Few peoples have such a lively awareness of their history as the people of Sri Lanka; and from this awareness they have drawn a sharp sense of their own identity, a tranquil assurance and a profound passion for freedom. The island had the fortune, thanks to its Buddhist monasteries, to possess at a very early stage chronicles covering a long period of time, at first transmitted orally by generations of monks who preserved traditions dating back to the 5th century B.C. The text of the Dipavamsa or “Chronicle of the Island” was established about 350 A.D., and that of the Mahavamsa or “Great Chronicle” about 550 A.D.; and in later times other historical works were compiled regularly down the centuries.
But before histories began there were the epics. From the neighbouring sub-continent of India came the first mythical tales which give us a glimpse of the early history of the resplendent island (Lanka). These tales, brought together in the Ramayana, reflect the first confrontations between Indians and Sinhalese during the 1st millennium B.C. According to these accounts a king of Lanka named Ravana, ruler of the Rakshasas (demons), was engaged in conflict with the savage Yakshas (spirits of the earth). One of his nephews, Lavana, had invaded the land of Madurai, and Ravana himself had carried off an Aryan princess, Sita, the faithful wife of Prince Rama. Rama, aided by the king of the Vanaras (monkeys), Hanuman, thereupon mounted an expedition against Lanka and crossed over to the island on a causeway constructed by Hanuman’s subjects. Having defeated and killed Ravana and recovered Sita, Rama returned to India and celebrated his victory at Ramashvaram. This Indo-Aryan epic presents an anti-Sinhalese version of the tribal conflicts of the early historical period, involving pillaging expeditions by both sides, abduction of women, ethnic antagonisms and racial prejudices. It is not difficult to interpret. The hero, Rama, is an Aryan conqueror, representing the Indo-European invaders of the 2nd millennium B.C.; Ravana and his demons are the dark-skinned Sinhalese enemies, while Hanuman represents the dark-skinned Dravidians who fought with the Aryans; and the Yakshas are the aboriginal tribes of hunters who lived in the impenetrable forests of Sri Lanka. It may be noted that these mythical tales already distinguish two races in Lanka, the subjects of Ravana and the indigenous tribes which preserved their independence. No doubt there is some reference here, to the origins of the people of Sri Lanka. It is significant that the legendary traditions of the Veddas, the forest people of Sri Lanka, relate that their ancestors fought with a tribe called the Nittaewo, savage pygmies who laid claim to their hunting grounds perhaps Negritos, a race that has now disappeared from Sri Lanka. The Ramayana has remained popular both in India and among the Tamils of Sri Lanka.
The history of Sri Lanka traditionally begins in the 5th century B.C., when the island was invaded by Aryan tribes from the Ganges plain led by a warlike prince, Vijaya (a name which means victory in Sanskrit: no doubt a legendary designation conferred after the event as a name of good omen). Vijaya was the son of a petty king of Magadha in north-eastern India, known as “Lion’s Arm”, Sinha Bahu. The chronicles tell us that 700 warriors and their families accompanied Vijaya on this expedition. The name of this ancestor provided the name of the first dynasty, the Sinhalas (from sinha; “lion”, and la; the root of the verb meaning “destroy”). This name was applied to all the inhabitants of Lanka, and gave rise to the various European terms for the people of Lanka, including the English Sinhalese, Singhalese or Cingalese. One of Sri Lanka’s earliest names was Sinhala-dipa, island of the Sinhala, and the lion is still the heraldic animal of Sri Lanka.
This people of “Lions” or “Lion-Killers” established a kingdom in northern Sri Lanka and founded a capital whose site has not been located but was probably on the Jaffna peninsula. The island’s second capital, Anuradhapura, founded a century later, marked a move southward. It was established by a king who remained faithful to the old Indo-Aryan astrological traditions and named his city after the star Anuradha (delta Scorpionis), a divinity of light known to the Iranians as Mithra. The new capital was to preside over the destinies of Sri Lanka for more than a thousand years.
The arrival of Budhism and the Invasions
About 250 B.C. King Dewananpitiya-Tissa (or Mahatissa or Tissa), fifth or sixth successor of Vijaya, marks the start of Sri Lanka’s datable history. A vassal of King Ashoka (273-232), the saintly ruler of the Maurya dynasty, he imitated Ashoka in his conversion to Buddhism and determined to take his whole people along with him on the way of salvation. The destiny of Lanka was thus decided. Ashoka sent his son or nephew Mahinda (or Mehinda) and his daughter Sanghamitta as missionaries of the new doctrine, and both of them came accompanied by monks and nuns in sufficient number to found the first monasteries on the island. Along with the teachings of the Buddha the incomers brought with them some relics of the Master and a slip from the Tree of Enlightenment, the Bo tree or Bodh Gaya. The first communities of monks and nuns were established near the capital, on Mahinda’s Hill at Mihintale. To King Tissa is attributed the building of many religious monuments and of the dams which formed the artificial lakes necessary for the irrigation of the arid northern part of Sri Lanka.
The wealth of the island of Taprobane (the Greek name for Sri Lanka) was known to the Hellenistic world through the Greco-Buddhist kingdoms of Gandhara and the seamen of the Seleucid empire. The name is probably a corruption of a Prakrit word, Tamraparni, originally applied to a river in an area in southern India noted for the abundance of its pearls. No adequate explanation of the word Tamraparni has yet been found but it contains the Sanskrit root tamara, the name of a beautiful red lotus, ; Tamil tamarasam.
Tissa’s successors on the throne were faced with invasions by the Dramilas or Damilas, ancestors of the present-day Tamils. At a date which cannot be exactly determined they sought refuge in the extreme south of the island, and resistance to the invaders was centred on a new capital, Tissamaharama. In 100 B.C. King Datta Gamundi (or Dhattu Ghemundu) set out from the south and drove out the Tamils, after defeating and killing the Chola King Ellara (145-101) at Anuradhapura (where his tomb still can be found).
Each Tamil invasion represented an eclipse of Buddhism, the destruction of the sacred books, the development of Hindu cults and the hasty evacuation of the sacred Tooth of the Buddha. In consequence each successive capital had its Temple of the Tooth, Dalada Maligawa.
About 60-50 B.C. a further invasion led to the flight of King Vattagamini Abhaya (or Valagam Ba), Datta Gamundi’s successor, who sought refuge in the Dambulla caves, 70 km south of the capital, which thus became a temporary capital in the depths of the forest.
At the beginning of the Christian era the Greco-Roman seamen of Alexandria revealed to the Mediterranean world the “winds of Hippalos”, the seasonal winds which carried their sailing ships to India and Taprobane. A sea trade now grew up between the West and the East; in the reign of Claudius (41 54) envoys from Sri Lanka came to Rome, where Pliny met them. The Roman coins of Nero and Vespasian discovered on the island and now to be seen in the Colombo Museum bear witness to trading relations with the Roman world. About 160 the geographer Ptolemy gives a description of Taprobane in which he names more than fifty places, although he evidently relied heavily on tales brought back by the seamen.
The beginning of the 3rd century saw the great reign of King Vihara Tissa, who fostered literature and science. The influence of religious and scientific works in Sanskrit became more important.
King Maha Sena (330-440) was a great builder, responsible for the construction of dams and monasteries. He intervened in the disputes between different Buddhist sects and enforced peaceful co-existence between the supporters of the Hinayana and the Mahayana schools, which had been in conflict for almost a century. He himself followed the Mahayana school. During his reign the Pali version of the Dipavamsa or “Chronicle of the Island” was produced.
About 360 Buddha Dasa (Servant of the Buddha) established an important royal city, Polonnaruwa, 80 km from Anuradhapura on the shores of the artificial lake of Topawewa, formed by Maha Sena. In the 4th century Sri Lanka was a distribution centre for Western, Indian and Chinese goods, and the roads from East and West met at Anuradhapura. The Greek traveller Cosmas Indicopleustes tells us that he encountered there a group of Christians belonging to a Persian community, and confirmation of his story has been provided by the discovery of a Nestorian cross in the remains of the city. Relations with the West continued during Byzantine times, and the Annals of Justinian refer to an embassy from Lanka about the year 530. About 410 the Chinese traveller Fa Hsien, after spending ten years travelling in India, stayed for some time at Anuradhapura before sailing for home from a port which he calls Kua-Lang-Pou (Colombo).
About 480 King Dhatu Sena freed Lanka from the Tamil invaders, who had once again returned, and continued the building and irrigation works begun by his ancestors. Some twenty years later he was taken prisoner and murdered by his second son, Kassyapa, who founded a new capital, Sigiriya (Sinha-giriya, Lion Rock ), an extraordinary natural stronghold. After reigning for twenty years Kassyapa was killed by his elder brother Mogallana, who brought the capital back to Anuradhapura. On the accursed site of Kassyapa’s capital the new king founded monasteries, and here was compiled the Mahavamsa or “Great Chronicle”.
Between the 6th and the 10th century the Chola kings of Coromandel (Tamil Nadu, in southern India) made periodic raids on northern Lanka, sacking the capital several times. On each occasion the Sinhalese kings fell back on Polonnaruwa, which gradually became recognised as capital, during the reigns of famous kings like Aggabodhi VI (772-777), Sena I (833-853) and Sena V (972-982). To the reign of Kassyapa V (908-918) is attributed the oldest prose work that has come down to us, a Sinhalese commentary on a Pali religious work, the Dhammapadatthakatha.
Each time the Tamils withdrew Anuradhapura resumed its status as capital. In 993, however, the Chola king Rajahrajah I conquered the whole of northern Lanka and pointed a viceroy to govern in his name at Polonnaruwa. About 1020-1030 Anuradhapura ceased to be capital, the Sinhalese king was carried off to India as a prisoner and Polonnaruwa became a Tamil city. Southern Lanka remained independent under the rule of petty princes who sought refuge in the mountains; and Kanda or Kande (Sinhalese, mountain) was to remain a symbol and a synonym of freedom in Sri Lanka.
In 1070, one of the southern princes, Vijaya Bahu I (Arm of Victory or “Strength of Victory”: 1055-1110), united Sinhalese resistance and once again drove out the Tamils under King Kulottinga I(1070-1120). Surviving buildings and inscriptions give evidence of his greatness. With this king began the great period of mediaeval Sinhalese civilisation contemporary with the period of the first Gothic cathedrals in Western Europe which saw a renaissance of all the arts.
The famous Parakrama Bahu I (1153-1186) was responsible for some of the finest buildings in Polonnaruwa. During his reign the various religious communities lived at peace with one another, and Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Jews and Christians were all represented on his Council. Tolerance of this kind was unknown in mediaeval Europe, which was then engaged in the Crusades against Islam, while in England and France the Jews were being persecuted or expelled.
King Nissam Kamala (1186-1196), like some of the Pharaohs, sought to claim the credit for buildings erected by his predecessors by inscribing his name on them; but modern archaeology has unmasked his pretensions. His merits are celebrated in the Gal-pota, the “Book of Stone” of Polonnaruwa.
Between 1215 and 1240 there was another disastrous Tamil invasion. The king fled to a new capital, Dambadeniya, where he maintained Sinhalese independence. In 1240 Parakrama Bahu II drove out the invaders, re-established Buddhism and restored Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. His successor enriched both of these royal cities with new buildings.
In 1273 the Tamils once again drove the Sinhalese king back into southern Lanka, where a new capital was established at Yapahuwa (the Good Mountain). In 1285, during a raid on Yapahuwa, the Tamils seized the sacred Tooth of the Buddha; and in order to recover the precious relic King Parakrama Bahu III travelled to Madurai (Tamil Nadu) to make his submission to King Pandya (1286). Thereafter he reigned for a number of years at Polonnaruwa as a tributary of the Tamil king.
His son and successor Parakrarna Bahu IV (1290-1327) finally abandoned Polonnaruwa, threw off his allegiance to King Pandya and fled south with the Tooth, establishing a new capital on a site at Kurunegala or Hastiselapura protected by steeply scarped slopes. The ancient northern capitals now disappear from history, and the whole of northern Lanka became a noman’s land between the Tamils and the Sinhalese. The plateaux of the arid region, which depended for their existence on the irrigation works constructed and maintained under the aegis of the kings, reverted to jungle; a civilised country returned to wilderness, and forest and scrub invaded areas which had been cultivated with so much labour. Parakrama Bahu IV was a cultivated ruler who revived the Buddhist faith and had the Jatakas translated into Sinhalese. These hagiographic tales recounting the incarnations of the Buddha had hitherto been accessible only to learned monks familiar with Pali, the sacred language of Buddhism: henceforth they were available to the whole population, and were to provide inspiration for painters and sculptors.
In 1295 Marco Polo visited Kurunegala. In the middle of the 14th century the political decline of the Sinhalese dynasties began. Under Tamil pressure Buwanaike Bahu IV withdrew to the mountains and in 1347 established his capital at Gampola, which became an artistic centre of some repute.
Soon after 1410 Vira Alekeswara II chose a capital nearer the sea, at Kotre, near the ancient temple at Kelani which was said to have been visited by the Buddha and close to the equally ancient port of Kalamba or Kalambou. Of this capital there survive only a few anonymous remains within the city limits of today Colombo. Here also reigned the cultivated King Parakrama Bahu VI, and here too there was a Temple of the Tooth.
In spite of some periods of recovery, as when Buwanaike Bahu VI established his suzerainty over Jaffna and the surrounding area about 1470, the power of the kings of Kotte was now declining, being increasingly contested by local chiefs: and these internal divisions provided a favourable opportunity for the newcomers who had been sailing the seas round India since 1598.