Was Sri Lanka an Agricultural Nation in Ancient Times?

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

.. . with his approval of Darwin’s contribution to knowledge


Filed under ancient civilisations, architects & architecture, art & allure bewitching, demography, economic processes, heritage, historical interpretation, island economy, landscape wondrous, politIcal discourse, sri lankan society, transport and communications, travelogue, world events & processes

3 responses to “Was Sri Lanka an Agricultural Nation in Ancient Times?

  1. Pingback: https://www.elanka.ca | Was Sri Lanka an Agricultural Nation in Ancient Times?-by Michael Roberts - https://www.elanka.ca

  2. N. Goonewardena

    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.

  3. chandre+DW

    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.


    Chandre Dharmawardana.

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