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I had been several days in the field. My driver and guide, Amara, put everything he had into showing me, cajoling me, convincing me to wrap my head around the facts and features of small tank ecosystems.

It started with the curve of the bund (dike), the enclosing structure for each tank. You’d think it would be curved inward, like an archway against the water. Or, like every depiction, including most of the topo maps I looked at, flat against the water. But my feet and eyes and camera saw something else. All of the bunds were convex, spread across the water like an open pair of welcoming arms. How many questions did this bring up? How many new ways of considering tank structure, how water behaves in tanks and looming large – the question of tank evolution: How did they come to be, and how did they last so long?
Further on in our walks he showed me the trees, margosa and kumbuk, the latter he explained to clean up the water in the tank. “Sure,” I answered, as I struggled to learn their names, recognize them, and reckon them – their placement, their characteristics. But when I read about kumbuk out of curiosity (clean the water? Really?) I understood that Amara had shown me the real deal. Kumbuk as a dike protector. Kumbuk as a shade producer. Kumbuk as a water cleanser. Structurally and physiologically the kumbuk absorbs, covers, sequesters.

Many details over many days. Small and large details recorded with the camera, on paper, and mentally. Watching the uses. Learning the angles, literally, at which the water was persuaded to flow. Tiring each other out with so much walking. So much stopping. So much feeling the breeze on a hot day at a certain position on the bund. So many floating flowers, some, like the lotus, attached at the bottom. Some fallen and floating on the black surface of the water.

On day four, after steady work, Amara needed a break. Maybe I did too. His usual maximum gig is about three days, taking tourists to Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, and Mihintale. We did a couple of half days, finally just an hour one morning when I had my head massage by Asanta, the village barber, and took a walk out to the amazing Kaludiya Pokuna. My second visit there. Now drenched in oil.

That afternoon, which was to be my last, Amara drove up to the university guesthouse excited and animated. He had done a little bit of asking around and found out about a tank with its ancient infrastructure intact.

We drove out late in the afternoon, a moment before the sun started to go down. To get to the tank we parked along a busy road. A bit too busy for comfort. A road bisecting the stream from the spillway to the left and the rice fields to our right. A British road.

We walked along the stream captured from the spillway. Made our way over slippery rocks and an intermediate dike, past a dozen villagers bathing under the spillway. And up to the tank. Facing the catchment, to our right, a huge boulder. The only way up was by grabbing an ant-covered branch and swinging your way up to the top of the boulder. I stayed down. “Because you’re too old!” Amara mocked, and took my camera for some photos of the spillway. Then down just as fast and in the fading light, across the bund to the other side. Through tall grass that he skipped into and I followed, avoiding snakes he didn’t mention. And on to the secondary spillway.

You can see 2000 year-old stones anywhere. And they can be found in structures more imposing, more beautiful, and more monumental than the spillway. But here I learned my lesson.

Amara had pointed out, and you can read it in the scientific papers too, that the dikes are anchored on either side by rock outcroppings. I’d seen it 20 times, but jetlag and disorientation and dehydration and the strangeness of it all had muddled my senses. Now. Here. In the weakening light of early evening. The Maha Mankadawala Tank spillway taught me: When a rock outcrop wasn’t available the ancients had to build one. The massive structure of finely finished stones, this one with an ancient, still-functioning sluice gate built inside – took the place of a rock outcrop.

What did this teach me? Something you might consider a quintessentially Sri Lankan lesson. The spillway is the most important part of the tank. More important than the structure holding the water is the structure that releases water. More important than the water impounded is the water that flows out. More of this to come as we move forward with this project.
(Samuel Hammer is an Associate Professor of the Boston University)

Maha Mankadawala (3) Maha Mankadawala (2) Maha Mankadawala (4)