Ruined history


We Sri Lankans love gloating about our glorious ancient history. The traditional Victorian minded thing to do is to rub in the notion that while our colonial masters were “running around in animal skins”, our ancestors were living the refined life in a technologically advanced Hydraulic civilisation. Naturally it is a history laced with blood and gore just like everybody else’s. However the neighbours (particularly the Rajputs and the Moguls) have out shone us in that department which is ok by me.

At first glance, it looks like there is nothing physical left of that history outside an impressive and still operational irritation irrigation system which we secretly know looks dull and unglamorous. Ancient Sri Lankans were a very pragmatic bunch who were actively interested in avoiding starvation. They never intended to leave something for hard currency tourists to point their Nikons at. They lived the best they could and left something to ensure future generations won’t starve as well. I don’t think we can match that.

Of course they did the impressive building project thing with the stupas, monasteries, and left us a serious load of stunning art. Yet you could hardly call those things decadent personal indulgences. Budget busting grandiose splashes like Persepolis, Versailles or the Taj (which was not cheap) was not they’re thing. King Kashyapa’s pad at Sigirya is the closest we get and even that was recycled into a monastery.

Overall, Sri Lanka’s rulers have been a comparatively low key bunch who lived in tastefully human proportioned palaces. Even when their backs we against the wall (such as in Dambadeniya), they cared about the plumbing and standardised water pipes. Some might grumble that the Kings of the last 30 years have not inherited those frugal tastes. The only consolation I can offer is that we haven’t been cursed with a Mobutu Sese Seko.

And I won’t say “yet”, yet.

11 comments

  1. good post…incidentally the operational “irritation” system you are talking about is this the political system we have – if so I wouldn’t say it was dull and unglamorous – far from it…if you meant the irrigation system – then we do need to tart it up in and put in a museum and shout about it..

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    • Arg! me an my typos. Seems I’m getting dimmer by the minute (long after I thought the lights had gone out). Thank you for spotting that one!😀 Yes I did mean irrigation🙂

      Speaking of museums, have you been to the one in Polonarauwa?

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  2. I’ve always wondered why many of our “patriots” today talk so loudly of our ancestors’ achievements, without really having much of their own to talk about.

    May be the best way towards having a legacy would be concentrating on the important things – like plumbing.

    Thanks for the link to Wikipedia – it’s the first time I came across the term Kleptocracy.🙂

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    • Quite right – they don’t have any ideas just talk. The soft focus golden past is seen as the template for the future (without the messy details like plumbing of course)

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  3. I think the one reason we didn’t build those humungous buildings, because we didn’t had access to foreign slave labor like Greeks or Romans. If we had, we may. Taj and buildings like that; they are relatively new and funded using wealth extracted from their subjects.

    What I most fascinate about our complex and large irrigation system is the coordination it required to operate in that scale, close and open gates at correct time without conflict, keep everything running smooth… That required lot of good things, such as communication network and most of all discipline, which we do not have anymore. (Look at our railway, another system that required but do not have same level of coordination and discipline). I think we lost all of those with Anuradhapura era.

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  4. Colombo’s drainage system, which floods everytime it rains a bit, comes to mind… our ancestors would’ve jumped into their lakes and commited suicide had they seen what we would go on to do to their splendid creations, such as Jaya Ganga, which was ruined by the Mahaweli Project…

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    • *ummm the correct term is ‘Yoda Ela’ I think…

      also, let it not be forgotten that we went to war over an anicut once!😉

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  5. We talks too much about our ancestors..and their achivements. Time we think about the present and of course the future.

    Sometimes i have seen even older generation always refer that they had a better time when they were young..

    I do not believe all these talks. i think we are in a better time or as good (or bad) as they were. I think the present generation has the potential to surpass all our ancestors..

    Just wait and see…

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  6. Hmm an interesting discussion. I have to admit I agree with Sam’s comment about the need for a sense of collective self discipline to keep common infrastructure going. You can’t maintain such things through totalitarian rule.

    Kirigalpoththa’s view offers hope though Chavie’s offers a grim slice of “reality”.

    Personally I think the future is what we and those who come after us make it. Yes yes an easy cop out statement but I’m no soothsayer or astrologer🙂

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  7. Great perspective on our history. I enjoyed reading that. Many thanks.

    The concept of tank and temple seem to be rather prominent. Balance of the physical and spiritual needs.

    You are right, our kings have been a low key bunch. I quite like that. Their idea of the ruler had been someone who serves the people , thus the emphasis on the tanks and temples vs the palace ?

    Thought provoking.

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  8. Anne: Glad you liked the post😀 In a sense the kings of the time were very much at a dead end to perform of die. Failure to deliver the goods meant getting killed on the battle field of by an assassin. Very few had the chance to make it to an exile – and those who did took it as a chance to come fighting back.

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