Sri Lanka located in the Indian Ocean just southeast of southern India. Sri Lankans are mostly descendants of people that originally came from India. The main thing that sets Sri Lankans apart from Indians is that they are mostly Buddhists while Indians are mostly Hindu. There is a significantly large number of Hindus in Sri Lanka but very few Buddhists in India. Muslims can be found in both countries. In Sri Lanka they make up about five percent of the population.

Sri Lanka’s location on major trade and traveling routes meant that it was open to influences from the outside. The country’s early history often merges fact with faction. Biblical Adam is said to have landed in Sri Lanka after he was caste out from heaven. In the great Hindu epic the Ramayana, Rama is said to have reached Sri Lanka by hopping on a string of islands from India.

Sri Lanka has since earliest times been within the security orbit of its massive northern neighbor. Successive waves of invasion from the kingdoms of ancient India brought the majority of the Tamil and Sinhalese inhabitants to the island, while the overwhelming military power to the north historically has been the dominant external threat. In its distant past, Sri Lanka on a few occasions was able to project military power beyond its own shores to participate in the struggles of south India. For most of its history, however, and for all of the twentieth century, Sri Lanka's security posture has been a defensive one, responding with a greater or lesser degree of internal unity to the threats of the outside world. Together with India, Sri Lanka was swept along in the regional conflicts of world powers, undergoing domination in turn by the Portuguese, Dutch, and British. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Name and Identity of Sri Lanka

The official name of Sri Lanka is Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka (Shri Lanka Prajatantrika Samajavadi Janarajaya or Ilankai Jananayaka Choshalichak Kutiyarachu). The short local form is Shri Lanka or Ilankai. In the past Sri Lanka was known as Ceylon,Serendib, and Lanka. The people of Sri Lanka are called Sri Lankans, Ceylonese or Lankan. Serendib is the source of the word serendipity

On May 22, 1972, the national constitution discarded the name Ceylon and adopted the name of Sri Lanka. In Sinhala, the language of the majority Sinhalese, Lanka means "great and beautiful island." It is name derived from Sanskrit that the Sinhalese have used for millennia to describe their land. “Sri” is an honorific term.

During colonial times Sri Lanka was known as Ceylon. The word Ceylon is derived from the word “sinhala” or “simhala”, which is also the root of Sinhalese, the name of Sri Lanka’s largest ethnic group. Ceylon is what the British called Sri Lanka. The Portuguese first named it Ceilão, The Dutch called it Ceilon. Under the name Ceylon, Sri Lanka became independent (from Britain) on February 4, 1948, about five and half months after India and Pakistan became independent.

The name Lanka was used in the 2000-year-old Hindu epic, Ramayana. In one of the major episodes from the story Ravana, the evil King of Lanka kidnaps Sita, the wife of hero Rama. With the help of the Hindu monkey god Hanuman, Rama is able to defeat Ravana and bring Sita back to India.

Sri Lanka was the home of ancient Taprobane. The capital is Sri Jayewardenapura Kotte. Colombo, the former capital (and still the site of many government offices), is the commercial capital and largest city. The name change in the 1970s has created some issues.. Geoffrey Wheatcroft wrote in the Washington “Post: For years, baffled readers have pored over the news from Sri Lanka only to realize that it was what they used to call Ceylon “

Brief History of Sri Lanka

The first Sinhalese arrived in Sri Lanka late in the 6th century B.C., probably from northern India. Buddhism was introduced circa 250 B.C., and the first kingdoms developed at the cities of Anuradhapura (from circa 200 B.C. to circa A.D. 1000) and Polonnaruwa (from about 1070 to 1200). In the 14th century, a south Indian dynasty established a Tamil kingdom in northern Sri Lanka. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

The Portuguese controlled the coastal areas of the island in the 16th century followed by the Dutch in the 17th century. The island was ceded to the British in 1796, became a crown colony in 1802, and was formally united under British rule by 1815. As Ceylon, it became independent in 1948; its name was changed to Sri Lanka in 1972. Prevailing tensions between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil separatists erupted into war in July 1983. Fighting between the government and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) continued for over a quarter century. Although Norway brokered peace negotiations that led to a ceasefire in 2002, the fighting slowly resumed and was again in full force by 2006. The government defeated the LTTE in May 2009.

During the post-conflict years under President Mahinda RAJAPAKSA, the government initiated infrastructure development projects, many of which were financed by loans from China. His regime faced significant allegations of human rights violations and a shrinking democratic space for civil society. In 2015, a new coalition government headed by President Maithripala SIRISENA of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and Prime Minister Ranil WICKREMESINGHE of the United National Party came to power with pledges to advance economic, governance, anti-corruption, reconciliation, justice, and accountability reforms. However, implementation of these reforms has been uneven. In October 2018, President SIRISENA attempted to oust Prime Minister WICKREMESINGHE, swearing in former President RAJAPAKSA as the new prime minister and issuing an order to dissolve the parliament and hold elections. This sparked a seven-week constitutional crisis that ended when the Supreme Court ruled SIRISENA’s actions unconstitutional, RAJAPAKSA resigned, and WICKREMESINGHE was reinstated. In November 2019, Gotabaya RAJAPAKSA won the presidential election and appointed his brother, Mahinda, prime minister.

Historical Sources on Sri Lanka

The history of Sri Lanka before A.D. 1500, as recorded in its Great Chronicles, is considered unverifiable and is largely an obscure, confusing, and conflicting set of records about wars, invasions, usurpations, and dynastic rivalries. Most of the early people of Sri Lanka migrated to the island from India beginning about 2,500 years ago.The Sinhalese, the main ethnic group today, are reputedly the descendants of the Aryan Prince Vijaya, from India, and his 700 followers; they came to Sri Lanka about 485 B.C., chased from their homes for their marauding activities. The Sri Lankan Tamils, Sri Lanka’s second largest ethnic group, came to the island in the third century B.C., moving across the strait from India as part of the expansion by India's southern kings. [Source: “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

The first literary reference to Sri Lanka is found in the Indian epic, the Ramayana written about 500 B.C. The epic tells the story of the Indian Prince Ram’s 14-year exile from his homeland, Ayodhya. Accompanied by his wife, Sita, and his brother, Lakshman, the trio wandered through the north Indian forest. Ravenna, the demon king of Lanka, saw Sita and wanted her for his bride. Through magical treachery he abducted her and took her to the Island of Lanka. While she was there, she refused all his advances and was kept a prisoner. With the aid of Hanuman, the monkey-god, Ram went to do battle with Ravenna and eventually slew him. This epic has provided a mythohistorical basis for constructing a historiography of mutual enmity between Sri Lankan Tamils (of Indian origin) and the Sinhalese. [Source: Robert T. Francoeur, Victor C. de Munck, Ph.D., Patricia Weerakoon, Ph.D., “Encyclopedia of Sexuality”, 2002]

Study of Sri Lanka’s archeology began in 1890 when the Archeological Survey of Ceylon was established by British authorities to examine the remains of Sigiraya and other sites “before the rapidly disappearing monuments of the past have altogether perished”. There was some conflict between monks who wanted to use the sites as pilgrimage sites and archeologists who wanted to study and preserve them.

The “Epigraphica Zeylinica”, assembled by the University of Cambridge, comprises 274 volumes and has over 3000 inscriptions from Ceylon. That is more inscriptions than the whole of mainland China has, even though Sri Lanka is only 1/2 the size of the state of New York. The oldest inscriptions date back to the 6th century B.C. Over 2000 of these have been deciphered, indicating the consistent development of the Sinhalese language.

Mahavamsa and Culavamsa

Much of what is known about ancient and medieval Sri Lanka — as well as a lot about ancient and medieval India — is based on the historical chronicles, the “Mahavamsa” (“Great Chronicles”), which describes the history of the Sinhalese beginning with the arrival of the first settlers from northern India in the 6th century B.C. and ends with events in 1815. A meticulously kept historical chronicle first written in the Pali language the A.D. 5th century in an epic poem style, it describes Sri Lanka as a land predestined to preserve and spread Buddhism. Some of the information in these chronicles is of questionable veracity. The founding prince for example is described at the offspring of a lion and princess.

The Mahavamsa and other chronicles were assembled by monks. The “Culavamsa” (“Small Chronicles”) and “Thupavamsaya” (“Chronicle of the Great Stupa”) are other historical records. The most well-known historical chronicles of Sri Lanka include the Dipawansa, Mahavamsa, Culavamsa, Thupavansa, Rajavaliya, Pujavaliya, Attana-galu Vihara Vansa, Dhatuvansa, Elu-Attangaluvansa, Elu-Buddha Vansa, Maha Bodhivansa, Daladavansa and Viharavansa.

Unlike India, which has no tradition of historical writing, the Buddhist monks of Sri Lanka kept historical chronicles, the most famous of which is the Mahavamsa (the great dynasty or genealogy), written in the 6th century C.E. The Mahavamsa is a compilation of historical chapters, many of which center around the adventures of Vijaya, a Bengali prince who sailed to Sri Lanka in the 5th century B.C. and married the queen of the Vedas, Kuveni. Vijaya is acknowledged to be the primogeniture of the Sinhalese people.

Many of the other chapters in the Mahavamsa document the many Sinhalese Buddhist kings who rose up against Tamil conquerors. Aside from Vijaya, the central heroic figure in the Mahavamsa is King Duttugemunu, who, around 145 B.C., waged a 15-year war against the South Indian Tamil King Elara. Duttugemunu finally defeated Elara and is consequently considered a hero by the Sinhalese. The Culavamsa (or lesser dynasty) is a continuation of the Mahavamsa, and traces the history of Sri Lanka through the 18th century.

Both the Mahavamsa and Culavamsa were written by Buddhist monks whose main objective was to recount the glories of Buddhist kings who fought against Hindu kings. Contemporary popular accounts of the current civil war in Sri Lanka frequently cite the battle between the Tamil invader, Elara, and Duttugemunu, who is depicted as the defender of Buddhism and the freedom of the Sinhalese people, as the basis for the civil war that has been ongoing since 1982. But the actual history of Sri Lanka does not support this contention. In fact, according to Tambiah (1986), most of Sri Lankan history is marked with cordial and extensive trading relations between Tamils and Sinhalese, with only rare outbursts of interethnic violence. In fact, the last Sri Lankan king ruled from the highland city of Kandy and was of Tamil descent. In 1815, he signed a peace treaty with the British colonial government and abdicated his throne.

Famous Historians and Scholars

Dr. R.L. Spittel (1881-1969) rests his fame on his life-long dedication to wildlife and distinguished himself as a naturalist, anthropologist, and ethnologist. Although he was an eminent surgeon, he is best known for his studies of the Veddas, and he is considered one of the foremost Sri Lankan writers on this subject. [Source: My Sri Lanka ]

Professor Senarath Paranavitharana (1896-1972) is regarded classed among the greatest archaeologists not only in Sri Lanka, but perhaps in the world.: Through his research and his archaeological discoveries and writings, Paravithana distinguished himself

Dr. G.P. Malalasekara (1899-1973) was an orientalist of world fame, a foremost Buddhist leader in Sri Lanka, and a nationalist. He is the author of landmark-works in Lanka, Oriental literature, which include Pali Literature of Ceylon, English-Sinhala Dictionary, and The Buddha and his teachings.

Famous Kings and Statesmen in Sri Lanka

One of the great rulers of the Anuradhapura period was Dutugemunu ,who is famous for saving Sri Lanka from conquest by Indian invaders around 100 B.C.. Mahasen, a king in the A.D. third century, built many fine dagobas (shrines) and other monuments. The classic period of Ceylonese art flourished under Kassapa, a king of the 5th century. [Source: “Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations”, 2007]

The most famous political figures in Sri Lanka’s modern history have been Don Stephen Senanayake (1884–1952), leader of the independence movement; Solomon West Ridgway Dias Bandaranaike (1899–1959), prime minister from 1956 to 1959, regarded as the founder of Ceylon as a socialist state; Junius Richard Jayewardene (1906–1996), who helped usher in economic reforms and a free enterprise system, became Sri Lanka’s first president in 1978. [Source: “Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations”, 2007]

D.S.Senanayake is regarded as the father and founder of Sri Lanka. He steered the country to independence and it could be said that Sri Lanka's post-independence began with him. His most distinctive contribution to the nation was his agricultural policy, whereby he endeavored to transform the economy of the country by developing its vast agricultural resources. [Source: My Sri Lanka ]

S.W.R.D.Bandaranaike (1899-1959) is best remembered for his premiership from 1956 to 1959,which was the turning point in the political and social evolution of the post-independence ere in Sr Lanka.

J.R. Jayawardene (1906 — 1997) was the elder statesman, par excellence, of Sri Lanka. His government brought about a new era, in constitutional change to a presidential form of government, and the adoption of an open economy, which transformed the country.

Sirimavo Bandaranayake (1916 — ) made history as the world 's 1st woman prime minister. She was one of the members of the Non-Aligned Movement, in 1965. She has become a leader of international stature, on par with her distinguished husband, and received equal international recognition for statesmanship.

Philip Gunawardena (1901-1972) was one of the earliest nationalist, as well as socialist of our time and the founder of the LSSP. His politics on land reform are among his lasting monuments. S.J.V.Chelvanayakam (1898-1977) is remembered not only for his legal achievements and his dedication to the cause of the Tamil people, but also for his upright character, personal integrity, and his qualities of leadership. T.B.Jayah (1890-1976): is recognized as one of the most outstanding Muslim leaders of Sri Lanka. He promoted the interests of the Muslim community, particularly in the field of education. Sir John Kotelawala (1897-1977) became prime minister in 1953. He is remembered best for his dynamic and forceful nature, and for the impact which he made on the international scene at the time.

Timeline of Sri Lanka’s History

427 B.C. The legendary Sinhalese Prince Vijaya colonizes the north-central part of Sri Lanka. [Source: Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies, The Gale Group Inc., 2002]

250 B.C. The king of Anuradhapura, Devanpiya Tissa, embraces Buddhism.

210 B.C. Sinhala kingdom is invaded by Cholas from southern India and Elara becomes king.

161 B.C. King Dutthagamini defeats Elara and reestablishes Sinhala rule.

  1. Sinhala kingdom moves its capital to Polonnaruwa under King Vijayabahu I.

1232-1815. Sinhala kingdom moves south.

1371-1408. Dambadeniyan, Gampolan, and Kotten kingdoms.

1469-1815. Kandyan kingdom.

1521-1581. Sitawakan kingdom.

  1. The Portuguese capture the coastal belt and rule it until the Dutch oust them.

  2. The Dutch capture coastal areas.

  3. The British regain the coastal areas, displacing the Dutch.

  4. The British are invited by the Kandyan chiefs to usurp the king, gaining control. They maintain a colony in Sri Lanka until the 20th century.

  5. Sri Lanka gains political independence from the British on 4th February.

  6. The UNP is elected in Ceylon under the leadership of D. S. Senanayake.

  7. A coalition of parties (MEP) led by S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike is elected.

  8. The SLFP leader is assassinated and his widow becomes prime minister in 1960.

  9. The UNP regains power under the leadership of Dudley Senanayake.

  10. Sri Lanka becomes a republic, but retains membership in the British Commonwealth.

  11. The UNP, under the leadership of J. R. Jayawar-dane, comes to power.

  12. Jayawardane becomes the first president of Sri Lanka. Liberalization reforms begin.

  13. Riots in response to the ambush and killing of 13 Singhalese soldiers by Tamil Tigers.

  14. Military action launched against the Tamil Tigers, with help from India.

  15. R. Premadasa becomes the second president of Sri Lanka.

  16. Premadasa's authoritarian rule ends as he becomes a victim of the LTTE.

  17. Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and the Peoples Alliance gain political power.

  18. Kumaratunga wins a second term as president.

Greatness of Sri Lanka

According to the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau: “Much to the alarm of the post British historians and the followers of their schools of thought must note that Sri Lankan pre history is old, ancient and continuous as the beginnings of the world and thus branches the history and archaeology.” [Source: Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau ]

Architecture: British engineer Henry Parker wrote in “Ancient Ceylon” (1909): "The constructive and artistic genius of the Sinhalese race proceeded in the following century (i.e.2nd century B. C. E) to develop the design to an extent not found elsewhere. The most important examples erected in Ceylon are comparable with the greatest pyramids of Egypt. The two largest Dagobas at Anuradhapura surpass in contents, three exceeded in height all but the two enormous pyramids Khufru and Khafra at Gizeh" [Source: Ancient Ceylon, H. Parker, 262]

Literature: The German Orientalist Wilhelm Geiger wrote: "One of the greatest contributions of the Sinhalese people to the cultural development of South and South East Asia and to world literature is the creation of a historic literature. It is well-known that on the Indian sub continent before the invasion of the Islamic conquerors virtually no historic literature had developed... Sri Lanka tells a different story. In the Dipawansa and Mahawamsa and in various other Sinhalese texts, we are given an account of the political and cultural history of the island from earliest times until the present time" [Source: Wilhelm Geiger - His Life and Works, Heinz Bechert, 2nd ed]

Buddhist Bhikkhus (Monks): Rhys Davids (1843-1922) wrote: "Go and talk to the yellow robed and tonsured recluse - not of course through an interpreter, or out of a book of phrases: you must know not only his language but something of Buddhist ideas; and you must speak to him as man to man, not as the wise to the barbarian. You will certainly be courteous; for whatever else a Buddhist Bhikkhus may be, he will be sure to give proof of courtesy and a dignified demeanor. And it will be strange if you do not find a new world of thought and of feeling opening out before you." [Source: Rhys Davids, Prof of Pali in the University of London at Manchester during 1882-1904)]

In “Ancient Sinhalese Irrigation,” C. W. Nicholas wrote: “The ingenuity of the Sinhala irrigation engineers is best exemplified by the invention of the "bisokotuwa" which historically mean "queen’s enclosure" indicating "out of bounds". The Bisokotuwa is the same as the sluice gate, which functions in the regulation of the outward flow of water and is therefore essentially an invention made by the Sinhala irrigation engineers more than 2200 years ago, 1000 years before the rest of the world, and are considered to have built the most sophisticated irrigation systems in the world according to British excavation engineers. It has remained essentially unchanged since then. "it was this bisokotuwa invention alone which permitted the Sinhalese to proceed boldly with the construction of reservoirs that still rank among the finest work of its kind in the world" (Parker, 1981) Minneriya tank, was the first great rainwater reservoir ever constructed in the world, if the great lakes of Egypt, which are immense natural hollows into which streams were turned, are not considered. This was built by King Mahasena (276-303 A.D.) "Neither in the lands of their (i.e. of the Indo-Aryan settlers) origin nor in South India did there develop an irrigation system of the magnitude or the complexity of that which the Sinhalese afterwards constructed in Ceylon; nothing comparable and contemporaneous with the ancient dam, canal and tank system of Ceylon, mingling the water of rivers flowing in different directions is known in continental India" [Source: A Short Account of the History of Irrigation Works,C. W. Nicholas, JRASCB 1960, 43-69)]

Sri Lankan Firsts

First Hospital in the World: According to the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau: “The history of medical care began early, for in the fourth century B.C. King Pandukabhaya (437-366 B.C.), in the course of sanitizing the town constructed a Traditional Ayurvedic hospital. At Mihintale there is a ruin of a hospital for traditional Ayurveda medicine built in the A.D. ninth century A.D. In the fourth century A.D. King Upastissa the second provided quarters and homes for the crippled and the blind. King Buddhadasa (337-365 A.D.) himself a physician of great repute, appointed a physician to be in charge of every ten villages. For the maintenance of these physicians, one tenth of the income of the fields was set apart. He also set up refuges for the sick in every village. Physicians were also appointed to look after the animals. King Kasyapa the fifth (914-923 A.D.) founded a hospital close to the southern gate of Anuradhapura. General Sena in the tenth century is believed to have built a hospital close to the ceremonial street (Mangala Vidiya). [Source: Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau ]

Sri Maha Bodhi the Oldest Recorded Tree in the World: A sapling of the sacred Bo tree (Pipal – Ficus religiosa) in the shelter of which Prince Siddhartha Gautama attained supreme enlightenment and became Buddha (6th century B.C.) was brought to Sri Lanka by Buddhist nun Sanghamitta, as a gift from her father Mauryan Buddhist Indian Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century B.C. Today, the huge specimen of this Ficus religiosa has no rival to the claim of being the oldest historical tree (i.e. having the longest recorded written history) in the world. It has been protected by an uninterrupted series of Buddhist monks since it was planted.

World's First Museum: The world's first museum was built in Sri Lanka 2200 years ago. It housed the parts of the ship that brought the Bodhi sapling to Sri Lanka from India in 3rd century B.C. Sri Maha Bodhi (Sacred Bo-Tree).

World's First Recorded Wildlife and Nature Reserve: Sri Lanka was the setting - Mihintale being the site - of the world's first recorded (247 B.C.) wildlife and nature reserve, established by King Devanapiyatissa, a convert to conservationism deeply influenced as he was by the inspirational message of the Buddha imparted to him by Arahant Mahinda. Further evidence of this deep-rooted concern for wildlife and the commitment to conservation is found in an inscription engraved on a stone slab at Anuradhapura's majestic millennia-old Golden Sand Stupa. The inscription attributed to the 12th Century King Nissankamalla of Polonnaruwa, forbid the capture, killing or commercial trafficking of any animals, birds and fish within a radius of 7gauvas (4 miles) from the city. References to royal protection and preservation of wildlife are extant throughout the Mahawamsa and this traditional care and concern for creatures of the wild continues to this day.

Oldest Steel Plant in the World: The earliest evidence of steel making in the ancient world, dating back to 300 B.C., has been found in the Samanalawewa reservoir area. In comparison, England's first steel making occurred in 1491. The early furnaces were ingeniously powered by natural draught-the monsoon winds-rather than the forced draught (bellow-operated) method employed elsewhere. Recent excavations found the ruins of a steel plant (built circa 300 B.C.) manned solely by wind power. Sri Lanka did indeed export high quality steel to Persia to make the famed Persian swords.

Ancient Greatness of Sri Lanka

Elephants of Ancient Lanka: The excellence of elephants of Sri Lanka was well known to the Greeks as far as back on 3rd century B.C., in the time of Alexander the Great. Onescritus, an admiral of the fleet of Alexander the great stated elephants of Lanka "are bigger, more fierce and furious for war than those of India" Greek writers Megasthenes (300 B.C.) and Aelian (44AD) corroborate this. Sixth century writer Cosmos Indicopleustes says that the elephants from Sri Lanka were highly priced in India for its excellence in war.

Ancient Maritime Sea Route (250 B.C.): In Topographia Christiana of the 6th century A.D., Sri Lanka is referred to as an important sea trade centre on the Maritime Silk Route. Sri Lanka is also mentioned in The Periplus Maris Erythraei, a guide to trade on the Red Sea and India, written by an author in Alexandria, supposed around 40 A.D. The Ancient Maritime Sea Route (250 B.C.) extended from Alexandria to China: Alexandria - Nabataean Kingdom - The Red Sea - Himyante Kingdom (Yemen) - The Arabian Sea - Satavahanos Kingdom (India) - Ruhuna Kingdom (Sri Lanka) - Malacca - Don Song Kingdom (Cambodia) - China.

Ancient Sinhalese Ships: At one time, the Sinhalese ships were the biggest at Shanghai harbour (Chinese records), and history records a time when the representative of the Sinhalese sat on the right hand side seat of Claudius Caesar.

Only Monument Built in Honour of a Fallen Enemy: Sri Lanka is the only country in the world known to have a monument built in honour of a fallen enemy (2nd century B.C.). Tamil invader Elara was killed in the heroic war by the Sinhala prince from Ruhuna who rose to become the hero of the nation. The victorious King Dutugemunu of Lanka decreed that anyone passing the monument pay homage to the dead king, he who, even though an invader. A Sinhalese aristocrat did so at the cost of his life as recent as 1815, while fleeing from the British who were at his heels. The ancient Sinhalese believed neither in being ruled by foreign powers nor the contrary. Whenever there were invaders, they were successfully overthrown, but once the kingdom was won back, these very same invaders were 'allowed to live as they pleased' (ancient inscriptions). The kings even built religious monuments for these very same invaders, some of which exist to this day. The ancient concept of tolerance of the Sinhalese has been inspired by the gentle sway of Buddhism.

Sinhalese and Tamils

Predominately Buddhist Sinhalese make up about 75 percent of Sri Lanka’s population. Tamils have traditionally been Hindus. The largest minorities on the island are Sri Lankan Tamils (11.2 percent of the population), predominately Muslim Sri Lankan Moors (9.2 percent), Indian Tamils (4.2 percent) and other 0.5 percent. There are Christians among both groups Sinhalese and Tamils as well as mixed-blood Europeans, Malays and aboriginal Veddas. The Moors include Muslim descendants of Arab traders but mostly are descendants of Tamils and to a lesser extent Sinhalese. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2012 estimate, Time Magazine]

Sri Lanka’s history, and the complexity of its society, is at least partly rooted in the reality that Sinhalese and Tamil Sri Lankans were fated by history and geography to coexist in close proximity. This coexistence could be discordant or amicable, and examples of both could be drawn from Sri Lanka's history. This message, however, was lost when the ethnic communities were drawn increasingly into a vortex of rancor and violence beginning in earnest in the early 1980s that made the restoration of harmony a persistently elusive goal for the Sri Lankan government for decades.

During the colonial period and the early years of Sri Lankan independence the Sinhalese and Tamils got along reasonably well or at least didn’t have any overt animosity towards one another. After independence in 1948, the Sinhalese felt that their greater numbers entitled them to more rights and powers. As time went on they began to resent the relatively egalitarian arrangement set up by the British. The relationship between the Sinhalese and Tamils began to disintegrate in 1956 when the Sinhalese used their numbers to elect Solomon W.R.D. Bandaranaike as prime minister. Bandaranaike was a populist who changed the careful balanced British policy to favor the Sinhalese.

Bandaranaike made Sinhala the official language of Sri Lanka and the language of the government and promised to give uneducated Sinhalese a more active role in the government. Tamils were required to learn Sinhalese and use it in schools rather than their own language. The British-educated Tamil government elite was thrown out in the cold. The "Sinhala only" policy placed Tamils in the position of quickly learning the Sinhalese or lose their the jobs. They resented this.

Some of the first actions taken by the new SLFP government in 1956 reflected a disturbing insensitivity to minority concerns. Shortly after its victory, the new government presented parliament with the Official Language Act, which declared Sinhala the one official language. The act was passed and immediately caused a reaction among Tamils, who perceived their language, culture, and economic position to be under attack. Before this English was the national language in part because it was not the native language of a particularly ethnic group. One Sri Lankan man told National Geographic, "When we rejected English as our national language, we went from the solution to the problem." [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988]

Who Was the First in Sri Lanka: the Tamils or the Sinhalese

Sri Lanka claims the world's second oldest continuous written history - but history and religious mythology have played a key role in the development of communal animosity. In particular, there is controversy over whether Tamils or Sinhalese were first on the island. [Source: BBC, 16 May, 2000]

The first Sinhalese are said to be Aryans (Indo-Europeans) who arrived in Sri Lanka late in the 6th century B.C., probably from northern India. Buddhism was introduced circa 250 B.C., and the first kingdoms developed at the cities of Anuradhapura (from circa 200 B.C. to circa A.D. 1000) and Polonnaruwa (from about 1070 to 1200). In the 14th century, a south Indian dynasty established a Tamil kingdom in northern Sri Lanka. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

Much of what is known about ancient and medieval Sri Lanka — as well as a lot about ancient and medieval India — is based on the historical chronicles, the “Mahavamsa” (“Great Chronicles”), which describes the history of the Sinhalese beginning with the arrival of the first settlers from northern India in the 6th century B.C. The Sinhalese claim descent from the Aryan settlers from north India, who displaced the Veddas from their territory. Aryan tribes from northern are believed to have arrived in Sri Lanka from southern India around 500 B.C. Some believe that they came from an area currently part of West Bengal and Bangladesh. Prince Vijaya is said to have founded the first Sinhalese dynasty.

There are some people that say the first Tamils were brought to Sri Lanka by the British in the 19th century to pick to tea leaves. Although some arrived then under those circumstances, the true story of the Tamils is much longer and more complicated. The Tamils are a Dravidian people from southern India. It is not known when they first arrived in Sri Lanka. It seems plausible that Tamil fishermen and mariners arrived at a very early date because the southern Indian homeland of the Tamils is so close to northern Sri Lanka (only about 32 kilometers away).

Because the Mahavamsa is essentially a chronicle of the early Sinhalese-Buddhist royalty on the island, it does not provide information on the island's early ethnic distributions. There is, for instance, only scant evidence as to when the first Tamil settlements were established. Tamil literary sources, however, speak of active trading centers in southern India as early as the third century B.C. and it is probable that these centers had at least some contact with settlements in northern Sri Lanka. There is some debate among historians as to whether settlement by Indo-Aryan speakers preceded settlement by Dravidian-speaking Tamils, but there is no dispute over the fact that Sri Lanka, from its earliest recorded history, was a multiethnic society. Evidence suggests that during the early centuries of Sri Lankan history there was considerable harmony between the Sinhalese and Tamils. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalism

According to the Encyclopedia of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, 2005] The misconception among Sinhalese that Sri Lanka was the last refuge of Buddhism was a further factor in the growth of ethnic hostility especially by Sinhala toward Tamils. British rule was regarded as instrumental in the reduction of the preeminence of the Buddhist religion. Sinhala nationalism from the late nineteenth century to the 2000s was largely motivated by a movement of Buddhist revitalization (linked to a reassertion of the value of Sinhala custom) against the effects of colonial domination. This was keenly supported by members of the urban merchant classes situated along the western and southern coasts. [Source: Encyclopedia of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, 2005]

“The various caste-based communities that formed around members of these classes were and continue to be forceful in the pursuit of Sinhala interests defined in opposition to Tamils. The engagement of religion (specifically Buddhism) to nationalist ethnic allegiance is a key factor in generating the passions of the conflict. It politicized the Buddha clergy, making them central to ethnically defined communal political and economic interest (a legacy of the revitalization movement that paradoxically made a doctrinally other worldly religion acutely this worldly). The assassination in 1959 of Prime Minister Bandaranaike, the chief architect of Sinhala ethnic nationalism, by a member of the Buddha clergy, is significant in this regard. In 1972 Bandaranaike's widow, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the then-elected prime minister, declared Buddhism to be the national religion.

“The hostility of mainly ethnic Sinhala majority toward the Tamil ethnic minority has its roots in colonial and postcolonial history. The ethnic categories and their political significance arose during the course of Western imperial intrusions into the island, known as Ceylon from the colonial era and until 1972, and especially under the British who subdued the entire island with their conquest of Kandy in 1815. Ethnic identity became a marker of cultural and social distinction in a colonial political order whose rigidity that was not typical of Ceylon's past. As various scholars have stressed, terms like "Sinhala" and "Tamil" used in ancient precolonial sources often described ruling lineages and structures of political allegiance that were often very fluid. The kings who defended largely Sinhala-speaking populations during the Western invasions (Portuguese, Dutch, and finally the British) were of Tamil lineage from South India. With colonial rule, ethnic distinctions served bureaucratic and governing interests and the social boundaries described ethnically became far less porous and situationally relative than before. Such ethnic boundaries informed the formation of constituencies of political interest and nationalist resistance leading to Independence in 1947 and the burgeoning of postcolonial nationalism.

“Ethnically based political rhetoric of a powerfully nationalist kind further bolstered by appeals to common language and religious affiliation was integral in the formation of political communalism. Moreover, political parties in the postcolonial period expressed a variety of socioeconomic concerns and felt inequalities under cover of debates over ethnicity. The language issue was of supreme importance in the years following independence, when Sinhala (swabasha) became the main language of the state. The policy of Sinhala-only was promulgated by Prime Minister Solomon West Ridgeway Dias (SWRD) Bandaranaike in order to appeal to a largely Sinhalese-speaking peasantry and the lower middle class and working class in the central, western, and southern regions of the island. English, the language of colonialism, was generally seen as a means of exclusion, only available to educated elites and inhibiting the opportunities for employment and upward social mobility of hitherto depressed groups. Tamils were widely perceived as advantaged in the job market (especially in access to the professions and highly prized positions in government bureaucracies) because they were seen as better qualified in their English-speaking abilities (to some degree a legacy of missionary activity in the Tamil north). The postcolonial politics of language intensified ethnic division. Ethnically motivated restrictions on Tamil access to university places (especially in medicine) and to positions in the civil service were a major source of discontent among Tamils from the 1970s.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Sri Lanka Tourism (, Government of Sri Lanka (, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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