Sri Lanka History

Sri Lanka history spans prehistoric eras, the Anuradhapura Kingdom and medieval times before it moves into the colonial period. Paleolithic settlements have been excavated within the Southwestern Central Hills and Western Plains region. In these locations, specific artifacts and burial rites have been discovered that directly tie early island settlers to those from the earliest settlers of northern India.

A set of Pali chronicles named the Dipavamsa, the Mahavampsa, the Chulavampsa, and the Thupavamsa are said to relay the history of ancient Sri Lanka from the 6th century forward. They document the life of the first island king ruling between 543 BC and 505 BC. The indigenous people of Sri Lanka arrived from various parts of India. Present-day Sri Lankan Sinhalese are a blend of indigenous Sri Lankans and others who arrived from many different parts of India. They recognize Buddhism as their religion and Vijayan Indo-Aryan culture.

Sri Lanka was ruled by monarchs since ancient times, most distinct being the Sinha royal dynasty lasting more than 2,000 years. Sometimes invaded by kingdoms from Southern India, parts of Sri Lanka had been ruled by the Chola, Pandya, Chera, and Pallava Dynasties intermittently. More invasions still; the Kalinga Kingdom  and rulers from the Malaysian Peninsula also brought their armies forth into Sri Lanka. The 3rd century brought with it Buddhism, which propagated monasteries and schools and helped spread Buddhism throughout Southeast Asia.

Trading has also always been a vital part of ancient Sri Lanka history; merchant ships from Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, and other nearby countries frequented the island bringing goods in on a regular basis. The first Europeans to explore Southeast Asia knew of the islands while parts of them were settled by Malay and Arab merchants. 

In 1505, Sri Lanka comprised three distinct kingdoms; West coast Kotte, central Kandy, and northern-based Yarlpanam. In the 17th century the Dutch arrived and overtook most of the island yet never held power over the interior, a hilly region where indigenous people (in the capital of Kandy) maintained independence. Come 1796, control rested in the hands of the British East India Company, who declared it a crown colony by the year 1802. The Kingdom of Kandy fell in 1815 consolidating the island under British rule.

Plantations where rubber, tea, cinnamon, coffee, sugar, and indigo were farmed were established by European colonists. These British colonists brought along throngs of enslaved people from Tamil Nadu to work in the plantations. Colombo was the first established city, where a modern administrative center was constructed; schools, churches, roads, and more instilled western culture and education to the native people. Over the course of this time, natives became increasingly angered by the mistreatment they received. Mainly these civil rights abuses handed down by colonialists, and an independence movement was on the rise by the 1930s. The uprising escalated over more civil freedoms being denied by the ministry board, who was asked to grant even more power to the Europeans.

As World War II phased in, Sri Lanka history shows the island as a vital military base with a massive segment of American and British fleets deployed there and thousands upon thousands of soldiers pushed into the war with Japan occurring in Southeast Asia.

After the war, independence was inevitable and by February 1948 Sri Lanka won its freedom and was named the Commonwealth of Ceylon. Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the country’s (and the world’s) first female prime minister in 1960. Sri Lanka was named a republic of the Commonwealth in 1972 and changed its name. The ongoing battle between the Tamil people and the Sinhalese sparked in 1983. It has been a predominant part of modern Sri Lanka history, with both maintaining they are the indigenous island people. Today, the volatile situation has calmed. Sri Lanka remains an incredible destination with beautiful beaches, hill stations, intriguing cave tours, and more - but without the crowds often seen on the beaches of southern India and Southeast Asia.

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