their hunting and gathering lifestyle in enclaves of jungle between village settlements.

The rainfall in the dry zone being confined to about four months in the year, most rivers did not have sufficient water throughout the year. In the initial stages, "slash and burn" or chena agriculture would have been prominent, the main crops being millets. Millets are cereals that do not belong to the wheat (Triticum), barley (Hordeum), oats (Avena), maize (Zea) or rice (Oryza) genera. The two millets (Eleusine corocana), a native of Africa introduced into India during the first millennium BC, and prosomillet or meneri (Panicum milliaceum) once widely distributed throughout the warmer parts of the world. Millets are widely cultivated in the Deccan and would have reached Sri Lanka with the early immigrants. They need little water, giving maximum energy for minimal energy expenditure. During the period 1500 to 500 BC crude tools enabled a rudimentary form of rain-fed cultivation. With refinement and improvement of iron technology, harder tools became available for felling the hard-wooded dry zone forest. Rudimentary ponds of more than 1.5 m depth could be excavated and larger ponds and tanks were constructed in small villages, marking the beginnings of organized settlements.

Studies by O. M. N. Madduma Bandara and by M. U. A. Tennakoon have resulted in the recognition of the cascade mode of occurrence of these SVT. Knowledge of these cascades have been enlarged and elaborated on by Christoper R. Panabokke. The multitude of small tanks are not randomly distributed but occur in a logical form of well-defined cascades situated in a well-defined individual small basin. A "cascade system" is usually made up of four to five individual small tanks, situated within a small mesobasin of six to ten square miles, the water used in a command area being captured by the next downstream reservoir and then put to use, and captured again in the lower down-stream reservoir. The water is thus "recycled" between reservoirs and fields, the system helping to surmount an irregularly distributed rainfall, the non-availability of large catchment areas and the difficulty of constructing large dams. The system was therefore eco-friendly. Within the nine river basins of Rajarata Panabokke describes 450 cascade systems containing about 4200 small tanks, both functioning and abandoned.

These irrigation techniques are indigenous, and not imported by Aryans. Sri Lanka had attained a facility unsurpassed by people of any other country. No country, from Egypt to China, appeared to have developed anything that was comparable to what the ancient irrigation works of Ceylon had to show. Hence, the conclusion that it could be indigenous and pre-Aryan in origin appears reasonable (Ananda Guruge, 1969).

With availability of water, irrigated rice cultivation became increasingly important, while swidden (Chena) cultivation of hill paddy (alvi) and millets continued in parallel, the balance between the two varying with rainfall and availablility of water and manpower.

Wetland rice

More extensive cultivation of wetland rice had to await the advance from SVT to larger tanks which were constructed by Devanampiya Tissa and later kings. The north-western Indians who arrived in the 5th century BC were more advanced than the earlier immigrants and brought with them their higher scientific and technological knowledge, viz the manufacture of steel, use of iron for reinforcement of building, preparation of alloys and amalgams and the extraction of metals. Despite this advance to wetland rice cultivation a substantial part of the food requirements of the village was met by seasonal rain-fed chena cultivation. The diet of the peasant remained kurakkan halapa and an ambula prepared from the leaves of the Taro (kiriala). Even in 1856 a British Civil Servant found that the general food of the people was not rice but kurakkan, the rice grown being exported to cities and other districts. Vijaya and his followers were probably traders from north-west India who had heard of the potential of the island. Parakrit inscriptions from Gedige excavations in Anuradhapura supports the hypothesis that a major Indo-Aryan impulse reached the island during the period 600 to 500 BC. After about 15 years Vijaya's followers sent a letter to the king of the Pandus asking for brides. The king sent his daughter and a hundred other maidens as well as craftsmen and a thousand families of the eighteen guilds. The language understood by Vijaya and the Pandus was probably Prakrit which was the language of commerce at the time, and the script was probably Brahmi.

Before we close the account of pre-Vijayan agriculture mention must be made of the discovery by Dr. R. Premathilake of the Post-Graduate Institute of Archaeological Research. He found evidence that Homo sapiens living around the Horton Plains had resorted to slash and burn techniques. This was indigenous and associated with grazing and systematic cereal cultivation (of oats and barley) in the late Pleistocene (between 175000 and 13000 years ago). An abrupt increase in aridity resulted in the decrease in agricultural activity, about 8000 years ago and which came to an end about 3000 years before the present. The pollen isolated by him was 525 cm below the surface (which sample of soil has been dated) but not at higher levels, and therefore could not be due to contamination from oats and barley cultivation attempted near and around the Horton Plains by the British during the second half of the 19th century.
- Sri Lanka Guardian

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