Introducing PUL ELIYA by Edmund R. Leach

This is a ‘servicing item’ introducing an anthropological study in the North Central Province which appeared in 1961 and, as such, is an essential preliminary to an impending item that was one aspect of the Roberts Oral History Project of 1965-69, namely. the comments on some of Leach’s findings from several British and Ceylonese public servants with some experience of the Dry Zone and its villages and/or colonization projects…. with thanks to Nadeeka Paththuwaarachchi of Colombo environs for her typing work.

ABSTRACT: The North Central Province of Ceylon was the focus of a major civilization which flourished between the third century B.C. and the twelfth century A.D. The area is an arid plain where habitation is possible only with the help of an elaborate irrigation system; and the existing villages use the same irrigation works as the villages of antiquity. This book is a detailed analysis of how land is owned, used and transmitted to later generations in one of these irrigation-based communities, the village of Pul Eliya.

The main emphasis is placed on the way in which, in this community, the ties of kinship and marriage are related to property rights and the practices of land use. The approach to this question provides a critical test of certain features of the theory and method of contemporary social anthropology. The factual evidence is in some respects very detailed, the author allows the analysis to speak for itself wherever possible, and avoids wide generalizations.

This book is an original and scholarly contribution to social anthropology; as such, it is primarily directed at professional anthropologists interested in the general theory of kinship. But since it also constitutes a detailed local study of the Ceylonese system of land tenure, it is relevant to historians of medieval Ceylon and ‘feudal’ societies in general, and to sociologists.


List of Illustrations                                                                                page     vii

Acknowledgements                                                                                             xi

Note to the Reader                                                                                            xiii

I      Introduction                                                                                                  1

II     Pul Eliya: The General Background                                                      13

III   The Pul Eliya Land Map                                                                          43

IV   The Kinship System                                                                                  67

V    Traditional Land Tenure                                                                        145

  1. The Theory of Traditional Tenure                                                   147
  2. Plot Succession in the Old Field, 1890—1954                              177

VI    Non-Traditional Land Tenure                                                            217

VII   The Organisation and Reward of Labour                                       241

  1. The old Field                                                                242
  2. Tank Fishing                                                               286
  3. Shifting Cultivation                                                   289

VIII Conclusion                                                                                      296


1     Description of a Variga-Sabha                                                     307

2    The Troubles of Ranhamyge Punchirala (X: 4)                          310

3    Index to Personal Names                                                                 321

4    Demographic Information                                                             332

References                                                                                                  334

General Index

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A COMMENT by Michael Roberts, December 2020:

Because my D Phil. dissertation work was on British land policies in the 19th century I was familiar with BH Farmer’s book on Pioneer Peasant Colonization  in Ceylon (1957) and ER Leach’s book on Pul Eliya (1961). I had also called on both scholars during one of my occasional visits to Cambridge to met my pals Mark Coory and Gerald Peiris (while Leach also served as one of my Examiners when my i dissertation was tested in mid 1965). Though I was aware that Leach had served in Burma during the Second World War  and written a book on highland Burma, it was not till I read the bio-data in Wikipedia this week that I learn that (A) Leach was from Devon and been educated at Marlborough College and Clare College Cambridge; and (B) taken up a mercantile job in Hong Kong in 1933 before (C) a chance meeting took him to “the island of Botel Tobago off the coast of Formosa [where he] “spent several months among the Yami of Botel Tobago, an island off the coast of Formosa”….  [and where]  he took ethnographic notes and specifically focused his efforts on local boat design” –[work that] resulted in a 1937 article in the anthropology journal Man;” and (C) that this encouraged him to study “social anthropology at the London School of Economics with Raymond Firth who introduced him to Bronisław Malinowski;  [so that] he was an active member of Malinowski’s “famous seminar”.

A classic tale is it not! So let me conclude with a shot of the young man Leach.

A PERSONAL COMMENT from Dr. GERALD PEIRIS, 21 December 2020:Michael, …. E R Leach was elected Provost of King’s College in 1966 – considered one of the most prestigious posts at Cambridge, typically  the preserve of the blue blooded. He came for two or three of our Ceylon Society meetings during the three years I was there, and was a regular at BHF’s [Farmer’s]  annual Sherry Parties, and at the one held in the final spell of my sojourn  at Cambridge Farmer introduced me to Leach as Dr Peiris, and corrected himself saying, “he will soon be Doctor Gerald Peiris”. That was a huge psychological boost to me because at that time I was in mourning after hearing of my brother Patrick’s death in a road accident.  Regards, Gerry”

A FIELD RESEARCHER’S COMMENT from Dr Amarasiri De Silva, 21 December 2020:

Dear Michael, I enjoyED reading this information. I did not have the fortune of seeing Edmond Leach myself. However, his work has a lasting influence on my work.

Pul Eliya by Leach has an interesting reference to Stanley Tambiah’s early work published in a book form – The book is the following: ‘Sarkar N.K., Tambiah S.J. “The disintegrating village. Report of a socio-economic survey conducted by the University of Ceylon.”

Leach’s argument is summarized by Russell Bernard in his well-known methodology book -Research Methods in Anthropology-as follows: “In 1957, N. K. Sarkar and S. J. Tambiah published a study, based on questionnaire data, about economic and social disintegration in a Sri Lankan village. They concluded that about two-thirds of the villagers were landless. The British anthropologist, Edmund Leach, did not accept that finding (Leach 1967). He had done participant-observation fieldwork in the area and knew that the villagers practiced patrilocal residence after marriage. By local custom, a young man might receive use of some of his father’s land even though legal ownership might not pass to the son until the father’s death. In assessing land ownership, Sarkar and Tambiah asked whether a ‘‘household’’ had any land, and if so, how much. They defined an independent household as a unit that cooked rice in its own pot. Unfortunately, all married women in the village had their own rice pots. So, Sarkar and Tambiah wound up estimating the number of independent households as very high and the number of those households that owned land as very low. Based on these data, they concluded that there was gross inequality in land ownership and that this characterized a ‘‘disintegrating village’’ (the title of their book).

Don’t conclude from Leach’s critique that questionnaires are ‘‘bad,’’ while participant observation is ‘‘good.’’ I can’t say often enough that participant observation makes it possible to collect quantitative survey data or qualitative interview data from some sample of a population. Qualitative and quantitative data inform each other and produce insight and understanding in a way that cannot be duplicated by either approach alone. Whatever data collection methods you choose, participant observation maximizes your chances for making valid statements’. ……………. Best regards, Amarasiri

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