That day, a holiday in Sri Lanka for full moon, or poya, I decided to get a closer look at the temple of the tooth. There were still a whole load of tourists around, both national and international, so there was a bit of a queue as I approached, and security you might expect in an airport with x-ray machines and bag searches. The threat of a Tamil attack on the heart of Buddhism was taken very readily. For a small fee, I had to leave my shoes on a massive rack outside the temple, and I headed into the ornate building. A labyrinth of dimly lit rooms, the Temple is a relatively modern feature, by Sri Lankan standards. Kandy only became the capital of the Sinhalese late on in the dynasty of great kings, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa were much more ancient. It lasted much longer as well, the British only overtaking them in the early 19th Century. The temple itself was built over a period of a hundred years from the mid 1600’s. The tooth was reputed to have been stolen from the funeral pyre of Buddha and smuggled over to Sri Lanka in the 4th Century AD.
I remember little of the temple, unfortunately, apart from the huge numbers of people and several dark and gloomy rooms. Because of the previous day’s extravaganzas, the actual room where the casket resides was shut to visitors, but I suppose the sight of the Devala Peraheras more than made up for seeing it in a stuffy confinement. I came out and walked around the assembly house, an open sided house supported by wooden pillars, and some other features. On leaving the complex, I came across an elephant carrying its supper home, its trunk curled up round a stock of greenery; his mahout sitting astride him. Some policemen were removing the barricades from the previous night. The whole scene looked like the morning after a heavy party, which in a way …it was. I walked up the hill to the west to look at the huge Buddha but there was so much praying going on around it that I could not get near.
And so four wonderful days in Sri Lanka came to an end. I had to start work the next day. Roger picked me up from the hotel and we dropped down the hill and went round the eastern end of the lake, past a small park for children on the corner. We drove back towards town but before we reached there we headed out of town up a steep road over the lip of a hill and descended the other side. A little way down this hill we turned sharply and followed a winding road which gradually dropped us towards the MahaweliRiver. Before reaching the bridge crossing we turned left and went along a rough track parallel to the great Mahaweli Ganga. The river was quite low and made up of a series of rivulets divided by sandy islands and huge rocky outcrops. Many people were bathing or washing clothes in the river, or just watering their cattle. At the far end of this track we came across the Polgolla dam. This was used to generate a little electricity, but mainly it was to feed a huge river diversion, a tunnel some forty miles long through the hills to the dry country in the north, where it went to irrigate several systems. We drove across the dam, privileged because like all strategic targets in the country, the terrorist threat meant it had high security. Roger’s Office and the headquarters of the Mahaweli Authority were at the far end. I spent the week in a windowless room teaching the staff how to use the Geographical Information System (GIS) equipment they had. What surprised me is that the systems manager there, Thilak, knew all this stuff and was as experienced as I was, if not more in some fields, but there was something about having a big consultant coming in from outside to try to stimulate the mind. I was happy to oblige for all the experience I was getting outside.
I couldn’t help but be impressed by the ENDEV project, as it was called. It did not really stand for anything, but its legacy was to study the siltation problems in the hydroelectric dams around the hill country. There are four dams and it was realised that after their construction that they were silting up rather heavily. It was also rather obvious that practices in the hill country were causing this siltation but it was not known how fast it would go or how they might stop it. The original project Roger was involved in was to map the upper catchment above all the reservoirs. This he did with first his British team and then more local help. With the mapping it was obvious they needed a Geographical Information System to store and analyse the data, and he expanded and expanded to a state where they had some superb kit supervised by Thilak, a Sinhalese computer wizard. They also had maps at 1:10 000 scale of the incised hill country, in terms of land use, slope, rainfall and drainage. An area covering a third of Sri Lanka was mapped as the project was expanded to look into the irrigation systems to the north east.
Their problem, as Roger and his local boss, Herath (a lovely man who had the appearance of a well groomed sage) put it, was that all this data had been gathered but nobody knew how to manipulate it . I could do little in the two visits I had but I showed them how to use the software to answer some questions, and tried to set in place some ideas of how to better manage their data. But it needed more. On my second visit, I developed a database to monitor tea estates. I had a database that could record all the inputs into the system, the labour, the fertiliser, and record the price on the other side, and you could then find out what the profit and loss could be on a field by field basis. I demonstrated this in Colombo to one of the big tea plantations. They were mildly interested, but it never got followed through. The problem was not Roger’s, the tea estates or the Mahaweli Authority, more it was the nature of Aid work, which precluded short term consultants for more than touching at the surface of the problem than to have the time and exposure to really get to the root of problems and provide some long term solutions. My biggest bugbear was that I had applied to the Overseas Development Administration for their Associate Professional Officer (APO) training scheme several years beforehand, and failed because I didn’t have any overseas experience (Duh – I thought that was what this was supposed to give me). Roger had an APO who failed him miserably and gave him a lot of grief, and I always thought, if I had been that officer, I would have had the chance to do the kind of stuff they were now charging top dollar for while learning an incredible amount from Roger in the process. There were few times when I regretted the course my career had taken, but when I saw Sri Lanka and what I might have done there, I was disappointed. I still got an immense amount out of the experience from Roger and from learning about the country, and I hoped that I gave them something in return, but I fear it was not really what they needed.