Monday, November 21, 2011

Why Build to Last… ?

Did the social structure prevent our ancestors from building to last, or were they more environment concern?

Ancient man needed to build to protect him from the elements and the wild. The habit of living in naturally formed caverns changed with the increase in population. Abodes were needed; and these he built. These primitive constructions were of basic woody forest material and stone that was arranged to a technique. Those that mastered the technique started to build for others. This is thought to be the inception of building construction. These basics became a trade later on; there came the Builder / Owner (Investor), Designer (Architect, Engineer) and tradesmen who performed the works to precision, aesthetics and ingenuity.  This organized form of building is what we see as preserved ruins in the Rajarata [land of the kings] Sri Lanka today. Some of these Sri Lankan constructions are absolute marvels and are purposive and meaningful to most that cater similar purposes today. They could be classified as general purposes constructions and those that pose constructive creativity. The stone flights of Mihintale, the Kuttam Pokuna the Dagabas and Samadhi Statue of Anuradapura, the Vatadage, statues of Galvihara and the Nissanaka Latha Mandapa of Polonnaruwa, the citadel and pleasure gardens of Sigiriya, are of extreme artistry and creativity. The canal ‘Yoda Ela’ from Kala Wewa to Tissa Wewa is a master piece in hydraulic engineering.

Samadhi Statue of Meditating Buddha  at Mahamewuna Uyana in Anuradhapura  is a marvel of stone sculpture
Numerous are these guard stones at entrances to buildings done to extreme detail and fineness
Man & Horse in Isurumunuya that give life to stone........
It is interesting to note that the royalty had ample resources and manpower in these feats. The services of the best artisans were decreed as royal duty. There were no planned time lines for completion. Some constructions spanned a whole regime and even finished in the next.

However it should also be noted that there was to be constructions outside those that had state patronage; they were the abodes of the socially elite and those of the commoner.

“R L Brohier the famous author/ historian and Asst Surveyor General of post independent Sri Lanka estimates that the ancient bund of the Parakrama Samudra in Polonnaruwa contained 4.5 million cubic yards of earthwork and a thousand men working a 24 hour day with mammoty [hand hoe] and basket without a break would have taken 12 years to complete that structure alone. It should be borne in mind that other non-productive [food and agriculture being classified as productive] construction such as the Sigiriya citadel and numerous other Dagabas  were constructed simultaneously. There would not have been a lack manpower or time on these endeavours.” 

This then is a lot of people and where did they live?

Colossus Dagaba made of Bricks

This amount of bricks in a Dagaba did have an impact on the environment
The dwellings of these clans were to have had a type and quality that followed a social hierarchy. Some of which remain to this day for us to take note of. The palaces of the last Kandian kingdom of the 18th century are intact while the palaces of Parakramabahu the Great in the 11th century are ruined but stand strong against the elements. Some abodes of the immediate hierarchical order to the kings; the walawas of the disawes are still to be seen as they are preserved as archaeological entities. They would integrate to the surrounding environment if not preserved never to be located as the material used is woody and earthly in nature. [Example; Maduwanwela and Ekneligoda walawas] Therefore it could be assumed the abodes of the commoner placed in the lower tiers of the social hierarchy have integrated into mother earth.

However the science of archaeology can locate such human gatherings from remains of material used for human activity. One primary find is the vast spread of broken pottery that is to be found in these locations. Ancient man too needed utensils and the technique was to burn clay to various shapes. Doing this he transformed the natural texture of clay, which was never to blend with the nature of the earth and its natural form. These then left a sign of their presence in the locations. Therefore burning clay to shape could be described as one of the foremost ways man impacted the earth’s environment. Burnt bricks, dressing stone to shape, blended mortar binders that stuck sand and stone together are changed forms of naturally occurring earth matter that did not blend or integrate with earth’s environment. Therefore it could be derived that much of the building material used by the lower tiers in the social hierarchy in Sri Lanka were of natural form that integrated and blended with nature other than the pottery.

It is also interesting to note that such material and stone in its natural form is still being used by peasantry in remote, rural Sri Lanka. 

A woody and earthen abode of a Niglala family

Natural stone slab and grinding stone with wood stemmed coconut scraper typical use of earth matter in natural from in Nilgala  Sri Lanka

Beru (Agrostistachy serumica) leaf as roof covering  in the rainforest areas of Sri Lanka where other types of common roof-cover material was not available

However these primitive changes to earth’s material were to take a different turn after the year 1824. Joseph Aspdin, a bricklayer and mason in Leeds England, invented and patented hydraulic cement which he called Portland cement because its colour resembled the stone quarried on the Isle of Portland off the British coast. Aspdin proportioned limestone and clay which he pulverizing and burned to give clinker; clinker ground to a very fine powder gave cement. Portland cement mixed to proportion with coarse and fine aggregates and water to specific volumes gave the super construction material concrete that could be moulded to any shape. It did not stop at that, concrete reinforced with steel surpassed all previous construction marvels, and sky was the limit in the building industry.

End of the medieval era brought changes to the world’s social structure that did away with feudalism, and with human rights established; every man was free to build with economies changing to suite. This is where we stand today. One need to imagine the impact imparted on mother earth in producing over 1.8 million tons of cement and 130 tons of steel a year; blasting rock and mining sand as ingredients for concrete; added to this are other construction materials, ceramic and aluminium.  The most critical being that, cement and concrete matter with ceramic and paints included would not integrate to the earth’s natural form and recycling them is very costly. The changed social structure made it possible for all of us to build to our affordability in a limitless manner. Every one of us leaves a building footprint on mother earth unlike the ordinary man of the medieval and pre-medieval era. Today’s human dwelling is more a status symbol, than a need. In building so, we have impacted the earth’s environment; pictured in Google Earth is evidence of what we've done to mother earth in the last century.

Anuradhapura today when compared to the old area on the left. All the speckles would leave a footprint that would not blend with earth matter.

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