A call to revive traditional wisdom

Book facts: “Evolution of Technological Innovations in Ancient Sri Lanka” Editor: M. Asoka T. De Silva Reviewed by Rajitha Weerakoon.

“Evolution of Technological Innovations in Ancient Sri Lanka” is a scholarly exercise on a relatively unexplored field. It contains well researched scientific writings on traditional knowledge of selected disciplines and sectors of Ancient Sri Lanka. The objective of producing such a volume is to revive and revitalize traditional knowledge which once enriched Sri Lanka and utilize them appropriately in areas specifically identified through research.

The chief author and General Editor M. Asoka T. De Silva using scientific studies, observations, analyses and excerpts from books of eminent authorities on the relevant fields retraces footprints from the dim past and throws light on the handiwork crafted by ancient Sri Lankans during the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages. Chapters on the industrial production of high-carbon steel, the ingenious hydraulic technology and the magnificent Sthupa construction have been dealt in depth while “Fisheries in Ancient Sri Lanka” and “Traditional Boat and Ship Building,” are written on invitation by two scholars Dr. W.I. Siriweera, Emeritus Professor of Peradeniya University and Lieut. Cdr. (Retd.) Somasiri Devendra, SLN, subjects which have not been explored before.

Except for oral-tradition of knowledge-transfer, documentation of traditional knowledge has been lacking. A revival of interest in indigenous knowledge occurred in the last 30 years with “Vidyartha” – the non-formal Centre for Science, Technology and Social Change and later the Centre for Endogenous Research and Development (CERD) organising several seminars on subjects relevant to Traditional Knowledge.

Interest thus stirred and with vigorous discussions and debates taking place amongst scientists, technologists, sociologists and economists on relevant issues, the need was felt to incorporate traditional scientific and technological considerations in national planning development policies.
It was against such a scenario that the chief author, as the Honorary Secretary of CERD undertook to study traditional innovations and technologies, the result of which is this illuminating, hefty volume that indeed makes fascinating reading. Well illustrated with photographs and sketches it would besides be invaluable to researchers and students of history, sociology and related subjects.

The volume commences with the origins of Sri Lankans, studies of which had begun in the 20th century with the discovery of stone implements. The author has produced vital statements expressed on the subject from as far back as early 1900s with Britisher John Pole (1913) confirming in his “Ceylon Stone Implements” the existence of a primitive Stone Age human race. The book also mentions of the discovery of fossils of hippopotamus, the ridge-browed elephant and rhinoceros found when digging the gem pits in Ratnapura.

Such discoveries made of a Stone Age phase prompted archaeologists to initiate systematic excavations in selected sites. Pioneer studies were undertaken by P.E.P. Deraniyagala from the early 1930s and the author guides us along the excavation-trail while revealing the vital findings made by these pioneers.

A quotation from Ananda Coomaraswamy (1908) from his “Early Human Settlements in Sri Lanka” is used to view early settlements from another angle that “Ramayana and Skanda Purana give some evidence of the existence of more or less civilized people living in Sri Lanka prior to the arrival of Vijaya.”
The book includes an account of the magnificence of copper and bronze craft in ancient and medieval Sri Lanka stating that a bronze culture although it had a brief lifespan, had progressed independent of iron and steel work. The “Iron Age” is traced to around the 3rd millennium BC, preceding the Northern Temperate Zone and evidence is given to illustrate that it had played a dominant role in metal-working tradition of pre-history. Archaeological records reveal that the technology reached a fairly sophisticated level around the 9th century AD but disappeared by the 11th century AD probably due to incursions from South India.

On the topic of ancient hydraulic and eco conservation system, the author humbly admits “when it is placed in its proper context, it may still remain far short of the original design objectives of the great monarchs and the anonymous engineers.”R.L. Brohier (1965) is quoted liberally from his books on Ancient Hydraulic System. Brohier’s contention on the hydraulic marvels is “it never bettered in a contemporary age in any part of the then known world.”

Diverse views of the hydraulic system from eminent persons such as D.L.O. Mendis have been reproduced.

While only a few selected tanks from the vast number scattered are discussed such as the Giants’ Tank in the Mannar District “which is so ancient that Chronicles have not mentioned as to which King built it,” and “Hora-Bora” (Sorabora) Tank where the technology used by ancient engineers differed from the rest, the author makes the point that the Pali Chronicles had made little or no reference to the communal village tanks except for occasional mention of major irrigation works. Dating of Tanks therefore had been a problem. H. Parker (1909) is quoted from “Ancient Ceylon” where he had stated that he used dimensions of bricks used in masonry as these revealed the characteristic of a given era.
With technological innovations being the focus of the volume, the “Bisokotuwa”- an engineering marvel is given the fullest attention. Parker translated “Bisokotuwa” as “Queen Enclosure” and Brohier is quoted from his “Irrigation Work of the Pre-Christian Era” that the original builders over 2500 years ago can triumphantly claim to be the inventors of the modern “valve towers” which worked on the same principle.

On speculations made as to whether the Lankans learnt the hydraulic technology from the Aryan, Parker is quoted as having stated that such knowledge was neither required nor made use of in the districts inhabited by the Aryans in India. Whereas here, it is in the districts surrounding the early Capitals of Ceylon that the necessary conditions existed for the construction of such large works of this nature. So much so that “so far had renown of their excellence in this branch reached that in the 8th century, the King of Kashmir, Djay-pide sent to Ceylon for engineers.” (Tennet) Under “Structural and Technological Features of Sthupas,” technology applied in the construction of the selected Sthupas is extensively discussed. Sthupas were essentially religious as the corporal relics of the Buddha or His well known disciples were enshrined in them. Dr. Senarath Paranavitana (1946) however, is quoted as having said that the older canonical writings had referred to shrines designated by the term “caitya” during the lifetime of the Buddha.

So was the idea of Sthupas alien to Sri Lanka? Parker (1904) had stated that even if it was a borrowed idea from the Phoenicians, once adopted in the 3rd century BC, the construction and artistic genius of the Sinhala race proceeded in the following century to develop the design to an extent not found elsewhere. And the shape of the Sthupas besides is more complicated than a pyramid with much technological and management skills needed in the construction of larger Sthupas.

The units that make up the components of the Sthupas are discussed architecturally as well as in terms of its ritualistic significance with views expressed by Paranavitana, Parker and M.P. Ranaweera incorporated. Somasiri Devendra Lieut. Cdr. (Retd) SLN traces the origin of shipbuilding to a homegrown naval architectural idiom with its development studied in sequence from ancient times to the 20th century – from boats to seagoing craft.

The indigenous “oru” and the “paru” disappeared eventually as these could not evolve into seagoing cargo ships, marking the end of the log-based boat-culture. But the need for deep sea sailing paved the way for the construction of the log-based plank-hulled “Yathra dhoni” which is a low-tech approximation, an example shown as to of how an indigenous log-based folk tradition produced a plank-hulled cargo ship as a result of Sri Lankan boat builders being nudged to adapt foreign features without departing from the base-form. The writer however laments that all these forms from log to cargo ships came to a dead end with factory-built fibreglass versions replacing the indigenous craft following the tsunami.

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