Today is Independence Day in Sri Lanka, officially the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, an island country in the northern Indian Ocean off the southern coast of the Indian subcontinent in South Asia; known until 1972 as Ceylon. Sri Lanka has maritime borders with India to the northwest and the Maldives to the southwest.
Sri Lanka has a long documented history that spans over 3000 years, and a much longer one in the archeological record. Its geographic location and deep harbors made it of great strategic importance from the time of the ancient Silk Road through to World War II. Sri Lanka is a diverse country, home to many religions, ethnicities, and languages. It is the land of the Sinhalese, Sri Lankan Tamils, Moors, Indian Tamils, Burghers, Malays, Kaffirs, and the aboriginal Vedda. Sri Lanka has a rich Buddhist heritage, and the first known Buddhist writings were composed on the island. The country’s recent history has been marred by a thirty-year civil war which decisively, but controversially, ended in a military victory in 2009.
Sri Lanka is a republic and a unitary state governed by a presidential system. The capital, Sri Jayawardenapura-Kotte, is a suburb of the largest city, Colombo. Sri Lanka is a major world producer of tea, coffee, gemstones, coconuts, rubber, and native cinnamon. Sri Lanka is sometimes known as “the Pearl of the Indian Ocean” because of its natural beauty. Sri Lanka has also been called the “Pearl of the Indian Ocean” because of its shape and location. The island contains tropical forests and diverse landscapes with high biodiversity.
In antiquity, Sri Lanka was known to travelers by a variety of names. Known in India as Lanka or Sinhala, ancient Greek geographers called it Taprobane, and Arabs referred to it as Serendib (the origin of the word “serendipity”). Ceilão, the name given to Sri Lanka by the Portuguese when they arrived in 1505, was transliterated into English as Ceylon. As a British crown colony, the island was known as Ceylon; it achieved independence as the Dominion of Ceylon in 1948.
In Sinhala the country is known as ?r? la?k?, and the island itself as la?k?va. In Tamil they are both ila?kai. In 1972 the name was changed to Free, Sovereign and Independent Republic of Sri Lanka. In 1978 it was changed to the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. While the name Ceylon still appears in the names of a number of organizations, in 2011 the Sri Lankan government announced a plan to rename all those over which it has authority.
The pre-history of Sri Lanka goes back 125,000 years and possibly even as far back as 500,000 years.The era spans the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and early Iron Ages. Among the Paleolithic human settlements discovered in Sri Lanka, Pahiyangala (named after the Chinese traveler monk Faxian), which dates back to 37,000 BP, Batadombalena (28,500 BP) and Belilena (12,000 BP) are the most important. In these caves, paleontologists have found the remains of anatomically modern humans which they have named Balangoda Man, and other evidence suggesting that they may have engaged in agriculture and kept domestic dogs for driving game.
One of the first written references to the island is found in the Indian epic Ramayana, which mentions a kingdom named Lanka that was created by the divine sculptor Vishwakarma for Kubera, the Lord of Wealth. Kubera was overthrown by his demon stepbrother Ravana, the powerful emperor who built a mythical flying machine named Dandu Monara. The modern city of Wariyapola is described as Ravana’s airport.
Early inhabitants of Sri Lanka were probably the ancestors of the Vedda people, an indigenous people numbering approximately 2,500 living in modern-day Sri Lanka. Irish historian James Emerson Tennent theorized that Galle, a southern city in Sri Lanka, was the ancient seaport of Tarshish from which King Solomon is said to have drawn ivory, peacocks, and other valuables.
According to the Mah?vamsa, a chronicle written in the P?li language, the ancient period of Sri Lanka begins in 543 BCE with the landing of Vijaya, a semi-legendary prince who sailed with 700 followers on eight ships 860 nautical miles to Sri Lanka from the southwest coast of what is now the Rarh region of West Bengal. He established the Kingdom of Tambapanni, near modern day Mannar. Vijaya is the first of the approximately 189 native monarchs of Sri Lanka described in chronicles such as the Dipavamsa, Mah?vamsa, Chulavamsa, and R?j?valiya. Sri Lankan dynastic history spanned a period of 2,359 years from 543 BCE to 1815, when the land became part of the British Empire.
The seat of the kingdom of Sri Lanka moved to Anuradhapura in 380 BCE, during the reign of Pandukabhaya. Thereafter, Anuradhapura served as the capital of the country for nearly 1,400 years. Ancient Sri Lankans excelled at building certain types of structures such as tanks, dagobas (burial mounds), and palaces. The society underwent a major transformation during the reign of Devanampiya Tissa, with the arrival of Buddhism from India. In 250 BC, Bhikkhu Mahinda, the son of the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka arrived in Mihintale, carrying the message of Buddhism. His mission won over the monarch, who embraced the faith and spread it throughout the Sinhalese population. Succeeding kingdoms of Sri Lanka maintained a large number of Buddhist schools and monasteries and supported the spread of Buddhism into other countries in Southeast Asia. Sri Lankan bhikkhus (ordained monks) studied in India’s famous ancient Buddhist University of Nalanda which was destroyed by Mohammed Kilji. It is probable that many of the scriptures from Nalanda are preserved in Sri Lanka’s many monasteries. In 245 BCE, bhikkhuni Sangamitta arrived with the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi tree, which is considered to be a sapling from the historical Bodhi tree under which Gautama Buddha became enlightened. It is reckoned to be the oldest human-planted tree (with a continuous historical record) in the world.
Sri Lanka first experienced a foreign invasion during the reign of Suratissa, who was defeated by two horse traders named Sena and Guttika from South India. The next invasion came immediately in 205 BCE by a Chola king named Elara, who overthrew Asela and ruled the country for 44 years. Dutugemunu, the eldest son of the southern regional sub-king, Kavan Tissa, defeated Elara in the Battle of Vijithapura. He built Ruwanwelisaya, the second dogaba in ancient Sri Lanka, and the Lovamahapaya. During its two and a half millennia of existence, the Kingdom of Sri Lanka was invaded at least eight times by neighboring South Asian dynasties such as the Chola, Pandya, Chera, and Pallava. These invaders were all subsequently driven back. There also were incursions by the kingdoms of Kalinga (modern Odisha) and from the Malay Peninsula. Kala Wewa and the Avukana Buddha statue were built during the reign of Dhatusena.
Sri Lanka was the first Asian country to have a female ruler, Queen Anula, who reigned during 47–42 BCE. Sri Lankan monarchs completed some remarkable constructions like Sigiriya, the so-called “Fortress in the Sky,” built during the reign of Kashyapa I. Sigiriya is a rock fortress surrounded by an extensive network of ramparts, moats, gardens, reservoirs, and other structures. It is one of the best preserved examples of ancient urban planning in the world. The fifth-century palace is also renowned for its frescoes on rock surfaces. It has been declared by UNESCO as one of the seven World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka.
Among other structures, large reservoirs, important for conserving water in a climate with rainy and dry seasons, and elaborate aqueducts, some with a slope as finely calibrated as one inch to the mile, are most notable. Biso Kotuwa, a peculiar construction inside a dam, is a technological marvel based on precise mathematics that allows water to flow outside the dam, keeping pressure on the dam to a minimum.
Ancient Sri Lanka was the first country in the world to establish a dedicated hospital, in Mihintale in the 4th century. It was also the leading exporter of cinnamon in the ancient world. It maintained close ties with European civilizations including the Roman Empire. For example, King Bhatikabhaya (22 BC—AD 7) sent an envoy to Rome who brought back red coral which was used to make an elaborate netlike adornment for the Ruwanwelisaya. In addition, Sri Lankan male dancers witnessed the assassination of Caligula. When Queen Cleopatra sent her son Caesarion into hiding, he was headed to Sri Lanka. Bhikkhuni Devas?ra and ten other fully ordained bhikkhunis from Sri Lanka went to China and established the bhikkhuni s?sana there in AD 429.
The early modern period of Sri Lanka begins with the arrival of Portuguese soldier and explorer Lourenço de Almeida, the son of Francisco de Almeida, in 1505. In 1517, the Portuguese built a fort at the port city of Colombo and gradually extended their control over the coastal areas. In 1592, after decades of intermittent warfare with the Portuguese, Vimaladharmasuriya I moved his kingdom to the inland city of Kandy, a location he thought more secure from attack. In 1619, succumbing to attacks by the Portuguese, the independent existence of Jaffna kingdom came to an end.
During the reign of the Rajasinghe II, Dutch explorers arrived on the island. In 1638, the king signed a treaty with the Dutch East India Company to get rid of the Portuguese who ruled most of the coastal areas. The following Dutch–Portuguese War resulted in a Dutch victory, with Colombo falling into Dutch hands by 1656. The Dutch remained in the areas they had captured, thereby violating the treaty they had signed in 1638. An ethnic group named Burgher people emerged in Sri Lankan society as a result of Dutch rule.
The Kingdom of Kandy was the last independent monarchy of Sri Lanka. In 1595, Vimaladharmasurya brought the sacred Tooth Relic – the traditional symbol of royal and religious authority amongst the Sinhalese – to Kandy, and built the Temple of the Tooth. In spite of on-going intermittent warfare with Europeans, the kingdom survived. Later, a crisis of succession emerged in Kandy upon king Vira Narendrasinha’s death in 1739. He was married to a Telugu-speaking Nayakkar princess from South India and was childless by her. Eventually, with the support of bhikku Weliwita Sarankara, the crown passed to the brother of one of Narendrasinha’s princesses, overlooking the right of “Unambuwe Bandara”, Narendrasinha’s own son by a Sinhalese concubine. The new king was crowned Sri Vijaya Rajasinha later that year. Kings of the Nayakkar dynasty launched several attacks on Dutch controlled areas, which proved to be unsuccessful.
During the Napoleonic Wars, fearing that French control of the Netherlands might deliver Sri Lanka to the French, Great Britain occupied the coastal areas of the island (which they called Ceylon) with little difficulty in 1796. Two years later, in 1798, Rajadhi Rajasinha, third of the four Nayakkar kings of Sri Lanka, died of a fever. Following his death, a nephew of Rajadhi Rajasinha, eighteen-year-old Kannasamy, was crowned.The young king, now named Sri Vikrama Rajasinha, faced a British invasion in 1803 but successfully retaliated. By then, the entire coastal area was under the British East India Company as a result of the Treaty of Amiens. But on 14 February 1815, Kandy was occupied by the British in the second Kandyan War, finally ending Sri Lanka’s independence. Sri Vikrama Rajasinha, the last native monarch of Sri Lanka, was exiled to India. The Kandyan Convention formally ceded the entire country to the British Empire. Attempts by Sri Lankan noblemen to undermine British power in 1818 during the Uva Rebellion were thwarted by Governor Robert Brownrigg.
The beginning of the modern period of Sri Lanka is marked by the Colebrooke-Cameron reforms of 1833. They introduced a utilitarian and liberal political culture to the country based on the rule of law and amalgamated the Kandyan and maritime provinces as a single unit of government. An Executive Council and a Legislative Council were established, later becoming the foundation of a representative legislature. By this time, experiments with coffee plantation were largely successful. Soon coffee became the primary commodity export of the country. Falling coffee prices as a result of the depression of 1847 stalled economic development and prompted the governor to introduce a series of taxes on firearms, dogs, shops, boats, etc., and to reintroduce a form of rajakariya, requiring six days free labor on roads or payment of a cash equivalent. These harsh measures antagonized the locals, and another rebellion broke out in 1848. A devastating leaf disease, Hemileia vastatrix, struck the coffee plantations in 1869, destroying the entire industry within fifteen years. The British quickly found a replacement: abandoning coffee, they began cultivating tea instead. Tea production in Sri Lanka thrived in the following decades. Large-scale rubber plantations began in the early 20th century.
By the end of the 19th century, a new educated social class transcending race and caste arose through British attempts to staff the Ceylon Civil Service and the legal, educational, and medical professions. New leaders represented the various ethnic groups of the population in the Ceylon Legislative Council on a communal basis. Buddhist and Hindu revivalism reacted against Christian missionary activities. The first two decades of the 20th century are noted by the unique harmony among Sinhalese and Tamil political leadership, which has since been lost. In 1919, major Sinhalese and Tamil political organizations united to form the Ceylon National Congress, under the leadership of Ponnambalam Arunachalam, pressing colonial masters for more constitutional reforms. But without massive popular support, and with the governor’s encouragement for “communal representation” by creating a “Colombo seat” that dangled between Sinhalese and Tamils, the Congress lost momentum towards the mid-1920s. The Donoughmore reforms of 1931 repudiated the communal representation and introduced universal adult franchise (the franchise stood at 4% before the reforms). This step was strongly criticized by the Tamil political leadership, who realized that they would be reduced to a minority in the newly created State Council of Ceylon, which succeeded the legislative council. In 1937, Tamil leader G. G. Ponnambalam demanded a 50–50 representation (50% for the Sinhalese and 50% for other ethnic groups) in the State Council. However, this demand was not met by the Soulbury reforms of 1944-45. The Soulbury constitution ushered in Dominion status, with independence proclaimed on 4 February 1948.
Sri Lanka has long been renowned for its spices. Since ancient times, traders from all over the world who came to Sri Lanka brought their native cuisines to the island, resulting in a rich diversity of cooking styles and techniques. The island nation’s cuisine mainly consists of boiled or steamed rice served with curry. This usually consists of a “main curry” of fish, chicken, pork, mutton or goat, as well as several other dishes made with vegetables, lentils and even fruit. Side-dishes include pickles, chutneys and “sambols”. The most famous of these is the coconut sambol, made of ground coconut mixed with chile peppers, dried Maldive, fish and lime juice. This is ground to a paste and eaten with rice.
Coconut milk is used in most Sri Lankan dishes to give the cuisine its unique flavor. Sri Lankans use spices liberally in their dishes and typically do not follow an exact recipe: thus, every cook’s curry will taste slightly different. Furthermore, people from different regions of the island (for instance, hill-country dwellers versus coastal dwellers) traditionally cook in different ways while people of different ethnic and religious groups tend to prepare dishes according to their customs. Although Sri Lankan food appears similar to South Indian cuisine in its use of chile, cardamom, cumin, coriander and other spices, it has a distinctive taste, and uses ingredients like dried Maldive fish which are local to the area.
Sri Lankan food is generally equivalent in terms of spiciness to South Indian cuisine, yet many spicy Sri Lankan preparations are believed to be among the world’s hottest in terms of chile content. There is a liberal use of different varieties of scorching hot chiles such as amu miris, kochchi miris, and maalu miris.
There are mountains of Sri Lankan recipes that are wonderful. I’ve picked a version of the side dish, dahl, lentils with spices to give you. A meal without dahl is unthinkable. In south Asian restaurants in the West the dahls tend to be rather dull – watery concoctions of bland, cooked lentils. Throughout south Asia they are rich and complex. They are almost always cooked in two parts – the lentils themselves and then an added component, called “temper” in Sri Lanka, which is cooked separately and added to the lentils towards the end. Red lentils are much easier to cook than brown ones and are very commonly used. They reduce to a light brown mush in 25 minutes or less. Maldive dried fish may be hard to come by, but you can substitute most Asian dried fish. Use Sri Lankan cinnamon if you can find it. It is more aromatic then the cinnamon you find in supermarkets. It’s easy to find online.
Sri Lankan Dahl
250 g (1¼ cups) red lentils, rinsed, drained
1 onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
½ tsp ground turmeric
1 tbsp Maldive fish pieces
1 tsp Sri Lankan curry powder
6 fresh curry leaves
1 long green chile, sliced
1 cinnamon stick
500 ml (2 cups) coconut milk
60 ml (¼ cup) coconut cream
80 ml olive oil
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 cinnamon stick
1 large onion, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, sliced
5 fresh curry leaves
1 tsp dried chile flakes
Place all the main ingredients except the coconut cream in a saucepan with 250 ml water and bring to the boil. Reduce heat to medium and cook, covered, for 25 minutes or until lentils are tender and broken down; add more water if necessary. Season with salt.
Meanwhile, to cook the temper for the dhal, heat oil in a frying pan over medium heat, then add the temper ingredients and cook, stirring occasionally, for 7 minutes or until onions are soft and browned. Remove from the heat and set aside until the lentils are ready.
Stir the temper into the lentils, then add the coconut cream, stirring to combine. Serve with rice, sambols, and curry. Sri Lankans typically mix the rice, dahl, and curry all together.