The cultivation of rice in Sri Lanka, as indicated by reliable historical records, traces its roots to Anuradhapura, the first capital of Sri Lanka.
Located in the dry zone of the country, Anuradhapura flourished as a major rice growing region between 161 B.C. and 1017 A.D. Rice cultivation soon became a way of life as much as an economic activity and saw the successful weaving together of society, culture and religion in the country.
The construction of large scale tanks and irrigation systems by the ancient rulers beginning with the Anuradhapura period, greatly aided rice production in the dry zone of the country.
The giant rain fed tanks or reservoirs and feeder systems to the rice fields are still in use today and are a proud testament to the knowledge and capabilities of the country’s forefathers. Production was so successful during this period that Sri Lanka was termed the ‘Granary of the East’.
Into the 21st century, rice continues to be the staple food among Sri Lankans with an estimated 1,000,000 plus hectares of land supporting paddy cultivation. Close upon 1.8 million farmer families are engaged in the paddy cultivation process in the country.
The two main cultivation seasons
The significance of Polonnaruwa
Polonnaruwa, is an ancient city with a rich heritage located in the North Central Province of Sri Lanka. Declared by UNESCO as a world heritage site in 1982, it is a major rice growing region in the country and home to both the Nipuna rice mill and its owners.
The hero of Polonnaruwa, King Parakramabahu 1, (1153-1186 AD) reigned in the most important years of this historic city and developed it immensely. Irrigation systems that are considered superior to the Anuradhapura period were constructed and to this day supply water necessary for paddy cultivation.
The most important of these systems that helps with irrigation of rice fields is the vast Parakrama Samudraya or ‘Sea of Parakrama’. The man-made reservoir is so large that it seems to stretch out without boundaries.
King Mahasen, who ruled Anuradhapura between 275-301 AD, did much to improve irrigation systems in Polonnaruwa. History records that the king built more than sixteen reservoirs to improve rice cultivation in the country.
His major achievement was the construction of the Minneriya reservoir in Polonnaruwa. The king was regarded as a deity for his efforts at Minneriya and to this day referred to as the ‘Minneri Deviyo’ or ‘God of Minneriya’. The remains of a shrine built in veneration on the shores of this massive reservoir can be seen to this very day.
Polonnaruwa remains one of the best relic sites in the country and is a reflection of the greatness of the kingdom’s initial rulers.