History of Sri Lanka

From Academic Kids

Note: The arrival of Sinhalese and Tamils on the island is a matter of great debate, as the history is often used to justify one or another position in Sri Lanka's on-going civil war.


Early inhabitants

The earliest inhabitants with any living descendants on the island are the Wanniyala-Aetto (more commonly known as Veddahs, although it is a derogatory term). Most Wanniyala-Aetto have lived as villagers for some time. A few tribes have until recently continued to live the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, but although attitudes are in flux, the government has made this increasingly difficult.

Most historians believe that the Sinhalese came to Sri Lanka from northern India, near Bengal, during the 6th century BC (some historians trace the origins back some 25,000 years). A nearly continuous written history exists in the Mahavamsa from this point on and it describes the Sinhalese race as decending from king Vijaya and his followers. It also describes a minister of Vijaya, Anuradha, who establishes the village of Anuradhagamma which later becomes Anuradhapura and becomes to capital of Sri Lanka a few centuries later. Archeological evidence is somewhat contradictory to this account, showing continuous settlement in the Anuradhapura area from the 10th century BC onwards with people living in the area having knowledge of agriculture, metallurgy, and livestock breeding.

Buddhism arrived from the subcontinent 300 years after Vijaya at the hands of Mahinda Thero and spread rapidly. Buddhism and a sophisticated system of irrigation became the pillars of classical Sinhalese civilization (200 BC-1200 AD) that flourished in the north-central part of the island, with capitals at Anuradhapura (from c. 200 BC to c. 1000 AD) and Polonnaruwa (c. 1070 to 1200). Tamil invasions from southern India, combined with internecine strife, pushed Sinhalese kingdoms southward.

The origins of Tamil presence on the island are also unclear. Given the island's close proximity to the mainland, it is very likely that people have travelled back and forth throughout human history. The Sinhalese origin story describes their first men taking 100 wives from south India. Tamil and Sinhalese kingdoms fought occasionally, but also had a great deal of peaceful exchange; there were even Sinhalese rulers of Tamil kingdoms and vice-versa.


  • Carswell, John. 1991. "The Port of Mantai, Sri Lanka." RAI, pp. 197-203.

Outside influences

The island's location in the middle of the Indian Ocean has made it a popular trading stop through the ages. Roman sailors called the island "Simoundou" or "Taprobane"; Arab traders knew it as "Serendip" (derived from the Sanskrit name Sinhala-dweepa), which became the root of the word "serendipity." An example of the island's extensive contact comes from the reign of the Roman emperor Claudius, when a deputation from Sri Lanka, led by one Rachias, visited Rome; besides providing much information about the island recorded by Pliny the Elder (N.H. 6.24), Rachias also mentioned that his father had paid a similar visit to China.

By the time Ibn Battuta visited the island in 1344, many of its inhabitants had converted to Islam, although the Buddhist kingdom of Gampola still controlled most of the island.

Beginning in 1505, Portuguese traders, in search of cinnamon and other spices, seized the island's coastal areas and introduced Catholicism. The Dutch supplanted the Portuguese in 1658. Although the British ejected the Dutch in 1796, Dutch law remains an important part of Sri Lankan jurisprudence. In 1815, the British defeated the king of Kandy, last of the native rulers, and created the Crown Colony of Ceylon. They established a plantation economy based on tea (after a coffee blight), rubber, and coconuts. In 1931, the British granted Ceylon limited self-rule and a universal franchise. A greater degree of self-government was granted in a new constitution in 1946, but by this time it was clear that India was headed for full independence as a Dominion and Ceylonese independence activists would accept no less. Only when this was promised in the autumn of 1947 did the government of Prime Minister Don Stephen Senanayake take office under the 1946 constitution,preparing for full independence which was achieved on February 4,1948.


On July 20, 1960 Ceylon elected Sirimavo Bandaranaike Prime Minister which made her the world's first female Prime Minister.

The country changed its name to Sri Lanka (from Ceylon) on May 22, 1972 and a new republican constitution was adopted. The legislative capital was moved from Colombo to Kotte and the flag was changed.

Concerns about minority representation were expressed and given some attention during the independence struggle, but nothing was incorporated into the new governmental structure. Official and unofficial governmental preference for Sinhalese became a sore spot with Tamils as they lost employment and educational opportunities. Tamil support for a federal system grew, and eventually even for a completely independent Tamil Eelam. Occasional, mostly spontaneous violence in the first few decades of independence exploded in the 1983 attacks and riots usually taken as the beginning of the ethnic conflict. Direct Indian involvement in the late 1980s was inconclusive. A ceasefire has been in effect since about the end of 2001. Talks are on hold but both sides continue to affirm their commitment to the peace process. (see Ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka)

There have also been two bloody uprisings against the government among the Sinhalese, by the leftist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna. (need more)

Indian Ocean Tsunami Disaster

Template:2004Earthquake Sri Lanka's southern and eastern coasts suffered extensive devastation from the tsunami. The death toll in these areas was reportedly more than 38,000. It proved to be the deadliest natural disaster in Sri Lankan history since independence in 1948. Casualty reports from the quake are available on the main page.

fr:Histoire du Sri Lanka


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