The history of Sri Lanka in Brief

The history of Sri Lanka in brief

The earliest history of Sri Lanka (about Sri Lanka) is hidden in myths, legends and fables. For Muslims Sri Lanka is the place where Eva and Adam landed after they were banished from paradise. The exact place, where Adam landed was the peak of the 5th highest mountain of Sri Lanka. Today, still afoot symbol can be found at the top of the mountain. According to Muslim, it was created by Adam, therefore the mountain is called ‘Adams peak’. But according to Buddhist, it is the footprint of Buddha.

The popular Hindu epoch Ramayana, which was written well over 7000 years earlier refer to the island as Lanka. Lanka was ruled by King Ravana, an opponent of Rama. Ravana said to have abducted the Queen of Rama (Seetha) and kept them in secret places. Rama with help of Hanuman, king of monkeys, built the Adams Bridge between southern Indian and north Sri Lanka, in order to reach the island from India. Later Ravana was killed by Rama in a fierce battle and Seetha was rescued. Many important places mentioned in Ramayana such as Seetha amma, Ashok Vatika, the Divurumpola temple can still be been seen in Nuwara Eliya.

The documented history of Sri Lanka starts in the 5th century BC. However, the first capital of Sri Lanka was established many millennia later in the 3rd century BC. According to the historical notes, the first King of Sri Lanka was King Vijaya, who arrived on the island from India in the 5th century BC. Since then the island was ruled by more than 100 kings and many capitals mushroomed since the origin of the first capital of Sri Lanka. Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Yapahuwa, Dambadeniya, Kurunegala, Kandy were some of the most important historical cities on the island. These historical places in Sri Lanka still testify rich historical past of Sri Lanka with a large number of temples, stupas, palaces, dagobas, Buddha statues, lakes, forts, ancient paintings, rock carving, word carvings and many other ancient monuments.

2 major incidents on the Sri Lankan history was the arrival of tooth relic and the arrival of Sri Maha Bodhi (the sacred fig tree). These two elements are regarded as some of the most sacred element on the island and still highly venerated by the Buddhist devotees.

Pre-History of Sri Lanka

Some of the discoveries of stone implements in the region of Ratnapura provide evidence of occupation of Stone Age people in the island. The skeleton of people, who lived in Meso and Neolithic periods were also discovered in the Sabaragamuwa province.

Some of the skeletons of Homo Sapiens Balangodensis, who lived through the stone, bronze and Iron Age are about 1.8 meters long. These earliest occupants of Sri Lanka mixed with a north Indian ethnic group and paved way to Sinhalese, the biggest ethnic group in Sri Lanka. Read more on Sri Lanka pre-history.

Arrival of Vijaya

Vijaya, the first king of Sri Lankan monarchy arrived in Sri Lanka in 544 B.C with other 700 followers. The arrival of Vijaya marks the origin of Sinhalese and advance civilization in the country.

4th century B.C

The first capital of the island (Anuradhapura) was established in the 4th century B.C. and it was maintained as the capital of Sri Lanka till 11th century A.D. The first European believed to arrive in Sri Lanka was the Alexander the Great and he has reported the discovery of the island.

3rd century B.C

Introduction of Buddhism in Sri Lanka is one of the most important events of Sri Lankan history. Monk Mahinda introduced the teaching of Buddha and King Devanampiyatissa embraced Buddhism. Monk Mahinda took the message of Buddha throughout the country with the patronage of the King and Sri Lanka became a Buddhist country. Since then, Buddhism is the official religion of Sri Lanka.

Visiting a Buddhist temple in Sri Lanka follow these rules

1st century B.C

Unceasing south Indian invasions were the main challenge for the Sri Lanka kings in the past. And it was the main reason for the downfall of advanced Sri Lankan civilization and culture. The Tamil invader vandalized the flourishing cities of Sri Lanka and reduced them to ruins. But they could not wipe out Buddhism from the island as it was deep-rooted among the Sinhalese. After some time these south Indian invaders were chased away by the legitimate Sri Lankan king and glorious cities were rebuilt. One distinct outcome of these invasions is the introduction of the second biggest ethnic group, known as Tamil in the country.

1st century BC – 4th century AD

Sacred Sri Maha Bodhi, well known as Bo-tree (Ficus religiosa) was brought to the island of Sri Lanka. This tree is considered to be the oldest documented tree in the world. Today it resides in Anuradhapura. The Bo-tree was brought to the island during the reign ok King Devamapiyatissa.

The translation of Pali Buddhist texts took place under the supervision of Ven. Buddhaghosha. This incident considered to be one of the most important events for the Buddhists in Sri Lanka.

Receiving the tooth relic of Buddha, most sacred elements for Buddhists, took place during the reign of King Kithsiri Mewan. Today the tooth relic is safeguarded at the historical tooth relic temple in Kandy.

Construction of a large number of Buddhist temples was done under the patronage of King Buddhadasa (340-370). During this period the religious arts, culture, and Buddhism were given a prominent place under the state affairs of the king.

5th century AD – 1505

Sigiriya was the capital of Sri Lanka under the reign of King Kashyapa, who created one of the most tragic incidents among the Sri Lankan Kings. The construction of an archaeological masterpiece of Sri Lankan history (Sigiriya) was achieved during his rule.

The capital of Sri Lanka was changed due to the unceasing south Indian invasions. Polonnaruwa was given the function of the capital city for the first time in history. King Vijayabahu was the first ruler, who ruled the country from Polonnaruwa in 1055. The invasions continued and the Sri Lankan king moved the capital of Sri Lanka towards the interior of the island and looked for a safer place for the capital.

King Parakramabahu (1153-1186), who led an agricultural revival during his 33 years rule. A large number of tanks, canals, and paddy field came to be under the rule of King Parakramabahu. Same time a large number of irrigation works, which were in a dilapidated condition, was renovated. The country’s economy was at developed, due to the rapid improvement of agriculture.

Marco Polo visited the islands in 1294. The island was controlled by the Sinhalese king and some areas were under the provincial controllers as he visited Sri Lanka.

The arrival of Ibn Battuta in 1344, a historian from Morocco. He reports about the well-developed country under the Sri Lankan rulers. Buddhism was the leading religion as he mentioned in his reports.

1505 AD – 1658 AD

1505, the Portuguese landed in the port of Galle in southern Sri Lanka. Portuguese managed to sign a treaty with the king of Kotte and actively engaged in spice, gem and ivory trade.

1557 King Dharmapala was converted to Christianity by Portuguese; he was the first state leader, who embraced Christianity making a gap between Buddhism and state ruler. He changed the name and became Don Juan.

1592, Kandy or Senkadagala is the new capital of Sri Lanka.

1597, Portuguese declared their legitimacy over the occupation of Ceylon. This act led to a war-like situation between the Kandyan king and Portuguese.

Arrival Portuguese in Sri Lanka

In 1505 eight years after Vasco da Gama had doubled the Cape of Good Hope when Vira Parakrama Bahu 8 was king of Kotte, Vikrama Bahu, king of the Hill Country, and Pararasa Sekaran, king of Jaffna, a Portuguese fleet was forced by winds and waves to the island of Ceylon.

The captain-major of the fleet was a young nobleman named Don Lourenco de Almeida, son of the first Portuguese viceroy of India. He had set out from Cochin to intercept the richly laden Muslim ships which, bound from China to the Persian Gulf, were avoiding the usual route, now infested by the Portuguese and were passing by the Maldives Island.

Being caught in a storm, Don Lourenco was tossed to the southern coast of Ceylon unawares and put into the harbour of Galle. When he learnt that this unknown country was the far-famed island of Ceylon, he coasted on to Colombo which he was told was the port of the capital of the island.


Colombo, then called Kolamba or Kolomtota, was the chief anchorage for ships and the mart of the island’s trade. This trade, chiefly in cinnamon, coconut, and elephants was in the hands of Muslim traders, the descendant of the seafaring Arabs. They had many storehouses of bangasalas in which they stocked their merchandise.

The population of the town was largely Muslim, and there was a mosque together with a Muslim cemetery and a court of justice to settle disputes according to Muslim law. The township lay on the bank of a rivulet, an outlet of the Kelani River, which entered the sea near the modern Pettah. Over the rivulet was a bridge, and large and broad streets intersected the town. At the mouth of this rivulet, there was a fairly safe anchorage for ships.


The Muslims were an object of hatred to the Portuguese. The latter was Christians, the former Mohammedans, and between the two for many centuries past had raged the wars known as the Crusades. Moreover, the object of the Portuguese explorations was to wrest the trade of India and its profit from the Muslims who had been masters of Indian seas for many centuries.

Nowadays rival traders oust each other by peaceful competition, but in those rough times, they did so by sheer might and open piracy. The Portuguese and the Muslims, therefore, fought each other wherever they met, and merchantmen always carried guns and generally sailed together for common help.

Trade rivals

When Don Lourenco appeared off Colombo, there were Muslims ships engaged in lading or Landing cargo, and all took alarm at the unexpected appearance of the hated rival. The captain-major, however, who had so recently been storm-tossed and had come to hold communication with the king of the country, did not wish to be hostile and assured the Muslims of his peaceful intentions.

He had heard of Ceylon, of its spices and elephants and pearls and his king had even directed his father, the viceroy, to explore Ceylon. Glad, therefore, to have come unexpectedly upon the island, he desired to send an embassy to the king, and sought information from the Muslim captains.

They were not disposed to let their rivals know how fruitful and fair this island was, and tried to dissuade the Portuguese commander from entering into negotiations with the Sinhalese king. At their instigation, the townspeople of Colombo set upon a party of the sailor who had gone on shore for wood and water, but a volley from the ship’s cannon soon cleared the shores.

Dutch Colonial period Sri Lanka 1658 – 1802

1658 the last Portuguese left the island and the beginning of Dutch colonial rule in the island of Sri Lanka. Many Dutch soldiers married the local women and had families, especially in the southern part of the country. 

Dutch rulers took the entire spice trade from Muslim traders, since then, Dutch had the monopoly over the spice trade in Ceylon. Due to the intermarriages of Sinhalese and Dutch origin of the new ethnic group known as “Burgher”.

The conflict between the Dutch and Sinhalese king heightened to a new level. Dutch East India Company strengthened its army and increase the capabilities compared to Sinhalese forces. Dutch forces are attempting to invade the Kandyan kingdom.

1734, native workers started to strike and fight against the stern rule of Dutch administration. Cinnamon peelers abandoned their jobs stopping the production of cinnamon. Dutch East India Company further strengthened their army, new forces arrived from India.

1741, the arrival of Siamese monks, in order to revive Buddhism in the island. Many Sinhalese monks were ordained, beginning of a new chapter of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Native people are very dissatisfied with the Dutch administration. The beginning of agitation among the local community against the Dutch rulers.

King Kirti Sri tries to revive the Buddhism in the island. Temples that were in dilapidated conditions were renovated, religious ceremonies and festivals were given state patronage. Due to the effort of Kirti Sri, Buddhism is back to its former glory. A fierce battle erupts between Sinhalese forces and Dutch soldiers. Dutch forces are attempting to take control of Kandyan kingdom of Sri Lanka.

1766, after several siege Dutch forces were able to secure their power over the entire coastal belt of Sri Lanka. The king of Kandy is deprived of access to the outside world. The possibilities to seek foreign aid to fight against the Dutch forces and diplomatic conversations with foreign countries were completely hindered.

1782, the surprise landing of British forces in the port of Trincomalee. English took the control of Trincomalee port and started to engage in spice trade with the King.

1783, French forces took the control of Trincomalee port.

British colonial period 1802 – 1948

1795-1796, the English forces fought against the Dutch army and took over the administration of all militarily and economically important places of the country. Sri Lanka becomes a British colony, Dutch administration was forced to hand over the areas under their control to the British governor. The administration changed peacefully through an agreement.

1815, King Sri Vikarama Rajasinghe was taken into custody by British and sent into exile to South India. British governor was able to take the control of the last remaining Sinhalese kingdom. 2300 years old Sinhalese monarchy comes to end. The act would not have been possible for the British without the help of some upcountry Sinhalese.

1848, native people started to fight against the British administration, attempted to dislodge them from the administration.

1917, the beginning of a new chapter of the struggle for independence with the Origin of Ceylon-Reform-Liga.

1928, The British appoint the Donoughmore-commission at the heightened struggle for independence. According to the commission, the country was not ready for independence.

1945, the status of dominion was demanded by local representative but rejected by the British administration. Political struggle for independence started after the rejection of dominion status by the British administration.

1948, Sri Lanka is given the status of independence but remains in the British Common Wealth countries.

Slavery in Sri Lanka

The system of slavery existing in ancient Sri Lanka was radically different from the nefarious system of the west.  In this island, there were four classes of slaves: (1) those who sold themselves within a fixed time, (2) those who were sold into slavery by parents, (3) those who were sentenced to slavery by the king, and (4) all children born of a mother bound to slavery. This slavery did not consist in absolute subjection to a master.

The Sri Lanka slave could buy and sell, could own property and bequeath it by will independently of the master; he could hire his services to another, even hold office in the state and be himself the master of other slaves. All that slavery implied was that the slave was bound to perform certain services for the master, these services being rarely domestic service and general cultivation of land or the performance of menial offices which, being the badge of slavery, no free men would do for hire. Slaves were, therefore valued not for their labour but rather as an appendage of rank. Read more on slavery in Sri Lanka.


In the Jaffna peninsula and in the Tamil district generally, the slaves were of three castes: Govias, Nalluas, and Pallas. The first alone were used for domestic service, the Nalluas and Pallas were employed in the cultivation of land. They could themselves hold land of their own and cultivate the land for wages, but they were obliged to serve their masters in cultivation. The number of domestic slaves in Jaffna in 1817 was two thousand; Govias, Nallua, and Pallas twenty thousand making a total of 22,000.


In the Kandyan kingdom, slaves were the personal property of the master and were employed as domestic slaves or as cultivators, but could own property and dispose of it and slaves are known to have been appointed vidanes and even rateralas.  

In 1829 there were 1,067 male and 1,046 female slaves in the Kandyan kingdom. In the Maritime Provinces, personal slavery was almost extinct by the beginning of British rule in Sri Lanka. There were not more than 1.000 slaves, mostly belonging to the Dutch and the Mohammedans, whose lot, however, was modified by the status of Batavia and the teaching of the Koran.


Regulation 3 of 1806 was enacted by Maitland requiring all slave owners to register their slaves, but the regulation was successfully evaded. In 1816 Sir Alexander Johnston persuaded the masters of slaves to emancipate the children born of slaves from and after 12th August, the birthday of the prince regent. The governor formally emancipated such slave children, but the measure was not fully carried out, and only 96 were thus emancipated.

The proclamation was intended to introduce emancipation by degrees, and first abolished joint ownership of slaves and gave all slaves the right to buy their liberty if they chose, at a price to be fixed by assessors. In 1821 it was proposed to buy the liberty of all Govias, Nallus and Pallas born after 14th April. Some 2,211 slaves were thus emancipated. In 1818, 504 slaves bought their liberty, but they’re still remained about 27,395 slaves in Jaffna.