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 Post subject: Discovering Ceylon by R.L. Brohier
 Post Posted: Wed Sep 27, 2006 2:43 am 
Discovering Ceylon with Theodolite and Tape

By: S. Pathiravitana
@ WS / 24Sep2006


On reading R.L. Brohier's Discovering Ceylon I discovered not only Ceylon but also Brohier. What a remarkable man! A surveyor by profession, an ethnologist by instinct, historian, sociologist, antiquarian and above all he was a humanitarian as well as a great lover of Ceylon. His book published at a time when our Constitution was, so to say, shifting gears and moving into Sri Lanka. But Ceylon, as Dr. Paranavitana has pointed out in the Concise History of Ceylon, is still a derivation from the original name Sihala (Salike in Ptolemy's map) and that Lanka "...the Lanka of the Ramayana was held by learned men in India to have been a place different from Ceylon."

Brohier got to know his country when camping out in the jungles and living close to people who were the heirs, though unknown to them, of a once great civilisation that was now lying around them in ruins. He felt that they were the descendants of those who helped to build and live close to those mighty irrigation schemes that amazed the visitors from abroad. "The stupendous ruins of the reservoirs," said the much-travelled Sir Emerson Tennent after one of his visits, "are the proudest monuments which remain of the former greatness of the country…Excepting the exaggerated dimensions of Lake Moeris in Central Egypt and the mysterious basin of Al Aram…no similar constructions formed by any race, whether ancient or modern, exceed in colossal magnitude the stupendous tanks of Ceylon.

"The reservoir of Kohrud in Ispahan, the artificial lake of Ajmeer, or that tank of Hyder in Mysore, can no more be compared in extent or grandeur with Kala Wewa or Padivil-colam (Padiviya) than the conduits of Hazekish, the kanats of the Persians or the subterranean water courses of Peru can vie with the Elahara canal, which probably connected with the lake of Minneri and the 'Sea of Parakrama' with the Amban-ganga river." It is not only the 'colossal magnitude' of the undertakings that drew the wonder and amazement of the foreigner but also the engineering skill of the Sinhala engineers at a time when Europe was very backward in the things that now boggle their imaginations.

Here are the views of Parker, who, according to Brohier, '... holds the first place as an authority of the subject,' on the skills of the local engineers. "As one whose duties permitted him to gain an intimate acquaintance with the ancient works," admits Parker, "I have never concealed my admiration of the engineering knowledge of the designers of the great irrigation schemes of Ceylon, and the skill with which they constructed the works." The great feat Parker is referring to is the control, which the engineers exercised through a valve known as the bissokotuva, in releasing the waters in the tanks without any mishaps. "…it must have been no easy task," says Parker," to control the outflow of the water of reservoirs which had depths of 30 or 40 feet, as was the case with several larger works…It was this invention alone that permitted the Sinhalese engineers to proceed boldly with construction of reservoirs that still rank among the finest and greatest works of the kind in the world." He also thinks that these engineers can be regarded as "the first inventors of the 'valve pit' more than 2100 years ago."

There was yet another bit of amazing engineering skill. Brohier, who was a surveyor, marvelled at the skill with which the Sinhala surveyors and levellers, without the help of any instruments like the theodolite that modern surveyors use, traced the paths through which the water could flow from one tank to another. The standing example of this particular skill is the construction of a canal named the Jaya ganga that even today links the Kala wewa to the Tissa wewa in Anuradhapura, twisting and turning as it goes snake-like all the 54-mile distance. This is flat land where tracing a minuscule gradient is almost an impossible task.

Discovering Ceylon is NOT full of such stories. The quotes I have chosen are from Brohier's monumental work in three parts - Ancient Irrigation Works in Ceylon published in 1934. Discovering Ceylon is more a ruminative piece of writing written in his twilight years and is probably one of his last publications. He goes over the years he lived among the humble people, as he calls them, living under canvas or in a cave in the wilds and villages in the hinterland of the then Ceylon. On the subject of The North Road, one of the essays in this book, he talks of the days when 'The Road' as such was a canal and it took about five days to get to Negombo and another day to reach Chilaw. The road trip was really a boat trip and a padda boat at that.

Reflecting in this essay on the changes that have taken place when things moved slowly once, he says, "Gone were the maritime scrub jungle and the mosaic of human village country-side." He is not being romantic, of course, only regretting the loss of a contended way of life of a humble people and the 'mosaic' that existed once among them, now destroyed. One of the things that had caused this destruction is Capitalism he says. The estates that came up under capitalism have "bequeathed a gloomy landscape and created the proletariat from a people steeped in rural interests. Little did the folk realise in their simple philosophy how independent they were in their traditionary nearness to the land." When he talks of the people, he has always in mind 'rustic folk unlettered in alien ideas or the artificiality of the urban and town dweller.'

In this, he is at his best in the picture he depicts in the essay he writes on The Portrait of a People. He must have lived like a member of the family of this rustic folk to obtain such an intimate knowledge of their lives, the way they thought and acted. These folk accepted their way of life and were not one bit envious of the comforts enjoyed by their lords and masters long ago, a thing that cannot be said of today's folk. He puts forward an interesting idea that accounts for their acceptance of their way of life. "It is true to say," writes Brohier, "that the trends of ancient society in Ceylon incorporated an inalienable dogma by which alone order could prevail in a state. This tenet is most aptly expressed in a popular old English phrase which states that: '…as some must of necessity, rule and teach, so others must of course learn, submit and obey.'"

In their day-to-day living, the common people took counsel from observations that were traditionally handed down. Some of us may today, possibly the more rational ones among us, dismiss these as superstitious beliefs. But from what I can see today there are quite a few people among us who may not be too unwilling to be described as being superstitious. May be some present day psychologist could find a niche in his psychological terminology to accommodate them. You can see this very well on the cricket field when a batsman kisses his bat or kisses the earth just before or after making a match-winning stroke or a bowler crossing himself before he starts his run. Just so the rural folk that Brohier lived among, thought and acted after interpreting certain signs. Or if you watch our politicians carefully you can see how close they try to get to our rural folk in dress and speech, when at other times they rather prefer to be so distant from them until the next polls. .

Here are some omens that Brohier lists: Should the eyebrows of a woman meet, the omen to be drawn is that she will outlive her husband. If her second toe is longer than her first toe, she will be the one who is the head of the house. If the left eye of a woman throbs, portends pleasure; if the right eye, it predicts grief. The omen, as applied to a man should be given the reverse interpretation. Anyone who dangles his legs while seated is said to be digging his mother's grave. What does Brohier think of all these signs an omens of his beloved people? As for me, he says, I remain neither a believer or an unbeliever, but merely an observer who finds solace in the words of the immortal bard of Avon, written 400 years ago - 'There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.'

What is the future of this glorious civilisation of this country? Brohier's answer is very poignant: "To me this rapidly expanding population epitomizes manifold changes mixed into everyday life and cultures, which are not traditional. One sees it happening already in the mass colonisation schemes established in the past two decades - and even at the cost of being accounted pessimistic I visualise even more change when Ceylon's enchanting jungles and village utopias give way, as they must, to a collection of city, urban and rural stuccofied civilisation, with no silhouettes of village life, no legend and no past to look back on. The intuitive dignity in which old and young played their roles will be a dead culture and a heresy in that new Ceylon."

I am afraid this scenario is very much with us even now...

Written By: S. Pathiravitana

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