HISTORY OF SRI LANKA (PART 1)
Sri Lanka is an old nation with a rich written history that dates back over 2000 years. It’s an island where history fades into fable and lore, and the myths and legends still prevail. This article is a very brief overview of Sri Lankan history. It will explore prehistoric times to the end of the first major kingdom of Sri Lanka. Emphasis is made on important historical points from each era so that travellers can visit and witness these places.
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Prehistoric Sri Lanka
Having once been connected to the continent of Africa itself, Sri Lanka seems to share its nature as a cradle of human evolution. Archaeologists believe that the island was inhabited by humans as early as 700,000 BC. There is enough evidence to suggest that human settlements were definitely present in Sri Lanka 130,000 years ago.
Some well-preserved prehistoric archaeological sites are open to the public. Most of these places give the visitor a very clear idea about how and in what kind of environments early humans thrived in.
A majority of these sites are large bedrock caves. The Sinhalese word “Lena” that appears behind the names of most of these sites means “Cave”.
This prehistoric cave lies 5 km away from the town of Bulathsinhala, Kaluthara. Believed to be occupied by humans since at least 35,000 BC, it has yielded remains of the earliest anatomically modern man in South Asia. The cave is one of the largest in Sri Lanka, with a massive archaeological dug-out in the largest section. A small temple lies outside the cave with a large statue of the reclining Buddha. The cave gets its name from the Chinese Buddhist monk “Fa-Hien” who is believed to have visited it during the 5th century.
Batadomba Lena is a bedrock cave found in the Ratnapura district. It is a beautiful cave in the heart of the wet zone with a 1 km hike through dense vegetation to get there. The remains of the ‘Balangoda man‘ found here denote a stronger and taller man than his ‘Fa-Hien’ ancestor. Fossils here date back to about 28,500 BC. Interestingly the Balangoda Man’s toolkit consisted of geometric microliths. The earliest known geometric microliths from Europe were found around 12,000 BC, almost 16,000 years after the time of the Balangoda man.
Beli Lena is another scenic cave found up in the mountains about 5 km from the town of Kithulgala. Hiking up to the cave or cycling through the windy roads that lead through tea and rubber plantations with scenic mountain vistas on the horizon can be quite a serene experience. At the cave, which is a giant rock sticking out of the face of the mountain, a skinny jet of water that falls off it in front of the entrance makes it all the more beautiful. Human remains found here date back to about 12,000 BC. The site has also yielded salt and seashells (‘bellan’, from which the cave derives its name). This gives evidence to the trade of coastal goods during that time period.
Kingdoms of Sri Lanka
Although there are many indications and new archaeological evidence that suggest the existence of advanced tribes and early cities in Sri Lanka prior to the 5th century BC, this was when writers started to chronicle the lay of the island.
The stories tell of an exiled Indian prince by the name of Vijaya with a band of 700 followers who landed on the Northwestern coast of Sri Lanka. Holding the red earth of the area in his fist he named the island ‘Thambapanni’ (copper sands). From him sprung a line of 181 Monarchs that ruled the island until the last of them was exiled by the British. During this time the Kingdom and Capitol changed quite a few times.
Anuradhapura was founded during the 6th century BC. It became the capital of the Anuradhapura Kingdom during the 4th century BC and remained so over 1400 years. In the year 1017 AD, the city fell to an Invading South Indian army. The Chola invaders moved the capital Southeast to Polonnaruwa, which became the next kingdom of Sri Lanka.
The Anuradhapura Kingdom took Sri Lankan civilisation to a new pinnacle. The largest Dagobas ever to be built, of the old world constructions second only to the pyramids of Giza, were erected during this time period and still stand in full splendour today. A highly advanced and complex irrigation system of canals and reservoirs sustained a predominantly agricultural society. The early introduction of Buddhism (3rd century BC) heavily influenced the culture, inspiring literature, art, and craft. Even today the ancient city of Anuradhapura remains a holy city for thousands of Buddhist travellers from around the world.
Ancient City of Anuradhapura
Anuradhapura today is a strange city. Bordered by a busy modern town lies the ancient city with its many ruins, archaeological sites, towering dagobas and great reservoirs. Connecting most of it is a garden known as “Mahamewna Uyana”. The entrance ticket to the city is 25$ US, and with it, you are permitted to enter all the historic sites within Anuradhapura.
Few of the many points of interest would be – The Stupas Abhayagiriya and Jethawanaramaya, originally two 400 hundred foot (122m) giants, they both competed for the title of ‘3rd largest structure in the world’ during their time. Now less than what they used to be they are still awe-inspiring to any who venture under their shadows. Ruwanweli Seya is another giant dagoba, completely reconstructed which attract many Buddhist pilgrims every year. The tranquil garden of Mahamewna hides among its greenery stunning works of art like the Kuttam Pokuna (Twin Pond), and the Samadhi Statue. Many other interesting ruins like the Lowamayapaya (A 9 storied tower Erected on 1600 stone pillars), and many temples, royal palaces and structures lie spread out around this once great city.
The rock of Mihintale lies 10 km East of the city of Anuradhapura and is the birthplace of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. It is on top of this rock that the monk Mahinda, son of Ashoka the great Indian Emperor, met with King Tissa (also known as Devanampiyatissa) and preached the philosophy of Buddhism to him. Subsequently, the King embraced the philosophy marking possibly the most historical event of the country. Even today Buddhist devotees around the island visit the rock of Mihintale on the full moon of June each year to celebrate this event.
Today a grand stupa stands on top of the rock from where one can watch the sunset over the holy land of Anuradhapura. The surrounding forest is also important as it is the first Protected forest in the world whereby the king’s decree no animal or plant life was to be harmed.
Sri Maha Bodhiya
In the year 249 BC the Buddhist nun, daughter of Ashoka the Indian emperor, Sangamitta Thero arrived in Sri Lanka with a branch of the Sacred Fig tree (Ficus religiosa) under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. The branch was planted in Anuradhapura, and today after 2267 years later, the Sri Maha Bodhi tree is the oldest known tree in the world which was planted by man.
The temple of Isurumuniya lies toward the South of the holy city of Anuradhapura. The temple is famous for the stone carvings found there.
Carvings of bathing Elephants and a man and a horse are found by the pond at the base of the rock there, while the temple houses the most famous carving of a couple known as the “Isurumuni Lovers”. The carving was found in the royal pleasure garden and transported to the Isurumuni Viharaya. Folklore suggests that the carving is of the prince Saliya son of the great king Dutugemunu and his lover Ashokamala, a woman born of a low cast for whom the prince renounced his throne.
Standing at 46 ft, carved out of a giant granite rock, The Aukana Buddha statue is one of the largest ancient statues of Sri Lanka. Credited to an unknown sculpturer, it is believed to have been carved during the latter half of the 8th century.
It’s significance, however, lies not only in its enormous size but in its skilful craftsmanship. The symmetry and proportions, the precise degree of alignment, the expression of the face and the delicacy of the pleats of a robe carved onto a solid rock all contribute towards the masterpiece that is the Aukana statue.
A traveller may find it halfway down the road between Dambulla and Anuradhapura near the banks of the Kala Wewa Reservoir.
The rock fortress of Sigiriya needs no introduction. This world-renowned UNESCO World Heritage Site is considered by many to be the 8th wonder of the world. Constructed during the 5th century AD by King Kashyapa, Sigiriya is a fortress built on the summit of a 200 m granitic inselberg.
Today it is considered a place of marvel, with ingenious feats of engineering and architecture. It is a landscapers paradise where design blends in with the natural elements without disturbing them, but rather using them. A water garden lies at the foot of the rock and ponds on its summit with some features still working even after one and a half millennia. Air-conditioned rooms, a boulder garden, the world famous Sigiriya Frescos all give evidence to a great mind and a great artist.
The tragic story of the king who built is also an unforgettable part of the romance that is Sigiriya, but that’s a story of its own and best left for another time. For travellers of Sri Lanka, Sigiriya is one of those places that MUST be visited. If you are a history, culture, engineering, architecture or landscaping enthusiast I suggest spending a whole day there and maybe tag along a good guide with you. The entrance tickets cost 30 US$.
For those who don’t want to spend that much to see a ruined fortress and for hardcore Instagramers, the nearby rock of Pidurangala has pretty cheap entrance fees and offers a stunning view of Sigiriya.
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