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An Early History of Sri Lanka

Ancient Legends and Chronicles

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.

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.

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

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.

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 and conduct

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, 1500-1948

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 him.

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 mercenaries.

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 (A.D. 1153-86).

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.

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.

During the thirteenth century, the declining Sinhalese kingdom faced threats of invasion from India and the expanding Tamil kingdom of northern Sri Lanka. Taking advantage of Sinhalese weakness, the Tamils secured control of the valuable pearl fisheries around Jaffna Peninsula. During this time, the vast stretches of jungle that cover north-central Sri Lanka separated the Tamils and the Sinhalese. This geographical separation had important psychological and cultural implications. The Tamils in the north developed a more distinct and confident culture, backed by a resurgent Hinduism that looked to the traditions of southern India for its inspiration. Conversely, the Sinhalese were increasingly restricted to the southern and central area of the island and were fearful of the more numerous Tamils on the Indian mainland. The fact that the Hindu kingdom at Jaffna was expending most of its military resources resisting the advances of the expansionist Vijayanagara Empire (1336-1565) in India enhanced the Sinhalese ability to resist further Tamil encroachments. Some historians maintain that it was the arrival of the Portuguese in the sixteenth century that prevented the island from being overrun by south Indians.

Foreign rulers took advantage of the disturbed political state of the Sinhalese kingdom, and in the thirteenth century Chandrabhanu, a Buddhist king from Malaya, invaded the island twice. He attempted to seize the two most sacred relics of the Buddha in Sinhalese custody, the Tooth Relic and the Alms Bowl. In the early fifteenth century, the Ming dynasty Chinese interceded on behalf of King Parakramabahu VI (1412-67), an enlightened monarch who repulsed an invasion from the polity of Vijayanagara in southern India, reunited Sri Lanka, and earned renown as a patron of Buddhism and the arts. Parakramabahu VI was the last Sinhalese king to rule the entire island.

During this extended period of domestic instability and frequent foreign invasion, Sinhalese culture experienced fundamental change. Rice cultivation continued as the mainstay of agriculture but was no longer dependent on an elaborate irrigation network. In the wet zone, large-scale administrative cooperation was not as necessary as it had been before. Foreign trade was of increasing importance to the Sinhalese kings. In particular, cinnamon--in great demand by Europeans--became a prime export commodity. Because of the value of cinnamon, the city of Kotte on the west coast (near modern Colombo) became the nominal capital of the Sinhalese kingdom in the mid-fifteenth century. Still, the Sinhalese kingdom remained divided into numerous competing petty principalities.    


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