History

History

History

Taprobane, Serendib, Emerald Island and The Teardrop of India - Sri Lanka has earned many endearing monikers for its colorful past. In fact, the word "serendipity" (meaning the faculty to make fortunate discoveries by accident) originated in Sri Lanka in the 18-century, when the English writer Horace Walpole was so smitten by the place that he felt an urge to coin a word worthy of his lucky discovery. The story of this eclectic nation began with mankind's need for one resource essential to its survival -water. Sophisticated irrigation systems emerged as early as the 1st Century A.D., leading to the birth of two great ancient Sinhalese civilizations: Anuradhapura in the center of the northern plain and Polonnaruwa, further southeast, near Mahaweli Ganga. Anuradhapura, the first major capital city of Sri Lanka (4th Century B.C. - 8th Century A.D.), was famous for its flourishing monastic community and tradition of learning. The pursuit of knowledge led to the recording of history early on. Buddhist monks recounted Anuradhapura's development as far back as the 6th Century A.D. leaving behind the sacred scripture of Mahavamsa and its sequel, Culavamsa. The monastic accomplishments found their expression also in the construction of hemispherical domes called stupas or dagobas, a Buddhist architectural innovation imported from northern India. Sacred Buddhist relics are housed in these astonishing structures. The next capital city, Polonnaruwa was the center of power until the 13th Century, boasting one of Sri Lanka's largest man-made reservoirs, as well as the ruins of once spectacular palaces, pleasure gardens and sculptural wonders. The irrigation projects initiated by King Parakramabahu I, especially the 5,940-acre Parakrama Samudra, have sustained the vibrant civilizations of Sri Lanka for hundreds of years. Kandy (16th - 19th Century) was the third and last great Sri Lankan kingdom. The relocation of the country's capital ensured Kandy's significance as the permanent site of the Temple of the Tooth Relic and the Royal Palace. To this day, the tooth relic has anointed the city as the country's religious capital, serving as a place of pilgrimage for Buddhists from all over the world, especially during the Esala Perahera festival. The early 16th Century also saw the arrival of foreign colonial powers that had a profound impact on the social and religious fabric of the country. Under Portuguese and Dutch rule, the Muslim community crystallized as an identifiable ethnic group. At the same time, missionaries brought with them Christianity. Even agriculture wasn't left untouched. The English introduced their plantation agriculture to Ceylon's economy in the mid-19th Century, focusing on three major crops - tea, rubber and coconuts. This rich plantation infrastructure has been a valuable resource to Sri Lanka, even after attaining independence in 1948. For visitors, Sri Lanka's colorful tapestry of history, religion, architecture, wildlife and food makes it a fascinating place to explore. It is worthy of note that an eyetooth remains the most significant religious symbol in Sri Lanka since Buddhism was first introduced to the Sinhalese in 250 B.C. This is no ordinary pointed conical tooth – it is believed to have belonged to Siddhartha Gautama, otherwise more popularly worshipped as the celestial Buddha. Its legendary power to bring rain to the land, made it the symbol of Sinhalese kingship, for whoever had the power to make the rain fall in the dry season and bring prosperity to the kingdom, had the legitimate right to rule the country. The cause of wars between kingdoms, the sacred tooth relic was moved from Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa, on to India and back to Sri Lanka. Today, this national treasure is housed in the Temple of the Tooth Relic (Dalada Maligawa) in Kandy, which has gained the reputation as one of the most sacred places of worship in the Buddhist world. Aside from the Buddhist faith, which Sri Lanka inherited from India, exchanges between the two countries also brought with them the traditional caste system. Even monks are segregated into three nikayas or sects, according to the order of the Buddhist Sangha. While Buddhism remains the predominant religion in the country today, Hinduism come a close second, counting among its devotees both Jaffna Tamils and Indian Tamils. Most Sri Lankan Hindus are Shaivites, who pray only to god Shiva, ‘the destroyer’, as they believe strongly in the teaching of non-permanence in all life forms. Over the centuries, Sri Lanka has become a melting pot of believers. You will meet Muslims who are descendants of Arab traders, “Burghers” who are the offspring of European colonialists and embrace Christianity, as well as age-old Veddha tribes. Interestingly, a small percentage of the population consists of gypsies – the Ahikuntakaya snake charmers, the Maddiliya monkey trainers and several groups specializing in the art of tattoo making.