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By Emma Boyle
Bravo LtdCopyright © 2009 Kuperard
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LAND & PEOPLE
Evocatively shaped like a teardrop, the island of Sri Lanka is situated in the Indian Ocean, just twenty miles off the southern tip of India. Separated to the west by the Gulf of Mannar and to the north by the Palk Strait, Sri Lanka's only connection to India is a broken chain of limestone islands known as Adam's Bridge. With a surface area of 25,332 square miles (65,610 sq. km), Sri Lanka is similar in area to West Virginia, slightly smaller than Ireland, and twice the size of Belgium. It has a scenic 833-mile (1,340-km) coastline, and the northeastern port of Trincomalee is one of the largest and safest natural harbors in the world.
Sri Lanka packs a surprising variety of natural attractions within its humble physical proportions, having rolling plains, mountains, plateaus, rivers, jungle, rain forests, lagoons, and coastline, and has two distinct zones based on rainfall: the tropical "wet zone" (southwest) and the extensive "dry zone" (north and east).
The island's topographical features can be placed into three categories distinguishable by elevation: the coastal belt, the plains, and the mountains of the Central Highlands. While the general terrain is mostly low and flat, interspersed with rocky outcrops that reach no more than a thousand feet, the hills and mountain peaks of the south central province reach elevations of more than 6,500 feet (1,981 m). Although Pidurutalagala (8,278 ft, or 2,523 m) is Sri Lanka's highest mountain, Sri Pada, or Adam's Peak (7,356 ft, or 2,242 m), a popular pilgrimage spot, is much better known.
The majority of the island's rivers have their source in the Central Highlands (the "Hill Country") and flow in a radial pattern toward the sea. Only sixteen rivers are more than 60 miles (97 km) long; at 208 miles (335 km) the Mahaweli Ganga is the longest. In the north, east, and southeast the (often seasonal) rivers feed numerous artificial lakes, ancient tanks, or reservoirs, which store water during the dry season. The flow of some of the larger rivers has been artificially controlled in order to create hydroelectric, irrigation, and transportation projects.
With monsoons occurring on opposite sides of the island at opposing times of the year, and as a result of the elevated altitudes of the Hill Country, Sri Lanka's climate is quite complex. Its position close to the equator means that the country enjoys a consistently warm climate with temperatures in the coastal and lowland regions averaging around 82–86°F (28–30°C) year-round. At times it feels much hotter, especially in the southwest "wet zone," since humidity levels can reach 90 percent. In the hills the story is quite different, since with altitude come lower temperatures; the daily average in Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka's highest town, is a fresher 64°F (17°C), while nights are often cold enough for frost.
The months of May to September see the southwest monsoon bring wind and moisture from the Indian Ocean to drop heavy rain over the southwest region of the country, while from October to March the northeast monsoon hits the east coast less severely. At this time occur frequent thunderstorms and heavy rains interspersed with sunshine that often results in flash flooding. The Hill Country, although affected by the southwest monsoon, typically sees a lot of rainfall year-round. Sri Lanka's "dry zone," located to the east and north of the island, sees far less rainfall — an annual average of about 59 inches (1,500 mm), compared to 98 inches (2,500 mm) in the wet zone — and most of this occurs only during the monsoon period.
Sri Lanka has a population of more than 21 million, approximately 25 percent of whom live in cities. Most Sri Lankans belong to one of four ethnic groups identified by their language, their religion, or both: the Sinhalese, the Tamils, the Muslims, and the Burghers. The Veddahs make up a tiny fraction of the total population alongside Parsis (Zoroastrians of Persian origin), Borahs (Muslim businessmen), and more recent European settlers.
The Sinhalese speak Sinhala, and comprise 74 percent of the population. Almost entirely bound together through their common belief in Theravada Buddhism, their language and shared heritage set them apart from their Tamil and Muslim neighbors. Forming the majority in most districts throughout the island except in the Tamil homeland of the north and the east, the Sinhalese are most densely concentrated in the south and west of the island.
While all Tamils are united by their common language, they are divided into two very distinct groups — the Sri Lankan Tamils and the Indian Tamils. In addition, the two groups have further distinctions based on caste and dialect as well as religion; while Hindus constitute the majority of both Sri Lankan and Indian Tamils, a substantial number of each group follow Christianity.
The Sri Lankan Tamils are descendants of Dravidian (South Indian) settlers of the kingdoms of Anuradhapura and Jaffna, who arrived as long ago as the third century BCE. They comprise around 12 percent of the total population and make up majorities in the northern and eastern regions of the island.
The Indian Tamils, also called Hill Country Tamils, are descendants of laborers brought over by the British in the nineteenth century to work on the tea, coffee, and rubber estates. The Indian Tamils live mainly in the Central Hill Country, reflecting their strong relationship with the plantation industry, and comprise approximately 5.5 percent of the total population.
Forming the largest ethnic minority after the Tamils, the Muslims are followers of Islam, and preserve their own cultural heritage, having distinct sites of worship and social circles. Most Muslims are descendants of Arabic traders who began to arrive in Sri Lanka in the eighth century, soon after the founding of Islam. While most speak a form of Tamil peppered with Arabic words, many Muslims also speak Sinhala and English fluently. Muslims make up 7.5 percent of the population, and, while not in the majority anywhere, they make up large minorities in the north and east.
The Malays are also Muslim. Originating in Southeast Asia, they are descendants of soldiers, prisoners, and political exiles brought from Malaysia to Sri Lanka by the Dutch administration. They often speak a unique dialect of Malay in their homes.
The Burghers are a distinct ethnic group characterized by their European ancestry. When the Portuguese and Dutch came to Sri Lanka, many settled and intermarried with the local Sinhalese. The children of these unions could not claim citizenship either from the European country of their father or from the country of their birth, and the term "Burgher" — from the Dutch word Vrij Burgher, meaning "free citizen" — was born.
As the most Westernized of the island's ethnic groups, Burghers typically speak English as their first language, and are mainly Christian. Most Burghers live in the cities — Colombo, Matara, and Galle — and can be identified by their recognizably European-sounding surnames, such as Jansz, Da Silva, and Peiris.
Also called the Wanniya-laeto (forest dwellers), the Veddahs are descendants of the original Neolithic community in Sri Lanka that dates from at least 16,000 BCE. They are a matrilineal society living in small settlements in the eastern highlands, and while they maintain little contact with other Sri Lankan ethnic groups, only very few have retained authentic fragments of their ancient culture. The Veddahs are characterized by their native dress and a social hierarchy preserved by local chieftains.
A BRIEF HISTORY
While Sri Lanka's ancient past is characterized by frequent invasions, records of the island's early history are colored so much by legend that it is often impossible to determine the true course of events. Certainly, until Buddhism arrived in the island under King Devanampiyatissa, accounts of the island's early history are based more on the myths and legends of the time than on verifiable historical facts. However, the one defining fact that can be separated from fiction is that Sri Lanka has, since earliest times, been a multiethnic society.
It is thought that Sri Lanka may have been inhabited as far back as 125,000 BCE. While archaeological evidence of early settlement patterns is slight, it is thought that the Veddahs are the only modern survivors of these prehistoric people. Traditionally hunter-gatherers who used simple stone tools to live off the island's rich natural bounty, Veddahs are believed to have existed on the island since 16,000 BCE, ten centuries before the proclaimed arrival of the Sinhalese and Tamils.
Prince Vijaya and his Indo-Aryan contingent from Northern India are the legendary founders of the Sinhalese race, and their arrival prior to the Dravidian (South Indian) Tamils in the third century BCE has been the subject of much debate. According to the Mahavamsa, a Buddhist chronicle of the island's early history, Vijaya, exiled from his father's kingdom, landed on the west coast of Sri Lanka — about where Mannar is today — on the same day as the Buddha gained enlightenment in 483 BCE. The prince and his 700 followers came ashore and settled in the river valleys, where they were able to cultivate rice. Slowly they made their way, through ingenious feats of hydraulic engineering, to settle in the island's dry northern plains. The largest of the evolving settlements became known as Anuradhapura.
Anuradhapura (377 BCE–933 CE)
The kingdom of Anuradhapura was legendarily founded in 377 BCE by Pandukabhaya, the fourth king of the Vijaya dynasty; however, it is for the time of King Devanampiyatissa (300–260 BCE) that the early Anuradhapura period is most significant, since it saw the arrival in Sri Lanka of Buddhism. According to the Mahavamsa, Mahinda, the son of the mighty Emperor Asoka of India, arrived in Sri Lanka in around 246 BCE with a contingent of Buddhist monks, who quickly converted the King and later the entire Sinhalese population to Buddhism.
Buddhism essentially gave the Sinhalese their national identity. Devanampiyatissa established the monastery of Mahavihara — the historic center of Theravada Buddhism — and united Buddhism with the political state. In the first century CE the development of written scriptures instituted the Sinhalese with a literary tradition while the arrival of the Buddha's tooth relic in 371 CE became not only a religious symbol but also a symbol of sovereignty, since it was believed that whoever was in possession of the relic had the right to rule the island. Over a short period, Buddhism achieved a divine status that quickly came to be regarded as the highest expression of Sinhalese culture.
Dutugemunu (161–37 BCE)
Sri Lanka's close proximity to India made it a constant target of invasion. Successful attempts would result in a handful of Tamil kings reaching the throne at Anuradhapura — the longest serving of whom was Elara, a general who arrived around 205 BCE and ruled the kingdom for forty-four years. During this period there were other settlements outside Anuradhapura ruled by minor kings and chiefs, the largest of which was Mahagama (modern Tissamaharama). From this kingdom came the famous warrior-prince-turned-Buddhist-king Dutugemunu (161-37 BCE), who made it his life's ambition to defeat Elara, eventually succeeding after a fifteen-year campaign. Having battled his way through each minor kingdom on his way to Anuradhapura, Dutugemunu united the whole of Sri Lanka for the first time.
Successive kings were unable to preserve the unity achieved by Dutugemunu, and long periods of instability, periods of Tamil rule, and Indian invasions were to shape the events to come. By the fifth century CE Tamil influence in Sinhalese affairs was growing, due to the increasing reliance that Sinhalese kings placed on recruiting Tamil mercenaries to support them in their own internal disputes. Hinduism in India was experiencing a revival, and a Tamil identity in Sri Lanka was beginning to emerge. In the end, it was the Chola — an ancient South Indian Tamil kingdom — that brought about the downfall of Anuradhapura when they sacked the city in 993 CE.
Polonnaruwa (933–1255 CE)
The Cholas made their capital at the strategically defensible Polonnaruwa, sixty-two miles (100 km) to the southeast, and ruled the island from India for seventy-five years. Purely for symbolic reasons, the Sinhalese kings remained in Anuradhapura, however the frustration of repeated invasions eventually spurred Vijayabahu I (1070–1110 CE) to drive out the Cholas from Sri Lanka, capturing Polonnaruwa in the process. He reigned for forty years, and during this time succeeded in restoring many Buddhist temples and monasteries that had been neglected under the Chola rule.
Vijayabahu died without an heir, and government was unstable until the advent of Parakramabahu I (1153–86), one of the country's most famous kings. Ambitious, indulgent, and a great patron of Buddhism, he launched a naval expedition against the Pandyas (an ancient South Indian Tamil kingdom who had defeated the Cholas) and Burma, and left a legacy of construction in the capital and island-wide reservoir-building that seriously depleted the royal treasury.
After Parakramabahu's death, the throne passed to his Tamil brother-in-law Nissankamalla (1186–96), who reigned peacefully for a decade before disunity and invasion prevailed, culminating in the terrorizing regime of Magha (1215–55) from Kalinga (a republic of central-eastern India), whose nonchalant attitude toward the upkeep of the capital contributed to its falling into disrepair. Gradually the population began to abandon the city to move further south.
The Kingdom of Jaffna
Even before the days of Polonnaruwa had drawn to a close, a kingdom was already beginning to emerge in the north of the country. Successive invasions by prominent South Indian Tamil empires, such as the Chola, Pandya, and Pallava, since the third century BCE, had consistently brought Dravidian settlers and so weakened the Sinhalese kings that by the end of the thirteenth century they had retreated as far south as the Hill Country. By 1340 the Sinhalese monarchy split, causing two rival kings to establish themselves at Gampola and Dedigama.
As a result of the increasing fragmentation of the Sinhala kings, the Tamil kingdom of Jaffna in the north of the island flourished; Tamils seized control of the valuable pearl fisheries located in the Jaffna Peninsula, and established the town as an important center for the trade in elephants and spices. As waves of fresh migrants arrived, South Indian Hindu culture in Jaffna became firmly established.
This was to cause a division. As the Sinhalese retreated further south an ever widening gap separated the northern Tamil and southern Sinhalese settlements. This had severe cultural implications, since it effectively resulted in the creation of two distinct ethno-linguistic zones whose diverging cultures had different religions, influences, and traditions at their heart.
Excerpted from Sri Lanka by Emma Boyle. Copyright © 2009 Kuperard. Excerpted by permission of Bravo Ltd.
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