According to the “Mahavamasa,” a text written by a Buddhist monks in A.D. 500, the Sinhalese (the Buddhist people who make up 75 percent of Sri Lanka’s population) descended from Prince Vijaya, an Aryan prince exiled from northern Saudi Arabia in about 500 B.C. and the Tamils (the mostly Hindu people who make 11 percent of the population) did not arrived until 200 years later. This was the view accepted by the British and is still taught in schools. The archaeological and historical evidence that supports this is shaky at best. Archaeological evidence suggests that Tamil-like people were living in northern Sri Lanka before 500 B.C. The Sri Lankan government halted archaeological work in the north in the 1980s when the war started. [Source: Jeremy Page, The Times, April 2010]

Sri Lanka has been inhabited since the Stone Age and some say that it was home of the biblical city Tarshish. Among the earliest inhabitants of Sri Lanka were Vedas, nomadic hunter-gatherers that may have arrived as early as 12,000 years ago. They make up a small monority today.

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.

Sinhalese settlers from India forced the native Veddahs into the mountains. Some Veddahs remain in remote regions. The Sinhalese founded Anuradhapura in 437 B.C., which acted as their capital and a centre of Theravada Buddhism, until the arrival of the Tamils in the 8th century A.D. In the 11th century, the southern-India-based Chola dynasty conquered the island of Sri Lanka and the Sinhalese were gradually forced southward

Ancient Indian and Sri Lankan myths and chronicles have been studied intensively and interpreted widely for their insight into the human settlement and philosophical development of the island. Confirmation of the island's first colonizers — whether the Sinhalese or Sri Lankan Tamils — has been elusive, but evidence suggests that Sri Lanka has been, since earliest times, a multiethnic society. Sri Lankan historian K.M. de Silva believes that settlement and colonization by Indo-Aryan speakers may have preceded the arrival of Dravidian settlers by several centuries, but that early mixing rendered the two ethnic groups almost physically indistinct. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988]

Buddhist Chronicles and the Legendary Origins of Sri Lanka

The first major legendary reference to the island is found in the great Indian epic, the Ramayana (Sacred Lake of the Deeds of Rama), thought to have been written around 500 B.C. The Ramayana tells of the conquest of Lanka in 3000 B.C. by Rama, an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. Rama's quest to save his abducted wife, Sita, from Ravanna, the demon god of Lanka, and his demon hordes, is, according to some scholars, a poetic account of the early southward expansion of Brahmanic civilization. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988]

The most valuable source of knowledge for scholars probing the legends and historical heritage of Sri Lanka is still the Mahavamsa (Great Genealogy or Dynasty), a chronicle compiled in Pali, the language of Theravada Buddhism, in the A.D. sixth century. Buddhist monks composed the Mahavamsa, which was an adaptation of an earlier and cruder fourth century epic, the Dipavamsa (Island Genealogy or Dynasty). The latter account was compiled to glorify Buddhism and is not a comprehensive narrative of events. The Mahavamsa, however, relates the rise and fall of successive Buddhist kingdoms beginning with Vijaya, the legendary colonizer of Sri Lanka and primogenitor of the Sinhalese migrant group.

According to the “Mahavamsa,” the first group of 500 northern Indians to arrive in Sri Lanka was led by the legendary hero, Prince Vijaya, who was reportedly born from the union of a lion and a Hindu princess. In the Mahavamsa, Vijaya is described as having arrived on the island on the day of the Buddha's death (parinibbana) or, more precisely, his nirvana or nibbana, his release from the cycle of life and pain. The Mahavamsa also lavishes praise on the Sinhalese kings who repulsed attacks by Indian Tamils.

Vijaya, according to the Mahavamsa, was the grandson of an Indian princess from Vanga in northern India who had been abducted by an amorous lion, Simha, and son of their incestuous and half-leonine offspring. Along with 700 of his followers, Vijaya arrived in Lanka and established himself as ruler with the help of Kuveni, a local demon-worshiping princess. Although Kuveni had betrayed her own people and had given birth to two of Vijaya's children, she was banished by the ruler, who then arranged a marriage with a princess from Madurai in southeastern India. Kuveni's offspring are the folkloric ancestors of the present day Veddahs, an aboriginal people now living in scattered areas of eastern Sri Lanka. Many scholars believe that the legend of Vijaya provides a glimpse into the early settlement of the island. Around the fifth century B.C., the first bands of Sri Lankan colonists are believed to have come from the coastal areas of northern India. The chronicles support evidence that the royal progeny of Vijaya often sought wives from the Pandyan and other Dravidian (Tamil) kingdoms of southern India. The chronicles also tell of an early and constant migration of artisan and mercantile Tamils to Sri Lanka.

From the fifth century A.D onward, periodic palace intrigues and religious heresies weakened Buddhist institutions leaving Sinhalese-Buddhist culture increasingly vulnerable to successive and debilitating Tamil invasions. A chronicle, a continuation of the Mahavamsa, describes this decline. The main body of this chronicle, which assumed the less than grandiloquent title Culavamsa (Lesser Genealogy or Dynasty), was attributed to the thirteenth century poet-monk, Dhammakitti. The Culavamsa was later expanded by another monk the following century and, concluded by a third monk in the late eighteenth century.

First Humans Found in Sri Lanka

The earliest remains of anatomically modern man, dated to 34,000 years before present based on radiocarbon dating of charcoal, was been found in the Fa Hien Cave in western Sri Lanka. Fa-Hien cave is one of the largest natural caves in South. Asia. Also known as Pahiyangala, it is over 46 meters (150 feet) in height and 86 meters (282 feet) long, In June 2020 research carried out by the Max Planck Institute, Griffith University in Australia, and the Department of Archaeology of the government of Sri Lanka, showed that occupants of the Fa-Hien Lena cave had developed bow and arrow technology by 48,000 years ago. This is the oldest use of this technology outside of Africa. [Source: Wikipedia]

There are some claims that pre-historic hominid stone tools — possibly from homo erectus — were found at Iranamadu and they may be 300,000 years old but these claims are generally not accepted. Pathirajawela near Ambalantota. in the deep south of Sri Lanka is said to be the home of a settlement prehistoric people that lived in Sri Lanka about 125,000 years go. These people made Middle Palaeolithic tools of quartz and chert found by a student from Bundala Central School. Some questions have been raised about the dates. [Source: ]

S. U. Deraniyagala, Director-General of Archaeology, Sri Lanka, wrote: “There is secure evidence of settlements in Sri Lanka by 130,000 years ago, probably by 300,000 BP [before present] and possibly by 500,000 BP or earlier. During the last one million years, when humans are known to have existed in various parts of India (v. Mishra 1995), Sri Lanka was connected to the sub-continent on numerous occasions. The rise and fall of sea level (due to cold/warm fluctuations in the global climate) determined the periodicities of these connections, the last separation having occurred at ca. 7000 BP (Deraniyagala 1992: 167). Hence it is impossible to view Sri Lankan prehistory in isolation from India. It is very likely that the first settlers from India had reached Sri Lanka at least as early as one million years ago - perhaps earlier. So far, evidence on this score has not been forthcoming, but this need not signify that there were no humans in Sri Lanka at that period. Environmentally there would have been no hindrance whatsoever to hominid settlement, in terms of both accessibility and exploitable food and water.”

Early Human Settlements in Sri Lanka

S. U. Deraniyagala, Director-General of Archaeology, Sri Lanka, wrote: “By about 125,000 BP it is certain that there were prehistoric settlements in Sri Lanka (ibid.: 686). The evidence stems from excavations conducted in coastal deposits near Bundala.These people made tools of quartz (and a few on chert) which are assignable to a Middle Palaeolithic complex (ibid.: 252-4,458,688). Apart from such tools, no other vestiges of their culture have survived the ravages of time and tropical weathering: we do not know what these people looked like, although it can be guessed that they were early Homo sapiens sapiens akin to anatomically modern South Asians. Even the sizes of their settlements are not known due to the limited scale of the evaluation excavations; surface indications are ca.50 square metres or less per site. That they lived by hunting and gathering is obvious and it is probable that this conformed to the pattern discernible in the activities of their descendants some 100,000 years later.

“From about 34,000 BP onwards the prehistoric record is very much more complete. The information stems from a series of cave excavations in the lowland Wet Zone: Fa Hien Lena near Bulathsinhala (34,000?5400 C14 BP), Batadomba-lena near Kuruwita (28,500-11,500 C14 BP), Beli-lena at Kitulgala (over27,000-3500 C14 BP), Alu-lena at Attanagoda near Kegalle (10,500 C14 BP). These data are supplemented by those from the open-air site of Bellan-bandi Palassa near Embilipitiya (6500 TL BP). The dating is based primarily on radiocarbon assays on charcoal, checked independently against thermoluminescence dating in the case of Beli-lena. There are over 50 such dates from various contexts at these sites and the chronological framework may be pronounced secure.”

At an excavation in Ratnapura District, dated to 80,000 years ago, archaeologists found the remains of a hippopotamus with six incisor teeth, a rhinoceros, and a lion. Along with these animal remains, stone artefacts comprising, typically, large choppers and flakes of quartz and chert, have been found. However, apart from a human calotte from a gem pit near Ellawala, no human remains have been discovered yet from the Ratnapura.

Human remains dated to 30,000 years ago were found at Batadomba Lena near Kuruwita. According to the Sri Lanka tourism website: These remains, and the following Beli-lena and Bellan Bendi Palassa, have been subjected to detailed analysis. These anatomically modern prehistoric humans in Sri Lanka are referred to as Balangoda Man. Some males were 174 centimeters tall, and some females were 166 centimeters tall. This is considerably taller than the present-day Sri Lankans. The bones also are robust. They had thick skull-bones and prominent brow-ridges, depressed noses, heavy jaws and short necks. The teeth were conspicuously large. Balangoda Man's features are regarded as the typical original Lankan features.

Balabgoda Man may have been related to the Veddas of Sri Lanka, the Kadar, Malapantaram and Chenchus of India, the Andaman lslanders and the Semang of Malaysia. Discovery of marine shells in inland sites such as Batadomba-lena, points to trade or at least a network of contacts between the coast and the inland. Balangoda Man buried their dead underneath under their camps. Certain bones were selected for burials. At Ravana Ella cave and Fa Hien Lena, red ocher was smeared on the bones. Geometric microliths (believed to be first used by the Europeans in 12,500 B.C.) are found at the 30,000-year-old Balangoda Man site at in Batadomba Lena. These microliths (stone tools) are small (less than 4 cm long) flakes of quartz and sometimes chert fashioned into stylised lunate, triangular and trapezoidal forms. There is evidence from Beli-lena that salt was been brought in from the coast at a date in excess of 27,000 B.C.

Early Agriculture, Domesticated Animals and Metallurgy in Sri Lanka

The skeletal remains of dogs from Nilgala cave and from Bellanbandi Palassa, dating to around 4500 B.C., suggest that people living there may have kept domestic dogs, possibly for hunting and chasing game. The Sinhala Hound is similar in appearance to the Kadar Dog, the New Guinea Dog and the dingo, suggesting they may have come from a common ancestor. It is also possible that people living at this time may have domesticated jungle fowl, pig, water buffalo and some form of Bos ( a kind of cattle that became extinct in the 1940s). [Source: Wikipedia, with a lack of citations and firm evidence,]

Prehistoric people appear to have been responsible for creating Horton Plains, in the central hills, by burning the trees in order to catch game. There is some evidence that hunts of possible incipient management of oats and barley by about 15,000 B.C. Evidence from Horton Plains indicates the existence of agriculture by about 8000 B.C., including herding of Bos and cultivation of oats and barley. Excavations in the cave of Dorawaka-kanda near Kegalle indicate the use about 4300 BC of pottery, together with stone stools, and possibly cereal cultivation.

At the 17,000-year-old site of Suriya Kanda near Embilipitiya, scientists found female body parts, needles made of rabbit bones, and necklace made of a plastic-like see-thru material. Food plant and animal remains found in and around this site indicate people living 8,500 years ago consumed nuts, wild breadfruit and wild bananas and a variety of animals, including elephants, snakes, rats, snails and small fish.

A shell midden at the 7,00-year-old Pallemala site has fireplaces, grinding stones, burial rooms, rough clothing. Here pre-historic people set up a and lived, hunted and fished for food and buried their dead in a folded position where the knees and elbows had been folded towards the body. The presence of a burial site with the skull of a wild boar with its tusks intact, next to a human skull suggest some kind of a burial ritual. In Sinhalese folk traditions, Mahasona has been depicted as having the head of a boar. Veddas still have this practice as the ‘Kirikoraha’ ceremony, using the head of a boar, and offering tribute to Kande Yaka, the Veddas god of hunting.

There is evidence of large town- or village-like settlements dated to 4500 B.C.. A boat, dated to 3500 B.C., able to carry over 150 passengers, was found on Attanagalla Oya. Slag found at Mantai dated to about 1800 B.C. could indicate the knowledge of copper-working. The earliest iron dates to around 1,000 B.C.. Cinnamon, which is native to Sri Lanka, was in use in Ancient Egypt in about 1500 B.C. The earliest evidence of writing has been dated to around 900 B.C.

Early Iron Age

S. U. Deraniyagala Director-General of Archaeology, Sri Lanka wrote: The protohistoric Early Iron Age appears to have established itself in South India by at least as early as 1,200 B.C., if not earlier (Possehl 1990; Deraniyagala 1992:734). The earliest manifestation of this in Sri Lanka is radiocarbon dated to ca. 1000-800 B.C. at Anuradhapura and Aligala shelter in Sigiriya (Deraniyagala 1992:709-29; Karunaratne and Adikari 1994:58; Mogren 1994:39; the Anuradhapura dating is now corroborated by Coningham 1999). It is very likely that further investigations will push back the Sri Lankan lower boundary to match that of South India.

“The settlement at Anuradhapura exceeded 10 hectares in extent by ca. 800 B.C., and it was at least 50 ha by ca. 700-600 B.C. and thus already a ’town’ (Deraniyagala 1992:Addendum I; cf. Allchin 1989:3). So far no other settlements of the Early Iron Age have been located in Sri Lanka (with the exception of the very small-scale deposit within the rock-shelter at Aligala). Potential sites are Kandarodai, Matota (Mantai), Kelaniya and Tissamaharama; but the evidence has yet to surface (Deraniyagala 1992:730-2,735).

“The ’Megalithic’ Early Iron Age mortuary complex of Sri Lanka (Seneviratne 1984) is akin to that of peninsular India. It falls primarily, within the protohistoric period, as indicated by its radiocarbon age of 750-400 B.C. at the only site to have been dated, Ibbankatuwa (v. Bandaranayake and Kilian in Deraniyagala 1992:734). The place of this mortuary trait within the overall Early Iron Age culture in Sri Lanka is as yet indeterminate. It is noteworthy that these cemeteries do not have contemporaneous settlements associated with them, for instance at Ibbankatuwa (Karunaratne 1994). In India this situation prevails at most localities (Deo 1985 cited in Kennedy 2000:356). Conversely, the Early Iron Age settlement at Anuradhapura does not have a Megalithic cemetery to which it can even remotely be linked. The Megalithic mortuary complex could possibly have been associated with just a special group of people, such as pastoralists, on the periphery of those who occupied Anuradhapura (cf. Leshnik 1974). What this signifies is that the Megalithic mortuary trait is but a discrete facet of the protohistoric Early Iron Age culture complex of India which had its distribution from the Gangetic valley down to Sri Lanka with regional variations. Hence it is misleading to refer to a Megalithic culture, as several scholars are apt to, since this mortuary trait is not necessarily a concomitant of the Early Iron Age of peninsular India or Sri Lanka.

“Similarly, the BRW ceramic tradition, which characterises much of the subcontinent’s Early Iron Age (except in the northwest) is not confined to the Megalithic mortuary facies in peninsular India, a point that is frequently overlooked. There is a tendency to equate BRW with the Megalithic complex on a one-to-one basis, thereby distorting the basis of interpretations from the outset. It is important, therefore, that the nature of this interrelationship between (a) the total Early Iron Age complex of the sub-continent, (b) its BRW ceramic complex and (c) the Megalithic cemetery complex in southern India and Sri Lanka be kept clearly in mind, so as to avoid confusion in interpreting the archaeological record (Deraniyagala 1992:734). The Sri Lankan data need to be interpreted against the backdrop of the total sub-continental Early Iron Age, since medium- to long-range cultural diffusion appears to have been prevalent.

The biological anthropology of Early Iron Age man in Sri Lanka is distinct from that of Balangoda Man, although the evidence from the only Megalithic site to have been assayed, Pomparippu, suggests a certain degree of miscegenation 6 . This could have occurred considerably prior to 500 B.C. (and after Bellan-bandi Palassa at ca. 4,500 B.C.) (Kennedy in Begley et al. 1981; Deraniyagala 1992:736; Hawkey 1998). What attracted these people who intruded on the scene at this early date? It is probable that the agricultural potential of Sri Lanka, notably its abundant supplies of water, with iron technology to subjugate the dense equatorial rainforest and heavy soils, was a major factor. Other attractions could have been the pearl banks in the northwest of the island (for Early Historic v. Mahroof 1992:110), the major copper ore source at Seruvila (Seneviratne 1994) and the island's location as an entrepôt for long-distance trade between Southeast Asia and West Asia 7 . Thereafter, Sri Lanka's attraction for settlers from further afield than South India appears to have gained rapidly. This swell coincided with the so-called Second Urbanisation of the Indo-Gangetic Plain (v. Allchin 1995). As mentioned earlier, Anuradhapura was at least 10 ha in extent by ca. 900 B.C. (perhaps much more). and by 700-500 B.C. it exceeded 50 ha. The phenomenon of the Indian Second Urbanisation would appear to have manifested itself unexpectedly early in Sri Lanka, either through rapid stimulus diffusion, or convergent evolution due to a stimulus from further afield such as long-distance trade, or (more likely) a combination of both.”

Smelters Made High-Grade Steel in Sri Lanka in 300 B.C.

Some of the earliest evidence of steel making in the ancient world, dating back to 300 B.C., has been found in the Samanalawewa reservoir area. John Noble Wilford wrote in the New York Times: “Every year from June to September, powerful monsoon winds blow steadily off the Indian Ocean, lashing the slopes of the hills and ridges of Sri Lanka facing the southwest. The winds dump torrents of rain on parts of the country, while leaving the rest blow-dried. In the dry region of Samanalawewa, archeologists have found surprising evidence that the monsoon was a driving force stoking South Asia's pre-eminence in steel production in the first millennium A.D. [Source: John Noble Wilford, New York Times, February 6, 1996]

“British and Sri Lankan archeologists have identified there the ruins of 41 iron-smelting furnaces that appeared to take advantage of the prevailing wind to produce high-carbon steel through a previously unknown technology. Tests with replicas of those furnaces revealed the principle underlying the technology — using natural wind-pressure to create a dependable draft for keeping charcoal fires smelting hot — and demonstrated its ability to produce substantial amounts of quality steel.

“By the time most of these types of furnaces were operating, from the 7th to 11th centuries A.D., iron was being produced through much of the world, as well as steel, which is an alloy of iron and carbon from the charcoal. But the most prized and widely traded were the steels of India and Sri Lanka, their qualities praised in Islamic literature. Some of these furnaces could have been sources of steel for the legendary Damascus swords, known for their sharpness and durability.

“Describing the new findings in a interview by telephone from London, Gill Juleff, a British archeologist who directs the Samanalawewa excavations for the Sri Lanka Archeological Department, said, "This is the earliest dated evidence from the field for the production of high-carbon steel in South Asia." A survey of the region, she said, identified 139 iron-working sites spanning 2,000 years, at least one possibly dating back to the third century B.C. Judging by the number and nature of the wind-powered furnaces, this innovative technology could have sustained an industry producing at least 10 tons of steel a year, a tremendous output for the time.

“In a report last month in the journal Nature, Ms. Juleff, who is also a graduate student at the Institute of Archeology at University College, London, wrote: "Indications are that the industry, clearly successful, well organized and probably centrally controlled, was not restricted to Samanalawewa, but extended into adjoining areas. Having reached a zenith in the ninth century, the industry disappears from the archeological record in the eleventh century, probably as a result of incursions from South India, which brought political and demographic upheaval, and eventually the end of Sri Lanka's Dry Zone civilization." Dr. Vincent C. Pigott, a specialist in the archeology of metallurgy at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, praised Ms. Juleff's research. "This is a major step forward for archeometallurgy," he said. Another specialist in the field, Thelma Lowe, an archeologist and metallurgist at the University of California at Berkeley, said the research was "a terrific job of scientific interpretation."

A. Denis N. Fernando wrote: Iron played a key role in the development of our Ancient Hydraulic Civilization and recording of our epigraphical rock inscriptions in the B.C Period, which was common place. It might also be interesting to note that the technique to converting iron ore to high quality steel was known and recorded by Ananda Coomaraswamy by a tribe of people called Yammano using middle eastern technology at Balangoda which was in high demand and was exported for the fabrication of prised swords.” [Source: A. Denis N. Fernando, Fellow National Academy of Science, Recipient of Ananda Coomaraswamy Memorial Medal 1999]

We also know that geology particularly rock outcrops played a key role in Ancient times in the location of irrigation structures like Dam sites, spill sites and diversion canals. For example two dykes of relatively soft rocks on the out crops on either side of the Sorabora Dam, were used for the sluices, while even today when we locate sluices in renovation of large dams, we rediscover old sluices at those very intended sites. The Ancients were also fully aware of unfavourable geology in the Miocene lime stone belt.

Ancient Smelter Used to 2,300-Year-Old Steel in Sri Lanka

John Noble Wilford wrote in the New York Times: “All furnaces for smelting generate and maintain their high temperatures by relying on a constant supply of oxygen to feed the flames. Blast furnaces in today's steel industry use pumps to produce oxygen-enriched air. The earliest metalsmiths puffed on reed blowpipes to feed drafts of air into a fire burning under a clay crucible filled with metal ore. [Source: John Noble Wilford, New York Times, February 6, 1996]

The use of bellows to force a draft into a shaft furnace is usually regarded as the pinnacle of early smelting technology. Natural-draft furnaces for smelting were generally discounted as being inefficient and unreliable, because of the vagaries of the winds. But the objection, Ms. Juleff noted, was based on "the tacit assumption that the action of the wind would emulate that of bellows — that is, by blowing directly into the furnace — and that gusting and calms, no matter how short, would produce an uncontrollable system."

“What she and the other archeologists found in the ruins of those west-facing hills of Samanalawewa were furnaces based on a different application of natural wind. Their survey was begun in 1988 as part of preparations for a hydroelectric dam project that is to flood much of the area. The archeologists examined in detail 41 furnace structures at 77 smelting sites and estimated that the area probably had 3,000 smelters at one time.

“From these studies, Ms. Juleff determined that the clay furnaces were about six feet long and less than two feet tall, with a low chimney. The furnace's rear wall appeared to be semipermanent, but the front wall, constructed between two upright stones, appeared to be rebuilt after each smelt. As she constructed two furnaces based on evidence from the ruins, Ms. Juleff realized how the monsoon wind was used to maintain a high-temperature fire.

“Wind close to ground level, flowing upslope, would reach maximum acceleration at the crest of the hill, where it encountered the furnace. As the wind was forced over the front wall, it separated into two layers. The wind passing over the opening atop the furnace created a zone of low pressure, which caused a draft sucking air into the furnace chamber through conduits in the front wall. Air circulation patterns were such that the highest temperatures and best smelting conditions were concentrated just inside the front wall. There the molten iron would be separated from its ore.

“In trials with replica furnaces built on the slopes, Ms. Juleff said the method produced steady temperatures sufficient to melt iron to a certain extent — better than many bellows operations, not as well as blast furnaces. And this technology would presumably have been more cost-effective because it did not require many people operating bellows. She said she planned further tests using wind tunnels. "But we already know, the furnace did work and it did make steel," she said. Much of the steel, she reported, "is relatively slag-free and predominantly high in carbon, and can be classed as high-carbon steel." Of the demonstration tests with the replica furnaces, Dr. Pigott of the University of Pennsylvania said Ms. Juleff had demonstrated the concept of the natural-wind furnaces "as solidly as a scholar could." He suggested that further explorations would probably prove that the practice of this smelting technique in antiquity extended far beyond Sri Lanka.”

Early Historic Period of Sri Lanka

Around 600-500 B.C., the first appearance of Brahmi writing (almost identical to the Ashokan script of India some 200 years later) heralds the commencement of the Early Historic period . S. U. Deraniyagala, Director-General of Archaeology, Sri Lanka, wrote: “This writing, radiocarbon dated on charcoal and checked by thermoluminescence dating, is inscribed on potsherds signifying ownership. Among the names was Anuradha, which, coincidentally or otherwise, is stated in the ancient chronicles to have been the name of a minister of prince Vijaya, the purported 'founder' leader of the Sinhalese, at ca. 500 BC.

“The new chronology for the beginnings of writing has thus revolutionised our concept of the lower boundary of the historical period of South Asia (for revised periodisation v. ibid.: 714). It has pushed it back by at least two centuries - into the times of the Buddha. Coeval with the first appearance of writing at Anuradhapura is the rise of new pottery forms (such as Early Historic Black and Red Ware) and wares (eg, a medium-fine grey ware, possibly a North Indian import), mutisalah red glass beads (for North India 600-400 B.C. v. Basa 1992: 97) and what appear to be writing styli made of bone (Deraniyagala 1992: 714). One suspects a pan-lndia wave of cultural impulses that manifested itself in these material transformations. It is possible that some long-distance migrations, as evinced in the legend of Prince Vijaya's arrival in Sri Lanka from North India, were concomitant to this phenomenon.

“The earliest (600-500 B.C.) inscriptions on pottery at Anuradhapura, whenever adequately complete to be linguistically diagnostic, are in Indo-Aryan Prakrit. This situation is repeated in the earliest inscriptions found in Megalithic Kodumanal, and possibly in the lowermost levels of Arikamedu as well, in South India (ibid.: 745-6; Casal 1949; Rajan 1990). So far none of them are in Dravidian. If appears to corroborate the view that Indo-Aryan was pre-dominant from at least as early as 500 B.C. in Sri Lanka, as affirmed in the chronicles concerning an Aryan impulse associated withVijaya. The views of Parpola (1984; 1988; v. Deraniyagala 1992: 749-8) are relevant in this regard. They are bold and provocative, and they merit serious consideration. He postulates long-distance southward migrations of ruling Indo-Aryan elites at ca. 500 B.C. and argues his case well.

“The prime mover for these impulses is difficult to isolate. The urban centres of the Ganges plains could well have constituted the nodes from which they went out, centrifugally, to be developed in the provinces and returned centrepetally to those original nodes as a feedback phenomenon, thus creating a relatively closed interactive system. On the other hand, one cannot discount the possibility of inputs at the same time from West Asia, the Mediterranean and China. It is probable that this latter aspect has been greatly underestimated. The idea of devising the Brahmi script might have arisen through contact with Semitic trading scripts from West Asia (Deraniyagala 1992: 744; note the passing reference above to postulated long distance trade during the protohistoric Early Iron Age extending into Southeast Asia and West Asia). Whatever the mechanism for the onset of urbanism in Sri Lanka, by 500 B.C. it was ready to accelerate into the Early Historic period. By the time of Emperor Ashoka in the third century B.C., the city of Anuradhapura was nearly 100 ha in extent (ibid.: 712-3), making it (on present estimates) the tenth largest city in India/Sri Lanka at that time and the largest south of Ujjain and Sisupalgarh, both in northern India (Allchin 1989: 3, 12). Buddhism had by then taken root as the formal belief system of the island and technologically the concept of irrigated agriculture, probably introduced during the Early Iron Age, developed into sophisticated and large-scale systems which served as the economic foundation of the correspondingly complex settlement configurations of the Early Historic period.”

Ancient Burials in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s North-Central and North-Western Regions are dotted with numerous burial sites that are believed to be well over 2000 years old'. These prehistoric and early historic sites have revealed two distinct burial customs, namely urn burials (where the dead were placed in huge urns and interred) and cist burials (where the ashes of the deceased were interred in large tombs hidden under the ground). [Source:]

An extensive urn burial site has been excavated at Pomparippu about 6 kilometers east of the North-Western coast of the island and about 32 kilometers north of Puttalam. Other major urn burial sites have been located at Tekkam and Karamban Kulam, both within the Vilpattu wildlife sanctuary. The urn burials are primarily concentrated in North-Western Sri Lanka, though a solitary burial has been found as far south as Kataragama.

Cist burials however are primarily concentrated in the North-Central Province, though they have also been found in other parts of the country such as Asmadula and Yapahuva. A major cist burial site, that at Ibbankatuva (at Talakiriyagama, about three kilometres south-west of Dambulla) has been thoroughly investigated in recent times. Other major cist burial sites have been identified at Mamaduva, Tammenna goldella, Gurugal hinna, Divul Veva, Machchagama and Kadiraveli.

The Pomparippu burial site has aroused considerable interest ever since its discovery by A.M. Hocart during the course of his survey of the Puttalam - Mannar coast in 1923 - 24. A number of urn burials were excavated by Raja De Silva in 1956 in the course of a detailed archaeological survey undertaken by the Department of Archaeology. However, it were the excavations carried out in July and August 1970 by Vimala Begley, Bennet Bronson and Mohamed Mauroof as part of a project to study the pre-and proto-history of Sri Lanka undertaken by the University of Pennsylvania that revealed much of this lost culture.

According to Vimala Begley (Ancient Ceylon. 1981) indications are that the burial ground covered about 3-4 acres of land. She estimates that the site may contain about 8000 or so burials containing the remains of 10,000 - 12,000 people. She opines that the burial site represents a large and settled population whose habitational remains must be within a short distance of the burials, perhaps to the east towards the Galge Vihara complex, although so far no serious attempts have been made to locate the burial-related habitation area.

The excavations unearthed a total of 14 burials containing the skeletal remains of about 23 persons. The urns (which are between 40 - 90 centimeters in diameter) had been placed in pits and sealed with limestone boulders. The bones had been disarticulated before burial and it appears that the bodies were exposed to the elements for some time before interment. Unlike the bones which were placed in pots or at the bottom of the urn, the skulls were often placed in dishes of Black-and-Red Ware. The grave goods buried with the skeletal remains reveal a highly developed material culture. Artefacts discovered include metal jewellery such as copper bracelets, paste beads, chert tools and in one instance, a leaf-shaped iron blade.

Ancient Burials: Evidence of Aryans?

Some archaeologists have attempted to relate the urn burials with its characteristic Black-and-Red Ware such as those found at Pomparippu to the iron age burial complexes of South India and postulate a Dravidian origin for the culture. However, according to Begley (1981) there exists a number of differences between the ware found at Pomparippu and the burial sites of South India, such as the absence of burnishing in the case of the local ware.

Unfortunately we have no means of carbon-dating the burials as no charcoal samples have turned up. The fragile condition of the bones also make them unsuitable for dating purposes. Raja De Silva (Smithsonian Seminar on pre-and proto history of Ceylon. 1970) assigns the urn burials to C.200 B.C.- 200 A.C.

Sudarshan Seneviratne (Ancient Ceylon. 1984) holds that the burial culture of North-West Sri Lanka has been influenced by the urn burial complex of the Vaigai-Tambapanni plains, the traditional land of the Pandyans. According to the Mahavansa, an ancient chronicle of Sinhalese royalty compiled around the 5th century A.C. the founding father of the Sinhalese nation, the Aryan Prince Vijaya (c.6th century B.C.) espoused a Pandyan princess from Madura while his 700 followers also took wives from that country. It is possible that the urn burial practices crept into the island with this large scale immigration of people from the Pandyan Country.

A.Parpola (Studia Orientalia. 1984) has shown that the Pandyans were an Aryan dynasty that had established themselves in South India. However, the iron-using, Black-and-Red Ware culture appears to have been Dravidian. As such we may have to suppose that this culture was adopted by the Aryan Pandyans and later transferred to Sri Lanka with the commencement of trade and marital relations between the two countries. Besides, there are valid grounds for supposing that the Pre- Aryan indigenous inhabitants of the island belonged to an Austro-Asiatic people, today represented by the Veddhas.

According to the Mahavansa, the island was inhabited by a folk known as Yakkhas (spirits) prior to the Aryan invasion of the country led by Prince Vijaya of Bengal and his 700 followers. These Yakkhas are generally identified as the ancestors of the Veddhas. Lukacs and Kennedy (1981) hold that there is some genetic affinity between the late stone age people of Bellan-bandi palassa (who are related to the present day Veddhas) and the iron age folk of Pomparippu.

Seneviratne (1984) also draws attention to the fact that Veddha pottery-making methods closely resemble the techniques employed for manufacturing the Pomparippu ware. It is thus possible that the Pomparippu and other urnfield folk belonged to an amalgam of human races comprising such peoples as the Sinhalese, Dravidians and Ved dhas.

The proximity of the sites to the sea coast would have facilitated trade with neighbouring India thus attracting a variety of peoples and cultures from the mainland. However, for this hypothesis to be tenable, we will still have to presume that the aboriginal Veddha folk comprised a significant, if not the major component of the iron age population, given the present state of anthropological knowledge. These various peoples may have been later assimilated into the Sinhalese fold through the adoption of the dominant Sinhala language introduced by an Indo-Aryan, Prakrit-speaking folk from Bengal around the 6th century B.C. or perhaps even earlier.


The Vedda are descendants of nomadic hunter-gatherers that are believed to have been Sri Lanka's first residents. After living in the jungles for more than 12,000 years most are now assimilated into normal life. A few remain in their jungle homes near national parks and reserves. They are also known as Wanniyala-aetto (“People of the Forest”).

The Veddas are ethnically similar to Senang Negritos of Malaysia and the Andaman Islanders of India. They have traditionally lived in jungles and bush country of the dry zone in eastern and central Sri Lanka. Throughout their history they have lived in the edges of society and civilization.

Vedda is a Dravidian word meaning “hunter,” and has traditionally implied “uncivilized. According to the ancient chronicle the “Mahavamsa, when the legendary King Vijaya arrived in Sri Lanka around 500 B.C., the island was inhabited by evil spirits known as “yakkhas. Vijaya married a yakkha princess and used to union to stake a claim to the entire island. He then sent his wife and their children back to her people and married an Indian princess. Th yakkha regard the first wife as a traitor and killed her. The children — a son and daughter — retreated to the first, married each other and gave birth to the Veddas.

The Veddas are divided into three regional groups, which traditionally have little or no contact with one another: 1) the Bintenne Vedda, who live an area inland from the east coast between Trincomalee and Batticaloa; 2) the Anuradhapura Veddas, who live in North Central Province; and 3) the Coast Veddas, who live along the eastern coat between Trincomalee and Batticaloa.

There are only a few hundred or few thousand Veddas. Estimates of their number varies because its is not clearly defined what a Vedda is since so many have intermarried over the years and been assimilated. Some count only those that still live in the forest. There are only a few hundred of these at most. Others count those that have been assimilated. There are thousands of those. The Anuradhapura Veddas are the largest and most assimilated. Some say te Veddas no longer exist.

Original Inhabitants of Lanka: Yakkas and Nagas?

Sri Lanka is said to have been inhabited by Yakkas (demon-worshippers) , Rakshasas and Nagas (snake-worshippers) before the arrival of Vijaya and his men who colonized the island. They were totemic tribes not supernatural beings. There is in north-east India today a state called Nagaland the home of the Naga people. [Source: Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

The Nagas of pre-Vijayan Lanka lived around Kelaniya and in the peninsula in the North. Nagadeepa (Nainathivu) was an island off the peninsula joined to the mainland about 30 years ago by a causeway. Does Nainamadama the name of a village in the NWP, hark back to a time when there was a Naga settlement in that area.

It was at Nagadeepa that Mani Akkhika (one with eyes like gems) met the Buddha who had come there to bring peace between two Naga chieftains Chulodara and Mahodara, who were fighting to claim a precious seat, and invited the Buddha to his homeland Kelaniya. Mani Akkhika was an uncle of the two warring Naga chieftains.

Nagas were living in Kelaniya as a distinct group of people or in today's parlance as "an ethnic entity", when the poet monk Sri Rahula wrote the Selalihini Sandesa in the 15th century, and they were Buddhists. The poet points out to the Selalihini bird, the Naga maidens seated on the Sandy bank of the river, strumming their veenas and singing hymns to the Buddha (Budu guna gee).

The 'yakkas' were numerous and very powerful, and held themselves aloof and confined themselves to the mountain fastnesses of the North- Central region, whereas the 'nagas' confined themselves to the sea-board, and Maniakkhika was the 'naga' king of Kelaniya.

Buddha and the Yakkas

The luxuriantly wooded Mahanaga garden, on the right-bank of the river Mahaveli, which discharges its confluence into the sea near Trincomalee, was at that time a strategic stronghold of the 'yakkas'. When Buddha arrived at the Mahanaga garden to intercept the 'yakkas' who were assembled there, they were more surprised than alarmed, when they saw him clad in a yellow robe and shaven-headed. Being inquisitive of the intruder and to know who he was, the 'yakka' chief asked the Buddha, "Who art thou to come here and disturb us?" At once, the Buddha, to their bewilderment, performed a miracle by sitting cross-legged in the air. Now, the 'yakkas' through fear, emotional excitement and apprehensive of danger, begged the Buddha to save their lives and set them free. [Source: Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

Whereupon, the Buddha, addressed them saving "I shall, O yakkas,save thee from all danger, provided I am offered a place to sit down, and make known to thee my mission". The evil horde verily agreed saying "O Great Being! We shall offer thee the whole island". Buddha, having seated at the spot, where the Mahiyangana cetiya now stands, delivered to them a discourse, whereby they became spiritually evaluated and attained the stages of holiness (i.e., the fruits of Sovan, Sakadagami, Anagami and Arhat). Among them was the 'yakka' commandant Saman who, after listening to the discourse, became elevated to the first phase of spiritual eminence ('Sovan'), and came to be known as Saman deviyo, who is now propitiated as the tutelary deity of Sri Pada. The god, thereupon, appealed to the Buddha to give him something as a token of symbolic worship, in the absence of the Buddha. Buddha in accedence of the earnest request, gave the god a handful of hair from his head, which the god accepted with great devotion. The god had the hair-relic secured in a golden reliquary and enshrined it in a small tope 10 ft. high and 24 ft. in circumference (Mhv. 1:36). It is the first cetiya in Sri Lanka, built during the life-time of the Buddha. All other cetiyas were of later construction.

Buddha and the Nagas

When the Buddha was dwelling at Jetavana in the fifth year of his Buddhahood, he saw that a war was imminent between the Nagas Mahodara and Culodara, uncle and nephew, for a gem?set throne. With compassion for the Nagas, he took his sacred alms?bowl and robes and proceeded to Nagadipa in the north of Sri Lanka. When they saw the Blessed One, they joyfully worshipped at the feet of the Master. He counseled them in the way of the doctrine and both Nagas gladly gave up their claims to the throne and instead offered it to the Buddha. The Buddha however returned the throne to the Nagas as a memorial requesting that they pay homage to it. On this second visit of the Buddha to Sri Lanka, many millions of Nagas established themselves in the three refuges (Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha) and in the moral precepts. Today they consider an islet named Nainathiu as the sacred place the Buddha so visited. (But, according to history, they had earlier considered the whole of the Jaffna peninsula and most of other parts of northern Sri Lanka as Nagadipa, and that the ancient Nagadipa temple was in what is presently Kandarode.) [Source: Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

The Naga king, Maniakkhika o Kalyani, who had come there to take part in the battle, became established in the refuges and moral duties. He respectfully invited the Buddha to visit the part of the country where he held sway. When the Buddha accepted it in silence, the King planted the Rajayatana tree on that very spot. The Rajayatana tree was carried as a parasol over the Buddha by the deva named Samiddhi Sumana when the Buddha was traveling from Jetavana to Nagadipa. In this way the compassionate One completed his second visit to Sri Lanka and returned to Jetavana.

In the eighth year following his attainment of Buddhahood Buddha, accompanied by five hundred disciple monks, proceeded to King Maniakkhika's dwelling city of Kelaniya in the west of Sri Lanka on the Vesak full moon day. He stayed there temporarily together with the monks under a canopy decked with gems, upon a precious throne?patterned seat. The Naga king and his followers treated the Buddha and disciples with great delight. The compassionate One preached the Dhamma there. The Kelani cetiya (stupa) was later built on this site.

From there he proceeded to the Sumanakuta (Sripada) mountains in the middle of the country. The footprint he left there is highly venerated and is still protected. It is called "Sripada " meaning the noble footprint, and `Sumanakuta " because it was the dwelling of the deva Sumana and also called "Samantakuta " because of its height. He spent the day with the monks in a cave called Divaguha at the foot of this mountain. This sacred place is still not recovered.

Theories About the Nagas and Their Origin

As is generally known, a piratical tribe called the Nagas, who had a king and worshipped the cobra as a symbol of destructive power, inhabited the northern and western coasts during early history. So numerous were they that the country became known as Nagadipa, the "Island of Serpents." [Source: Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

Mudaliyar C. Rasanayagam devotes the first chapter of his book Ancient Jaffna (1926), to this fascinating subject. "The Nagas were supposed by the ancients to be serpents living underground obviously because in Sanskrit the word 'naga' means 'serpent,'" he wrote. "They were supposed to be endowed with supernatural powers by which they could metamorphose themselves into human beings at will."

In his book Ceylon: An Account of the Island Physical, Historical and Topographical (London: 1859), Sir James Emerson Tennent provides an interesting footnote to a sentence in which he likens the designation Nagadipa to the way the islands of Rhodes and Cyprus severally acquired the name Ophiusa (from the Greek ophis, meaning snake). This footnote has relevance to the supposed supernatural powers mentioned by Rasanayagam:

"Strabo (the lst century A.D. Greek geographer) affords us a striking illustration of the Mahavamsa in calling the serpent worshippers of Ceylon 'Serpents', since he states that in Phrygia and on the Hellespont the people who were styled ophiogeneis, or the Serpent races, actually attained an affinity with the snakes with whom they were popularly identified."

Rasanayagam also provides a footnote regarding this supposed ability of the Nagas to metamorphose that quotes a more rational explanation by Talboys Wheeler. He claimed: "In the process of time these Nagas became identified with serpents, and the result has been a strange confusion between serpents and human beings."

The scholarly Mudaliyar puts forward another reason why the Nagas might have been called so. "There have been various conjectures made as to the origin of the true Nagas," he writes. "Some thought that they were so-called because they were serpent-worshippers; and others have surmised that the name was derived from the fact that their head-covering was in the shape of a hydra-headed cobra."

Some believe that the Nagas were of Mongoloid stock and that they had migrated originally to northern India, but had later been forced by Aryan invasions to seek fresh settlements farther south. Others have cast doubt on the well-worn Aryan invasion theory of migration. Whatever their origin, it is reasonably clear that a Naga kingdom existed in the north of the island from the 6th century B.C. to the middle of the 3rd century A.D.

After the demise or assimilation of the Nagas on the island, elements of their cobra connections were incorporated in Buddhism as well as popular folklore and superstition. For instance, cobras became associated with the incarnations of dead people, who in their new, ophidian lives guarded hidden treasure, Buddhist temples, Bo-trees and the like. As an extension of this belief, guardian cobra statues like my grandfather's began to be found in houses situated in pairs on either side of an entrance or doorway.

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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