The large island off the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent is occupied by hunter-gatherers until the arrival, in the 6th century BC, of the Sinhalese – a tribal group of Indo-Europeans which has moved south through India.
These people give the island the name by which it has been known throughout most of history: Sinhaladwipa, meaning ‘island of the Sinhalese’, which becomes Ceylon in English. The name of the country is changed to Sri Lanka (‘beautiful island’) when it becomes a republic in 1972.
Theravada Buddhism: from the 3rd century BC
The most formative event in Sri Lanka’s long history is the arrival of Buddhism in the 3rd century BC. This island is the furthest outpost and the most lasting achievement of the missionary efforts of the emperor Asoka.
The Sinhalese of Sri Lanka have remained faithful to Asoka’s religion – the only people of the subcontinent to do so. They are still adherents of Theravada, the first and simpler form of Buddhism. In the sacred temple at Kandy there is no crowd of sculpted demigods to distract the pilgrim. The only holy thing here is a tooth. But it is, so they say, the tooth of Buddha himself, smuggled to Sri Lanka from India in the 4th century AD, hidden in the folds of the long dark hair of a princess.
Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa: 3rd c. BC – 13th c. AD
At the time of the conversion of the ruling family to Buddhism, in the 3rd century BC, the capital city is Anuradhapura in the north of the island. This becomes the first Buddhist centre of Sri Lanka, characterized by the massive dome-shaped stupas (also known as dagobas) which are built to contain sacred relics.
The monks here tend a sacred pipal tree, believed to be grown from a branch of the very tree under which Buddha found enlightenment. The branch of Buddha’s tree, they say, was sent by Asoka himself as a precious gift to Sri Lanka.
The main threat to the Buddhist kingdoms of Sri Lanka is raids across the sea from the Tamil rulers of south India. The intruders differ from the inhabitants of Sri Lanka in two respects – in language (Tamil is Dravidian, Sinhalese is Indo-European) and in religion (the Tamils are Hindu).
In the first millennium of the Christian era the raiders are successfully resisted. But the pressures causes Anuradhapura to be progressively abandoned, from the 8th century, in favour of Polonnaruwa further to the south. At Polonnaruwa (itself deserted in the 13th century) a glorious past is revealed in the gigantic stone Buddhas seated or reclining in the jungle, carved from solid outcrops of rock.
Kandy and Kotte: 12th – 16th century
In the 12th century Tamil rulers finally establish a permanent Hindu presence in the north of the island. Buddhist Sri Lanka shrinks further south again. By the 15th century there are two related Buddhist kingdoms: one is based in Kandy in the hilly centre of the island; the other occupies a new palace at Kotte, a place surrounded by swampy lagoons a little inland from Colombo, by now a thriving harbour used by Arab traders.
This is the situation when a new wave of intruders makes a first appearance in the early 16th century. In 1505 Portuguese ships anchor off Colombo.
Portuguese and Dutch: AD 1505-1795
On their first visit, in 1505, the Portuguese make a treaty with the king of Kandy enabling them to trade in the island’s crop of cinammon. Soon they win permission to build a fort to protect their trade. From this first fort they steadily encroach upon Sinhalese territory until the entire southern part is under their control – restricting the kingdom of Kandy to the highlands.
Jesuits and friars follow the armed traders and convert many of the population. Southern Sri Lanka becomes in effect a Portuguese colony. Towards the end of the 16th century it is formally annexed in the name of the king of Portugal.
The Sinhalese lack the strength to dispute this claim, but in the early 17th century other Europeans in these eastern waters have their own interests in the region’s trade. The Dutch enter negotiations with the king of Kandy, offering to help him drive out the intruders. He is unaware that he is merely exchanging one set of Europeans for another.
The Dutch finally get the better of the Portuguese in 1656, when they capture Colombo after a six-month siege. For the next century and more they are able to corner the trade in cinammon, controlling most of the coastal areas of the island under governors sent from the capital of the Dutch East Indies at Batavia.
The Sinhalese royal house in Kandy retains a measure of independence, protected by the impenetrable combination of mountain landscape and tropical climate. Both Portuguese and Dutch forces reach Kandy on occasion but are unable to hold it.
As in so many other places, the next transfer of power in Sri Lanka is a result of the French Revolutionary wars. A British fleet arrives in 1795 and captures the island from the Dutch.