Colombo Telegraph

As I Stand By The “Wewa”

By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

Sinhalese civilisation is nothing without the wewa. It was at once a repository of life and the foundation on which was built a great many marvels of engineering. And yet, from the time of Vijaya’s arrival until the flowering of the Anuradhapura Kingdom, our rulers were content in building tanks to conserve the rainfall the villages received.

The “flowering” as such of Anuradhapura begins with the reign of Vasabha (AD 67-111), under whom a scheme encompassing 12 reservoirs and 12 canals facilitated the diversion (and not merely conservation) of water from the wewa, paving the path for large-scale irrigation works which became the cornerstone of our way of life.

I refer to this period as a one of a flowering, or a gradual opening up of a new era, because the first seven centuries of the Anuradhapura Kingdom, until Dhatusena’s reign (AD 455-473), consolidated gains in the economic and cultural spheres. From Dhatusena’s reign in the fifth century till the seventh and eighth centuries, according to Professor K. M. de Silva, the kingdom matured. There was political instability but that was limited to the occasional entry of Tamil mercenaries. (Not until Raja Raja Chola I captured power in Anuradhapura and with it two-thirds of the island in the eight century did those invasions become pivotal to the trajectory of our civilisation.) It is in the early period of the Anuradhapura Kingdom, then, that the wewa and tank became identifiers of our civilisation.

Anuradhapura was the first real base of power of the Sinhalese. But even in its most formative years, it was prone to dynastic conflicts (between the Lambakannas and the Moriyas) as well as sprouts of local patriotism across the island. Unifying the country was, given this, “more an aspiration than a reality”, particularly since there was no real army with which such instability could be combated (apart from a small force which had among its ranks mercenaries from South India).

These were obvious disadvantages, and they would dent the Kingdom. But it is to the credit of the Sinhalese that, despite the odds against them, they were able to construct a vast network of reservoirs, tanks, and canals buttressed by a device from the third century BC: the “bisokotuwa”, the inventors of which still haven’t been identified by scholars. This gap in our history, or the inability to source the foundation on which our hydraulic civilisation rests, no doubt led Western theorists to generalise our history rather erroneously. Among them, the Marxists.

Both Marx and Engels wrote copiously on the Asiatic Mode of Production, which remains to this day a seminal part of Marxist literature. The APM, as it’s referred to casually today, was for Marxist scholars very different to its European counterpart in that it depended for its perpetuation a rift between a powerful State and a society of vassals. The State exerted a monopoly over land and with it an unparalleled level of control over irrigation. Irrigation, therefore, was the most important determinant of such societies, which in later years were to be categorised as “hydraulic empires” and repositories of “Oriental despotism”. The writings of Karl Wittfogel are of particular interest here, since he coined if not popularised those two terms in his major work, “Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power” (first published in 1957).

Wittfogel lists down certain prerequisites to his theory of the relationship between irrigation and despotism in Asiatic societies. In particular, full aridity, hydraulic enterprises led by the State (a “hydraulic bureaucracy”), and “staticity”. He does not, curiously, mention Sri Lanka, which is just as well, since Sri Lanka and Burma were home to irrigation systems which rebelled against his theoretical framework.

And here’s why. Sri Lanka was never fully arid (it was dependent on two seasons, alternating between rainfall and aridity). Its irrigation and hydraulic schemes were, while built from the centre, never really retained by it (the tanks, once completed, would sometimes be ceded to a private party, if not “gifted” to a monastery). Most importantly, it was never “static”, in the sense that except for the last few centuries of the Anuradhapura Kingdom (when construction of tanks and reservoirs came to a standstill owing to diminishing trade), it continued to evolve, and sporadically so.

The truth is that the Marxists, like the Orientalists after them, attempted, without much success, to generalise the culture and mode of production in societies very different to theirs. It cannot be said that Marxists harboured a bias against Asiatic civilisations, but many of them were sceptical of the potential of those civilisations to grow out of their supposedly “arrested” stage of historical development. They consequently tended to view the “hydraulic empire” by which countries like Sri Lanka prospered as evidence of feudal totalitarianism, of a powerful State which wielded absolute power against its own subjects. When, of course, the reality was very different.

The Oriental despotism model assumed that once a civilisation was determined by those who had a monopoly over access to water, it would regress to if not remain in stasis. According to this view, land ownership was the preserve of the State.

In Sri Lanka, this was not the case. It has already been pointed out that the irrigation works of the Anuradhapura Era did not always revert to the State once they were completed. (To give just one example, it is said that after the completion of the Kala Wewa Dhatusena ceded half its income to his brother.) But that is not all. In actual fact, there was never really a feudal system in Sri Lanka. While the principles of freehold tenure did not make inroads until the advent of the British, there are records which prove that a regime of private property was in place in Anuradhapura, which went hand in hand with the maturing of a hydraulic civilisation. Inscriptions from the ninth century AD, for instance, describe a kind of tenure called “pamunu”, which roughly correspond to the modern system of “heritable right in perpetuity”. After the ninth century, this gave way to the “divel” system, which effectively empowered a manorial class dependent on the patronage of the king. It was a definitive precursor to the “rajakariya” system, the closest to feudalism that Sinhalese civilisation came to.

And yet, even here, there was never really the kind of feudal aristocracy that was spreading itself out around the time in much of Europe. The prerequisites to such an aristocracy were simply not in place here. On the other hand, scholars like Bryce Ryan contend that the classes of land tenure here did correspond to the feudal regime which was rampant in Medieval Europe. Whatever the conclusion then, it cannot be held that the intricate system of tanks and reservoirs our kings pioneered was not based on land tenure, however different it may have been to its Western counterpart. 

After the British annexed Kandy, the authorities, barring governors like Maitland and North who tried to continue the irrigation works (but failed), professed ignorance of and indifference towards agriculture. That was only to be expected, because having abolished the rajakariya system in 1832 and instituted minor courts in 1843, they had disturbed the foundation on which the agricultural life of this country had subsisted.

The ancient Sinhalese devised a legal system which, while largely oral, dispensed justice in a less bureaucratic manner than the British did. At the lower end of the hierarchy were the gamsabhawas, which was based on unity among the community, and from which one could resort to the ratasabhawa, state officials, and monarch. One characteristic of this hierarchy was that we never separated our legal system from our way of life, and we never secularised it as the British did. Owing to this, the irrigation works which nourished us were, barring the occasional period of neglect, kept alive.

So once the gamsabhawas were abolished through the establishment of minor courts, those works began to collapse. And why? Because the gamsabhawa centred on the vel vidane, who while a minor official had the ability to marshal village labour towards the construction and repair of tanks and reservoirs. When the community was forcibly removed, with it went that official and the ability to marshal that labour.

Having noted the destruction they had facilitated through these minor courts, Henry Ward (Governor from 1855 to 1860) thus endeavoured with John Bailey (soon to be his own son-in-law) to revive the gamsabhawa by enacting the controversial Paddy Lands Irrigation Ordinance No 9 in 1855. But while commendable, the Ordinance was short-lived. Certainly, it achieved what it set out to achieve in terms of the amount of land cultivated, gained adequate returns, empowered communities, and was extended for another five years with the enactment of the Paddy Lands Irrigation Ordinance No 9 of 1861. And yet, despite this, Ward’s successor Charles MacCarthy discontinued the grants-in-aid that had hitherto been extended to the project.

The truth was that despite Ward’s enthusiasm, the motives of the colonial authorities were different and vastly so. Administrators were never interested in agricultural life. They were more concerned with setting up a plantation sector, through which they could squeeze profits more easily back to the centre of the Empire. With the British, as was expected, Sinhalese civilisation was hence doomed to dry up.

*Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at

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