Sri Lanka’s history is one that is rich and full of colourful action. Ancient Sri Lanka was an important trade port and oasis of nature for sea farers of China, Arabia and Europe. Sri Lanka has documented a fascinating history of over 2500 years of civilization. The most valuable source of knowledge for the legends and historical heritage of Sri Lanka is the Mahavamsa (Great Genealogy or Dynasty), a chronicle compiled in Pali, in the sixth century.
Sri Lanka- Pre Historic Times
Sri Lanka has a recorded history since 543 BCE. Although records are not found of civilizations before 543 BCE, historical facts reveal that a civilization existed even long before from Rawana times. It's believed that an expelled Prince Vijaya to be the first Aryan King of Sri Lanka. Since then, many kings ruled Sri Lanka till 1815.
The Homo Sapiens first appeared in Sri Lanka about 500,000 BCE. Few artefacts have been found dating back to subsequent Palaeolithic culture of the second Stone Age period. Stone cultures endured until about 1000 BCE. The second phase of Stone Age may have ended some few centuries later with the establishment of metal. The Stone working culture was known as Balandoga Culture. They first made an impression on island life about 5000 BCE and spread through out the Sri Lanka. The Balangoda Manawaya survived until about 500 BCE and faded out under the advance of early settlers from India.
According to the Mahavamsa, Yakkhas confined to the centre of the Island and Naga dominated the northern and western parts in sixth century BCE. Therefore, north of the Island was called Nagadipa. Kanagasabai, author of "Tamils 1800 Years Ago', mentioned that Yakkhas were the ancient 'Yuh chi' a yellow race that emigrated from central of Asia to India through the Himalayan and eventually spread over the whole of Bengal and ultimately moved to this island.
The Fa Hien monk (Fa Hien Cave is a cave in the district of Kalutara, Western Province, Sri Lanka, named after the Buddhist monk Faxian (Wade-Giles: Fa Hien). The cave is important for the Late Pleistocene human skeletal remains discovered there in the 1960s and 1980s) revealed that there were no human inhabitations, but was occupied by Nagas and spirits, with which the merchants of various countries carried on a trade. The spirits never showed themselves, but they simply set forth their precious commodities, with indications of the price attached to them, while merchants made their purchases according to the price.
Nagas were so called because they were serpent-worshippers. Archaeologist conjectured that the name was derived from the fact that their head covering was in the shape of the hood of a hydra-headed cobra.
Aryans arrived to the isle and spread their power across the country. Eventually Naga and Yaksha population was reduced because of the Aryans.
Thammana Kingdom - 543 BCE - 505 BCE King Vijaya
Prince Vijaya is a son of King Vijeyabahu, who was a provincial King in ancient India. The Prince was expelled from the Kingdom along with 700 followers after the King couldn't put up with Prince's mischievous behaviour.
The vessels carrying the Prince and his entourage harboured the Northwest coast of Sri Lanka. After defeating the local tribes with the help received from Yaksha tribe Princess Kuweni the prince established a Kingdom in Thammana, and ruled the country for 38 years. Kuweni was expelled by the King later and he married an Indian princess after his coronation.
It's believed that Kuweni had two children named Deegahatta and Visala from King Vijaya. They are supposed to have gone to the jungle after Kuweni was killed by her relatives for betraying them. The Veddhas believe that they are descendents of Deegahatta and Visala, the Children of King Vijeya and Princess Kuweni.
Upathissa Grama - 505 BCE - 504 BCE King Upatissa
King Upatissa was the prime minister of King Vijaya. King Vijaya did not have any heir to the throne and sent for his younger brother, Prince Sumiththa in India.
By the time the delegates arrived in India, Prince Sumiththa had become the King, and he sent his younger son Prince Paduwas Dev, instead. Before Prince Paduwas Dev reached this island, King Vijaya died and King Upatissa ruled the kingdom for one year, until the rightful owner took the throne. The Upatissa Grama was the Capital of the kingdom.
Panduwas Nuwara - 504 BCE 474 BCE (King Panduwas Dev)
King Paduwas Dev ruled the country for 30 years, keeping the Upatissa Grama as the Capital. He was married to an Indian princess who was a close relative of the great monarch King Suddhodana. They had ten sons and one daughter, the famous princess Unmada Chithtra. King Paduwas Dev built the first reservoir in the Island, known as Abhaya Wewa.
Anuradhapura Kingdom was built by King Pandukabhya, son of Princess Unmada Chithtra with a paternal linkage from the original inhabitants of Sri Lanka. He was therefore the first king with a local lineage. The city was the first of its kind with well-designed sanitary system, gardens, irrigation and water supply systems, temples, cemeteries and burial grounds, etc. The city then became the capital city of Sri Lanka and flourished under many subsequent kings who ruled for centuries.
Anuradhapura Kingdom was highly vulnerable to invasions from South India and suffered usurpations of the throne several times, by invading kings from south India. Singhala kings have managed to defeat the invaders after reorganizing the troops, although the invading kings ruled in the mean time. One such historic battle was held between King Dutugamunu and South Indian King, Elara, where King Elara was defeated and King Dutugamunu ruled the country in single sovereignty.
King Mahinda V ascended to throne in 982 CE, and was the last Sinhala king to rule the country from this glorious city. At this time, the South Indian realm Chola, became very powerful under the Great Rajaraja (985- 1018 CE) and conquered Sri Lanka. King Mahinda was captured and imprisoned in South India.
The South Indians ruled the country for the next 75 years. They shifted the capital city to Polonnaruwa due to strategic reasons after considering the vulnerably of attacks from both native Sinhalese people and other South Indian kingdoms.
Polonnaruwa Era existed between CE 1065- 1120. The governing period of this time was about 186 years and 19 rulers had sat on the throne. During the final period in the Anuradhapura era, the Cholas shifted the political power to Polonnaruwa, which was situated in the eastern side of the dry zone. The main reason was security, as it was regarded as a strategic location to guard against an invasion from Ruhuna, the refuge of the Sinhala liberation force.
Still the Cholas were unsuccessful in defending themselves against Vijayabahu’s offensive riot against Polonnaruwa. They Surrendered in 1070 and left the island.
Polonnaruwa had its own fabulous Buddhist architecture and irrigation network that had been built over the centuries by earlier Sinhala rulers. (Ex- Minneriya Tanks)
The First Sinhala king to rule during this period was King Vijayabahu who ruled for 55 years after he defeated the Cholas. He restored Buddhism to its former glory and was also responsible for economic regeneration.
The next famous king to take over from Vijayabahu is King Parakramabahu (CE 1164-1197). He unified the country under one rule and built a remarkable series of irrigation work including the massive Parakrama Samudraya.
Nissanka Malla was also a king to take notice of, because he also stabilized Sri Lanka during his period. But his death brought instability and a pirate named Magha, who came from South India, conquered Polonnaruwa and executed many years of ruthless control over the island.
Yapahuwa was considered as strategically important point since the Polonnaruwa era. When the Dabadeniya kingdom fell after King Vijayabahu the 4th, the throne was taken by Prince Buwanekabahu, who ruled the kingdom from Yapahuwa. The sacred Tooth Relic was brought from Dambadeniya to Yapahuwa and kept in the specially built palace. The ruins of this temple can be seen today and is considered one of the best archaeologically valuable sites on the island.
Dambadeniya on the Kurunegala - Negombo road was a Royal capital in mid in the 13th century. Excavations have uncovered remains of the temple of the Tooth Relic and the royal palace, ponds and garden layouts, moats and city walls etc.
Kurunegala Era - 1293 – 1341 CE
Kurunegala was a royal capital starting from Buvenekabhahu II (1293-1302). This was about half a century which is now clarified by ruins. Among these ruins, there are parts of the temple of the Tooth Relic. One of the caves discovered by modern archaeologists, the cave hermitage of Arankele, indicates that ancient times in Kurunegala, in addition to Buddhist monks there has been forest dwelling (called Thapowana) hermitages called Brahmi. In the area, the inscriptions of ancient Brahmi natives have been found. In the Ridigama Vihara, a temple near to the cave hermitage of Arankele, there had been a silver urn which belongs to the time of King Dutugemunu.
In the temple, a reclining Buddha statue in seated position, belonging to the 18 century can be found. The temple is attracted by a door frame with ivory carvings and alters tilled with Dutch tiles and an artificial lake under the shadow of the hill.
Gampola was made the capital city of the Island by King Buwanekabahu the IV, who ruled for four years in mid fourteenth Century. The last king of Gampola was King Buwanekabahu the V. He ruled the Island for 29 years. A separate city was built in Kotte during this time by a noble known as Alagakkonara.
Among the remnants of Gampola era, the most famous temples are Lankathilaka, Gadaladeniya and Ambekka Dewalaya. The ancient stone scripts (Shila Lekhana) of Lankathilaka temple helps to reveal a considerable amount of vital information regarding the Gampola era. The statue of Buddha of the temple indicates style of South Indian arts. The Ambekka Dewalaya possesses a large collection of wood carvings, where no other temple in Sri Lanka owns such a collection.
Sri Lanka remained in an instable situation during the 14th and the 15th Centuries. King Parakramabahu VI (1415-1467), the last Sinhalese King managed to re-establish rule over the island. His power-base was in Kotte.
In the later stages of his rule, Gampola was challenged and he appointed a prince of Gampola royal house as its administrator.
After the death of Parakramabahu, the island again plunged in to divisive struggle. Jaffna declared itself an independent Tamil kingdom under King Pararajasekaram. (1497-1579)
The Dutch came to Sri Lanka in 1505, during the times of King Parakramabahu IX. The King made a pact with the Dutch as they were a powerful army than of the King's. The King grants permission to Dutch to build a small fortress in Colombo. The Dutch began its missionary service in Sri Lanka.
After the death of King Parakramabahu the VI, Kandyans asserted their independence from Kotte. Portuguese arrived in the early 16th Century, signifying the arrival of the Europeans.
They established a trading settlement in Colombo. By the year 1600, they converted some of the Sinhala royalty to Catholism, and had a major control over the southwest coastal region.
By then, Senarath (1604-1635), had established the Kingdom of Kandy. His relationship with the Portuguese deteriorated in 1617 and his son Rajasinghe II also opposed the Portuguese, forming an alliance with the Dutch.
The Dutch alliance also broke down and they captured the eastern ports of the Kandyans.
The Dutch captured the forts, Colombo, Galle and Negombo. By then, they had most of the regions of Sri Lanka under their rule. But Kandy maintained their independents.
The first British conquest took place during 1795-1796. They drove the Dutch out of the country and seized all the major ports. The Kandyans grip of their own empire was weakening. They managed to beat back the first resistance by the British in 1803.
But eventually, the British captured the hill country in 1815. The last of the Sri Lankan Kings were captured and in 1816, he was sent to be imprisoned in Vellore, India.
European ambitions arrived with the Portuguese during the early 16th Century. The newcomers sought to establish a trading settlement in the growing port city of Colombo on the southwest coast. By then, the Sinhalese Kingdom of Kotte had completely collapsed into petty partitions among three separate rulers.
The Portuguese were more interested in controlling the island's commerce than in absorbing its territory. In the process, they began to intrude in the affairs of the coastal regions. By the year 1600, after converting some of the Sinhalese royalty to Catholicism and breaking a strong bid for dominance by the rulers of the rebel state of Sitawaka, the Portuguese had effectively controlled the south west coastal region and managed to snuff out the last Tamil kingdom ever to rule Jaffna as an independent state.
It was the attempt to bring the Kandyan kingdom under control that proved more troublesome, and eventually led to the demise of Portugal's power in Ceilao, as they knew the country. Senarath (1604-1635) re-established the Kingdom of Kandy following a short-lived conquest by Sitawaka. He entered into a treaty with the Portuguese in 1617 but relations began to sour after Portuguese incursions into the Kandyan ports of Batticaloa and Trincomalee. Senarath's son, Rajasinha II, conducted a vigorous campaign against Portugal, forming an alliance with the Dutch.
The Dutch Era
The primary interest of the Dutch, as in the East Indies and parts of south east Asia, was spices. They received a promise of a monopoly over the island's spice trade in return for help in driving out the Portuguese. But the Kandyan compact with the Dutch proved as ill-fated as the earlier alliance with the Portuguese.
The Dutch recaptured the eastern ports for the Kandyans. But when they regained Galle and Negombo in 1641, they decided to keep these ports for themselves. The Hollanders also seized the Portuguese fort of Colombo in 1656 and drove the last of the Iberians from Ceylon, as it was now known, in the year 1658 with the capture of Jaffna. In defiance of their pact with the Kandy and rulers, the Dutch held onto most of this captured territory. Sri Lanka had merely exchanged the rule of one European power for another. Through it all, the Kandyan Kingdom stubbornly maintained its independence. In the course of time, Kandy's survival as an independent Sinhalese Kingdom led to the emergence of a dichotomy among the Sinhalese themselves - a distinction between the low country coastal people and the Kandyans of the interior.
The British Rule
When the British came to control the whole island after 1815, they established a quite distinctive imprint on the island's society and economy. This was most obvious in the introduction of plantation agriculture. During the British period, coffee took over from cinnamon, but by the beginning of the 20th Century, even though coffee had largely been wiped out by disease, plantation and agriculture was the dominant pillar of the cash economy. Rice production stagnated and then declined, and Sri Lanka became dependent on the export of cash crops and the import of food. In 1948, it was only producing about 35% of its rice need.
Despite British reforms in 1833 which introduced a uniform administrative system across the whole of Ceylon, wiping out the distinctive Kandyan political system, a contrast between Kandyan and low country Sinhalese persisted into the modern period.
However, an even more significant change took place in the 19th Century. British commercial interests saw the opportunities presented for the cultivation of cash crops. Cinnamon and coconuts had been planted by the Dutch and became particularly important, but the after 1815, coffee production was spread to the Kandyan Hills. Despite ups and downs, production increased dramatically until 1875, when a catastrophic attack of a fungus disease wiped out almost the entire crops. It was replaced, particularly in the higher regions by tea.
Labour had already begun to prove a problem on the coffee plantations, and as tea spread the shortage became acute. Farmer has shown how private labour contractors were recruited to persuade labourers to come to Ceylon from the Tamil country of South India. Between the year 1843 to 1859, over 900,000 men, women and children migrated to work as labourers.
The Arabian Traders in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka was called as Taprobane and Serandib by Arabian travellers. Arabian traders have visited Sri Lanka mainly for gems, and spices.
IBAN BATUTA a famous traveller visited Sri Lanka simply to climb the Adams Peak which they believed as the Holy Foot printof Adam. Many Arabian traders arrived in Beruwala and made pilgrimages to Adams Peak through Ratnapura where they traded gems.
With the Portuguese taking control of the west coast, the Arabian traders reached the country through Batticaloa. The traders sold horses, silk and gold jewellery.
Many traders got married to local women and some even served the kings of Kandy. The ancient Mosque by the sea at Beruwela, was established by Arabian traders many centuries ago.
Many Sri Lankans believe that Sinbad the Sailor was here in Sri Lanka and he travelled to Ratnapura for gems and climbed Sri Pada or Adams Peak.
Source: Mahawamsa, and the Works of Sri Lanka Historians; Prof. Senarath Paranawithana, H. A. J Hapugalle, HCP Bell, Prof Senaka Bandaranayake, Prof Anuradha Senaviratna, Prof Nimal Wijesinhe
Web link: http://www.info.lk/srilanka/srilankahistory/index.htm