Columbia Chronologies of Asian History and Culture

By John S. Bowman | Go to book overview
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Sri Lanka (Ceylon)

Called Lanka in the Ramayana, the island of Sri Lanka has a 2,500-year-long history combining two major cultural strands. The Indo-Aryan Sinhalese who originally settle the island are joined before the beginning of the Christian era by Tamils from South India. Despite the early and strong historical link with India, reinforced by periodic invasions from across the straits separating them, Sri Lanka develops a distinctive culture.

Indian missionaries convert the Sinhalese to Buddhism in the third century B.C. The great ancient and medieval civilizations of Sri Lanka, their capitals of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruva resplendent with stupas (Buddhist shrines), temples, and palaces, are Buddhist kingdoms. The large Tamil minority practices Hinduism.

Sri Lanka's early civilizations are based on agriculture made possible by some of the most advanced hydraulic engineering in the ancient world. From the earliest period, the island's economy is also dependent on trade. The European trading nations that administer the island during the five hundred-year-long colonial period—Portuguese, Dutch, and British in turn— leave a legacy of social and political institutions to the island they call Ceylon.

Among the most valuable colonial legacies is a peaceful transition to independence in 1948. Another is the well-functioning multiparty democracy that during the succeeding half-century makes Sri Lanka a political model for developing nations.

Beginning in the late 1970s, Sri Lanka is afflicted by communal violence as separatist Tamils wage a terrorist war for independence. Tens of thousands of people are killed and the political and economic life of the nation consumed in an apparently unbreakable cycle of violence.

70,000–26,500B.C.: There is apparently continuous occupation of Sri Lanka from at least 70,000 B.C. on, although there are no human fossils from this time, only stone tools.

26,500–8500B.C.: The oldest directly dated occupation site in Sri Lanka is a cave site of Batadomba-lena, with microlithic artifacts. At least fifty other sites on Sri Lanka dating from somewhat later during this time frame


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