A History of the Island of Sri Lanka

To me the beauty of Ceylon lies not so much in its blue seas and golden beaches, its jungles and its mountain peaks, as in its ancient atmosphere. There is no nation, from Egypt of the Pharaohs to modern Britain, in whose literature this island has not at some time been mentioned by one or other of its many names — Lanka, Serendib, Taprobane, Cellao, Zellan, to recall a few. History lies buried in its sands, and ghosts of romance lurk among its bastioned rocks, for Lanka is very, very old.”

– D. J. G. Hennessy, GREEN AISLES, 1949

Ruwanwelisaya Anurudhapura

Traditionally, the recorded History of Sri Lanka boasts of 25 chronicled centuries. But in actuality, her history goes much longer than that, to the Balangoda Man and the Emperor Ravana.

In the 6th century BC, Sri Lankan had already developed a unique {en:hydraulic civilization}, enormous pyramid-like Stupas (Dagaba) and regal palaces bare evidence of a civilization steeped in engineering and architecture. The Dagabas and temples show off a culture nourished by Buddhism.

The country was forced to deal with South Indian invasions in the tenth century and European expansions in the sixteenth century. Historical chronicles are found in stone writings (‘sel lipi’), ola leaf writings (‘Hela Atuva’) and also in great Indian chronicles as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. However the main historical written evidence of the country is in the Mahavamsa, which also includes the Dipavamsa & Chulavamsa, their Burmese versions, as well as the parallel Indian records.

The island presently known as “Sri Lanka” was originally known as “Sinhale” or “Heladiva.” According to accounts based on tradition, the Hela inhabitants comprised of naga, yaksha, deva & raksha and possibly other peoples. In the 5th century B.C., Indo-Aryan peoples emigrated from India, mixed with the Hela people and later when Buddhism arrived in the country with Prince Vijaya, was established and helped develop the Sinhalese culture we see today. More than 70% of the Sinhalese populace is Buddhist.

There is a long-standing relationship between Sinhalese, Tamils, Moors, Malayans, Burghers, Ja (Javanese), Veddahs, along with hundreds of other inhabitants and cultural groups in the country, which has ensured an extremely close relationship between the groups and cultures. In the past all Sri Lankans were referred to as and integrated in to Sinhalese, but after the long period of invasions and colonization, they are sometimes called by different names. The combination of religious and ethnic similarities continues today between the various races, as they have shared Sri Lanka for innumerable centuries.

Ancient Constructions of Sri Lanka (Wiki Link)

Sri Lanka HistoryPrehistory

Sri Lanka is estimated to have been colonised by the Balangoda people (named after the area where their remains were discovered) about 34,000 years ago. They have been identified as a group of Mesolithic hunter gatherers who lived in caves. Several of these caves including the well known Batadombalena and the Fa-Hien Rock cave have yielded many artefacts that point to them being the first inhabitants of the island.

The Balangoda people appear to have been responsible for creating Horton Plains, in the central hills, by burning the trees in order to catch game. However, discovery of Oats and Barley on the plains dating to about 15,000 BC suggest they may have engaged in agriculture.

Several minute granite tools of about 4 centimetres in length, earthenware and remnants of charred timber, and clay burial pots that date back to the Stone Age Mesolithic Man who lived 8000 years ago have been discovered during recent excavations around a cave at Varana Raja Maha vihara & also in the Kalatuwawa area.

Cinnamon, which is native to Sri Lanka, was in use in Ancient Egypt around 1500 BC, suggesting that there were trading links with the island. It is possible that Biblical Tarshish was located on the island as James Emerson Tennent identified Tarshish with the southern port city of Galle (Ceylon, Physical, Historical and Topographical (2 vols., 1859)).

A large settlement appears to have been founded before 900 BC at the site of Anuradhapura and signs of an Iron Age culture have been found. The size of the settlement was about 15 hectares at the date, but it expanded to 50 ha, to ‘town’ size within a couple of centuries. A similar site has been discovered at Aligala in Sigiriya.

It is belived that the hunter gatherer people known as the Wanniyala-Aetto or Veddas, who still live in the North-Eastern parts of the island, are relatively direct descendants of the first inhabitants.

The Ramayana epic, composed possibly between the 2nd and 4th centuries BC, states that Lanka was created by the divine sculptor Vishwakarma for Kubera, the lord of wealth. Ravana however usurped the throne of Kubera after defeating him in a battle. The Ramayana recounts how Rama invaded the island of Sri Lanka through the Mannar causeway [Adams Bridge] with the help of Sugreeva (the king of a Vanara (monkey) Army) and Hanuman the minister of Sugreeva, to save his abducted wife Sita from the demon King {en:Ravana}, the King of Sri Lanka.

The earliest chronicles the Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa say that, before the migration of the Indo-Aryans, tribes of Yakkhas (demons) and Nagas (cobras) inhabited the island. These names might refer to the tribal totems of the people living on the island at the time.

Pottery has been found at Anuradhapura, bearing Brahmi script and non-Brahmi writing, dating back to 600 BC. One of the oldest examples of the script.

Colonial era (1517-1948)

The Portuguese Rule

The first Europeans to invade Sri Lanka in modern times were the Portuguese: Francisco de Almeida arrived on the island in 1505, finding the country divided into seven warring kingdoms and unable to fend off intruders. The Portuguese founded a fort at the Muslim port city of Colombo in 1517 and slowly extended their control over the coastal areas. In 1592 the Sinhalese moved their capital to the inland city of Kandy in the central hills, a location more secure against attack from invaders. Intermittent warfare continued through the 16th century.

Many lowland Sinhalese were forced to convert to Christianity while the coastal Moors were religiously persecuted and forced to retreat to the Central highlands too. The Buddhist majority disliked the Portuguese occupation and its influences and welcomed any power who might rescue them. In 1602, therefore, when the Dutch captain Joris Spilberg landed, the king at Kandy appealed to him for help.

The Dutch Rule

It was in 1638 that the Dutch attacked in earnest, but not until 1656 did Colombo fall. By 1660 the Dutch controlled the entire island except for the kingdom of Kandy. The Dutch persecuted the Catholics but left the Buddhists, Hindus and Moslems alone. They taxed the people far more heavily than the Portuguese had done. A mixed Dutch-Sinhalese people known as Burghers are the legacy of Dutch rule.

In 1659, the British sea captain {en:Robert Knox} landed by chance on Sri Lanka and was captured by the king of Kandy. He escaped 19 years later and wrote an account of his stay. This helped to bring the island to the attention of the British.

BuduRuwanGala Sri Lanka

The British Rule

During the Napoleonic Wars the United Kingdom, fearing that French control of the Netherlands might deliver Sri Lanka to the French, occupied the coastal areas of the island (which they called Ceylon) with little difficulty in 1796. In 1802 by the Treaty of Amiens the Dutch part of the island was formally ceded to Britain, and became a crown colony. In 1803 the British invaded the Kingdom of Kandy in the 1st Kandyan War, but were bloodily repulsed. In 1815 Kandy was occupied in the 2nd Kandyan War, finally ending Sri Lankan independence. Following the bloody suppression of the Uva Rebellion or 3rd Kandyan War in 1817-1818, a treaty in 1818 preserved the Kandyan monarchy (Nayaks of Kandy) as a British dependency.

The Kandyan peasantry were stripped of their lands by the Wastelands Ordinance, a modern enclosure movement and reduced to penury. The British found that the uplands of Sri Lanka were very suited to coffee, tea and rubber cultivation, and by the mid 19th century Ceylon tea had become a staple of the British market, bringing great wealth to a small class of white tea planters. To work the estates, the planters imported large numbers of Tamil workers as indentured labourers from south India, who soon made up 10% of the island’s population. These workers had to work in slave-like conditions and to live in line rooms, not very different from cattle sheds.

The British colonialists favoured the semi-European Burghers, certain high-caste Sinhalese and some Tamils who were mainly concentrated to the north of the country, exacerbating divisions and enmities which have survived ever since. Nevertheless, the British also introduced democratic elements to Sri Lanka for the first time in its history. The Burghers were given some degree of self-government as early as 1833. It was not until 1909 that constitutional development began with a partly-elected assembly, and not until 1920 that elected members outnumbered official appointees. Universal suffrage was introduced in 1931, over the protests of the Sinhalese, Tamil and Burgher elite who objected to the common people being allowed to vote.


Tagged with: , , ,