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.
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.
Vijaya is the central legendary figure in the Mahavamsa. He 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.
THE CLASSICAL AGE, 200 B.C.-A.D. 1200
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.
The mastery of hydraulic engineering and irrigated agriculture facilitated
the concentration of large numbers of people in the northern dry zone, where early settlements appeared to be under the control
of semi-independent rulers. In time, the mechanisms for political control became more refined, and the city-state of Anuradhapura
emerged and attempted to gain sovereignty over the entire island. The state-sponsored flowering of Buddhist art and architecture
and the construction of complex and extensive hydraulic works exemplify what is known as Sri Lanka's classical age, which
roughly parallels the period between the rise and fall of Anuradhapura (from ca. 200 B.C. to ca. A.D. 993).
The Sinhalese kingdom at Anuradhapura was in many ways typical of other
ancient hydraulic societies because it lacked a rigid, authoritarian and heavily bureaucratic structure. Theorists have attributed
Anuradhapura's decentralized character to its feudal basis, which was, however, a feudalism unlike that found in Europe. The
institution of caste formed the basis of social stratification in ancient Sinhalese society and determined a person's social
obligation, and position within the hierarchy.
The caste system in Sri Lanka developed its own characteristics. Although
it shared an occupational role with its Indian prototype, caste in Sri Lanka developed neither the exclusive Brahmanical social
hierarchy nor, to any significant degree, the concept of defilement by contact with impure persons or substances that was
central to the Indian caste system. The claims of the Kshatriya (warrior caste) to royalty were a moderating influence on
caste, but more profound was the influence of Buddhism, which lessened the severity of the institution. The monarch theoretically
held absolute powers but was nevertheless expected to conform to the rules of dharma, or universal laws governing human existence
The king was traditionally entitled to land revenue equivalent to one-sixth
of the produce in his domain. Furthermore, his subjects owed him a kind of caste-based compulsory labor (rajakariya
in Sinhala) as a condition for holding land and were required to provide labor for road construction, irrigation projects,
and other public works. During the later colonial period, the Europeans exploited the institution of rajakariya,
which was destined to become an important moral and economic issue in the nineteenth century European Encroachment and Dominance,
Social divisions arose over the centuries between those engaged in agriculture
and those engaged in nonagricultural occupations. The Govi (cultivators) belonged to the highest Sinhalese caste (Goyigama)
and remained so in the late twentieth century. All Sri Lankan heads of state have, since independence, belonged to the Goyigama
caste, as do about half of all Sinhalese. The importance of cultivation on the island is also reflected in the caste structure
of the Hindu Tamils, among whom the Vellala (cultivator) is the highest caste.
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.
The peace and stability of the island were first significantly affected
around 237 B.C. when two adventurers from southern India, Sena and Guttika, usurped the Sinhalese throne at Anuradhapura.
Their combined twenty-two-year rule marked the first time Sri Lanka was ruled by Tamils. The two were subsequently murdered,
and the Sinhalese royal dynasty was restored. In 145 B.C., a Tamil general named Elara, of the Chola dynasty (which ruled
much of India from the ninth to twelfth centuries A.D.), took over the throne at Anuradhapura and ruled for forty-four years.
A Sinhalese king, Dutthagamani (or Duttugemunu), waged a fifteen-year campaign against the Tamil monarch and finally deposed
Dutthagamani is the outstanding hero of the Mahavamsa, and his
war against Elara is sometimes depicted in contemporary accounts as a major racial confrontation between Tamils and Sinhalese.
A less biased and more factual interpretation, according to Sri Lankan historian K.M. de Silva, must take into consideration
the large reserve of support Elara had among the Sinhalese. Furthermore, another Sri Lankan historian, Sinnappah Arasaratnam,
argues that the war was a dynastic struggle that was purely political in nature. As a result of Dutthagamani's victory, Anuradhapura
became the locus of power on the island. Arasaratnam suggests the conflict recorded in the Mahavamsa marked the beginning
of Sinhalese nationalism and that Dutthagamani's victory is commonly interpreted as a confirmation that the island was a preserve
for the Sinhalese and Buddhism. The historian maintains that the story is still capable of stirring the religio-communal passions
of the Sinhalese.
The Tamil threat to the Sinhalese Buddhist kingdoms had become very real
in the fifth and sixth centuries A.D. Three Hindu empires in southern India--the Pandya, Pallava, and Chola-- were becoming
more assertive. The Sinhalese perception of this threat intensified because in India, Buddhism--vulnerable to pressure and
absorption by Hinduism--had already receded. Tamil ethnic and religious consciousness also matured during this period. In
terms of culture, language, and religion, the Tamils had identified themselves as Dravidian, Tamil, and Hindu, respectively.
Another Sinhalese king praised in the Mahavamsa is Dhatusena (459-77),
who, in the fifth century A.D., liberated Anuradhapura from a quarter- century of Pandyan rule. The king was also honored
as a generous patron of Buddhism and as a builder of water storage tanks. Dhatusena was killed by his son, Kasyapa (477-95),
who is regarded as a great villain in Sri Lankan history. In fear of retribution from his exiled brother, the parricide moved
the capital from Anuradhapura to Sigiriya, a fortress and palace perched on a monolithic rock 180 meters high. Although the
capital was returned to Anuradhapura after Kasyapa was dethroned, Sigiriya is an architectural and engineering fete displayed
in an inaccessible redoubt. The rock fortress eventually fell to Kasyapa's brother, who received help from an army of Indian
In the seventh century A.D., Tamil influence became firmly embedded in
the island's culture when Sinhalese Prince Manavamma seized the throne with Pallava assistance. The dynasty that Manavamma
established was heavily indebted to Pallava patronage and continued for almost three centuries. During this time, Pallava
influence extended to architecture and sculpture, both of which bear noticeable Hindu motifs.
By the middle of the ninth century, the Pandyans had risen to a position
of ascendancy in southern India, invaded northern Sri Lanka, and sacked Anuradhapura. The Pandyans demanded an indemnity as
a price for their withdrawal. Shortly after the Pandyan departure, however, the Sinhalese invaded Pandya in support of a rival
prince, and the Indian city of Madurai was sacked in the process.
In the tenth century, the Sinhalese again sent an invading army to India,
this time to aid the Pandyan king against the Cholas. The Pandyan king was defeated and fled to Sri Lanka, carrying with him
the royal insignia. The Chola, initially under Rajaraja the Great (A.D 985-1018), were impatient to recapture the royal insignia;
they sacked Anuradhapura in A.D. 993 and annexed Rajarata--the heartland of the Sinhalese kingdom--to the Chola Empire. King
Mahinda V, the last of the Sinhalese monarchs to rule from Anuradhapura, fled to Rohana, where he reigned until 1017, when
the Chola took him prisoner. He subsequently died in India in 1029.
Under the rule of Rajaraja's son, Rajendra (1018-35), the Chola Empire
grew stronger, to the extent that it posed a threat to states as far away as the empire of Sri Vijaya in modern Malaysia and
Sumatra in Indonesia. For seventy-five years, Sri Lanka was ruled directly as a Chola province. During this period, Hinduism
flourished, and Buddhism received a serious setback. After the destruction of Anuradhapura, the Chola set up their capital
farther to the southeast, at Polonnaruwa, a strategically defensible location near the Mahaweli Ganga, a river that offered
good protection against potential invaders from the southern Sinhalese kingdom of Ruhunu. When the Sinhalese kings regained
their dominance, they chose not to reestablish themselves at Anuradhapura because Polonnaruwa offered better geographical
security from any future invasions from southern India. The area surrounding the new capital already had a well- developed
irrigation system and a number of water storage tanks in the vicinity, including the great Minneriya Tank and its feeder canals
built by King Mahasena (A.D. 274-301), the last of the Sinhalese monarchs mentioned in the Mahavamsa.
King Vijayabahu I drove the Chola out of Sri Lanka in A.D. 1070. Considered
by many as the author of Sinhalese freedom, the king recaptured Anuradhapura but ruled from Polonnaruwa, slightly less than
100 kilometers to the southeast. During his forty-year reign, Vijayabahu I (A.D. 1070-1110) concentrated on rebuilding the
Buddhist temples and monasteries that had been neglected during Chola rule. He left no clearly designated successor to his
throne, and a period of instability and civil war followed his rule until the rise of King Parakramabahu I, known as the Great
Parakramabahu is the greatest hero of the Culavamsa, and under
his patronage, the city of Polonnaruwa grew to rival Anuradhapura in architectural diversity and as a repository of Buddhist
art. Parakramabahu was a great patron of Buddhism and a reformer as well. He reorganized the sangha (community of
monks) and healed a longstanding schism between Mahavihara--the Theravada Buddhist monastery--and Abhayagiri--the Mahayana
Buddhist monastery. Parakramabahu's reign coincided with the last great period of Sinhalese hydraulic engineering; many remarkable
irrigation works were constructed during his rule, including his crowning achievement, the massive Parakrama Samudra (Sea
of Parakrama or Parakrama Tank). Polonnaruwa became one of the magnificent capitals of the ancient world, and nineteenth-century
British historian Sir Emerson Tenant even estimated that during Parakramabahu's rule, the population of Polonnaruwa reached
3 million--a figure, however, that is considered to be too high by twentieth-century historians.
Parakramabahu's reign was not only a time of Buddhist renaissance but also
a period of religious expansionism abroad. Parakramabahu was powerful enough to send a punitive mission against the Burmese
for their mistreatment of a Sri Lankan mission in 1164. The Sinhalese monarch also meddled extensively in Indian politics
and invaded southern India in several unsuccessful expeditions to aid a Pandyan claimant to the throne.
Although a revered figure in Sinhalese annals, Parakramabahu is believed
to have greatly strained the royal treasury and contributed to the fall of the Sinhalese kingdom. The post- Parakramabahu
history of Polonnaruwa describes the destruction of the city twenty-nine years after his death and fifteen rulers later.
For the decade following Parakramabahu's death, however, a period of peace
and stability ensued during the reign of King Nissankamalla (A.D. 1187-97). During Nissankamalla's rule, the Brahmanic legal
system came to regulate the Sinhalese caste system. Henceforth, the highest caste stratum became identified with the cultivator
caste, and land ownership conferred high status. Occupational caste became hereditary and regulated dietary and marriage codes.
At the bottom of the caste strata was the Chandala, who corresponded roughly to the Indian untouchable. It was during this
brief period that it became mandatory for the Sinhalese king to be a Buddhist.