The pre-history of Sri Lanka dates back over 125 thousand years and possibly even as early as 500,000. The era spans the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and early Iron ages. Among the Paleolithic (homo erectus) human settlements discovered in Sri Lanka, Pahiyangala (named after the Chinese traveller monk Fa-Hsien), which dates back to 37,000 BP, Batadombalena (28,500 BP) and Belilena (12,000 BP) are the most important. The remains of Balangoda Man, an anatomically modern human, found inside these caves, suggests that they may have engaged in agriculture and kept domestic dogs for driving game.
One of the first written references to the island is found in the Indian epic Ramayana, which provides details of a kingdom named Lanka that had been created by the divine sculptor Vishwakarma, for Kubera, the lord of wealth. It is said that Kubera was overthrown by his demon stepbrother Ravana, the powerful Emperor who built a mythical flying machine named Dandu Monara.
The modern city of Wariyapola is described as Ravana’s airport. Early inhabitants of Sri Lanka were probably the ancestors of the Vedda people, an indigenous community living in modern-day Sri Lanka, which numbers approximately 2,500. Irish historian James Emerson Tennent theorised Galle, a southern city in Sri Lanka, was the ancient seaport of Tarshish, from which King Solomon is said to have drawn ivory, peacocks and other valuables.
According to the Mahāvamsa, a chronicle written in Pāli language, the ancient period of Sri Lanka begins in 543 BC with the landing of Vijaya, a semi-legendary king who sailed 860 nautical miles on eight ships to Sri Lanka with 700 followers from the southwest coast of what is now the Rarh region of West Bengal.
He established the Kingdom of Tambapanni, near modern day Mannar. Vijaya is the first of the approximately 189 native monarchs of Sri Lanka that the chronicles like Dipavamsa, Mahāvamsa, Chulavamsa, and Rājāvaliya describe. Sri Lankan dynastic history spanned a period of 2359 years, from 543 BC to AD 1815, until the land became part of the British Empire.
The Kingdom of Sri Lanka moved to Anuradhapura in 380 BC, during the reign of Pandukabhaya. Thereafter, Anuradhapura served as the capital of the country for nearly 1,400 years. Ancient Sri Lankans excelled in various constructions such as tanks, dagobas and palaces. The society underwent a major transformation during the reign of Devanampiya Tissa, with the arrival of Buddhism from India. In 250 BC, Bhikkhu Mahinda, the son of the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka arrived in Mihintale, carrying the message of Buddhism. His mission won over the monarch, who embraced the faith and propagated it throughout the Sinhalese population.
The succeeding kingdoms of Sri Lanka would maintain a large number of Buddhist schools and monasteries, and support the propagation of Buddhism into other countries in Southeast Asia as well. Sri Lankan bikkhus studied in India’s famous ancient Buddhist University of Nalanda which was destroyed by Mohammed Kilji. It is probable that many of the scriptures from Nalanda are preserved in Sri Lanka’s many monasteries. In 245 BC, Bhikkhuni Sangamitta arrived with the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi tree, which is considered to be a sapling from the historical Bodhi tree under which Gautama Buddha became enlightened.
It is considered the oldest human-planted tree (with a continuous historical record) in the world. Sri Lanka experienced the first foreign invasion during the reign of Suratissa, who was defeated by two horse traders named Sena and Guttika from South India. The next invasion came immediately in 205 BC by a Chola king named Elara, who overthrew Asela and ruled the country for 44 years. Dutugemunu, the eldest son of the southern regional sub-king, Kavan Tissa, defeated Elara in the Battle of Vijithapura.
He built Ruwanwelisaya, the second stupa in ancient Sri Lanka, and the Lovamahapaya. During its two and a half millennia of existence, the Kingdom of Sri Lanka was invaded at least eight times by neighbouring South Asian dynasties such as the Chola, Pandya, Chera and Pallava. These invaders were all subsequently driven back. There also were incursions by the kingdoms of Kalinga (modern Odisha) and from the Malay Peninsula as well. Kala Wewa and the Avukana Buddha statue were built during the reign of Dhatusena.
Sri Lanka was the first Asian country to have a female ruler; Queen Anula who reigned during 47-42 BC. Sri Lankan monarchs completed some remarkable constructions like Sigiriya, the so-called “Fortress in the Sky”. It was built during the reign of Kashyapa I. Sigiriya is a rock fortress surrounded by an extensive network of gardens, reservoirs, and other structures. The 5th-century palace is also renowned for frescos on the rock the surface. It has been declared by UNESCO as one of the seven World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka.
Among the other constructions, large reservoirs, important for conserving water in a climate that alternates rainy seasons with dry times, and elaborate aqueducts, some with a slope as finely calibrated as one inch to the mile, are most notable. Biso Kotuwa, a peculiar construction inside a dam, is a technological marvel based on precise mathematics, allowing water to flow outside the dam keeping the pressure to a minimum. Ancient Sri Lanka was the first country in the world to have established a dedicated hospital, in Mihintale in the 4th century.
It was also the leading exporter of cinnamon in the ancient world, and has maintained close ties with European civilisations including the Roman Empire. For example, King Bhatikabhaya (22 BC-AD 7) had sent an envoy to Rome who brought back red coral which was used to make an elaborate netlike adornment for the Ruwanwelisaya. In addition Sri Lankan male dancers witnessed the assassination of Caligula. When Queen Cleopatra sent her son Cesarian into hiding he was headed to Sri Lanka. Bhikkhuni Devasāra and 10 other fully ordained bhikkhunis from Sri Lanka went to China and established the bhikkhuni sāsana there in AD 429.
The early modern period of Sri Lanka begins with the arrival of Portuguese soldier and explorer Lourenço de Almeida, the son of Francisco de Almeida, in 1505. The Portuguese founded a fort at the port city of Colombo in 1517 and gradually extended their control over the coastal areas. In 1592 Vimaladharmasuriya I moved the kingdom to the inland city of Kandy, a location more secure against an attack from western invaders. Intermittent warfare continued through the 16th century. In 1619, due to the attacks of Portuguese, the independent existence of Jaffna kingdom came to an end.
During the reign of the Rajasinghe II, Dutch explorers arrived in the island. In 1638, the king signed a treaty with the Dutch East India Company to get rid of Portuguese who ruled most of the coastal areas. The following Dutch-Portuguese War resulted in Dutch victory, with Colombo falling into Dutch hands by 1656. The Dutch remained in the areas they captured, violating the treaty. An ethnic group named Burgher people integrated into the Sri Lankan society as a result of Dutch rule.
The Kingdom of Kandy was the last independent monarchy of Sri Lanka. In 1595, Vimaladharmasurya brought the sacred Tooth Relic – the traditional symbol of royal and religious authority amongst the Sinhalese – to Kandy, and built the Temple of the Tooth. Even with intermittent warfare with Europeans, the kingdom was able to survive. A succession crisis emerged in Kandy, upon king Vira Narendrasinha’s death in 1739. He was married to a Telugu-speaking Nayakkar princess from South India and was childless by her. Eventually, with the support of bhikku Weliwita Sarankara, the crown passed to the brother of one of Narendrasinha’s princess, overlooking the right of “Unambuwe Bandara”, Narendrasinha’s own son by a Sinhalese concubine.
The new king was crowned Sri Vijaya Rajasinha later that year. Kings of Nayakkar dynasty, launched several attacks on Dutch controlled areas, which proved to be unsuccessful. During the Napoleonic Wars, fearing that French control of the Netherlands might deliver Sri Lanka to the French, Great Britain occupied the coastal areas of the island (which they called Ceylon) with little difficulty in 1796. Two years later, in 1798, Rajadhi Rajasinha, third of the four Nayakkar kings of Sri Lanka died of a fever.
Following the death, a nephew of Rajadhi Rajasinha, 18-year-old Konnasami was crowned. The new king, Sri Vikrama Rajasinha faced a British invasion in 1803, but was able to retaliate successfully. By then, the entire coastal area was under the British East India Company, as a result of the Treaty of Amiens. But on 14 February 1815, Kandy was occupied by the British, in the 2nd Kandyan War, finally ending Sri Lanka’s independence. Sri Vikrama Rajasinha, the last native monarch of Sri Lanka was exiled to India.
The Kandyan Convention formally ceded the entire country to the British Empire. Attempts of Sri Lankan noblemen to undermine the British power in 1818 during the Uva Rebellion were thwarted by Governor Robert Brownrigg. The beginning of the modern period of Sri Lanka is marked by the Colebrooke-Cameron reforms of 1833. They introduced a utilitarian and liberal political culture to the country based on the rule of law and amalgamated the Kandyan and maritime provinces as a single unit of government.
An Executive Council and a Legislative Council were established, later becoming the foundation of representative legislature in the country. By this time, experiments with coffee plantation were largely successful. Soon it grew to become the primary commodity export of the country. The falling coffee prices as a result of the depression of 1847 stalled economic development and prompted the governor to introduce a series of taxes on firearms, dogs, shops, boats, etc. and reintroduce a form of rajakariya, requiring six days free labour on roads or payment of a cash equivalent.
These harsh measures antagonised the locals, and another rebellion broke out in 1848. A devastating leaf disease, Hemileia vastatrix, struck the coffee plantations in 1869, destroying the entire industry within 15 years. The British quickly found a replacement; abandoning coffee, they began cultivating tea plantations in its stead. Tea production in Sri Lanka thrived within the decades to come. Large scale rubber plantations began in the early 20th century. By the end of the 19th century, a new educated social class transcending race and caste arose through British attempts to staff the Ceylon Civil Service and the legal, educational, and medical professions. New leaders represented the various ethnic groups of the population in the Ceylon Legislative Council on a communal basis. Buddhist and Hindu revivalism reacted against Christian missionary activities.
Early 20th Century
The first two decades in the 20th century are noted by the unique harmony among Sinhalese and Tamil political leadership, which has since been lost. In 1919, major Sinhalese and Tamil political organizations united to form the Ceylon National Congress, under the leadership of Ponnambalam Arunachalam, pressing colonial masters for more constitutional reforms.
However, without massive popular support, and with the governor’s encouragement for “communal representation” by creating a “Colombo seat” that dangled between Sinhalese and Tamils, the Congress lost momentum towards the mid-1920s. The Donoughmore reforms of 1931 repudiated the communal representation and introduced universal adult franchise (the franchise stood at 4% before the reforms).
This step was strongly criticized by the Tamil political leadership, who realized that they would be reduced to a minority in the newly created State Council of Ceylon, which succeeded the legislative council. In 1937, Tamil leader G. G. Ponnambalam demanded a 50-50 representation (50% for the Sinhalese and 50% for other ethnic groups) in the State Council. However, this demand was not met by the Soulbury reforms of 1944/45.
The Soulbury constitution ushered in Dominion status, with independence proclaimed on 4 February 1948. D.S. Senanayake became the first Prime Minister of Ceylon. Prominent Tamil leaders like Ponnambalam and Arunachalam Mahadeva joined his cabinet. The British Royal Navy remained stationed at Trincomalee until 1956. A countrywide popular demonstration against withdrawal of the rice ration, known as Hartal 1953, resulted in the resignation of prime minister Dudley Senanayake. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was elected prime minister in 1956.
His three-year rule had a profound impact, through his self-proclaimed role of “defender of the besieged Sinhalese culture”. He introduced the controversial Sinhala Only Act, recognizing Sinhala as the only official language of the government. Although partially reversed in 1958, the bill posed a grave concern for the Tamil community, which perceived in it a threat to their language and culture. The Federal Party (FP) launched a movement of non-violent resistance (satyagraha) against the bill, which prompted Bandaranaike to reach an agreement (Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact) with S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, leader of the FP, to resolve the looming ethnic conflict.
However, the pact proved ineffective in the face of ongoing protests by opposition and the Buddhist clergy. The bill, together with various government colonization schemes, contributed much towards the political rancor between Sinhalese and Tamil political leaders. Bandaranaike was assassinated by an extremist Buddhist monk in 1959. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the widow of late S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, took office as prime minister in 1960 and withstood an attempted coup d’état in 1962.
During her second term as prime minister, the government instituted socialist economic polices, strengthening ties with the Soviet Union and China, while promoting a policy of non-alignment. In 1971, Ceylon experienced a Marxist insurrection, which was quickly suppressed. In 1972, the country became a republic named Sri Lanka, repudiating its dominion status. Prolonged minority grievances and the use of communal emotionalism as an election campaign weapon by both Sinhalese and Tamil leaders abetted a fledgling Tamil militancy in the north, during the 1970s.
The policy of standardisation by the Sirimavo government to rectify disparities created in university enrolment, which was in essence an affirmative action to assist geographically disadvantaged students to obtain tertiary education, resulted in reducing the proportion of Tamil students at university level and acted as the immediate catalyst for the rise of militancy. The assassination of Jaffna Mayor Alfred Duraiyappah in 1975 marked a crisis point.
The Government of J.R. Jayawardene swept to power in 1977, defeating the largely unpopular United Front government. Jayawardene introduced a new constitution, together with a free-market economy and a powerful executive presidency modeled after that of France. It made Sri Lanka the first South Asian country to liberalize its economy. From 1983, ethnic tensions were manifested in on-and-off insurgency against the government by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Following the riots in July 1983, more than 150,000 Tamil civilians fled the island, seeking asylum in other countries. Lapses in foreign policy resulted in neighboring India strengthening the Tigers by providing arms and training. In 1987, the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord was signed and Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) was deployed in northern Sri Lanka to stabilize the region by neutralizing the LTTE. The same year, the JVP launched its second insurrection in Southern Sri Lanka, necessitating redeployment of the IPKF in 1990.
In 2002, the Sri Lankan government and LTTE signed a Norwegian-mediated ceasefire agreement and the 2004 Asian tsunami killed over 35,000 in Sri Lanka. From 1985 to 2006, Sri Lankan government and Tamil insurgents held four rounds of peace talks without success. Both LTTE and the government resumed fighting in 2006, and the government officially backed out of the ceasefire in 2008. In 2009, under the Presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa the Sri Lanka Armed Forces defeated the LTTE, and re-established control of the entire country by the Sri Lankan Government.
Overall, between 60,000 and 100,000 people were killed during the 26 years of conflict. 40,000 Tamil civilians may have been killed in the final phases of the Sri Lankan civil war, according to an Expert Panel convened by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. The exact number of Tamils killed is still a speculation that needs further study. Following the LTTE’s defeat, the Tamil National Alliance, the largest political party in Sri Lanka, dropped its demand for a separate state in favour of a federal solution.
The final stages of the war left some 294,000 people displaced. According to the Ministry of Resettlement, most of the displaced persons had been released or returned to their places of origin, leaving only 6,651 in the camps as of December 2011. In May 2010, President Rajapaksa appointed the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) to assess the conflict between the time of the ceasefire agreement in 2002 and the defeat of the LTTE in 2009. Sri Lanka has emerged from its 26-year war to become one of the fastest-growing economies of the world.