Accepted Paper:

Eternal flow: irrigation and memory-making in Polonnaruwa District, Sri Lanka  
Samson Keam (Deakin University)

Paper short abstract:

The irrigation infrastructure of Polonnaruwa district, Sri Lanka acts as a stable material structure anchored in a violent and tumultuous history. Irrigation's materiality elicits a powerful force in contemporary memory-making processes that seek to unite State and Buddhism through water.

Paper long abstract:

The irrigation infrastructure of Polonnaruwa district, Sri Lanka provides a historical and material continuity, an anchor to Sinhala-Buddhist processes of memory-making. Buddhist temporal logic is circular and thus collective memory maintains the past and future as immanent in the present. The collapse of Polonnaruwa as the medieval polity (10th-13th Century CE) has been characterised by bloody foreign invasion and a subsequent disintegration of the irrigation system (Indrapala 1971). The Post-colonial resettlement of Polonnaruwa and revival of the irrigation system (1815 - 1970's) moved Sinhala-Buddhist settlers into the territories of ethnic minorities, escalating tensions that erupted in the 30 year long (1983 -2009) civil war (Peebles 1990, Pfaffenberger 1992). A recent drought (2016 - 2017) shifted the irrigation infrastructure into a symbol for scarcity and an object of political agitation drawing in multiple actors in intervention, confrontation and ritual. The irrigation infrastructure of Polonnaruwa is then a potent symbol, enlivened by the confluence of life and death, sat at the centre of an ongoing memory-making process for Sinhala-Buddhists. This process of memory-making seeks to concretise a unity between Buddhism and State over water, viewed as being in flux. Amongst the social dynamics of a post-conflict country, the material continuity of the irrigation system acts as a stable ethnographic lens to explore processes of memory-making in a tumultuous and oftentimes violent and deathly space. The reassertion of a unity between Buddhism and State activates, curates and (re)assembles historical moments, ritual practices and mythologies that effect a memoralisation process that plays out in complex ways.

Panel P18
Bringing the past to life: narratives, practices and spaces of memory-making