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History of Sri Lanka – Intro

Sri Lankan History

Sri Lanka has a rich history of around 2500 years, beginning from as early as the 3rd Century BC. The island nation has been ruled by around 180 kings, with the whole country being unified under one ruler at times and the country being divided into multiple kingdoms at times. At times, the country has also been ruled by foreign powers for varying durations.

Throughout it’s time, the island nation’s rulers have been consistent in strengthening religious ideologies, irrigation technology and in establishing architecture. A continuous report of history is chronicled in the Mahawamsa, Deepawamsa and Chulawamsa, Pali books compiled by local Buddhist monks, which tally with concurrent historical reports in South India and are supported by archeological evidence.


While legends talk about prehistoric Sri Lanka being occupied by 3 tribes called Yaksha, Naga and Raksha, recorded Sri Lankan history begins in the 5th Century BC, with the arrival of Prince Vijaya and his 700 men, who lay the foundation for Sri Lankan history. Vijaya was a prince of the Sinhapura Kingdom in India, banished alongwith his 700 followers by his father king, due to misbehaviour. They eventually land in Mahathittha (present day Mannar), and dub the island Thambapanni (copper hands) owing to the copper color of the beach sand.

Vijaya marries Kuveni, a princess from the tribal Yaksha tribe. Although he has 2 children with Kuveni, Vijaya ends up sending Kuveni and their 2 children back to their tribes and marries a princess from the Pandu Dynasty in India. Vijaya dies heirless from his second wife, and thus his nephew Panduvasudewa is brought to continue ruling after him.


Sri Lankan history is centered around the kingdom of rule; the city which the ruler of the time chose to be his fortress, his epicenter. Over the next 2000 or so years after Vijaya, kings have chosen various seats of power, owing to political conditions in the country at their respective times. 


Named after Anuradha, one of Vijaya’s generals, this settlement was upgraded to a city by King Panduwasudewa. Ever since it’s beginning, Anuradhapura has always been a well planned city, complete with architectural and agricultural designs. The city is even portrayed in Ptolemy’s World Map and is mentioned in Chinese monk Fa Hsien’s travel diaries.

The city features numerous archeological sites which have served as important centres of the Thervada sect of Buddhism.

  • Sri Maha Bodhiya

A sacred fig tree in the Mahamewna Gardens of Anuradhapura, this tree grew from a sapling of the historical Sri Maha Bodhi at Buddha Gaya in India under which Lord Buddha attained Enlightenment. It was planted in 288 BC, and is the oldest living human-planted tree in the world with a known planting date.

Being one of the most religious sites for Buddhists in Sri Lanka, it is an annual custom for pilgrims from far-away villages to visit the city of Anuradhapura and to pay homage to the Sri Maha Bodhi

  • Jetavanaramaya

Built by King Mahasen in the city of Anuradhapura, at 400 ft it was the world’s tallest stupa and the third tallest structure in the world when it was opened. With time, the temple was claimed by the jungle, until King Parakramabahu renovated it and reconstructed it to a reduced height of 233ft, at which height it stands today.

  • The Twin Ponds

Standing testament to the advanced hydrological and architectural technology of ancient Sri Lankans, this is a system of two royal ponds, where water enters through underground canals, is filtered and fills the ponds.

  • Ruwanweli Maha Saya

Constructed by the great King Dutugemunu, this is a hemispherical shrine with a stupa on top. Standing at 338ft, this temple is one of the world’s tallest ancient monuments and houses the largest collection of Lord Buddhas relics anywhere.

The stupa was a ruin in the 19th Century, after which the Ruwanweli Saya Restoration Society was founded and has been maintaining it for religious devotees and tourists ever since

  • Isurumuniya

Isurumuniya is a Buddhist temple situated near to the Tissa Wewa, built by King Devanampiyatissa in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. There are four carvings of special interest in this Vihara, the most famous of which is the Isurumuniya Lovers. Said to depict none of the king’s son and his lover, the carving features a 6ty Century Gupta style.

Being situated in the dry zone of Sri Lanka, the kings of this era also built tanks, reservoirs and canals, to facilitate irrigation which was the chief livelihood of the people.

  • Thissa Wewa

Built in the 3rd Century BC by King Dewanampiyatissa, this is one of the oldest artificial reservoirs in Sri Lanka.


In the 11th Century, the capital of the island was shifted to Polonnaruwa, seeking protection from the Chola invaders of South India.

Like in Anuradhapura, Buddhism and irrigation flourished here too, under the patronage of the great kings. Worth noting is, that since this capital was established after invasions from South India, archeological remains from this era feature a touch of Hindu culture too.


  • Nissanka Latha Mandapaya

Built by King Nissanka Maala, this is found in the area that contains the oldest and most sacred monuments in the city. A nearby stone inscription identifies this as the building used by the king to listen to pirith (religious sermons). A Mandapaya is a structure made of numerous pillars and a roof, open to the surroundings. This specific Sermon Hall also has a small stone stupa in the middle.

  • Royal Palace of King Parakramabahu

Built by the Great King Parakramabahu, this was a massive wood and stone structure seven storeys in height wth he upper floors made of wood. Many centuries later, now only the massive, 3m (10ft) thick lower walls survive.

The palace also featured an Audience Hall where the king would meet the city’s nobles, and a swimming pool fed by fountains for the king to bathe in.

  • Parakrama Samudraya

Built by King Parakramabahu, who would say “Let nor even a single drop of rain to flow to the ocean without making use of it”, this reservoir was built by merging 5 tanks. This massive reservoir stretches 8 km and has an average depth of 25 ft.

  • Lankathilaka Image House

Also built by King Parakramabahu, this structure features a 41ft standing image of the Lord Buddha, surrounded by brick walls which stand at around 50ft tall. The exterior of the structure, the entrance and the statue itself feature expert craftsmanship.

Following the Polonnaruwa era, Sri Lanka has had numerous capitals, each of which served for short durations. Since these kingdoms moved towards the wet zones and agricultural methods changed, most of these later kingdoms saw a rise in literature and art.


The next shift in kingdom was also triggered by Polonnaruwas invasion by the South Indian king Kalingha Magha. After defeating him in battle, the capital was shifted to Dambadeniya by King Vijayabahu III.

Though excavations have not been extensive at Dambadeniya, the remains of the king’s palace, the temple of the tooth and six ponds can be seen in the area.

4. YAPAHUWA KINGDOM (1273 AD – 1284 AD)

This was a temporary capital, which was established during yet another invasion by King Buwanekabahu I as a rock fortress here. The complex is famous for its ornamental staircase, the stupa. The caves for Buddhist monks, and a temple for the Sacred tooth Relic.

4. GAMPOLA KINGDOM (1345 AD – 1408 AD)

The Gampola Kingdom, established by King Buwanekabahu IV features temples constructed to hold sacred relics, with very artistic features.

  • Gadaladeniya Viharaya

Situated in Pilimathalawe, this is the largest rock temple in Sri Lanka. Co structured under the patronage of King Buwanekabahu IV, this was designed by a South Indian architect and thus has Hindu influences too.

  • Lankathilaka Viharaya

Also built under the patronage of King Buwanekabahu under the South Indian architect, this Rick temple was construct as a four storied mansion with height of eighty feet, but today only 3 stories can be seen. The architect is said to have drawn inspiration from Hindu, Polonnaruwa and Kandyan styles when constructing this temple

5. KOTTE KINGDOM (1412 AD – 1597 AD)

The city of Jayawardenapura was converted to a capital by King Parakramabahu IV. The word Kotte is derived from the Tamil-Malayalam word, Kōttai, which means fort. This era saw a rise on both Buddhist scriptures and in Ayurwedic scriptures.

However, the attacks on the Kotte Kingdom both by external aggressors as the Portuguese and internal dissidents were so ferocious that only remnants like canals, and names of byroads testify to the existence of a once magnificent city

6. KANDYAN KINGDOM (1469 AD – 1815 AD)

Initially established as a subsidiary of the Kotte Kingdom, the Kandyan Kingodm’s sovereignty was established in 1590, when it became the main power against holding off European powers.

  • Dalada Maligawa

The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic is one of the most iconic heritage sites from the whole of this island nation. Situated in the Royal Palace of the Kandyan Kingdom, this site holds a special place in the hearts of every Sri Lankan, and every Buddhist.

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