A brief window into Sri Lankan history

A majority of online articles about Sri Lanka come from tourism blogs — portraying it as an island scattered with stunning scenery and unique culture; topped off with the truly gastronomical experience of Sri Lankan cuisine. All this is very true, but what excites me most about Sri Lanka is its rich history; starting with the epic of Ramayana (summary); which recounts the capture of Sita by the demon king Ravana of Lanka, and her recovery by her husband Rama with the aid of the monkey chief Hanumanta.

Ramayana Trail

Known over the ages as Taprobane to the Greeks and Romans, and Ceylon to the western nations before finally being renamed to Sri Lanka in 1972. It’s a country with one of the longest documented histories in the world, which is the very foundation behind our rich culture, foods, art and architecture.

Much of Sri Lanka’s well documented history begins with the arrival of Prince Vijaya in Sri Lanka in 543BC with his 700 followers; after being exiled from India by his father – King Sinhabahu. It is said that Vijaya and his followers arrived near Mannar and named the island Thambapanni; meaning “copper-colored sand”.

Vijaya meets Kuveni

Vijaya later marries Kuveni (Queen of the demons) a local Yakshya princess which gives rise to the modern Sinhala race.

It’s truly fascinating to read the parts of Sri Lankan history  that seems to weave into the mist of legend. An example of this being the Kuveni-Vijaya story which evokes some similarities with the encounter of Odysseus with Circe (from Greek mythology), and the previous Ravana story.

Some 300 years later begins the rich Anuradhapura Period. During which Anuradhapura (founded by the third king of the Vijaya dynasty) was the capital of the Kingdom of Rajarata. It was successively ruled by 113 kings (and four queens) who turned it into one of the greatest monastic cities of the ancient world and contributed heavily to the arts, palaces, gardens and sculptures of ancient Sri Lanka.

Although the most impressive achievement of the time does seem to be the massive reservoirs and intricate irrigation systems built for farming year round.

The Anuradhapura period was also the time in which Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka by Mahinda Thera (son of Emperor Asoka of India) during the rule of Devanampiya Tissa around 247 BC. This was also the reason why Buddhist establishments such as the ancient pagodas you still see today flourished during that period.

The Kingdom of Polonnaruwa came into being after the Anuradhapura Kingdom and was the second major Sinhalese kingdom of Sri Lanka.

The Colonial Years

Following the 16th century the Portuguese, Dutch and British successively came and conquered Sri Lanka.

The first Portuguese to visit Sri Lanka was Dom Francisco de Almeida in 1505. Adverse winds had driven his ship towards the Galle coast of the island. In 1518 this was followed by the Viceroy Lopo Soares de Albergaria who landed at Colombo with a large fleet. They quickly began to build a fort and gradually extended their control over the coastal areas of Sri Lanka.

Colombo Fort

The most interesting part of this story comes when the Portuguese asked to meet with the King of Kotte (which was situated fairly close to the seas where the Portuguese ships were stationed), it is said that the men were lead to Kotte in a wide loop through the county in order to mask the direct distance to the Kotte capital from the ships (in case they decided to invade). Unfortunately for the King the Portuguese ships occasional fired large cannons from the ships which were easily heard from Kotte and they quickly figured they had been tricked.

The Portuguese had come in search of cinnamon and other valuable spices and hence ordered the king at the time to sell it to them at a fixed price. When the request was refused the Portuguese used force, and in 1518 the king of Kotte reluctantly agreed to their terms.

In 1597 the Portuguese annexed Kotte and Sitavaka. In 1619 they annexed Jaffna. But all their attempts to conquer Kandy failed, mostly given the fact that it was situated deep within Sri Lanka; with plenty of rough terrain to give the city a strategic edge.

Around the same time the Dutch control within the country was rising as the Portuguese control declined.

In 1636 King Rajasinghe of Kandy turned to the Dutch for help, who agreed to take back the Portuguese ports in return for their expenses. But this turned out to be a mistake — the Dutch held onto the captured ports; claiming the expenses had not been paid.

They also captured and held onto Colombo in 1656 following another failed agreement with the kingdom of Kandy and quickly pushed inland to eventually force Kandy to accept a humiliating treaty which gave them control of the whole Sri Lankan coast line; including the parts which had not been held by the Portuguese or Dutch before.

One after the other the Portuguese and Dutch left their set of impressions on the history, culture and economy of this tiny island nation south of India; finally leading the way for the British who decided to call it ‘Ceylon’.

British Ceylon History

Before bringing in wide-ranging reforms the British first built a network of roads and introduced trail by jury. Then they transitioned into making English the official language of the country and reformed the administration to their benefit. The British were also the first to create large plantations for import products such as tea, coffee, rubber and coconuts. They even brought in large numbers of workers from south India to work on the plantation; so much so that they soon made up 10% of the island’s population!

During World War II, Sri Lanka was a front-line British base against the Japanese. On 5 April 1942, the Japanese Navy bombed Colombo (also known as the Easter Sunday Raid). This led to the flight of Indian merchants and other Marxist leaders, which all helped smoothen the way towards independence.

In the early 20th century Sri Lankan nationalism grew. The Ceylon National Congress (CNC) was founded in 1919 to push for greater autonomy. While the British made several concessions along the way; the Ceylonese demanded complete independence and it was eventually granted in 1948.

Each encounter with foreign forces left their own set of footprints in the making of Sri Lanka, leading up to what you experience today as a whole in this beautiful island nation full of diverse culture, tradition and people.

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.
I write regularly about design, science, tech and all things I find interesting. Get my essays delivered right to your inbox by subscribing.