PRE HISTORIC ERA
The island is estimated to have first been colonised 34,000 years ago by hunter gatherers now known as the Balangoda people (named after the region where their remains were discovered) who lived in caves. The Veddas who now live in the Central, Uva and North-Eastern parts of the Sri Lanka are believed to be direct descendants of the Balagonda people. However the oldest legendary reference to the island is found in the great Hindu (Indian) epic, the ‘Ramayana’, believed to have been penned in 500 BC.
The Ramayana tells of the conquest of Lanka in 3000 BC by the Hindu god ‘Rama’ whose army of monkeys built a bridge from South India to Lanka to vanquish the atheist demon King Ravana. (Interestingly enough, space images taken by NASA recently revealed a mysterious ancient bridge in the Palk Strait between India and Sri Lanka, the curvaceous nature of which has convinced scientists that it was man-made and could date back to the Ramayana era). Whether or not the myth is true, it’s apparent that flourishing human activity existed between both sides of the bridge (between India and Sri Lanka) during this period.
ANCIENT HISTORIC ERA
In the 5th century B.C., Indo Aryans emigrated from India, mixed with the local people and led to the development of the ‘Sinhalese’ culture which is prevalent in Sri Lanka today. The Sinhalese (who now account for 74% of the country’s population) were introduced to Buddhism by Mahindra Mahinda, the son of the great Indian emperor Ashoka. According to Buddhist scriptures, the Buddha himself is said to have visited the island on three separate occasions.
Glorious civilisations developed during this historic era creating cities like Anuradhapura (kingdom from circa 200 B.C. to circa 1000 A.D.) and Polonnaruwa (from about 1070 AD to 1200 AD). Grand palaces, reservoirs, monasteries, universities and hospitals - the remains of which can still be seen even today bear testimony to the glory of this period.
In the 14th century, a South Indian dynasty seized power in the north and established a ‘Tamil’ kingdom which ruled for many years. Tamils account for approximately 20% of the population in Sri Lanka today.
Different invading civilisations thus left their cultural and historical footprints on Sri Lanka’s sands of time and it did not stop there.
| || |
Sri Lanka was then to enter into the colonial era shaped by its European invaders who came to the island lured by its gems and spices.
THE COLONIAL ERA
The Portuguese were the first to arrive in the early 16th century. The Portuguese founded a fort at the port city of Colombo in 1517 AD and gradually extended their control over the coastal areas. Their most enduring legacy was religious and linguistic as they forcefully converted the local Sinhalese to Portuguese. (You will still find families on the Island with Portuguese names.) However the Buddhist majority disliked the Portuguese occupation and its influences and therefore sought to welcome any power who might rescue them.
In 1602 AD, therefore, when the Dutch landed, the king at Kandy appealed to them for help. It was in 1638 AD that the Dutch attacked in earnest, and not until 1656 that Colombo fell. By 1660 AD the Dutch controlled the whole island except the kingdom of Kandy. The Dutch persecuted the Catholics but left the Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims alone. However, they taxed the people far more heavily than the Portuguese had done. A mixed Dutch-Sinhalese race known as Burghers are a legacy of the Dutch rule. The Dutch introduced their own style of architecture best seen in the perfectly preserved colonial streets, Dutch villas and the magnificent Galle fort today.
In 1659 AD, Robert Knox, a British sea captain called landed by chance in Sri Lanka and was captured by the King of Kandy. He escaped 19 years later and wrote an account of his stay. This helped to bring the island to the attention of the British who took control of it from the Dutch in the 18th century. A legacy of change followed.
It was the British who introduced railways to Sri Lanka bringing about a paradigm change. However the most notable contribution the British made was the creation of Sri Lanka’s tea industry which still plays an important role in the country’s economy. A very distinctive British influence can still be seen in many of the golf courses, landscaped gardens and trout fishing locations. Even the game of cricket, the most popular sport in Sri Lanka today, is a legacy of the British rule. The intrepid traveller will still get a real sense of the historical British influence which has left its mark from an era which ended not too long ago.
During World War II, Sri Lanka was a front-line British base against the Japanese invaders.
| || |
Meanwhile there arose a struggle for autonomy in the island and eventually in 1948 AD, the British negotiated the island's dominion status with the leader of the State Council, D.S. Senanayake and formalized the transfer of power to the people making it independent. In 1972, the country became a republic and was called the Free . Sovereign and Independent Republic of Sri Lanka and ‘Sinhala’ was declared as the official language (with Tamil as a second language).
POST INDEPENDENCE SRI LANKA
Since the 1960s, the country has faced ongoing civil strife between the Sinhalese and Tamil factions with power sharing being the central issue. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), also known as the Tamil Tigers, are a separatist group in Sri Lanka. For the past thirty years, the LTTE have been fighting for an independent state and control over the northern and eastern parts of the country. They believe that in a nation with a Sinhala majority, their identity would be threatened and that had it not been for the European invasions, the country would have otherwise been a Tamil state. The conflict has resulted in bitter wars and terrorist acts over the years. However with recent political developments, there is hope that a peaceful resolution might be in sight.
Whilst the internal fighting and military Check points seen at most major cross roads cannot simply be ignored, Sri Lanka’s home-grown problems rarely intrude on the lives of its visitors. In fact the island boasts an admirable safety record for tourists compared to anywhere in the world, with not a single tourist being harmed during this political conflict.
The Tsunami in 2004 was the country’s biggest natural disaster which destroyed many parts of the coast and led to the loss of tens of thousands of lives leaving a staggering 2.5 million people being displaced. Although 1,600 km from the epicentre, the waves, up to 6 meters high, struck with brutal force and swept inland up to 5 kilometres. Travelling around the island today, the visible scars from the great Tsunami are few. Sri Lanka with its lush scenery, rich history, mouth watering cuisine and welcoming people is once again a great draw for visitors.
Sri Lanka today is a multi-ethnic, multi-religion country with a diverse and rich culture with a population of 19 million. At US$ 900 Sri Lanka’s GDP is the highest in South Asia today. The Literacy rate is 92% - again the highest in South Asia and second highest in Asia.