Diary note 4: After Sri Lanka

20 III 2017, Singapore

I. The rise and demise of Anuradhapura, a city of the “dry” Northern plains of Sri Lanka, that dominated the island for some thousand years, is a vivid proof of Karl Witfogel’s thesis that the states of this region were based on the management of the hydraulic system. Somewhere around 500 B.C. the kings of that city started to increase the scope of the system of reservoirs of water for the dry season from the local to a higher level. Steadily bigger tanks were built, approaching the size of proper lakes. This was done on a scale that later generations thought fabulous, done with the help of giants. This was not done with the help of slaves, but by recruiting time of villagers for construction and upkeep, the so-called “radjakariya”, (herendienst) on a large scale. (perhaps 180 days a year, so 50%).

This indeed had some rationality to it because it balanced water supply with food production. I do not know if there were further reasons to see the system collapse than foreign invasions, which are usually attributed as the main cause. It is quite imaginable that the kings themselves put excessive burdens on their populations, much like the regime of Louis XIV did in France. Indeed the palace of Sigirya, another royal capital, was built on a Versailles-like model, only for prestige and pleasure, and completely detached from any consideration of utility. So it is possible the kings burdened their populations with overreach.

But there is another possibility to consider. Cities like Anuradhapura and Polonnaruha (the successor royal centres of might) were also housing enormous accommodations for Buddhist monks. These monasteries needed living quarters, dining halls, bathing places, hospitals for thousands of monks which had removed themselves from the economic process. They moreover put a constant claim on the rulers to provide temples and pagodas. Especially the last ones, enormous stupas, asked for a labour force comparable to the slave labour working on the pyramids of the pharaohs. Indeed some pagodas may have been higher than the pyramids of Cheops.

So the obvious strain on this hydraulic system was not only external by the constant invasions from the North, but could also have been internal, by the building of palaces and monasteries in excess.

After the Tamil invasions from the North established a zone in Northern Lanka, which became a power centre in its own right, the Buddhist kings moved their capitals steadily South, from the dry zones into the wet zones of the island, leaving a protective jungle barrier between them and the Tamil rulers. This made the external cost less, but did not (as far as I can see) lessen the demand for palaces and monasteries in the ever shifting capitals. The reflex was very engrained in the ruling classes to recreate the same type of state. Even as late as the 18th century, hundreds of years after the collapse of the North, the King of Kandy dammed a river to make a new lake, constructed new palaces, new monasteries. And brought the symbol of Buddhism on Lanka, Buddha’s tooth, there.

But when on the coast new foreign invaders appeared in the guise of Europeans, and the wars were lost against their superior wartime technology – the system crumbled and was lost. It reminds one of the story of the Mayas successfully building hydraulic systems in the jungles of Yucatan, but overreaching in the building programmes for palaces, gaming grounds, monasteries and temples. Twenty thousand circular rainwater tanks have been discovered there, now unused.

There is though in the case of Lanka a paradox: how could Buddhism, which sees restraint as the main tenet of a moral life, not have reigned in the appetites of the rulers? There seems to be a disconnect between the ideology and the practice.


II. The most enigmatic statue in Polonnaruva is of a saint or a scholar, popularly called “The Sage”, which is now believed a deity by name of Kappila. It is the statue of a man with a beard, very simply clothed and presumably not a king, as is also popularly believed. With both hands he seems to carry a scroll and on his head a nearly Assyrian headdress. The right leg is slightly raised, suggesting walking. It is 12th century. Kappila seems to have given his name to the Kappila monastery mentioned in the “national” chronicle Chulawamsa – of which I know nothing. The Dutch scholar Kern seems to have identified the god.

We visited the sculpture hastily in the rain and I note his name for further attention.


III. I noted the obvious tension between the teachings of Buddha and the royals that subscribed to them. I do not yet know enough about it to theorize, but am intrigued by a few facts.

The Buddha was born in royal circumstances and kept away by his father from the hardships of life. It is only later in life, escaping from the palace, that he was confronted and traumatized by the condition of mankind, especially the ill and dying. He was married and had a son. He took formal leave from his mother when retiring from his role as a prince. Buddhism looks like a royal cult.

He was an aristocratic revolutionary, like Saint Francis was a merchant revolutionary and Jesus came from craftsmen. But it also seems to me that this aristocratic innovation was not immediately to become a folk religion. It rather places him somewhat alongside Akhenaton, who turned from his palace life to his new Sun cult – but built himself a new royal city in Amarna. And he continued to live with this new religion in luxury among the upper class circles. The Buddha instead rejected all that and became a deliverer by example and by teaching. Ending up lonely, as a hermit in the woods.

His example seems to have instantly impressed itself on other kings. His creed was brought to Lanka by a sage (Prince Mahinda, son of the Indian emperor Asoka) who encountered a ruling king (Devanampiya Tissa, 250-210 BC, at Mihintale) while hunting. This king converted and must somehow have changed his demeanour. But in what way?