An island built on water

World Water Day falls on Thursday
Once known as a “hydraulic civilisation” Sri Lanka can draw from its roots to help conserve this vital resource

There can be few countries that have a more intimate relationship with water than Sri Lanka. Prof. J.B. Disanayaka dubbed the island a “hydraulic civilisation”. Indeed, its ancient heritage of tanks, channels and irrigation systems is unmatched anywhere in South Asia. Water flows through Sinhalese and Tamil culture as a purifying and fertile force, washing away dirt, grime and sin and giving life to the earth.

What makes this relationship extraordinary is that 70 percent of the country is actually semi-arid. The cultural reverence for water is in part, therefore, a response to its scarcity. Its very preciousness has elevated it to become a central element of our cultural, spiritual and physical lives.

It was King Parakramabahu who in the 12th Century remarked that not a drop of water should drain to the sea without being put to productive use. And he put his money where is his mouth was by bankrolling some of the most extensive water management systems ever seen at that time. The ambitious tanks and water systems he commissioned are still visible today and cannot fail to impress visitors. Parakramabahu laid the foundations of modern Sri Lanka’s food security, allowing the island culture to develop into the one of the most sophisticated in the region. Little wonder that Sri Lankans began to revere water as the key resource underpinning every aspect of their lives.

Water was vital for crops – especially rice. But its role in island ritual went far beyond its mere utility. Ritual cleansing with water is an integral part of both Buddhist and Hindu religious practice across South Asia. Pilgrims visiting major Buddhist sites in Sri Lanka, for instance, almost always bathe before entering holy places. Water is involved in many religious ceremonies as well.

The feet of Buddhist statues, for instance, are washed on certain occasions to invoke His blessings for rain. Monks also have many rituals associated with or involving water. When chanting pirith, for example, groups of monks may hold a sacred thread originating from a pot of holy water. The Sacred Tooth Relic, has long been associated with water and rainfall. On Wednesdays there is a symbolic bathing of the Sacred Relic with a herbal preparation made from scented water and flagrant flowers, called Nanumura Mangallaya. This holy water is believed to contain healing powers and is distributed among those present.

Hindus also have a profound relationship with water. Ritual ablutions also accompany many Hindu ceremonies. At Hindu weddings water is poured on the hands of the couple to bless them. This not only symbolises the binding together of two lives, but is believed to promote fertility and help bless the couple with children.

This reverence for water is not apparent in every culture. When the first Europeans ventured into Asia, what set them apart in the eyes of many Asians, aside from their extraordinary appearance, was their reluctance to wash. Thankfully the healthy benefis of washing water are now universal. All Sri Lankans make the most of the precious supplies this island enjoys.

Given this long history of water permeating through the culture it is curious that modern Sri Lanka is now beginning to experience some of the water problems encountered by more developed countries. Water courses are used as dumping grounds for urban garbage. In the dry zone half of all tanks are either abandoned or in disrepair. Modern Sri Lankans seem to be becoming increasingly disconnected from ancient water traditions.

In the arts, however, there are signs that a new sensibility is emerging. The prominent place that water plays in Sri Lankan culture has greatly influenced its art. Images of water adorn temples across the island, including the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy. This fascination has endured to the present day. Geoffrey Bawa, the country’s most famed architect incorporated water features into many of his buildings.

His most successful designs make spectacular use of waterside settings. The reflective power of water and its cool restlessness lend an almost irresistible allure to these structures. A classic example is the Seema Malaka temple on an island in Beira Lake in Colombo. Its lakeside position transforms the building from being merely remarkable to a shimmering vision of serene Buddha statues floating on a watery mirror.

Other modern artists too have been inspired by the association that this island has with water. Choreographer Kapila Palihawadana has created a contemporary dance spectacular themed around water. This will be staged in Viharamahdevei Park March 23-24, day after World Water Day on March 22. The event is part of a new initiative developed by the Colombo-based International Water Management Institute to increase public awareness of water issues in Sri Lanka.

The new campaign, dubbed Ripples on Water ( is the first time that art and science has been brought together in this way. The aim is to spark a renaissance in Sri Lanka’s water management. Drawing on such rich heritage, it is an ambition worth supporting.

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