History

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Claudius Ptolemy's map of Ceylon, first century AD
Sri Lanka originally known as Lamka ( a Sanskrit word meaning ‘ resplendent land ‘ ) and Lankadeepa has been referred to as Taprobane by ancient Greek geographers, Serendib ( origin of the word Serendipity ) by Arab travellers, Ceilão by the Portuguese and Ceylon by the British.

The History of Sri Lanka begins around 30,000 years ago when the island was first inhabited. Chronicles, including the Mahawansa, the Dipavamsa, the Culavamsa and the Rajaveliya, record events from the beginnings of the Sinhalese monarchy in the 6th century BC; through the arrival of European Colonialists in the 16th century; and to the banishment into exile of the monarchy in 1815. Some mentions of the country are found in the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the books of Gautama Buddha’s teachings.

Since ancient times Sri Lanka was ruled by monarchs, most notably of the Sinha royal dynasty commencing with the arrival of Vijaya with 700 followers in 543 BC and established the first capital in Tambapanni or modern day Mannar. According these several chronicles Vijay was the first in a line of 189 native Monarchs which lasted over a period of 2359 years from 543 BC to 1815 when the last Sri Lankan monarch who was defeated in battle in Kandy by the British colonialists was banished to exile to modern day Mauritius.

The Twin Ponds, Anuradhapura, 8th century
The kingdom was moved to Anuradhapura in 380 BC which would remain as the capital for the next 1400 years. During this period, a large number of irrigation tanks and Dagobas were constructed by various Sinhala kings. Buddhism arrived from India in the 3rd century BC, brought by Bhikkhu Mahinda, who is believed to have been the son of Mauryan emperor Ashoka. Mahinda’s mission won over the Sinhalese monarch Devanampiyatissa of Mihintale, who embraced the faith and propagated it throughout the Sinhalese population. The Buddhist kingdoms of Sri Lanka would maintain a large number of Buddhist schools and monasteries, and support the propagation of Buddhism into Southeast Asia. The Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi tree in Anuradhapura known to be a sapling of the tree under which Lord Buddha attained enlightenment – a tree considered to be the oldest tree in the world with an uninterrupted recorded history.

A Buddhist statue in the ancient capital city of Polonnaruwa, 12th century
The first foreign invasion of Sri Lanka took place in 237 BC when two Horse Traders from South India defeated and killed the Sri Lankan Monarch Suratissa. Sri Lanka then continued to be invaded by South Indian kingdoms. Parts of the island was ruled intermittently by the Chola , Pandya , Chera and Pallava dynasties from South India. The island was also invaded by the kingdoms of Kalinga (modern Orissa) and those from the Malay Peninsula. The Chola Emperor Rajendra invaded Sri Lanka in 1017 AD, captured the Sri Lankan Monarch Mahinda V and took him away to India. The capital Anuradhapura was sacked forcing the capital to be shifted to Pollonnaruwa. The Sri Lankan monarch Vijayabahu I succeeded in reuniting Sri Lanka by driving the Chola out of Sri Lanka in 1070 and re-establishing Buddhism in the country which had virtually died during the Chola reign. Sri Lanka was once again invaded by Kalinga Magha – an unknown South Indian with an army of 24,000 soilders. Polonnaruwa was looted, sacked and destroyed beyond reconstruction. The North was established as the kingdom of Jaffna during this period and remained so except for a brief period from 1450 to 1467 AD when Prince Sapumal the adopted son of the Sri Lankan Monarch captured and ruled the Northern kingdom. The capital of Sri Lanka was periodically shifted first to the South including Dabadeniya, Yapahuwa, Gampola, Raigama Kotte and Sitawaka and finally to Kandy in Central Sri Lanka.

Galle Fort built in 1588 by the Portuguese
The first Europeans to visit Sri Lanka in modern times were the Portuguese: Lourenco de Almeida, the son of Francisco de Almeida arrived in 1505 and found that the island was divided into seven warring kingdoms and unable to fend off intruders. The Portuguese founded a fort at the port city of Colombo in 1517 and gradually extended their control over the coastal areas. They also built the fort in port city of Galle on the south east coast of Sri Lanka in 1588 in order to consolidate their power in the coastal areas between Colombo and Galle. In 1592, the Sinhalese moved their capital to the inland city of Kandy, a location more secure against attack from invaders.

Portuguese POWs at work near Kandy
Intermittent warfare continued through the 16th century. Many lowland Sinhalese were forced to convert to Christianity while the coastal Moors were religiously persecuted and forced to retreat to the Central highlands. The Buddhist majority disliked the Portuguese occupation and its influences, welcoming any power who might rescue them.

Dutch East India Company emblem
When the Dutch captain Joris van Spilbergen landed in 1602 the king of Kandy appealed to him for help. Rajasinghe II, the king of Kandy, made a treaty with the Dutch in 1638 to get rid of the Portuguese who ruled most of the coastal area of the island. The main conditions of the treaty were that the Dutch should handover the coastal areas they capture to the Kandyan king and the king should grant the Dutch a monopoly over trade on the entire island. The agreement was not honoured by both parties. The Galle Fort, was extensively fortified in 1649 by the Dutch. By 1660 the Dutch controlled the whole island except the kingdom of Kandy .The Dutch (Protestants) persecuted the Catholics (the remaining Portuguese settlers) but left the Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims alone. They taxed the people far more heavily than the Portuguese had done. They housed their Governor and his staff in a building in the Fort from 1684. It was then converted into a hotel and named as the New Oriental Hotel in 1865, which catered to the European passengers traveling between Europe and Galle Port in the 19th century. It is a historical, archaeological and architectural heritage monument, which even after more than 423 years maintains a polished appearance, due to extensive reconstruction work done by Archaeological Department of Sri Lanka. The fort has a colourful history, and today has a multi-ethnic and multi-religious population. The Galle Fort also houses the elite Amangalla resort hotel, located near the Dutch Reformed Church. A mixed Dutch-Sinhalese people known as Burgher peoples are the legacy of Dutch rule.

British Sailor Robert Knox held prisoner in Kandy for 16 years from 1659
In 1659 a British Sailor named Robert Knox landed by chance on Sri Lanka and was captured by the king of Kandy, along with sixteen sailors. He and another sailor escaped 19 years later and wrote an account of his stay. This helped to bring the island to the attention of the British. The British East India Company established control of the island in 1796, declaring it a crown colony in 1802, although the island would not be officially connected with British India. The kingdom of Kandy fell on 14 February 1815 resulting in the British deportation of the last king Sri Wickramarajasinghe in exile to present day Mauritius. After 1815 the entire nation was under British colonial rule and armed uprisings against the British took place in the 1818 Uva Rebellion and the 1848 Matale Rebellion.

British Planter James Taylor first introduced tea to Ceylon in 1867
Ceylon Tea, the world renowned brand of tea grown in Sri Lanka and the main cash crop was initially introduced by a British planter named James Taylor in his coffee plantation in Loolecondera estate in Kandy. He began the tea plantation in an estate of just 19 acres (77,000 m2) in 1867. He started a fully equipped tea factory in Loolecondera estate in 1872.

Ceremonial opening of first Parliament of Independent Ceylon
Ceylon as it was then known was finally granted independence with dominion status and membership in the group of commonwealth nations on 4 February 1948. Lord Solbury was the first Governor General of independent Ceylon. Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike who was elected the 5th Prime Minister of Ceylon on 21 July 1960 became the first female Head of Government in post-colonial Asia as well as the first female Prime Minister in the world. The country opted to become a Republic on 22 May 1972 whilst retaining membership in the commonwealth at which time the old name of Sri Lanka was once again officially adopted.