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Sri Lanka History

Sri Lanka History


Recent excavations show that even during the Neolithic Age there were food gatherers and rice cultivators in Sri Lanka. Very little is known of this period; documented history began with the arrival of the Aryans from North India. The Aryans introduced the use of iron and an advanced form of agriculture and irrigation. They also introduced the art of government. Of the Aryan settlements, Anuradhapura grew into a powerful kingdom under the rule of King Pandukabhaya. According to traditional history he is accepted as the founder of Anuradhapura.

During the reign of King Devanampiya Tissa, a descendent of Pandukabhaya, Buddhismwas introduced in 247 B.C. by Arahat Mahinda, the son of Emperor Asoka of India. This is the most important event in Sri Lankan history as it set the country on the road to cultural greatness. As a new civilisation flourished Sri Lanka became rich and prosperous. Is the mid 2nd century B.C. a large part of North Sri Lanka came under the rule of an invader from South India. From the beginning of the Christian era and up to the end of the 4th century A.D. Sri Lanka was governed by an unbroken dynasty called Lambakarna, which paid great attention to the development of irrigation. A great king of this dynasty, Mahasen (3rdcentury A.D.) started the construction of large ‘tanks’ or irrigation reservoirs. Another great ‘tank’ builder was Dhatusena, who was put to death by his son Kasyapa who made Sigiriya a royal city with his fortress capital on the summit of the rock.

 As a result of invasions from South India the kingdom of Anuradhapura fell by the end of the 10th century A.D. Vijayabahu I repulsed the invaders and established his capital Polonnaruwa in the 11th century A.D. Other great kings of Polonnaruwa were Parakrama Bahu the Great and Nissanka Malla both of whom adorned the city with numerous buildings of architectural beauty.

Invasion was intermittent and the capital was moved constantly until the Portuguese arrived in 1505, when the chief city was established at Kotte, in the western lowlands. The Portuguese came to trade in spices but stayed to rule until 1656 in the coastal regions, as did the Dutch thereafter. Dutch rule lasted from 1656 to 1796, in which year they were displaced by the British. During this period the highland kingdom, with its capital in Kandy, retained its independence despite repeated assaults by foreign powers who ruled the rest of the country. In 1815, the kingdom of Kandy was ceded to

the British and thus they established their rule over the whole island. Modern communications, western medical services, education in English, as well as the plantation industry (first coffee then tea, rubber and coconut) developed during British rule. By a process of peaceful, constitutional evolution, Sri Lanka won back her independence in 1948 and is now a sovereign republic with membership in the Commonwealth of Nations and the United Nations Organisation.


The Veddahs


 The Veddahs (literally ‘hunters’) are the aboriginals of Sri Lanka. They survive indefiance of government attempts to assimilate them, and tourists’ attempts to patronise them. Their culture has been affected by the interest of tourists who sometimes turn up at their settlements by coachloads to gaze at- and be photographed with-near-naked men armed with axes and bows. Naturally, this involves a reward of money (or even alcohol) with its corresponding effect. Instead of relying on the jungle that they once considered their home- and to which access is often restricted- many have become virtual performance artists to satisfy the local and foreign tourists. There are around 5,000 Veddah families, although many have become mixed through marriage with Sinhalese. While the Veddahs and their close-to-nature lifestyle may seem fascinating to us, it is probably better to leave them in peace than make a sport of visiting them

From the late 3rd century AD to the middle of the 12th century, Lanka was dominated by Tamil kings and invaders from southern India. From 1408 to 1438 Chinese forces occupied the island, which had been partitioned into a number of petty kingdoms. The arrival of the Portuguese in the 16th century marked the beginning of European domination, which lasted more than 400 years. The Portuguese, in control of coastal Sri Lanka for 150 years, established a trading settlement at Colombo. In 1658 they we re driven out by the Dutch, and in 1796 the Dutch were supplanted by the British, who controlled the country for the next 152 years.  

The Dutch in Lanka (1640-1796)
"Third of June. The general once again went ashore with various presents to pay his respect to the King. He took with him some musicians who were able to play various instruments. The King himself with a naked sword, welcomed the general, who gave him the presents. After having heard the music and other instruments played, which pleased the King very much, the General was taken into the house of the Modeliar, a high representative, where he and his men were treated well." Quote from the original captain's log of Joris van Spilbergen, the first Dutch envoy to Ceylon 1602. 

The British in Lanka (1796-1948)

In 1592 an English privateer attacked the Portuguese off the southwestern port of Galle. This action was England's first recorded contact with Sri Lanka. A decade later, Ralph Fitch, traveling from India, became the first known English visitor to Sri Lanka. The English did not record their first in-depth impressions of the island until the mid-seventeenth century, when Robert Knox, a sailor, was captured when his ship docked for repairs near Trincomalee. The Kandyans kept him prisoner between 1660 and 1680. After his escape, Knox wrote a popular book entitled An Historical Relation of the Island of Ceylon in which he described his years among his "decadent" captors.


The British negotiated the island's dominion status with the leader of the State Council, D.S. Senanayake, during World War II. Senanayake was also minister of agriculture and vice chairman of the Board of Ministers. The negotiations ended with the Ceylon Independence Act of 1947, which formalized the transfer of power. Senanayake was the founder and leader of the United National Party (UNP), a partnership of many disparate groups formed during the Donoughmore period, including the Ceylon National Congress, the Sinhala Maha Sabha, and the Muslim League. The UNP easily won the 1947 elections, challenged only by a collection of small, primarily leftist parties. On February 4, 1948, when the new constitution went into effect (making Sri Lanka a dominion), the UNP embarked on a ten-year period of rule.