Entangled with myths and legends; the story of Sri Lanka has always fascinated beings of all manner. Written in epics and inherited through tales from generation to generations. Narratives and politics apart, “the history” of this island is worth every second spent on listening to it.
Since we were little children our grandparents would tell us stories that left us amazed and overwhelmed; igniting our Imaginations. Stories of great queens and kings, peace, love, unity, supernatural and even the spiritual (and sometimes casual racism and hate…). Though we couldn’t fully comprehend these stories at the time, we listened …. (We had nothing else to do and they were kind of interesting.)
Like any good story let’s start from the beginning.
Early human behavior,
Archeologists suggest that early humans migrating away from Africa inhabited the coastal areas (geography of the island imply around mannar) as well as rainforests in Sri Lanka.
The earliest human remaining found in Sri Lanka was named the balangoda man (sounds like a lame superhero name but who am I to judge…) . Belonging to the Mesolithic era, the remains dates back 125,000 years and is the earliest reliable record of modern humans in south Asia. There are distinct evidence of three different observable eras and patterns of improving and adapting to the surroundings can be seen all over Sri Lanka. While the balangoda man is the oldest remains found, they are evidence of Homo erectus people going back 500,000 BP in the Paleolithic era.
Archeologists have found what is believed to be one of the oldest collections of human survival equipments in recent studies of the fahien cave findings; they have proven that earlier humans living in the rainforests of Sri Lanka were advanced than previously thought. As of new finding suggest that the inhabitants of these caves hunted small, mid ranged agile animals with bow and arrows. These new found evidence place the earliest use of bow and arrow technology outside of Africa to date (48,000 years ago); 130 bone arrow tips (oldest ones outside Africa), tools for making cloths and other equipment were among the collection. Most of us can’t even spit straight; imagine chasing squirrels and monkeys through a rainforest shooting arrows at them using handmade bows…
While some the descendent of the first wave of humans who lived on the coast moved to the rain forests, supposedly most stayed in the coast. And several findings suggest that both groups kept in touch with one another. Looking at the jewelry and personal necessities of these early humans, we can come to a safe conclusion that they had an active social system with the costal groups. Since the cave is in the hill side area of the island, hundreds of miles away from beaches it made no sense that jewelry beads were made out of sea shells and other materials that were available nowhere near the rainforest or the surrounding areas. Archeologists have started investigations on finding where these conclusive social gatherings of these two groups actually took place. If you ask me it’s obviously the BEACH.. I mean come on who doesn’t like beach parties…..
Evidently the descendent tribes of these early humans are still living in the jungles of Sri Lanka… they are currently known as the ‘veddhas ’.
The construction of the Sri Lankan origin stories starts with ancient writings such as chronicles and jhathaka. While the accuracy of theses literature is questionable; it provides a general idea of the legendary beginning of Sri Lankan lineage. The chronicles of Sir Lankan are continuous and records almost every major event for hundreds of years till the colonial era.
The “national” chronicle of Sri Lanka, Mahawamsa brings us a story of an exiled prince from India with lion ancestry through his father sinhabha (the man had lion hands). Prince Vijaya and his 700 followers get standard in the beaches of current day manner. Naming it thambapani, as the color of the sand represented the color of copper. With the help of the native queen of ‘the demons’ (probably talking about veddhas but who knows. ) kuweni , he establish the kingdom of thambapani; after slaughtering the natives (and yes the story is very twisty ). Mahawamsa give us a complete timeline from the arrival of Vijaya to the late mahasen era, 5th century CE to (A.D. 302). However most historians don’t count vijaya as the first king as he didn’t complete all the culturally essential requirements of a Sri Lankan king (my high school history teacher certainly didn’t).
The first ruler to live up to the cultural standards and acquire the mantle of king was prince Pandukabhaya. According to chronicles of Sri Lanka, the love child of princess Umaddhanie Cithara and Deegha Gamini.(some say his father was paduwasdewa, an Aryan ) . Pandukabhaya becomes the first monarch of the Anuradhapura kingdom, after fulfilling his prophecy of killing his 9 uncles; who entrapped his mother and tried everything in their power to kill him when he was a child so they wouldn’t have a nephew to get murdered by…. King Pandukabhaya is considered one of the greatest rulers of Sri Lanka.
From Anuradhapura to Kandy kingdom Sri Lanka had a sum total of 184 monarchs (counting from vijaya) , the long line of Sri Lankan Kingship came to an end with the capturing of the Kandy kingdom by the British in 1815. King Sri Vikrama Rajhasingha, the last Sri Lankan monarchy was banished to Fort Vellore in India after which he died from dropsy in 1832. (Almost poetic). Sri Vikrama Rajhasingha was succeeded by George III as monarch of British Ceylon, Thus ending the Sri Lankan lineage.
One of the oldest references of Sri Lanka dates back to Ramayana as ‘the kingdom of the demon king’; are these same demons from Vijayas’ story? Not sure…. While Ravana (demon king mentioned above) is a villain in the Ramayana, most Sri Lankans consider him a hero with great knowledge and power (I’m neutral). The demons and supernatural theory goes even beyond that. In the story of Buddha; in one of his prior lives he saves shipwrecked men from sirens.. ; Island in that story is named ‘lanka’. And one of his visits to the island mentioned in mahawamsa was for the sole reason of ridding the island of the yakkas (demons) and nhagas (snake people!?) with dharma.
Medieval Sri Lanka was known to keep a good foreign policy, Relations with the island is mentioned in various writings and poems; Greek, Persian, roman, and of course Indian, etc. Even though it’s not widely known; Rome and Lanka had deep connection in terms of foreign relation between kings and somehow origin stories, whether it’s a coincident or not, the similarities in the stories of Vijaya and Romulus are uncanny, following the stranger king hypothesis, theme of transgression and even matching character developments to a point where it’s hard to ignore. However the first encounter of Rome and Sri Lanka wasn’t recorded till the time of roman emperor Claudius (45-54 AD).
Known for being in the center of the spice trade, the maritime cities in Sri Lanka played a considerable role in the Silk Road exchanges, as the natural protective harbors provided anchorage, safe haven and places to interact with sailors and travelers from across the world. There are number of maps and travel account at the time showing the importance of these towns and cities .The first map of Sri Lanka was drawn by Claudius Ptolemy in the 2nd century CE, included in it the coastal city mantai, it was described by the 6th century CE Greek merchant traveler Cosmos Indicopleustes (translate to cosmos who traveled to India,lol ) as the most vital trading post in the Indian ocean during his lifetime. (The dudes name is all the convincing I need tbh).
Before the European influence, Chinese fleets had diplomacy in Sri Lanka. Zhen he known to be one of the greatest admiral at the time, stopped on the island in almost every one of his voyages. These treasure fleets carried a large number of valuables (including a full grown ass giraffe …), on his way to Galle he brought with him a tri language stone tabloid to honor Adams peak; Inscriptions in Persian to honor Allah, in Tamil to honor Shiva and in Chinese to honor Buddha. And here’s what I find funny… After he arrived at Galle, the kings’ officials rejected the tabloid, bickering about sovereignty…. After which Zhen he returned to china came back ,kidnapped the king, grabbed him by the ear taking the king with him, returning them back only after the king was “thought a lesson about diplomacy”, the stone tablet can be found in the Colombo national museum if you wanna check it out. Political relations with china came to a temporary end right before the colonial ear started.
First Europeans to establish power in Sir Lanka was the Portuguese; the first fleet arrived in 1505. After obtaining a monopoly on the spice trade in favor of the king of Kandy, the Portuguese gained control of the coastal areas of the island. While they tried to siege Kandy, they were defeated and retreated back to the coast time after another .Since the Kandy kingdoms naval power was weak(basically nonexistent) , kings attempts of removing the Portuguese using the Dutch backfired shifting the control from one colonial power to another , The Dutch take over islands’ coasts in 1658. Even then Kandy was dominant (literally had the high ground) . After the invasion of the Netherlands by the French, coastal agreement was turned over to the British in 1803.
From before gaining independence in 1946, to modern time it has been one disaster after another, it’ll be sugarcoating hell to say otherwise… but the country seems to be back on track.
Sri Lanka has a very complex culture; and traditions I could swear was just invented to make kids’ lives miserable (I saw a story that said tradition is just peer pressure from dead people and I’ve been thinking about that a lot ever since) . I can’t possibly go through every detail about the culture but let’s check out a couple.
Agriculture and irrigation systems has been a main part the Sri Lankan identity, in ancient time’s society was broken into labels that at the time no earthy power could get rid of, for example govi (farmers) were farmers till the end of their bloodlines… which is stupid beyond human comprehension. However these farmers were known to single handedly keeping the country a float for centuries. Because grains, such as rice were the main crop of the nation, almost every meal was grain based with sides. This hasn’t changed even in current times , dishes like , Sri Lankan rice and curries, hoppers (normal and string ), rotti , isso wade(made out of dhal but I could use one right now so it’s in the list ..…) are everyday favorites. One of the all time Sri Lankan favorites is koththu (but I don’t think anyone known the origins of that).
Sri Lankan traditional marriages are arranged by the parents according to the social status of the families…. (I can’t roll my eye far enough to the back of my skull) I think ancient Sri Lankans hated free will to their core…; and dating is considered a crime worse than murder in some parts of the country , while the traditional wedding ceremonies are unique , beautiful and full of bling ; I don’t recommend marrying a total strangers because of it. Did you know that public displays of affection are illegal in Sri Lanka? I almost got arrested for kissing my girlfriend (more than once….. lol).
In terms of clothing and hairstyles… the ancients had a good idea about it , beards , man buns and head scarves where very popular… ;gowns , several kinds of native saree configurations all different from one another and a day to day version known as (reddah and hatte ) were in the female wardrobe at the time . The sarongh was the go to for pretty much to any type of activity for males. And abudha the “farming outfit” was basically just a thong for dudes…