Celebrating Old Ceylon

Story posted: Friday, 20. May 2011 by CPA Media

Pictures From History / Themes / OLD CEYLON




Celebrating Old Ceylon


‘Dear me, it is beautiful! And most sumptuously tropical, as to character of foliage and opulence of it'. Mark Twain, Following the Equator (Hartford, Connecticut: 1897).




Perhaps the most beautiful country in South Asia, Sri Lanka has an appeal which has drawn visitors over the centuries, first for its rich spice and gem markets, and more recently for its pristine beaches and magnificent hill country. It’s also a cultural treasure-trove, with historic sites stretching back over two thousand years.

Over the millennia, Sri Lanka has been known under a plethora of names. In the ancient Hindu epic Ramayana, the island is referred to as Lanka or Sri Lanka. The meaning of Lanka is doubtful; it may translate as ‘shining’ or ‘resplendent’. Sri is a common prefix to names or titles and means ‘noble’. Thus, Sri Lanka means ‘Noble and Resplendent’. The first Sinhalese on the island called it Tabbapanni, or ‘Copper Coloured’, a name corrupted by the Greeks and Romans to Taprobane.

In due time, the island’s inhabitants set out to bestow a more heroic name on their country and called it Sinhala-Dvipa or ‘Lion Island’. The Sinhala part in the name was later corrupted into many different versions. This seems eventually to have been corrupted to Selan, Ceilao, and thence to Ceylon. Certainly the latter was adopted by the British, and remained the official name of the country until 24 years after independence. In 1972 this reverted to the pre-colonial Sri Lanka. Today the full official name of the country is Sri Lanka Prajatantrika Samajavadi Janarajya, or the ‘Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka’.


 The Land

Sri Lanka is an island located between 5° 55’ and 9° 50’ northern latitude and 79° 42’ and 81° 35’ southern longitude. Over the centuries its shape has variously reminded mapmakers and travellers of a teardrop, or sometimes of a pearl. The shortest distance to India, from Point Pedro in the north of the island, across the Palk Straits, is a mere 48km, and there are indications that once upon a time there was a land connection between the two countries via Adam’s Bridge. With an area of 65,610sq km, Sri Lanka is about the same size as Holland and Belgium combined. Being an island, unlike the Low Countries Sri Lanka has a coastline almost 1,600km long, and this is one of the country’s major attractions and sources of wealth. Hardly less beautiful is the immensely fertile hill country, located in the central southern region. Once covered with dense jungles, vast tracts of forest were cut down in the 19th and 20th centuries to make way for coffee, tea, palm and rubber plantations. Rice is the people’s staple, and the major crop of the island, but coconuts are tremendously important too (see p. xx). Known down the centuries for it’s wealth in spices (see p. xx), the island is also famed for its extensive tea estates (see p. xx) and for the gem industry, centred on Ratnapura, or ‘City of Jewels’. In the central hill regions, near the former colonial health resort of Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka’s highest mountain, at 2,425m, is Pidurutalagala. Though rather lower, the most famous and revered mountain in the country is Adam’s Peak, locally known as Sri Pada or ‘Noble Footprint’, an important pilgrimage site for all the island’s major religions.

Due to regionally uneven precipitation, Sri Lanka is geographically divided into a wet zone and a dry zone. The latter makes up around three quarters of the country. The wet zone comprises the southwestern region and the western, central and southern hill areas. The dry zone encompasses the southeast, east and north of the island. The term ‘dry’ is relative, though, since rainfall during the monsoon season is still heavy, but not as immense as in the wet zone. Sri Lanka has two separate monsoon seasons, one from May to November which affects the western and southern regions (the southwest monsoon), the other from November to January, which affects the northeastern and eastern regions (the northeast monsoon). This means the best time to visit the popular southwestern beaches is between November and February, conveniently just in the middle of the European winter. Although set firmly in the tropics, and not far from the equator, visitors should bear in mind that the hill country can get quite chilly at night, while the wild and windswept Horton Plains can be downright cold, especially between November and February. There are a few offshore islands, especially in the north near Jaffna, but south of the island the immensity of the Indian Ocean, broken only by a few tiny coral islets, stretches all the way to Antarctica.



Tea was first introduced to Europe from China by the Portuguese in the early 16th century. In 1667, the British East India Company ordered its first shipment of tea from China. It arrived two years later. Soon it became the nation’s favourite drink. In the 1830's, the East India Company began growing tea on an experimental basis in Assam in India. In 1840, the first one hundred boxes of Assam tea reached Britain. About the same time, 200 tea seedlings were brought from Assam to Ceylon and planted there. In 1849 a Scot, James Taylor, started the first commercial tea plantation in Ceylon. This was highly fortuitous, as the devastating ‘coffee plague’ which developed in 1868, destroyed most of the crop, after which the cultivation of coffee was discontinued and replaced with tea.

The tea plant: Tea is made from the leaves of the tea shrub, which is a tree called Camilla. The tree can grow to a height of 10m, but as to facilitate the harvesting of the leaves, it is regularly trimmed to the size of a shrub. The shrubs are usually kept at a height of 0.8–1.5 meters. Every 3–4 years they are cut even lower, which extends their life span. Some of today's shrubs are said to hail back to the pioneering days of tea cultivation in Sri Lanka – which would make them around 130 years old!

The first usable tea leaves are produced sometime between the third and seventh year in the life of a tea shrub. The best tea is the so-called highland tea; it is grown 1,400–2,300m above sea level, where sunny days follow cold nights, and in between there is frequent fog. The flavour also depends on the speed of growth – the slower the growth, the better the flavour. As a rule, growth is slower in the higher regions.

Tea production: According to experts, ‘two leaves and a bud’ is the magical formula. Such delicately picked tea is said to be of the highest quality. In a more coarse picking method, whole branches are picked clean of their leaves and buds, resulting in a poorer product. Depending on the location of the tea plantation, the leaves are picked every one to four weeks – the higher the location of the plantation, the less the frequency. Having collected the leaves in the baskets on their backs, the tea pickers carry them to the factory. There, the leaves are first dried in the open air; this takes 16–24 hours. Then they are rolled and crushed, which initiates the fermentation process of the tannin in the leaves. To complete the fermentation, the leaves are spread out on drying racks, which are located in a well-aired, humid and cool room. There the leaves are left for about 1 to 2 hours. Finally, the leaves will be dried in a special oven, then sieved and packed.

Tea grades: Depending on the quality of the leaves used, the tea is marked with different grades:

1. Broken Orange Pekoe: small leaves with buds.

2. Broken Pekoe: medium leaves without buds.

3. Pekoe: large, black and twisted leaves.

4. Pekoe Souchong: very strong black leaves.

5. Fannings: small and grainy leaves.

6. Dust: fine tea powder.



Like every ancient nation on earth, the early history of Sri Lanka is lost in the mists of time. The earliest inhabitants that we know of – and that does not necessarily mean they were the first inhabitants – are the aboriginal Veddas (see p.xx) who may have lived on the island for several thousand years.

Some time around 500 bc an Indo-European people, the Sinhalese, arrived on the island and began its settlement and the gradual usurpation of Vedda land. According to the great Sri Lankan epic the Mahavansa, these settlers were the followers of Prince Vijaya who had been expelled from his father’s kingdom somewhere in northern India for misconduct. Be this as it may, historians are inclined to agree that the original Sinhalese settlers sailed from somewhere in the Gujarat region, perhaps near the mouth of the Indus, and landed somewhere on the west coast of Sri Lanka, perhaps near Negombo.

Gradually the Sinhalese settlers moved inland, making their first capital at Upatissa, a site that has yet to be identified. In 437 bc King Pandukabhaya founded Anuradhapura, and this would become the major seat of Sinhalese power for well over a thousand years.

Approximately two centuries later, in 249 bc, King Tissa of Anuradhapura was converted to Buddhism (see p.xx), another immensely important milestone in the history of Sri Lanka. The new religion was gradually adopted by virtually the entire Sinhalese population, until being Buddhist became virtually synonymous with being Sinhalese. Buddhism and the state also became closely intertwined, so that Buddhism soon became effectively the national religion.

Then, in 205 bc, the first recorded Tamil invasion from southern India occurred. The Tamil Cholas seized Anuradhapura and began the long history of Sinhalese-Tamil rivalry and hostility which continues to the present day. The Tamils were South Indian Dravidians, not North Indian Aryans, and they were Hindu, not Buddhist. Quite simply, the two peoples did not mix very well at all.

There began a titanic struggle between the Tamils and the Sinhalese which lasted for over a thousand years. First one side, then the other, would seize the advantage. Anuradhapura was captured and recaptured, looted and rebuilt until, in the 11th century, the Sinhalese moved their capital to Polonnaruwa in a bid to avoid Tamil attacks. Yet this was to no avail – Polonnaruwa reached its zenith in 1187–96 under the redoubtable King Nissanka Malla (see p.xx), But by the early 13th century renewed warfare with the Tamils had resulted in the looting and partial destruction of Polonnaruwa, which was abandoned as capital in 1293.

Up to the late 16th century, the capital moved many times. First just threatened by Tamil invaders, in 1498 the Portuguese appeared in Indian waters. The capitals came and went: Dambadeniya, Yapahuwa, Panduwas Nuwara, Kurunegala, Gampola, Kotte and Sitavaka (near today’s Avissawella). Kotte lasted longest (1371–1597), whereas Sitavaka (1521–1594) was sacked at least five times during its short existence. Sitavaka’s final destruction came at the hands of the Portuguese, against who it had put up fierce resistance. Sitavakas’s legacy of defiance in the face of European colonial power was now left to the Kingdom of Kandy, sheltered in the mountains of the interior.

In 1505, a Portuguese fleet under the command of Lorenzo d’Almeida arrived in Colombo. The Portuguese established friendly relations with the kingdom of Kotte, which ruled over the area around Colombo. Only twelve years later, having become aware of the potential of the spice trade, most of all cinnamon, did the Portuguese begin to pursue commercial aims. They sought permission to build a fortified trading post, which was granted. Their first trading settlement near Colombo aroused protests from the local populace, particularly the Muslim traders who did not take kindly to competition. The trading station had to be given up. Still, the Portuguese continued their drive to take control of the cinnamon trade, and they established a fort at Colombo.

In the mid-18th century, the Portuguese laid siege to the harbours of Batticaloa and Trincomalee, which were part of the kingdom of Kandy. King Rajasinha 2 (1635–1687) sought assistance from the Dutch, who had entered the scene in 1602, when Admiral Spillbergen had anchored near Batticaloa. The Dutch also sought control of the lucrative cinnamon trade, which they planned to wrest from the Portuguese.

After negotiations, the king of Kandy gained the assistance of the Dutch against the Portuguese. But the price was high: As per agreement, the Kandyans had to pay the Dutch for their military intervention; in case of non-payment, so it was stipulated, the Dutch would hold on to the lowlands which they had but recently occupied. The Dutch succeeded in expelling the Portuguese in 1658. Immediately afterwards, they presented their bill to the Kandyan king – a sum they knew would be far beyond Rajasinha’s means. The Dutch stratagem worked and they became masters over the lowlands, a large part of Sri Lanka.

As with the Portuguese, Dutch rule on the island was limited to about one and a half centuries. In the wake of the European wars of the 18th century, the Dutch were forced to cease their fleet to the British and also had to hand over their Sri Lankan territories. In August 1795, British troops marched towards the fort of Trincomalee to take possession. After some considerable resistance, the Dutch finally hoisted the white flag. In February 1796, British ships landed at Colombo and Negombo, which offered but token resistance. Not content with the lowlands alone, in the following two decades the British turned their attention towards Kandy, which to that time had never been conquered. In 1815 Kandy was taken and the British became undisputed rulers of the whole island.

British rule lasted for more than two centuries and was, by and large, fairly enlightened. The British were more interested in trade and maintaining a Pax Britannica across South Asia than in religious conversion. Nevertheless, Sri Lankan nationalism, both Sinhalese and Tamil, continued to grow, and by 1948, the same year in which India and Pakistan gained their independence, Sri Lanka became a free nation through an agreed peaceful transfer of power.



By the end of the 20th century, Sri Lanka’s population was close to 19 million, with perhaps another million, mainly Tamil refugees, living overseas especially in India and Canada. The largest ethnic group in the island are the mainly Buddhist Sinhalese, who make up around 74 per cent of the population, while the second largest ethnic group, the Tamils, constitute about 18 per cent.

Neither of the two communities is indigenous to the country, though both have shared the island for many, many centuries. Both groups are immigrants from India seeking to promote their claim to Sri Lanka as a home country. Long-simmering tensions came to a head in the 1980s, with the Tamils trying to secure equal rights as a minority, and the Sinhalese attempting to strengthen their status as the dominant community.

The tensions between these two main communities stem mainly from their different religious and racial backgrounds. The Sinhalese trace their origin to the legendary prince Vijaya, said to have come from North India sometime in the 5th century bc. Vijaya was supposedly banished by his father, King Sinhabahu. The prince set sail with seven hundred followers and after their arrival in Sri Lanka, they spread over the island, founding the first cities. According to the Mahavansa, the most valuable Sri Lankan historical chronicle, Vijaya and his entourage arrived in Sri Lanka on the very day the Buddha died in India. This version of events is plainly an attempt to give credence to the Sinhalese claim to be the preordained guardians of the Buddhist faith. Aryans by descent, the Sinhalese were but one of many bands of Aryans who set out to conquer, or at least dominate, the darker-skinned non-Aryan races they encountered during their southward migrations.

Unlike the Sinhalese, the Tamils of Sri Lanka are not an entirely homogenous ethnic group. Though of the same Dravidian Tamil stock, they are divided into ‘Ceylon Tamils’ (or Jaffna Tamils) and ‘Indian Tamils’. The more numerous Ceylon Tamils claim descent from the warrior dynasties which invaded Sri Lanka from the 3rd century bc and which often ruled over large parts of the island. The Ceylon Tamils mainly inhabit the area around Jaffna and the east coast. The Indian Tamils on the other hand are the descendants of Tamils who were transported to Sri Lanka by the British in the 19th century to work in the tea plantations. Initially, only men made the journey across the Palk Straits, but from the 1880’s onwards women and even whole families arrived in Sri Lanka. The floodgates of immigration had opened wide and by the 1920’s, half a million Tamils worked in the tea estates. Even today, most Indian Tamils live in the tea growing areas in the central hills, though a large number have settled in the capital Colombo.

About three-quarters of the Tamils are Hindus, the remainder being Christians or Muslims. The language spoken by both groups is Tamil, a Dravidian language, which possesses a large number of loan words from Sanskrit. There are hardly any similarities with the Sinhalese language, and as the Indian Tamils and the Ceylon Tamils migrated to Sri Lanka at very different historical periods, they speak widely differing dialects of Tamil.

The language uses its own script, which is related to the scripts of the other major Dravidian languages of South India.

At around 7 per cent, the third largest ethnic groups are the Moors, originally descendants of Arab and subsequently Indian merchants who settled in Sri Lanka from the 7th century onwards (see p.xx). Most of them were attracted by the island’s status as a centre of commerce, and till today many Moors are businessmen, often in the gem trade. A smaller proportion of the Moors are of Malay extraction. The Malay Moors are concentrated around the south coast town of Hambantota and are the descendants of Malay seafarers or Malay soldiers who had been encouraged to settle there by the Dutch. During the British period, regiments of Malay soldiers were stationed in an area called Slave Island in Colombo (see p.xx). Some of the Malays still speak the language of their forefathers, Bahasa Melayu, but the number of speakers is declining rapidly. Otherwise they speak Sinhalese or, in the north and east of the island, Tamil.

A further addition to Sri Lanka’s colourful ethnic mosaic are the Burghers, who are of a mixed Sri Lankan-Portuguese or Sri Lankan-Dutch descent. Unlike in India, where mixed European-Indian offspring was despised by British and Indian alike, the Dutch held them in high esteem and the Burghers often rose to high social ranks. The Portuguese for a time even actively encouraged the marriage of their citizens with locals. After independence the mainly English-speaking Burghers lost their influence and many emigrated to Western countries, mostly the USA and Australia. Today, the Burghers make up less than half a per cent of the population. Most are Christians.

Sri Lanka’s forgotten community are the Veddas, long ago masters of the island. They are the aboriginals of Sri Lanka, who inhabited the island long before the Sinhalese or the Tamils arrived. Many anthropologists regard them as the direct descendants of Stone Age man, and there seems to be some relationship to the Australian aborigines and the inhabitants of the Andaman Islands. As the population on the island increased and the forests were cut down, the Veddas were gradually forced to give up their traditional way of life. Today, there are only a few hundred of them left, mainly eking out a living as small-time farmers in the jungles of Uva Province.

Finally, Sri Lanka’s confusing ethnic mix is completed by tiny minorities of Chinese, Pakistanis, and persons of Indian descent such as Parsees, Sindhis, and the Islamic Khojas and Bohras.




Text copyright © Andrew Forbes / CPA Media 2011.

Category:  Sri Lanka

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