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Indian Subcontinent >> Sri Lanka >> History of Sri Lanka

History of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s past is steeped in lore and legend. It is believed that the first Sinhalese arrived on the island from the Indian mainland sometime around the 5th or 6th century BC, displacing the original inhabitants, the Veddahs. The Sinhalese established their kingdom, with its capital at Anuradhapura, and set up diplomatic links with the Indian Emperor Ashoka. It was these ties that brought Buddhist missionaries to Sri Lanka, and led to mass conversions during the 3rd century BC. Anuradhapura remained the epicentre of the Sinhalese kingdom till 10 AD, but was unfortunate enough to suffer continuous invasions by Indians from across the Palk Strait.

Anuradhapura was succeeded as the capital by Polonnaruwa (in the south-east), and then by various cities, as Sri Lanka (or Ceylon, as it was called at the time), came under the eagle eye of traders and colonists from Portugal, attracted to the spice trade and fired by a missionary zeal to spread their religion. They, in turn, were eventually replaced by the Dutch (late 17th century), and spent 140 years trying to capture the trade on the island. The British, who managed to gain supremacy over all of Ceylon, including Kandy that had withstood all foreign invasions, eventually displaced the Dutch. The British subjugated Ceylon in 1796, and ruled it from Madras in India till 1802, when the island became a Crown Colony.

The British set up a massive road and rail system throughout the country and paved the way for extensive plantations of tea, spices, coconuts and rubber. To work on these plantations, they imported Tamil labour from South India – the friction between the Tamilians and the Sinhalese continues to tear apart the country till today.

In 1948, after an independence movement akin to that of India, Ceylon became independent under D S Senanayake. The decade following independence was rather tumultuous with mass riots, ethnic conflicts and the declaration of a state of emergency. In 1960, the world’s first woman Prime Minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike came to power, but her government and the regimes that followed were unable to stem the Sinhalese -Tamil strife or the rapid downslide of the economy.

In the 1970s, the ethnic conflict gained greater momentum with the formation of the Tamil United Liberation Front. This heralded an era of mudslinging on both sides, and more tragically massacres and widespread riots in 1983. In 1987, Indian Peace Keeping Forces were called into Sri Lanka against popular sentiment to assist the suppression of the Tamil guerrilla outfit – the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam but the IPKF pulled out in 1990.

Although the signs of peace between the Sinhalese and the Tamils seemed quite bright during the early part of the 1990s, violence has again erupted over the past couple of years, with continuous warfare raging in Jaffna and northern Sri Lanka. Southern parts of the island, especially the area around Colombo, however, are at present comparatively peaceful.


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