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History of Sri Lanka

Sri lanka’s ancient chronicles stretch back into the far distance past where history melts into myth, and storeys being relayed by word-of-mouth over generations.

Myths about ancient Sri Lanka are plentiful, but physical archaeological evidence relating to the island’s prehistory is frustratingly slight. The first humans to arrive in Sri Lanka were the Veddhas, who arrived from India not later than around 16,000BC, perhaps as early as 125,000BC. Their impact on the island was minimal, living mainly by hunting and gathering, although archaeological evidence of domesticated animals and iron has been found from around 800BC. The discovery of so-called Black and Red Ware pottery in both Sri Lanka and India, as well as shared types of burial mound, suggests that there was contact between the two countries long before the arrival of the Sinhalese, although exactly what form this took is unknown.

The Sinhalese

Around the 4th century BC, waves of immigrants from north India began to arrive in the island – the ancestors of the modern Sinhalese. The Sinhalese traced their lineage to the union between a lion (sinha, hence Sinhalese) and a princess in Bengal, and the story of their ancestry and how they came to arrive in the island are described in the curious legend of Prince Vijaya. At first the Sinhalese were confined to coastal river valleys, these being the only areas suitable for the cultivation of their staple crop, rice. Gradually, however, they developed skills in irrigation and the building of reservoirs (tanks) which allowed them to convert the arid northern plans further inland to agricultural use – the beginning of the great hydraulic works which would eventually lead to the creation of hundreds of enormous tanks and thousands of miles of water channels, irrigating vast swathes of the island. Ambitious projects such as these demanded a high degree of centralised authority, which in turn was paid for with taxable agricultural surpluses. It was not the only resource to be exploited for profit. Sri Lanka also became known as a source of precious stones, first-class elephants and spices, especially cinnamon.

The Mahavamsa

In the 5th century AD, Buddhist monks began writing the Mahavamsa (Great History) on palm- leaf (ola) tablets. Like the Old Testament, this is a chronicle of ancient kings interwoven with the theme of a Chosen People guided by the Truth Faith. In this case the heroes were the Sinhalese and this national story was (and still is) a way of asserting their inherent claim to the island. It was written at a time when the Sinhalese capital, Anuradhapura, was beset by armies from southern India who threatened to imitate the actions of the Visigoths and Vandals who had, half a world away, recently sacked Rome.

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