Sri Lanka is a melting pot for various cultures, traditions and beliefs. With a history dating back to the prehistoric era, its historical richness is understandable. The country, formerly known as Ceylon, lies in the Indian Ocean and is separated by the Indian peninsula by the Palk Strait. The history of Sri Lanka and mainland India are deeply intertwined with each other. The maritime routes traversing the Indian Ocean are also responsible for cultural interactions and traditional infusions. The island nation has a written record of its human settlement to as far back as 2 millennia. With an extensively rich history, which is well preserved even today, Sri Lanka is rightfully referred to as the pearl of the Indian Ocean.
Sri Lanka’s Prehistoric Record
Geographically, Sri Lanka is an extension of the Indian peninsula that got separated from the mainland quite recently (about 5 million years ago). Archaeological excavations since the 20th century have revealed that there was life on the island prior to that, dating back to 75,000 to 125,000 years ago. Several microliths or tiny sharp objects, probably tools, have also been discovered showing that the earliest settlers here were hunters and gatherers. With the onset of the 9th century, people had started experimenting with food production and irrigation along with getting access to some iron tools.
Origin of the Name Sri Lanka
Originally called ‘Lanka’, a word that simply means island, the name of Sri Lanka has gone through a long period of change by the invaders. It was been called as Taprobane by the Greeks, Serendip by the Arabs, Celao by the Portuguese, Ceylan by the Dutch and Ceylon by the British. In 1972 Sri was added to Lanka which together meant, the resplendent island. Sri Lanka has always attracted merchants and traders from all over the world for its rich collection of gems, spices and wildlife culture. This all resulted in the island turning into the perfect melting pot of various cultures and traditions from all over the world.
Sri Lanka and Ramayana
The Ramayana or Ram’s Journey is India’ first great Sanskrit poem, composed by the Indian sage Valmiki in 400 AD who had based his epic work on various stories, songs and prayers connected to Ram and Sita. It tells both the geographical and spiritual story of the dutiful lord Ram, the prince of Ayodhya. A major part of the epic takes place in the island nation of Lanka where the demon king Ravan was the ruler. As a result of this, Sri Lanka turned into a spiritual destination that is highly revered by many. The redevelopment of Ramayana trail in Sri Lanka has also worked in its favour for the development of spiritual tourism. The trail includes numerous popular Ramayan tourist attractions like Sigiriya, Ashok Vatika and Divurumpola Temple.
Early Settlement and Spread of Buddhism
The area of Balangoda in the south of the island holds the most direct fossil evidence and signs of the earliest human settlements. The first urban settlers had appeared in and around the region of Anuradhapura by 10th century BCE. The earliest ancestors of the Sinhalese had migrated from the northern region of India to the island during the 5th century. The later immigrants were the Tamil folks from central, eastern and southern India. The region where Dravidian language was spoken largely. Their early migrations spanned from the 3rd century to 1200 CE.
Buddhist chroniclers have well-preserved the historical traditions of Sri Lanka. The earliest dated Buddhist chronicle dates back to the 4th century and was compiled by the Buddhist nuns. This chronicle is known as Dipavamsa. Combined with Culavamsa and Mahavamsa form the literary record of the establishment and growth of the Sinhalese political power and of Sri Lankan Buddhism.
Conflicts with India
During the 3rd century, the Son of Ashoka, Mahinda, had converted to Buddhism. He then made his way to Sri Lanka with some monks in order to preach and spread the word of Buddhism. On reaching, his sister, who went by the name of Sanghamitra had planted a ficus tree sapling. This sapling was a part of the same ficus tree under which Lord Buddha had attained enlightenment in India. This tree is highly venerated in Anuradhapura. Later on in the 4th century, Anuradhapura became the first capital of the Sinhalese kingdoms- which has been a turning point for the history of Sri Lanka. Throughout its reign, the region was frequently damaged by regular conflicts with South India. Nowadays, due to its rich historical past and well-preserved remains, Anuradhapura is a UNESCO world heritage site. Eventually, after a string of amenities with the Tamil, Sinhalese supremacy reigned. Later on, Buddhist doctrine began to spread with the beginning of the building of monuments and temples everywhere. As Buddhism began to collapse in India, Ceylon started to gain popularity as the place where Buddhism prevailed.
European Presence in Sri Lanka
It was in 1505 when the Portuguese had landed in Sri Lanka which was followed by the Dutch invasion a century later. From 1796, the British took over the control of the island nation until its independence in 1948. The country entered a brand new era during British rule. The governors that were sent from London managed to successfully set up an administration for the construction of roads and railways. They were also successful in the construction, development and maintenance of coffee cultivation before the tea plantation. This later on became the main source of the economy in the country. This phenomenon attracted the Tamil workers to flock to Sri Lanka’s centrally located tea plantations.
From 1983, the country descended into an inter-ethnic violence and a civil war situation started between the Sinhalese and Tamils. The conflict between the Srilankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam lasted for 25 years until President Rajapaksa put an end to it in 2009. It was done after the country witnessed bloody clashes between the northern and eastern parts of the country. This has also left a lasting impression in the heart of the history of Sri Lanka.
History of Tourism in Sri Lanka
Over the past few years, with stability taking over the island nation, tourism culture in Sri Lanka is growing rapidly. Sri Lanka has always been a point of interest for tourists who come here to explore the natural riches the nature here has to offer. One of the earliest accounts of Sri Lanka comes from the accounts of Chinese traveller Fa-Hien who had visited the nation during 410 AD/CE. Another written account comes from the writings of Marco Polo who had said that Sri Lanka is the best island of its size in the world.
Government initiatives in the development of tourism date back to 1937 when the Ceylon Tourist Bureau was established. It was sadly shut down for function in 1939 as an impact of World War 2. Post the Sri Lankan independence promotion of tourism was again being reconsidered to be established. By the Ceylon Tourist Board. In 1965, minister of State, JR Jayewardene initiated the very first major development in the tourism industry with the Ceylon Tourist Board Act. Currently, the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority has classified Sri Lanka into several resort regions suitable for tourism development.
With the government’s initiative to develop the tourism sector under the Ceylon tourist bureau in 1966, many foreign tourists arrived to savour the beauty of Sri Lanka. Since then, there has been an upward trend in the rise of tourism in Sri Lanka. Over a short span of 6 years, the island nation saw a spectacular tourism growth of 24% per year. Sadly, it also saw a brief period of stagnation owing to the civil war that lasted 25 years. In 2009, with the submission of the LTTE separatists, the tourism spiked substantially over 300% in 6 years. Along with the foreign tourists there was a major upward trend in the domestic tourist segment that was making regular excursions within Sri Lanka.