Sri Lanka Table of Contents

Ancient Indian and Sri Lankan myths and chronicles have been studied intensively and interpreted widely for their insight into the human settlement and philosophical development of the island. Confirmation of the island's first colonizers--whether the Sinhalese or Sri Lankan Tamils--has been elusive, but evidence suggests that Sri Lanka has been, since earliest times, a multiethnic society. Sri Lankan historian K.M. de Silva believes that settlement and colonization by Indo-Aryan speakers may have preceded the arrival of Dravidian settlers by several centuries, but that early mixing rendered the two ethnic groups almost physically indistinct.

Ancient Legends and Chronicles

The first major legendary reference to the island is found in the great Indian epic, the Ramayana (Sacred Lake of the Deeds of Rama), thought to have been written around 500 B.C. The Ramayana tells of the conquest of Lanka in 3000 B.C. by Rama, an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. Rama's quest to save his abducted wife, Sita, from Ravanna, the demon god of Lanka, and his demon hordes, is, according to some scholars, a poetic account of the early southward expansion of Brahmanic civilization.

Buddhist Chronicles

The most valuable source of knowledge for scholars probing the legends and historical heritage of Sri Lanka is still the Mahavamsa (Great Genealogy or Dynasty), a chronicle compiled in Pali, the language of Theravada Buddhism, in the sixth century. Buddhist monks composed the Mahavamsa, which was an adaptation of an earlier and cruder fourth century epic, the Dipavamsa (Island Genealogy or Dynasty). The latter account was compiled to glorify Buddhism and is not a comprehensive narrative of events. The Mahavamsa, however, relates the rise and fall of successive Buddhist kingdoms beginning with Vijaya, the legendary colonizer of Sri Lanka and primogenitor of the Sinhalese migrant group. In the Mahavamsa, Vijaya is described as having arrived on the island on the day of the Buddha's death (parinibbana) or, more precisely, his nirvana or nibbana, his release from the cycle of life and pain. The Mahavamsa also lavishes praise on the Sinhalese kings who repulsed attacks by Indian Tamils.

Vijaya is the central legendary figure in the Mahavamsa. He was the grandson of an Indian princess from Vanga in northern India who had been abducted by an amorous lion, Simha, and son of their incestuous and half-leonine offspring. Along with 700 of his followers, Vijaya arrived in Lanka and established himself as ruler with the help of Kuveni, a local demon-worshiping princess. Although Kuveni had betrayed her own people and had given birth to two of Vijaya's children, she was banished by the ruler, who then arranged a marriage with a princess from Madurai in southeastern India. Kuveni's offspring are the folkloric ancestors of the present day Veddahs, an aboriginal people now living in scattered areas of eastern Sri Lanka. Many scholars believe that the legend of Vijaya provides a glimpse into the early settlement of the island. Around the fifth century B.C., the first bands of Sri Lankan colonists are believed to have come from the coastal areas of northern India. The chronicles support evidence that the royal progeny of Vijaya often sought wives from the Pandyan and other Dravidian (Tamil) kingdoms of southern India. The chronicles also tell of an early and constant migration of artisan and mercantile Tamils to Sri Lanka.

From the fifth century A.D onward, periodic palace intrigues and religious heresies weakened Buddhist institutions leaving Sinhalese-Buddhist culture increasingly vulnerable to successive and debilitating Tamil invasions. A chronicle, a continuation of the Mahavamsa, describes this decline. The main body of this chronicle, which assumed the less than grandiloquent title Culavamsa (Lesser Genealogy or Dynasty), was attributed to the thirteenth century poet-monk, Dhammakitti. The Culavamsa was later expanded by another monk the following century and, concluded by a third monk in the late eighteenth century.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress