Home » A Brief History of Sri Lanka

A Brief History of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has had a continuous record of human settlement for more than two millennia. The Sinhalese claim to have been the origins of human inhabitants and earliest colonizers of Sri Lanka; first settling in the dry north-central regions as early as 500 B.C. Later, by about 240 BC, arrivals from India brought the Buddhism which helped to develop great civilizations in cities as such as Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa.

According to Mahavamsa, one of the traditional chronicles of early Sri Lankan history, King Asoka of India sent his son, Arahat Mahinda, and daughter, Sangamitta Thero, to Sri Lanka from India to establish Buddhism on the island during the first century B.C. His son started the first order of monks, and his daughter the first order of nuns on the island. Buddhism quickly became the established religion and the focus of a strong nationalism. For almost 1500 years, Anuradhapura was the center of Sinhalese kingdom. Buddhism had flourished the kingdom with cultural greatness and civilization.

Anuradhapura was established as the first capital of Sri Lanka in ancient times. In the 2nd, 3rd and 4th centuries AD Sri Lanka became a rich kingdom. Great kings built large reservoirs and irrigation canals to take water from one area to another. Sri Lanka traded with India, China, Persia and Ethiopia. Anuradhapura also became the first Buddhist centre of Sri Lanka, characterized by the massive dome-shaped ‘stupas’ (also known as dagebas) which were built to contain sacred relics.

The main threat to Anuradhapura was from the Tamil rulers of south India, across the sea raiding the city. Continuous struggle between south Indian kingdoms and Sinhalese kingdom went on for over 1000 years. In the early 11th century, Tamils from South India invaded Sri Lanka and conquered Anuradhapura, and the capital was shifted from Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa. However, the Sinhalese continued to resist and, in 1070 the Sinhalese ruler Vijayabahu recaptured the north.

In 1153 Parakrama Bahu the Great became the King and he reunited Sri Lanka and rebuilt the irrigation system. In the 13th century there were repeated invasions from India which began the political instability in Sri Lanka. The irrigation system broke-down and the people drifted to the Southwest. In 1255 the capital Polonnaruwa was abandoned.

In the end of 12th century the Tamils settled in the north of Sri Lanka. By the 15th century Sri Lanka was divided into 3 areas. In the north lived the Tamils and the other two were related to Buddhist – Sinhalese kingdoms, one in Kotte (Southwest of Sri Lanka) and the other in Kandy, the hill centre of the island.

Colonial era

The European domination began in the 16th century with the arrival of the Portuguese and lasted more than 400 years. Portuguese controlled the coasted Sri Lanka for nearly 150 years and were driven out by the Dutch arriving at the Island in 1658 who were succeeded by the British invaders in 1796. The Island was under British control for the next 152 years. During this period Sri Lanka’s agricultural industry was very successful and the economy was based mainly on Tea, Rubber and Coconut.

Post Colonial History

During World War ll, Sri Lanka was still under British power and the dominion status was negotiated with the leader of the State Council D.S Senanayake who was also the Vice Chairman of the Board of Ministers. In 1947 The Ceylon Independence Act was passed and the transfer of power was formalized. At the same time the UNP (United National Party) was formed by the D.S Senanyaka and won the 1947 election. On February 4, 1948 the new constitution came in to power making Sri Lanka a dominion and the leader of UNP D.S.Senanayake became the first prime Minister.

Important mile stones

1948 – Ceylon gained independence

1956 – S.W.R.D Bandaranayaka elected as the Prime Minister

1959 – S.W.R.D. was assassinated

1965 – UNP won the election

1970 – Sirimavo Bandaranayake (wife of S.W.R.d Bandaranaake) elected to power

1972 – Constitution was amended and Ceylon became Republic of Sri Lanka

1977 – J.R Jayawardene (UNP) became the first executive president with effect from 1978

1983 – Beginning of the civil war in the north and east

1993 – President Premasada was killed by LTTE

1994 – Chandrika Kumaratunga elected as the President

2004 – In December more than 30,000 people were killed when Tsunami hit the coastal area

2005 – Mahinda Rajapaksha won the Presidential election

2009 – Government defeated Tamil tigers ending the civil war

2010 – President Mahainda Rajapaksha elected as the president for the second time