A Brief History of Sri Lanka

Our tour leader Judy Tenzing takes us through the history of one of Asia’s true hidden gems, Sri Lanka. Judy has a lifelong passion for travel and over 30 years experience as a tour leader on the sub-continent and in Asia. Judy has a degree in South Asian History and led our Sri Lanka tour in January 2017.

Sri Lanka has been continuously inhabited for more than 2 million years, with the original inhabitants descended from Stone Age hunter gatherers. Immigration arrived from northern India around the 5th century BCE, forming the basis of the modern Sinhalese population. Tamils from the south of India arrived approximately two centuries later, settling in Jaffna. In contrast to the largely Buddhist Sinhalese, most Tamils are Hindu or Christian and form a minority in the Sri Lankan population.

The legendary north Indian Prince Vijaya and his 700 followers landed near Puttallam and formed the first Sinhalese kingdom around Anuradhapura. In the 3rd century BCE, Buddhism arrived from India at Mihintale, where the conversion of Sinhalese King Tissa occurred. Early Buddhist emissaries brought a cutting from the Bodhi tree under which Lord Buddha attained enlightenment; it survives in Anuradhapura and is an important pilgrimage site. Tensions with Tamil Kingdoms in India were never far away and a Pandyan invasion in 432 led to the establishment of the rock fortress at Sigiriya as the capital. Legends surrounding the fortress also tell a story of King Kassapa building the residence on top of the rock after murdering his own father. Following Kassapa’s short rule, the capital returned to Anuradhapura before moving to Polonnaruwa in 1070 where it remained for 150 years.

Kandy came into prominence after the Portuguese arrived in 1505 and was soon the only independent kingdom in Sri Lanka, falling to the British in 1815 after defying the Portuguese and the Dutch for 300 years. By 1518 the Portuguese had established good relations with the King and were allowed to build a fort at Colombo, with favourable trading concessions in return for the king’s protection. Meanwhile, the Dutch established a trading fort in Galle, destroying the earlier Portuguese outpost. It wasn’t long until the Dutch East India Company controlled most of Ceylon. But France’s control over the Netherlands and defeat in the Napoleonic wars saw British control of Sri Lanka confirmed at the Treaty of Amiens.

Unrest under colonial rule saw the Ceylon National Congress formed in 1919, uniting Sinhalese and Tamils. A constitution was written and some concessions provided but it wasn’t until the 1947 constitution came into effect that Ceylon gained independence in 1948. The 1972 constitution proclaimed the Republic of Sri Lanka but tensions between Sinhalese and Tamils grew into a civil war that lasted from 1983 to 2009, with the defeat of the Tamils.

On Boxing Day 2004 a disastrous tsunami struck the southwest coast, killing 30,000 people and displacing 1.5 million more. Today Sri Lanka is a democratic republic governed by a president and prime minister.

Judy Tenzing

Has a degree in South Asian History. She has a lifelong passion for travel and over 30 years experience as a tour leader on the sub-continent and in Asia.

Upcoming tours led by Judy Tenzing


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