Friday, October 2, 2015

Dry Jaffna, Wet Jaffna, Old Jaffna. Questions in Cultural Landscape Ecology

Jaffna is one of the oldest places in Sri Lanka. There is evidence that it was inhabited in early pre-ancient times. And its location was ideal for early human migrations, trade, and settlement. The vast marine shallows that surround the city still provide bountiful fish and seafood. And inland, fertile soils and a great variety of fruit-bearing plants would have been suitable to early settlers here. 

During our many walks we've been trying to picture in our minds what the Portuguese found when they landed here. Certainly this had been a seafaring community for many centuries. It had had contact with traders from around the world. So the population must have had a sophistication that reflected its long contact with other cultures. 

The abundance of religious sites around Jaffna also suggests deep ties to the supernatural. And my guess is that these ties were geographically based. This leads to the question, why were shrines, kovils, and Buddhist sites placed where they were? What were the geographic or geophysical characteristics that encouraged the placement of these religious precincts? Were these sites also revered to earlier peoples?

Jaffna is a flat place. From walking many miles around town and its outskirts I've noticed places where the road curves. This kind of curvature is usually associated with topographic changes. However hills or other natural landforms are not in evidence. One thing that is clear is that many places where there is a curve in the road are religious sites. What stood here in pre-ancient times, before the arrival of Brahmic populations?

Another feature that sticks out is the principles of canals and tanks all around Jaffna. When were these built? Why do most of them have a physical proximity with religious sites? Was each tank a village tank around which grew a population center? Were these once springs or other natural features that inspired a sense of sanctity and worship? How can we fund out?

Jaffna is a dry place. In previous times was it moister? Were the tanks and canals filled with water for more months of the year? Were these freshwater catchments a kind of extension of the ancient shoreline, along which trade and transportation were conducted? And why are so many inhabited places built along these canals? 

These questions of human settlement patterns would require a great deal of digging to understand further. I think Jaffna will always remain a mystery to me no matter how many miles I walk along her streets and lanes. My questions are not exactly archaeological, nor are they completely geographical. They reflect a kind of interdisciplinary interest in cultural landscape ecology I came here to expand upon. 

So whether or not I  return to Jaffna (and I hope I come back anymore times) these questions will always hold a fascination for me, perhaps just out of reach. Perhaps lending them selves to further study and maybe tempting observant eyes in the future. 

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