Ancient Sinhalese Hydraulics
Associated with some ancient tanks provided with stone anicuts is
this concept of the time honoured device of a Biso Kotuwa. This ancient
irrigation artefact is rectangular in shape of well dressed stone slabs
has served as a marvellous contraption of invention of the time.
The sulice at Uru Sita Vewa
Its purpose was to store irrigation water for the purpose of stopping
the overflow of the water conveyed along a stolen aqua-duct in
regulating its flow of water to feed the vast tracts of rice fields.
Still another purpose was prevention of siltage.
Hence this sprawling Walawe Basin nestling in the cradle of our
ancient civilization in Ruhuna Rata and Sabaragamuwa has turned into one
of the bountiful rice bowls of our isle, teeming with multitudes of
farming communities and a host of industries could aptly boast of such
relics of a past hydraulic heritage.
This refers particularly to Magama Weva/Uru Sita Weva stone anicut
surmounted by a seven headed monolithic cobra In this regard, I would
like to quote in the first instance from an authoritative source namely
Dr. R. L. Brohier.
In the early 20th century A.D., he was a prolific author on the
ancient hydraulic heritage, archaeology, history, heritage and what not.
In one of his masterpiece monograph, titled ‘Ancient Irrigation Works -
Part I, (1939), particularly with reference to this very Biso Kotuwa on
the ancient sluice of stone of the Seven Headed Cobra stone has
enlightened us thus: “The works in the upstream of embankment which
fulfilled the important functions are termed as Biso Kotuwas.
The remains of the pond at Galabedda Pix by Gamini G. Punchihewa
This Biso Kotuwa through which was let out water into the channels
had its base or floor of about fifteen fathoms square paved with
quarried stone, waterway or gutter conducting the water through the Biso
Kotuwa through which was 3 1/2 fathoms long, 1 1/2 wide and 1 1/2 high
on all sides closely. It was of 2 1/2 by 3 feet to admit the passage of
man. There were two sluices, the entrance to each of which was called
Wanaya and was undoubtedly of wide influence”.
There is still another similar authoritative source reference culled
from H. Parker of British times who served in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) as an
Irrigation Engineer (in 1901). In his voluminous monograph titled
“Ancient Ceylon” (1909), he has paid accolades to our ancient Sinhalese
Irrigation Engineers thus “The Valve Pits/Valve Towers of modern times
by which the overflow in large reservoirs are regulated or totally
stopped. Since this being the case the ancient Sinhalese Engineers in
constructing such Biso Kotuwas had established a claim to be considered
the first Inventors of Valve Pita more than 2,100 years ago.
D. G. A. Perera, a Pioneer member of the Royal Asiatic Society (Sri
Lanka Branch) has been a frequent guest Lecturer on those time honoured
Biso Kotuwas and other ancient Irrigation structures. With special
reference to these Biso Kotuwas termed as Valve pits/Valve Towers.
In a Paper titled “The Biso Kotuwa”. In Architecture and Irrigation
works of ancient Sri Lanka presented at the National Archaeological
Congress, in 1986 held at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute from 28th
to 30th November 1986 gave a more signified position in respect of these
Ancient Biso Kotuwas in relation to ancient irrigation works thus
“However in the light of further development of European Science later
in the 20th century.
We may have to modify Parker’s modification to read “The Sinhalese
Engineers are the first Inventors of both the Hydraulic Surge Chamber
and Valve Tower and the first to incorporate both the principles in the
same structure, called a Biso Kotuwa more than 2,100 years ago”.
In archaeological terms such Biso Kotuwas had the function of
releasing the water by either regulating or stopping its flow
completely. It had another romantic state in Royal flavour in those
halcyon days when our ancient kings and queens ruled in all glory and
splendour. A similar rectangular tank dressed with stone was
constructed, fed by some natural spring or some rivulet, where queens
and princesses bathed and frolicked in the filled up ponds.
While working in the G. O. D. B./R. V. D. B. (Gal Oya from 1955 to
1970) in clerical and field capacities. In mid 1970, I was transferred
out of the Gal Oya Project to the Udawalawe Project to report to my
station at Embilipitiya, I was privileged to get an official Jeep to
travel down there with my family as well.
We took the route through the Moneragala/Wellawaya highway where a
tiny village by its roadside Galabbedda famed for native Auyrvedic
treatment for fractures. In this pastoral village turned into a paddy
field we beheld this romantic spot where queens and princesses had
bathed, frolicked in all merriment. The Pond was about 20 feet square
with four entrances with stone steps carved on its surface which led to
this square pond below. From the four entrances were four water spouts
flowing through the mouths of sculptured lions.
On the walls of this Pond were fascinatingly carved figures of
damsels carrying pots. This was a veritable sign that this pond was
exclusively only for the Queens and Princesses of old. Close to this
Pond was a heart shaped stone slab with fabulous, ornamental designs
neatly carved out. These carvings were contiguous with yet another
grooved space in stone to keep the vessel(Sembuwa).
This too was beautifully and artistically ornamented with cultural
motifs of floral and tendrils. This vivid account has been taken from my
first publication ‘Souvenirs of a Forgotten Heritage’ (1990) the
chronicle of Gal Oya valley in retrospect.
From a recent news item in an English newspaper it was reported that
this priceless treasure trove of heritage, fine arts and sculpture with
designs and motifs was in a dilapidated state.
When we visited in 1970, in a prime state looked after by a Watcher
of the Department of Archeology. Photos taken by me in 1970 are
reproduced in this Article.
I would like to draw the kind attention, of the Director General of
the Department of Archaeology to take proper steps to restore it to its