Pre-Colonial Sri Lankan History

Sri Lanka is an island nation located about 35 miles off the southern tip of India. The island is divided into two distinct climatic zones, the Dry Zone and the Wet Zone. The Wet Zone is located in the central highlands and southwestern corner of the island, and receives an average about 50 inches of rain, spread relatively evenly over the course of the year. This is enough to sustain rainforest vegetation. The Dry Zone covers the remaining 70% of the island and although it receives between 30 and 70 inches of rainfall a year, it all falls only during one three month rainy season and the rest of the year remains dry (DeSilva 1992).

Sri Lanka's culture has evolved separately from its northern neighbor, although there are some similarities due to periodic migrations of people from India to Sri Lanka. The Sinhalese comprise the dominant ethnic group of Sri Lanka, and comprise about 74% of the population. Their ancestors first came to the island led by Vijaya, the legendary founding father of the Sinhalese during the 5th century B.C.E., supplanting the indigenous Vedda population. The next largest ethnic group is the Tamils, at about 12.6% of the population. The Moors and Malays, all Muslim, make up at total of 7.4% of the population. The remaining 0.3% of the population are the Burghers, people of mixed Sri Lankan and European descent. The Sinhalese are almost entirely Buddhist, and the Tamils are primarily Hindu, although there is a sizable Christian population of both Sinhalese and Tamils dating back to the Portuguese colonization of the island in the early 1500's. In spite of the desires of the dominate culture of the Sinhalese Buddhists, only 69.3% of Sri Lanka is Buddhist, and 15.5% is Hindu. The Muslim and Christian population are both 7.5% (Peiris 1992).

According to the Mahavamsa, one of the traditional chronicals of early Sri Lankan history, King Asoka of India sent his son and daughter to Sri Lanka from India to establish Buddhism on the island during the first century B.C.E. His son started the first order of monks, and his daughter the first order of nuns on the island. The religious beliefs of the Sinhalese before Buddhism is not known, although it is thought to be some form of Brahmanism. The Dipavamsa, Mahavamsa and Culavamsa, were written by Buddhist monks, or debatably by nuns, and they attempt to increase Sri Lanka's importance to world Buddhism, going as far as claiming that the Buddha's death coincided with Vijaya's arrival on the island (DeSilva 1981: 4). The traditional historical texts of Sri Lanka were part of a thriving civilization, members of whom wanted it to be the ideal Buddhist state. The chronicals try to verify this claim. One story told is that the Buddha visited the island three times, and predicted the domination of this civilization over the indigenous population, the Veddas, who are referred to as demons. On his last visit he left his footprint at the top of Adam's Peak, one of the highest mountains in Sri Lanka, and a popular pilgrimage spot. Pali texts mention no references to the Buddha ever leaving eastern India (Seneviratne and Siriweera 1992). In spite the strong emphasis on Buddhist based culture, at the expense of other religious and ethnic groups, these chronicles are vital to the knowledge of much of the history of Sri Lanka.

The first Tamil immigration was probably around the third century B.C.E. Tamils and Sinhalese co-habitated on the island but the integration of these two groups is unclear, especially because of the current civil war between the Tamils and Sinhalese, and revisionist rewriting of history by both groups. (DeSilva 1981).

The first large settlement was at Anuradhapura in the northwestern part of the island, in the Dry Zone, and somewhere between four and seven million people lived in the area surrounding the capital city Anuradhapura. About 90% of the population in Sri Lanka lived in the Dry Zone. Because of the harsh climate extensive irrigation networks were built, including huge reservoirs and water holding tanks so that water could be available year round for both daily use and agriculture. These irrigation networks are among the largest in the world and the most complex in South Asia. Their construction started the first century CE, and by 500 CE most of them were completed through the use of "corvee," or compulsory labor, by citizens. The large water holding tanks are of monumental size, some stones weighing over 10 tons. Some of the bunds for holding back water as as long as forty feet, and the tanks are about twenty feet deep (Seneviratne and Siriweera 1992).

Anuradhapura was a religious center with numerous monasteries and a tree grown from the branch of the Bo Tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. The principle monasteries were huge, the largest being Abhayaagiri with about 5,000 monks, and Mahintale with about 2,000 monks. The stupas are monumental in size, the largest is the Jetavana Stupa. It is the size of the third largest pyramid in Egypt, and the foundation alone extends 75 feet below the ground to balance the vertical pressure exerted by the structure (Seneviratne and Siriweera 1992).

Anuradhapura was also a community with international ties, Greek and Persian traders lived there as well as Tamil and Sinhalese. The rulers of Anuradhapura sought to rule the entire island, but did not succeed, although they did rule over a thriving kingdom from 137 BCE to 1017 CE. Invaders from the Chola Empire of southern India took over in 1017 CE. Sri Lanka was important as it lay in a strategic position on the sea trade routes between China and the West. From the beginning of the christian era there were links between Sri Lanka, East Asia, and China. Traders from the Roman Empire and the Mediterranean bought Sri Lankan goods at South Indian sea ports, that Sri Lanka had sold to India. It was known to the Greeks and Romans as Taprobane and later as Serendib, from a corruption of the Sanskrit name Sinhaladvipa. (DeSilva 1992).

Anuradhapura was ruled by the Cholas for about 75 years. When the Cholas were finally defeated the capital was moved to Polonnauruwa, where the Mahavelli River provided a natural line of defense against further invasions. The new rulers of Polonnaruva tried to rebuild another civilization similar to Anuradhapura and many monasteries and water gardens were built, in order to regain the glory of the Anuradhapura civilization. The Polonnaruva civilization lasted until about 1293 CE when it was abandoned due primarily to malaria outbreaks. The Sinhalese shifted to the Wet Zone further south, and several hundred years later became the Kandyan Kingdom (DeSilva 1981).

The next kingdom to arise was the Kingdom of Kotte in around 1415, and Parakramabahu VI was the last Sinhalese king to unite the island under single rule, under his reign of fifty five years. When he died in 1479 Jaffna, the Tamil Kingdom in the northern part of the island, regained independence first. Kandy broke away soon after this. By the time Parakramabahu's son died in 1477 Kotte was had been reduced to the south-west and north-west of the island and continued to decline. When the Portuguese arrived in 1505 to trade for cinnamon, they found a kingdom that was weakened and fairly easy to control by the time they desired to do so in the 1520's. Kotte was reduced to a small strip of land around Colombo by 1580, and controlled completely by the Portuguese by the 1590's. In 1619 the Portuguese succeeded in taking over the Kingdom of Jaffna in the North, although they never held control over Kandy (De Silva 1981).

Because the Portuguese were the first western colonizers to hold power in Sri Lanka their influence was great. A large number of people in the coastal areas were converted to Roman Catholicism, and quite a few of those families remain Roman Catholic. The Sri Lankan style of both dress and architecture were influenced, as well as language. Portuguese was spoken until as late as the nineteenth century, and many words in Sinhalese are derived from the Portuguese, as are some family names. The Dutch, who arrived in the early seventeenth century, had a much smaller influence on Sri Lankan culture (De Silva 1992).

Dutch trading ships arrived to waters around Sri Lanka in the 1590's, just as the Portuguese had finally established power over Kotte. Sri Lankans were not willing to be passively ruled by the Portuguese, and in 1638 Kandy signed a treaty with the Dutch to aid in the removal of the Portuguese. The Dutch acted almost immediately and overthrew the Portuguese by 1640. Instead of leaving as the treaty stipulated, the Dutch held the ports of Galle and Negombo in order to gain control of the cinnamon trade. The official Dutch excuse for the occupation was that Kandy had not paid them all of the cinnamon they were owed for dispelling the Portuguese.

The Dutch were not interested in controlling the entire island, nor were they interested in taking over the Kandyan Kingdom as the Portuguese had been but in the exportation of spices. To achieve this goal they negotiated with Kandy for rights to the cinnamon in forests in the hill country. They were disinterested in political control because of an awareness of the growing strength of the English and the French. Dutch power was stretched thin over Asia, and they did not want to risk their position in Asia just to obtain rule over Kandy.

In spite of limited political control, the Dutch did influence the culture of Sri Lanka. They encouraged conversion to Protestantism from both Roman Catholicism and the traditional religions of the island, and many in the low country converted to obtain Dutch favor. They encouraged the registration of births and marriages by making all claims to property based on legal and registered lineage. Consequently, their influence on legal systems was also large, as was the introduction of the concept of upward mobility, especially in relation to education being a social necessity, this concept of social mobility was continued by the British (DeSilva 1992).

During Dutch rule the English East India Company was allowed to trade in Sri Lankan ports. The transfer of Dutch power to British power in Sri Lanka was due to a peace treaty of 1801 between the Dutch and British, in which it was agreed that the British would take control of Dutch territories. By 1796, in fact, the British had established commercial control of Sri Lanka. Since the early 1760's the British had been sending spy missions to Kandy, and attempting to establish commercial relations by the 1780's (DeSilva 1992). When they established official political control of Sri Lanka in 1801 the British attempted to control the coast and landlock Kandy. After numerous invasions, and battles between Kandy and the British a treaty was signed in 1815 at the Kandyan Convention, although there were a few rebellions after this, the largest being in 1817 - 1818. The British controlled the entire island for another 133 years, and greatly influenced Sri Lanka.

Little is known of the culture of daily life in Sri Lanka before 1681, when a barely literate English sailor named Robert Knox published a chronicle of his twenty year detainment in villages near Kandy from 1660-1680. Previous to Knox's An Historical Relation of Ceylon the only texts written before colonization of the British were the, Mahavamsa, Dipavamsa and Culavamsa whose goals were to glorify the significance of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, and the importance of Sri Lanka in the Buddhist world. All three are good accounts of the Buddhist monastic tradition and political situations of kingdoms in Sri Lanka since the first Indo-Aryan settlers, but for an account of daily life we must to turn to Robert Knox, whose account is vital in understanding village culture of the Kandyan Kingdom before the influence of western colonialism.

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