Batticoala is an amazing watery place situated among lagoons just at the edge of the Indian Ocean. The people suffered horribly during the 2004 tsunami when thousands died and whole communities were wiped out. The island community of Kallady, where we're staying, abuts the ocean on one side. It's illegal now to build close to the ocean but at the time of the tsunami there must have been dense settlements of fishermen along the beachfront here. For those of us visiting from the outside we come now to a more or less pristine beach. But there are reminders. A thatched hut here and there on the beach, fishermen pulling in their net, and just inland, the emptiness of a place that was utterly destroyed.
Regeneration is part of the landscape of destruction, and there's plenty of evidence for that. Dense groves of casuarina stabilize the beach, mycorrhizal mushroom popping up around them in fairy rings. On the quiet weekend roads driving schools train an upcoming generation of car drivers (there are still relatively few cars on the road here--a relief after the ridiculous congestion of Colombo). And young people crowd the roads and byways, congregating in front of a tuition school just letting out its pupils, in pairs on bicycles, or just hanging around looking at their phones. In one very remote place at the end of Kallady Island I saw a boy of seven or eight gazing at his tablet.
There's a huge force of life here, nature and humans, and a bit father inland, just across the Kallady Bridge, the real activity of town begins. I took out a bicycle for the day and one of my destinations was the Mamangam Kulam. It turned out to be a highlight.
No map I've seen can guide you there. Even if the streets were neatly named and numbered the way Google maps shows them, the relation between the roads here--all narrow, some unpaved and others paved with slabs of concrete--is unclear if you try to use a map. In any case it's unnecessary. Go in the general direction and look for the kovil sticking out above the trees. That's how I found Mamangam Kulam.
The first siting was unexceptional, an expanse of water between the main kovil and a smaller temple, which stood at my entry point. The slab roadway connecting the two was flooded with water from recent rains. Just beyond, on the other side of the large kovil, another road, one I had passed, was busy with motorbikes. Should I retrace my route and approach from that side? Let's take another look at the flooded road closer to me. No garbage. Dark but fairly clear. And the road leading to and from it in good condition. This looked like a clean bet so I decided to risk the twenty feet or so on my bike.
I glided through without a hitch, thankful for the fender over the back wheel, something we don't regularly use in our country with resulting sprays of mud across the back of our shirts and jackets.
On the other side of the foot-deep flood I followed the road for a few feet, approaching the kovil. Immediately to my right, a path of concrete blocks-the kind you see at the edge of every street covering the drainage ditches (they weren't in as good shape in 2013 and you could expect to land in swill if you didn't keep your eyes open).
I followed the concrete blocks, about 20 of them, and at the end came to a tube sluice, typical of the sluices you see on any tank in Sri Lanka. From the sluice a gorgeous expanse of the kulam, covered in lotus leaves, tightly enclosed in a narrow concretized bund, less a bund than a concrete barrier, and a short distance to the north, reeds and forest.
Now if I looked back the way I came I saw that the concrete blocks covered a distinct channel that led roughly south, disappearing into the village. The flood I had crossed lay below the surface of the tank water and I could see that here, in some unknown time when this tank functioned for irrigation, this was the kattakaduwa (I don't know the name of this tank feature in Tamil). The kattakaduwa acts as a filter for the tank, sequestering alkali and salts that are harmful to the rice crop it also acts as a kind of wildlife reserve with habitat for beneficial animals. Now most of the kattakaduwa are degraded or misused. I've seen houses built on them, tropical fish ponds created in them, pigs grazing in them. The one I saw yesterday was paved over, with predictable results--flooding.
Across the tank to the roughly to the north, the reeds and jungle marked the catchment. Elsewhere another channel brought water to this tank and I was able to approximately follow a series of channels, recently rehabbed by the same Australian agency that rehabbed the tank spillway in Vavuniya.
So, a series of tanks connected by channels, another form of the "cascade" system found in the North Central Province but on a smaller scale, a scale connecting several small villages now connected as a large peri-urban settlement. The question of peri-urban development along tanks, something that first fascinated me in Vavuniya, is still a burning topic. Vavuniya is a Tamil city and so is Batticaloa. But I reckon this isn't a strictly Tamil settlement pattern, you see peri-urban development along the tanks in Anuradhapura too. But there's a distinct flavor here I've yet to discern.
Finally, speaking of distinct tank development. Before I left the Mamangam Kulam two boys emerged from the kovil and started walking along the concrete dam. They were playful, chattering together and barely noticing me. I noticed as they crossed to the other site of the sluice that the older one stepped down into the water. And then I saw. The Mamangam Kulam is a giant step tank!
My Fulbright project is a study of cultural landscape ecology in Sri Lanka. As I travel through this spectacular place I try to unlock secrets of the landscape--trying to take apart clues and cues that seem at first strange and then strangely home -like. Six weeks into this nine-month sojourn I'm surprised how willing the landscape is to open up, to share its secrets, and to help me come to terms with it. Mamangam Kulam, an utter mystery until yesterday, shed some of its secrets and temporarily allowed me in.