Before and after the formation of the Geological Survey Department of Ceylon
Some historical notes on Geology and Mineralogy

by A. Denis N. Fernando
Fellow National Academy of Science
Recipient of Ananda Coomaraswamy Memorial Medal 1999

Traders from all over the world were drawn here as she was renowned for its gems and spices.

Iron played a key role in the development of our Ancient Hydraulic Civilization and recording of our epigraphical rock inscriptions in the B.C Period, which was common place.

The Mahawamsa provides us with the first record Mineral Survey in the 2nd cent. B.C., where it is recorded the location of precious minerals and gems with accuracy, as they are recorded in Polar Coordinates, of distance in Yojanas and angular direction based on the rising sun from the City of Anuradhapura. I have taken a Yojana as 8 miles and also corrected the Sun Azimuth for variations in their direction and indicated in a Map.

This gives a description of the places where precious minerals, gems and pearls were obtained from in building the Maha Tupa of Anuradhapura in the reign of King Dutta Gamini.

It says:-

"In a north-easterly direction from the city, a distance of 3 yojanas and near Acaravithigama, on a plain covering 16 Karisars (of land) there appeared nuggets of gold of different sizes....

"On the east side of the city, a distance of seven yojanas, the further bank of the river and near Tambapitta, copper, appeared...."

"In a south-easterly direction from the city four yojanas distant near the village of Sumanavapi many precious stones appeared...."

"In a southerly direction from the city, at a distance of eight yojanas, silver appeared in the Ambatthakola-cave...."

"In a westerly direction from the city, at a distance of five yojanas, near the landing place, Uruvela, pearls...."

"In a northerly direction from the city, at a distance of seven yojanas, in a cave opening on the Pelivapitagama-tank, above on the sand, four splendid gems had formed in size like to a small mill-stone, in colour like flax-flowers, (radiantly) beautiful...."

The Mahavansa translated by Wilhelm Geiger (Chapter XXVIII p. 187 to 190.)

The location corresponds to: Gold near Kabitigollawa/Ranbewa, Copper near Tamankaduwa east of the Mahaweli Ganga, precious Gemstone near Elahera/Angamedilla, Silver near Ridi Vihara, Pearls in the Kalpity Bay, large bright Blue Gems like flax flowers near Vavunikulam. Most of these have been discovered except for gold and flax flower like gems. It would be interesting to note that in 1969 when I mentioned this in my Presidential Address for the Engineering Section of the Ceylon Association for the Advancement of Science though this was not taken seriously by the Geologists, barely a year passed when the Geological Survey Department announced with acclaim that they had discovered Copper ore at Seruvila on the eastern side of the Mahaweli Ganga. In fact this was the very site stated in the Mahawamsa called "Tambapitta beyond the river (Mahaweli Ganga)".

Then there is the recording in the Mahawamsa of the war between two Naga Kings in Nagadipa over a Gem Set Throne in Nagadipa in the B.C. Period. Ptolemy has recorded Nagadipa in Eastern Ruhuna. While Ibn Batuta in 1340 on his pilgrimage to Adams Peak records the estuary of Rubies close to Ruwanwella/Kitulgala on his ascent along the Baba route, while on his return along the Mama route passing Balangoda and the terraced paddy fields records the valley of Rubies which correspond to Colambage Aru/Embilipitiya areas while on his way to Devinuwera.

It might also be interesting to note that the technique to converting iron ore to high quality steel was known and recorded by Ananda Coomaraswamy by a tribe of people called Yammano using middle eastern technology at Balangoda which was in high demand and was exported for the fabrication of prised swords...

We also know that geology particularly rock outcrops played a key role in Ancient times in the location of irrigation structures like Dam sites, spill sites and diversion canals. For example two dykes of relatively soft rocks on the out crops on either side of the Sorabora Dam, were used for the sluices, while even today when we locate sluices in renovation of large dams, we rediscover old sluices at those very intended sites. The Ancients were also fully aware of unfavourable geology in the Miocene lime stone belt.

In the 17th Century with the introduction of Tobacco by the Portuguese ground water technology using the Well and Shadaff was introduced to the Jaffna Peninsula by the Vellala Tamils who came to Jaffna from the Coramandel who used their technology to cultivate Tobacco. It was this introduction of ground water technology and made it possible to grow tobacco and produced the Jaffna Cigar which was as famous as the Cuban Cigar and made the Jaffna Peninsula prosperous.

I was fortunate to delve into the files of the Survey Department, where it is recorded that in 1895 Geological Surveys were conducted and had obtained the services of Mr. W. King one time Director Geological Survey of India, while in the beginning of the 20th Cent. Hydrogeological investigations were undertaken in the Hardrock areas of Vavunia by Mr. Shipton, Supdt. of Surveys. It was in the beginning of the last century that Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy was engaged by the Survey Department as Principal Mineral Surveyor, who worked in close cooporation with the Imperial College London and used their Laboratory services for chemical analysis. It was also during this period that an interesting episode took place between Ananda Coomaraswamy with the then Surveyor General, that resulted in the Geological Survey Department being formed. This interesting episode that I had recorded in my Ananda Coomaraswamy Lecture in 1999. Further I would also like to recall what I stated in that lecture our claims to the Extended Exclusive Economic Zone where there is the potential for Petroleum and Minerals, has to be claimed before 2004. Unfortunately nothing meaningful has been done so far.

It was because whilst being in the Survey Department I delved into the background of the exploitation of ground water in the last century that I was convinced that there was ground water in the Hard rock areas. This led me to compile the Hydrogeological Map of Sri Lankan in 1968 using Aerospace techniques and thereafter based on the experience of Ground Water Exploration and Exploitation in India, I was able to determine for the first time the first Ground Water Potential Map of Sri Lankan in 1973 which indicated that there is more ground water for extraction in the Hard Rock areas. This was accepted after my demonstrating this, using low cost tube wells, and now being exploited today by several institutions and agencies. As indicated in my book on the ground Water Resources of Sri Lanka in 1973 precautions have to be taken to prevent over exploitation by not extracting more that the natural recharge, as it would cause environment problems due to over exploitation and lowering of the water table. While in places like the Jaffna Peninsula, Mannar and Kalpitiya there would be salt water intrusion and destroy the crops and environment due to over exploitation. Similarly in the arid Hambantota, as recharge is megre, over extraction brings in brackish water.

Concluding today the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau is the heir to the Geological Survey Dept. There are several other departments, corporations, universities agencies and individual researches dedicated to this discipline and fostered by the Geological Society of Sri Lanka.