History & Culture of Sri Lanka

Prof.Lakshman Madurasinghe., PhD
January 2011
Taprobana was the historical name of an island in the Indian Ocean. It
was first reported to Europeans by the Greek geographer Megasthenes
around 290 BC, and was taken up by Ptolemy.
 65,525 sq km
 Population ~21 million
 Sinhala, Tamil & English spoken
 Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and
 Executive President & Parliament
 Roman-Dutch & English law: Islamic,
Kandyan, tessavalamai laws
 Tea, rubber and coconut exports
 Apparel and light manufacturing industries
 Hydropower fully resourced ~ 40% of
 ~60% of energy from fuel wood.
 Ethnic Groups:
 Sinhalese 73.8%, Sri Lankan Moors 7.2%,
Indian Tamil 4.6%, Sri Lankan Tamil 3.9%,
other 0.5%, unspecified 10%

 Religions:
Buddhist 69.1%, Muslim 7.6%, Hindu
7.1%, Christian 7 %, unspecified 10%

 Languages:
Sinhala (official and national language)
74%, Tamil (national language) 18%,
other 8%

 Earliest reference in legends - Skanda Purana
or the rise and fall of Taraka overthrown by
Hindu god Skanda. A shrine to god Skanda
persists in Kataragama in the South-East.

 In the later Ramayana – the kidnapping of
Queen Sita by Ravana and the destruction of
Lanka by Rama. Place names such as Sita-ela,
Sita-waka persist to this day in the central hills.

The Ramayana consists of 24,000 verses in seven
books (kāṇḍas) and 500 cantos (sargas), and tells
the story of Rama (an incarnation of the Hindu
preserver-God Vishnu), whose wife Sita is abducted
by the king of Lanka, Ravana. Thematically, the
epic explores the tenets of human existence and
the concept of dharma.
The Homo Sapiens first appeared in Sri
Lanka about 500,000 B.C. Few artifacts
have been found dating back to subsequent
Paleolithic culture of the second Stone age
period. Stone cultures endured until about
1000 B.C.

The second phase of stone age may have
ended some few centuries later with the
establishment of metal. The Stone working
culture was known as Balangoda Culture.
They first made an impression on island life
about 5000 B.C and spread through out the
Sri Lanka.
The combined work, sometimes referred to
collectively as the Mahavamsa, provides a
continuous historical record of over two
millennia, and is considered one of the
world's longest unbroken historical
accounts. It is one of the few documents
containing material relating to the Nagas and
Yakkhas, the dwellers of Lanka prior to the
legendary arrival of Vijaya.
 Taprobane to Greeks and Romans.

 Serendib to Arabs from Sihala + Dwipa

 Early history recorded later in written
chronicles such as the Mahavamsa and
Chulavamsa written by Buddhist [Sinhalese]

 Subsequent reliance on stone inscriptions and
archaeological artifacts.
Sinhalese history is authenticated by
the concurrence of every evidence
that can contribute to verify the
annals of any country -"Ceylon" Pearl
of the East by Harry William

Nine months after attaining Buddhahood, our
Conqueror visited Lanka on Durutu (January) Full
Moon Day (1 B.E. or 528 B.C.).

There was a great meeting of Yakkas (devils) in
the town of Mahiyangana (Mahanaga Garden),
where Mahiyangana Thupa was built later times.
Buddha’s second visit
Alexander the Great- Greco-Buddhistic Culture- Global Perceptiveness

Vijaya, originally from North India arrived in Sri
Lanka in 543 BC. Traders and fisher folk from
South India who visited Sri Lanka during the late
centuries BC also made the island their
permanent home. The intermingling of the new
arrivals produced a harmonious multicultural
Buddhism arrived from India in the 3rd century BCE,
brought by Bhikkhu Mahinda, who is believed to have
been the son of Mauryan emperor Ashoka. Mahinda’s
mission won over the Sinhalese monarch
Devanampiyatissa of Mihintale, who embraced the
faith and propagated it throughout the Sinhalese
population. The Buddhist kingdoms of Sri Lanka
would maintain a large number of Buddhist schools
and monasteries, and support the propagation of
Buddhism into Southeast Asia.
Sangamitta brought to Sri Lanka a cutting of the
Bodhi Tree under which the Buddha attained

She planted this in Anuradhapura, where it still
survives today, garlanded with prayer flags and
lights. Other bodhi trees, grown from cuttings of
the Anuradhapuran tree, now spread their
branches beside many of the island’s temples.
Another event that served to intensify Buddhism in
Sri Lanka was the arrival of the tooth relic (of the
Buddha) at Anuradhapura in AD 371. It gained
prominence not only as a religious symbol but also as
a symbol of sovereignty – it was believed that
whoever held custody of the relic had the right to rule
the island. Modern-day presidents, prime ministers
and governments see it as their duty to protect the
relic and the rituals that surround it. It now lies in the
Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic (Sri Dalada
Maligawa) in Kandy.
FA HIEN (414 A.D)
The Chinese pilgrim spent two years in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) mostly at
Anuradhapura then a famous center of learning was the furthest
point from his home in his 15 year old odyssey.
He writes about Sri Lanka in his works

"This country is an oasis, prosperous and happy; it's people
are well-to-do; they all have received the faith, and find their
amusement in religious music.

The se-faring nations knew Sri Lanka from very early times because of its
positions on the trade routes. The Greeks called it Taprobane. Cosmos the
Greek merchant from Alexandria gives us the fullest account of Sri

"The island being as it is , in a position, is much frequented by
ships from all parts of India and from Persia and Ethiopia and it
like wise sends out many of it's own and those from remote
countries like china and other trading places..."
In 1505 Portuguese came here and some
settled here forming a small group that came
to be known as European Burghers.

The Dutch traders came here in 1602 who
soon gained monopoly over the spice trade in
Sri Lanka.

They were replaced by the British power in
1796 and from 1802 Sri Lanka came under
the British colonial rule.

In 1948 Sri Lanka became an independent
member of the British Commonwealth
 Ethnic Groups:
 Sinhalese 73.8%, Sri Lankan Moors 7.2%,
Indian Tamil 4.6%, Sri Lankan Tamil 3.9%,
other 0.5%, unspecified 10%

 Religions:
Buddhist 69.1%, Muslim 7.6%, Hindu
7.1%, Christian 7 %, unspecified 10%

Sinhala-Hindu New Year- April
Buddhist Festivals

Duruthu Perahera :- Held on the poya day in January at the
Kelanyia Raja Maha Vihara in Colombo and second in importance only
to the huge Kandy perahera, this festival celebrates a visit by the
Buddha to Sri Lanka.

Vesak :- This full moon day is a day of the great significant for the
Buddhists around the world for it marks the Birth, Enlightenment, and
Decease of the Buddha.

Poson Poya :- The Poson full-moon day in june is a celebration of
the bringing of Buddhism to Sri Lanka by Mahinda.

Kandy Esala Perahera :- The Kandy Esala Perahera, the most
important and spectacular festival in Sri Lanka, is the Climax of 10
days and nights during the month of Esala, ending on the Nikini full
moon. This great procession honours the scared Tooth Relic of Kandy.
Smaller peraheras are held at other locations around the island
Hindu Festivals

Thai Pongal :- This is a Hindu harvest festival, held in mid-
january, to honour the Sun God.

Maha Shivrathri :- In late February or early March the
Hindhu festival of Maha Sivarathri commemorates the
marriage of Shiva to Parvati.

Kataragama :- This festival is held at Kataragama, where
devotes put themselves through the whole gamut f ritual
masochism. Pilgrimage from Jaffna via Batticaloa to
Kataragama takes place.

Deepavali :- Also known as the festival of lights, Deepavali
festival takes place in late October or early November.
Thousand of oil lamps will be lit to celebrate the victory of
good over evil and the return of Rama (the legendary
character of the Hindu epic Ramayana, believed to be an
incarnation of Vishnu) after his period of exile. Lakshmi, the
goddess of wealth is worshipped on the third day of the

Christian Festivals

Easter :- The Christian Good Friday holiday usually falls in late
March. An Easter passion play is performed on the island of
Duwa, off Negombo.

Christmas during December

Muslim Festivals

Most of Muslim festivals are also closely connected to religion.
The main Muslim festivals are the Milad-un-Nabi or the birth of
the Prophet Mohammed in December, Id-ul-Fitr marking the
end of the holy fasting during the month of Ramadan, and the
Haj festival when Muslims make their pilgrimages to the holy
Muslim shrine in Mecca.

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