Sunday, February 10, 2008

Engineering Prowess of Ancient Sri Lanka.

Modern archaeological investigations are yielding evidence of a pre-historic period of the Indian Ocean Island of Sri Lanka, in which the stone-age life style has been superimposed by technologically superior iron-age civilization. The purpose of this monograph is to give a thumb-nail sketch of the unsurpassed technological skills and knowledge displayed by the Hela people of Sri Lanka (today referred to as the Sinhala people) during the 2500 period of their civilization.

Hydraulic Engineering

On page 92 of the Collected Minutes by Sir Henry Ward, one of British Governors, a minute of Sir Emerson Tenant, the British Colonial Secretary (1845-1850) reads “no constructions formed by any race, whether ancient or modern, excel in colossal magnitude the stupendous “tanks” in Ceylon, the reservoir of Kohrud at Ispahlan, the artificial Lake at Ajmeer or tanks of Hyder in Mysore can no more be compared in extent or grandeur with Kalawewa or Padaviya, than the conduits Harzekiah, the Kanatea of the Persians or the subterranean water-courses of Peru can vie with the Elahara Canal, which probably connected Minneri and the “Sea of Parakrama” with the Ambanganga River”

One of the most outstanding evidence of the ancient technological skills has come to light when modern day engineers conducted site surveys, drillings and other technical investigations on diversion of the Sri Lanka’s longest river – the Mahaweli –decided on the most efficient dam-axis for the proposed dam across the river at Maduru Oya. When the jungle cover was cleared at the pre-determined dam-axis, the Engineers to their utmost surprise, came across at the very site the ancient dam constructed by their forefathers thousands of years ago. This speaks Volumes for the technological know-how and skills of ancient Sinhala Engineers.

These man-made major reservoirs referred to as “tanks”, seen to this day adding beauty to the landscape of the country, are massive lakes spread all over Central Province which terrain was almost devoid of hilly formations. In addition, the villages contained small village-tanks very much smaller to the major tanks. The idea was to collect all the rain water which was being utilized for the irrigation of the numerous paddy fields which yielded rice, the staple food of the people.

In order to collect the maximum amount of rainwater by preventing the spilling of any particular tank, several tanks had to be interconnected. The interconnection of tanks on a flat terrain and at great distance required a high degree of knowledge in surveying in the art of constructing connecting canals. The magnitude of the fact 42 feet wide man-made canal known as Yoda Ela boasts of a gradient of not more than six inches to a mile is one example.

Apart from this, the controlled release of a vast amount of water from the major reservoirs to the fields situated below requires an intricate mechanical arrangement. Mr. H. Parker, the British Engineer serving in the Irrigation department in Sri Lanka published a book under the title “Ancient Ceylon”, in which among other things, he speaks of a contrivance called ‘bisokotuwa’ used by the ancient Sinhala engineers for the effective regulation of the water being released from these major reservoirs for the irrigation of the fields situated below. Referring to the valve-pits established in Europe during the last century Parker has this to say : “Such also was the function of the ‘bisokotuwa’ of the Sinhala engineers they were the first inventors of the valve-pit more than 2100 years ago.”

Civil Engineering structures

Several engineering structures known as “dagobas” erected thousands of years ago are seen in the island. The “Jethawana” dagoba, erected by King Mahasena in the 4th Century, is a brick structure in the world, consisting of 62 million ancient bricks and weighing 657,000 tons.

The ancient Sinhala engineers displayed their expertise in civil engineering in foreign countries as well. “Rajatharangani” an ancient chronicle of Kashmire, India mentions how in 75 A.D. Jayapida of India requested the Sri Lankan King Agbo the sixth to loan him five “Raksha” engineers to construct a reservoir to collect rain water King Jayapida was so satisfied with the design and construction he got the service of the Raksha engineers to build him a fortress city which is today known as the famous city of Jaipur.

Steel Manufacture

It has now been established that the steel manufacturing industry has been in existence in Sri Lanka from about 300 B.C. up to 1600 A.D. Dr. Gill Juleff, the British Archaeologist who worked in the Samanalawewa Archaeological Project in her report published in the magazine “Nature” in February 1998 mentions about the wind powered iron melting technology without the use of bellows, a novel process invented and successfully used by the ancient Sinhala engineers She also states: The archaeological and experimental data described above have demonstrated and proved for the first time from anywhere in the world by the successful use of wind in iron melting”

It is known that the stell manufacturing industry had a continuous existence from the third century B.C. to about 1600 A.D. It was the steel manufacturing industry that enabled King Rajasinghe of Sitawaka in 1510 to manufacture 20000 guns to fight the Portuguese invaders.

These are only a few instances of the engineering skills displayed by the ancient Sinhala engineers, whose ingenious inventions are still being practiced after a period of over two thousand years.

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