Thursday, January 13, 2005

Sri Lanka & the Sinhala People

SINHALADVIPA: The Island of the Sinhalese

The island of Sri Lanka, so called after the ancestors of the Sinhalese people, is natures generous gift to its people who have made it famous in history as "The Pear of the Orient". It is also the cradle of culture and civilization of the Sinhalese although the nation has been inhabited by Tamil, Muslim (traders of Arab origin), and the Colonial rulers of Portugal, Holland and England during its speckled history.

In ancient times many traders from the Middle East visited the island in search of gems,spices, ivory and peacocks. Mariners in distress at sea often sought the safe havens in the island. It's strategic location in the Indian Ocean first attracted invaders from South India and later from distant Europe as well. It was only the Arab traders who never attempted to colonize and capture the island during the long relationship with the indigenous people.

Lankadipa (island of Lanka) was known by several names from time to time. Some of them were, Thambapani, Sinhala-Dipa, Sinhaladvipa, Lanka, Lankadvipa, Ilam, Hsia-lan-shan, Palesimundu, Salica, Sarandib, Seilan, Seng-kia-la, Serendib, Seyllan, Sieladiba, Silan, Si-lan, Sigaldib, Sinhala, Sirandib, Sylen, Taprobana, and Taprobane.

The geogrpahical location of the island is lattitude 5.55 to 9.51 north and longtitude 79.41 to 81.53 east. The breadth of the island is 140 miles (east-west) and its length is 270 miles (north-south). Its area is 25,332 square miles (65,585 sq. km.). The average temperature of the island varies from Colombo 86 F (30C) to Nuwara Eliya 51.3 F (10.8C) in the tea-growing mountain central region. The rainfall varies from 5,459mm to 96 mm in Mannar.

As one travels by car from Colombo to the highlands of Kandy & Nuwara Eliya, 5000 feet above sea level, one sees the surface of the plains and hills painted with sketches of green and golden rice fields alternating with coconut, rubber and tea plantations. The hill country is cultivated by gushing streams that are fed by gurgling waterfalls cascading silvery stream of water all the way to the sea.

The geological structure of the island consists of Archaean, Jurassic, Miocene, Pliocene, Pleistocene, and recent residual and alluvial deposits. The Miocene rocks may be seen under the peninsula of Jaffna and Minihagalkanda. The Tabbowa beds contain the development of rocks of the Jurassic age. The ancient crystalline rocks of Lanka are designated as Archaean and these are the most primitive rocks of the earths history.

The ancient people of Sri Lanka carried out iron industries. The material remains discovered from ancient sites confirm this. Certain legends mention hilly districts of Nuwara Eliya as iron smelting areas. Sites of ancient furnaces have also been found. Salt was also one of the ancient industries found within the island. Ancient routes were employed for transporting the salt from the sea coast into the hill country. Graphite, commonly called Plumbago, was also known from early times. Mining for gems continued from early times and Sri Lanka earned a very respectable reputation for precious and semi precious stones.

The highest mountain peak in the island is Pidurutalagala which is 8,292 feet above sea level. Other high peaks are Kirigalpotta 7,857 feet, Kolapatanahela 7,754 feet, Totapola 7,741 feet, and Samanala 7,300 feet. A series of isolated ridges like Gunner's Quoin (Dimbulagala), Westminister Abbey (Govinda Hela) and Bible Rock (Buthgala) rise in fortress like masses. The rock fortress of Sigiriya and the stretch of rocks at Dambulla, Dimbulagala, and the mass at Moneragala are among the best known. Another remarkable phenomenon appears in the region of Kurunegala. Here the summit of the long ridge of rock assumes shapes of elephant (atagala) and tortoise (ibbagala).

A number of hot water springs, that have earned a reputation for their curative value, are found in the Esatern and Southern Provinces as well as in the North at Keerimalai. The more famous of them are Kanniyai (near Trincomalee), Unavatura Bubula in the former Veddah country and near Tangalla and Hambantota.

The island is totally free from any volcanic activity. It'sposition in the Indian Ocean and its mineral wealth attracted entrepreneurs to visit the island in search of rare commodities. The islands sandy beaches bordering placid oceans of clear blue waters tempt present day visitors and tourists to seek fun and pleasure by basking in the tropical sunshine throughout the year.

Monsoon rains fall during the two seasons, viz South West Monsoon from May to September and the North East Monsoon from October to November to benefit the hill country with rain in abundance. The island receives a maximum rainfall of 5,459mm at Watawala and a minimum of 966mm at Mannar.

"Sinharaja Adaviya", a narrow strip stretching for 30 miles and lying in the wet zone of the Sabaragamuwa Province still remains as the sole surviving virgin tropical rain forest in Sri Lanka. Its ecology and beauty are greatly admired by lovers of flora and fauna. However, illicit timber felling is gradually denuding the irreplacable wealth of several plant species and animal life within destroying the forest slowly but surely.

The largest of the rivers within the island are the Mahaweli flowing eastwards, Kala Oya, Kelani Ganga and Kalu Ganga flowing westwards, and Walawe Ganga and Kirinda Oya flowing south. Their sparkling waters of silvery hue cascade down the valleys creating roaering waterfalls of enchanting beauty. The most picturesque of them are Diyaluma Falls (560 feet), Lakshapana Falls (377 feet), Aberdeen Falls (296 feet), Devon Falls (281 feet), and Dunhinda Falls (190 feet).

During ancient pre0historic times men roamed the jungles and lived in the rock caves during the wet weather. Ancient chronicles and stories mention Yakkhas, Rakhshasas, Nagas, and Nittewas having lived in those times. The only tribe that has survived until recent times is that of the Veddhas. The island was inhabited by these groups in the 6th century BC.

Sri Lanka possesses a variety of precious stones, gemstones,and other minerals. Beryl, Sapphire, Rubies, Amethyst, Topaz, Corrundum, Chrysoberyl, Tourmaline, Garnet, Zircon, Quartz, Felspar & Pearls are some of them. The gem bearing regions are found in the Sabaragamuwa, Kaluganga valley, Nuwara Eliya Plains and Maskeliya.

The ancient Kings built magnificent palaces, stupendous Dagobas, sculptured Buddha Statues and executed beautiful paintings of lasting value. Most of these artifacts and paintings suffered at the hands of marauding invaders from South India from time to time. The irrigation systems developed and designed by them, for the purpose of supporting agriculture and cultivation, were unsurpassed internationally during their time.

In ancient times the island was divided into three main areas, viz; PIHITIRATA (Rajarata), MAYARATA and RUIHUNURATA. In course of time, for convenience of administration and management, the old divisions came to be replaced by Provinces as follows:-

Province Capital City
Western Province Sri Jayawardhanapura (previously was Colombo)
Central Province Kandy
Southern Province Galle
Northern Province Jaffna
Eastern Province Trincomalee
North-Western Province Kurunegala
North-Central Ptrovince Anuradhapura
Uva Province Badulla
Sabaragamuwa Province Ratnapura


The Indo-Aryan people entered India somewhere about 1500BC from the North West and in course of time spread along the Indus and Ganges valleys. Having settled down the newcomers advanced rapidly and developed a typical culture and civilization. It is said that a group of persons belonging to the same Indo-Aryan stock arrived in Lanka and came to be known as the Sinhalese.

It must be clearly understood that the Sinhalese were not the indigenous aborigininal people of the island. The aboriginal inhabitants were called Yakkhas, Rakhshasas, and Nagas. Their racial identity remains to be settled for certain. Recent research and investigations have given rise to the possible theory that the Nagas may have been African-Arabs originating from Pharaonic Egypt who worshipped the asp thus earning the racial title of "NAGA" which means snake.

It is now generally agreed that Sinhala is one of the Indo-Aryan vernaculars like Marathi, Bengali and Hindi etc. What is not one hunbdred percent certain is the kingdom, East or West, from where they originated. There is a school of thought that believes that Vijaya and his followers left the Kingdom of Sinhapura in the east and traveled overland to the ports on the west coast which were known trading centers at that time.

Vijaya and his followers arrived safely in Sri Lanka. Local inhabitants showed some resistance at first. This was quite natural. Having overcome them the newcomers decided to settle down. Vijaya's ministers founded new villages and established a new kingdom.

The closest Aryan Kingdom was that of King Pandu and communication existed between the two. Messengers were sent to him with a letter to send the daughters of the King, maidens for the Ministers and a thousand families belonging to the 18 guilds. All of them arrived at the landing place known as Mahatittha. Thus, Vijaya established the royal dynasty in the new Kingdom of Lanka.

As Vijaya had no issue to succeed him he turned to his family and relatives in Sinhapura for help. His brother, Sumitta, who had succeeded his father as King sent Prince Panduvasudeva was sent along with 32 sons of Ministers. A Sakyan Princess named Bhaddakacca, the youngest daughter of Sakka Pandu, was also sent in the company of women friends. Vijaya pased away before the arrival of Panduvasudeva.

Panduvasudeva was crowned King of Lanka and Princess Bhaddakacca his Queen. Close links were established with the mother country and the newcomers began to develop and prosper. The cultural, social, and religious links with the eastern and central kingdoms of India provided the necessary assistance.

The Aryan Sakyan influence and way of life exerted the strongest psychological urge to folow Hindu practices both in spirit and action. The social structure was based on the Hindu family unit. Dharmasastras continued to direct all thinking, behaviour, and ceremonies. The customs and ceremonies observed at critical stages of persons from birth to death were strictly adhered to as was done by the Sakyan kinsmen in their motherland.

The family was recognized as the central unit of the social organization. Of course this family included a wider circle of closer relatives. father, mother, children, grand-parents, grand children, uncles and aunts formed the extended family circle at that time. The elders preserved the traditions and these were transmitted in family succession according to the rituals and religious beliefs. Tree spirits and nature deities were greatly respected, honored, and worshipped.

The Sinhalese adopted "Sihala Bhasa", a popular form of Indo-Aryan language. Agriculture formed the main source of food supply. Large tanks were built to store water to irrigate the rice fields. The vigorous activities of the newcomers in a new land helped the Sinhalese to develop at an alarming speed. Thus within a period of a little over 100 years the Sinhalese.

They occupied the Island as a single ethnic community for well nigh 700 years. In the 3rd century BC the Sinhala population embraced Buddhism and the entire population continued to live as Buddhists for nearly 1,000 years. Thereafter foreign ethnic elements began to arrive in the Island and some settled down as traders. Remnants of Chola armies were allowed to remain. Foreign Colonial powers left some of their people before they left also leaving behind a few Africans and Malays. The British imprted South Indian Tamils to supply cheap labor to the plantation industry in the central region.

Each of these ethnic groups brought with them their own language, religion and culture. The Moors introduced Islam, the Tamils brought back Hinduism, the Portuguese introduced Roman Catholicism, the Dutch brought the Presbyterian Christianity, and the British the Anglican Christian religion. Many poor Sinhalese and Tamils were converted to Catholicism and the other sects of Christianity in return for money, housing and education that the Missionaries freely distributed as a means to attract them. Some conversions took place from amongst the elite Sinhalese families too and these were mainly for political gain and special status within the Colonial regimes.

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