Wednesday, April 3, 2013

What’s lost in Yakkure

What’s lost in Yakkure: Transformation from old village to new settlement

Dhanesh Wisumperuma

The Nation, 2013-02-24, Fine, p. 6-7

Lush paddy fields with Dimbulagala in the backdrop

The mountain seen over the paddy fields to the east of us was the well known Dimbulagala. Rising above the flat terrain and glittering under the afternoon sun, it resembled the cultural and religious heritage of the area we were walking in. The lush green of the paddy, after the recent rains was pleasant to the eyes. Beyond the line of vegetation should be the Handapan Villu, an important wetland. One of the schoolteachers who accompanied us pointed at few tamarind trees on our path and scattered among paddy fields. Tamarind trees are signs of human habitation and this reminded me of a statement in Dr R L Spittel’s Wild Ceylon, “… itself was a negligently palisaded hamlet nestling in a grove of tamarinds, in full view of a beautiful Wewa” These could be the same trees.

We were walking towards Yakkure, or the old abandoned Yakkure village, known to some interesting Sri Lankans. Yakkure is a small village situated in Dimbulagala DS Division in the Polonnaruwa District. On the map, this village is situated within a distance of a little over ten kilometers from Polonnaruwa on the other side of Mahaweli. However one has to take an encircling route traveling along the Manampitiya-Dimbulagala-Siripura Road that is about four times longer than that, to reach the village. It is situated in close proximity to the Mahaweli River, actually within and close to the flood plain.

Yakkure is mentioned occasionally in history, both ancient and modern. The wilderness of the area, remoteness of the village and the connection to the Veddas is well-known and even reproduced in modern writings. However during a brief visit organized by Friends of Heritage to Ihala Yakkure School to donate some library books, I had the opportunity to observe the transformation that has taken place there. The village has been transformed much during the last century, but more rapidly during the last two to three decades.

Yakkure in the past

There are many landmarks in Yakkure mentioned in historical records. For instance, Dhumarakkha Pabbata was first mentioned as the adobe of prince Pandukhabhaya, during the time of his campaign against his uncles. That was the name of Dimbulagala in 4th Century BCE and it was known as Gunner’s Quoin during the colonial times. The mountain and the surrounding area have a large number of ancient Buddhist religious sites – evidence for the civilization that flourished in the area. The plain is dotted with a vast number of Wewas or tank systems that once irrigated the paddy fields, is evident of the extent of the hydraulic civilization.

Situated on the right bank of Mahaweli, Yakkure belonged to ancient Rohana Desa and the area between Mahaweli and Maduru Oya was known as Antara Ganga in ancient times. Yakkure is situated on the ancient road from Polonnaruwa to Mahiyangana. A person who crosses Mahaweli Ganga at Dastota, an ancient ford to the southeast of Polonnaruwa and enters Yakkure village can proceed along the road to Mahiyangana. The footpath from Yakkure to Mahiyangana is marked on one inch maps - Yakkure, Kalukele Ebe, Hinguruattawila, Polattawila, Ellekotaliya and Nikagollewa, mostly along the right bank of Mahaweli. However, this path becomes inaccessible during the rainy period as the area close to the river is inundated. A narration by an old villager describing a journey by a group of state officials including DS Senanayaka probably during the pre-independent period is published in the book titled Antara Ganaga.

The name Yakkure is found in our chronicles and was identified by HW Codrington – It was Yakkhasukarathitta in Pali, which is mentioned in Mahavamsa. An official named Kitti was stationed during the struggles for power in the 12th Century. The Sinhalese rendering of the name is Yakuratota, which has survived up to present. On the other side of the Mahaweli Ganga was Sahassatittha, or present Dastota, which is also found in a variety of sources. This is also known as Kandavurdahastota in one of the kadaimpoth, the books on the boundary divisions of Sri Lanka. According to Mahavamsa, an Upasampada or a higher ordination ceremony took place at this place – the location mentioned is the island on the Mahaweli Ganga.

The dried up canal that runs at the northern edge of the paddy fields of the present Ihala Yakkure village has been identified as the Kalinga Yodi Ela, an ancient irrigation marvel built centuries ago. The canal originates close to the island known as Kalinga Dupata or Kalinga Nuwara ruins on Mahaweli and once ran towards the east, with some distance to the right bank of Mahaweli, providing water for agriculture. According to R L Broheir, this canal runs along the contour and was traced up to a distance of 21 miles – it went passed Yakkure, went around Handapan and Bendiya Villus and crossed Horivila area to reach the plains north of Dimbulagala Rock. He also agrees with the fact mentioned by the people about the original length of the canal - it ran further to the east.

Village Veddas

However that was the ancient past. After the kingdom was shifted to the wet zone with the fall of Polonnaruwa, the area around was neglected. The massive irrigation systems were abandoned without any maintenance, vast paddy fields were left fallowed and spread of diseases did the rest. Population decreased rapidly and sometimes replaced by migrants from other areas, who were able to survive on basic forms of subsistence such as Chena cultivation, cattle herding and hunting.

After some centuries, Yakkure is again mentioned as a village regarding Vedda people. In their monumental publication The Veddas, Seligmans categorized Yakkure Veddas as village Veddas. According to them, the Veddas of Yakkure lived in well built huts in a compact settlement which might almost be called a town. They had large herds of cattle and Chena cultivation. Writing further, they said that “…although they call themselves Veddas, though physically they would pass as Tamils or mixed Tamils or Sinhalese and show even less evidence of Vedda blood than the Kalukala Eba people (a village close to Yakkure). They knew their Waruge and invoke the Nae Yaku, but they had a temple, and worship a number of Sinhalese Gods.” – there is a list of some such Sinhala gods like Mangara Deviyo, who is invoked to protect cattle. Seligmans also mention that Yakkure people had a Sinhalese headman.

It is evident that the Seligmans came across a community of Veddas who were already under transition. This is further supported by few statements by some later writers. In describing one of his hunting trips via Yakkure in 1915s, Harry Storey mentioned that the village “is or originally was a Vedda settlement and a fair number of the inhabitants are of Vedda descent but there is now a considerable admixture of aliens from other parts of the country.”

How many Veddas were living in the village? Census reports can provide a clue of the situation. The total population of Yakkure in 1891 was 105, comprising of 24 families and it increased to 145 by 1911. The population of the village declined to 121 by 1921, with 112 Vedda inhabitants. However it is of interest to note that 120 of these people are recorded as Buddhists in the 1921 census. Yakkure was the village with the highest number of Vedda people in the entire North Central Province. However, we cannot rule out the inaccuracy of classifying of Vedda people in these censuses, which is also a fact mentioned in the censuses themselves.

Some have argued that the influence of Ven. Kitalagama Silalankara Thera, former Chief Incumbent of the Dimbulagala Temple had an impact on the change of Veddas. The monk, settled the Veddas in the whole area around Dimbulagala, in villages, including Yakkure. These people may have already been transformed by the time of Ven Silalankara Thera.

Struggling with nature

The people living in Yakkure and surrounding areas constantly struggled with nature, because of the topography, frequent floods and wild animals. Some of the terrain was low lying and were subject to annual floods with massive, devastating floods occurring from time to time. Dr. R L Spittel in his Wild Ceylon mentions that “once in a decade the waters creep up and submerge the huts, sending the people up trees and their cattle into the forest to be drowned or killed by leopards.” Yakkure people might have had to restart their lives again and again since time immemorial.

The other issue people had was the struggle with animals, mainly the elephants. The flood plains of the Mahaweli creates a unique ecosystem – the Villus. These Villus are periodically flooded from the river and drain back into it naturally. This ecosystem can harbor a number of plant and animal species. Villus are also known to be a habitat preferred by elephants, whom humans have had an age old conflict with. In fact it was the elephants own territory.

Yakkure and the surrounding area was a habitat preferred by these elephants and hence a sought-after hunting ground for the hunters. Storey and Dr Spittel both mention the death of a hunter named Chase Wiggins in 1918, who was killed by a rogue elephant, which he was hunting in Yakkure. He was the superintendent of Minor Roads of the North Central Province; and the Government Agent laments about his death praising his services in killing elephants and mentions that it was a great loss to the province. Wiggins was hunting his 37 elephant and we cannot judge how many were saved thereafter! But we speak about a time where wildlife and conservation had different values.

The flood plains of Mahaweli in this area suffered seriously form human activities for a long period – cattle grazing, tobacco cultivation, sand removal had a detrimental effect on this ecosystem. Thilo W Hoffman mentioned that this caused serious damage to the gallery forest, or the reverine forests of the area. To resolve the situation, a Flood Plains National Park encompassing the series of Villus on both sides of the river, was declared in 1984. This was a vital step forward for environment conservation in the area; an important ecosystem is protected, thereby providing an adobe for wildlife. However that doesn’t mean everything is fine in this National Park, threats persist.

Present Yakkure

The old Yakkure village, the sole settlement within the National Park, was closed down as it was lying within the Flood Plains National Park. The villagers were settled in a Mahaweli Village in System C. According to our friends there they were settled in Pahala Yakkure Village, further south. The present village close to the old village is Ihala Yakkure and it is entirely a new settlement, where settlers hail from Badulla, Kandy and Ratnapura districts.

A villager showed us the old school building, a remnant of the old village on the other side of the electric fence – probably the border of the national park. The fence is in place to protect crops from elephants that encroach the paddy fields. There was an old well now abandoned in the middle of paddy lands and there was a mound, which we were told, was the remnants of a bunker built during the time of war. The old Yakkure Wewa, which is now abandoned is situated close by. According to the villagers, fishing activities are still allowed in the Wewa.

We observed that some of the villagers were building huts to protect their paddy cultivation from the unwelcome guests – the elephants, whom they expect when the crop ripens. The paddy land is larger than the paddy fields marked in old maps, and it seems that the area was bulldozed to create these paddy fields. A villager pointed out the location where there was a Wewa before the paddy lands were created – it is marked on one inch map as Alut Wewa.

The change that has taken place in this area is drastic. The details of the landscape of the one inch maps as well as the metric maps made before 1990s have been changed immensely after the implementation of Mahaweli Development Project. The canal system providing Mahaweli water is the key water source and many of the Wewas in the area seem to be neglected and many seem to receive water from the rainfall runoff only. There is a good road network in the area, but public transport facilities may not be frequent in branch roads. We saw a notice about the stoppage of bus service due to dilapidated state of roads, but the state of the road was better than some main roads in Colombo and Gampaha Districts.

The people have been provided with land, both paddy and high ground. Agriculture is the main income of the people at present, with paddy as the major crop and vegetables cultivated in high ground as a subsidiary. A villager who spoke to us said that if they can work hard, it is not difficult to survive in this area. However, the land issue could rise again in the future with the next generations needing more and more land.

It seems they have also diversified their income by opting for alternative income sources. One such method is the culture of ornamental fish on the paddy fields. Youth seems to be interested in finding other livelihood options too. Many have built their own homes, according to their own requirements and based on their own capabilities. Electricity from the main grid is provided to villagers and some even use solar power for purposes, such as water pumping. The schools in the area had been built in 1980s and 1990s under the Mahaweli scheme and seem sufficient for the population, but facilities are required to improve the quality of education.

I am inclined to think that Yakkure of our old writers is no more, except for a few of the remnants. It is an abandoned village and the villages that bear its name are recent establishments, although one village is home for old Yakkure people. That was a result of continuous transformation accelerated by the Mahaweli Development Project. It is interesting to note that the village is still being transformed, which is natural. However memories and cultural aspects of these old villagers are worth academic research, before being wiped away by the tides of time.

Pics: Bushana Kalhara

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