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Sri Lanka - History

Sri Lanka – Taprobane of the Greeks, Serendib of the Arabs, Ceylon of the Europeans – according to its chronicles, has been an independent Kingdom since its establishment on the very day on which the Buddha passed away from the earth and attained Nirvana, 483 B.C. Coincidentally, this is the same day on which Vijaya, a refugee Aryan prince from India is thought to have landed in Sri Lanka and set up the kingdom on the North central plain of the island. The island’s ancient inhabitants are supposed to have been devils and demons – aboriginal tribes called Yakhas and Nagas.

In the years since independence, Sri Lanka has experienced severe communal clashes between its Buddhist Sinhalese majority-- approximately 74 percent of the population -- and the country's largest minority group, the Sri Lankan Tamils, who are Hindus and comprise nearly 13 percent of the population. A troubled nation since the 1980s, torn apart by communal violence, Sri Lanka was more recently been called India's "fallen tear."

The history of Sri Lanka after independence in 1948 is largely a story of a squandered opportunity. One element of the failure was the attempt of the dominant Sinhalese political parties after the death of D.S. Senanayake to deny the Tamil element of the population any cultural autonomy. The communal violence that attracted the harsh scrutiny of the international media over three decades begining in the 1980s can best be understood in the context of the island's complex historical development--its ancient and intricate relationship to India's civilization and its more than four centuries under colonial rule by European powers.

The actual origins of the Sinhalese are shrouded in myth. Known as Lanka -- the "resplendent land" -- in the ancient Indian epic Ramayana, the island has numerous other references that testify to the island's natural beauty and wealth. Islamic folklore maintains that Adam and Eve were offered refuge on the island as solace for their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Asian poets, noting the geographical location of the island and lauding its beauty, called it the "pearl upon the brow of India."

Most believe the Sinhalese came to Sri Lanka from northern India during the 6th century BC. The Sinhalese claim to have been the earliest colonizers of Sri Lanka, first settling in the dry north-central regions as early as 500 BC. Buddhism arrived from the subcontinent 300 years later 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. In the mid 2nd century BC a large part of North Sri Lanka came under the rule of an invader from South India. Invasions from southern India, combined with internecine strife, pushed Sinhalese kingdoms southward.

The malaria ridden forests functioned as a buffer zone between the North and the South and could have been one of the primary causes for the separate evolution of the two ethnic identities.

According to the histories, the eras of Pollonnaruwa and Anuradhapura were important in irrigation developments. Sri Lanka was divided into three parts well known as Ruhunu, Maya and Pihiti, with each of them divided into kingdoms, provinces and districts. Boundaries were assigned for each of these and the boundary stones were given different symbols. Between the third century BC and the twelfth century AD, they developed a great civilization centered around the cities of Anuradhapura and later Polonnaruwa, which was noted for its genius in hydraulic engineering -- the construction of water tanks (reservoirs) and irrigation canals, for example -- and its guardianship of Buddhism.

The ancient civilization of Sri Lanka reached its apogee during the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa periods – that is from early historical times to about 13th century-when an intricate irrigation system was established for agricultural purposes and construction of religious monuments such as pagodas was undertaken. The irrigation technology that developed during this period has few parallels in the ancient world and ancient Sri Lanka is described as a hydraulic society or civilization.

Most works were concentrated in the Pihiti Rata and there is historical evidence of irrigation activities even in the Maya Rata. The building of tanks and reservoirs had their roots mostly in the dry zone wilderness, where the rain-fall came only in two monsoonal seasons covering Raja Rata and Ruhunu Rata [during the British times, particularly during the tenure of Governor Sir Henry Ward (1850s), neglected ancient tanks in the Raja Rata, Ruhuna Rata and even Maya Rata were restored].

State patronage gave Buddhism a heightened political importance that enabled the religion to escape the fate it had experienced in India, where it was eventually re-absorbed by Hinduism. The history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, especially its extended period of glory, is for many Sinhalese a potent symbol that links the past with the present. An enduring ideology defined by two distinct elements -- sinhaladipa (unity of the island with the Sinhalese) and dhammadipa (island of Buddhism)-- designates the Sinhalese as custodians of Sri Lankan society. This theme finds recurrent expression in the historical chronicles composed by Buddish monks over the centuries, from the mythological founding of the Sinhalese "lion" race around 300 BC to the capitulation of the Kingdom of Kandy, the last independent Sinhalese polity in the early nineteenth century.

The great palladium of Buddhism, "the tooth," the possession of which rendered Ceylon so famous among the followers of Sakya throughout the East, did not arrive in the island until 310 AD, nearly 600 years after his faith was established there; the war of extermination the Brahmins in India were carrying on against Guhasiwo, the possessor of the relic, rendering his dominions no longer a safe place for it. Fa Hian, who arrived in Ceylon on a pilgrimage at the end of the same century, gives a description of the annual ceremonies connected with it.

The Ruhunu, Maya and Pihiti of the 2nd Century AD were eventually dismantled, and after the 13th Century AD came the onset of three kingdoms - Sithawaka, Kotte and Kandy. Between 1515 and 1597, the island was divided into four kingdoms - Kandy (Udapas Rata), Sitawaka (Mayadunne Rata), Jaffna and Hath Korale (later classified as a province) and four provinces - Hath Korale, Matara, Denewaka Adhikaraya and Nuwarakalaviya Adhikaraya. The Nayakkar line in Sri Lanka started in the reign of Rajasinghe II (1635-87).

The island's contact with the outside world began early. Roman sailors called the island Taprobane. Arab traders knew it as "Serendip," the root of the word "serendipity." Beginning in 1505, Portuguese traders, in search of cinnamon and other spices, seized the island's coastal areas and spread 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, rubber, and coconuts.

The Portuguese, Dutch and the British ruled all their coastal possessions (in the South and in the North) as one political unit, under a Portuguese Captain - General, a Dutch Governor and a British Governor, respectively, at Colombo. These possessions called the "Maritime Provinces" by the British were a single Crown Colony from 1801. It was the territory of the Sinhalese kingdom Kandy, ceded in 1815, that was administered as a separate unit called "the Kandyan Provinces" under a Board of Commissioners from 1815 to 1833. Consequent to the Rebellion of the Kandyan Sinhalese (1817/18) which nearly drove the British out, the British amalgamated the Maritime Provinces with the Kandyan Provinces in 1833 to strengthen the British hold over the latter, in accordance with the Colebrooke-Cameroon recommendations which are common knowledge. By a Proclamation in 1833, the united territories were divided into 5 Provinces, parts of the Kandyan territory being included in Northern, Eastern, Western and Southern Provinces. Only the Central Province was constituted by wholly Kandyan districts.

The institutions of Buddhist-Sinhalese civilization in Sri Lanka came under attack during the colonial eras of the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British. During these centuries of colonialization, the state encouraged and supported Christianity- -first Roman Catholicism, then Protestantism. Most Sinhalese regard the entire period of European dominance as an unfortunate era, but most historians--Sri Lankan or otherwise--concede that British rule was relatively benign and progressive compared to that of the Dutch and Portuguese.

Influenced by the ascendant philosophy of liberal reformism, the British were determined to anglicize the island, and in 1802, Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) became Britain's first crown colony. The British gradually permitted native participation in the governmental process; and under the Donoughmore Constitution of 1931 the British granted Ceylon limited self-rule and a universal franchise. Then under the Soulbury Constitution of 1946, the franchise was dramatically extended, preparing the island for independence two years later. Ceylon became independent on February 4, 1948.

Under the statesmanship of Sri Lanka's first post-independence leader, Don Stephen (D.S.) Senanayake, the country managed to rise above the bitterly divisive communal and religious emotions that later complicated the political agenda. Senanayake envisioned his country as a pluralist, multiethnic, secular state, in which minorities would be able to participate fully in government affairs. His vision for his nation soon faltered, however, and communal rivalry and confrontation appeared within the first decade of independence. Sinhalese nationalists aspired to recover the dominance in society they had lost during European rule, while Sri Lankan Tamils wanted to protect their minority community from domination or assimilation by the Sinhalese majority. No compromise was forthcoming, and as early as 1951, Tamil leaders stated that "the Tamil-speaking people in Ceylon constitute a nation distinct from that of the Sinhalese by every fundamental test of nationhood."

Sinhalese nationalists did not have to wait long before they found an eloquent champion of their cause. Solomon West Ridgeway Dias (S.W.R.D.) Bandaranaike successfully challenged the nation's Westernized rulers who were alienated from Sinhalese culture; he became prime minister in 1956. A man particularly adept at harnessing Sinhalese communal passions, Bandaranaike vowed to make Sinhala the only language of administration and education and to restore Buddhism to its former glory. The violence unleashed by his policies directly threatened the unity of the nation, and communal riots rocked the country in 1956 and 1958. Bandaranaike became a victim of the passions he unleased. In 1959 a Buddhist monk who felt that Bandaranaike had not pushed the Buddhist-Sinhalese cause far enough assassinated the Sri Lankan leader. Bandaranaike's widow, Sirimavo Ratwatte Dias (S.R.D.) Bandaranaike, ardently carried out many of his ideas. In 1960, she became the world's first woman prime minister.

Communal tensions continued to rise over the following years. In 1972 the nation became a republic under a new constitution, which was a testimony to the ideology of Sirimavo Bandaranaike, and Buddhism was accorded special status. These reforms and new laws discriminating against Tamils in university admissions were a symbolic threat the Tamil community felt it could not ignore, and a vicious cycle of violence erupted that has plagued successive governments. Tamil agitation for separation became associated with gruesome and highly visible terrorist acts by extremists, triggering large communal riots in 1977, 1981, and 1983. During these riots, Sinhalese mobs retaliated against isolated and vulnerable Tamil communities. By the mid-1980s, the Tamil militant underground had grown in strength and posed a serious security threat to the government, and its combatants struggled for a Tamil nation -- "Tamil Eelam" -- by an increasing recourse to terrorism. The fundamental, unresolved problems facing society were surfacing with a previously unseen force. Foreign and domestic observers expressed concern for democratic procedures in a society driven by divisive symbols and divided by ethnic loyalties.

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Page last modified: 11-04-2017 18:45:57 ZULU