Author:Samson Keam (Deakin University)
Paper short abstract:
The irrigation infrastructure of Sri Lanka stands as an enduring material permanence that connects and grounds an ontological configuration which has continued to persist through time. This infrastructure offers up an poignant ethnographic lens to interrogate the multivariate notions of permanency.
Paper long abstract:
Irrigation infrastructure has long been a potent material symbol. Beyond irrigation infrastructure's ability to store and distribute water, its symbolic potential and its enduring materiality offers up a poignant ethnographic vantage point for exploring 'what stays'. In Sri Lanka such infrastructure continues to endure, symbolising a way of living. For the majority Sinhala-Buddhist ethno-religious group the irrigation system connects three culturally central metaphors: the water tank (wewa), the temple (dagoba) and the rice paddy (yaya). The convergence of these metaphors, articulated by the most humble farmer, is generative of a specific and reified ontology. Acting as the nexus and material grounding for this ontological configuration, the irrigation infrastructure of Polonnaruwa district of Sri Lanka offers up an anthropological lens for exploring an impulse toward permanency in spite of change. One such change, the collapse of the first two pre-modern hydraulic polities in the early medieval period is seen by many modern Sinhalese as initiating an atrophy of the ontological configuration central to their identity. Seeking to revive the infrastructure and this ontological configuration, the Sri Lankan government, newly independent from colonial administration, initiated resettlement projects and irrigation repair which saw swathes of Sinhalese migrate to the sparsely populated North-Central Province. This return prompted other major irrigation and dam projects still being completed to this day. Against the volatility and flux of history, irrigation infrastructure provides a permanent mooring for ways of thinking and being and allows for an exploration of the deeper question of 'what stays?'
Permanence: anthropologies of what stays