Fifty Years of Serendipity in Sri Lanka

Alumni of the ITC (1960) for the 50th Anniversary of the ITC

After having graduated from the University of Ceylon, I was fortunate to have been recruited to the Survey Department in 1958 for a career in mapping our Natural Resources using the new techniques of Aerospace Surveys. I was lucky in that I obtained an assignment in keeping with my adventurous and curious instinct.

After having being trained in traditional surveying, hydrology and water resources planning, I was thereafter sent on scholarship to the International Training Centre for Aerospace Surveys and Earth Sciences in the Netherlands to specialize in Aerospace Survey and graduated in Photogrammetric Engineering and Earth Sciences.

On my return to Sri Lanka in 1961, I was appointed to be in charge of the Resources Survey Centre in the Survey Department established by the Canada-Ceylon Colombo Plan Project. My assignments included the interpretation of Aerial Photographs for Natural Resources, Mapping and field verification of same. This entailed multifaceted Surveys of Land and Water Resources. This also entailed multifaceted Surveys of Land and Water Resources Development Planning and related matters using the new technique of Aerospace Survey.

These assignments included land use and forest maps to plan out an elephant drive that was a source of hindrance to new settlements in Deduru Oya for the Wild Life Department. A Soil Survey was conducted for the cultivation of potatoes in the Horton Plains for the Agriculture Department. Numerous Road Trace projects were assigned to me integrating Soil, Geology and Topography for such determination.

I would like to mention just two of them because they were of significant importance.The first was the preparation of a road trace for preventing illicit immigration of Tamils from South India to our North Western coastline by the TFFIM of the Sri Lankan Army. Having determined the tentative road trace using the Air Survey method, for field verification I was provided a ‘bubble’ Helicopter piloted by Ceylon’s famous pilot, Capt. Situnayaka. He took me to the top of the northern end of the mountain called Hipporous by Pliny in 65 A.D. Capt Situnayaka told me that he could spare only 15 minutes for my exploration and landed me on the northern end of the mountain. Here I discovered the ruins of a large horse facing the sea with only the remains of the rear legs and tail and its body resting on a stone table, where there was a large fire trough on its southern side, that clearly functioned to light up this stricture of the horse for seafarers to see so as to be guided to the bay below, that functioned as a harbour. This mountain was known as Achanagara and Kuduramala or Horse mountain by the locals. This was the beginning of my interest in Archaeological exploration of sites not discovered before.

The second road trace was for the Ella Wellawaya road in a mountainous area, which the Highways Department had attempted, where the engineer in charge lost his life in this regard and I was commissioned to do so using Air Survey techniques. I was able to locate five alternative traces all of scenic beauty beside a waterfall, which was field verified on the ground incorporating historical Randeniwela, where the Portuguese Governor was killed in battle, on its route as well. This was thereafter constructed by the Highways Department as a beautiful road that attracted tourists, both local and foreign.

I was thereafter commissioned to conduct an Hydrographic Survey of the Bentota shoreline for the Tourist Board in order to establish a Tourist Complex there. Here, I used the technique taught to us by Prof W. Scherherhorn used in the landing of the British troops at Dunkirk. He explained to us how they used the wave patterns in Aerial Photographs during different wind regimes to determine the tentative bathymetry. I used this technique and verified its accuracy in the ground and produced the Hydrographic survey of this Bentota shoreline which was five miles along the coast and half a mile into the sea. What was most interesting was that the longshore current was northwards and the sand spit at the mouth of the Bentota ganga was also northwards, clearly indicating that Viharamadevi in the 2nd century B.C. could not have reached the south using long shore currents from Kelaniya in the north of Colombo which is always northwards and therefore we have to search for Kelaniya of the B.C. period elsewhere on the Eastern seaboard where during the NE monsoon the long shore current is southwards and could reach Kirinde.

Unfortunately, the use of these new techniques of Aerospace Surveys brought in an element of professional jealousy that was reflected in the attitudes of seniors in traditional departments not exposed to these new techniques. Since I had the advantage of being in charge of the Resources Survey Centre and had access to all the air photographs of the country and there were also my university colleagues with post-graduate qualifications who had the same predicament faced by me in their departments. Thus, we decided to form ourselves into a voluntary group calling ourselves ‘The Integrated Development Association of Sri Lanka’ to map our country at a macro scale and being self-financed. What was most revealing was for the most part the commonalties of Natural Resources Boundaries were interdependent at Macro scale. I happened to head this group as leader, ably assisted by S. Nihal U. Fernando the Principal, Ceylon Forest College as Deputy Leader and assisted by Rajah Wirasinghe, Deputy Director Agriculture, of the RVDB and J. A. V. Dudley Fernando, Senior Journalist of the ‘Ceylon Daily News’, lest our original work be plagiarised by giving immediate publicity to our new findings and to reach ordinary readers fast who would appreciate the discovery with interest,

We worked as a team, incorporating others when necessary and field verified our photo interpretation of the different natural resources traversing up mountains, down valleys, forest and wildlife reserves, into caves. All these field verifications were done using our own finances and transport, as we thought it was in the best interest of this pioneering work. We undertook these explorations during weekends and holidays. These field investigations culminated after I had discovered the ancient Mahaweli ganga that was called Phasis fluvius by Ptolemy or the river of the Persians - for this purposes a fully fledged team explored the Mahaweli from Mahiyangana to Kodiar Bay in Trincomalee by dingy, visiting all the historical sites.

The final compilation of the Different Natural Resources Maps at Macro Scale were presented for my Presidential Address of the Engineering Section of the Ceylon Association for the Advancement of Science for its 25th Anniversary in 1969 titled ‘An Integrated Approach to a Development Plan in Sri Lanka’ and published by the SLAAS. These maps were also published in the Journal of the Institution of Engineers in 1970. As there was a heavy demand for these Natural Resources Maps they were also published as an Atlas titled ‘Natural Resources Maps of Sri Lanka by the Integrated Development Association of Sri Lanka.

After my Presidential Address before the Ceylon Association for the Advancement of Science, I was recruited by the Development Planning Division of the Ministry of Irrigation Power and Highways. While in the Ministry, I was greatly encouraged by the Minister, Maithreepala Senanayaka to persue my research on Natural Resources, especially with regard to water. In 1973, I had the opportunity of being a delegate of the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science to the All India Science Congress and the Indian National Academy of Sciences, where I was appraised as to how India determined their Ground Water Potential Map using their Hydrogeology Map and Climatic Parameters. Having returned to Sri Lanka I compiled the first Ground Water Resources Map of Sri Lanka using the Indian experience using my Hydrogeology Map of Sri Lanka and the Mean Annual Rainfall Map of Sri Lanka. This was published by the Ministry of Irrigation Power and Highways, with the blessings of the minister in 1973.

Being deeply involved in the Mahaweli Project, when the new Ministry of Mahaweli Development was formed in 1978, I was appointed Director Planning under its Minister, Gamini Dissanayaka. He greatly encouraged me to publish the Major Ancient Irrigation works of Sri Lanka as I had discovered the Ancient Mahaweli ganga, for which he provided a Grant to the Royal Asiatic Society which was published in 1980. In 1981, I was fortunate to discover the Most Ancient City of Vijithapura of the pre 6th century B.C. (again using Aerial Photographs). Thereafter, again in 1982, I was fortunate to discover the Ancient Sluice of the Maduru Oya Dam, the sluice of which has been dated by Crippen International Ltd. of Canada using C14 dating techniques as 4000 B.C., no doubt an incredible date. These findings were published by the Royal Asiatic Society, on a grant provided by Crippen International Ltd., of Canada the Engineering Consultants for the Maduru Oya Project, in 1982. Evidence clearly points to the construction by the Persian Yakkhas who introduced paddy cultivation to Sri Lanka.

In 1982, after attending the ISPRS conference in Brazil on my return I visited Washington. Having visited the Library of Congress, I was fortunate to obtain the coordinates of 49 places of Taprobane determined by Claudius Ptolemy in circa 115 A.D.. since these coordinates had to be corrected for errors in scale and varying Sun Azimithal bearings that prevailed in the eastern and western sea boards when seafarers could safely land there. After subjecting the coordinates of Ptolemy to correction, a corrected Map of Ptolemy’s Taprobane was published by me on Transverse Mercator Projection. This too was published by the Royal Asiatic Society Map.

After my retirement from public service, I had a three year assignment as UNDP Senior National Consultant for the B.Sc, Degree course in Survey Sciences at the Survey Institute in Diyatalawa that was recognized as a Degree granting Institution. Thereafter, I was requested on invitation to the National Academy of Sciences of Sri Lanka for a number of seminars to lecture, for the Diplomatic Course conducted by the BMICH Colombo, to several Universities in Sri Lanka to deliver lectures in Hydrology, Water Resources, Environment and Archaeology, Dutch Maps of Sri Lanka for the 400th anniversary of Dutch Sri Lanka Relations in 2002. As I had done half a century of research on the ancient Persians in Sri Lanka who were called Yakkhas,the Cultural Division of the Islamic Republic of Iran sponsored my visit to Iran.

For my original research, I was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Asiatic Society, The Dr Ananda Coomaraswamy Memorial Medal of the Geological Society of Sri Lanka and elected a Fellow of the National Academy of Sciences of Sri Lanka. Finally, all research pertaining to Sri Lanka was based on Air Survey Techniques taught to me and the training I received at the ITC by its renowned founders starting from Rectors, Prof. Wilhelm Schermerhorn. Prof AJ. Van der Weele and the numerous erudite professors who taught me there. This short note is a tribute to the ITC and its renowned professors to all of whom I am greatly indebted and thankful.

Finally, though I have published over 150 original publications in reputed journals both here and abroad, I have included some of the more important research findings during the past half a century so that they could be referred to and kept at the ITC library for those interested. They are namely;

(1) Natural Resources Maps of Sri Lanka Part I published by IDAS in 1968

(2) Major Ancient Irrigation Works of Sri Lanka published by the RAS in 1980

(3) The Ancient Hydraulic Civilization of Sri Lanka in relation to its Natural Resources published by RAS in 1982

(4) Ptolemy’s Taprobane RAS for its 150th Anniversary

(5) Dutch Maps of Sri Lanka for the 400th Anniversary of Sri Lanka Dutch Relations. 2002

(6) ‘The Water Resources of Sri Lanka with special reference to its Ground Water Resources’. NASSL 2008

(7) The Persian Connection with Sri Lanka in the B.C. period published by Iran Cultural Division, 2009.

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