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Published on Oct 7, 2009
The principal source for the early history of Sri Lanka is the Mahavamsa (Great Chronicle), written by Buddhist monks in 500 AD. It provides a legendary account of the first Sinhalese ruler in the 5th century BC and documents the rise and fall of successive Buddhist kingdoms. Later Sinhalese history is chronicled in the Dipavamsa (Lesser Chronicle), completed in the late 1700s AD.
In 377 BC the Sinhalese established Anuradhapura as the capital of their kingdom. In 250 BC Sinhalese King Devanampiya Tissa converted to Buddhism during a missionary visit by Mahinda, son of Indian emperor Ashoka. The Sinhalese monarch became a powerful patron of Buddhism, firmly establishing it as the official religion of his kingdom. By the 1st century AD, the Sinhalese had built several large-scale irrigation works that included a complex system of dams, reservoirs, and canals. The irrigation works allowed them to cultivate rice and other crops on a grand scale in the dry north central plains, where Anuradhapura was centered.
Despite recurring invasions from south India, Sinhalese kings held sway over Anuradhapura for several centuries. In 1070 Sinhalese king Vijayabahu I drove the Cholas out of Sri Lanka and established a new capital at Polonnaruwa, about 80 km southeast of Anuradhapura. The kingdom prospered until about 1200, when it entered a period of decline marked by dynastic succession disputes, social and economic instability, and repeated invasions from south India. When the kingdom finally collapsed in the late 1200s, the Sinhalese abandoned their settlements in the north central plains and migrated to the southwest.
Sri Lanka was known to seafarers since ancient times. Maps that the Greek astronomer Ptolemy compiled in the 2nd century labeled the island Tabrobane. Arab seafarers called it Serendip. From as early as the 700s, Muslim traders called Moors established coastal trading communities in the island. Muslim communities began to claim a significant share of maritime trade in the Indian Ocean in the 1100s. From about the 1400s, European maps identified the island as Seylan, which was later anglicized to Ceylon.
When Europeans first came to the island of present-day Sri Lanka in the early 1500s, it was fragmented between three local polities: two Sinhalese kingdoms, centered in Kotte in the southwest and Kandy in the central highlands, and a Tamil kingdom centered in the Jaffna Peninsula. The Portuguese decided the island of present-day Sri Lanka, which they knew as Ceilao, was strategically important for dominating trade in the Indian Ocean. By 1619 they controlled all but the central highlands, where the Kingdom of Kandy successfully thwarted their attempts to seize control.
In the early 1600s the Dutch sought to wrest control of the maritime spice trade from Portugal. With the help of local leaders, the Dutch attacked Portuguese strongholds in the island, winning major victories in 1639 and 1640. The Portuguese surrendered their last stronghold at Jaffna in 1658. The Dutch developed a robust trade in cinnamon. In 1796 the British expelled the Dutch from the island. Ceylon, as it was known to the British, officially became the first British crown colony in 1802. Following several British military campaigns, the Kingdom of Kandy capitulated to British sovereignty in 1815.
During World War II Sri Lanka was an important base of operations in the Allied offensive against the Japanese and a major source of rubber, foodstuffs, and other materials vital to the war effort. Negotiations during and after the war between local leaders and British administrators resulted in the Ceylon Independence Act of 1947. Ceylon formally became an independent dominion within the British Commonwealth of Nations on February 4, 1948.