Sri Lanka

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Author:Laxman Burdak, IFS (Retd.)

Sketch map of Fa-Hien’s Travels

Sri Lanka or Ceylon is an island country in South Asia near south-east India.

Variants of name

In antiquity, Sri Lanka was known to travellers by a variety of names. These include:


Sri Lanka has maritime borders with India to the northwest and the Maldives to the southwest. It is in the Indian Ocean southwest of the Bay of Bengal, between latitudes 5° and 10°N, and longitudes 79° and 82°E. Sri Lanka is separated from the Indian subcontinent by the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Strait.

Rivers in Sri Lanka

Note - In the Sinhala language, Ganga translates to "River", where as Oya translates to "smaller river".


Route of Silk Road

Its documented history spans 3,000 years, with evidence of pre-historic human settlements dating back to at least 125,000 years.[6]

Its geographic location and deep harbours made it of great strategic importance from the time of the ancient Silk Road. [7]

One of the first written references to the island is found in the Indian epic Ramayana, which provides details of a kingdom named Lanka that was created by the divine sculptor Vishwakarma for Kubera, the Lord of Wealth.[8] It is said that Kubera was overthrown by his demon stepbrother Ravana, the powerful emperor who built a mythical flying machine named Dandu Monara.[9] The modern city of Wariyapola is described as Ravana's airport.[10]

Early inhabitants of Sri Lanka were probably ancestors of the Vedda people,[11] an indigenous people numbering approximately 2,500 living in modern-day Sri Lanka. The 19th-century Irish historian James Emerson Tennent theorized that Galle, a city in southern Sri Lanka, was the ancient seaport of Tarshish from which King Solomon is said to have drawn ivory, peacocks, and other valuables.

According to the Mahāvamsa, a chronicle written in Pāḷi, the original inhabitants of Sri Lanka are the Yakshas and Nagas.

Sinhala tribe finds mention in Mahabharata (II.31.12)[12], (II.48.30)[13], (III.48.19)[14].

The Sinhala Kingdom or Sinhalese Kingdom refers to the one and or all of the successive Sinhalese kingdoms that existed in what is today Sri Lanka.[15][16]

Founded in 543 BC, the Sinhala Kingdom existed as successive kingdoms known by the city at which its administrative center was located, these are in chronological order the Kingdom of Tambapanni, Upatissa Nuwara, Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Dambadeniya, Gampola, Kotte, Sitawaka and Kandy. The Sinhala Kingdom ceased to exist by 1815. During this time other political entities also existed, the Jaffna kingdom,[17] Vanni chieftaincies, Portuguese and Dutch colonies, these are not part of the Sinhala Kingdom.

Sinhala history traditionally starts in 543 BCE with the arrival of Prince Vijaya or Singha, a semi-legendary prince who sailed with 700 followers on eight ships 860 nautical miles to Sri Lanka from the southwest coast of what is now the Rarh region of West Bengal.[18] He established the Kingdom of Tambapanni, near modern-day Mannar. Vijaya (Singha) is the first of the approximately 189 native monarchs of Sri Lanka described in chronicles such as the Dipavamsa, Mahāvaṃsa, Cūḷavaṃsa, and Rājāvaliya. Sri Lankan dynastic history ended in 1815 CE, when the land became part of the British Empire.

The Anuradhapura Kingdom was established in 380 BCE during the reign of Pandukabhaya of Anuradhapura. Thereafter, Anuradhapura served as the capital city of the country for nearly 1400 years.[19] Ancient Sri Lankans excelled at building certain types of structures (constructions) such as tanks, dagobas and palaces.[20]

Society underwent a major transformation during the reign of Devanampiya Tissa of Anuradhapura, with the arrival of Buddhism from India. In 250 BC,[21] Mahinda, the son of the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka and a bhikkhu (Buddhist monk) arrived in Mihintale, carrying the message of Buddhism.[22] His mission won over the monarch, who embraced the faith and propagated it throughout the Sinhalese population.[23] Succeeding kingdoms of Sri Lanka would maintain a large number of Buddhist] schools and monasteries and support the propagation of Buddhism into other countries in Southeast Asia.

Sri Lankan Bhikkhus studied in India's famous ancient Buddhist University of Nalanda, which was destroyed by Bakhtiyar Khilji. It is probable that many of the scriptures from Nalanda are preserved in Sri Lanka's many monasteries and that the written form of the Tipitaka, including Sinhalese Buddhist literature, were part of the University of Nalanda.[24]

In 245 BC, bhikkhuni Sangamitta arrived with the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi tree, which is considered to be a sapling from the historical Bodhi tree under which Gautama Buddha became enlightened.[25] It is considered the oldest human-planted tree (with a continuous historical record) in the world. (Bodhivamsa).[26]

During its two and a half millennia of existence, the Kingdom of Sri Lanka was invaded at least eight times by neighbouring South Asian dynasties such as the Chola, Pandya, Chera, and Pallava. These invaders were all subsequently driven back.[27] There also were incursions by the kingdoms of Kalinga (modern Odisha) and from the Malay Peninsula as well. Kala Wewa and the Avukana Buddha statue were built during the reign of Dhatusena.[28]

The Fourth Buddhist council of Theravada Buddhism was held at the Anuradhapura Maha Viharaya in Sri Lanka under the patronage of Valagamba of Anuradhapura in 25 BCE. After the Council, palm-leaf manuscripts containing the completed Canon were taken to other countries such as Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.

Sri Lanka was the first Asian country known to have a female ruler: Anula of Anuradhapura (r. 47–42 BCE).[29] Sri Lankan monarchs undertook some remarkable construction projects such as Sigiriya, the so-called "Fortress in the Sky", built during the reign of Kashyapa I of Anuradhapura, who ruled between 477 and 495.

Alexander Cunningham writes that Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang did not go to Sri Lanka due to the troubled state of Ceylon followed immediately after the death of Raja Buna-Mu-galan, who was defeated and killed in A.D. 639.[30]

The medieval period of Sri Lanka begins with the fall of Anuradhapura Kingdom. In AD 993, the invasion of Chola emperor Rajaraja I forced the then Sri Lankan ruler Mahinda V to flee to the southern part of the country. Taking advantage of this situation, Rajendra I, son of Rajaraja I, launched a large invasion in AD 1017. Mahinda V was captured and taken to India, and the Cholas sacked the city of Anuradhapura. Subsequently, they moved the capital to Polonnaruwa.[31] This marked the end of the two great houses of dynasties of ancient Sri Lanka, the Moriya and the Lambakanna (Lambakarna).

Following a seventeen-year-long campaign, Vijayabahu I successfully drove the Chola out of Sri Lanka in 1070, reuniting the country for the first time in over a century.[32] Upon his request, ordained monks were sent from Burma to Sri Lanka to re-establish Buddhism, which had almost disappeared from the country during the Chola reign.[33] During the medieval period, Sri Lanka was divided to three sub-territories, namely Ruhunu, Pihiti and Maya.[34]

Sri Lanka's irrigation system was extensively expanded during the reign of Parākramabāhu the Great (AD 1153–1186).[35]


विजयेन्द्र कुमार माथुर[36] ने लेख किया है ...आम्रद्वीप (AS, p.67) लंका का एक प्राचीन भारतीय नाम है, जो इस देश की भौगोलिक आकृति के अनुरूप है। इस नाम का उल्लेख बोधिगया से प्राप्त किसी महानामन् द्वितीय के एक अभिलेख में किया गया है। यह अभिलेख गुप्त संवत् 269 (=584 ई.) का है। यह महाराज महानामन् सिंहल के पाली इतिहास का रचयिता हो सकता है। संभवत: यह अभिलेख इसी ने अपनी इस स्थान की यात्रा के संस्मारक रूप में उत्कीर्ण करवाया था।

In Mahabharata

Vana Parva, Mahabharata/Book III Chapter 86 mentions in the list of pilgrims the Tamraparni (ताम्रपर्णी) (III.86.11).[37] In that asylum the gods had undergone penances impelled by the desire of obtaining salvation. In that region also is the lake of Gokarna (गॊकर्ण) (III.86.12) which is celebrated over the three worlds, hath an abundance of cool waters, and is sacred, auspicious, and capable, O child, of producing great merit. That lake is extremely difficult of access to men of unpurified souls.

Visit by Fahian in 412 AD

James Legge[38] writes that Following the course of the Ganges, and descending eastwards for eighteen yojanas, he found on the southern bank the great kingdom of Champa,1 with topes reared at the places where Buddha walked in meditation by his vihara, and where he and the three Buddhas, his predecessors, sat. There were monks residing at them all. Continuing his journey east for nearly fifty yojanas, he came to the country of Tamalipti,2 (the capital of which is) a seaport. In the country there are twenty-two monasteries, at all of which there are monks residing. The Law of Buddha is also flourishing in it. Here Fa-hien stayed two years, writing out his Sutras,3 and drawing pictures of images.

After this he embarked in a large merchant-vessel, and went floating over the sea to the south-west. It was the beginning of winter, and the wind was favourable; and, after fourteen days, sailing day and night, they came to the country of Singhala.4 The people said that it was distant (from Tamalipti) about 700 yojanas.

The kingdom is on a large island, extending from east to west fifty yojanas, and from north to south thirty. Left and right from it there are as many as 100 small islands, distant from one another ten, twenty, or even 200 le; but all subject to the large island. Most of them produce pearls and precious stones of various kinds; there is one which produces the pure and brilliant pearl,5 — an island which would form a square of about ten le. The king employs men to watch and protect it, and requires three out of every ten such pearls, which the collectors find.

1 Probably the modern Champanagar, three miles west of Bhagalpur, lat. 25d 14s N., lon. 56d 55s E.

2 Then the principal emporium for the trade with Ceylon and China; the modern Tam-look, lat. 22d 17s N., lon. 88d 2s E.; near the mouth of the Hoogly.

3 Perhaps Ching {.} is used here for any portions of the Tripitaka which he had obtained.

4 “The Kingdom of the Lion,” Ceylon. Singhala was the name of a merchant adventurer from India, to whom the founding of the kingdom was ascribed. His father was named Singha, “the Lion,” which became the name of the country; — Singhala, or Singha-Kingdom, “the Country of the Lion.”

5 Called the mani pearl or bead. Mani is explained as meaning “free from stain,” “bright and growing purer.” It is a symbol of Buddha and of his Law. The most valuable rosaries are made of manis.

Mention by Xuanzang

Sir Alexander Cunningham[39] writes that [p.557]: The famous island of Ceylon is not reckoned amongst the kingdoms of India, and it was not visited by the pilgrim on account of political disturbances. But as he gives a description of it from the account of the monks whom he met at Kanchipura, and as it is closely connected with India both religiously and politically, my work would not be complete without some notice of this interesting island.

In the seventh century of our era Ceylon was known by the name of Seng-kia-lo, or Sinhala, which was said to be derived from the lion-descended Sinhala, whose son Vijaya is fabled to have conquered the island on the very day of Buddha's death, in B.C. 543. Its original name was Pao-chu, or "Isle of Gems," in Sanskrit Ratnadwipa. Its existence was first made known to the European world by the expedition of Alexander, under the name of Taprobane. The popular PS,li form is Tamba-panni, or "red-handed," in allusion to the " red palms " of the hands of Vijaya's sick companions, who, on landing from their vessel, touched the red ground with their hands. The true form, however, would appear to be Tamba-panni1 or "red-leaved," from the Sanskrit Tamra-parni. Lassen also gives Tambra-pani, or the " great pond," or "pond covered with the red lotus," as a probable derivation. In later times it was known to the western world as Simundu, or Palai-Simundu, which Lassen thinks may have been derived from Pali-Simanta, or " head of the holy law." As Pliny applies the latter name to the city containing the royal palace, it has been

1 Tumour's ' Mahawanso,' p. 50.

[p.558]: supposed to be only another appellation for the capital Anarajapura, or Anuragrammon, of Ptolemy. No explanation is offered of Andrasimundu, which Ptolemy gives as the name of a promontory on the western coast of Ceylon, opposite Anarajapura. From its position it may be only another name for Palai-simundu.

Ptolemy calls the island Salike, which, as Lassen suggests, would appear to be only a sailor's corrupt form of Sinhalaka, or Sihalaka, shortened to Silaka. Ammianus calls it Serendivus, which is the same as the Sieladiba of Kosmas, both being derived from Sihala-dipa, which is the Pali form of Sinhala-dwipa, or " Sinhala's island." Abu Rihan gives the form of Singal-dib, or Sirindib, which is the Serendib of European sailors. From the same source came the Arabic Zilan, and our own Ceylon. Amongst the Hindus the most familiar name is Langka-dwipa, which is also mentioned in the ' Mahawanso ' under the Pali form of Lanka-dipa1.

1 Tumour's ' Mahawanso," pp. 2, 3, 49.

In Gupta Inscriptions

19. Saimhalaka (सैंहलक) (No. 1, L. 23) :

Tej Ram Sharma[40] writes that Allahabad Stone Pillar Inscription of Samudragupta (=A.D.335-76) mentions Sinhaladvipa in L-23. [41].

Inhabitants of Simhala or Ceylon. They are mentioned along with the Daivaputras, Sahis, Sahanusahis, Sakas and Murundas, and all (other) dwellers in islands (probably the islands of Southern Sea such as Java and Sumatra), who paid homage to Samudragupta by offering themselves for services, bringing presents of maidens, praying for charters bearing the imperial Gupta Garuda seal (Garutmadahka) by which they would be left undisturbed by the emperor in the enjoyment (bhukti) and administration (sasana) of their respective territories. If literally interpreted the inscription will suggest that the people mentioned here were really tributaries under Samudragupta.

Personal and geographical names in the Gupta inscriptions 159

When we see from the inscription itself that the Tamil states were left undisturbed, the inclusion of even distant Simhala (Ceylon) and all other islands in this category raises great doubts about this interpretation, and we shall hardly be justified in taking the words of the Court-poet in their literal sense without corroborative evidence. But the question arises that was the conquest of Tamraparni (Simhala) by Asoka in his Rock Edict II also a simple boast of this kind ?

So far as Ceylon is concerned, we have fortunately an independent evidence of its political relation with Samudragupta.

We know that after the death of king Mahasena (A.D. 334-62) of the Lambakarna clan his son Sumeghavarna (chi-mi-kia- po-mo="coud of merit") became king of Ceylon who was a contemporary of Samudragupta ( San-meou-to-lo-kin-to ). He, according to a Chinese text, sent two monks to Bodh-Gaya to visit the sacred spots, but they were put to great inconvenience for want of suitable accommodation. To remove this difficulty for future pilgrims to the holy place, Meghavarna decided to found a monastery there. He accordingly sent a mission to Samudragupta with rich presents and asked for permission, and the Ceylonese king built a splendid monastery to the north of the Bodhi tree.

By the time of Hiuen Tsang it had developed into a magnificent establishment, with more than 1,000 priests, and the pilgrim has described the rich decorations and massive grandeur of the buildings. Referring to the old history of its foundation Hiuen Tsang says that the Ceylonese king 'gave in tribute to the king of India all the jewels of his country'. "It is likely that Samudragupta's courtier also regarded the rich presents as a tribute, and construed the Ceylonese king's prayer for permission to build a monastery into an 'application for charter confirming him in the enjoyment of his territories', one of the forms of homage paid by the category of states into which Simhala is included".

Simhala is generally identified with Lanka. But Varahamihira mentions both of them separately as situated in the South.

Lanka has been identified differently by various scholars with Lanka of Madhyadesa, with Maldives, with the

160 Personal and geographical names in the Gupta inscriptions

northern part of the Andhra country on the shores of the Bay of Bengal, and with an island off the south-east Coast of Ceylon. All these theories are refuted by S.B. Chaudhuri, who remarks that the assumption that Lanka is not Ceylon is gratuitous. He points out that in the Ramayana Ravana while entreating Sita to be his wife says : "Lankānāma samudrasya madhye mama mahāpuri sāgareṇa parikṣiptā niviṣṭā "

Hanuman makes a similar statement in describing the strategical position of Lanka : Sthitā pāre samudrasya dūrapārasya. 449 Kalidasa in his Raghuvarhsa in connexion with 'Purim Lahkām' writes : "Mahārṇava parikṣepam lankāyah parikhālaghum".450 With regard to the bridge built by Rama Kalidasa notes : sa setum bandhayāmāsa plavangairlavaṇāmbhasi. In the Skanda Purana and in the Kathasaritsagara, we have similar references to Lanka. All these passages point distinctly to the great sea on the other side of which was situated the great city of Lanka.

The separate mention of Simhala and Lanka in many Sanskrit texts is quoted to show that Lanka was distinct from Ceylon. This is hardly convincing for the separate mention of Mathura and Surasena, Saketa and Kosala, Gandhara and Taksasila, Avanti and Ujjaini, did not imply any material geographical difference as they were treated only as convertible terms in geographical texts of the Puranas. In the Puranic lists, Lanka is a territorial name and Simhala is an ethnic name. As the name of a city in the island of Simhala, Lanka passed off as a dvipa, and the two names were used in the same geographical sense. A passage in the Ramayana runs thus : "Simhalān barbarān mlecchān ye ca lahkānivāsinah". Hiuen Tsang also mentions Seng-ka-lo (Ceylon) which included Leug-ka (Lanka). As pointed out by B.C. Law, the Mahavamsa and its commentary show that Lankadvipa (the lower portion) was one of the main divisions of the island of Ceylon.

It is a valid presumption, therefore, that the ancient name Lanka referred to Ceylon. We may assume further, as seems very likely, that Lanka was the early name of Ceylon and its literary name as well. Mention is made of Lahkadvipa even in medieval inscriptions. The Madras museum plates of Jaṭilavarman refer to the beautiful island of Lanka as Ilangai. Epigraphic evidence, however, shows that Simhala, another name

Personal and geographical names in the Gupta inscriptions 161

of ancient Ceylon, was equally well known. Thus the Kanhad plate of Krsna III refers to the island of Simhala. In another inscription the king of Simhala is described as waiting on the shore. In other inscriptions Simhala is variously designated as Singala-desam, Sīlam and Sihala. 465 All this evidence favours the suggestion that as territorial names Simhala and Lanka were convertible terms, although the latter is also used as the name of a city. Priaulx remarks and probably, correctly, that Lanka was the old mythological name for Ceylon, and that later on it was supplanted by Tamraparrni and subsequently when the Periplus was written, by Palaesi-mundus or Palaesimoundon which itself was transformed into Salike, Serendiva derived from Pali Sihala or Sihala dipa. The name Palaesimoundon is very plausibly based on "pare samudrasya" in the description given of Lanka as noted above. Ptolemy's Simoundon also refers to that name. But in Ptolemy's Geography the island is called Salike which responds to Siele diba of Kosmas Indicopleustes both of which have their sources in Sihalam "the Pali form of Sanskrit Simhala" or Ceylon. To this source may be traced its other names such as Serendib. Zeilan, Sialan, the last one yielding to Ceylon. Marco Polo's Seilan is a nearer approach to the modern name. Van-der-turk suggests that the name may have been derived from Sela or 'precious stone', hence the island was anciently called Ratnadvipa' An Arab historian called it the "Island of Rubies". The Chinese name for the island also implies reference to gems. The name Sailan also occurs in the works of Rashiduddin, Hayton and Jordanus. Al-Beruni called it Singaldib. Simhala is perhaps so called as once abounding in lions.

We may note here that there are references to another Simhala quite different from Ceylon. It was placed to the east of Marudesa and to the south of the Kamadri. It is evidently in the Punjab-Rajasthan region and reminds us of the kingdom of Simhapura mentioned by Hiuen Tsang.

Places of Historical Importance


  1. Rajasingham, K. T. "Sri Lanka: The untold story". Asia Times.
  2. Zubair, Lareef. "Etymologies of Lanka, Serendib, Taprobane and Ceylon"
  3. Aitihasik Sthanavali by Vijayendra Kumar Mathur, p.116
  4. "Sri Lanka — The Pearl of the Orient". Metropolis.
  5. Abeydeera, Ananda. "In Search of Taprobane: the Western discovery and mapping of Ceylon"
  6. Roberts, Brian (2006). "Sri Lanka: Introduction". Urbanization and sustainability in Asia: case studies of good practice. ISBN 9789715616072.
  7. Bandaranayake, Senake (1990). "Sri Lankan Role in the Maritime Silk Route". Sri Lanka and the silk road of the sea. p. 21. ISBN 978-955-9043-02-7.
  8. Keshavadas, Sant (1988). Ramayana at a Glance. Motilal Banarsidass. ISBN 81-208-0545-3.
  9. Parker, H. (1992). Ancient Ceylon. Asian Educational Services. p. 7. ISBN 978-81-206-0208-3.
  10. Padma Edirisinghe (2009). "Ravana – historical or mythical figure?". The Sunday Observer
  11. Deraniyagala, S. U. "Early Man and the Rise of Civilisation in Sri Lanka: the Archaeological Evidence".
  12. द्रविडाः सिंहलाश चैव राजा काश्मीरकस तदा, कुन्तिभॊजॊ महातेजाः सुह्मश च सुमहाबलः (II.31.12)
  13. समुद्रसारं वैडूर्यं मुक्ताः शङ्खांस तदैव च, शतशश च कुदांस तत्र सिन्हलाः समुपाहरन (II.48.30)
  14. सागरानूपगांश चैव ये च पत्तनवासिनः, सिंहलान बर्बरान मलेच्छान ये च जाङ्गलवासिनः (III.48.19)
  15. Cavendish, Marshall (2007). World and Its Peoples: Eastern and Southern Asia. Cavendish Square Publishing. pp. 350–51. ISBN 978-0761476313.
  16. Bandaranayake, S. D. (1974). Sinhalese Monastic Architecture: The Viháras of Anurádhapura. Leiden: BRILL. p. 17. ISBN 9004039929.
  17. Manogaran, Chelvadurai (1987). Ethnic Conflict and Reconciliation in Sri Lanka. University of Hawaii Press. pp. 25–26. ISBN 978-0824811167.
  18. The Mahavamsa
  19. "World Heritage site: Anuradhapura".
  20. "Waterworld: Ancient Sinhalese Irrigation".
  21. Perera H. R. "Buddhism in Sri Lanka: A Short History".
  22. Holt, John Clifford (2004). "Sri Lanka". In Buswell, Robert E., Jr. Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism. USA: Macmillan Reference USA. pp. 795–799. ISBN 978-0-8160-5459-6.
  23. "King Devanampiya Tissa (306 BC – 266 BC)". Mahavamsa.
  24. "Buddhism in Sri Lanka"
  25. Maung Paw, p. 6
  26. Gunawardana, Jagath. "Historical trees: Overlooked aspect of heritage that needs a revival of interest". Daily Mirror.
  27. De Silva, Harris. "Distortion of history for political purposes".
  28. Sarachchandra, B. S. (1977). අපේ සංස්කෘතික උරුමය [Our Cultural Heritage] (in Sinhala). Silva, V. P. pp. 121–122.
  29. "The History of Ceylon"
  30. [The Ancient Geography of India/Preface],p.xi
  31. Siriweera, W. I. (1994). A Study of the Economic History of Pre Modern Sri Lanka. Vikas Publishing House. pp. 44–45. ISBN 978-0-7069-7621-2.
  32. Lambert, Tim. "A Brief History of Sri Lanka".
  33. Bokay, Mon (1966). Relations between Ceylon and Burma in the 11th Century AD. Artibus Asiae Publishers. p. 93.
  34. "Ancient Irrigation Works"
  35. Herath, R. B. (2002). Sri Lankan Ethnic Crisis: Towards a Resolution. Trafford Publishing. p. 19. ISBN 978-1-55369-793-0. "Parakramabahu 1 further extended the system to the highest resplendent peak of hydraulic civilization of the country's history."
  36. Aitihasik Sthanavali by Vijayendra Kumar Mathur, p.
  37. 11
    कुमार्यः कथिताः पुण्याः पाण्ड्येष्व एव नरर्षभ
    ताम्रपर्णीं तु कौन्तेय कीर्तयिष्यामि तां शृणु Mahabharata (III.86.11)
  38. A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms/Chapter 37
  39. The Ancient Geography of India/Ceylon,pp. 557-562
  40. Personal and geographical names in the Gupta inscriptions/Tribes,pp.158-161
  41. परितोषित-प्रचंड-शासनस्य ...... देवपुत्रषाहीषाहनुषाहि-शकमुरुंडै:सैंहलकादिभिश्च