On the ground you wouldn’t know it. Dusty roads, scrub forest, greasy towns, the occasional cooling expanse of rice paddies. But from the citadel rock of Mihintale, the founding place of Buddhism here and the highest point for miles around, you sense the power of this place, agriculturally, socially and politically. It is a landscape of culture and spirituality, a landscape that reflects its people and their collaboration with nature.

Buddha and pillars at Mihintale

Buddha and pillars at Mihintale. Photo: Sam Hammer

From the vantage atop Mihintale, you stare out to the west, and in front of you lie the giant dagobas of Anuradhapura, enormous white bubbles in the hazy, smoky morning landscape. Along with Mihintale, these dagobas epitomize the cultural and political hegemony of the Sinhalese in ancient times and in the present. This was a thriving kingdom of power, a genius landscape.

The giant stupa of Mihintale.

The giant stupa of Mihintale. Photo: Sam Hammer

A place of great natural beauty, ancient Sri Lanka was, and to some extent still is, a symbiosis between humans and nature. An island the size of West Virginia, Sri Lanka has two monsoon patterns. Depending on where you are on the island, this translates into extended periods of drought, conditions less than ideal for growing the country’s national staple, rice. About 2,500 years ago, the ancient Sinhalese, who traded with civilizations as far away as Greece, started designing bunds (dams) that transformed their landscape. The development of bunds and their associated wewas (irrigation ponds or “tanks,” the English term) enabled the ancient Sinhalese to grow enough rice to support a burgeoning, art- and architecture-rich civilization. Wherever you go now, you see ancient evidence of the three A’s, Agriculture, Architecture and Art, much of it focused on the wewas.

The cave temple of Dambulla

The Golden Temple of Dambulla. Photo: Sam Hammer

Wewas depicted at Dambulla.

Wewas depicted on the cave walls and ceilings at Dambulla. Photo: Sam Hammer

Some examples. In the famous Golden Temple of Dambulla, a series of caves holds hundreds of Buddha statues. The cave walls and ceilings are covered with paintings. In one cave I discover something the guidebooks missed, a series of paintings that depict the natural fauna and flora of Sri Lanka arranged around a map-like image of wewas. The tanks are not like any I’ve seen so far. They are squares with rivers or canals running into them and lotuses growing out of them. My “wewa moment” at Dambulla is to be repeated many times as I slowly discover the nature of the thousands of wewas, enormous, incongruous sheets of water that cover much of Sri Lanka.

Tank and kovil in Jaffna.

Tank and kovil in Jaffna. Photo: Sam Hammer

I am in Jaffna in the far north. Once the second city of Sri Lanka, isolated and besieged over decades of conflict, it “opened” only a few years ago. Its visual stimulation is so strong that I decide to stay some days and walk the hot streets and take pictures. Dodging buses and bicycles, I walk for miles and find tanks everywhere. Some, like the wewas depicted in Dambulla, are square. Each tank is associated with a Hindu Kovil or Buddhist center. Canals crisscross the city, empty now but once running with water along footpaths that remind me of the sunken roads of Surrey. I realize these were boundaries! The tanks and their associated religious architecture were originally the focal points of separate villages that grew together over the centuries.

Gigantic Buddha at Kala Wewa.

Gigantic Buddha at Kala Wewa. Photo: Sam Hammer

Once, each village was responsible for the maintenance of its bund and wewa and fed itself on rice the wewa irrigated. Wewas started as local endeavors and later became the focus of kings. Rulers who wanted to centralize their power had to feed their people, which meant growing more rice. More rice, more irrigation, bigger wewas. I travel to an incredibly atmospheric corner of this incredibly atmospheric country, finding myself on a road atop the bund of Kala Wewa, one of the largest irrigation tanks in Sri Lanka. Out of proportion with the human landscape around it, the bund is as large as a Mississippi River levee in Louisiana. To my left is Kala Wewa, its horizon just visible in the rain, and to my right, far below the level of the water, are villages, paddies, banana groves, coconut palms and jungle. My driver stops at steps hewn into granite. I take off my flip-flops and climb the slippery steps, gingerly in the rain, and behold the massive Aukana Buddha. Aukana is an important pilgrimage site blessedly overlooked by tourists. I am dead alone in pouring rain with a giant graceful granite Buddha, serene in his rock robes, built by a great ruler to face the wewa he made for his people. The colossal Aukana Buddha and Kala Wewa bund are design masterpieces.

Back to the heights of Mihintale. Broad expanses of irrigation tanks, huge sheets of water filling the flat plain with life. In a real way, the tanks, not the rice fields, are the source of nourishment here. The paddies lie exhausted and fallow now, but the tanks teem with plants and animals. Even from a thousand feet above you can see the lotuses and lilies, sedges, algae and abundant bird life. I assumed the tanks would be pristine expanses of water, but they are hotbeds of biodiversity. Just as the tanks continuously refill with water, the teeming organisms in them replenish the nutrients that fertilize the rice. We harvest the rice and eat it, a one-way flow. But the tanks, as reservoirs of richness, seep nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients into the thirsty rice fields.

A series of irrigation ponds in the dry zone.

A series of irrigation ponds in the dry zone. Photo: Sam Hammer

This millennia-old experiment in sustainable design continues in the layout of villages. Wetlands below the wewa are for rice. On higher ground, the ubiquitous banana. Above the banana gardens, coconut palms and spice trees, and on higher ground close to the houses, vegetable gardens. If you are lucky, your guesthouse serves vegetarian rice and curry. You are eating a meal that was grown within a kilometer of where you sit. If a rice paddy is near your guesthouse, like the one I stayed at in Kataragama, you will hear the thrum of insect and bird life all day and night. The birds feed on the abundant fish that crowd the wewas, and the fish in turn control mosquitoes.

Harvesting rice by combine.

Harvesting rice by combine. Photo: Sam Hammer

The colonial British subjugated the Lankans by tearing down bunds and draining the wewas. Malaria and starvation decimated the countryside and nearly ended the great experiment of the wewas. Many are restored now, and Sri Lanka is malaria-free. But new technologies intrude on the ancient landscape. Large rice paddies are harvested by combine now, not a good thing for the soil, and fertilizers and pesticides are making their appearance. Fewer people work directly in agriculture, another by-product of development.

Along with Buddhist religious heads, the Sinhalese kings who once controlled the wewas built a landscape at once natural and entirely in the service of its builders. The tanks and their reservoirs of nutrients, the fish inside them and the rice they nourished all went to the kings, and through them, to the faithful, who contributed their labor, building, maintaining, planting, harvesting and processing. Evidence of royal power is part of the broad landscape, with bubble stupas spreading across the horizon like clouds that touch down onto the earth, and giant Buddhas like the Aukana. But the hegemony of the Sinhalese civilization lay in irrigation and the agricultural works they mastered. A landscape of richness, sustained over thousands of years.