Littell's Living Age/Volume 146/Issue 1881/The Backwoods of Ceylon

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Originally published in the Fortnightly Review.

The island of Ceylon has been at all times part and parcel of India, and if the term body politic can be fitly employed with respect to that strange medley of races, castes, and creeds, it is a constituent part of that body politic. By an accident of nature it is separated from the continent by a narrow streak of sea, but its people are more closely allied to the thoroughly Indian races than are some of the great tribes who now inhabit the Indian peninsula. The Sinhalese, who form about two-thirds of the population, are the descendants of Aryan emigrants who left their homes in the Ganges valley more than five centuries before the Christian era. Down to the time of Christ their intercourse with Bengal seems to have been intimate and constant, those being the days of missionary Buddhism: but after that period the course of Bengal and Ceylon history, as expressed in language, religion, and in the chronicles themselves, rapidly parted, and now little remains to indicate the common origin save the similarity of physical conformation and temperament of the peoples and the present outgrowth of the primitive language. The Tamils, who nearly compose the remaining one-third, are the cousins and brothers of the great race of the presidency of Madras. The streak of sea, however, and her distant position, saved Ceylon from many waves of conquest which passed over India; and its people were permitted to retain the simple and humanizing doctrines of Buddhism, while their kin beyond the sea fell under the debasing influences of the Brahminist reaction. And in more recent times her insular position induced her English conquerors to diminish the too vast responsibility of the governor-general by placing Ceylon under the colonial instead of the Indian administration. Though a crown colony, and under the Colonial Office, Ceylon has nothing to do with other crown colonies, such as Mauritius or Jamaica, and is to all intents a separate government. And it is for this reason that Ceylon is at all times a subject worthy of the consideration of those interested in Indian matters. She has indeed no foreign policy, nor any native states within her borders; but in agriculture, the management of natives, administration of justice, and in Mofussil life generally, the difficulties to be encountered are practically the same. Indian problems have to be solved by a non-Indian government. And it is especially interesting to note how this part of India has been governed by a modest and inexpensive local administration, without, indeed, the prestige and lustre of the Indian service, and with perhaps fewer individuals in proportion of marked ability, but untrammelled in the execution of their duty by the red-tape exigencies which beset the subordinates of that great bureaucracy. It may, without exaggeration, be said that in Ceylon the people are quieter and more contented than in any part of India, taxation is considerably lighter, labor is more amply rewarded; while alongside of "bankrupt India" we find the Ceylon revenue providing without any strain for large railway, irrigation, and other public works.

The island has not, however, been always prosperous in English hands. From the acquisition of the whole of it in 1815 down to 1850, at the close of the last Kandyan rebellion, the government had considerable difficulty in paying its way. About that time an era of prosperity began with the revival of the coffee enterprise, and the abundant revenue was employed in public works and education under the direction of several able governors, among whom may be specially named Sir Henry Ward and Sir Hercules Robinson, the present governor of New Zealand. The two great works with which the name of Sir Henry Ward will always be connected are the Colombo and Kandy railway and the great irrigation works of the eastern province, by means of which thousands of acres of jungle have been converted into waving fields of paddy. Both these enterprises remained to be completed by Sir Hercules Robinson, who in his turn struck out a new line of fame by the passing of what is known as “the Village Communities Ordinance.” It had long been known, although the general attention was emphasized by the appearance of Sir Henry Maine’s well-known work, that in the interior of Ceylon the affairs of village life, comprising the conduct of agriculture, petty civil justice, and to some extent criminal justice and police, were directed and administered by a council of elders of the village, whose authority was held in respect due to its vast antiquity, although for ages it had received but little sanction or support from the supreme governing powers of the land. Sir Hercules Robinson’s law was passed with a view to saving this time-honored institution from the decadence with which it was threatened by the extension of the police courts, and to relieving the police courts of a mass of frivolous lawsuits of which they had become the scene. The Sinhalese people, though not wanting in wit and humor, have no national drama and few games or other amusements, and it is not surprising to find that the English courts have become to them all that the theatre is to the French. The pieces performed might be tragic or comic, highway robberies with thrilling details, or cattle-stealing with a pitched battle between a rescuing party and the thieves, or the acquisition of a coveted piece of field with elaborate testimony to lengthy pedigrees, deeds of gift, and disinheritings. In the course of all such dramas the various actors in the witness-box would perform their parts as a rule with conspicuous ability, while the knowledge possessed by some part of the audience of the falsehoods uttered, making them watch with keen interest the course of the magistrate’s thought, imported a sort of Sophoclean irony into the whole proceeding. The greater the distance at which the English court was from the litigants, and the greater the ignorance of the magistrate of the country language and life, the more zest had they in the sport. The government, on the other hand, hoped that by intrusting the trial of petty causes to the more intelligent of the natives themselves, with the right of appeal to competent European officers, not only would pressure be taken off the police courts, but the natives would gain a valuable schooling in self-government. And this hope has been fairly fulfilled. Native gentlemen have proved themselves competent presidents of these village tribunals, and have in some cases been appointed police magistrates of the same grade with junior civilians. An account of the establishment of these village councils and tribunals has already been given in the Fortnightly Review;[1] and it is only necessary, in alluding to them here, to remark that the village council and tribunal created by Sir Hercules Robinson is not exactly a revival of the old institution. A native gentleman of the highest position is appointed president of a large district, and holds circuit courts in the smaller divisions of that district, where he is assisted by assessors drawn from a list similar to that of our special jurymen. There is a right of appeal from the village tribunal to the government agent or collector of the province, and from him to the governor in council. The small number of appeals even to the government agent testifies to the quality of the justice administered. The system was not introduced into all districts, but only into such as were from time to time deemed fitted for the experiment. And it has been found that the districts wherein the councils have answered best, have been those in which the old village system was still alive, viz., in the districts occupied by the Kandyan Sinhalese.

The Village Communities Ordinance, although it provides for rules to be passed in accordance with native customs for irrigation and cultivation of fields, was in the main a judicial reform. It was reserved to Sir William Gregory to extend its provisions to the execution of works of practical and lasting benefit. In the days of native government all public works had been performed by the people themselves, at the command of the king and under the direction of his officers. This "king’s business," called rājakāriya, differed from other service regularly performed for the holding of land in so far as it was limited by no fixed rules as to time, place, or extent. Like the oppressions of the Turks, it fell upon the people anomalously, and often at considerable intervals, and caused little disaffection in the nation at large. But when the same system came to be applied by the English to the making of soundly engineered roads and other such works, it was found to interfere too much with the liberty of the subject, and forced labor was abolished by the “Magna Charta” of 1833. The finances of the colony were not then in a very flourishing state, and, as may be supposed, public works did not “get performed.” Laws were afterwards passed by which every male adult, between the ages of eighteen and fifty-five, was rendered liable to perform six days’ labor a year on the public roads, or to pay the commuted value in money. The unskilled labor of the villagers could only be employed in the easier work of digging and gravelling, and the difficulties involved in calling together and superintending heterogeneous gangs have led to the general adoption of commutation, and the mass of the people regularly pay their three shillings a year as road-tax. The aim of their rulers to get the country Sinhalese to do manual labor for their own benefit was thus found to be impracticable so far as the public roads were concerned. There remained the possibility of getting them to work with effect at the restoration of the magnificent irrigation tanks which had been the glory of the ancient kings, and which still in their dilapidated condition held small supplies of water for the cultivation of insignificant fields. An experiment in this direction has been made during the last six years, and I now desire to record an account of its progress and results.

The region in which the most of these tanks are situate is the interior country of the northern half of the island. The mountains of the southern and broader half are the sources of all the constant rivers of Ceylon. The valleys in the hills and the slopes lying between them and the sea towards the west, south, and east, are fairly supplied with perennial streams. But towards the north the two great rivers, the Maha Velliganga and the Kalāoya, emerging from the hill country, have their respective courses turned to the sea in an easterly and westerly direction, leaving the vast plains of the north fed only by an intermittent and precarious rainfall. Travellers from Kandy by the great north road making the usual halt at Dambulla, forty-five miles distant, and climbing the steep rock to view the cavernous temples with their numberless images and curious paintings for which the place is famous, are invariably attracted by the sight of the ocean plain of jungle spread out before their eyes. Only a few pale green patches of field are seen close beneath the rock on which they stand. All fields and villages beyond are as much hidden from view as weeds that grow beneath the standing corn. A few single rocks—the fortified Sigiri with its winding galleries and inaccessible crown out towards the east, the haunted steeps of Ritigala, and the sacred heights of Mihintale, to the north—are the only breaks between the spectator and the horizon of the darkest green. These are the backwoods of Ceylon.

Yet this great jungle was once covered with villages and fields, and alive with an agricultural population. Those days—the great period of the Sinhalese monarchy—were the ten centuries between the third before and the eighth after Christ. The grand descriptions given by poetry and tradition of the size and population of Anuradhapura, of the wealth and largesses of its kings, may well be treated with scepticism by reasonable men. But no one can dispute the evidences of a wealthy and populous city and of a highly cultivated country afforded by the monuments of that city which remain, by the historical muniments of title engraven on rocks and pillars, and chiefly by the embankments of thousands of tanks which at all available points in the undulations of the plain dam up the precious rains. This interesting district, inhabited by Kandyan Sinhalese, was for a few years after the annexation in 1815 administered from Kandy, or more truly was left unadministered. In 1834 it was annexed to the northern, a thoroughly Tamil province, the capital of which, Jaffna, is situate at the extreme north of the island; an assistant officer was stationed at Anuradhapura, and for the following forty years the prospects of the district were so far bettered in that it had a representative of government in its midst, through whom its cries might go up to headquarters. But the government agent at Jaffna was always an officer interested in the Tarnils, and generally ignorant of the Sinhalese and their language. The district was on all sides far removed from the sea. No money was spent either in the construction of roads or in the repair of tanks, and the decadence of a thousand years was permitted to run towards absolute decay.

It may be well to describe the district in brief detail, as its condition and characteristics differ considerably from those of all the other parts of the island. Although it may be considered a great plain, it is, in fact, composed of gentle undulations, across the little valleys of which are thrown the embankments, or bunds, forming the tanks. These embankrnents vary greatly in size, but the majority are from two hundred yards to half a mile in length ; while the greatest, such as Padawiya Kalāwæwa, and Minēriya, are many miles in length, having, while perfect, held up waters covering areas of from ten to twenty square miles. The total number of tanks found to exist in the district is about three thousand, of which number about one-half have inhabited villages dependent upon them. The rest are said to be “abandoned.” In hardly any cases is there more than one village attached to a tank, though in former days the larger reservoirs supplied water for a series of hamlets. The village is a compact entity, the name gama (village) being applied to the tank fields, hamlet, and surrounding jungle; the hamlet itself is termed gam-mædda (the centre of the village). The houses composing the hamlet are close together, and generally placed under the embankment or bund of the tank, and surrounded by a strong stockade for the purpose of excluding wild beasts and roaming cattle. The villages hardly average fifty inhabitants apiece, and of these not more than fifteen will be adult males. The difficulties and wearisome labor endured by these children of the forest were sufficient to account for the somber apathy which till lately characterized them. The tanks had no working sluices, and accordingly each year the embankment had to be cut to let the water out to the fields, a system which itself entailed a vast waste of precious water. If heavy rains came while the bund was cut, the waters burst through the opening, carrying with them great pieces of the earth wall. When the time came for filling up the cutting, the villagers sometimes essayed to do the work themselves, and sometimes employed professional tank-menders from Jaffna, who for a considerable sum built up a shoddy structure of earth and stakes, which could be easily removed for the next year’s cultivation, and too easily, alas! by the rains which had first to fall. The bund of the tank was covered with trees and undergrowth; the hamlet was hidden in jungle; and the only communication with the outer world was by paths unknown but to the villagers themselves, along which a passage was not easily effected without the aid of an axe or a bill-hook.

Although the hamlet is termed the “village centre,” the tank has an equal title to the name, for it is the real bond of the village community, a fact which is recognized by the custom of calling the village by the name of its tank. And so men, when asked where they come from, say they are men of the “tamarind-tree tank,” or of the “tank of mango-trees,” as the case may be; and it is owing to the common interests which the management of the tank involves that so much of the ancient village community system survives here. Each little republic has its president, the gamarāla (chief of the village), who, though in the village council only primus inter pares, is the representative of the village, and responsible for its revenue and police to the higher powers. It is his duty to consult with the shareholders at the commencement of each season, for the purpose of deciding upon the extent of land which the water held up in the tank will suffice to irrigate. The village is theoretically divided into a certain number of equal shares, called pangu, and each landowner has one, or by inheritance or purchase more than one panguwa. The whole extent of arable mark is divided into two portions or stretches, the mulpoita (principal field) and the hærenapota (alternative field), and these are never used at the same time. The holder of a panguwa in the village will have the same share in the mulpota and in the hærenapota. Accordingly the amount of land held by each owner is only nominally defined as to locality and extent. Thus it happens that if the ganzabe or village council decide that only five acres of a ten-acre mulpota can be irrigated, a five-acre portion of the whole will be fenced in, and each share-holder will have a panguwa assigned to him of half the extent which he would have had if the whole could have been cultivated. The stretch of field so fenced in is divided into as many shares as there are shareholders and three shares more. One of these is assigned to the gamarāla for the time being, as a compensation for the duties of his office. The necessity for the other two shares arises from the shape of the field. It is of a somewhat oval character, stretching away from the direction of the water supply, and is terraced by little ridges to keep the water lying during the earlier stages of the paddy growth. These ridges run generally transversely across the oval, and the pangu are divided by them. It follows, therefore, that those who have shares assigned to them elsewhere than at the top or bottom of the field will have only a small piece of the side fence to construct and mend, and to defend against the irruption of wild beasts and cattle, while the two end pieces, requiring to be fenced all round three sides, are more liable to these attacks and to the ravages of birds. Accordingly the last strip at each end is assigned as an extra holding to the owner of the next adjoining strip, and in return it is his duty to protect the fence both at the sides of his own proper panguwa and around the extra strip at the end. At two or more places inside the fences are erected small covered platforms ten or twelve feet in height, used as watch-huts, in which each shareholder takes his turn, in person or by deputy, to watch the crops during the night, and to give the alarm in case the field should be invaded by buffaloes, jackals, or elephants.

Between the village community, with the gamarāla at its head, and the government agent, the mouthpiece of government, are a series of intermediate native officers. The duties of these several officers are principally connected with the revenue, but they are also in their several degrees responsible for the police. In the whole province there is not a single police constable; and in no part of the island is there so little crime. The people would cordially resent the presence among them of the low-caste aliens who compose the majority of the police force whose officious interference and subtile tyranny would only aggravate the petty quarrels of village life. Some years ago, on one occasion of the transport of coin under a police escort from Colombo to Anuradhapura, the policemen on their way robbed a wayside village of some poultry, and I well remember the jeers of the people which saluted their condemnation to a term of well-merited imprisonment.

The religion of the people is, I need hardly say, Buddhism, and Anuradhapura, the most sacred place in Ceylon, is their Mecca. Fifteen hundred years ago Fah Hian, the Chinese pilgrim, described with admiration this great and busy city, with its splendid temples, its royal and religious processions, its crowded but well-ordered streets. After his day followed centuries of war and rapine, resulting in the ninth century in the abandonment of the city, until, in the seventeenth century, there was not a Sinhalese inhabitant left, save only the priests who kept guard over the sacred places supported by the offerings of pilgrims from afar. The rural natives of the district accordingly know the place better by the name of the Maha Wihāre (Great Temple), than by the name of the ruined city; for, before it became the centre of their English government, it had long been only their chief place of worship. There are eight sacred places here renowned for the possession of relics of Buddha. These are principally enshrined within the great dagobas, which in the grandeur of their scale surpass the topes of India, although in beauty of sculptured ornamentation they cannot stand comparison with the remains of Sanchi or Amravati. But the pre-eminently holy place, the Maka Wihāre, is that of the sacred bo-tree, the now aged growth of a cutting taken one hundred and fifty years before Christ from the bo-tree at Budagaya, in Bengal, under whose shade Gautama is said to have attained the Buddhahood. The most glorious epithets are applied to this venerable tree, its full title being Jaya Sri Maha Bodin Wahanse the “victorious, royal, great, and worshipful bo-tree.’ Two miles off, at the village of Nuwara Wewa (city tank), resides the hereditary lay-guardian of this palladium, now one of the four principal native officers of the province; a gentleman who boasts of a lineal descent from the chief into whose charge the sacred cutting was confided on its first arrival from the banks of the Ganges.

The ruins of the city and temples and the great tanks have, for the last fifty years attracted the attention of educated travellers and residents, and in the year 11871 the late governor, Sir W. Gregory, soon after his arrival visited the district with a thoroughly antiquarian interest. But the spectacle of these diminishing communities of men remote from the centres of modern Ceylon life, and waging an unequal war with tropical vegetation, wild animals, and a capricious climate, aroused in him the idea of effecting some practical amelioration of their condition. The first step was to dissociate the districts of Nuwarakalāwiya and Tamankaduwa from their connection with the Tamil provinces of the north and east, and to form them into a separate provincial government, now called the North Central Province. The next was to place in charge of the new administration a civilian, thoroughly acquainted with the people, and energetic enough to overcome the difficulties attending the revival of prosperity after a thousand years of decadence. Such an officer was found in Mr. J. F. Dickson, one of the ablest civilians Ceylon has obtained, who had lately acquired a wide knowledge of native social law as chief commissioner for the registration of service tenures. By the middle of 1873 Mr. Dickson was installed as the government agent of the new province, and a new era was inaugurated for the backwoods of Ceylon.

The new agent at once perceived that, in the face of the difficulties attending the introduction of paid skilled labor into the forest depths, as yet unpierced by adequate roads, it would be impossible, by the mere expenditure of large sums of government money, to effect any wide-spreading reform. He saw that, so long as the people were not themselves employed in any schemes devised for their benefit, the best efforts of government would be thrown away. Assisted by government in all that required expenditure of money and engineering apparatus, the main part of the work—the clearing of jungle and the repairs of the earth embankments of the tanks—might be done by the people themselves, if only they could be organized. The Village Communities Ordinance provided the necessary machinery for the compulsory performance of works for the common benefit, and the constitution of the province was aptly fitted for the working of that machinery. “The whole province,” wrote Mr. Dickson, “is composed of a number of small agricultural republics, each of which has its tank with the field below it, and the duty of maintaining the tank with its channels in repair properly by custom devolves on the community, each member being hound to contribute his share of labor in proportion to his share in the field. But under our rule there has been hitherto no simple machinery for compelling the idle and the absentee shareholders, who go and live in other villages but still retain their claims on the field, to perform their share of the work. The others are unwilling to work for the benefit of the defaulters, and the work is left undone.” Mr. Dickson proposed to government that the Village Communities Ordinance should be at once introduced into the whole province, and that identical rules should be submitted to the various councils, by which their people should pledge themselves to organized labor. The chief rules, which were loyally accepted by all the communities, were as follows—

  1. For the repair and improvement of village tanks.
    1. Every panguwa shall give annually such labor, not exceeding thirty days’ labor of an able-bodied adult, as the government agent may declare to be necessary for the repair or improvement of the tank on which it is dependent for its water-supply.
    2. When government provides a sluice or other works for the improvement of the tank, the labor declared to be necessary as above shall not exceed sixty days for one year, and thirty days for each succeeding year.
    3. Further labor may be required in special cases by order of the committee (the representatives of the people).
  2. The labor shall be called out at such times and in such proportions as the government agent or any person deputed by him in that behalf may determine, and notice published by beat of tom-tom in the village (Anglice, “town crier “) shall be held to be notice to every shareholder.
  3. Any panguwa may commute its labor by a payment in advance of 35 cents (about 7d.) per diem, and if any person who does not commute shall fail to give the labor due for his panguwa at the appointed time, he shall be liable to a fine of half a rupee a day.

Other rules, which it is unnecessary here to quote, provide for the construction and repair of communal roads, and for keeping them clear of vegetation; and a most important one required every village to clear and keep clear of jungle a considerable space around the hamlet. The light thus shed upon the dim recesses of the forest villages was the typical dawn of the new régime.

A bargain was then struck between the government and the village communities to this effect: that in consideration of the people clearing the bunds of the tanks and raising them by their united labor to the full required height and strength, the government would put in an iron sluice fixed in solid masonry, in the whole costing about £100. The labor of the villagers would take, it was estimated, in most cases seven years to perform, and in these cases no return by way of rate or increased taxation was to be asked for by the government, either for the expense of the sluice, or for the engineer’s supervision of the earthwork.

When the system first began to be worked it was considered useless to employ the people on the earthworks of the embankments, except under the supervision of competent engineers, and the government was unable to supply a sufficient number. Over the greater part of the province, therefore, the first year's labor was expended on the felling of trees, on clearing away jungle, and on making roads. The contrast presented by the former and the present aspect of the backwoods in this respect is thus described by Mr. Dickson in one of his valuable reports to the Ceylon government:—

Before 1874 this province was one dense unroaded forest, with villages scattered here and there buried in thick jungle, and approached only by narrow footpaths. At a distance of ten yards they were not to be seen; the jungle came up to the fence of the small enclosed space in which the cottages are built; the embankments or bonds of the tanks were covered with jungle, and it was impossible without cutting a path along the top to make out in what state of repair they were. There is now a north and south road through the province, and an east and west road is half finished. From these main trunk roads certain minor roads made by the road committee (a semi-government department), and the communal roads made by the people gratuitously, branch off in every direction. Every village is opened up to light and air by having the jungle cut back so as to give a large space of cleared ground round it, and the bund of every inhabited village has been thoroughly cleared of jungle. The whole outward appearance of the province has been changed.

But at a large number of tanks in divisions of. the district in which the available engineers had been stationed, the more important earthworks of the villagers were commenced, and rapidly carried on, sometimes concurrently with the government sluice works, but in most cases in anticipation of the promised boon. A special engineer was appointed to make rough surveys of the tanks, to decide to what height the embankments should be raised, and to direct and supervise the work of the villagers. This supervision was necessary, as Mr. Dickson pointed out, “not only to see that the work is properly done, but to see that the rules requiring each man to give his share of labor are really enforced.” When the earthwork was commenced, in 1874, the superintendents found it advisable to fix the amount reasonably answering to an adult’s thirty days’ labor in cubic feet of earth. A piece of ground was then staked out near the embankment which each shareholder was to excavate to the required depth, carrying the earth in baskets, and casting it as directed on the bund of the tank. By this method it was unnecessary to have all the shareholders at work at once. The year’s task had to be done by a given date, and each man knew his allotted share, and could choose his own time. I have many a time, in inspecting the works, come upon a single man, perhaps the last to complete his task, assisted by wife and children working steadily at his pit, taking care not to excavate an inch too much, but knowing that his neighbors would complain if he failed to give to the bund the whole of his allotted soil. The jealousy with which the villagers overlooked each other’s work insured its full performance, while their honest pride in the bund which they had cleared and raised some feet along its whole length, in seeing that by their own united efforts they could do work equal to that of the giants of old (the traditional makers of the tanks) showed that their spirit was not entirely broken, and that if their efforts were rewarded with some success they would be yet more confident in their own powers.

At the commencement, it must be confessed, some villages declined to do any work at all. They did not understand the yoke they had put on their necks. It was necessary that an example should be made of such defaulters, and every shareholder was fined under the provisions of the village rules. Brought to their senses they set to work, and were soon as proud of their bunds as any of their more loyal neighbors. Some care had to be taken at first to discourage any general commutation of the labor, which would have rendered the whole scheme inoperative. But the people themselves soon settled the difficulties which arose in the cases of aged or absentee shareholders; the work was done by deputy or some other private arrangement, and it became unnecessary to keep any cash accounts. Once started, the system proved itself thoroughly suited to the customs of the people, and the rules were found adequate for all emergencies. The engineers, on their part, displayed the most commendable energy in combatting the recurring difficulties of transport and commissariat, viz., the want of cart roads, and the poverty of the district, aggravated by alternating seasons of flood and drought. The statistics of work done are highly satisfactory. By the end of 1876, forty-eight sluices were fixed in well-built masonry walls; by the end of 1877, the number completed was raised to seventy-five; and by the end of 1878 to one hundred and seventeen. On the other hand, the villagers were found at the close of the last-mentioned year to have expended various terms of labor upon eight hundred and fifty-six tanks, the total earthwork being valued at nearly three hundred and ninety thousand rupees. Up to this time the sum expended by government on village tank sluices had reached one hundred and thirty thousand rupees; in other words, the villagers had given nearly three rupees’ worth of work for one. A government composed of Carlyles and Ruskins might possibly be satisfied with this result; but less sentimental economists would require some more tangible return for large sums spent for the benefit of the people than the mere execution by the people of other work, even to the value of three times the government expenditure. What the government of Ceylon actually looked for was the increase of the land revenue, the increase of population, and the general development of the district. The province is about one-sixth in extent of the whole island, and its broad valleys once provided with a regular water supply are the most fertile in the country: yet its population is at present only sixteen to the square mile, while the average for the rest of Ceylon is considerably over one hundred. Its regeneration is therefore of general importance to the whole country. But it is apparent that with this sparse population having to battle with some difficulty for their daily bread, and having assumed. this great extra labor which they and their fathers thought too heavy to undertake, the complete restoration to prosperity need not be looked for as yet. As Mr. Dickson wrote when he commenced his task:—

Those who have to devise the system and commence the work must not look for immediate results; they must not even expect to see the results in their time. They must be content with the assurance that if the foundations are well laid, and if the work is carried on steadily and persistently, then in twenty or thirty years the face of this province will be changed; food and water will be abundant, the population will increase, and the government will receive largely increased revenues without having incurred any large or heavy expenditure.

If it had been found that this great result was likely to be achieved by a government expenditure of only £100 on each tank, it is improbable that any objection would have been raised by those interested in the finances of the island. But it had been foreseen by Sir W. Gregory and Mr. Dickson, and it became apparent after the embankments of a few tanks had been strengthened and considerably raised, that, although sufficient in a season of due rainfall to retain an ample supply of water for that season, they were not large enough to hold a supply sufficient to secure the villages during a season of deficient rainfall which might follow. The system of irrigation of the ancient kings had been a most elaborate one and only by patient surveys will it be possible to discover its former operation. All over the country are observed traces of great and small canals, anicuts damming the river beds and large tanks without any apparent fields beneath them. All these evidences point to the existence of a network of irrigation works, by which the smaller tanks were fed in case of need from the rivers and from larger store reservoirs. Of these larger works the one which preserves the best traces of its former efficiency is the great tank of Kalāwæwa, in the south of the district. The embankment of this huge reservoir is five and a half miles in length, and faced along its inner side with massive stone. It was constructed to catch the waters of three rivers, which now meet in its former bed and rush through a breach one thousand feet wide about the middle of the vast wall. Captain Woodward, RE., who recently surveyed the tank at the request of Sir William Gregory found evidence that it had been breached at least three or four times.

This is at once a proof of its enormous catchment area and the value in which the tank was held, as each repair must have been a task of great magnitude, only to be undertaken in the case of a work of extraordinary utility—and the tank was of this extraordinary utility. From one of its sluices issues a magnificent canal called the Yodaya Ela (giants' canal), about forty feet wide, which after a course of fifty-three miles carried the copious drainage of the southern hills to Anuradhapura.

He found that along its course this canal must have supplied no less than sixty-six village tanks with water. So strong had the embankment seemed that the natives attributed its destruction to magic. The story was told two centuries ago by Robert Knox, in his charming “Historical Relation of Ceylon,” after a captivity of twenty years. Speaking of the province I am describing, he says —

This countrey formerly brought forth great plenty of corn, occasioned by reason of its large waterings. A neighbor kingdom (Kurunégala) in those times was brought to a great dearth; at which the king sends to the

people of Neurecalava that they would bring a supply of corn to his countrey, which they did in great store upon beasts in sacks, and arrived at the king’s city. ... Afterwards the king, to requite them, asked what they most needed in their countrey. They answered, They had plenty of all things, only they wanted Turmeric and Pepper. The king, to gratifie them, sent them such a quantity of each as his country could afford. As soon as this was brought to the people of Neurecalava they went to measure it out to every man his Portion; but finding it of so small a quantity, they resolved to grind it, as they do when they use it with their victuals, and put it into the river to give a seasoning to the water; and every man was to take up his Dish of water thus seasoned. ... The king hearing of this action of theirs was offended in that they so contemned his gift: but concealed his displeasure. Sometime after he took a journey to them, and being there desired to know how their countrey had become so fruitful. They told him it was the water of the river pent up for their use in a very vast pond (Kalāwæwa), out of which they made trenches to convey the water down into their corn grounds. This Pond they had made with great art and labor with great stones and earth thrown up of a vast length and thickness, in the fashion of an half moon. The king afterwards took his leave of them and went home, and by the help of his magicians broke down this vast dam that kept in the water, and so destroyed the Pond. And by this means this fruitful countrey wanting her water is become as ordinary land as the rest, having only what falls out of the sky.[2]

This tradition is especially interesting as showing that the date of the breach of embankment was long anterior to the seventeenth century; and it also shows that the natives were well aware that their village tanks were inadequate to maintain a perpetual supply of water. After the destruction of the vast pond, they had “only what falls out of the sky.” The restoration of this invaluable work is estimated by Captain Woodward to cost upwards of £50,000, not including the cost of the repair of the canal. Although this expenditure would not lead to any adequate return for many years, there is little doubt that had Sir W. Gregory remained longer in the island be would have taken it in hand. During the last year of his tenure of office he did, in fact, commence the work by the clearing and restoration of thirteen miles of the “Giant’s Canal.” It is to be hoped that his successors will not be induced to neglect the execution of so useful a work only because the return will necessarily be a tardy one. The general improvement of the smaller village tanks may well be continued, but it is useless to look for absolute security against droughts, to which the backwoods are subject, until some of these larger works are completed and the secrets of the ancient system searched out and known.[3]

Although, therefore, the full measure of prosperity cannot be expected for many years to be reached it is gratifying to be able to point to some tangible results of the interesting reformation of the communes, attained after labors of only five years. The tanks which the villagers have repaired have caught a sufficiency of the rain which has fallen, and they have been found strong enough to withstand the flood of 1877, one of the heaviest within memory. Larger fields have been sown, and the paddy revenue (one-tenth of the produce) has swelled proportionately. In 1878 it had risen to four times its amount in 1874 (a bad year), and greatly exceded its highest amount in any former year. For the first time since the English conquest crown land (forest) has been put up for sale and has found purchasers. During the last five years cultivated land on changing hands has been found to have doubled in value. The timber revenue in 1878 was four times its amount in 1874; while the total revenue of the province in 1878 was three times its amount in 1874.

The time has hardly arrived for results, but they have shown themselves before they were expected. Chief among them is the phenomenon of a people, carrying on for centuries an apathetic struggle for existence, and entirely neglected by their rulers, at last waking up to the consciousness that they are cared for, and rousing themselves to a vigorous life. An effectual blow has at last been struck at what has long been supposed to be the vested birthright of every Indian subject of the queen—the right to be idle. The contrast, frequently drawn between Ceylon and Java, where the Dutch do not recognize this right, and, indeed, override it somewhat roughly, may in time be rendered more favorable to Ceylon by a careful extension of the new policy. Its foundations have been laid upon a basis of ancient customary law, which is its strongest sanction in the eyes of the people; and the fair promise which the scheme gives of ultimate success is mainly due to an administrative officer who has done a difficult work with rare tact and ability, and to a governor who has accorded to it on all occasions his ready support and assistance. It cannot, in truth, be asserted that the people have as yet shown any radical change of habit or character. They are proud of the work they have accomplished and willing to continue it, but if the present strain be removed, they will quietly relapse into their old listless ways. The individual leopard has a proverbial difficulty in changing his spots, yet it is possible that they may disappear from the leopard-race by a slow evolution. So it may be that the rural Sinhalese will in generations progress from an inherited torpor to inherited activity. Such a change cannot be effected in a day, but like other evolutions will result from a steady continuance in activity of the new forces brought to bear upon their life. And these forces are, in a word, the prompting, guiding, and assisting energies of the paternal despots to whom in turn their interests are confided.

In this endeavor to give some idea of what is going on in these interesting and but little-known backwoods of Ceylon it has, I trust, been shown that much may be done towards the revival of a long-past prosperity, by no large expenditure of money, but by engaging the natives on the side of work and activity, and by using and enforcing for that purpose the rules which their own immemorial customs have prescribed. It is not too much to say that if some such system had been brought into operation in parts of India where village communities are still extant, many lakhs of rupees might have been directed to other purposes than to dwindle away in the quicksands of the Public Works Department. There is little doubt that it is due to our vast annual expenditure on paper, viz., surveys, plans, correspondence, reports, minutes, accounts, auditings, and to our failing to organize into working parties the natives themselves, that we so often find ourselves unable in India to restore the small and great irrigation works of the old regime, except at a cost for which no adequate return can be foreseen. If it be said that the care now taken over preliminaries insures the success of the work, it may be replied that the ancient kings could hardly have exceeded the number of failures laid to the charge of some of our Public Works Departments in the East. It is indeed asserted, with what truth still remains to be proved, that many of these ancient irrigation works never could be used, and that the expense of their construction was wasted. But if communities of men have three or four months of leisure time in the year, and that period is employed for a year or two at the king’s command in throwing up a great embankment, which may not prove a success for want of water, it cannot be contended that this is a wasteful expense in the same sense as the sinking of some thousands of pounds of public money in the building of a barrack that can never be lived in, or a bridge with its piers in the shifting sand. Unless the whole available labor of a country is habitually employed in productive work, the employment of part of its non-productive energies in an unsuccessful enterprise cannot be said to impoverish the country at large. In this there is no advocacy of hasty and ill-considered schemes, but merely a deprecation of the costly delays of red-tapism in countries where thousands of human hands hang idle, while government officials report, refer, and wrangle. Had Sir William Gregory held the public purse closed until surveyors made elaborate plans, and engineers made elaborate reports, and until it was made evident to the meanest comprehension that the works would return their five or ten per cent., the poor village communities of the backwoods would still be sunk in apathy and decay.


  1. Fortnightly Review, vol. xviii., p. 241, “A Home-Rule Experiment in Ceylon.”
  2. Knox’s Ceylon, 1681, pp. 111, 112.
  3. Recent advices from Ceylon lead to the conclusion that the present governor means to content himself with the bare performance of the government promise as regards the village tank sluices, and to postpone indefinitely the larger works which are beyond the power of the villagers to perform. If this he so, he may not be guilty of any grave breach of faith, but he will make a grave error in policy.