Apr 282015
 

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On this date in 1253 Nichiren, a Japanese Buddhist monk, chanted Nam Myoho Renge Kyo publicly for the very first time and declares it to be the essence of Buddhism, thus establishing the sect of Nichiren Buddhism. Nichiren (日蓮) (April 6, 1222 – November 21, 1282) lived during the Kamakura period (1185–1333) and taught devotion to the Lotus Sutra (entitled Myōhō-Renge-Kyō in Japanese)— which contained Gautama Buddha’s teachings towards the end of his life — as the exclusive means to attain enlightenment. Nichiren believed that this sutra contained the essence of all of Gautama Buddha’s teachings related to the laws of cause and effect, karma, and leading all people without distinction to enlightenment. This devotion to the sutra entails the chanting of Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō (referred to as daimoku) as the essential practice of the teaching.

Nichiren Buddhism includes various schools such as Nichiren Shōshū, Nichiren Shu and lay movements such as Risshō Kōsei Kai or Soka Gakkai , each claiming to be the only true follower of their founder, with their own interpretations of Nichiren’s teachings. However, despite the differences between schools, all Nichiren sects share the fundamental practice of chanting daimoku. While all Nichiren Buddhist schools regard him as a reincarnation of the Lotus Sutra’s Bodhisattva Superior Practices, Jōgyō Bosatsu (上行菩薩), some schools of Nichiren Buddhism’s Nikkō lineages regard him as the actual Buddha of this age, or the Buddha of the Latter day of the Law and for all eternity.

Nichiren was born on February 16, 1222 in the village of Kominato (today part of the city of Kamogawa), Nagase District, Awa Province (within present-day Chiba Prefecture). Nichiren’s father, a fisherman, was Mikuni-no-Tayu Shigetada, also known as Nukina Shigetada Jiro (d. 1258) and his mother was Umegiku-nyo (d. 1267). On his birth, his parents named him Zennichimaro (善日麿?) which has variously been translated into English as “Splendid Sun” and “Virtuous Sun Boy” among others. The exact site of Nichiren’s birth is believed to be submerged off the shore from present-day Kominato-zan Tanjō-ji (小湊山 誕生寺), a temple in Kominato that commemorates Nichiren’s birth. In his own words, Nichiren stated that he was “the son of a chandala family who lived near the sea in Tojo in Awa Province, in the remote countryside of the eastern part of Japan.”

Nichiren began his Buddhist study at a nearby temple of the Tendai school, Seichō-ji (清澄寺, also called Kiyosumi-dera), at age 11. He was formally ordained at 16 and took the Buddhist name Zeshō-bō Renchō (Rencho meaning Lotus Growth). He left Seichō-ji shortly thereafter to study in Kamakura and several years later traveled to western Japan for more in-depth study in the Kyoto–Nara area, where Japan’s major centers of Buddhist learning were located. In 1233 he went to Kamakura, where he studied Amidism—a pietistic school that stressed salvation through the invocation of Amida (Amitābha), the Buddha of infinite compassion—under the guidance of a renowned master. After having persuaded himself that Amidism was not the true Buddhist doctrine, he passed to the study of Zen Buddhism, which had become popular in Kamakura and Kyōto. He then went to Mount Hiei, the cradle of Japanese Tendai Buddhism, where he found the original purity of the Tendai doctrine corrupted by the introduction and acceptance of other doctrines, especially Amidism and esoteric Buddhism. To eliminate any possible doubts, Nichiren decided to spend some time at Mount Kōya, the centre of esoteric Buddhism, and also in Nara, Japan’s ancient capital, where he studied the Ritsu sect, which emphasized strict monastic discipline and ordination. During this time, he became convinced of the pre-eminence of the Lotus Sutra and in 1253, returned to Seichoji.

On April 28, 1253, he expounded Nam-Myōhō-Renge-Kyō for the first time, marking his Sho Tempōrin (初転法輪: “first turning the wheel of the Law”). With this, he proclaimed that devotion and practice based on the Lotus Sutra was the correct form of Buddhism for the current time. At the same time he changed his name to Nichiren, nichi (日) meaning “sun” and ren (蓮) meaning “lotus.” This choice, as Nichiren himself explained, was rooted in passages from the Lotus Sutra.

After making his declaration, which all schools of Nichiren Buddhism regard as marking their foundation (立宗: risshū), Nichiren began propagating his teachings in Kamakura, then Japan’s de facto capital since it was where the shikken (regent for the shogun) and shogun lived and the government was established. He gained a fairly large following there, consisting of both priests and laity. Many of his lay believers came from among the new samurai class (that is, samurai drawn from the peasant class and not the nobility) .

Among other things, in 1253 Nichiren predicted the Mongol invasions of Japan: a prediction which was validated in 1274. Nichiren viewed his teachings as a method of efficaciously preventing this and other disasters: that the best countermeasure against the degeneracy of the times and its associated disasters was through the activation of Buddha-nature by chanting and the other practices which he advocated.

Nichiren then engaged in writing, publishing various works including his Risshō Ankoku Ron (立正安国論?): “Treatise On Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land” his first major treatise and the first of three remonstrations with government authorities. He felt that it was imperative for the sovereign to recognize and accept the only true and correct form of Buddhism (i.e., 立正: risshō) and the only way to achieve peace and prosperity for the land and its people and end their suffering (i.e., 安国: ankoku). This “true and correct form of Buddhism”, as Nichiren saw it, entailed regarding the Lotus Sutra as the fullest expression of the Buddha’s teachings and putting those teachings into practice. Nichiren thought this could be achieved in Japan by withdrawing lay support so that the deviant monks would be forced to change their ways or revert to laymen to prevent starving. Based on prophecies made in several sutras, Nichiren attributed the occurrence of the famines, disease, and natural disasters (especially drought, typhoons, and earthquakes) of his day to teachings of Buddhism no longer appropriate for the time.

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Nichiren submitted his treatise in July 1260. Though it drew no official response, it prompted a severe backlash, especially from among priests of other Buddhist schools. Nichiren was harassed frequently, several times with force, and often had to change homes. Nichiren was exiled to the Izu peninsula in 1261, and pardoned in 1263. He was ambushed and nearly killed at Komatsubara in Awa Province in November 1264.

The following several years were marked by successful propagation activities in eastern Japan that generated more resentment among rival priests and government authorities. After one exchange with the influential priest, Ryōkan (良観), Nichiren was summoned for questioning by the authorities in September 1271. He used this as an opportunity to make his second government remonstration. This time to Hei no Saemon (平の左衛門, also called 平頼綱: Taira no Yoritsuna), a powerful police and military figure issued the summons.

Two days later, on September 12, Hei no Saemon and a group of soldiers abducted Nichiren from his hut at Matsubagayatsu, Kamakura. Their intent was to arrest and behead him. According to Nichiren’s account, an astronomical phenomenon — “a brilliant orb as bright as the moon” — over the seaside Tatsunokuchi execution grounds terrified Nichiren’s executioners into inaction. The incident is known as the Tatsunokuchi Persecution and regarded as a turning point in Nichiren’s lifetime called Hosshaku kenpon (発迹顕本), translated as “casting off the transient and revealing the true,” or “Outgrowing the provisional and revealing the essential.”

Unsure of what to do with Nichiren, Hei no Saemon decided to banish him to Sado, an island in the Japan Sea known for its particularly severe winters and a place of harsh exile.

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This exile, Nichiren’s second, lasted about three years and, though harsh and in the long term detrimental to his health, represents one of the most important and productive segments of his life. While on Sado, he won many devoted converts and wrote two of his most important doctrinal treatises, the Kaimoku Shō (開目抄: “On the Opening of the Eyes”) and the Kanjin no Honzon Shō (観心本尊抄: “The Object of Devotion for Observing the Mind”) as well as numerous letters and minor treatises whose content containing critical components of his teaching.

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It was also during his exile on Sado, in 1272, that he inscribed the first Gohonzon (御本尊). This mandala is a visual representation, in Chinese characters, of the Ceremony in the Air. This ceremony is described in the 11th (Treasure Tower) to 22nd (Entrustment) chapters of the Lotus Sutra. Within these chapters it is revealed that all persons can attain Buddhahood in this lifetime and Shakyamuni transfers the essence of the sutra to the Bodhisattvas of the Earth led by Bodhisattva Superior Practices (Jogyo), entrusting them with the propagation of the essence of the sutra in the Latter Day of the Law. For Nichiren, the Gohonzon embodies the eternal and intrinsic Law of Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, which he identified as the ultimate Law permeating life and the universe.

Nichiren was pardoned in February 1274 and returned to Kamakura in late March. He was again interviewed by Hei no Saemon, who now was interested in Nichiren’s prediction of an invasion by the Mongols. Mongol messengers demanding Japan’s fealty had frightened the authorities into believing that Nichiren’s prophecy of foreign invasion would materialize (which it later did in October of that year. Nichiren, however, used the audience as yet another opportunity to remonstrate with the government.

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His third remonstration also went unheeded, and Nichiren—following a Chinese adage that if a wise man remonstrates three times but is ignored, he should leave the country—decided to go into voluntary exile at Mt. Minobu (身延山) in 1274. With the exception of a few short journeys, Nichiren spent the rest of his life at Minobu, where he and his disciples erected a temple, Kuon-ji (久遠寺), and he continued writing and training his disciples. Two of his works from this period are the Senji Shō (撰時抄: “The Selection of the Time”) and the Hōon Shō (報恩抄: “On Repaying Debts of Gratitude”),which, along with his Risshō Ankoku Ron (立正安国論: “On Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land”), Kaimoku Shō (“The Opening of the Eyes”), and Kanjin no Honzon Shō (“The Object of Devotion for Observing the Mind”), constitute his Five Major Writings. He also inscribed numerous Gohonzon for bestowal upon specific disciples and lay believers. Many of these survive today in the repositories of Nichiren temples such as Taiseki-ji (大石寺) in Fujinomiya, Shizuoka Prefecture, which has a particularly large collection that is publicly aired once a year in April.

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Nichiren spent his final years writing, inscribing Gohonzon for his disciples and believers, and delivering sermons. In failing health, he was encouraged to travel to hot springs for their medicinal benefits. He left Minobu in the company of several disciples on September 8, 1282. He arrived ten days later at the residence of Ikegami Munenaka, a lay believer who lived in what is now Ikegami, the site is marked by Ikegami Honmon-ji. On September 25 he delivered his last sermon on the Risshō Ankoku Ron, and on October 8 he appointed six senior disciples—Nisshō (日昭), Nichirō (日朗), Nikkō (日興), Nikō (日向), Nichiji (日持), and Nitchō (日頂)—to continue leading propagation of his teachings after his death. Nichiren Shoshu believe that Nichiren designated five senior priests, and one successor, Nikko.

On October 13, 1282, Nichiren died in the presence of many disciples and lay believers. His funeral and cremation took place the following day. His disciple Nikkō left Ikegami with Nichiren’s ashes on October 21, reaching Minobu on October 25. Nichiren’s original tomb is sited, as per his request, at Kuonji on Mt. Minobu.

A large political change occurred in the Kamakura period. Before the Kamakura period, the samurai were guards of the landed estates of the nobility. The nobility lost control of the Japanese countryside and fell under the militaristic rule of the peasant class samurai. A military government was set up in Kamakura in 1192. Once the positions of power had been exchanged, the role of the court banquets changed. Before this period, the court cuisine emphasized flavor and nutrition, but it changed to a highly ceremonial and official role.

The first shogun was Minamoto Yoritomo. He punished other samurai who followed the earlier showy banquet style of the nobility. The shogun banquet was called “ōban(椀飯).” The ōban was attended by military leaders from the provinces. The origin of the ōban was a luncheon on festival days attended by soldiers and guards during the Heian period.

The menu usually consisted of the followings:

dried abalone

jellyfish (aemono)

pickled plum (umeboshi)

salt and vinegar for flavoring

rice

However towards the end of this period the honzen ryori banquet, a return to elaborate displays,  became popular again.

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The cuisine of the new samurai class came distinctly from their peasant roots. The meals prepared emphasized simplicity, avoided refinement, ceremony and luxury and shed all Chinese influence.

The Buddhist vegetarian philosophy strengthened during the Kamakura period. It began to spread to the peasants. Those who were involved in the trade of animals which were slaughtered for food or leather were discriminated against. Those who practiced this trade were considered in opposition to the Buddhist philosophy of not taking life. They were thought of as defiled under Shinto philosophy. This discrimination intensified, and eventually led to the creation of a separate caste called the burakumin.

A plain dish of rice and pickles is still a popular breakfast in Japan. Once when I was in a simple ryokan (guest house) in Uji, center of green tea production, I was sitting at my laptop in the dining area in the early morning and the owner brought me rice and pickles – unasked !! Now rice and pickles is a common staple for me.

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One day I will write a post on the different forms of rice and methods of cooking in Asia. All regions have their own styles (and methods of serving and eating). Japanese rice is shorter grained and glutinous, either polished or unpolished. Uruchi mai is the most common kind of Japanese rice used today. Most of the Japonica rice for sale in the U.S. is grown in California, where the method is dry planting instead of flooded fields, so the quality is a bit different, but acceptable.

I use a rice cooker, so it’s straightforward to make perfect rice every time, and keep it warm for the duration of a meal. Otherwise cook it in the traditional way. Wash the rice in a sieve under cold running water until the water becomes clear. Place in a heavy pot with an equal quantity of water. Bring to a boil, turn the heat down to a low simmer, and cover with a tight lid. Cook for 20 minutes then turn off the heat and let steam, still covered, for another 20 minutes. There is a real art to doing this which is why I, and millions of Asians, use an electric cooker.

I used to make my own Japanese pickles, which involves preparing a tub of the fermented leftovers from sake production. Something of a chore, although the end results are great. It’s easier to buy the pickles in an Asian market.

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May 272014
 

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Today is the birthday (1906) of Buddhadasa Bhikkhu an influential Thai ascetic-philosopher of the 20th century. Buddhadasa fostered a reformation in conventional religious perceptions in general, not just within the Buddhism in which he was trained and ordained as a monk. Buddhadasa developed a personal view that rejected specific religious identification and considered all faiths as principally one. His ground-breaking thought inspired such people as Pridi Phanomyong, leader of Thailand’s 1932 revolution, and a group of Thai social activists and artists of the 1960’s and 70’s.

Buddhadasa was born Nguam Panitch in Ban Phumriang (Chaiya district), southern Siam. He renounced civilian life in 1926. Typical of young monks during the time, he traveled to Bangkok for doctrinal training. But he found the wats (temples) there dirty, crowded, and, most troubling to him, the Sangha (monastic community) corrupt, ‘preoccupied with prestige, position, and comfort with little interest in the highest ideals of Buddhism.’ As a result, he returned to his native rural district and occupied a forest tract near to his village. He named it Suan Mokkh, from Thai suan, ‘garden’ and Vedic moksha, ‘release, liberation.’ He strove for a simple, pristine practice in attempt to emulate the Buddha’s core teaching, “Do good, avoid bad, and purify the mind.” He felt that the original teaching of the Buddha had been completely overlaid with layer upon layer of interpretation over the centuries. He therefore avoided the customary ritualism and internal politics that dominated Thai clerical life. His ability to explain complex philosophical and religious ideas in his native southern “Pak Tai” vernacular (Southern Thai language) attracted many people to his wooded retreat. However, Buddhadasa was skeptical of his increasing fame; when reflecting on the busloads of visitors to Suan Mokkh he would say “sometimes I think many of these people just stop here because they have to visit the bathroom.”

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From the earliest period of his religious studies, Buddhadasa used a comparative approach and sought to be able to explain “Buddhist teachings through other doctrines such as Tao, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam and Natural Science.” Through such a methodology he came to adopt a religious world-view that rejected exclusionary religious identification. In his No Religion (1993) Buddhadasa famously remarked, “in advanced perspectives there is no religious identification whatsoever. Those who have penetrated to the highest understanding will feel that the thing called ‘religion’ doesn’t exist after all. There is no Buddhism; there is no Christianity; there is no Islam. How can they be the same or in conflict when they don’t even exist?” Words to live by.

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To celebrate Buddhadasa I offer you a great Thai soup – tom yum — characterized by its distinct hot and sour flavors, with fragrant herbs generously used in the broth. The basic broth is made of stock and fresh ingredients such as lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, lime juice, fish sauce, and crushed hot peppers. It can be hard to get these ingredients but it is reasonably easy to get a base paste that includes all them. Commercial tom yum paste is made by crushing all the herb ingredients and stir frying in oil. Seasoning and other preservative ingredients are then added. The paste is bottled or packaged and sold around the world. Tom yum flavored with the paste is somewhat different from that made with fresh herb ingredients. Many households in SE Asia use commercial pastes because of convenience.

As with other soups that I have given to you that have as many varieties as there are domestic stoves, I’ll just give you the basic idea of tom yum. The essence of the soup is the broth itself. Start with a stock of choice (depending on the main protein), bring it to a gentle simmer, and then add tom yum paste to suit your taste. Then take your pick of ingredients. I tend to use rice noodles as a base, with some chicken (cooked and sliced thin). Shrimp are also good, and very popular these days. After that I throw in whatever I have to hand – mushrooms, sliced Chinese cabbage, tofu – whatever suits my fancy. Remember it is the hot and sour, spicy broth that makes tom yum what it is, not the other ingredients.

Feb 042014
 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Temper

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

Instructions

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.