History of Sri Lanka

Discover about the history of Sri Lanka and how the country became a hotbed for ancient ruins

Sri Lanka’s history is a source of great pride to both Sinhalese and Tamils, the country’s two largest ethnic groups. The only problem is, they have two completely different versions. Every historical site, religious structure, even village name seems to have conflicting stories about its origin, and those stories are, in turn, blended over time with contrasting religious myths and local legends. The end results are often used as evidence that the island is one group’s exclusive homeland; each claims first dibs.

In fact, the island’s location – its position along hundreds of ancient trade routes and its proximity to India – has resulted in a potpourri of visitors, immigrants, invaders, missionaries, traders and travellers, mostly from India, but also from East Asia and the Middle East. Many stayed on, and over the generations they assimilated and intermarried, converted and converted back again. The island’s history, like that of its ethnicities, is one of constant flux and shifting dominance. Nonetheless, the contemporary Sri Lankan take on history is deeply political and marked by deep ethnic divides – divides that may be totally artificial.

Legend and history of Sri Lanka

Prehistory & Early Arrivals

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, demon king of Lanka, in the epic Ramayana?

Whatever the legends, the reality is that Sri Lanka’s original inhabitants, the Veddahs (Wanniyala-aetto, called Yakshas in the Pali chronicles), were hunter-gatherers who subsisted on the island’s natural bounty. Much about their origins is unclear, but anthropologists generally believe that they are descended from people who migrated from India, and possibly Southeast Asia, and existed on the island as far back as 32,000 BC. It’s also likely that rising waters submerged a land bridge between India and Sri Lanka in around 5000 BC.

Historians and archaeologists have differing interpretations of its origins, but a megalithic culture emerged in the centuries around 900 BC with striking similarities to the South Indian cultures of that time. Also during this Early Iron Age, Anuradhapura began to grow as a population centre.

Objects inscribed with Brahmi (an ancient ‘parent’ script to most South Asian scripts) have been found from the 3rd century BC; parallels to both North Indian and South Indian Brahmi styles have been made, though Tamil words are used in many of those found in the north and east of the island. Sri Lankan historians debate these details fiercely, as do many Sri Lankans, but rather than there being two distinct ethnic histories, it is more likely that migrations from West, East and South India all happened during this time and that those new arrivals all mixed with the indigenous people.


The 5th-century-AD Pali epic, the Mahavamsa, is the country’s primary historical source. But although it is a somewhat faithful record of kingdoms and Sinhalese political power from around the 3rd century BC, its historical accuracy is much shakier – and indeed full of beautiful myths – before this time. Nonetheless, many Sinhalese claim that they are descended from Vijaya, an immoral 6th-century-BC North Indian prince who, according to the epic, had a lion for a grandfather and a father with lion paws who married his own sister. Vijaya was banished for bad behaviour, with a contingent of 700 men, on dilapidated ships from the subcontinent.

Rather than drowning, they landed near present-day Mannar, supposedly on the day that the Buddha attained enlightenment. Vijaya and his crew settled around Anuradhapura, and soon encountered Kuveni, a Yaksha (probably Veddah) who is alternately described as a vicious queen and a seductress who assumed the form of a 16-year-old maiden to snag Vijaya. She handed Vijaya the crown, joined him in slaying her own people and had two children with him before he kicked her out and ordered a princess – along with wives for his men – from South India’s Tamil Pandya kingdom. (That, by this account, the forefathers of the Sinhalese race all married Tamils is overlooked by most Sri Lankans.) His rule formed the basis of the Anuradhapura kingdom, which developed there in the 4th century BC.

Buddhism arrived from India in the 3rd century BC, transforming Anuradhapura and possibly creating what is now known as Sinhalese culture. Today the mountain at Mihintale marks the spot where King Devanampiya Tissa is said to have first received the Buddha’s teaching.

The earliest Buddhist emissaries also brought to Sri Lanka a cutting of the bodhi tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. It survives in Anuradhapura, now garlanded with prayer flags and lights. Strong ties gradually evolved between Sri Lankan royalty and Buddhist religious orders. Kings, grateful for monastic support, provided living quarters, tanks (reservoirs) and produce to the monasteries, and a symbiotic political economy between religion and state was established, a powerful contract that is still vital in modern times.

Buddhism underwent a further major development on the island when the original oral teachings were documented in writing in the 1st century BC. The early Sri Lankan monks went on to write a vast body of commentaries on the teachings, textbooks, Pali grammars and other instructive articles, developing a classical literature for the Theravada (doctrine of the elders) school of Buddhism (p285) that continues to be referenced by Theravada Buddhists around the world. The arrival of the tooth relic of the Buddha at Anuradhapura in AD 371 further reinforced the position of Buddhism in Sinhalese society. Buddhism gave the Sinhalese a sense of national purpose and identity, and inspired the development of their culture and literature.

The Anuradhapura kingdom covered the whole island during the 2nd century BC, but it frequently fought, and coexisted with, other dynasties on the island over the centuries, especially the Tamil Cholas. The boundaries between Anuradhapura and various South Indian kingdoms were frequently shifting, and Anuradhapura was also involved in conflicts in South India. A number of Sinhalese heroes arose to repel South Indian kingdoms, including Vijayabahu I (11th century AD), who finally decided to abandon Anuradhapura and make Polonnaruwa, further southeast, his capital.

For centuries the kingdom was able to rebuild after its battles through rajakariya, the system of free labour for the king. This free labour provided the resources to restore buildings, tanks and irrigation systems and to develop agriculture. The system was not banished from the island until 1832, when the British passed laws banning slavery.


The next capital, at Polonnaruwa, survived for more than two centuries and produced two more notable rulers. 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. He also constructed many new tanks around the island, and lavished public money to make Polonnaruwa a great Asian capital.

His benevolent successor, Nissanka Malla (r 1187–96), was the last king of Polonnaruwa to care for the well-being of his people. He was followed by a series of weak rulers, and with the decay of the irrigation system, disease spread and Polonnaruwa was abandoned. The lush jungle reclaimed the second Sinhalese capital in just a few decades.

After Polonnaruwa, Sinhalese power shifted to the southwest of the island, and between 1253 and 1400 there were another five different capitals, none of them as powerful as Anuradhapura or Polonnaruwa. Meanwhile, the powerful kingdom of Jaffna expanded to cover a huge part of the island. When Arab traveller Ibn Batuta visited Ceylon in 1344, he reported that it extended south as far as Puttalam.

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. For many centuries, this jungle barrier kept Sinhalese and Tamils largely apart, sowing the seeds for Sri Lanka’s ethnic dichotomy.

Trade & Conquest

Enter the Portuguese

At the heart of the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka had been a trading hub even before Arab traders arrived in the 7th century AD with their new Islamic faith. Gems, cinnamon, ivory and elephants were the valued items of commerce. Early Muslim settlements took hold in Jaffna and Galle, but the arrival of a European power, focused as much on domination as trade, forced many Muslims inland to flee persecution.

When the Portuguese arrived in 1505, Sri Lanka had three main kingdoms: the Tamil kingdom of Jaffna, and Sinhalese kingdoms in Kandy and Kotte (near Colombo). Lorenço de Almeida, the son of the Portuguese Viceroy of India, established friendly relations with the Kotte kingdom and gained a monopoly on the valuable spice trade. The Portuguese eventually gained control of the Kotte kingdom.

Tamil-Portuguese relations were less cordial and Jaffna successfully resisted two Portuguese expeditions before falling in 1619, at which point the Portuguese destroyed Jaffna’s many beautiful Hindu temples and its royal library. Portugal eventually took over the entire west coast, then the east, but the Kandyan kingdom in the central highlands steadfastly resisted domination.

The Portuguese brought along religious orders, including the Dominicans and Jesuits. Many coastal communities converted, but other resistance to Christianity was met with massacres and the destruction of local temples. Buddhists fled to Kandy, and the Hill Country city assumed its role as protector of the Buddhist faith, a sacred function solidified by another three centuries of unsuccessful attempts at domination by European powers.

The Dutch & the British

In 1602 the Dutch arrived, just as keen as the Portuguese on dominating the lucrative traffic in Indian Ocean spices. In exchange for Sri Lankan autonomy, the Kandyan king, Rajasinha II, gave the Dutch a monopoly on the spice trade. Despite the deal, the Dutch made repeated unsuccessful attempts to subjugate Kandy during their 140-year rule.

The Dutch were more industrious than the Portuguese, and canals were built along the west coast to transport cinnamon and other crops. Some can be seen around Negombo today. The legal system of the Dutch era still forms part of Sri Lanka’s legal canon.

The British initially viewed Sri Lanka in strategic terms, and considered the eastern harbour of Trincomalee as a counter to French influence in India. After the French took over the Netherlands in 1794, the pragmatic Dutch ceded Sri Lanka to the British for ‘protection’ in 1796. The British moved quickly, making the island a colony in 1802 and finally taking over Kandy in 1815. Three years later the first unified administration of the island by a European power was established.

The British conquest unsettled many Sinhalese, who believed that only the custodians of the tooth relic 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.

Sinhalese angst grew further when British settlers began arriving in the 1830s. Coffee and rubber were largely replaced by tea from the 1870s, and the island’s demographic mix was profoundly altered with an influx of Tamil labourers – so called ‘Plantation Tamils’ – from South India. (These ‘Plantation Tamils’ were – and still are – separated by geography, history and caste from the Jaffna Tamils.) Tamil settlers from the North made their way south to Colombo, while Sinhalese headed to Jaffna. British colonisation set the island in a demographic flux

The Road to Independence

Growing Nationalism

The dawning of the 20th century was an important time for the grassroots Sri Lankan nationalist movement. Towards the end of the 19th century, Buddhist and Hindu campaigns were established with the dual aim of making the faiths more contemporary in the wake of European colonialism, and defending traditional Sri Lankan culture against the impact of Christian missionaries. The logical progression was for these groups to demand greater Sri Lankan participation in government, and by 1910 they had secured the minor concession of allowing Sri Lankans to elect one lonely member to the Legislative Council.

By 1919 the nationalist mission was formalised as the Ceylon National Congress. The Sinhalese-nationalist activist Anagarika Dharmapala was forced to leave the country, and the mantle for further change was taken up by a variety of youth leagues, some Sinhalese and some Tamil. In 1927 Mahatma Gandhi visited Tamil youth activists in Jaffna, providing further momentum to the cause.

Further reform came in 1924, when a revision to the constitution allowed for representative government, and again in 1931, when a new constitution finally included the island’s leaders in the parliamentary decision-making process and granted universal suffrage. Under the constitution no one ethnic community could dominate the political process, and a series of checks and balances ensured all areas of the government were overseen by a committee drawn from all ethnic groups. However, both Sinhalese and Tamil political leaders failed to thoroughly support the country’s pre-independence constitution, foreshadowing the problems that were to characterise the next eight decades.

From Ceylon to Sri Lanka

Following India’s independence in 1947, Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was then called) became fully independent on 4 February 1948. Despite featuring members from all of the island’s ethnic groups, the ruling United National Party (UNP) really only represented the interests of an Englishspeaking elite. The UNP’s decision to try to deny the ‘Plantation Tamils’ citizenship and repatriate them to India was indicative of a rising tide of Sinhalese nationalism.

In 1956 this divide further increased when the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP) came to power with an agenda based on socialism, Sinhalese nationalism and government support for Buddhism. One of the first tasks of the SLFP leader SWRD Bandaranaike was to fulfill a campaign promise to make Sinhala the country’s sole official language. Under the British, Tamils became capable English speakers and were over-represented in universities and public service jobs, which created Sinhalese resentment, especially during the slow economy of the 1950s. The main political parties played on the Sinhalese fear that their religion, language and culture could all be swamped by Indians, perceived to be natural allies of Sri Lankan Tamils. The Tamils, whose Hindu identity had also become more pronounced in the lead-up to independence, began to find themselves in the position of threatened minority.

The Sinhala-only bill disenfranchised Sri Lanka’s Hindu and Muslim Tamil-speaking population: almost 30% of the country suddenly lost access to government jobs and services. Although tensions had been simmering since the end of colonial rule, this decision marked the beginning of Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict.

A similar scenario played out in 1970, when a law was passed favoring Sinhalese for admission to universities, reducing numbers of Tamil students. Then, following an armed insurrection against the government by the hard-line anti-Tamil, student-led People’s Liberation Front (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna or JVP), a new constitution (which changed Ceylon’s name to Sri Lanka) gave Buddhism ‘foremost place’ in Sri Lanka and made it the state’s duty to ‘protect and foster’ Buddhism. Unrest grew among northern Tamils, and a state of emergency was imposed on their home regions for several years from 1971. The police and army that enforced the state of emergency included few Tamils (partly because of the ‘Sinhala only’ law), creating further division and, for Tamils, an acute sense of oppression.

Sri Lanka today

Peace has been a boon for Sri Lanka. Tourism has been growing by more than 10% a year since 2009, and in 2012 tourism revenue surpassed US$1 billion for the first time. New projects are springing up nationwide.

Sri Lanka, with its amazing beaches, beautiful Hill Country, eight Unesco World Heritage Sites, ancient cultures, tooting choo-choo trains and much more (elephants and leopards, anyone?) is a visitor’s dream that was regularly overlooked by travellers during the war years.

For Europeans looking for a new warm-weather spot during the interminable winters, Sri Lanka is a couple of hours closer than Thailand and not quite as far as the Caribbean. It’s hoped that a new international airport being built in the South will prove the ideal landing strip for hordes of holidaymakers.


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