11 December 2011

There are no tanks, only wevas

Ten years ago, covering an alleged ‘drought’ in the South Eastern Dry Zone for ‘The Island’, I came across a man called Peter Wise, who had spent around 30 years in the region.  All he did, this colourful man told me, was to plant trees and build wevas, ‘not tanks’ (he added).   He insisted that the terms ‘tank’ and ‘reservoir’ are woefully inadequate as equivalents of the Sinhala ‘weva’. 
The weva is made of a dam, is designed to contain water, has a spill and a mechanism to regulate the release of water, i.e. a sluice.  That’s technical.  It is also cultural because even engineering structures have specifically social relevancies.  It is about the purposes of water conservation, the usage patterns and the philosophies that inform the methodologies.  The weva is not an artifact contained by the economic but something that both spills over to cultural domains and is also fed by lifestyles, values and ways of being. 
The ‘weva’ was never a single entity but part of a socio-economic-cultural entirety.  In a purely physical sense, they were always parts of systems, cascade in character.  It’s the last (and indeed the first) word in efficient water management; from the polkatu (coconut-shell) weva to the kulu (winnowing fan) weva to the kuda (small) weva to the maha (large) weva to the samudra (great/oceanic).  It was for irrigation as well as bathing and watering cattle.  It raised water tables and made for wells that continued to have water even during the drought.  It encompassed the waters this side of the diyaketapahana or the marker indicating levels when the weva was full (and thereby the no-go zone so to speak of highland cultivation) as well as the catchment. 
It was built collectively and maintained in the same manner while water-released occurred under the supervision of the wel vidane (superintendent of the tract of land).   It belonged to the village and indeed was the village, with countless villages taking their names from wevas and vice versa, such is the integrity of the two entities.  The well-being of the weva necessitated the protection of the forests that constituted its catchment.  The forests were harvested, true, but not in unsustainable ways.  Dead branches were cut for firewood, those plants that had medicinal value were sought and the relevant parts extracted. There was no abuse. 

All in the past?  All idyllic and not relevant to today?  I am not sure.  Deep down we are a nation of people that value trees, even the most modest of households, whether located in a shanty community or crumbling complex of ‘flats’, you will find a flower plant and most likely a chillie plant and a spinach vine.  
Way back in the year 2001 ‘drought’ was manufactured by an FM station and the South Eastern Dry Zone was literally hit with bottled water to a point where some who had an inside track on the largesse-business distributed bottles of water to guests at the weddings of their children.  I recounted thus:
‘In the midst of political maneuvers, racketeering and the intensification of old rivalries and the opening of new wounds, there are things that stand out, speaking of that which is noble in human beings. In Thanamalvila, some youths did not forget the salient fact that animals too are suffering and that human being need animals for their own survival and sense of ecological balance. These young people had taken barrels out into the jungle and filled the water holes so that the deer, the elephants, the birds and reptiles can slake their thirst. In certain places, people organised themselves to do the sustainable thing-they decided to offer their labour to construct or rehabilitate their village irrigation works.’
I will never forget what Peter said then: ‘Where the state doesn’t do, the people must’  And people, by and large, do.  Still.  And yet, there is always the danger of forgetting, the danger of succumbing to glitter, the dominant paradigms which are made of and for ‘here and now’ but typically vilify heritage and knowledge systems that have stood the test of time while compromising the future beyond the point of resurrection. 
All it takes, though, is to sit by a weva, big or small, sit long enough to watch the synergies between human and natural world, to realize how fragile we really are and how dependent on nature’s gifts.  All it takes is to see how certain natural cataclysms wreck man’s best laid plans to re-learn the humility so necessary for species survival. 
We don’t take enough notice of the weva. It is a civilization-marker, though.  It is who we were and who we are even now. It could very well be the who-we-are-not someday and who knows, that not-being could spell the end of everything that we can be for all time. 
The wars of the twenty first century, they say, will be over water.  It will be about access to waterways.  It will become more political than it is now.  Through it all, ‘weva’ will be more than ‘water’ and more than those who indulge in its bounties. It will be our past and the future that is at stake. 
When dams break, strong men weep. When dams break, villages are abandoned.  It is good to remember that there are many kinds of damns, many wevas.  It is good to know that they are not necessarily made for exhibitions but that their relevance in the final instance depends on they constituting a key element of our beings and the signature of all development thrusts.  That’s what I feel. 


sandika said...

Your beautiful article reminds me of a beautiful song sung by Mr. Sunil Edirisinghe …
’me tharm siyumelida kalugal sithannatawath beri nisa … mama giya awukana Budun that desa dun minisa soya ….

There is a beautiful line that shows the connection between the weva and the Sri lankan people ……. The bond that they truly maintained …. weva is the ‘heart ‘of our people … it tells us the realities of life ….it strengthen the hands of our artists ….

‘ kala wewa langa illuk hevanaka meti pidaka pedurak elaa…. Ridum pirimadimin balai ohu merena ipadena rala dihaa’

Fazli Sameer said...

Origin of the word TANK taken from dictionary.com

1610–20; perhaps jointly < Gujarati tānkh reservoir, lake, and Portuguese tanque, contraction of estanque pond, literally, something dammed up, derivative of estancar (< Vulgar Latin *stanticāre ) to dam up, weaken; adopted as a cover name for the military vehicle during the early stages of its manufacture in England (December, 1915)


Wewa was the lifeline.....is the lifeline....and will be the lifeline of the dry zone of Sri Lanka. It enthroned kings in the past.It is a vote getter in the present and if the state overlooks them anarchy would be the order.........