Tanks and tales | Daily News

Tanks and tales

Interlinking tanks
Interlinking tanks

Wake up early if you want to fully enjoy the early morning orchestra or birds around the main tank and see some of the countries most beautiful sunrises with the occasional elephant passing by at a distance. The Great King Parakramabahu who created these amazing interconnecting tanks, realising the importance of trade and sustainable water supply joined originally existing water tanks built in the Anuradhapura period to small canals he dug out, which in turn linked to the sub arteries of the Mahaweli River.

The Queens and ministers would have followed behind the Great King riding his elephants, while they were in sedan chairs known as ‘Dolawa’, which required four men to carry them while the thousands of workers that built the tanks went on foot or by bullock cart.

Gomathi Ela canal is a great place to see horn bills and a lovely experience walking across hand made bridges of logs strapped together one after the other with only coir rope keeping them attached, I realise total balance is required or you will end up face down in the water and swimming with the fish. I am watched over by water loving trees and a cheeky Malabar Pied Hornbill, just waiting for me to noise dive into the canal midway across the bridge that is linked to the five tanks, that are all worth exploring in their own right.
The raw experience of balancing on tree trunks, gives me a better understanding of just how clever this civilisation was in harnessing every aspect of nature in creative and new ways that are still used today by the highly inventive people of the area. The Great King Parakramabahu in the library quarters of the ancient city. I learn many things about Sri Lankas ancient Kings, who converted the people from paganism into Buddhism building huge stupors to do it in the shape of rocks, as up until the 3rd century BC the people of this mystical island only worshipped rocks, big trees, the sun and the moon being mainly animist in their belief system. This way carving Buddha’s out of rock like the one you can see at Gal Vihara made it easy for the people to transfer their belief system from paganism into worshipping the precepts of the Buddha.

Although the place is mostly ruins one can as you bike from place to place work out Great King Parakramabahu grand plan, whose technological ideas sprung from years of learned teachings in the temple. He also loved studying first hand the jungle plants for their healing powers with native doctors. The King learnt the importance of healing mantras which are supernatural powers that allow one to fix ill health and the monks also showed him ‘gurukam’ a healing of the mind by unpicking an issues and letting them go, which today the west call psychotherapy. To do this you need to be deeply religious to understand the spiritual healers of hundreds of years ago, who could read your life story from your face or palm of your hands and within minutes of doing so tell you your future, even your health issues if no preventive care was taken.

The King himself a deeply religious and knowledgable man who used the great legacy of the first kingdom Anuradhapura who built the first tank in the area to build on this by building four huge more tanks and canals to interconnect to the river starting from Nuwara Eliya, through Kandy and into sub arteries, joining them into hand cut canals that worked like a cascade system, which finally interconnected together with the tanks to form an incredible inland ocean known today as Parakrama Samudra. This was achieved by clearing over 2,500 hectares of land (6,000 acres) to achieve the vast tank system for trade. He was the first man to understand the importance of water management and is said to have declared to his people “Not a single drop of the water sent into the sea must be wasted’ and one can see from his power shower to pool and then irrigation of the gardens to the fields how the same water was used many times. This philosophy is still applied today as the Parakrama Samudra tanks which are used for everything from drinking water, to washing, irrigation of the paddy fields, growing more than eight hundred species of plants, including important medicinal leaves like Katu Pita, which cleans the blood and cures cancer.

These man made water tanks created by thousands of people over 18 years are still used for transportation of goods, people, lake fishing for food and now tourism to explain village life. The water ways even provides natural mining for semi precious gems like rose garnets, which can be picked out of the Ambo Ganga river with your own hands. This exciting archaeological look at the historic engineering system of the Great King takes you past four of the five tanks, and along the way I learn about medicinal plants, and how even the Kings soap for washing were made from leaves and thus none toxic to the environment. While learning about how to use medicinal plants, I am also told fascinating stories about suicide plants. People have no idea how for example the Peru Ornamental plant arrived in the dry zone and one can only assume it was from the big trading ships that came from India, China, Persia or Arabia. The seeds of this beautiful flower are as deadly hard as a nut and to break it open you need a rock. These deadly seeds inside are used as suicide capsules when mixed with sugar they become like jelly so easier to eat and are still to this day used by upset village lovers to kill themselves. The English know this poisonous shrub as Yellow Oleander and interestingly the people give the flowers as offerings to the Buddha.

I learn sitting on the river bank how Chinese trading ships brought gold, silver, fabulous fabrics to the area to trade them in return for spices and gem stones. Indian traders came for the elephant ivory something the area was rich in during those times. Even Marco Polo came to the isle of plenty for gemstones to make jewellery fitting for the elite and in nearby temple caves you will seeing wall drawings of small trading boats that could go from the sea along the canals to the tanks, where the small merchant boats landed to trade in the area. Today the only thing that is landing is the rich variety of bird life making this a tweeters paradise.

So when you can travel freely again do make sure it includes time the ancient citadel of Polonnaruwa in the dry zone conceived by the Great King, and later developed by the British Empire so the world could come and admire his brilliant work, which 1954 was seen and admired by Queen Elizabeth 11. A trip that is still talked about by the people who live around the tank and tell me she is the reason they now eat fish without bones, a fashion she started on her trip to the island.