Vinod Moonesinghe, in an original essay bearing the title “Agricultural nation, a myth?” ……… … now reproduced with a different title and with highlIghting imposed by The Editor, ThuppaHI
“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” — L.P. Hartley, The go-between
Recent shortages of milk powder, wheat flour and even rice have brought into perspective Sri Lanka’s lack of food security. The situation has been exacerbated by growing dependence on imports of wheat – which rose from half a million tonnes in 1980 to nearly 1.5 million tonnes in 2020. This lack of food security has re-kindled an argument about the role of agriculture in Sri Lanka’s economy, which has extended into the realms of historiography.
When former secretary general of UNCTAD Gamini Corea wrote “Sri Lanka has always been predominantly an agricultural economy since ancient times,” he reflected historical orthodoxy. However, a revisionist historical school has emerged, holding that this view of Sri Lanka, as an agricultural country, the granary of the East, reflects a myth. For example, Former Central Bank deputy governor WA Wijewardena says that “A widely-held view by many Sri Lankans is that Sri Lanka was an agriculture-based economy in the past and it should be so even in the future. The first part of this argument is only half-true.”He thinks that in the ancient past, Sri Lanka had an “open economy”, in which trade occupied as important a place as agriculture.
Science Fiction writer Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, similarly, concludes that “the evidence for this conversation is thin to non-existent.” He argues that accounts in medieval chronicles, of the size of the army of Parakramabahu I, and hence of the then population, are highly exaggerated.
These arguments appear to boil down to three main points:
- The system of agriculture was backward in comparison to today’s
- Sri Lanka didn’t have a large population, especially compared to contemporary civilisations and
- Trade was as important as agriculture, if not more so.
Interestingly, the revisionists’ main pivot is against self-reliance in production in the contemporary economy, by denying the idea of self-reliance in the past.
Modern capitalist agriculture has many advantages over ancient methods. Hybrid seeds yield far higher than traditional varieties. Weedicides eliminated female labour in the paddy field. Pesticides eliminated many insect enemies of crops.
But this does not tell the whole story. Ancient Sri Lankans built 30,000 irrigation tanks, of which fewer than 8,000 remain in operation today, part of a sophisticated pattern of tank cascade systems – each tank being part of a complex ecosystem, minimising bird and insect damage to crops, and ensuring renewal of soil nutrients and leeching out of salts. Farmers used the fresh soil of beds of silted-up tanks for paddy, constructing replacement tanks upstream. Traditional paddy varieties required less nutrition than modern hybrids, and were sturdier and more resistant to weeds, insects, and disease– so they required no weedicides or pesticides. With such a sophisticated irrigation system, farmers must also have known complex methods of cultivation. For example, traditionally they sowed three seasons annually, compared to two today.
Apart from irrigated paddy fields,forests comprised an important agricultural sector – villagers used them as watersheds, [a source of] forest products (herbs, roots, spices, fruits) and for eco-friendly, rain-fed chena (swidden) vegetable cultivation for the market. They also grew vegetables in home gardens, using ground moisture.
The diet was completely different. We had no papaw, tomato, chilli, potato, or manioc, which all came from the Americas. People flavoured their food with forest products, such as pepper (the original miris), cinnamon, and karapincha – so they did not need to grow it separately. The Portuguese soldier João Ribeiro reported that the villagers did not need to pluck pepper, just waiting for it to fall – making it of the highest quality – as it was so abundant.
Although the European invaders destroyed this system of agriculture, some of it remained extant in the Kandyan kingdom until the 1800s, when British colonial treasurer Anthony Bertolacci reported that the kingdom of Kandy exported rice.
The area under cultivation during the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa periods dwarfed what is available today. Centuries of destruction turned millions of acres back to jungle – the Vanni alone contains 650,000 hectares, of which a substantial amount must have been cultivated. To this must be added enormous tracts of land, now under tea and rubber, which once comprised paddy or forest land, taken from the community and granted to planters. Such a large extent could have supported a sizeable population, while leaving a considerable exportable surplus. Parakramabahu I must have required a significant surplus to enable his invasions of Myanmar and South India, and to hold onto Rameswaram for decades against the onslaughts of the mighty Chola empire.
Each of the 30,000 ancient tanks must have been associated with a village, each with an average population of about 300, giving about 9 million for the rural population. With the population of Anuradhapura and other cities, one might get a total of ten million. UNK Rathnayake concludes cautiously, from literary sources (which, he holds, reflect contemporary official statistics), that the population in the Polonnaruwa era may have been greater than today (the Pujavaliya giving 21 million and Rathnayake calculating 50 million from the Damabadeni Asna). Of course, these figures should be treated with care.
Wijeratne says that if this were the case, Sri Lanka would have a comparable population to the Roman Empire (about 60 million). The Ancient city of Rome had a population of a million in 12 km.2 We do not know the population of ancientAnuradhapura, but we do know it had an area of 40 km2, slightly larger than modern Colombo, and dwarfing ancient Rome. Also, Rome depended on highly inefficient slave labour, requiring a much larger population for the same surplus – it survived by importing Egyptian grain, paid for by plunder from foreign expeditions.
Wijeratne suggests that to get to the 1871 census figure of 2.4 million, from 21 million in the reign of Parakramabahu I (1123-1186 CE), would require a ten-fold reduction in population, “a 500-year extinction that should have gone noticed.”
But did it go unnoticed? We know there was a collapse of the Anuradhapura kingdom around 1000 CE, and that following this there was a gradual decline up to 1400. In this period, the centre of population shifted from the Dry Zone to the Wet Zone, with a corresponding shrinkage in population. The 13th century saw the depopulation of the dry zone, as Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa fell into disrepair.
This slow, 400-year collapse was accompanied by a drastic loss of technology. Jill Juleff discovered many wind-blown blast furnaces dating from the 7th to 11th centuries, producing high-quality iron and steel. This technology appears subsequently to have been lost, and Ananda Coomaraswamy noted regressive methods of steel making in his report on Sabaragamuwa.
Sri Lanka also accepted large immigrant numbers in this period. Entire castes appeared from South India, brought with them various skills, apparently those lost in the local population. For instance, the Salagamas came over from Kerala as weavers. The influence of South Indian masons on the architecture can be seen in temples such as the monastery at Gadaladeniya, near Kandy.
In ancient times, drastic population reduction took place regularly. Even with an abundance of food, there could be crop failures. According to WI Siriweera, in his History of Sri Lanka: From Earliest Times Up to the Sixteenth Century, famines occurred at 100-200 year intervals, but the only major one in the 12th century reign of Parakramabahu II of Dambadeniya, caused by drought; followed closely by another in the time of Bhuvenakabahu I. Smallpox ravaged the land at the time of Sirisangabo (reputedly killing half the population) and may have destroyed the army of Prince Sakka in the Pandya country in the 10th century – enabling the victory of Paranataka I Chola.
Thus, population loss, especially a gradual one, may have been unremarkable. Any long-term population decline must have taken place for more than one reason. It has been attributed to a variety of causes, including war, famine, epidemics, malaria and even water salination. The Portuguese chronicler de Queyroz claimed that the abandonment of Anuradhapura took place due to war, smallpox, famine, and the plague.
With a large, exportable food surplus, it seems unlikely that ancient Sri Lanka would not have traded in these commodities. Sri Lanka definitely exported cinnamon and areca nuts. Add gems (especially garnets), pearls, steel, and elephants, and it becomes clear that trade must have been important. However, the question is whether it was as important as made out by the revisionists.
A measure of the importance of trade may be the substantial grants made to Buddhist monasteries. Most monarchs made presents of land, sometimes whole villages to the viharas. For example, according to the Mahavamsa, Vasabha granted 1008 karisa (3000 ha) of land to the Anurarama Vihara, near Mahagama. These reports in the chronicles are generally replicated in the epigraphic records.
On the other hand, the evidence for trade-related grants is very sketchy. One example stands out: the port of Godavaya was an entrepot between Far East and Middle East, as well as the outlet for exports coming down the Walawe River. The Mahavamsa states that Mahallaka Naga built a monastery there. Three inscriptions have been found there, one of which says that “Gamini Abhaya” (Gajaba I) granted the customs duties of the port to the vihara. Another inscription states that Gajaba’s queen, Ahalaya Bathikamithaya, granted six karisa (18 ha) of land to the vihara.
This suggests that the total customs revenues from this important port were equivalent to the production of the land given to a single monastery, the Anurarama Vihara, one of several thousand around the country, which received land grants. It puts the relative importance of overseas trade in context.
Of course, the foregoing does not prove the revisionists wrong, but places their arguments in the perspective of those times, exposing several anachronistic flaws in their assumptions. Further research may be warranted, to explore the extent of trade and estimate the actual population during that epoch.
…. and … as a reminder of his and our past
.. . with his approval of Darwin’s contribution to knowledge
3 responses to “Was Sri Lanka an Agricultural Nation in Ancient Times?”
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When you quote former Central Bank Deputy Governor, WA Wijewardena, you are quoting a comedian. A comedian who says that the “Suddas” did a lot for Sri Lanka, including building a railway system for us. I had to ask Wijewardena whether his heroic Suddas built railways for us to go on leisure trips. We knew from long ago that Wijewardena had no aptitude for quantitative stuff ( that is, when we interacted with him at official meetings). But once he started paying poojaa to the Suddas is interviews with the media, we also realized that he was ignorant of the economic history of Sri Lanka.
His heroes are our colonial occupiers, and the IMF.
So, please don’t take anything he says seriously. A good example is his statement which you quote in your writeup. Absolutely no evidence to back up, and as you say “he THINKS.” Yes, he thinks a lot of things which are absurd.
Discussing Food security in ancient Lanka cannot be done purely on the basis of water supply, while ignoring Nutrients and energy inputs.
Mr. Munasinghe suggests that “the revisionists’ main pivot is against self-reliance in production in the contemporary economy, by denying the idea of self-reliance in the past”.
I do not know what W.A. Wijayawardena has written, but I have held (and frequently written, and taught since 1970s) that modern Lanka can, and must achieve self sufficiency in food and energy, but this can only be done using modern methods. This is not a hypothesis as Lanka DID achieve self sufficiency in rice several times in the past and then fell back. Note that food production cannot be dissociated from energy production.
However, the ancient agricultural system (with all its system of cascading tanks and canals) only ensured subsistence levels of food to the population. This is simply based on the fact that the food output depends not only on the availability of water, but also on the availability of adequate amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous in the soil. This is not even mentioned in Mr. Munasinghe;s write up.
The cascade tank system cannot supply N, P, K etc.
Furthermore, efficient food production needs higher energy inputs than is possible using only human or animal labour. Today, every kilo of wheat has an essential amount of energy (e.g., via electricity or diesel) incorporated in it. So a discussion of the energy content of the agricultural effort is essential. However, I will not take it up here as I have written many articles about it elsewhere.
Munasnghe and others who I think support “traditional agriculture”, “organic farming” etc., somehow fail to look at the yields per hectare, labour and energy inputs per kg of harvest, macro and micro-nutrients needed for plant growth, that are taught to our students who are doing agriculture, food science, environmental science etc. However, they are not part of the content of traditional agriculture that emphasizes time according to astrological and lunar configurations and other occult signs (“See books like “Kalyal Balaa Govithaena” etc).
Taking some ideological stand alone can be misleading. Extolling the grandeur of the past is important but we must also understand why those civilizations failed. How the tank system was vulnerable to damage, mosquitoes, and the difficulties of consistent maintenance. We cannot go back to the past model that could only sustain about 1-3 people per hectare of cultivate land. So it cannot support a population of 22 million people.
The very availability of water, so necessary for paddy cultivation, is also the main cause of leaching out nutrients from the soil more rapidly than with dry crops (e.g., wheat). In orthodox paddy cultivation, water is retained in the field to kill weeds, and then released. This practice leads to extensive soil erosion and removal of nutrient. While small amount of nitrogen is provided by lightening and from soil bacteria, they may provide about one tonne per hectare of crop at the best of times. However, after a few years of exploitation the soil runs out of nutrients (even if inter-cropped with mung), and hence has to be left fallow for some time. In the meantime, a new location (“aluth kumbura”, or “aluth hena”) is created by burning virgin forest. The burning process produces ash which provides potash, nitrogen and other nutrients for the “aluth hena” which is cultivated until the old filed left fallow (“purankumbura”) gets covered by vegetation (“mukalana”) that will be burnt down in due course.
The numbers (one metric tonne per hectare) may improve to about 1.8 metric tonnes per hectare in a fresh “kumbura”, but will dwindle down. These numbers can be shown to be correct from data that we can glean from colonial records of harvests in the Kandyan kingdom (prior to British capture of Kandy), and from British records around 1900 prior to the introduction of modern seeds or modern fertilizers and pesticides. These were discussed in our “seminar” conducted in December 2022 about several aspects of Lankan agriculture. You can access our discussions that I coordinated, with many international scientists of Sri Lankan origin participated at the website:
There the emphasis was on the question of weather conventional fertilizers could be replaced by using advances in soil microbial technologies.
One should also go back to the place in the ancient literature in Lanka and elsewhere regarding the frequent claim that Lanka was the granary of the East. No one seems to actually look at the original text of this claim, but merely quote it without verification.
The claim that Sri Lanka was the “granary of the East” is somewhat similar to the claim in the Bible that Egypt is the Granary of the world, or that “Sapta-Sindhu” (Panjab) was the granary of Jambudveepa. There were moments of excess harvests in Sri Lanka, and even export of grain on a number of occasions. But this was NOT a standard practice. In fact most of the time the majority of ancient Lankans lived in a state of near famine, as well as periodic extreme famine when people and even the upper classes (monks, Adigars and Royalty) died. The Thripitaka was written down at Aluvihara when thousands of monks died and there was fear that the Dhamma (handed down by memory and recital) will also vanish. This was during the “Baeminitiya Saeya”. Prof. Siriweera, historian at Rajarata University has studied the precariousness of ancient food supply. His research is also available in popular articles. See the Daily News article (03-Oct-2012) where he says that “Whatever it is, the average peasant lived at low subsistence level. His plight is lucidly described in the thirteenth century classic Pujavali which states that after each harvest by labouring hard, what was left to the cultivator of the soil and his family was barely sufficient for him to subsist on until the next harvest“. Some empirical data on famines associated with droughts have been obtained from the study of the thickness of the rings in tree trunks of ancient trees and show that small tanks dried out easily and persistent populations were most likely to be limited to the larger tanks.
Captain Percival’s Account of Ceylon, written at the turn of the 18th century becoming the 19th century also provides important information about ancient agriculture and its subsistence-level low outputs.
It is also interesting to look back on Egypt and the claim in the Biblical literature that Egypt was the granary of the Ancient world. The River Nile by its annual flooding did what the monsoons did in Lanka but with greater predictability. No tanks or reservoirs were needed, and crops produced were able to support population densities of 2.5 people per hectare (see K. W. Butzer, Early Hydraulic Civilizations in Egypt, Chicago U. press 1976, and other more recent publications mainly by Butzer and collaborators). I find that similar calculations for likely populations in Lanka’s ancient dry-zone population could not have bettered that of ancient Egypt.
It is interesting that many of the advisors of President Gotabhaya (and previously President Sirisena) who misled them to ban herbicides like Glyphosate, and fertilizers etc., always harp on the cascade tank system of the ancients etc., but seem to completely forget about the need for N, P, K and a whole host of other macro- and micro-nutrients for plant growth. I myself, and many other scientists had noted the pseudo-science that was being pushed by Ven, Ratana, Champika Ranawaka, Prof. Nalin de Silva, Channa Jayasumana, Sanath Goonatillke (medic from California), Ranil Senanayake, and the clairvoyant (the late Ms) Senanayake from about 2012 onwards. So we began writing against such claims since a decade ago, using quantitative data.
I hope Mr. Vinod Munasinghe’s article would lead readers to dig out the material where quantitative comparisons of yields from experimental plots farmed using traditional methods as well as modern methods have been presented (some at at MahaIlluppllama research station, and some at Peradeniya). There also been some monitoring of the levels of traces of toxins to show that the harvests are perfectly safe, nutritious, and yield four to 6 times the harvests from traditional agriculture with less need of water, less erosion and less green-house gas emissions as no composting or extensive tilling of land, manual weeding (that exposes the soil) are needed. And yet, the fear psychosis generated by so-called “environmentalists” who read stuff relevant to California and apply it as is to Sri lanka ultimately led to Gotabhaya banning all agro-chemicals. He earned to kudos of Prince Charles, Vandana Shiva, and the environmental NGOs funded by the West, but GR’s actions laid the foundations of food shortages and further disabled the export agricultural sector that had been disabled since 2015 by Sirisena’s ban of glyphosate.
I have also written elsewhere about Vandana Shiva’s academic attempts to become a theoretical Physicist in Canada and her subsequent (on return to India) embrace of an anti-science agricultural political platform (involving the opposition to genetically modified foods, golden rice etc.) and opposition to modern sees.
See also my article in 2015 about how the embrace of organic food even as a “niche” product will lead to a two tier food system.