Sri Lanka Brief History

Sri Lanka: Country Facts

Sri Lanka, an island nation in South Asia, is known for its stunning landscapes, rich cultural heritage, and diverse wildlife. The capital, Colombo, is a bustling city with a blend of modernity and colonial charm. With a population of over 21 million, Sri Lanka is home to various ethnic groups, languages, and religions. The country boasts a tropical climate, pristine beaches, and ancient historical sites such as Sigiriya and Anuradhapura. Sri Lanka’s economy relies on agriculture, tourism, and manufacturing, with tea and garments being major exports.

History of Sri Lanka

Ancient Sri Lanka

Prehistoric Settlements and Early Civilizations (c. 125,000 BCE – 543 BCE)

Sri Lanka’s ancient history is shrouded in myth and legend, with evidence of human habitation dating back to prehistoric times.

Key Figures:

  • Vijaya: Legendary founder of the Sinhalese people, according to ancient chronicles, who arrived in Sri Lanka from India in 543 BCE.
  • Kuveni: Mythical Yaksha queen who married Vijaya and bore him children, according to legend, before being cast aside for a royal marriage alliance.

Key Events:

  • Prehistoric settlements by hunter-gatherer communities in Sri Lanka, evidenced by archaeological sites such as Balangoda and Kitulgala, with the discovery of stone tools, cave paintings, and megalithic monuments.
  • Arrival of Vijaya and his followers from India, according to Sinhalese chronicles such as the Mahavamsa, marking the beginning of recorded history in Sri Lanka and the establishment of the Sinhalese monarchy.

Cultural Achievements:

  • Development of early agriculture, including rice cultivation, by ancient settlers in Sri Lanka, leading to the emergence of settled communities and the growth of civilization.
  • Establishment of religious beliefs and rituals, evidenced by the worship of deities such as Yakshas and Nagas, as well as the construction of megalithic burial sites and ritual complexes.

Anuradhapura Kingdom

Rise of Buddhism and Ancient Civilization (543 BCE – 1017 CE)

The Anuradhapura Kingdom, centered around the ancient city of Anuradhapura, was a hub of Buddhist culture and civilization in ancient Sri Lanka.

Key Figures:

  • Devanampiya Tissa: King of Anuradhapura who embraced Buddhism after meeting the missionary Mahinda, son of the Indian Emperor Ashoka, leading to the conversion of Sri Lanka to Buddhism.
  • Dutugemunu: Legendary Sinhalese king who unified Sri Lanka and defeated the Tamil king Elara, according to chronicles such as the Mahavamsa.
  • Mahinda: Buddhist monk and missionary who introduced Buddhism to Sri Lanka during the reign of King Devanampiya Tissa, establishing the Mahavihara monastic complex in Anuradhapura.

Key Events:

  • Establishment of Buddhism as the state religion by King Devanampiya Tissa, following the conversion of the royal family and nobility, leading to the spread of Buddhist teachings and the construction of monastic complexes, stupas, and temples.
  • Construction of monumental structures such as the Ruwanwelisaya, Jetavanaramaya, and Abhayagiriya stupas, which served as centers of worship, pilgrimage, and scholarship in ancient Sri Lanka.
  • Conflict between Sinhalese and Tamil kingdoms, including invasions from South India and the formation of alliances and confederations to resist external threats and maintain territorial integrity.

Cultural Achievements:

  • Flourishing of Buddhist art, architecture, and sculpture, characterized by the construction of elaborate stupas, monastic complexes, and rock-cut cave temples adorned with intricate carvings and frescoes.
  • Development of hydraulic engineering and urban planning, including the construction of reservoirs, irrigation systems, and urban infrastructure, to support agricultural productivity and urban growth in Anuradhapura and other cities.
  • Compilation of the Pali Canon and commentaries by Buddhist scholars at the Mahavihara monastic complex, establishing Sri Lanka as a center of Buddhist learning and scholarship in South Asia.

Polonnaruwa Kingdom

Golden Age of Sinhalese Civilization (1017 CE – 1232 CE)

The Polonnaruwa Kingdom, succeeding the Anuradhapura Kingdom, witnessed a renaissance of Sinhalese culture, architecture, and governance under a series of dynamic rulers.

Key Figures:

  • Vijayabahu I: King of Polonnaruwa who liberated Sri Lanka from Chola rule and established a new Sinhalese dynasty, initiating a period of resurgence and cultural revival.
  • Parakramabahu I: Visionary monarch who expanded the Polonnaruwa Kingdom to its greatest extent, undertaking ambitious irrigation projects, building infrastructure, and fostering cultural and religious patronage.
  • Nissanka Malla: King of Polonnaruwa known for his patronage of the arts, literature, and architecture, commissioning monumental constructions such as the Nissanka Lata Mandapaya and the Vatadage.

Key Events:

  • Revival of Sinhalese sovereignty and the restoration of Buddhist institutions under King Vijayabahu I, following the decline of the Anuradhapura Kingdom and Chola occupation, leading to a period of political stability and territorial expansion.
  • Reign of Parakramabahu I, considered the zenith of the Polonnaruwa Kingdom, marked by extensive public works projects, including the construction of vast reservoirs such as the Parakrama Samudra, and the promotion of religious and cultural activities.
  • Decline of the Polonnaruwa Kingdom due to internal conflicts, external invasions, and environmental factors, leading to the fragmentation of political authority and the shift of power to regional kingdoms and city-states.

Cultural Achievements:

  • Flourishing of Sinhalese art, literature, and architecture, characterized by the construction of monumental structures such as the Gal Vihara rock temple, with its iconic statues of the Buddha, and the Lankatilaka and Rankoth Vehera stupas.
  • Patronage of Buddhist scholarship and monastic education, with the establishment of monastic academies and libraries for the preservation and dissemination of Buddhist texts and teachings.
  • Development of a distinct Sinhalese architectural style, blending indigenous traditions with influences from South India and Southeast Asia, exemplified by the distinctive moonstones, guardstones, and vatadage pavilions found in Polonnaruwa and other ancient cities.

Transitional Periods

Dynastic Changes and Foreign Invasions (1232 CE – 1505 CE)

Sri Lanka entered a period of political fragmentation and external intervention, with the decline of the Polonnaruwa Kingdom and the emergence of new regional powers vying for control.

Key Figures:

  • Parakramabahu II: Last king of the Polonnaruwa Kingdom, who unsuccessfully attempted to resist the invasion of Kalinga Magha and the collapse of Sinhalese authority in the 13th century.
  • Kalinga Magha: South Indian invader who overthrew the Polonnaruwa Kingdom and established the short-lived Jaffna Kingdom in northern Sri Lanka, marking the beginning of Tamil political influence in the island’s history.
  • Parakramabahu III: King who briefly restored Sinhalese rule over much of Sri Lanka after defeating Magha’s forces, marking a brief resurgence of Sinhalese power in the 13th century.
  • Vira Alakeshwara: Last king of the Sinhalese Kingdom of Kotte, who resisted Portuguese expansion in the late 15th century but was ultimately defeated and captured, marking the end of Sinhalese independence.

Key Events:

  • 1255 CE: Invasion of Kalinga Magha, a South Indian ruler, who overthrew the Polonnaruwa Kingdom and established the Jaffna Kingdom in northern Sri Lanka, leading to a period of Tamil dominance.
  • 1341 CE: Rise of the Kingdom of Gampola, a Sinhalese kingdom in central Sri Lanka, following the decline of Polonnaruwa, marking a transitional period between the Polonnaruwa and Kotte kingdoms.
  • 1415 CE: Portuguese arrival in Sri Lanka and the establishment of trade relations with the Kingdom of Kotte, leading to increased European influence and competition for control of Sri Lanka’s lucrative spice trade.
  • 1478 CE: Ascendancy of Parakramabahu VI in Kotte, who initiated reforms and resisted Portuguese encroachment, leading to conflict between the Sinhalese and Portuguese in the 15th century.

Cultural Achievements:

  • Preservation of Sinhalese language, literature, and religion during periods of foreign rule and political upheaval, with the continued patronage of Buddhist monasteries, temples, and cultural institutions.
  • Adoption of South Indian cultural and religious practices, including the worship of Hindu deities, construction of Hindu temples, and integration of Tamil elements into Sinhalese society and art.
  • Development of a maritime trading network linking Sri Lanka with South India, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East, facilitating the exchange of goods, ideas, and cultural influences.

Colonial Period

European Domination and Colonial Rule (1505 CE – 1948 CE)

Sri Lanka became a battleground for European powers seeking dominance in the lucrative spice trade, leading to centuries of colonial rule and exploitation.

Key Figures:

  • Lourenço de Almeida: Portuguese explorer who arrived in Sri Lanka in 1505, establishing the first European foothold on the island and initiating Portuguese colonial rule.
  • Philippe de Oliveira: Portuguese captain who launched a successful invasion of the Kingdom of Kotte in 1597, leading to the downfall of the Sinhalese monarchy and the establishment of Portuguese hegemony.
  • Robert Brownrigg: British colonial administrator who served as Governor of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) from 1812 to 1820, overseeing the consolidation of British control and administrative reforms.

Key Events:

  • 1505 CE: Arrival of the Portuguese in Sri Lanka and the establishment of a trading post in Colombo, marking the beginning of European colonialism on the island and the decline of indigenous kingdoms.
  • 1597 CE: Portuguese conquest of the Kingdom of Kotte, the last Sinhalese kingdom to fall to European invaders, leading to the establishment of Portuguese rule over much of coastal Sri Lanka.
  • 1658 CE: Dutch conquest of Portuguese-held territories in Sri Lanka, leading to the transfer of power to the Dutch East India Company and the beginning of Dutch colonial rule.
  • 1796 CE: British capture of Sri Lanka from the Dutch during the Napoleonic Wars, leading to the establishment of British Ceylon and the extension of British colonial administration over the entire island.
  • 1815 CE: Annexation of the Kingdom of Kandy by the British, following a series of rebellions and conflicts, marking the end of indigenous rule and the consolidation of British control over Sri Lanka.

Cultural Achievements:

  • Introduction of European architectural styles, urban planning, and infrastructure, including the construction of forts, churches, and government buildings by Portuguese, Dutch, and British colonizers.
  • Spread of Christianity and Christian missionary activities, with the establishment of churches, schools, and hospitals by Catholic, Protestant, and Anglican denominations throughout Sri Lanka.
  • Economic transformation and modernization through the introduction of cash crops such as coffee, tea, and rubber, leading to the expansion of plantations, export-oriented agriculture, and the growth of urban centers.

Independence and Modern Sri Lanka

Nation-Building and Challenges of Post-Colonialism (1948 CE – Present)

Sri Lanka gained independence from British colonial rule in 1948, embarking on a journey of nation-building, democracy, and socio-economic development amidst ethnic tensions and political upheavals.

Key Figures:

  • D.S. Senanayake: First Prime Minister of independent Sri Lanka, who led the country to independence in 1948 and laid the foundations of democratic governance and economic development.
  • Sirimavo Bandaranaike: First female Prime Minister of Sri Lanka and the world, who served multiple terms in office and championed socialist policies, nationalization, and non-alignment during the Cold War.
  • J.R. Jayewardene: President of Sri Lanka who implemented economic liberalization and constitutional reforms in the 1970s and 1980s, transforming Sri Lanka into a semi-presidential republic and promoting free-market policies.

Key Events:

  • 1948 CE: Independence of Sri Lanka from British colonial rule, marking the beginning of self-rule and the transition to democratic governance under the Dominion of Ceylon.
  • 1956 CE: Sinhala Only Act passed by the Sri Lankan government, making Sinhala the sole official language of the country and sparking ethnic tensions with Tamil-speaking minorities.
  • 1983 CE: Outbreak of the Sri Lankan Civil War between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), leading to decades of violence, human rights abuses, and socio-economic disruption.
  • 2009 CE: End of the Sri Lankan Civil War with the defeat of the LTTE by government forces, resulting in the death of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and the declaration of victory by the Sri Lankan government.

Cultural Achievements:

  • Promotion of multiculturalism and ethnic reconciliation through initiatives such as the Official Languages Policy, which recognized Sinhala and Tamil as official languages and sought to promote linguistic and cultural diversity.
  • Preservation and promotion of traditional arts, music, dance, and literature through state-sponsored cultural institutions, festivals, and educational programs, aimed at fostering national identity and pride.
  • Challenges of post-war reconciliation, reconstruction, and development, including efforts to address the root causes of ethnic conflict, promote ethnic harmony, and achieve lasting peace and prosperity for all Sri Lankans.

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *