Notes on Sri Lanka

Ceylon or Sri Lanka has always been a blind spot on my personal map of the world. Only recently, in February 2017, I was given the chance to visit the island.

The island impressed me by its place in history. The following talk (on the 8th of June in Scheveningen for a group of Dutch friends) cannot claim to be more than a series of superficial impressions.

My travel notes concern:

the reputation of the island,

the importance of the hydraulic state,

the role of Buddhism,

the high art at Gal Vihara, a World Heritage site of UNESCO.


1.The echoes of the island

Lanka, the original name of the island, seems capable to resonate beyond its physical borders. Lanka is of old re-known. From faraway shores sounds of its existence echoed.

The island of Robinson Crusoe, as described by Daniel Defoe, seems nameless and uninhabited, until the shipwrecked hero discovers a human footprint in the sands of the beach. The story may be simple, its origins less. The source for Robinson Crusoe appears to have been an earlier narrative by a British sailor, Robert Knox. Around 1660 he was shipwrecked on Lanka near Trincomale and kept prisoner by the King of Kandy for twenty years, till he escaped to the Dutch stronghold of Mannar. He wrote a lively description of his adventures on the island, and this story of Lanka inspired Daniel Defoe to write his story of survival.

My first encounter with the name Lanka was in Indonesia when looking at a performance of the Ramayana, the Sanskrit story of the abduction of Rama’s beloved princess Sita and his brave expedition to free her from the hands of a horrible captor. This is his antagonist Rawana. Rawana is mentioned as the King of Lanka, an island at the end of India.

Rama would not have succeeded in recapturing Sita without the help of Hanuman, the King of the monkeys. He guides and protects Rama and when they arrive at the strait that separates the mainland from Lanka the monkeys build a bridge or link their arms together so that Rama can cross the sea.

Since seeing that story in Indonesia I have felt there was some memory of a reality behind it.

Nowadays it is assumed that when the level of the sea was lower in prehistoric times it was possible to cross the strait by a series of rocks, which even today at low tide become visible near Jaffna, which is in view of India. This may be the bridge of Hanuman.

In Europe the story of Odysseus teaches us a similar mixture of myth and experience. The Odyssey is not only about the adventures of a seafaring man. It is also a travelogue of exploration of the Western Mediterranean by the Greeks. It refers to the islands of Sicily, with Hephaistos making his noise under the Etna, and Corsica, with the man-eating Cyclops, living in grotto’s.

It may be that the later story of Sinbad the Sailor, both in Persian and Arabic, is connected with this Homeric tale of the long suffering captain from Ithaca.

Sinbad, after all his adventures, is finally able to retire from danger when on behalf of Harun al Rashid during his sixth and seventh voyage he visits an island. This island abounds in gems, and he returns laden with riches. The island is Lanka. Even today jewels, sapphire, rubies, topaz form a rich trade, still dominated by Muslims, on the island.

The island is called Serendip in Arabic, the island of gems. Our word serendipity derives from that, as a word for an unintentional but lucky find. It is not quite what Lanka was for the ships sailing regularly from Arabia looking for gems. These light ships could already in prehistoric times with reasonable security cross the ocean to Lanka because of the monsoon winds. They blow East or West in alternation.

When in the 14th century the Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta (1304 – 1368) sails from the Maldives Islands to the coast of Coromandel, he passes an Island with a strange mountain visible somewhere in the centre. At some fifty kilometres from the coast a pillar stands alone, surrounded by clouds, like a column of smoke, he says. He asks what that mountain is called and reports it as Serendip, which we now recognize as Lanka.

Lanka is at that time in the hands of what he calls infidels, that is Buddhists, but he is well received by the local king. As usual Battuta rewards his host by tales of islands he has visited on his travels in the Mediterranean sea and the Persian gulf and so on. He asks the king if he can visit the strange mountain in the centre of the island. The king grants his request and gives him an escort, perhaps because the hunter-gatherer tribes in the interior are untrustworthy. After a few days of crossing rivers, Ibn Battuta arrives at the strange mountain, which we know now rises more than 2000 meters in het air. His description of the place is as accurate as present days guidebooks.

Against the steep wall of the mountain, steps have been hewn as a kind of stone ladders and to avoid falling off the cliff staves have been driven into the rock and long chains attached, he counts ten, to steady the tired and fainting climber. Marco Polo (1254-1324 ) also mentions them when he visits the island on behalf of Kublai Khan, the Emperor of China, in the same period.

At this level the weather is very cold and the trees are not tropical. Once one arrives on top it may be another seven kilometres to a famous shrine. It becomes clear to Battuta that since times immemorial this place has been a focus of pilgrimage.

Battuta now knows that this pillar of stone has several reputations. One is, that it is the place where Adam set foot on earth, after having been driven from paradise. Indeed for going and returning there still exists a male Adam road and a female Eve road. He visits the imprint of Adam’s foot, which is about six meters long. He is told that not only peoples of the old testament, Christians and Mahometans, visit Adam’s Peak, but also Chinese, who think it is the place where Buddha landed on Lanka. He notes the Chinese have chiselled out Buddha’s toes in Adam’s foot, and have taken stone relics home with them.

This Chinese interest is indeed confirmed by the visit to Lanka in the fourth century, by three Chinese monks, so ten centuries earlier than Marco Polo and Batutta. The most famous of the Chinese descriptions of Buddhist Lanka is by Fa Xian (337-422). He describes Lanka as the intellectual centre of the Buddhist World which then stretches to what are now Nepal, Tibet, Burma, Siam, Cambodia, China, Korea and Japan, and to the South as far as Java, where it left the unforgettable Borobudur.

Even today Buddhist pilgrims still visit Java for that reason. I myself met monks from Vietnam on top of the Borobudur in the seventies. I will return to all this when I will try to say something about Buddhism on Lanka.

In Europe one of the first records of the island is by the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder (25-79). He tells of four ambassadors being sent to the Emperor Claudius by the King of Lanka. Mention is also made of the pearl fisheries at Mannar, the aforementioned stronghold of Portuguese and Dutch traders on the island (fifteen hundred years later), where Robert Knox found refuge.

The island abounds in aromatic plants. Latin speaks about species, French about épices, English about spices, Dutch about specerijen coming from there. For the Dutch traders the most interesting was cinnamon, of which they claimed and established a monopoly.

I heard a nice story in Lanka that spices had been created around Adams Peak, to comfort Adam arriving on earth after losing paradise.


2.The hydraulic state

It is generally assumed the island was originally inhabited for tens of thousands of years by hunter-gatherers, the Veddah people. They have mostly disappeared, though a few of them provide a tourist attraction even today. In the first millennium before our era agriculture arrived, and brought a revolution. It was brought by people from the north, who gradually colonized the island.

Their main agricultural product was rice. There are two types of rice cultivation, dry and wet. The wet rice has to be planted in un-deep water, and has to grow there for several months, but can be harvested twice a year. This gives it a strategic advantage over dry rice cultivation.

Now Lanka is a hot country. The north is relatively dry; the south, wet. Twice a year there is a dry period. Moreover the rainfall can be absent for a season. This makes wet rice cultivation hazardous and in Lanka’s history famines do occur. The hot climate makes water evaporate quickly. All this turns water into a problem when the population increases and depends on rice as its staple. The rice fields may run dry.

Lanka however is not lacking in rivers. From Adam’s Peak it is said four rivers flow, and the island is traversed by one long river and there are many subsidiaries. So when the island was settled by rice growers, not only the preservation of rainwater in tanks became essential, to flood the fields for wet rice, but even more so the irrigation from rivers.

One can assume that for some centuries at the village level the water from nearby rivers was transported by simple ditches and was piped from tanks and ponds to water the rice fields. These systems of irrigations were small, but more important, privately owned, like they are today.

For a Dutch citizen it may be helpful to compare this with the “polder” system. Here in the delta of rivers and in the proximity of the sea not too little, but too much water is the problem. Individual owners and communities will come together to expel the water from the fields for the dry cultivation of wheat or the grazing of cattle. The polder system of dikes, sluices and ditches and canals and windmills created a system of water control, that gave birth to a hierarchical system of management. Even producing a public functionary called a dijkgraaf, somebody in charge of water management. They used to say that god had created the earth but the Dutch had created their country. The same may be said of Ceylon.

For Lanka is the mirror image of the Netherlands, in that it is largely man made. Not the eviction of water but the distribution of water and its conservation is the main problem to solve for the farmer. And indeed, to the Dutch eye, there is much to admire in the irrigation system of Lanka. And just as there exist one political consensus in Holland that the country should be kept safe from water, in modern Sri Lana the consensus seems to prevail that the irrigation system is a first priority.

Some centuries before our era kings begin to get known for their irrigation works. They will dam rivers to create large lakes, they will transport water from these lakes over tens of kilometres. These huge reservoirs are kilometres in circumference and can be easily spotted on maps and from the air. Water is controlled with a precision that allows for a water flow over twenty kilometres with only a fall in level of a few centimetres between beginning and end. Whole cities, especially capital cities, with hundreds of thousands of inhabitants, are serviced by these hydraulic systems. Similar cases has led the German sociologist Karl Wittfogel to postulate that the real power systems of South and East Asia are based on what he calls the hydraulic state. Though as far as I know he did not study Lanka specifically. He published an impressive book on Oriental Despotism in 1957.

These hydraulic states in Lanka proved to be basically very stable. They combine the sheer necessities of the villagers with the authority of the ruler. For at least a thousand years royal families may rise and fall, but the system is maintained. Only when in 1815 the British take over the kingdom of Kandy and thus the capital of Lanka, the hydraulic system is no longer a first priority. Roads and tea plantations take over. I suppose private property acquires new meanings.

Even the last ruler of Kandy had dammed a river for his city, and made a central lake, which is still as much the defining feature of this capital city as the Vijverberg is to the Hague.


  1. Strains on the hydraulic system

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 Polonnaruwa (the successor royal centre of might) were also housing enormous accommodations for Buddhist monks. These monasteries needed living quarters, eating 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. As I said, 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, built new palaces, new monasteries. And brought the symbol of Buddhism on Lanka, Buddha’s tooth, there.

But when on the coast new exterior invaders appeared in the guise of Europeans, and the wars were lost against their superior wartime technology – the system crumbled and was lost.

Now the Buddhist universities of Lanka, hosting thousands of students from all over Asia, were not only teaching how to become a good follower of the Buddha. They certainly were the intellectual centres of the hydraulic systems, like (say) the technical university of Delft in “polderland”. It strikes one as completely comprehensible that two important branches of knowledge were curated there, which are of great practical value, mathematics and astronomy.

Even in their ruined state the ancient hydraulic works of Lanka show an enormous precision in the layout of the waterworks. If one looks at the bathing places of the universities of a thousand years ago one can only admire the mathematical aesthetics of the lay out. Even more surprising is the view from the top of the mountain of Sigirya, where the royal palace was situated and to see the planning of the city and the parks on both sides of the mountain, which had no visual contact with each other, fully aligned. It is a great work of geodesy. Astronomy and astrology were of course linked to the prediction of weather.

One assumes some deep sentiment bound together the king and the monk, the ruler and the intellectual. One assumes also both were linked from the top to the bottom of the hydraulic state, that is to the village level by a top down burwaucracy.

There is though in the case of Lanka a paradox: how could Buddhism, with 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.


4.The forgotten Buddhism

I noted the obvious tension between the teachings of Buddha and the practice of the royals that subscribed to them. I do not yet know enough about it to theorize, but am intrigued by a few facts. The main fact is the upper class origin of the creed, the other is the austerity of its prescriptions for the good life. In consequence Buddhism was not easily suited to the traditional imagination of a population of farmers and fishermen.

The Buddha (Sidatta Gotama in Pali) was born in noble 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 already 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 affair. What the Brahmin priests were to Hinduism, the Ksatrya (warrior) class was to Buddhism.

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 meant to become a folk religion. It rather places him somewhat alongside Akhenaton, who turned from his polytheistic priests to his new Sun cult – but built himself a new royal city in Amarna. And continued to live with this new religion in style among the upper class circles.

The Buddha nevertheless rejected all that and became a deliverer by sheer personal example and by teaching. Endlessly travelling without settling for good. Always ready to engage with people he met. Indifferent to their caste. Living a very simple life. Ending up lonely, after telling his followers that now they had to take care of themselves, as a hermit in the woods.

Forty five years before he had joined the pre existing ranks of the itinerant monks, well known for their yellow robes. Yet as soon as he hits the road he meets outstanding sages and prominent kings.

His message seems to have easily impressed itself on rulers. 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 to the teachings of Buddha and must somehow have changed his demeanour. But in what way? Kings do not turn into monks once they are in power.

Perhaps the answer may be found in a different place: a division of labour. For the ruling class, the ksatryas, two careers stood open. First to become a politician, who rules by power, guided by the image of the Universal King (cakkavatti). Secondly that of the monk, who rules by teaching, guided by the image of the Enlightened One, the Buddha. Tradition had it that at the birth of Sidatta Gotama there was a division of opinion whether he would become a ruler or a monk. In both capacities one could individually rise above the mediocre and become great, the one by doing great deeds for his people, the other by living an exemplary life. The king would govern the state, the monk the mind. This collaboration by division of labour could also explain the stability of this system, even if individual triumphs or disasters might occur.

I will not go beyond my competence, but may ask a few questions. Why did this aristocratic religion disappear in so many places? Even the Dutch traders of the VOC seem not to have fully grasped the central importance of Buddhism in daily life. There are endless accounts of pagan practices, for instance by the Dutch pastor Baldaeus, but the Buddha is hardly recognized. Even in the Buddhist folk religion of Lanka one sometimes is more struck by the Hindu infiltrations than by the upholding of the Buddha as an example for behaviour. Was his creed perhaps too lofty to survive as the world was rapidly moving to be dominated by merchants, no longer by aristocrats?

After the civil war between the Tamil North, which is not Buddhist, and the South which is predominately Buddhist, Buddhism may today have become more present as a national feature in Sri Lanka. But the feeling today seems rather towards calming down tensions, than starting new conflicts on the basis of religion. The terrible wars of religion in the Middle East at the moment are a negative example for a country that has been cosmopolitan in its experiences over the ages.


  1. The Buddha as an inspiration in art

The Buddha is no longer a hidden presence in Lanka. Buddhism has acquired new political, spiritual and even commercial importance. UNESCO has with the full support of the government created enormous archaeological zones to remember the glorious times of Buddhism in the history of the country. Disappeared cities like ancient Anuradhapura, Pollonaruwa and Sigirya have rightfully acquired the UNESCO status of belonging to the Heritage of Mankind, on the level of say Angkor Wat or the Borobudur or nearer Europe Palmyra. They can still surprise the visitor.

Among these universal treasures are the sculptures of Gal Vihara, near Polonnaruwa, which date from the 12th century and are considered to be the pinnacle of Lanka Buddhist imagery. As art they brought me nearer to the heart of Buddhism.

The Buddha is presented four times, in four different stages of his life.

In the past the separation between the statues was enhanced by partitions, which isolated the stages of Buddha’s development from each other. Comparable to paintings of the Stations of the Cross in Catholic churches. But now that the separate halls have disappeared, one sees the four statues in one swoop. The four stages are deeply hewn into a granite rock, with an energy and a confidence all of their own, thus engraving the human story on the face of nature.

The first statue is of the Buddha sitting under the Bodhi tree. His hands are resting in his lap. He has received the gift of enlightenment, which is that of seeing reality in the face. The reality is twofold: necessity and freedom.

It is a given that the human being, as an individual, is only a temporary form in the unending cycle of transmission of life. Man strives to keep his form, but will fail. The only way of breaking out of this eternal cycle of striving and failing is not to strive at all. To reach a higher stage of acceptance. This stage of individual fulfilment through renunciation of striving is called nirvana. Individual man is doomed to strive and die but can be liberated by accepting death of desire.

It should be said that this Spinoza-like insight in nature as a godlike power and acceptance of nature both as an inevitability and as a chance for individual freedom, was achieved by Buddha sitting still under a specific Bodhi tree. Which tree he seemed to have thanked for its hospitality afterwards, showing his abdication of any special status as a human in nature.

A sapling of this tree was brought to Anuradhapura in the third century B.C., and still lives there after more than two thousand years. It is said to be the oldest living tree on earth, leaning its ancient branches on supports ordered by kings a millennium ago and cared for by gardeners of the same family for seven centuries.

I suppose the botanical name of the tree, which is ficus religiosa, refers to the visit by Buddha. The area around the tree is also considered to be sacred. Thousands of saplings of this tree have been planted all over Lanka, to create new holy places. In fact the creating of holy spaces in the world of delusion is the task of monks, as long as they are holy themselves.

This first statue, which is to the left, is remarkable through its calmness and equipoise. It is fully absorbed in itself. It suggest a solution.

The second statue is not much different, with the hands resting in the same way, but puts the Buddha, on a somewhat smaller scale in a dark cave, hacked out deeper in the rock. Though the gesture (mudra) is still the same, that of example rather than of spreading the gospel, it is considered to be the Buddha in his second role, as a teacher to the world. It could be that the darkness of the grotto is symbolic of the unenlightened world. Moreover he is flanked by the Hindu images of Vishnu and Brahma. He is not alone.

The third statue is of a surprisingly tall (7 meter) standing man. By his forceful body and his commanding presence, many have thought him to be a king. But he is probably the Buddha (after enlightenment and after teaching), giving up on the world. The gesture is that of arms folded. The mudra of suffering with the world.

There lies something extremely melancholic on the face and the attitude of the man, who looks at the world with the knowledge that it will not change. It is not so much defeat, but resignation which I read in this very impressive sculpture. It is standing at the edge of the world and at a distance to life.

The fourth hall, which also has disappeared, contained the biggest statue (14 meters). It is of the Buddha at the moment of death. Though mostly described as a sleeping Buddha and imitated elsewhere like that, for me it had nothing of the relaxation one associates with sleep. The head is slightly lifted off the hand and the cushion, on which it should rest in slumber. The eyes are not seeing but breaking, the feet seem to be slipping. It carries associations with giving up breathing, breathing one’s last.

The wall that in the past separated the Buddha just before death to the left and just after death to the right has now disappeared. The confrontation of the living Buddha giving up hope and the peaceful Buddha giving up life made for an unforgettable artistic experience.

I had difficulty to control my emotions.


Post scriptum: in case I had time I would read the poem of Wang Wei (699-761) about old age, Buddhist in sentiment, and an example of Buddha influencing artists far away.



Herfstnacht, zittend, alleen


Alleen zittend ben ik bedroefd

Omtrent mijn beide slapen

In het lege vertrek

Weldra de tweede wake

In de regen vallen vruchten

Van het gebergte

Onder de lamp

In het gras

klagen insecten

Witte haren zijn niet licht te vervangen

Het blonde goud is niet verkrijgbaar

Hoe ouderdom en ziekte te vermijden?

Simpel weg de niet-geboorte


Wang Wei (699-760)


Buddhist poem about old age.


Relevant literature:

Karen Armstrong
Penguin Group, New York, 2001


Voyageurs arabes
Ibn Fadlân, Ibn Jubayr, Ibn Battuta et un auteur anonyme
Paule Charles-Dominique, transl.
Gallimard, Paris, 1995


The Sri Lanka Reader; history, culture, politics
John Clifford Holt, editor
Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2011


The Pelican History of Art: The Art and Architecture of India

Benjamin Rowland
Penguin Books Ltd, Bungay, Suffolk, 1967 3rd edition


Oriental Despotism, a comparative study of total power
Karl A. Wittfogel
Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut, 1957