Cultural Heritage

The people of Sri Lanka: A cultural identity

With a written history that dates back almost 2500 years into the past, Sri Lanka is blessed with rich cultures, traditions and unique legends. The first story about Sri Lanka appears in the Indian legendary text, Ramayana, where Ravana, the Lankan ruler is portrayed as the Demon King who stole the Prince, Rama’s lover Sita. The incident is said to have taken place almost 6000 years ago. The first recorded ruler of Sri Lanka was King Vijaya in 543 B.C. Due to a conflict with his father- the King, Prince Vijaya was sent from India to the island of Lanka where he fell in love with a woman of a demon-worshipping tribe, Kuweni. The prince and his army was said to have landed in a golden beach which he referred to as “Thambapanni”, now discovered as Kuduamalai, nearby Wilpattu National Park. However Prince Vijaya later married an Indian princess as he ascended to the Lankan throne. The descendants of King Vijaya and his Queen are said to be the modern Sinhalese while his descendants through Kuweni are known as “Vaddhas”- the present native community of Sri Lanka. Since then, civilizations dawned into kingdoms. Kings such as Mahasen, Parakkramabahu the first, Dutugemunu were some of the most strong and powerful rulers of Sri Lanka. Irrigation proved to be a massive success in the time, so was the lush agriculture. During this era, fascinating monuments such as Abayagiri stupa, Ruwanweli seya and Jetawanarama, were built. The advanced architectures of Sigiriya, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa kingdoms still stand strong as ever. As kingdoms developed, the ethnic diversity started spreading. Sri Lankan Tamil community arrived via Indian invaders, traders and rulers. King Elara, who ruled Anuradhapura kingdom from 205 – 161 B.C. was known as a Tamil King. Moors arrived to Sri Lanka through Arab traders and settled here marrying in to the community, they are presently known as Sri Lankan Moors. Beginning from the mid-16th century western invaders started arriving to the island. Until the mid-19th century, Sri Lanka posed as a colony of three different countries. The Portugal, Netherlands and the Great Britain. By 1948, Sri Lanka was finally freed from the chain of Colonization and from the British Empire. By 1972 the island became a fully independent democratic state. Flames of a harsh conflict between Sri Lankan Tamils and Sinhalese, in the early 1980s’ lead to a raging civil war which took place for almost 30 years. … But now Sri Lanka is back on track and has been developing and growing ever since. With the country’s unique golden beaches, cozy hill countries, thrilling wildlife and the everlasting adventure hotspots, Sri Lanka is one of Asia’s best Tourism attractions.

The people of Sri Lanka

A cultural identity

The people of Sri Lanka
As you touch down to the island, the first thing you see are the friendly smiles and helpful hands. Sri Lankans are known to be some of the friendliest people in the world. Just like its natural diversity, the people are diverse as the land they live in. Rich in culture and multi ethnic.

The Sinhalese :
Sinhalese are the primary race of Sri Lanka comprising up to 75% of the country’s whole population. Sinhala race is based on their language, history and belief.

According to the ancient text Mahavamsa, the Sinhala race is stated as the descendants of banished King Vijaya from Sinhapura, India. Sinhalese have an Indo-Aryan influence with the primary religion as Theravadha Buddhism. The Sinhala language has influence of Indian Paali and Sanskrit and is the mother tongue of most Sri Lankans.

The Sinhalese culture is rich and unique, dating as far back as 2600 years and has been nourished by Theravada Buddhism. Its primary domains are sculpture, fine arts, martial arts, literature, dancing, poetry, handicrafts and a wide variety of folk beliefs and rituals.

The traditional clothing of Sri Lankans can be divided to low country and highlands. The low country dress involved men wearing a shirt with a sarong. The color is traditionally white. The women would wear a tight fitting jacket with a wraparound called the Cheeththaya. The highland ceremonial male costume is the “Nilame” suit which was traditionally worn by cheiftans and feudal lords. The women would wear the “Osariya” which is a form of draping the Saree.

Sri Lankan Tamils :
The second largest population in Sri Lanka are the Tamils who take up to 11% of the country’s whole population. Sri Lankan Tamils fall into two categories as Lankan Tamils and Indian Tamils. Lankan Tamils live mostly in the northern, eastern and in Colombo while Indian Tamils inhabit mostly around the Hill country.

The Sri Lankan Tamil community has a long history that almost dates back to 145 B.C. The ancient Vanniars who travelled from India, settled in the north of the country and slowly travelled towards the east.

During the mid-12th century the Tamil-Dominant Arya Chakrawarthi dynasty, established an independent Jaffna Kingdom on the Jaffna peninsula and a large area on the northeast and ruled until the arrival of Portuguese.

The Tamils are strong followers of Hinduism and some have faith in Christianity due to the influence of western colonization.

Sri Lankan Moors :
Sri Lankan Moors are the third largest ethnic group on the island comprising 9% of the whole population. Sri Lankan Moors mostly speak Tamil and are followers of Sunni Islam. Sources believe that a part of this community are descendants of Arab traders who settled here between 8th and 15th century AD, while another part, based on their fluency in Tamil considered as Tamils who converted to Islam.

Theory claims that the Muslim community was named Moors by Portuguese after they met Moors in Iberia. While some scholars state that Arab descendant Moors have rather light skin colour comparing to those of Tamil.

However, Sri Lankan Moors are strongly shaped in Islamic beliefs and cultural habits, while preserving ancestral customs and adopting to South Asian practices.

Burghers :
The Burghers are a Eurasian community who have descended from the Portuguese, Dutch and the British with time. Only 0.2% of the whole country’s population is Burgher, yet they remain colourful and vibrant in the society.

Their culture is a rich combination of the east and west, and are the most westernized ethnic group of Sri Lanka. Burghers introduced Sri Lanka’s most popular music, Baila, which was originated from 16th century Portugal.

Burghers influenced the Lankan culture by introducing fashionable clothing, lacemaking and cuisines. While a small number of population still remains, a large number of Burghers migrated and settled overseas due to racial riots in 1970s’and 80s’.

Sri Lankan Malays :
Sri Lankan Malays are originated from South-East Asia, more specifically Malaysia or Indonesia, and was brought to Sri Lanka as soldiers during the Dutch period. They were still kept for administration purposes during the British rule.

Apart from being soldiers other Malay immigrants were convicts or noble houses from Indonesia who were exiled to Sri Lanka.

Sri Lankan Malays are followers of Islam, and have inhabited all over the country. Slave Island in Colombo is well known for Malay community. The Malays could be identified through their language and slight facial structure.

Legend of King Ravana

Legend of a Millennia – King Ravana

According to Ramayanaya, Ravana is called as the Demon King of Lanka and said to have ruled the country over 5000 years ago. The Indian text depicts the king as a villain and tyrant who cruelly kidnaped Rama’s wife Sita as an act of vengeance from Rama and his brother Lakshman for cutting off his sister Surpanakha’s nose.

Although he’s shown as a vicious figure, Ravana is portrayed in Lankan myth as a Noble king, a devout follower of Lord Shiva, a mighty warrior and an intelligent scholar.

As the Hindu mythology reads, Ravana is a son of a sage. Lanka was an idyllic city built by celestial architect, Vishwakarma and was the home of Kuwera, the treasurer of Gods. Ravana was a great ruler who bloomed the country, and he has said to have ruled Lanka a several hundred years before the Ramayana took place.

Legend states that Ravana was a great scholar, a master of ayurvedha medicine and an Inventor. The story tells about a certain flying machine he possessed, called, Dadumonara – a golden peacock. Thotupola Mountain in Horton Place National Park was believed to be one of the landing places of this magical machine. Apart from that, he’s also mentioned in several Hindu literature as a ‘Ten-Headed person’, which is given said to mean his immeasurable intelligence. However some folklore, historians and archeologists believe that the legendary character of Ravana was in fact associated around a real king who once ruled Sri Lanka from 2554 to 2517 BCE.

The Mysterious Rumassala Mountain

The Rumassala Mountain, located in the Southern of Sri Lanka, is where unique rare herbs grow, none like anywhere else in the country. Legend says that a part of this mountain was allegedly brought to Sri Lanka by Hanuman-the monkey king from the Himalayan Mountain range, to treat the fatal injuries of Rama, during the great battle. The herbs were left there and the plants grew into the Lankan soil with time.

The Adam’s Bridge

A trail of limestone shoals between Rameswaram Island and off the south eastern coast of Tamil Nadu, India plays a huge role in the legend of Ramayanaya. This bridge is believed to be created by the Monkey king Hanuman to make a path for Rama and his army to enter Lanka. Investigations by the ‘Indian National Remote Sensing Agency’ has discovered that these shoals were man-made and was created over 5000 years ago.

Though this legend was never proved, there are many instances of sites and beliefs that stir up doubt. The location of Seetha Eliya next to the Seetha Amman Kovil is also a part of the legendary storyline. The famous stream here is said to be where Sita used to bathe while held captive.

In Hasalaka, there is a site called Seetha kotuwa, which is said to be the place where Seetha was held captive.

The Ravana Cave

This Cave has a series of secret passageways that lead to various places which are said to have provided quick transport through hills during the time. Studies regarding the cave shows various evidence of its man-made influence as well. Located in between Bandarawella and Ella, this tunnel may contain some truth regarding the legend after all.

Travel to Sri Lanka this holiday and unveil the Ravana mystery by yourself!

Arrival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka

In 306 BC during the full moon Poson day, the Arahat Mahinda, son of the Great Emperor Ashoka of India met King Devanampiyatissa of Sri Lanka atop the Mihintale mountain. This meeting paved the way for the spread of Buddhism across the country. It is written that Arahat Mahinda arrived in Sri Lanka, sent by his father who renounced military and armed conquests and proclaimed Buddhism having converted to the faith and made it the state religion. History states that King Devanampiyatissa was hunting for deer on a full moon night in Mihintale and while chasing a stag, the king came across Arahat Mahinda. After a brief conversation to test the intelligence of the king, preparatory to preaching the Dhamma, the thera delivered the discourse on Culahastipadopama Sutta (simile on the foot of an elephant), and converted those assembled to Buddhism. The advent of Arhat Mahinda in Sri Lanka, brought forth a socio-religious revolution, changing the life and habitat of the people. The establishment of the Buddha Sasana in the island was the greatest step taken by him to mould the character of the masses, leading to spiritual awareness and morality. We observe that Arhat Mahinda belonged to the school of vinayadharas, who advocated discipline as the best weapon to fight against all evil.

Overtime the Sinhalese Kings continued to spread Buddhism and a number of large stupas, dagobas and monastic sites were built across the island. Even to this day, Buddhism is the primary religion in the country with temples located all across the country with a large majority of the Sinhalese community (over 70% of the country’s population) practicing the religion. The Sri Maha Bodhiya in Anuradhapura, the site of the holy Bo-tree, which was grown from a sapling of the very tree under which more than 2500 years ago the Buddha found enlightenment and the Sri Dalada Maligawa in Kandy also known as the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, which houses the sacred tooth relic of the Lord Buddha are two of the island’s most historic and sacred Buddhist sites. Owing to the moon's fullness of size as well as its effulgence, a full moon day is treated by Buddhists as the most auspicious of the four lunar phases occurring once every lunar month and is thus marked as a sacred poya holiday where millions of Buddhists visit temples across the country for their religious observances.

Geoffrey Bawa

Sri Lanka’s most famous and renowned architects, Geoffrey Bawa (1919 – 2003) was born from a multi-ethnic background, with Arab and British paternal ancestry, and Dutch Burgher and Sinhalese maternal ancestry. Geoffrey traveled to Britain seeing an English university education. Following the family profession of choice, he qualified as lawyer in 1944. Thereafter returning to Colombo to work briefly in a law firm, where he was soon tired of the profession and, having lost both his parents at a tragically young age, used his remaining inheritance to travel across the Far East of Asia, as well as the United States and Europe. Although he was almost seduced by the prospect of settling down in an Italian lakeside villa, he instead returned to the country of his birth and purchased the Lunuganga Estate, which was his country retreat near Bentota, which was initially no more than a neglected rubber estate which was transformed overtime into a tropical paradise that would evoke the Mediterranean vibes with which he felt such affinity. It was Bawa’s vision for the Lunuganga Estate that inspired him to become an architect.

This personal project, combined with Bawa’s perpetual feeling of being torn between his Asian and European cultural identity, ultimately gave rise to Sri Lanka’s unique style of modern architecture, of which Bawa was the pioneer. His experience at Lunuganga propelled him into the world of imaginative and inventive design. This also revealed his lack of technical training in this field. After a short architectural apprenticeship in Colombo, Bawa traveled back to London, where he qualified as an architect in 1957, at the age of 38.

For the next 32 years, he worked under the guidance of the prestigious Colombo firm Edwards Reid and Begg. During this time he hardly left any area of Sri Lanka untouched by his distinctively spirited mark and style. His initial commissions were primarily urban houses, office buildings and public buildings in Colombo city, which included ‘deconstructed colonial bungalows’ which was a radical and refreshing departure from the typical British architecture. The ‘tropical modernist’ style would become an integral part of the evolving the identity of a newly independent Sri Lanka. Bawa was instrumental in presenting creative ways to use natural light, space and materials to create dynamic designs.

By 1960, Bawa, who had always been a member of an elite upper class society in Colombo, was moving in a social circle of artists, and hence his work was highly sought-after by influential cultural figures, such as hoteliers and rich European plantation owners, and even the Catholic Church and other charitable foundations. The celebrated batik artist, Ena de Silva, who was a close friend of Bawa, brought him on board her project to create an airy and modern suburban house in Colombo that still retained the atmosphere of the traditional homes she grew up in as a child. Here, Bawa produced an early example of his creative experimentations using open spaces and thus creating a free flow of movement inside the building by carefully emphasizing the voids in-between mazes of whitewashed structures. Around a year later Geoffrey, who was now in frequent collaboration with acclaimed Danish architect Ulrik Plesner, built a new office for himself on Alfred House Gardens in Colombo, which has now been transformed into the elegantly rustic and chic The Gallery Café.

In the early 1970s, Sri Lanka was already coming into its own as a tourist destination, and Bawa was there preferred, if not the only choice to create and design the first purpose-built holiday resort, the Bentota Beach Hotel., now managed by Cinnamon resorts, and the neighboring Serendib Hotel. His influence on the burgeoning luxury travel scene in Sri Lanka was unprecedented, and has since been unrivaled. He designed 35 hotels between 1965 and 1997, of which 13 were built in Sri Lanka. Only five, all from his later period – The Triton (now Heritance, Ahungalla), The Neptune (now Ayurvedha Mahagedara), The Kandalama (now Heritance, Kandalama), The Lighthouse (now Jetwing Lighthouse) . and Blue Waters. – survive in their original architectural form.

Bawa’s genius can best be felt in Colombo city, which has become the archetypal ‘tropical metropolis’. Though the unstable political environment nearly compelled him to permanently relocate to India, his most enduring landmarks are the political and ideological symbols in the capital city. In 1977, the year that Sri Lanka elected a new government headed by President J.R. Jayawardene, Bawa built the Seema Malaka Buddhist Temple on Beira Lake – a splendid feat of tantalizing architecture that emits the illusion of floating on the otherwise unbroken surface of the water. Two years later, the President commissioned designs for a new Parliament building in Sri Jayawardanapura, Kotte. As with the temple, Bawa proposed that the magnificent complex be built on high land that would become an island in the center of a flooded valley.

The Lunuganga Estate and Bawa’s Colombo home, ‘Number 11’, are open for visitors. At Number 11, he combined four individual bungalows on 33rd Lane, Bagatelle Road, in the quiet and pretty suburb of Colombo 3, into a personal oasis of innovation and elegant comfort. His influence echoes even to this day in the landscape of Sri Lanka, and his work will forever showcase the quiet genius of a great man. In present day Sri Lanka, some of the island’s leading architects are regarded as the top students who trained under Geoffrey Bawa and continue to develop properties and hotels across the country using his renowned ‘tropical modernist’ style.

Colonial Sri Lanka

Colonial Sri Lanka
Beginning from the early 16th century after the European Renaissance, Sri Lanka was a tropical mine of Spices and other values for Invaders. The Portuguese arrived to Sri Lanka accidently by a Storm, but they were keen on traveling and spreading their roots over the country’s Politics, culture, traditions as well as the lifestyle. Although the Portuguese were able to gain power over the Coastal areas of the country, the political heart – Highlands, remained independent.

The commonly heard names in Sri Lanka, Fernando, Pereira and the famous music style ‘Baila’, was believed to have been influenced by the Portuguese.

Within a century the Dutch explorers made their way to Sri Lanka. Besides taking over power of the coastal areas, they also pleasured on the quality Cinnamon, Cardamoms and other Spices the country had to offer.

The famous Galle Dutch Fort and Trincomalee Fort were built by the Dutch as well as the famous historic Dutch Hospital in Colombo which is now transformed in to a classy food court hangout.

The country headed towards a remarkable change with the arrival of British. For the first time in Sri Lanka’s history, the nation as a whole was captive under a foreign invasion. As a part of their Empire, the British introduced many changes into the social and political system of Sri Lanka.

Dawning into a new phase in politics and Democracy. Road systems and Trains were introduced for the first time along with Roman Catholic Missionary schools opening broadly around the country. Victorian architectural buildings still can be found in around Colombo, Kandy and Nuwara Eliya.

The unsuccessful Coffee Plantation attempt in the 1860’s lead to growing Tea in the hill country. The Renowned “Ceylon Tea”, is none other than fresh estate-grown refined Sri Lankan Tea. Today, some of these historic tea estates have been converted to top-end boutique properties with panoramic views of the tea fields with mountain backdrops, providing a luxurious tea-centric experience.

One of the widely appreciated gifts from the British to Sri Lanka is Cricket. Although it’s not considered as the national sport, Cricket plays a major role in Sri Lankan lifestyle. Introduced as a pleasure sport for the colonial elites, their holiday time activities included Cricket. Presently Cricket is adored and played by everyone. In the year 1996, Sri Lanka won the International Cricket World Cup, proving the nation’s cricket spirit even stronger.

As some of the famous cricketers in Sri Lanka Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardana, Sanath Jayasuriya and Muththaiya Muralitharan are known among cricket followers globally.

Sigiriya Rock Fortress

The iconic Sigiriya Rock Fortress is located in Matale district close to the town of Dambulla. Before Sigiriya was known as a Kingdom, the Rock base and the places such as Pidurangala rock which has many caves and a temple complex, have been used by Buddhist monks as dwellings from around 3rd Century BC.

After the reign King Mahanama from 410- 432 AD, a royal prince named Dhatusena was crowned the King of Anuradhapura in 459 AD. After defeating the Indian invader 'Pandu'. King Dhatusena became the ruler who constructed the great Kala Wewa tank, by building a dam across the Kala Oya river. This man-made 54 mile long Yoda Ela or canal, which moves water from the Kala Wewa to Tissa Wewa in Anuradhapura is considered an irrigation and engineering masterpiece even to this day. It was during his reign the famous full-relief Aukana Buddha statue was constructed out of a rock and stands 42 feet high which is regarded as one of the finest works of stonework in the country.

King Dhatusena had two sons from two of his queens. Mugalan who also called as Moggallana, was the son of the head queen and heir apparent and Kassapa was the son from a companion queen. Prince Kashyapa, with the help a treacherous general, murdered his father and took the crown. The true heir Prince Mugalan, fearing for his life, fled to India. The order Buddhist Bhikkus and the subjects were against this act and favored the true heir Price Mugalan. Fearing that Mugalan would return with an army from India to avenge his father’s death and claim his birthright, Kassapa made the decision to make Sigiriya his kingdom during his rule of eighteen years from 477 AD to 495 AD. It is believed that he sought the refuge of Sigiriya rock for its strategic location, and vantage point to mount his defense against his half-brother. His palace was built at the summit of the Sigiriya Rock Fortress.

The rock being a fortress, had been well designed for defence by having massive ramparts and moats built around it the complex. There are several approaches to the inner city and the most prominent is the Western entrance. From the summit of the rock, the land areas for a distance of tens of miles can be viewed which makes a surprise invasion difficult. It is believed that sentries were put on the lookout at all times.

King Kassapa had transformed this fortress to an ecological wonder by creating Royal Pleasure Gardens, Water Gardens, Fountain Gardens and Boulder Gardens made inside the inner city as well as at the palace itself on the Rock summit. The most renowned is the Sigiriya Rock Paintings or Frescoes of Damsels locally called as ' Sigiri Apsaras' are painted on a Western Rock face cavity around 100 meters high from the base of the rock .There now remains around 21 paintings but there had been around five hundred paintings during King Kassapa's time along several other locations of the Rock face. Another key construction marvel at Sigiriya is the Mirror Wall, which is covered with graffiti from the 7th to the 10th centuries AD. These were written by the people who came to see Sigiriya during those long years.

Coming along the path of the mirror wall, one finds the Great Lion Paw Terrace or Platform. Only two giant Lion's paws are remaining to this date, but it is believed that there had been an enormous Lion figure or statue at the entrance. Through the Lion's paw stairway, one can reach the summit by taking the iron stairway built on to the rock face. On the top are the remains of the Palace building foundations and few ponds on an area of about 3 acres of rock summit. The largest pond was made by cutting out the rock and it is assumed that utilizing the great wind force occurring on the summit, the water was brought up to fill this tank using an advanced hydraulic system using wind power from the ground level.

After 18 years, Prince Mugalan arrived with an army from India to fight with King Kassapa. During the battle, the losing King Kassapa killed himself and thus Mugalan took over the crown. He returned to Anuradhapura from where he ruled the country and handed over Sigiriya back to the Buddhist priests. Sigiriya as a Kingdom was abandoned in around 1150 AD and was almost forgotten for the next seven centuries.

The Sigiriya rock itself has its unique identity due to its odd shape not found nowhere else in the island and can be recognized miles away from the distance. It was rediscovered during the colonial rule of the British, by Major H. Forbes in the year 1831. A.H Adams and J Bailey, who climbed to the summit in 1853. Though King Kashyapa is not regarded as a significant ruler in Sri Lankan history, he is nevertheless credited as the ruler with unsurpassed imagination that created a Sri Lankan style marvel of high caliber art and engineering that could even challenge the other great world structures of the time.  

King Parakramabahu the Great

Parakramabahu the Great who ruled Lanka from 1153-1186 AD, is considered as one of the greatest monarchs of Sri Lanka in terms of the large military campaigns he undertook. The King’s goal was to unite the whole of Lanka under one chathra. He is also famous for the magnificent religious edifices and unprecedentedly large irrigation works he constructed as well as for the advancement of agriculture. He united the whole island under his rule and his armies even invaded regions of India and Burma. His name "Parakrama", is derived by the joining of the words "Para"(foreign) "Akrama"(Invader) which illustrates the significant feat of him invading India.

Parakrama was known for the rapid development of hydraulic infrastructure during his reign, building large amounts of tanks, canals, and artificial lakes. King Parakrama was known for the rapid development of hydraulic infrastructure during his reign, building large amounts of tanks, canals, and artificial lakes. According to the ancient texts of the Culavamsa, the king built or restored over six thousand tanks and canals. His largest legacy was the Parakrama Samudra or "Sea of Parakrama", a vast lake adjoining his capital at Polonnaruwa. The King also restored the three great stupas at Anuradhapura and rebuilt the ancient monastery at Mihintale.

It was at his new capital Polonnaruwa however, that Parakramabahu the Great lavished his greatest efforts, supervising the construction of a spate of imposing new edifices including the Royal Palace complex and the majestic Lankatilake Image House which is a monolithic Buddha image house made from brick where the outer walls are covered with elaborate designs and carvings.

Another famous monument is the Gal Vihare, which was constructed under the guidance of the King where central feature of the temple is four rock relief statues of the Buddha, which have been carved into the face of a large granite rock. The images consist of a large seated figure, another smaller seated figure inside an artificial cavern, a standing figure and a reclining figure. These are considered to be some of the best examples of ancient Sinhalese sculpting and carving arts, and have made the Gal Vihara the most visited monument at Polonnaruwa.

He also built the beautiful Vatadagaye, the crowning achievement of medieval Sinhalese architecture. Built for the protection of a small stupa, the structure has two stone platforms decorated with elaborate stone carvings. The lower platform is entered through a single entrance facing the north, while the second platform can be accessed through four doorways facing the four cardinal points. The upper platform, surrounded by a brick wall, contains the stupa. Four Buddha statues are seated around it, each facing one of the entrances. Three concentric rows of stone columns had also been positioned here, presumably to support a wooden roof. The entire structure is decorated with stone carvings. Some of the carvings at the Polonnaruwa Vatadage, such as its sandakada pahanas, are considered to be the best examples of such architectural features.

King Dutugemunu

One of the most famous and revered monarchs of Sri Lanka, Dutugemunu who reigned from 161 BC to 137 BC, was born as Prince Gamini to King Kavantissa and Queen Viharamahadevi, who ruled over the Kingdom of Ruhuna in the South of Sri Lanka.

During this time the kingdom of Rajarata (the North Central Region and most prestigious of the Kingdoms of Lanka) was ruled by King Elara who was a Tamil invader from India. As a youth it is said that his father King Kavantissa made the young prince swear not to go to war with the Tamils with a symbolic piece of rice. The hot headed prince rebuked this offer. Upon the death of his father, the newly crowned King Duttugemunu had to defend his crown against his brother Tissa. The older Dutugemunu was defeated and he had to flee to Mahagama where he levied another army to come up against his brother. It is said that during this battle Tissa rode the legendary tusker “Kandula” and Dutugemunu rode a horse, where the older brother was victorious. Dutugemunu and Tissa were reconciled through the efforts of Viharamahadevi and the monks, and Tissa became one of the king's foremost generals.

Having secured his crown, his aim was to regain the Kingdom of Rajarata. The story of this legendary king is similar to that of King Arthur, where instead of Knights of the Round Table he had ten “Giants” under his command, ready to go to war for him. These warriors were more likely skilled marshal artists rather than real giants, and were each famed for heroic acts. These ten Giants were- Nandhimitra, Suranimala, Mahasena, Theraputtabhya, Gothabhaya, Bharana, Vasabha, Khanjadeva, Velusamanna, and Phussadeva. The campaign saw the king subduing a number of usurping Tamil rulers in the north. On at least two key occasions his victory is attributed to his cunning and the exceptional bravery of his tusker Kandula. The campaign reached a climax at the eastern gate of Anuradhapura, where Dutugemunu, riding Kandula, finally confronted the aged usurped king Elara, on his own elephant Mahäpabbata. In an epic battle he killed Elara with a dart.

His victory at Anuradhapura put him in the unprecedented position of ruling nearly the entire island of Lanka. Despite this however his position was far from problem-free. Elara, despite being an invading Tamil from the Chola empire of south India, was known as a just and righteous ruler, and hence Dutugemunu went out of his way to ensure the memory of Elara was revered and respected as he cremated Elara and built a tomb for his ashes and made rules for travelers to get off and pay their respects to his tomb.

The king's reign also saw extensive contact between Sri Lanka and traders from the west, including Arabs, Persians, and possibly Romans. Dutugemunu also ordered the construction of the Lohapasada, or Brazen Palace, a nine-story chapter house for monks, which derived its name from its bright copper-tiled roof.

Perhaps his most famous creation was the Ruwanweliseya, a massive stupa, to house the begging bowl of Lord Buddha. The construction began on the full moon day of the month of Vesak in May (traditionally the date of the birth, enlightenment, and passing away of the Buddha) with the creation of a foundation of crushed rock. In order to hammer the stones into place elephants were used with their feet bound in leather to stomp down the stones. The King is said to have looked over the work personally, being present at the construction of the relic chamber as well as the interring of the bowl. The dedication of a stupa is described in Chap. 29 of the Mahavamsa, which lists the visit of delegations from various parts of India, as well as a delegation of 30,000 monks from Alexandria of the Caucasus, led by the Indo-Greek monk Mahadharmaraksita.

The Kandyan Kingdom

The last independent kingdom in Sri Lanka, the Kandyan Kingdom existed from 1473-1818 AD and held off the colonial forces at bay for a lengthy period before succumbing to the British. The Kingdom was known by many names such as Kanda Uda Pasrata, Senkadagala Kingdom, Kanda Udarata, Mahanuwara Kingdom and Sinhale. Even to this day, the Kandyans are a proud people who cherish their heritage.

Much of the Kandy Kingdom's territory was located in Sri Lanka's mountainous and thickly forested interior, with mountain passes to the capital providing plenty of opportunities for defenders to stage ambushes. Routes to the city were kept secret, and spreading information concerning them could often result in death. Many routes into the hill country became impassable during the annual monsoon, and malaria was rife. Throughout its existence Kandyan forces used the land to their advantage, engaging in guerrilla warfare against invading forces.

According to the Kandyan administrative system, the king was head of all spheres. He was also known as "Lankeshwara Thrisinhaladheeshwara". It was accepted that the king owned all lands and therefore was known as "Bhupathi". Even though the king was called "Adeeshwara", he had to rule according to the advice of the Buddhist priests and chieftains. The king had to follow the customs and traditions which were in popular practice at that time, otherwise the people would rebel against him if he did not. Not obeying these would be detrimental to the power of the king, an example being Sri Vikrama Rajasinha, who had to surrender to the British in 1818, merely because he ignored the advice of the Buddhist priests and chieftains and did not follow the age old traditions.

The Kingdom of Kandy did not maintain a large standing army, although the King maintained a full-time Royal Guard at the Palace. In the provinces, local garrisons were maintained to guard strategic mountain passes or to suppress rebellions. During times of war or military campaign these would be supplemented with the local militia. Kandyan forces, throughout their history, relied heavily on the mountainous terrain of the kingdom and primarily engaged in guerrilla-style hit-and-run attacks, ambushes, and quick raids. One of the hallmarks of the clashes between the kingdom and its European foes was the inability of either side to take and hold land or to permanently cut off supply routes, with the exception being the Dutch, who managed to do so for an extended period of time in 1762.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Kandyan Kings relied on mercenaries, often Telugu military adventurers who are known as Nayakkars. With the arrival of the Nayakkars, large numbers of South Indian Tamil soldiers made up the king's personal guard. In addition to this, various Europeans were in the King's service during this period (including a master gunner), and large contingents of Malays, who were very highly regarded as fighters. As for the armies, each of the local chieftains could call upon a militia which often accompanied them on their journeys around the kingdom. The bulk of the Kandyan army consisted of local peasant conscripts – irregulars pressed into service in times of war – who tended to bring with them around twenty days’ worth of supplies and functioned in discrete units often out of contact with each other. One of the reasons for the Kandyan's inability to hold the land they captured was poor logistical support, as many soldiers had to return to base to replenish their supplies once they ran out.

Interaction with Europeans had led to the introduction of muskets and other gunpowder weapons, and by the 1760s bows and arrows had been rendered obsolete. Kandyan gunsmiths specialized in manufacturing light flintlocks with smaller bores than European guns, with their barrels extended for accuracy. The Kandyans also developed a unique form of hand-held cannon, the kodithuwakkuwa. These innovations allowed the kingdom to produce heavy artillery on the scale and quality of European forces.

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