‘Our Pin-Para carpeted’ | Sunday Observer

‘Our Pin-Para carpeted’

22 April, 2018

Our 6-kilometre pin-para, connecting five villages to A9 and A12 southeast of Mihintale hill was carpeted recently. It was first a footpath which morphed into a cart road, ebulliently shaping into our gravel vaunt later. It was called ‘pin-para’ when villagers built it by donating time and effort for the commonweal and receive merits (pin). About 25 years ago, a 2-door bus began twice-a-day asthmatic run on it- at the behest of the day’s road conditions.

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Pin-para chugged on a northerly direction through few isolated communities, minor irrigation tanks, tessellated paddy fields, chena plots on some wooded stretches, before meeting its glamorous cousin, A12, just before the A12 crossed Mahakanadarawa tank, east of Mihintale hill under its stunningly beautiful Sela Chetiya and Aradana Gala.

Long before the hullabaloo of the carpet craze, this gravel road facilitated thawalams, bullock carts, bicycles, and travellers on foot between the bazaar and their hamlets. It was 6-km we lived with sweat and dust. It was the earth-colour neckless holding together five villages – its lapis lazuli. It was the patrimony of us all, left behind by our ancestors. On this highway we took patients and pregnant women to the hospital on bullock carts. In its glorious ways, pin-para was an extension of our bucolic life. It was our Silk Road; our obsidian looking-glass to the world beyond the village boundaries. It was also a poem; the Olympian test of laboring to the bazaar with our heavy bartering items. Often during this trip, we had to sidestep ossified elephant footprints and puckered cart wheel marks.

Black engine oil

I write these thoughts because our pin-para deserves its own encomium after it carried the weight of a people for generations. This is my melancholic peroration for posterity as a witness to its history. It is not easy to see a lifetime’s worth of memories and a way of life carpeted under – the inexorable premium we pay for progress. And may this also be my paean to our new companion – the tarry snake of wonder travel which looks just as a pin-para would look if it was taken out after dipping in a bucket full of black engine oil.

As we walked on this road, prides of peacock danced and cheered us at each bend. But, committees of painted stork sans the same grace, took a step back and stared at the ballerinas in derision. We grew up knowing each chink that pops up on the road surface signalling the descent of the dry season. One morning someone would find an embryonic termite-hill in the middle of the road. He swears it was not there when he passed the spot the evening before!

Walking along on our pin-para was a cultural experience. Flanked by the high forest standing guard since ancient times, it was a thoroughfare made lively with travellers. At times when they thinned out, silence fell momentarily on the forest enshrouding the roadside. Then,with a moment’s pause,droves of cicadas started their refreshing symphony.This road was our gossip exchange. Those who were returning from the bazaar with weighty items paused to rest and meet other travellers. They discussed things and exchanged news. Few travellers who met on this road on that fateful day in 1959 probably analyzed news of the assassination of the Prime Minister, too. There were no radios in these villages then, and their conduit to the outer world was the pin-para. It is along this road in the 60s and 70s, that old Aaron Ayya rode every day with sundry grocery items stuffed into the compartmentalized Sun Light Soap box strapped to his Dandu Monara, the squeaky Raleigh bicycle. Naturally, housewives along the road eagerly awaited their travelling supermarket.

As we traversed this road, the dry aroma and the grating sound of gravel ignited our weary senses. But in the rainy season, some parts of it became streams and one section became a hell-hole where overflow from Mahakirindegama tank spillway swallowed the road. Two tiny British-era culverts couldn’t handle the job. Soil with interstellar chemistry on this stretch could have been best described as a cross between wood-glue and play-dough. When we rode past it, the sticky mud got between the moving and non-moving parts of the bike like an unrelenting octopus. Those who knew the hazard walked across the spillway carrying the bikes on their shoulders. Others soon realized their folly when mud metastasized and locked the wheels. It took the next half hour to clean the mess. This was a seasonal spectacle we tolerated because we had no other bypass road although our dreams of a better dream remained aglow. It was the tale of two incorrigible siblings -us, and a road, bound together with a common fate and purpose.


As pin-para passed through intermittent expanses of paddy fields,the whiff of rotting grass and mud emanating from them during the sowing season, and of hay and stubble during the harvest season invigorated our senses, nurturing our existence. As we walked through wooded areas on this gravel carpet, we saw more trees than the sky.

Before the forest bordering our pin-para was inundated to make the Mahakanadarawa tank (c.1959) the area was infested with herds of elephants. To this day, their conflicts with villagers remain acrimonious, to say the least. Disharmony of easement rights of ours and theirs echoed with the certainty of leitmotif of a Rocky movie score. When the reservoir digested the sylvan haven, elephant-human contacts became recurrent on each bend of the road. After spending the night on the road, elephants would leave appurtenances to ownership - their bodily waste, etc to be seen by us at day break. We lived with restrained toleration of this nuisance as it was an inevitable part of our lives.

When road carpeting became the norm everywhere, it hurt our feelings because our gravel road was left unrecognized in RDA chart rooms. In fact, our wait pre-dated the carpet culture. We waited through colonial masters of the 20th century, many later governments, a 30-year war, and a cruel joke - hardest of them all to fathom - perpetrated on us. I will share it with you later in this essay.

Even after roads around our villages, including four kilometers to a nearby hamlet with only four houses were carpeted, the four villages with 200 houses on our pin-para were left in the dust. Finally, our patience was rewarded when with ADB help, hooray, our 6-km found its shining moment!

As road building work progressed, villagers, true to their caring nature, provided food and refreshments to the road crew. When the construction machines were parked by the isolated cemetery by the road, villagers took turns providing company to the night watchman.

A better future

Although we are saddened by the demise of our old gravel boulevard which blessed us with her unflinching company and archaic grandeur, the unflappable beauty she shared has never been soother to our eyes. Her being part of the community for generations underscores our nostalgic feelings, now mercilessly buried under sand, gravel, and fine macadam (metal) imbued in tar.

The pre-transformation pin-para, with its inlay of cracked road-bed imitated a giant curving snake ready to exuviate. Now, caught in the mid-day mirage, the glowing surface of the carpeted wonder resembles a fire-spewing dragon. But, the base hospital at Mihintale didn’t move an inch closer. Our need to rush the sick is still an existential exigency. Dreams of a better future for our kids on the back of this black dragon remain fresh as ever. So, the road in whatever guise, remains a hopeful and important equity in our lives.

This reminds me how the modes of modern road travel had changed traversing the 6-km a flitting moment in our life without the travails we encountered when it was just an ordinary dirt strip. Now, on this glossy black artery, instead of the familiar dust and smell of dung that fueled our walk, cars race by, sickening us with Diesel and Petrol exhaust. The air on the asphalt surface is roasted and smells like the backyard of a tar factory. The road resembles the shiny back of an anaconda slithering through a giant forest of Japan Jabara (Water Hyacinth).

Still, good things are slated to happen soon now that this roadway is modernized. The two splendid bridges where previously two British-era culverts struggled mightily will make flooding at the spillway a thing of the past. The other day I struggled to hold back emotions when my wife Niranjala took pictures as I stood leaning against the rail of the bridge.

Sudden fortune

Villagers, the delighted stakeholders of this transformation, have already teamed-up to take a fiduciary role to protect their asset. They have formed a volunteer Road Maintenance Unit to fix the road. They will move in with a bag of cement and metals when any part of the road substrate comes unglued. They are not going to wait for any phantom entity to come and do the job. Obviously, their efforts prevent small cracks growing into bigger potholes, turning the road itself into a road-hazard.

Finally, I like to share a little-known piece of history about this road. According to the folklore of the area, one day some 60 years ago, an army of workers with construction vehicles descended where the road joins A12. They began digging up the road bed hastily, set macadam, and poured tar. Obviously, villagers were ecstatic for this unexpected and sudden fortune. A week later, however, and after about a quarter-mile section had been paved, workers loaded up the equipment and left without any explanation leaving villagers stunned in disbelief.

It was a nauseating feeling when they found out later that the construction crew was building the wrong road!

During the six decades since, for us, this quarter-mile was the hardest to walk – not just literally but with a missed longing as well. Deteriorated over time, scarred, and loosened patches of the substratum of that fathomless government blunder were still there when MAGA construction company started the project this time. Although a better road had been the villagers’ desideratum, even after this faux pas, they refused surrendering to any defeatist feelings and remained hopeful.

This episode remains the coarsest and demoralizing feeling these villagers had ever experienced. Although there are variants to this quarter-mile travesty, I know which version I believe more, for, I walked that length of infamy with sadness, and felt the hurt, only more so.