In the first millennium, one main problem for the Sinhalese kingdom was that the water of dry zone rivers close to Anuradhapura, particularly that of the Malvattu Oya, dwindled severely during the northern hemisphere summer months. A significantly improved water supply could be ensured by diverting water from rivers further south, closer to the wet zone. For the ancient Sinhalese civilization, the two most important irrigation achievements in this respect are the Yoda Ela canal, also called Jaya Ganga, catching water from the Kala Oya for channeling it to Anuradhapura and, on the opposite side of Sri Lanka’s main watershed, the Elahera canal diverting water from the Mahaweli tributary Amban Ganga to the Minneriya area closer to Polonnaruwa. The two canals are attributed to Sri Lanka’s most significant kings concerning irrigation projects, namely Dhatusena in the 5th century and Mahasena already in the 3rd century C.E. respectively. However, the Elahera canal, or at least a precursor of it, is first mentioned by the Mahavamsa chronicle for an even earlier period, that of King Vasabha in the 1st century.
Vasabha, the founder of Sri Lanka’s longest reigning dynasty, the Lambakannas, was Anuradhapura’s king during the long period from 67 till 111 C.E. The reign of Vasabha is regarded as the first period of systematic activity in irrigation work, viz on a larger scale and from now on connecting new and already existing reservoirs to a network. The Mahavamsa chronicle credits Vasabha with the construction of twelve reservoirs and canals. Most of the works which could be identified are located in the Anuradhapura area, for example at Mahavilachchiya and Nochchipotana. Though still only three to five kilometres in circumference, their construction involved a great amount of labour. This led to greater dependence on the central government for the planning and construction of the irrigation systems, though the maintenance later on could be organized on a regional or local level, enabling communities to keep the system functional in times of a weakened central government in Anuradhapura. But initiating such a quantity of irrigation works would not have been managable without a functional administration. Vasabha’s rule therefore was an important step in the process of state formation. It was Vasabha’s long reign which enabled the Anuradhapura kingdom to consolidate its supremacy in Sri Lanka. Vasabha himself was one of the few Anuradhapura kings who were in control of the entire island. Inscriptions belonging to his reign were found on the Jaffna peninsula in the very north (Vallipuram Gold Plate) and at Situlpahuwa in the very south as well as in Batticaloa District in the east and Kurunegala District in he west.
Vasabha is also credited with constructing several Buddhist temples in addition to renovating already existing ones. Having been told by a soothsayer that he would live only for twelve more years, Vasabha, according to the Buddhist belief, performed succesfully many meritorious acts to prolong his life. Among his renovations are the Thuparama and some additions to the Mahavihara, the two most ancient Buddhist edifices in Anuradhapura.
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