Sri Lanka as A Resplendent Isle from Way Back in Time

Pauline Gunewardene, being …. a talk originally titled “A Brief History of Sri Lanka,” and presented at  the Mind Cafe Mental Health Conference o at the Marriott in Weligama, 3-10 August 2019…… and subsequently placed in the first CEYLANKAN for 2020 with the title “Resplendent Lanka – “only forty leagues from Paradise”

The ancient land of Lanka, known in ages past as the Resplendent Isle, the Pearl of the Indian Ocean — some of the many names given to it by travellers who came under its spell. Lanka is its original name and means island while Sri means resplendent and also used as an honorific.

 Ibn Battuta Marco Polo

The origins of human habitation in this island go back 35,000 years and the documentation of settlements dates to the 3rd Century BC. The indigenous inhabitants, of whom very few now remain, are called the Veddahs and are a nomadic race of hunters and gatherers living in little enclaves in the forests even to this day. Of special interest to you would be that they are the closest ethnically to the Aborigines of Australia. This, of course, because Gondwanaland was a major land mass encompassing what is now Australia and Sri Lanka until sections broke away.

And this is the origin of the Sinhalese race, so called because they are the descendants of a lion – or Sinhaya in the native language of Sihala or Sinhala. It is the reason why the lion stands proud on the national flag. The Sinhalese have no other homeland. There is no other Sinhala speaking nation in the world. The Sinhalese have a recorded history of over two thousand five hundred years. They are the majority race in Sri Lanka and are 75 per cent of the population.

To go back to history, civilisation of a high order flourished through the centuries, with palaces, temples, hospitals, multi-storey buildings, running water, sanitation, gravity fed fns, beautiful art and pottery, the making of jewellery and ornaments.

Meanwhile, Prince Gautama, born in 623 BC in Lumbini in Nepal, had left his palace and dominions and sought the answers to the frailties and ills of the human condition, wandering the forests of the kingdom in meditation in solitude. He found what he was seeking in enlightenment under a Bo tree (ficus species) and founded the philosophy of Buddhism in the late 6th Century BC.

In the 3rd Century BC, the connection of Lanka with India was re-established when King Ashoka sent his son Arahat Mahinda and daughter Princess Sanghamitta to bring Buddhism to the island. The Sinhalese king welcomed the teachings of the Sublime One, orders of monks and nuns were established and the people began the practice of Buddhism. From Lanka the teachings spread in different forms all over the East, to China and Japan, Burma and Thailand, and many smaller countries. Lanka became known as the cradle of Buddhism, and it is practised as a religion by 70 per cent of the island’s population in the form closest to its origins.

Successive kings constructed the famous dome shaped massive structures called dagabas in the capital cities of first Anuradhapura and then Polonnaruwa, in veneration of the Buddhist teachings. They are perfect in symmetry and form, using mathematical knowledge like that of the Egyptian pyramids, which were the only buildings taller than the dagabas in ancient times. A sacred Bo tree off a sapling from the original tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment, brought to Lanka by the Princess Sanghamitta, was grown with a golden fence surrounding it in Anuradhapura. Amazing larger than life statues of the Buddha were carved out of the natural rock of the landscapes – standing, sitting, lying down – in teaching positions or in peaceful contemplation. Many elaborate temples with beautiful murals painted on the walls, depicting the life and times of the Buddha, were constructed in commemoration and worship.

In the Kandyan Kingdom in the central highlands, the King there constructed the premier Buddhist site of worship, the Temple of the Tooth, which has the relic of a tooth from the Buddha. The legend is that whoever is in possession of the sacred Tooth will be the ruler of the land. It is taken out once a year in the world famous pageant of the Kandy Perahera or Procession, parading the relic through the streets on the back of a richly caparisoned royal elephant. The Kandyan chieftains ride caparisoned elephants too, some walk under silk umbrellas, long lines of dancers perform the traditional folk rituals of Sri Lanka, with participants in fire walking and fire eating as well as pilgrims performing vows such as body piercing. Around 100 elephants take part in the Perahera. It is most spectacular and takes place on the first full moon day in August. I’m actually going to Kandy for it myself on the 14th of August!

One of the examples of ancient architectural wonder would be Sigiriya, estimated by many as perhaps the eighth Wonder of the World. King Kasayapa built his palace upon the summit of this rock, being afraid of the return of his brother Mugalan to avenge the death of their father whom he had killed to take the throne. Guarding the staircase to the top were massive lions sculptured in stone with only the enormous paws remaining to show us the size they would once have been. All the carving out of the rock made use of amazing technology for that time, with chemical compounds made from native plants – audience halls with flat carved seats, a huge bath pool hollowed out of the rock, lookout points with boulders finely balanced at the ready to roll down on invaders, are some of the sights that await the rather arduous climb. But, of course, the piece de resistance would be the celestial maidens or court ladies – no one is quite certain – painted in detailed splendour on one side of the rock surface. Not many remain of these visions of beauty, but the record is that they once covered the entire side of the rock sheer from the plain, so that from below and the winter palace on the ground, the maidens appeared to be rising in clouds to the sky. Close beside the rock art is the Mirror Wall, reddish plaster so highly polished that it actually reflects. Near it are examples of some of the first graffiti at that time – poems of love and longing. Sigiriya is indeed a wonder and worth a visit.

Just a strait away – the Palk Straits to be exact – lies the coastline of southern India. It was possible in bygone times to be able to walk across on the stones of the causeway of what was called Adam’s Bridge or Rama’s Bridge. Certainly there was no shortage of invaders or migrants to the island from South India – the traffic was one way as no Sinhalese went across to live in India. The successive waves of the Dravidian race of Tamils or Cholas from South India made the peninsula and northern part of the island their home and established the Kingdom of Jaffna. It was a fairly inhospitable and arid part of the island, but the Tamils were hard working and assiduously cultivated and cared for the land.

As was natural, they sought to move further south to the more beneficent areas climate wise. And here they encountered resistance from the Sinhalese who lived there and had established their kingdom’s first capital of Anuradhapura. So battles ended up being waged, with first one side and then the other gaining control. The Sinhalese moved their capital further south to Polonnaruwa, but were still not safe from the invaders.

Eventually the Tamils succeeded in seizing control of the North Central section of the island, forcing the Sinhalese to flee to the extreme south to set up the Kingdom of Ruhuna – and where we now are in Weligama was part of that southern Kingdom. Finally a Sinhalese Prince Dutugemmunu was born who had had enough of being displaced from their former capital and kingdom, and marched his armies into battle against the Chola or Tamil King Elara. Dutugemmunu was victorious, honoured his slain foe as a worthy and great king, and took back the lands of his forefathers.

The Sinhalese people cultivated the land with the help of the many river systems fanning out from the central hills to the seas, two monsoonal rains feeding each side of the island at two different seasons, as well as building massive lakes, called tanks locally, for storing the water for their crops. It was a highly successful agrarian economy which had developed very sophisticated irrigation systems, and Lanka became known as the Granary of the East with its enormous extents of land under rice cultivation and other crops.

In addition, it was a bountiful land blessed with many resources. The much sought after richness of spices like cinnamon and pepper growing abundantly, elephants used for riding into battle by Alexander’s Greek armies, precious gems like sapphires and rubies – the biggest sapphire in the English crown is from this land – pearls and a harvest of fish in the surrounding oceans. In the forests, as you will see in Yala in the last three days of the Conference, leopard, black bear and elephant roam free, along with sambhur, deer, wild buffalo, peacocks, and a diversity of wild life unsurpassed in such a small area of 25,332 square miles. Off the coasts,

schools of dolphins frolic, humpbacks and blue whales ride the waves, and the dugongs, who inspire the legendary mermaid tales, sing their songs.

Lanka sat at the crossroads of East and West and tales of its riches attracted traders from many parts of the world, bringing goods like silks, porcelain, sandalwood, and taking away items such as textiles, spices, ivory, pearls, gems, that the island produced. Famous travellers, like the Chinese Fa Hsien and the Arab geographer Edrisi, visited here and took back stories to their countries.

It was the rich spice trade that brought the first colonial empire, Portugal, in 1505 to conquer and annex most of the coastal belt kingdoms in the name of their King, and Lanka was given the name of Ceilao by them. In the process, religious proselytism was at the forefront and people were converted to Catholicism. Baptisms were done en masse, with the preacher standing on a rise of land and addressing the people gathered below to change their religion.

The next wave of conquest was in 1602, when the Dutch conquered the Portuguese empire and acquired their colonies. So Lanka became Ceylaan and along came another religious conversion, to Protestantism this time, which was encouraged if one wished to get somewhere with the colonial masters. The lowland Lankans took this on board too and accepted their new ruler.

The Portuguese and Dutch, however, never managed to conquer the central highland Kingdom of Kandy, which resisted all attempts to breach its natural defences of rocky escarpments. But come the greatest Empire of that time, the British, and the Kingdom of Kandy was taken by clever strategy of infiltration and subversion, with resistance by its subjects proving useless in the battles that were fought and the rebellions that followed against a powerful and well resourced opponent. Lanka was then, with the signing of the Kandyan Convention in 1815, brought under the rule of the Queen of England and the country’s name changed again, this time to Ceylon.

The British decided, as their three main money spinners for exports, to grow coffee in the mid to high lands, rubber in the low country and propagate further the local growing of coconut. Coffee was hit by a blight, however, and the British then decided to convert those lands to tea estates, which became a highly successful export. And so we ended up with vast extents of forest and agricultural land being carpeted with camellia sinensis, to give the tea bush its botanical name. As an interesting aside, White Tea cultivation has also been introduced from China in modern times in a few exclusive plantations. It is the world’s most expensive tea, necessitating plucking before sunrise, with the entire process being done by hand with silk gloves from start to finish. The country’s entire small production is bought by the Emperor of Japan.

For the purpose of plucking the “two leaves and a bud” required for good tea production, the British had to bring in indentured labour from South India, where there was endemic poverty, because the local Sinhalese refused to undertake this work, having been used to farming their own lands. The consequence was the introduction of a racial category for this indentured tea estate labour called Indian Tamils, who lived and worked in the hill country tea plantations only. They now represent 4 per cent of the population.

To look at the various races of Sri Lanka, after the majority Sinhalese of 75%, come the 11 per cent Ceylon Tamils, of ethnic origin to the South Indians, who still traditionally call the North and North East their homelands. However, most of them live and work among the Sinhalese in the capital Colombo and wherever in the rest of the island their business or needs require. There are no restrictions or distinctions whatsoever and the two races live amicably together, with some of the most lucrative businesses being owned by Tamils.

The other significant race in Sri Lanka are the 9 per cent Muslims comprising Moors and Malays of different ethnic origins. The Moors have Arab mainly trading ancestry and the Malays are mainly the descendants of the soldiers brought into the country to serve the Dutch from their Indonesian colony, and subsequently also used by the British extensively in their battles with the Kandyans. They are very much involved in the business arena of modern Sri Lanka and own companies of worth as well as having professionals in every sphere of influence and have been for the most part involved in the governments of the day.

Another small component of around 1 per cent of the island’s population mix are the Burghers, given this nomenclature by the British to pull together all the descendants of the western settlers in the country – so their forebears would mainly be Portuguese, Dutch and British.

1947 saw India finally gaining independence from the British, and partly as a result of their resistance and partly because of our own freedom fighters, who had to flee or were imprisoned by the British, Ceylon was granted independence on the 4th of February 1948 and finally came out from the shadow of colonial rule. We had a Legislative Assembly first, then Parliament based on the Westminster form of government, graduating to the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka in 1972 – taking back the original name of the country – and then in 1978 moving to an Executive Presidential plus Parliamentary form of government, based on the French system largely.

The results of the ‘divide and rule’ policy of the British left behind dissension and resentment among the different races, particularly by the Sinhalese about the Tamils, who were favoured by the colonial rulers over the Sinhalese. As a result of this, to capitalise on the sentiment in the country, the then Government introduced the politically motivated Sinhala Only language policy in 1956, which led to violent riots. This was to become unfortunately a regular feature, erupting from time to time.

It is pertinent to say here that now, in redressing the past, Sinhala is the Official Language and National Language of Sri Lanka, with Tamil also an Official and National Language, with English as the Link Language. In schools, both Sinhala and Tamil are taught at primary stage with secondary stage being in Sinhala or Tamil as chosen. Everyone now recognises the importance of English and it is learned with great enthusiasm and spoken widely in modern day Sri Lanka.

 1971-1989 – Successive incidents of uprisings took place by Communist inspired disaffected youth who were educated, but jobless. Thanks to free education, Sri Lanka has a literacy rate of 93 per cent, but employment opportunities have not kept pace. Mitigating against this also is the fact that technical colleges have not been adequately developed and the system keeps churning out white collar workers for jobs which do not exist. There needs to be more colleges set up for further education of skill sets in carpentry, joinery, plumbing, etc. And to take up these changes in the education curriculum, there needs to be a change of attitude to give dignity and parity to all types of work – instead of value only being placed on professionals or office worker categories, as exists now.

Another calamity that had to be dealt with by the islanders was the devastating Boxing Day Tsunami on the 26th of December 2004, which tore through the coastal areas, destroying life and property on a massive scale. Hundreds were killed, houses, hotels and businesses were brought to nothing, with crops and land being rendered useless due to sea water inundation.

To return to the politics of the country, the resentment of the Tamils against the discrimination of the language policy came to a head in 1983, when the terrorist organisation, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or the LTTE, began the deadly war which dragged on for 26 years and which decimated the country in all aspects and for all communities.

The last and fourth phase of the war began in 2006, when the LTTE deliberately as an act of provocation cut the Mavil Aru anicut in the Eastern Province, depriving the 3,000 villagers of their basic and essential right to water. The Government was left with no alternative but to take action to resolve the issue and went into battle yet again. The further consideration was the responsibility the Government finally realised they had of protection for the 20 million population of the country, instead of focusing only on hopeful peace talks and ceasefires while leaving the rest of the people year after year at the mercy of what was ranked internationally as the world’s most ruthless terrorist organisation, and proscribed in many countries. People tried to keep living a normal life, but were constantly in fear of bomb attacks including suicide bombers, which the LTTE pioneered, which struck suddenly from nowhere – places of worship, bus stops, railways, the airport, the Central Bank, nothing was spared. The fear psychosis in the country was palpable, as I experienced for myself on our yearly visits and travelling around.

In the entire course of the war years from 1983-2009, thousands of people died in the many attacks by the LTTE on the population as well as in the battles waged by them on the security forces on land and sea, in their objective of a separate State carved out of two-thirds of the country’s coastline in the North and East. So many Sinhalese and Tamil leaders were assassinated by the LTTE as well as the Prime Minister of India. The estimated deaths included 27,639 terrorist fighters, more than 21,066 Sri Lankan Services personnel, 1,000 Sri Lankan police, 1,500 Indian soldiers sent by that Government to help Sri Lanka, and thousands of civilians. Several thousand more were injured, and maimed security forces personnel became dependent on government disability pensions. The economy was shot to pieces with no foreign direct investment, important and lucrative tourism inevitably dropped to abysmal levels, people lived in insecurity, and those who could left for greener pastures overseas, with a significant brain drain as a consequence.

At long last, strong leadership in the Government of the day, coupled with coordinated intelligence information gathering, planning, strategy, and the upliftment of the tri-services’ morale, resulted in the defeat of the dreaded LTTE in May 2009 in what was regarded globally as the unwinnable victory.

The 10 years of peace in 2009-2019 saw Sri Lanka bloom and begin to develop her true potential. Immediately peace was returned, the Government began the urgent and much needed push to reconstruct, rehabilitate and reorganise the entire country from north to south, from east to west. Roads, bridges, railways, public buildings, housing for displaced people, derelict irrigation tanks, hotels, airports, ports – they had all been either destroyed in the conflict or badly run down due to lack of finances.

There was no money left, however, since all the country’s resources had been drained with the enormous cost of funding the war effort over the 26 weary years and still keeping everything ticking over while maintaining the bare minimum of running the country. So the Government went first to the Western countries for financial assistance, but this was declined because fighting the LTTE to the bitter end had not been their preferred option. There was a resistance overseas to recognition that the many ceasefires and peace treaties had all been broken by the LTTE themselves when they regrouped and returned to the attack, and the Government had gone for the final solution only because they had been taken to the peace table so many times and so many times it had been futile.

So cap in hand, to China went the Government, and the Asian Development Bank also came to the rescue. Loans were negotiated at favourable terms and the long road back began, to redevelop the country and put it again at the forefront of tourism – which had been the premier source of foreign income in 1982 before the conflagration of 1983 took it all away. Every phase of development was fast tracked, nothing was left till one finished to start the next project, but all ran concurrently in a hurry!

In addition to the restoration of existing infrastructure, a long talked about Expressway to the south was built, a second airport and second port were constructed in the south eastern Hambantota region, and a major Port City on reclaimed land began rising in the sea off the Colombo harbour, emulating the examples of Singapore and Hong Kong, as a means of attracting investment capital, international high level businesses and state of the art entertainment centres.

The 300,000 strong security forces, which were necessitated for the war effort, were now co-opted into the peace effort and began working day and night in the restoration of beautiful heritage public buildings in the capital of Colombo. The entire city was cleaned up and beautified in an overnight transformation which was incredible. The canal system in Colombo, which had been originated by the Dutch as a method of transporting goods, was dredged and cleaned up with the idea of eventually using it as a means of transportation and easing some of the congestion on the roads.

By the end of 2014, five years after the war ended, the country was back in business and was voted by tourism agencies internationally as the top tourist destination for 2015. Even more impressive, Sri Lanka – which had been lagging behind as a developing third world country for so many years – achieved classification as one of the Emerging Economies of the world, a Lower-Middle Income country and no

longer entitled to traditional “aid” from global financial institutions.

As a current update, for 2019 the World Bank classification has Sri Lanka inched into the Upper-Middle Income category with US$4,060 per capita income. Also for 2019, the World Bank has predicted Sri Lanka’s economic growth at 3.5 per cent.

Some statistics may be helpful to an understanding of the makeup of this multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-faith, complex country:-

Ethnic groups      Sinhalese 74.9%, Sri Lankan Tamil 11.2%, Sri Lankan Muslims 9.2%, Indian Tamil 4.2%, other 0.5%

Religions             Buddhist (official religion) 70.2%, Hindu 12.6%, Muslim 9.7%, Roman Catholic 6.1%, Other Christian 1.3%, Other 0.05%

Languages           Sinhala (official and national language) 74%, Tamil (official and national language) 18%, Other 8%

GDP      Agriculture accounts for approximately 21% of the

Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and employs 38% of the workforce.

Exports  $15 billion (2018 est.)

Export goods       Textiles and apparel; tea and spices; rubber manufactures; precious stones; coconut products; fish

Main export partners         United States 24.6%; United Kingdom 9%;

India 5.8%; Singapore 4.5%; Germany 4.3%;

Italy 4.3% (2017)               Italy 4.3% (2017)

All of this surge in development as a result of the 10 years of peace came to an abrupt end however earlier this year, when one of the offshoots of the terrorist organisation ISIS launched bombings on Easter Sunday, the 21st of April, on churches and three luxury city hotels. There are still no definitive answers to the question, why was Sri Lanka chosen? The country, and indeed the Christians, have never had a problem with the Muslims and, in fact, there has not been much of a connection with Syria other than a few youth going off to join ISIS. There have also been a number of well to do youth, educated overseas in England and Australia, being radicalised and returning to Sri Lanka to convert more to their cause. As well, we have, of course, a long service connection of sending domestic staff to the Middle East on contracts of employment, and perhaps the fundamentalist ideology of the Muslims of that region was an influence instead of the brand of more tolerant Asian Islam which had traditionally been practised in Sri Lanka.

Be that as it may, thanks to the police and armed forces moving rapidly into action, there have been islandwide arrests and seizures of personnel, arms and ammunition, to stop any further attacks, halt the spread of this destructive fanaticism, and bring back security to the country. Most foreign countries have withdrawn Travel Advisories in recognition and hundreds of former appreciative visitors to the island have rushed in their support for the various forms of tourism which they had enjoyed in the past.

And indeed there are many attractions. What would you like to do? – we have it all, crammed into this small island about the same size as Tasmania! Golden tropical beaches, surfing, whitewater rafting, camping and glamping, wildlife safaris in two game parks, undeveloped small islands sitting in the turquoise blue ocean off the northern peninsular extremity of the country, hiking and walking the trails in the beautiful misty cooler climes of the hill country – like England in spring – climbing Adams Peak in the night and experiencing the magic of the sunrise casting the shadow of the peak across the central highlands – the subject of a story by Arthur Clarke who made this country his home – the central highlands themselves with waterfalls cascading in veils of foam into pools far below, the terraced green as green extents of rice fields, colourfully dressed women plucking tea on the rolling hill slopes, ancient citadels of archaeological significance as you explore the UNESCO classified Golden Triangle in the North Central Province, or the down south old Dutch fortified city of Galle also holding UNESCO classification, taking a boat ride to enjoy the dolphins leaping beside the boat and being lucky enough to see the magnificent blue whale as it breaches – the largest animal ever known to have lived on our planet. We are so fortunate to have our own stay-at-home pod living off this very section of the coast, instead of engaging in the normal pattern of migration and return, because of the rich krill food source washing out of the many river systems into the sea.

And so much more, like the ornate temples, the colourful folk dances, and festival celebrations of the three major religions of the world – Christianity, Buddhism and Islam – living in symbiosis together

for millennia.

And that still does not encompass the magnificent cuisine of the country, owing its variety to the influences of visitors and traders from East and West who ended up staying, and conquerors who brought their ways of eating and living to an accommodating people. Food is a very important part of the culture of Sri Lanka, and you would never be allowed to visit the home of even a stranger without being offered at the very least a cup of tea, however poor your host may be, and it would be construed as impolite to refuse. One is constantly being assailed by commands to “eat, eat”, in true Sri Lankan

repetitive style.

And the last component, of course, is the average Sri Lankan – easygoing, happy go lucky, always ready to welcome the stranger and make him feel at home because of endless contact with people from other lands. Hospitality is bred into our bones and hospitality is what Sri Lanka is renowned for.

So here we are today! Still enthralling visitors with our beautiful landscapes and wondrous places of interest, still at the crossroads of East and West, still being wooed this time for our inestimable location in the geopolitics of the modern day and age, and still striving to retain our heritage and independence with our traditional policy of non-alignment – being a friend to all and a foe to none!

I wish you all a wonderful stay in Sri Lanka. May you have ‘serendipitous’ or ‘happy discoveries’ – which comes from the word Serendib, another ancient Persian name for Lanka. And may you enjoy your experience of a land, reckoned to be in the words of that 14th century much travelled Moor, Ibn Battuta, “only forty leagues from Paradise”.


Pauline Gunewardene


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Leave a Reply