Waste Management Then How urban waste was managed in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa Era

As everything else in the world, ‘waste’ too has a history of its own.  What is ‘waste’? Waste is a direct result or outcome of human activities. Waste comes as solid, liquid, domestic, industrial and commercial form. The National Environmental Act 1993 defines waste as, ‘any matter prescribed to be waste and any matter whether liquid, solid, gaseous or radioactive which are discharged, emitted or deposited in the environment in such volume, constituency or manners as to cause an alteration of environment.’

Waste and human lives

Waste has always affected humans and the entire globe in many ways. Waste can be understood as a resource as well as a threat.  Our human ancestors who were hunter-gatherers threw their food waste away, this created world’s earliest food waste pits. These food waste pits where major attraction grounds for scavengers, mainly carnivorous wolves. This gave birth to the long lasting human-canine relationship which has shaped our history significantly. As hunter-gatherers settled in permanent settlements, or villages, the quantity of waste grew. This grew rapidly as urbanisation occurred and larger cities and civilizations were spread across the globe.

The waste of these human settlements can be categorised as domestic waste, industrial waste and commercial waste. And this waste can be too divided as solid and liquid. Whatever the format is, at present waste has become a major threat to the entire globe due to poor management. Lack of space to dump waste, no measures to reuse and recycle waste, lack of approaches to reduce and refuse using non-degradable material are major issues faced by today’s cities. This has caused major environmental pollution across the globe, and has become a threat to the world’s bio diversity, especially the marine life. Air pollution and water pollution has resulted in the spread of incurable diseases among humans.

Our question is, has this always been like this? Human population and urbanization occurred many years ago. Greater cities were built thousands of years before. At that time what role did waste play during the history? Has it always been a threat as it is now? Has waste threatened other lives on earth and has it polluted the environment as it does today? In this article we will attempt to look into the human past and try to understand how our ancestors have managed urban waste.

Waste of the past

Most of the waste in early human history was mainly organic. This could have been food waste, wood, clay or fabric. Archaeologists believe that ancient humans composted at least some organic waste and must have repaired and reused as much as possible. Earliest laws we have concerning garbage dumps comes from Athens, Greece in about 500 BC. They mandated dumping thrash at least a mile of town and explicitly, not in streets. Prof. Siriweera in his article, Sanitation and Health Care in Ancient Sri Lanka, states as follows;

“The Artha-shasthra of Kautilya written during the fourth century B.C. refers to ideal rules and regulations to be adopted in sanitation management in cities. Accordingly, dumping garbage, allowing garbage to pile up, and leaving room for water to gather in one place, defecation in public places, disposing of dead bodies of such pets as cats in streets were strictly prohibited. Similarly, the cremation of dead bodies in places not earmarked specifically for such purposes was prohibited. Offenders were to be punished by fining, the fines varying according to the gravity of the offence. In about 200 AD, Rome instituted the first documented sanitation force. It employed teams of two men to pick us thrash from the street. They threw it into a wagon, and took it away.”

Urban waste management in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa

Sri Lanka’s longest lasting capital city, Anuradhapura was the first known urban civilisation of the island.The recorded history of Anuradhapura dates back to the 6th century BCE, when a minister named Anuradha built it on the banks of the river Malwathu. There was a second prince named Anuradha who resided at this newly erected city and constructed a tank. Then it was king Pandukabhaya who upgraded the standards of Anuradhapura into a well-organised city. However, recent archaeological excavations revealed that this city’s antiquity can be dated back to the 9th century BCE. Historical chronicles records that the city was chosen as the capital city of Sri Lanka by king Pandukabhaya and since then it remained as the capital till the 11th century, covering up a lengthy period of around 1500 years, marking its place in world history as one of the longest reigning capital cities. The process of urbanization that started from Anuradhapura spread towards a nearby city, Polonnaruwa. Tanks were built in Polonnaruwa and it grew into a busy commercial city during the latter half of Anuradhapura. At its peak, these two cities were few of the busiest and most populated cities of the region with a large number of traders, merchants, travelers, students, religious missionaries, artisans dwelled, apart from its permanent settlers. A large number of slaves, elephants, horses, cattle, and other domestic animals too dwelled in the city and its hinterland. These cities consisted of administrative structures, forms of entertainment, street networks, water management, royal palace complex, security buildings, hospitals and its religious buildings. The waste produced by these cities would have been domestic waste, industrial and commercial waste, solid and liquid.

According to literature evidences, Anuradhapura was upgraded into a well-planned city by King Pandukabhaya. Mahavamsa records the sewer systems, garbage cleaning and cemetery maintenance of Anuradhapura by King Pandukabhaya as follows; (Chapter X, x 89 – 94)

“He set five chandalas to the work of cleaning the streets of the won, two hundred chandalas to the work of cleaning the sewers, one hundred and fifty chandalas he employed  to bear the dead and as many chandalas to be watchers in the cemetery. For these he built a village north-west of the cemetery and they continually carried out their duty as it was appointed.

Towards the north-east of the chandala village he made the cemetery, called the Lower cemetery for the chandala folk.”  (Wilhelm Geiger (Translation), 1912, Page 74, 75)

Other main cities such as Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa also have archaeological evidences of well managed sewer systems and waste disposal. The discharge of used water out of the cities as well as garbage and refuse disposal had undoubtedly been arranged according to a set plan in each of these cities, states Prof. Siriweera. In Anuradhapura, waste water was disposed through terracotta pipes that ran through and beneath buildings and urinal waste was also sent into large pits through these terracotta pipes. At the Abhayagiri monastery huge clay pots has been placed one above the other, to filter the waste water before they were disposed into garbage pits. These are not empty clay pots. They consisted of sand, lime and charcoal which are natural purifying and filtering compositions. Terracotta also has the ability of cleansing water or any form of liquid.

Archaeological Evidence can be seen at Polonnaruwa at the Alahanaparivena premises. Water and urine has been diverted from the toilets of the Baddhaseema Pasada at Polonnaruva through terracotta pipes into a separate septic pit while excreta were diverted to another septic pit. Many more examples can be presented from the past in regard on how our ancestors have implemented successful environmental friendly methods to dispose waste in urban complexes, maintaining the balance between urban development and environmental protection, causing minimum harm to the ecology. Therefore, these are lessons that we can adapt to today’s urban development strategies.

Uriners in ancient Sri Lanka, at the Colombo national museum

Uriners in ancient Sri Lanka, at the Colombo national museum

Uncategorized, waste management in ancient times, waste management in anuradhapura 

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Quick booking process

Talk to an expert