|Prehistory||The rise & fall of Anuradhapura||The Kingdom of Polonnaruwa||Tamil kingdoms||Early Muslim links|
|The Portuguese period||The Dutch period||The British period||Independence|
Legend and history are deeply intertwined in the early accounts of Sri Lanka: did the Buddha leave his footprint on Adam’s Peak (Sri Pada) while visiting the island that lay halfway to paradise? Or was it Adam who left his footprint embedded in the rock while taking a last look at Eden? Was the chain of islands linking Sri Lanka to India the same chain that Rama crossed to rescue his wife Sita from the clutches of Rawana, king of Lanka, in the epic Ramayana?
It is probable that the Ramayana has some fragile basis in reality, for Sri Lanka’s history recounts many invasions from southern India. Perhaps some early invasion provided the elements of the story of Rama and Sita, recounted throughout Asia.
Whatever the legends, the reality is that Sri Lanka’s original inhabitants, the Veddahs (Wanniyala-aetto), were hunter-gatherers who subsisted on the island’s natural bounty. Much about their origins is unclear. However, anthropologists generally believe that Sri Lanka’s original inhabitants are descendants from the people of the late Stone Age and may have existed on the island since 16, 000 BC. The first Sinhalese, originally from North India, arrived in Sri Lanka around the 5th or 6th century BC. Traders and fisherfolk from South India who visited Sri Lanka during the late centuries BC also made the island their permanent home. The intermingling of the new arrivals produced a harmonious multicultural society – a state that, unfortunately, did not continue in the centuries that followed.
According to Sinhalese accounts it was crime and banishment that led to their settlement in Sri Lanka in the 5th or 6th century BC. Vijaya, son of a North Indian king, was ousted from his title and kingdom due to his acts of assault and robbery. With a contingent of 700 men, the sinha (lion) prince was set adrift on the high seas in dilapidated ships, to face his destiny – punishment by death. But destiny took a different turn and as they travelled south, Vijaya and his men were blessed by the Buddha and (as accounts would have it) came to land on the west coast of Sri Lanka on the very day that the Buddha attained enlightenment. Vijaya and his men settled around Anuradhapura, forming the basis of a Sinhalese kingdom that developed there in the 4th century BC. Later, the Sinhalese kingdom of Ruhunu was established in the southwest but Anuradhapura remained the stronger kingdom. Early settlement took place mainly along rivers, as the aridity of the north was not conducive to human settlement and the cultivation of crops. No doubt banishment and the need for survival can be great motivators: Vijaya and his descendants demonstrated impressive resourcefulness. To overcome the challenges of climate they constructed water channels and reservoirs (known locally as tanks) – great feats of engineering and mathematics. Such inventiveness enabled the early settlements to develop and prosper.
In the 3rd century BC the Indian emperor Ashoka sent his son Mahinda and his daughter Sangamitta to the island to spread the Buddha’s teachings. Mahinda soon converted the Anuradhapuran king Devanampiya Tissa, an event that is tremendously significant to the Sinhalese as it deeply influenced their customs, created a sense of national identity and, by developing scriptures and commentary, instituted a literary tradition. The mountain at Mihintale marks the spot where the conversion is said to have occurred. Today 1840 steps lead up the mountain to the site – it’s a popular pilgrimage place, especially on the June poya (full moon), the reputed anniversary of the king’s conversion.
Sangamitta brought to Sri Lanka a cutting of the Bodhi Tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. She planted this in Anuradhapura, where it still survives today, garlanded with prayer flags and lights. Other bodhi trees, grown from cuttings of the Anuradhapuran tree, now spread their branches beside many of the island’s temples.
With the conversion of the king to Buddhism strong ties were established between Sri Lankan royalty and Buddhist religious orders. Later, these ties strengthened as kings, grateful for monastic support, provided living quarters, tanks and produce to the monasteries. A symbiotic political economy between religion and state became consolidated. When the Sinhalese king Valagambahu fled from South Indian invaders he was given safe haven by monks who resided in the cave structures at Dambulla. When he regained his position in about 90 BC he expressed his gratitude by developing a huge cave-temple complex. Since that time it has been a centre of Buddhist practice.
Buddhism underwent a major development when the teachings, previously conveyed orally, were documented in writing. Sri Lankan monks played a significant role in the documentation process, when, at the Aluvihara monastery in the 1st century BC, they began in-depth commentaries on the teachings. Their work forms the major part of the classical literature of the Theravada (doctrine of the elders) school of Buddhism. It was in Sri Lanka that the Theravada school developed, later spreading to Buddhist countries in Southeast Asia. Even today, Buddhists of the Theravada school in Myanmar, Thailand and other countries look to Sri Lanka for spiritual leadership and interpretation of the scriptures.
Another event that served to intensify Buddhism in Sri Lanka was the arrival of the tooth relic (of the Buddha) at Anuradhapura in AD 371. It gained prominence not only as a religious symbol but also as a symbol of sovereignty – it was believed that whoever held custody of the relic had the right to rule the island. Modern-day presidents, prime ministers and governments see it as their duty to protect the relic and the rituals that surround it. It now lies in the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic (Sri Dalada Maligawa) in Kandy.
In AD 473, King Kasyapa assumed the throne by engineering the death of his father and the exile of his elder brother, Mugalan. Kasyapa’s skills were not limited to eliminating relatives – he also recognised a good piece of real estate and was a dab hand at property development. His reign saw the construction of the spectacular rock fortress of Sigiriya, with its intricate water systems, ornate gardens and frescoed palaces. However, the exiled Mugalan, incensed by his ousting, returned to Sri Lanka with an army of Indian mercenaries. Mugalan defeated Kasyapa and reclaimed the throne, but he established a perilous precedent. To retain power, future Sinhalese kings found themselves beholden to Indian mercenaries. Centuries of interference and disorder followed with repeated invasions and takeovers of Anuradhapura by South Indian kingdoms, and self-defeating entanglements in South Indian affairs by Anuradhapura’s rulers.
Anuradhapura was pummelled many times but rebuilding was possible through rajakariya, the system of free labour for the king. This free labour provided the resources to restore buildings, tanks and irrigation systems, as well as to plant, cultivate and harvest crops.
Polonnaruwa survived as a Sinhalese capital for more than two centuries – a period that provided a further two kings of note. Parakramabahu I (r 1153–86), nephew of Vijayabahu I, was not content simply to expel the South Indian Tamil Chola empire from Sri Lanka, but carried the fight to South India and even made a raid on Myanmar. Domestically he indulged in an orgy of building in the capital, and constructed many new tanks around the country. But his warring and architectural extravagances wore down the country’s resources, and probably shortened Polonnaruwa’s lifespan.
His successor, Nissanka Malla (r 1187–96), was the last king of Polonnaruwa to show interest in the wellbeing of the people and in the construction and maintenance of buildings and irrigation systems.
He was followed by a series of weak rulers who allowed the city to fall into disrepair. With the decay of the irrigation system, disease spread and, like Anuradhapura before it, Polonnaruwa was abandoned. The jungle reclaimed it within a few decades.
During Polonnaruwa’s decline the first Tamil kingdom established itself in Jaffna. Movements of people between India and Sri Lanka had been happening for centuries but from the 5th and 6th centuries AD resurgent Hindu Tamil empires such as the Chola, Pallava and Pandya repeatedly threatened the Buddhist Sinhalese rulers.
With the decline of the Sinhalese northern capitals and the ensuing Sinhalese migration south, a wide jungle buffer zone separated the northern, mostly coastal Tamil settlements and the southern, interior Sinhalese settlements. This jungle zone, called the Vanni, was sparsely inhabited by mixed Tamil-Sinhalese clans called the Vanniyars.
Initially the ‘rulers’ of Jaffna were possibly diplomatic missions from the early South Indian kingdoms. At other times Jaffna came under the sovereignty of the major South Indian centres of Madurai and Thanjavur. However, developing rivalry between Indian empires allowed Jaffna to gain autonomy. It became a trade centre, especially in spices and elephants from the Vanni region, and established weaving, dyeing and pearl-fishing industries. An important centre for art and literature developed at Nallur (near Jaffna) in the 15th century, and studies combining astrology and medicine provided health services to the population. But things changed with the arrival of the Portuguese in 1505.
Muslim settlement in Sri Lanka developed from centuries of Arab trade. In Arabic the island was called Serendib, from seren (jewel) and dwip (island). Gems were a valued item of commerce, as were cinnamon, ivory and elephants. With the advent of Islam in the 7th century AD Arab traders arrived with their new faith. Some stayed and settled on the island and many Sri Lankan Muslims are proud that their ancestry can be dated from the time of the Prophet.
Muslim traders found favour with Sri Lankan kings, and relations were generally cordial. Early Muslim settlements took hold in the north at Jaffna and southwest at Galle, as well as on the eastern side of the island. However, with the arrival of the Portuguese many Muslims fled inland to flee persecution.
After Polonnaruwa, the centre of Sinhalese power shifted to the southwest of the island, and between 1253 and 1400 there were five different Sinhalese capitals. During this period Sri Lanka suffered attacks by Chinese and Malayans, as well as periodic incursions from South India. Finally, the Portuguese arrived in 1505.
By this time Sri Lanka had three main kingdoms: the Tamil kingdom of Jaffna, and Sinhalese kingdoms in Kandy and Kotte (near Colombo). Of the two Sinhalese kingdoms, Kotte was the more powerful. When Portuguese Lorenço de Almeida arrived in Colombo, he established friendly relations with King Bhuvanekabahu of Kotte and gained a Portuguese monopoly on the spice trade, which soon became very important in Europe.
Tamil-Portuguese relations were less cordial, especially when the colonial missionaries attempted to convert the local population to Catholicism. Infuriated by this, the Tamil king Sangily organised a massacre of the missionaries and their converts.
The different responses to the Portuguese – alliance from Kotte and hostility from Jaffna – made no difference to the end result: Portugal took over the entire coastal belt. However, the Portuguese were unable to conquer the central highlands, and the kingdom at Kandy resisted several later Portuguese attempts at capture.
With the Portuguese came religious orders such as the Dominicans and Jesuits. Many of the Karava fishing communities on the west coast converted, but reluctance to assume the new faith was often met with massacres and the destruction of local temples. Buddhist priests and others fled to Kandy, whose role as a stronghold and haven endowed it with a special status on the island – one that was consolidated by later colonial failures to capture it. This status is still cherished today by many Sri Lankans, especially those from the high country.
The Portuguese tried to entice their compatriots to settle in Sri Lanka. Some did, intermarrying with locals, and their descendants form part of the small group known as European Burghers. The Portuguese also brought slaves from Africa who are today almost totally assimilated. Known as the Kaffirs, their contribution to Sri Lankan culture is evident in the bailas – folk tunes based on African rhythms.
In 1602 the first Dutch ships arrived in Sri Lanka. Like the Arabs and Portuguese, the Dutch were keen to acquire trade, and they vied with the Portuguese for the lucrative Indian Ocean spices. For the Kandyan king, Rajasinha II, the Dutch presence provided an opportunity to rid Sri Lanka of the Portuguese. A treaty was duly signed, giving the Dutch a monopoly on the spice trade in return for Sri Lankan autonomy. This, however, only succeeded in substituting one European power for another. By 1658, 153 years after the first Portuguese contact, the Dutch had taken control of the coastal areas of the island. During their 140-year rule, the Dutch, like the Portuguese, made repeated unsuccessful attempts to bring Kandy under their control. And, just as the Portuguese had done, the Dutch encouraged their fellow citizens to reside in Sri Lanka. Their descendants, the Dutch Burghers, comprise a minority group in Sri Lanka today.
The Dutch were much more interested in trade and profits than were the Portuguese, and developed a canal system along the west coast to transport cinnamon and other crops. Roman-Dutch law, the legal system of the Dutch era, still forms part of Sri Lanka’s legal canon.
The British, concerned that they may be defeated in conflicts with the French in South India, and requiring a safe port in the area, began to consider the eastern Sri Lankan harbour of Trincomalee. The British ejected the Dutch in 1796, and in 1802 Sri Lanka became a crown colony. In 1815 the British won control of Kandy, thus becoming the first European power to rule the whole island. Three years later a unified administration for the island was set up.
The British conquest deeply unsettled many Sinhalese, who had long held the view that only the tooth relic custodians had the right to rule the land. Their apprehension was somewhat relieved when a senior monk removed the tooth relic from the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, thereby securing it (and the island’s symbolic sovereignty) for the Sinhalese people.
In 1832 sweeping changes in property laws opened the doors to British settlers – at the expense of the Sinhalese, who in the eyes of the British did not have title to the land. Coffee was the main cash crop but when leaf blight virtually wiped it out in the 1870s the plantations were quickly switched over to tea or rubber.
The British, unable to persuade the Sinhalese to labour on the plantations, imported large numbers of Tamil workers from South India. Today these workers’ descendants, totalling about 850, 000 people (5% of the population), form the larger of the two main Tamil communities. About 700, 000 of them still live and work on the estates.
The British influence lingers: the elite private schools with cricket grounds, the army cantonments and train stations, and the tea-estate bungalows, not to mention the English language. English was demoted from being the official language after independence, but the requirements of a globalised economy have helped bring it back into vogue.
In the wake of Indian independence, Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as it was then known, became an independent member of the British Commonwealth in February 1948. The first independent government was formed by the United National Party (UNP), led by DS Senanayake. His main opponents were the northern and plantation Tamil parties, and the communists.
At first everything went smoothly. The economy remained strong and the government concentrated on strengthening social services and weakening the opposition. It certainly achieved the latter, as it disenfranchised the Hill Country Tamils by depriving them of citizenship. Eventually, deals in the 1960s and 1980s between Sri Lanka and India allowed some of the Hill Country Tamils to be ‘repatriated’ to India, while others were granted Sri Lankan citizenship.
DS Senanayake died in 1952 and was succeeded by his son, Dudley. An attempt a year later to raise the price of rice led to mass riots and Dudley’s resignation. Sir John Kotelawala, his uncle, replaced him, and the UNP earned the nickname ‘Uncle Nephew Party’. The UNP was easily defeated in the 1956 general election by the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna coalition, led by SWRD Bandaranaike.