Sri Lanka - Historical And Cultural Heritage

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Sri Lanka's Historical And Cultural Heritage Covers More Than 2,000 Years. 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." A Troubled Nation In The 1980s, Torn Apart By Communal Violence, Sri Lanka Has More Recently Been Called India's "Fallen Tear."


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.

Buddhist Chronicles

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 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. 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 (See Glossary), His Release From The Cycle Of Life And Pain. The Mahavamsa Also Lavishes Praise On The Sinhalese Kings Who Repulsed Attacks By Indian Tamils.

The Impact Of Buddhism

Buddhism Was Introduced To Sri Lanka In The Third Century B.C. From India, Where It Had Been Established By Siddartha Gautama Three Centuries Earlier (See Buddhism , Ch. 2). The Powerful Indian Monarch, Asoka, Nurtured The New Comprehensive Religio-Philosophical System In The Third Century B.C. Asoka's Conversion To Buddhism Marks One Of The Turning Points In Religious History Because At That Time, Buddhism Was Elevated From A Minor Sect To An Official Religion Enjoying All The Advantages Of Royal Patronage. Asoka's Empire, Which Extended Over Most Of India, Supported One Of The Most Vigorous Missionary Enterprises In History.

The Classical Age, 200 B.C.-A.D. 1200 Early Settlements

The First Extensive Sinhalese Settlements Were Along Rivers In The Dry Northern Zone Of The Island. Because Early Agricultural Activity-- Primarily The Cultivation Of Wet Rice-- Was Dependent On Unreliable Monsoon Rains, The Sinhalese Constructed Canals, Channels, Water-Storage Tanks, And Reservoirs To Provide An Elaborate Irrigation System To Counter The Risks Posed By Periodic Drought. Such Early Attempts At Engineering Reveal The Brilliant Understanding These Ancient People Had Of Hydraulic Principles And Trigonometry. The Discovery Of The Principle Of The Valve Tower, Or Valve Pit, For Regulating The Escape Of Water Is Credited To Sinhalese Ingenuity More Than 2,000 Years Ago. By The First Century A.D, Several Large-Scale Irrigation Works Had Been Completed.

Rise Of Sinhalese And Tamil Ethnic Awareness

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.

Decline Of The Sinhalese Kingdom, 1200-1500 Sinhalese Migration To The South

After Nissankamalla's Death, A Series Of Dynastic Disputes Hastened The Breakup Of The Kingdom Of Polonnaruwa. Domestic Instability Characterized The Ensuing Period, And Incursions By Chola And Pandyan Invaders Created Greater Turbulence, Culminating In A Devastating Campaign By The Kalinga, An Eastern Indian Dynasty. When Magha, The Kalinga King, Died In 1255, Another Period Of Instability Began, Marking The Beginning Of The Abandonment Of Polonnaruwa And The Sinhalese Migration To The Southwest From The Northern Dry Zone. The Next Three Kings After Magha Ruled From Rock Fortresses To The West Of Polonnaruwa. The Last King To Rule From Polonnaruwa Was Parakramabahu Iii (1278- 93). The Migration Is One Of The Great Unsolved Puzzles Of South Asian History And Is Of Considerable Interest To Academics Because Of The Parallel Abandonment Of Dry-Zone Civilizations In Modern Cambodia, Northern Thailand, And Burma.

A Weakened State: Invasion, Disease, And Social Instability

The Sinhalese Withdrawal From The North Is Sometimes Attributed To The Cumulative Effect Of Invasions From Southern India (A Rationale That Has Been Exploited Against The Tamils In Modern Sinhalese Politics). This Interpretation Has Obvious Weaknesses Because After Each Of The South Indian Invasions Of The Preceding Centuries, The Sinhalese Returned To The Dry Zone From The Hills And Repaired And Revived The Ancient Irrigation System. K.M. De Silva Suggests That The Cumulative Effects Of Repeated Invasions "Ate Into The Vitals Of A Society Already Losing Its Vigour With Age." A Civilization Based On A Dry-Zone Irrigation Complex Presupposes A High Degree Of Organization And A Massive Labor Force To Build And Maintain The Works. The Decline Of These Public Works Mirrored The Breakdown In The Social Order. Another Factor That Seems To Have Retarded The Resettlement Of The Dry Zone Was The Outbreak Of Malaria In The Thirteenth Century. The Mosquito Found Ideal Breeding Grounds In The Abandoned Tanks And Channels. (Malaria Has Often Followed The Destruction Of Irrigation Works In Other Parts Of Asia.) Indeed, All Attempts At Large-Scale Resettlement Of The Dry Area In Sri Lanka Were Thwarted Until The Introduction Of Modern Pesticides.

European Encroachment And Dominance, 1500-1948 The Portuguese

By The Late Fifteenth Century, Portugal, Which Had Already Established Its Dominance As A Maritime Power In The Atlantic, Was Exploring New Waters. In 1497 Vasco Da Gama Sailed Around The Cape Of Good Hope And Discovered An Ocean Route Connecting Europe With India, Thus Inaugurating A New Era Of Maritime Supremacy For Portugal. The Portuguese Were Consumed By Two Objectives In Their Empire-Building Efforts: To Convert Followers Of Non-Christian Religions To Roman Catholicism And To Capture The Major Share Of The Spice Trade For The European Market. To Carry Out Their Goals, The Portuguese Did Not Seek Territorial Conquest, Which Would Have Been Difficult Given Their Small Numbers. Instead, They Tried To Dominate Strategic Points Through Which Trade Passed. By Virtue Of Their Supremacy On The Seas, Their Knowledge Of Firearms, And By What Has Been Called Their "Desperate Soldiering" On Land, The Portuguese Gained An Influence In South Asia That Was Far Out Of Proportion To Their Numerical Strength.

The British Early Contacts

In 1592 An English Privateer Attacked The Portuguese Off The Southwestern Port Of Galle. This Action Was England's First Recorded Contact With Sri Lanka. A Decade Later, Ralph Fitch, Traveling From India, Became The First Known English Visitor To Sri Lanka. The English Did Not Record Their First In-Depth Impressions Of The Island Until The Mid-Seventeenth Century, When Robert Knox, A Sailor, Was Captured When His Ship Docked For Repairs Near Trincomalee. The Kandyans Kept Him Prisoner Between 1660 And 1680. After His Escape, Knox Wrote A Popular Book Entitled An Historical Relation Of The Island Of Ceylon In Which He Described His Years Among His "Decadent" Captors.

By The Mid-Eighteenth Century, It Was Apparent That The Mughal Empire (1526-1757) In India Faced Imminent Collapse, And The Major European Powers Were Positioning Themselves To Fill The Power Vacuum In The Subcontinent. Dutch Holdings On Sri Lanka Were Challenged In Time By The British, Who Had An Interest In The Excellent Harbor At Trincomalee. The British Interest In Procuring An All-Weather Port Was Whetted When They Almost Lost The Indian Port Of Madras To The French In 1758. The Dutch Refused To Grant The British Permission To Dock Ships At Trincomalee (After The Netherlands's Decision To Support The French In The American War Of Independence), Goading The British Into Action. After Skirmishing With Both The Dutch And French, The British Took Trincomalee In 1796 And Proceeded To Expel The Dutch From The Island.

The British Replace The Dutch

In 1766 The Dutch Had Forced The Kandyans To Sign A Treaty, Which The Kandyans Later Considered So Harsh That They Immediately Began Searching For Foreign Assistance In Expelling Their Foes. They Approached The British In 1762, 1782, And 1795. The First Kandyan Missions Failed, But In 1795, British Emissaries Offered A Draft Treaty That Would Extend Military Aid In Return For Control Of The Seacoast And A Monopoly Of The Cinnamon Trade. The Kandyan King Unsuccessfully Sought Better Terms, And The British Managed To Oust The Dutch Without Significant Help In 1796.

The Kandyans' Search For Foreign Assistance Against The Dutch Was A Mistake Because They Simply Replaced A Relatively Weak Master With A Powerful One. Britain Was Emerging As The Unchallenged Leader In The New Age Of The Industrial Revolution, A Time Of Technological Invention, Economic Innovations, And Imperialist Expansion. The Nations That Had Launched The First Phase Of European Imperialism In Asia--The Portuguese And The Dutch--Had Already Exhausted Themselves.

Modernization And Reform

According To Sri Lankan Historian Zeylanicus, Each Of The Three Epochs Of European Rule On The Island Lasted Roughly 150 Years, But Rather Than Being Assessed Separately, These Epochs Should Be Thought Of Collectively As A "Mighty Cantilever Of Time With The Pax Britannica As The Central Pillar." Many British Institutions Have Survived And Currently Have A Direct And Lasting Influence On Cultural And Political Events. Historian E.F.C. Ludowyck Concurs, Stating That Whatever The Portuguese And Dutch Did, The British Improved Upon. He Attributed This Accomplishment To British Grounding In Liberalism, A Belief In The Emancipation Of Slaves, The Absence Of Religious Persecution, And Conscious Attempts To Maintain Good Relations Between The Rulers And The Ruled.

When The British First Conquered The Maritime Provinces Of Sri Lanka, The Indigenous Population Of The Island Was Estimated At Only 800,000. When The British Left A Century And A Half Later, The Population Had Grown To More Than 7 Million. Over A Relatively Short Period, The Island Had Developed An Economy Capable Of Supporting The Burgeoning Population. Roads, Railways, Schools, Hospitals, Hydroelectric Projects, And Large Welloperated Agricultural Plantations Provided The Infrastructure For A Viable National Economy.

World War Ii And The Transition To Independence

When Singapore Fell To The Japanese In February 1942, Sri Lanka Became A Central Base For British Operations In Southeast Asia, And The Port At Trincomalee Recaptured Its Historically Strategic Importance. Because Sri Lanka Was An Indispensable Strategic Bastion For The British Royal Navy, It Was An Irresistible Military Target For The Japanese. For A Time, It Seemed That Japan Planned A Sweeping Westward Offensive Across The Indian Ocean To Take Sri Lanka, Sever The Allies' Lifeline To Persian Gulf Oil, And Link Up With The Axis Powers In Egypt. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Mastermind Of The Raid On Pearl Harbor, Ordered Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo To Command A Large Armada To Seek And Destroy The British Eastern Fleet In The Indian Ocean. The Two Nations' Fleets Played A Game Of Hide-And-Seek, But Never Met. Some Military Historians Assert That If They Had Met, The Smaller British Fleet Would Have Met With Disaster. The British Instead Fought Several Desperate Air Battles Over Colombo And Trincomalee And Lost About Thirty-Six Aircraft And Several Ships.