Cultures > Ceylon


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The civilization of Ceylon existed on the island of Sri Lanka for a very long time and was involved in extensive trade with Egypt since its earliest days. One of the most famous exports of Ceylon was known as cinnamon and has been found in Egypt which proved contact between the two civilizations.

The Ceylon civilization that developed was one of the most prosperous and cultural in all of ancient times. It is believe that Ceylon is the Biblical Tarshish and Ophir and some researchers such as James Emerson Tennent believe Ceylon to be tied with Galle. Still seen on the island today are massive religious carvings over two thousand years old along with some of the best irrigation systems ever developed.

Ancient Greek and Roman writers such as Onesicritus, Diiodorus Siculuc, Ovid, Strabo, Pliny the Elder, Ptolemy all knew of the island by the name Taprobane.

It is currently believed that the Wanniyala-Aetto or Veddas people that still live in the central part of Sri Lanka and the Uva tribe who live in the northeastern part of the island may actually be descendents of the original ihabitants more than thirty thousand years ago. It is believed the first humans moved to Sri Lanka from the mainland around the same time people moved to India.


The real origins of the habitation of Sri Lanka go much further back though. The first archaeological evidence of human habitation on the island of Sri Lanka is with the discovery of the Balangoda Man. It is believed that the Balangoda Man arrived on the island around 34,000 years ago and were hunter-gatherers that lived in caves. There have also been several granite tools, charred logs, pottery and clay burial pots that all date to the Mesolithic Stone Age.

Archaeologists have discovered many great artifacts in caves at both Batadombalena and Fa-Hien. It is actually believed that the earliest humans that settled on Sri Lanka burned all of the trees to create the Horton Plains in order to catch food. After the plain was cleared archaeologists began to discover oat and barley plants around 15,000 BCE that proves the earliest development of agriculture.

Human remains have been discovered on Sri Lanka that date to around 6000 BCE in a cave at Varana Raja Maha vihara as well as in the Kalatuwawa region as well.

Trading with Egypt

One of plants native to Sri Lanka is the cinnamon plant. This spice was highly coveted in Egypt and in fact the kings and queens were even buried with it. There is evidence trade began between the two civilizations around 1,500 BCE as this is the earliest date that cinnamon has been found in Egypt.

The influence of the Egyptians on the ancient civilization of Ceylon must be better understood if we are truly to study the development of this great civilization.

The first real Iron Age settlements of Sri Lanka also got developed around the same time period as those in South India. While the earliest radiocarbon dating done at the Anuradhapura and Aligala sites suggests habitation around 1000 to 800 BCE, historians believe they may push this back to around 1200 BCE.

Anuradhapura Period

The first real settlement in Ceylon was a 15 hectare city that was established by 900 BCE. By 700 BCE it had expanded to 50 hectares and another city of the same size was discovered nearby at Aligala in Sigiriya.

Around 500 BCE the Ceylon civilization began to develop massive reservoirs and dams that were some of the largest in the ancient world. They also began to construct massive pyramid structures known as Stupa or Dagoba. During this time the culture and architecture of all the structures was heavily influenced by Buddhism.

Anuradhapura period sri lanka (543BC-1017AD)The Pali chronicles, the Dipavamsa, Mahavamsa, Thupavamsa and the Chulavamsa, as well as a large collection of stone inscriptions, the Indian Epigraphical records, the Burmese versions of the chronicles etc., provide an exceptional record for the history of Sri Lanka from about the 6th century B.C.vijaya-srilanka-princeThe Mahavamsa, written around 400 AD by the monk Nagasena, using the Deepavamsa, the Attakatha and other written sources available to him, correlates well with Indian histories of the period. Indeed Emperor Ashoka’s reign is recorded in the Mahavamsa. The Mahavamsa account of the period prior to Asoka’s coronation, 218 years after the Buddha’s death, seems to be part legend. Proper historical records begin with the arrival of Vijaya and his 700 followers. Vijaya was a Vangan (now Bengal, India) prince, the eldest son of King Sinhabahu (“Man with Lion arms”) and his sister Queen Sinhasivali who had their capital at Singhapura (now Singur in West Bengal, India). Both these Sinhala leaders were supposedly born of a mythical union between a lion and a human princess. The Mahavamsa claims that Vijaya landed on the same day as the death of the Buddha. The story of Vijaya and Kuveni (the local reigning queen) is reminiscent of Greek legend and may have a common source in ancient Proto-Indo-European folk tales.Arrival of VijayaAccording to the Mahavamsa, Vijaya landed on Sri Lanka near Mahathitha (Manthota or Mannar), and named on the island of Thambaparni (“copper-colored palms”). This name is attested to in Ptolemy’s map of the ancient world. The Mahavamsa also describes the Buddha visiting Sri Lanka three times. Firstly, to stop a war between a Naga king and his son in law who were fighting over a ruby chair. It is said that on his last visit he left his foot mark on Siripada (“Adam’s Peak”).Tamirabharani is the old name for the second longest river in Sri Lanka (known as Malwatu Oya in Sinhala and Aruvi Aru in Tamil). This river was a main supply route connecting the capital, Anuradhapura, to Mahathitha (now Mannar). The waterway was used by Greek and Chinese ships travelling the southern Silk Route.Mahathitha was an ancient port linking Sri Lanka to India and the Persian gulf.The present day Sinhalese (and many modern Tamils) are a mixture of the indigenous people and of other peoples who came to the island from various parts of India. The Sinhalese recognize the Vijayan Indo-Aryan culture and Buddhism (already in existence prior to the arrival of Vijaya), as distinct from other groups in neighboring south India.Anuradhapura KingdomArchaeological evidence for the beginnings of the Iron age in Sri Lanka is found at Anuradhapura, where a large city–settlement was founded before 900 BC. The settlement was about 15 hectares in 900 BC, but by 700 BC it had expanded to 50 hectares. A similar site from the same period has also been discovered near Aligala in Sigiriya.The hunter-gatherer people known as the Wanniyala-Aetto or Veddas, who still live in the central, Uva and north-eastern parts of the island, are probably direct descendants of the first inhabitants, Balangoda man. They may have migrated to the island from the mainland around the time humans spread from Africa to the Indian subcontinent.Around 500 BC Sri Lankans developed a unique hydraulic civilization. Achievements include the construction of the largest reservoirs and dams of the ancient world as well as enormous pyramid-like Stupa (Dagoba) architecture. This phase of Sri Lankan culture was profoundly influenced by early Buddhism.Buddhist scriptures note three visits by the Buddha to the island to see the Naga Kings, who are said to be snakes that can take the form of a human at will. The kings are thought to be symbolic and not based on historical fact.The earliest surviving chronicles from the island, the Dipavamsa and the Mahavamsa, say that tribes of Yakkhas (demon worshippers), Nagas (cobra worshippers) and Devas (god worshippers) inhabited the island prior to the migration of Vijaya. Pottery has been found at Anuradhapura bearing Brahmi script and non-Brahmi writing and date back to 600 BC – one of the oldest examples of the scriptIn the early ages of the Anuradhapura Kingdom the Sinhalese economy was based on farming and they made their early settlements mainly near the rivers of the east, north central, and north east areas which had the water necessary for farming the whole year round. The king was the ruler of country and responsible for the law, the army, and being the protector of faith. Devanampiya Tissa (250-210 BC) was Sinhalese King of the Maurya clan. His links with Emperor Asoka led to the introduction of Buddhism by Mahinda (son of Asoka) around 247 BC. Sangamitta (sister of Mahinda) brought a Bodhi sapling via Jambukola (Sambiliturei). This king’s reign was crucial to Theravada Buddhism and for Sri Lanka.Elara (205-161 BC) was a Tamil King who ruled “Pihiti Rata” (Sri Lanka north of the mahaweli) after killing King Asela. During Elara’s time Kelani Tissa was a sub-king of Maya Rata (in the south-west) and Kavan Tissa was a regional sub-king of Ruhuna (in the south-east). Kavan Tissa built Tissa Maha Vihara, Dighavapi Tank and many shrines in Seruvila. Dutugemunu (161-137 BC), the eldest son of King Kavan Tissa, at 25 years of age defeated the South Indian Tamil Invader Elara (over 64 years of age) in single combat, described in the Mahavamsa. Dutugemunu is depicted as a Sinhala “Asoka”. The Ruwanwelisaya, built by Dutugemunu, is a dagaba of pyramid-like proportions and was considered an engineering marvel.Pulahatta (or Pulahatha), the first of the five Dravidians, was deposed by Bahiya. He in turn was deposed by Panaya Mara who was deposed by Pilaya Mara, murdered by Dathika in 88 BC. Mara was deposed by Valagambahu I (89-77 BC) which ended Tamil rule and restored the Dutugamunu dynasty. The Mahavihara Theravada Abhayagiri (“pro-Mahayana”) doctrinal disputes arose at this time. The Tripitaka was written in Pali at Aluvihara, Matale. Chora Naga (63-51 BC), a Mahanagan, was poisoned by his consort Anula who became queen. Queen Anula (48-44 BC), the widow of Chora Naga and of Kuda Tissa, was the first Queen of Lanka. She had many lovers who were poisoned by her and was killed by Kuttakanna Tissa. Vasabha (67-111 AD), named on the Vallipuram gold plate, fortified Anuradhapura and built eleven tanks as well as pronouncing many edicts. Gajabahu I (114-136) invaded the Chola kingdom and brought back captives as well as recovering the relic of the tooth of the Buddha.There was a huge Roman trade with the ancient Tamil country (present day Southern India) and Sri Lanka, establishing trading settlements which remained long after the fall of the Western Roman empire.During the reign of Mahasena (274-301) the Theravada (Maha Vihara) was persecuted and the Mahayanan branch of Buddhism surfaced. Later the King returned to the Maha Vihara. Pandu (429) was the first of seven Pandiyan rulers, ending with Pithya in 455. Dhatusena (459-477) “Kalaweva” and his son Kashyapa (477-495), built the famous sigiriya rock palace where some 700 rock graffiti give a glimpse of ancient Sinhala.


According to ancient legends Buddha himself visited the island three times in order to visit the Naga Kings. The Naga Kings were said to be snakes that can adopt the physical form of a human and this is thought to be a symbolic fact not a real reference.

It is believed that Buddha himself visited the island though, which is very unique in the fact that he is also mentioned as Hermes. There are some researchers who believe that Buddha, Hermes and a man named Apollonius are all one and the same philosopher who traveled the world and preached the ancient philosophy contained within the Emerald Tablet.

The only surviving documents that describe Buddha's travels to Sri Lanka are the Dipavamsa and the Mahavamsa. According to these works there existed tribes such as the Yakkhas or demon worshipers, the Nagas or cobra worshipers and the Devas the god worshipers prior to the migration of Vijaya to the island.

The earliest found pottery that displays both Brahmi script and non-Brahmi writing dates to around 600 BCE and is one of the oldest examples of the Brahmi script itself.

The protohistoric Early Iron Age appears to have established itself in South India by at least as early as 1200 BC, if not earlier (Possehl 1990; Deraniyagala 1992:734). The earliest manifestation of this in Sri Lanka is radiocarbon-dated to c. 1000-800 BC at Anuradhapura and Aligala shelter in Sigiriya (Deraniyagala 1992:709-29; Karunaratne and Adikari 1994:58; Mogren 1994:39; with the Anuradhapura dating corroborated by Coningham 1999). It is very likely that further investigations will push back the Sri Lankan lower boundary to match that of South India.


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