Sri Lanka - Background information

Natural history
People and culture


It is probable that the island was inhabited 500,000 years ago. Since it was a lush and fertile island of forests, plains and animals, with rivers abundant with fish, it would have been an attractive place for wandering prehistoric man to settle. The domestication of plants, broadening the food supply of hunting people, may have occurred in Sri Lanka some 12,000 years ago.

If southeast Asia was the cradle of human civilisation, Sri Lanka would have benefited from the development of agriculture, pottery making and the fashioning of stone tools introduced by seafarers from neighbouring archipelagos like the Philippines and Indonesia. Evidence from Stone Age cultures has been unearthed and it is believed that Stone Age recluses survived in the island’s unexplored jungles up to 1,000 years ago. Today the Veddahs are regarded as a living link with the original inhabitants.

Sri Lanka’s recorded history began 2,500 years ago. There exist texts, begun 1,500 years ago by Buddhist monks, called the Mahavamsa and its sequel, the Culavamsa, containing details of a rich and colourful past. The Mahavamsa confidently determines the coming of the Sinhalese race with the arrival of Vijaya, 1,000 years earlier. Sri Lanka was actively involved in trading with other countries long before the birth of Christ, and was regarded as an island of great bounty. For traders, the island was regarded as the granary of Asia. Greek merchants came during the time of Alexander the Great (335–323bc) to trade in precious stones, muslin and tortoise shells, and the island was known as a source of ivory as well as rice. There were trade links with the Roman Empire during the Anuradhapura period, which flourished for 14 centuries, until 1017.

Buddhism was introduced to the island 246 years before the birth of Christ. The kingdom was overrun by the Chola army which had conquered southern India under Rajaraja the Great (985–1018). This resulted in the setting up of a new powerbase, with Polonnaruwa as the centre of the kingdom. Conquest of the Cholas eventually came under forces led by Vijayabahu I (1055–1110) who restored Buddhism to prominence after the Cholas’ Hinduism. His nephew, Parakramabahu I (1153–86), is remembered not only for unifying the island but also for his splendid buildings (now in ruins at Polonnaruwa) and his irrigation work. His death led to dynastic disputes and gradually the island fractured. There were five different capitals from 1253 to 1400. Eventually a new kingdom grew from a powerbase at Kotte, near Colombo, which is where the modern parliament and today’s declared capital, Sri Jayewardenepura, are located. With the death of Parakramabahu VI (1412–67) there was a scramble for control that was diverted by the arrival in 1505 of the Portuguese.

Whether it was due to a premonition about the impact of foreign rule that was to last for 443 years, or to simple caution, the King of Kotte led the first of the Portuguese invaders a merry dance. Hearing reports of these strange people who were dressed in iron clothes (armour), appeared to eat stones (bread), drank from bottles of blood (wine) and had sticks that cracked like thunder and lightning (firearms), the king must have been desperate to delay any encounter with them. He directed the strangers be brought to him by a roundabout route so they would not realise how close (13km) his kingdom was to Colombo, and hence vulnerable to their attack.

The ruse did not work since the noise of cannons fired from the ship, and the seamen’s knowledge of navigation, let the reconnoitring party know its position. To this day, the Sri Lankan expression for ‘taking people for a ride’ is ‘like taking the Portuguese to Kotte’. At the time, the Portuguese were interested only in trade, wanting to take over the shipment of camphor, sapphires, elephants and cinnamon controlled by the King of Kotte.

That might have been the end of Portuguese involvement but for internal dissensions among the Sinhalese. The rulers of Kotte hoped to take advantage of the presence of the Portuguese, so they were allowed to settle and build strategic forts along the coast. This resulted, however, in Portuguese entrenchment throughout the island, with the notable exception of the Kingdom of Kandy. In 1617, the Kandyan king agreed to a treaty with the Portuguese, but this led to Portuguese incursions into the Kandyan ports of Batticaloa and Trincomalee. Then King Rajasinghe II (1635–87) formed an alliance with the Dutch against the Portuguese.

The Dutch were powerful in the region through their pursuit of the spice trade in the East Indies. They were not slow to take advantage of the promise of a monopoly of the island’s spice trade in return for help in ridding the island of the Portuguese. They took Batticaloa and Trincomalee for the Kingdom of Kandy, but kept the ports of Galle and Negombo, which they captured in 1641, for themselves. In 1656 they took over the fort in Colombo from the Portuguese and, with the capture of Jaffna in 1658, brought the Portuguese occupation to an end. The Dutch, to the dismay of the Kandyans, were not keen to leave Sri Lanka and contrived to stay for 138 years.

A breach between the Dutch and the British during the Napoleonic Wars resulted in the annexation of Dutch settlements in the East by Great Britain. The first phase of British takeover began with a siege of Colombo. This resulted in the Dutch surrendering the town and ceding the Dutch East India Company possessions in Ceylon to Britain in 1796. However, the Kingdom of Kandy atop the Central Highlands defied British attempts to tidy up the country into a neat package they could call their own.

The British tried, and failed disastrously, to conquer the kingdom by military means in 1803. Diplomacy and duplicity were then employed as weapons, and Sir John D’Oyly was one of those who connived with disaffected Kandyan chiefs, enabling the British to take the kingdom. The king, Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe (1798–1815), was bundled off to India and a convention was signed between British rulers and the Kandyan chiefs.

Having a convention did not mean the British had Kandy, and there was resistance that was marshalled into organised rebellion in 1817–18. The British retaliated ruthlessly and at last the administration was set on a neat and tidy course of government. For the first time since the kingdoms of Parakaramabahu (1153–86) and Nisanka Malla (1187–96), Sri Lanka was governed in its entirety by one power.

Having conquered the island, the British energetically set about colonising it. It became a plantation economy, first with coffee and then tea, with young Britons (many from Scotland) emigrating to open up the countryside to tea plantations. Some commentators see the plantocracy as a colonial subterfuge to plunder, exploit and enslave 19th-century Sri Lanka and its people. However, that ignores the benefits and progress that the British colonial presence not only fostered but also financed through the success of the plantation industry.

Its success rubbed off on to Sri Lankans too. A new indigenous aristocracy grew up by involvement in capitalist enterprises. It was the springboard to an enhanced social status. Sinhalese and Tamils together, coupling lucrative freelance initiative with an embrace of British ways, became wealthy through their commercial ventures. The British presence remained until 4 February 1948, when the Duke of Gloucester, representing King George VI, ceremonially conferred independence on Ceylon. This was recalled with a ceremony attended by the current Prince of Wales in Colombo 50 years later.

Natural history

green bee eater on branch sri lanka by bobby20 shutterstockGreen bee-eater © bobby20, Shutterstock

Two hundred years ago almost the entire island was covered by natural forest complemented by an abundance of flora and fauna common to a tropical monsoon climate. Unfortunately, very little thought was given to conservation by the pioneers of the plantation development of the country. Forest cover has rapidly declined and is now less than 30% of the land. This amounts to 1.58 million hectares of closed-canopy natural forest cover or dense forest, with sparse forest cover raising the total coverage to about two million hectares.

There is a brighter side to the picture. For a country with one of the highest population densities in the world, Sri Lanka is remarkable in having 13% of its land area designated for wildlife and nature conservation. With 242 known species of butterflies, 435 recorded birds, 92 species of mammals, 107 species of fish, 54 species of amphibia, 74 species of tetrapod reptiles and 81 species of snakes, Sri Lanka is one of the most biodiverse eco-travel destinations. There are 830 endemic flowering species, of which 230 are so rare they are in danger of extinction. The richest area for flora, not only in Sri Lanka but also in all of south Asia, is the southwestern lowland where more than 90% of the endemic species are concentrated in a small region of about 15,000km².

Alongside efforts to sustain the ecology, there are programmes to improve the yield of agricultural land based on irrigation schemes started over 2,000 years ago. An area of concern is the erosion of the coast. It has been calculated that the west, southwest and south coastline, which is 685km long, is being eroded at the rate of 0.3mm to 4mm a year. Environmental policy matters and international affairs relating to the environment are handled by the Ministry of Environment, and there is a Central Environment Authority with powers to enforce environmental regulations to preserve the island’s natural resources.

The effects of the tsunami of December 2004 – which left some 35,000 people dead and 800,000 displaced – can still be seen along the west and south coasts from Kalutara to Yala and up the entire east coast. Sri Lankans displayed a remarkable resilience in adapting to the disaster. Building of new villages by various sponsors for those who lost their homes has resulted in a new landscape with coastal areas opened up and settlements inland on higher ground.

People and culture

a man riding his bike through a field sri lanka by steve horsley shutterstockThe mixed heritage of today’s Sri Lanka results in a varied and vibrant culture, combining influences from Buddhist, Hindu and Islamic cultures as well as colonial lifestyles. There is a thriving artistic tradition in painting, music, dance and theatre and, perhaps surprisingly, architecture. The varied building styles are easily visible on any drive through the country and add diversity to the city, suburban, coastal, agricultural and forest landscapes.

Individual Sri Lankans, whatever cultural background has influenced them, appear dedicated and determined, while preserving a somewhat orthodox outlook on life. Agriculture is regarded as a respected profession and many Sri Lankans are lifelong vegetarians or decline to eat a particular meat because of individual belief. Cricket is followed religiously. Sri Lankan culture is enhanced by frequent rest days either for religious or government decreed holidays.

(Photo: © Steve Horsley, Shutterstock)

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