Sri Lanka has an enthralling recorded history of civilisation. Its unique and proud historical record of a great civilization spans over 25 chronicled centuries, and is documented primarily in three books; the Mahavansa (Great Genealogy or Dynasty), Dipavansa and Culavansa. Sri Lankan history is distinctive as it has a historical record, which is ancient, continuous and trustworthy, and begins with the occupation of the island by civilised men in 5th century, BC. The story continues under each successive king for over 20 centuries. The Mahavamsa is primarily a dynamic and religious historical record. In addition to this record, there are over 2500 inscriptions in Sri Lanka. The earliest inscriptions are contemporary with the introduction of Buddhism in the 3rd century BC. More than 1000 epigraphs, mostly inscribed on caves, belong to the third, second and first centuries BC, exist in the dry zone as well as in the old caves temples in Colombo, Kegalla, and Kandy.
The historical records reveal a past intricated by a mixture of the historical and the mythological. The legend of Prince Vijaya, from whom the Sinhalese people claim descent, is one such example. Archaeological evidence reveals early settlement in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s earliest inhabitants were the Veddahs who arrived around 125,000 BC. Given its strategic placement, the country operated as an important trade port and retreat of nature for merchants of China, Arabia and Europe. Sri Lanka’s history can be categorized as follows;
The Mahavamsa records the traditional history of Lanka as it was conceived in the fourth century AD. The account is based in large measure on an earlier work that brought the history of Lanka down to the time when Ashoka despatched his son Mahinda to convert Lanka and was completed by addition of a fourth century revision continuing the history of the island down to the reign of King Mahasena (337-364). The Mahavamsa, as it now exists, includes a few later additions inserted about the turn of the first millennium.
The earliest-known inhabitants of Sri Lanka are the ancestors of the Wanniyala-Aetto people, also known as Veddahs.
From the ancient period date some remarkable archaeological sites include the ruins of Sigiriya, the so-called “Fortress in the Sky”, the large “tanks” or reservoirs, important for conserving water in a climate that alternates rainy seasons with dry times, and elaborate aqueducts, some with a slope as finely calibrated as one inch to the mile. Ancient Sri Lanka was also the first in the world to have established a dedicated hospital in Mihintale in the 4th century BCE. Ancient Sri Lanka was also the world’s leading exporter of cinnamon, which was exported to Egypt as early as 1400 BCE. Sri Lanka was the first Asian nation to have a female ruler in Queen Anula (47–42 BC).
The first literary links between Pandyas of Madura and Lanka appear in the semi-traditional part of the Mahavamsa which tells of the founding of the Sinhala monarchy by Vijaya who arrived on the island of Lanka in the year of Buddha’s nirvana (486/483 BC).
The earliest reference to the usage of coins in Lanka is found in the Buddhist Literature which mentions types of coins issued in the 3rd century BC. These earliest known coins were small pieces of metal, generally of silver, punched with a common Royal mark. The metal was subjected to punching with marks of various institutions. These punched marked metal are referred to as `purana’ (Sanskrit for old) and Englished as `eldling’. The eldlings were manufactured by subdividing bars of metal or strips cut from a hammered sheet, the weight being adjusted where necessary by clipping the corners of each coin so formed. During the period of Pandya domination over Lanka which lasted from the time of the initial Tamil occupation about 177 BC until the period when the kings of Lanka were able to exert their independence in a definitive manner from about 28 BC the Elephant coinage of the Pandyas was current both in Madura and in Lanka.
According to the Mahavamsa when the Sinhala king Sirinaga I died in AD 275 he was succeeded by his son Voharaka Tissa: but another son named Abhaya Naga collected an army on the mainland, invaded and took control of Lanka in 297. During the 360′s AD Lanka was ruled by Sri Meghavarna (364-392), son of Mahasena, who is recorded to have brought the Buddha’s tooth relic from Kalinga and to have sent an embassy to Samudragupta. Lanka was later visited by the Chinese pilgrim Fa Hsien in 411-412, during the reign of Mahadharmakathin and by the Buddhist writer Buddhaghosha when Mahanaman (409-431) was king. Soon after the end of Mahanaman’s reign the Sinhala king Mitrasena was killed by a “Damila named Pandya”. The Pandya occupation of northern Lanka lasted some 27 years (433-460), until they were expelled by the Sinhala king Dhatusena (460-478). In 478 Kasyapa usurped the throne, after imprisoning his father Dhatusena, but he was eventually de-throned in 496 by his brother Maudgalyayana, who brought an Indian army from his exile in the Penninsula. The island remained at peace under Maudgalyayana (496-513) and his son Kumaradasa (513-522). Family struggles then supervened until Maudgalyayana II(537-556) brought a new period of peace. After Maudgalyayana’s death his son Kirtisrmegha was quickly de-throned by Mahanaga (556-559), a former official from Southern Lanka. When Mahanaga died he was succeeded by the heir apparent, his sister’s son Agrabodhi (559-592). The throne then passed to Agraboahi’s sister’s son Agrabodhi 11 (592-602).
Polonnaruwa was established as the city of the land in 11th century AD. Replacing Anuradhapura as the capital city of Sri Lanka, due its constant south Indian invasions, it remained as the capital until 13 AD. The important kings of the Polannaruwa period were King Wijayabahu the first, King Maha Parakramabahu the first and King Nissankamalla.
With the South Indian Kings ruling the country, Prince Keerthi of Sri Lanka formed an army and attacked. He defeated the South Indian King and was known as King Wijebahu the First. Because of this foreign trade was done between South Asia, Arab and China, the most important King during this period was King Maha Parakramabahu the first who ruled from 1153 AD to 1186 AD. During his period, he built 165 dams 3000 canals, 163 major and 2376 minor tanks. Following his death the Sinhalese kingdom began to break due to civil war and foreign attacks. At the end of 13 century the glory of Sri Lanka faded. For 70 years Sri Lanka was ruled by Cholas from South India.
Sri Lanka had always been an important port and trading post in the ancient world, and was increasingly frequented by merchant ships from the Middle East, Persia, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and other parts of Southeast Asia. The island were known to the first European explorers of South Asia and settled by many groups of Arab and Malay merchants. A Portuguese colonial mission arrived on the island in 1505 headed by Lourenço de Almeida the son of Francisco de Almeida. At that point the island consisted of three kingdoms, namely Kandy in the central hills, Kotte at the Western coast, and Yarlpanam (Anglicised Jaffna) in the north. The Dutch arrived in the 17th century. Although much of the island came under the domain of European powers, the interior, hilly region of the island remained independent, with its capital in Kandy. The British East India Company established control of the island in 1796, declaring it a crown colony in 1802, although the island would not be officially connected with British India. The fall of the kingdom of Kandy in 1815 unified the island under British rule.
Following the end of World War I and II, pressure for independence in Sri Lanka intensified. The office of the Prime Minister of Ceylon was created in advance of independence on 14 October 1947 and Don Stephen Senanayake was chosen as the first prime minister. On 4 February 1948 the country won its independence as the Commonwealth of Ceylon. On 21 July 1960 Sirimavo Bandaranaike took office as prime minister, and became the world’s first female prime minister and the first female head of government in post-colonial Asia. In 1972, during Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s second term as prime minister, the country became a republic within the Commonwealth, and the name was changed to Sri Lanka.