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Cities in SRI LANKA




The written history of Sri Lanka begins with the 'Mahavamsa', a manuscript written in the Pali language related to Sanskrit. This manuscript tells the history of the island from the fifth century B.C. to 400 A.D. The 'Dipavamsa' and the 'Culavamsa' are two other manuscripts that tell about the period until 1815. In that year, the last Sinhalese king was dethroned by the British. Further additions are made by inscriptions that are still found by archaeologists during excavations.

Prehistoric tools and skeletons from the early Stone Age have been found. In the earliest times, Dravidas migrated from South India to Sri Lanka, where they mixed with the original inhabitants, the nomadic Veddas. In 543 BC, the Indian prince Vijaya came to Sri Lanka with his followers from northwest India. He occupied the island and founded the first Sinhalese dynasty. He settled on the west coast near present-day Puttalam and brought with him the art and religion of the Hindus from India. He developed agriculture on the island and, as a result, prosperity and population increased rapidly. The first capital of the island kingdom was Anuradhapura in 380 BC and remained so until the middle of the 9th century.

In the time after the introduction of Buddhism, Sri Lanka was almost literally overrun by Tamils, a Dravidian people from South India. The Tamils were particularly attracted by the fertile soil on the island and the precious stones it contained. Without much bloodshed, the Tamils quickly took over the throne from the rulers of Anuradhapura. There were also large areas where the Tamils had no say, and in general it was good to live on the island.

In the 2nd century BC, the situation changed. Gamani, ruling a small Sinhalese kingdom in the southeast corner of Sri Lanka, took up arms and went to war with a huge army against the Tamil king Elara. Elara was killed and Gamani ascended the throne of Anuradhapura under the name Duttha Gamani, the 'disobedient' (161-137 BC). After Gamani's death, new Tamils managed to settle again in Sinhalese territory.

Middle Ages

From 477 to 495 AD, King Kasyapa ruled from the new capital with a heavy hand. He was defeated by his brother with an army formed in India. In the 9th century, Anuradhapura lost its status as the capital of the island again, and the new capital Polonnaruwa also suffered this fate due to the constant attacks by Tamils and Cholas from India. The capital was moved further and further south, until in 1001 the whole island was incorporated into the South Indian kingdom.

In 1070, the island was recaptured and under King Parakramabahu I the Great (1153-1186), it regained its former glory and Polonnaruwa became the capital again. In 1187, Parakramabahu was succeeded by the native Tamil Nissanka Malla, who led the kingdom to financial ruin within a few years. After his death the Tamils invaded the capital again and from 1284 Sri Lanka was protected by Kublai Khan.

In 1294 Sri Lanka was visited by the explorer Marco Polo and in the 13th and 14th centuries parts of Sri Lanka fell into the hands of conquerors from South India, Burma (now Myanmar), India, Egypt and Malaysia.

Portuguese rule

In 1505, the first Portuguese arrived in Sri Lanka, initially only looking for trade areas. Soon they took possession of the coastal areas and founded settlements. They profited greatly from the break-up of the original population into seven kingdoms.

In 1517 they built a fortress near Colombo and frantic attempts were made to convert the inhabitants of the island to Catholicism. This did not happen without violence and many temples were destroyed. Results were achieved fairly quickly; in 1557 King Dharmapala was baptised and even married a Portuguese woman. In 1587 Kandy was conquered and in 1593 the new capital Jaffna. The Portuguese fought at that time not only with the Sinhalese kings but also with the Dutch, who had an eye on Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was called at that time). The Dutch landed on Ceylon in 1602 under Joris van Spilbergen.

In 1638 the Dutch occupied some ports and with the help of the king of Kandy, Colombo was conquered and the Portuguese were slowly but surely driven away. Rajasimha II, also known as Rajasingha II, was a Sinhalese king who ruled from 1629 - 1687; he was the third king of the Kandy kingdom. Rajasimha appealed to the Dutch to drive out the Portuguese from Ceylon, successfully completed in 1656. By this time it became clear to Rajasimha that the Dutch not only wanted to drive out the Portuguese but also wanted to establish themselves on the island as a colonial machine. From that time onwards Rajasimha adopted a hostile attitude towards the Dutch. In 1658 the last Portuguese left Ceylon. From the Portuguese period only forts and many churches remain.

Dutch rule

The rule of the Dutch over Ceylon lasted only 140 years, but it had a great influence on the island. It was one of the most important VOC settlements in Asia and the Dutch built forts and several Protestant churches there. The Dutch also brought over Tamils from India to work in the rice fields, and constructed roads and canals. In 1734, the Dutch got into trouble when an uprising on the cinnamon plantations threatened.

In 1741 many Buddhist monks from Burma came to Ceylon to reform Buddhism. Because the Dutch more or less allowed the Buddhists to do their work, Buddhism flourished again in Ceylon. In the second half of the 18th century, however, the island became increasingly unsettled and clashes ensued with the discontented population.

In 1766, the Dutch achieved a great victory over the king of Kandy, who, however, secretly had contacts with the other great world power, England, via the British governor of South India.

Brittish rule

In 1782, during the Fourth Dutch-English War, English troops landed at the port of Trincomalee, which was promptly captured. In 1783, with the help of the French, England's arch-enemy, the Dutch regained the port city. However, this did not last long and in 1796 the English captured a number of port cities and the Dutch were forced to withdraw from the island. The peace of Amiens in 1802 brought a definitive end to the rule of the Dutch on Ceylon, which now became a British crown colony.

England immediately had a problem with the king of Kandy, Sri Vikrama Rajasingha. He refused to abdicate and a large English army had to be sent in to make this happen. However, when the king treated his own people cruelly and unjustly, the matter was soon settled. The nobility of Kandy conspired with the British and in 1815, the king was captured and exiled to India. This marked the end of the 2300-year era of the Sinhala kings.

The English took a very proactive approach in the economic field. Railways and roads were built, agriculture was strengthened, diseases were fought and many plantations were established. However, the Sinhalese did not want to work on the plantations, and again Tamils were lured from South India to Ceylon, to the horror of the Sinhalese.

Ceylon (Sri Lanka) Independent

Although the British were doing a good job in Ceylon, the call for independence grew louder. In 1917, the Ceylon Reform League was formed, which openly strived for independence. In 1924 some self-government was granted by England, but in 1928 it was decided that Ceylon was not yet ready for an independent status.

In 1945, England still rejected the desired dominion status, which provoked fierce protests. However, this impressed the British and on February 4, 1948 Ceylon became independent, but remained a member of the British Commonwealth. The first Prime Minister was Don Stephen Senanayake, the 'father of the nation'. After 1948, the Buddhist Sinhalese immediately took a stand against other population groups, especially against the Hindu Tamils and the Christians, who were also often of Tamil origin.

The Communists, on the other hand, cooperated well with the Buddhists and, in turn, the Christians also joined in and increasingly cooperated with the Sinhalese. In those early years Ceylon was ruled by the United National Party (UNP) and in 1953 the country became a member of the United Nations, always a milestone in the history of a country.

Period Bandaranaike

From 1956 to 1959, Solomon Bandaranaike, the Buddhist son of a large landowner, was in power as Prime Minister. He tended somewhat towards communism, but ensured that Ceylon remained in the group of neutral and non-aligned countries. On 26 September 1959, he was assassinated by a Buddhist monk who felt that the proposed reforms were not in line with Buddhist ideals of life.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Solomon's wife, immediately took over the leadership of the SLFP and this party won the 1960 elections; Sirimavo became Minister of Defence and Foreign Affairs in addition to being Prime Minister.

She led a very authoritarian regime and had serious quarrels with all kinds of groups. Freedom of the press was curbed and Sinhalese was declared the only official language, much to the displeasure of the Tamils. It also favoured Buddhism over other religions; subsidies to Catholic schools, for instance, were withdrawn. A series of other measures were taken at the expense of Catholics, all because they had not voted for her in the elections. As far as foreign policy was concerned, she focused mainly on communist countries such as China and the Soviet Union.

The 24 March 1965 elections were lost by Bandaranaike's SLFP and opposition leader Dudley Shelton Senanayake of the United National Party (UNP) won a landslide victory. He again sought rapprochement with the West and also managed to keep the Buddhists happy.

Senanayake lost the 1970 elections and Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who at the time was leading a combined party (United Front), became Prime Minister again. In 1971, uprisings were brutally suppressed by army and police and a state of emergency was declared by Bandaranaike.

1972: The Republic of Sri Lanka is proclaimed

On 22 May 1972, Ceylon was declared the independent parliamentary republic of Sri Lanka. In 1975 the Trotskyist Lanka Sama Samaya Party (LSSP) withdrew from the government and in 1977 Bandaranaike lifted the state of emergency and released a number of political prisoners. Despite some leftist measures, the communists also left the government and opposition to the Bandaranaike government grew due to corruption and cronyism.

The elections of July 1977 were lost not only by the SLFP, but even by the LSSP and the Communists, who had left the government. Now it was the UNP's turn again, and Junius Richard Jayewardene's party won more than two-thirds of all parliamentary seats. In 1978, a new, more liberal constitution was adopted, which also centralised much of the power. Positive for the Tamils was that their language could now also be taught in Sinhalese schools. Economically, the focus was fully on the rich West and investors were welcomed with open arms through all kinds of favourable regulations. Despite increased production and exports, many people remained poor, many young people were unemployed and the prices of foodstuffs rose rapidly as a result of the abolition of price controls.


In 1980, a state of emergency was declared as a result of a general strike and very violent confrontations between Sinhalese and Tamils. These confrontations between the two population groups would dominate the news constantly for decades to come. In July 1983, for instance, thirteen Sinhalese soldiers were ambushed and killed by Tamils. As a result, the Sinhalese took revenge on the Tamils and a total of about a thousand people were killed.

In 1985, a mediation attempt was made in Bhutan by Indian Prime Minister Gandhi. The Sri Lankan government proposed giving partial autonomy to the Tamil areas. The Tamils rejected this proposal and made much higher demands. The government, of course, did not accept this, resulting in many terrorist actions in 1985 and 1986.

In 1987 things seemed to escalate when the Tamils took over the administration of the Jaffna province. The central government immediately declared an economic blockade and the Tamils' demand to unite the northern and eastern Tamil provinces was rejected. Eventually the VOC fort at Jaffna was even attacked by government troops, but there was no further escalation.

In 1988 the Tamil Tigers resisted the presence of Indian troops on Sri Lankan soil. On 2 January 1989 Ranasinghe Premadasa of the United National Party (UNP) was installed as president. But this year was again dominated by clashes between radical Sinhalese and Tamil separatists. New was the action of the Sinhalese liberation front JVP in the south of Sri Lanka. They again found that the government made too many concessions to the Tamils and killed many government supporters and political opponents. Remarkably, the very militant Liberation Tigers for Tamil Eelam (LITE) transformed itself into a political party.


By March 1990, all Indian troops had left Sri Lanka and in June a ceasefire was agreed between the government and the Tamil Tigers. Not long after, however, the government unexpectedly declared an 'all-out war' against the Tamil Tigers. In this year, many Muslims were also killed by the Tamil Tigers, because they wanted to make the Tamil area 'Muslim-free'. That the Muslims resorted to lethal retaliation will not come as a surprise. Towards the end of the year, the Tamils unilaterally called a ceasefire and expressed their willingness to start official peace talks with the government. Nevertheless, the ethnic violence continued in the following years and the Jaffna peninsula was even regularly bombed by the Sri Lankan air force. It was calculated that by then the civil war had cost at least 17,000 lives.

The government increasingly focused on a dialogue between moderate Tamil groups, because it was impossible to talk with the Tamil Tigers about peace. The LTTE was banned in India, as it was suspected of involvement in the assassination of India's former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.

On 1 May 1993, President Premadasa was assassinated by a Tamil Tiger and he was succeeded by the moderate Dingiri Banda Wijetunga. He was again succeeded by Mrs Bandaranaike of the SLFP.

The August elections brought the People's Alliance (PA) led by Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga to power after seventeen years of UNP rule. She was the daughter of Prime Minister Kumaratunga, who was assassinated in 1952, and her mother had also been Prime Minister for 12 years in the 1960s and 1970s. After Chandrika Kumaratunga was elected President in November, she appointed her mother, Sirimavo R.D. Bandaranaike, as Prime Minister.

In October 1994, there was another attack on a political leader. Presidential candidate Gamini Dissanayake and 54 others were the victims. To improve relations, it was decided in February 1995 to end the economic blockade of the Jaffna peninsula. However, this did not lead to a resolution of the conflict and the government decided to take Jaffna. The Tamil Tigers, however, were not easily swayed and simply retreated into the jungle to continue the struggle. In June 1996, the Sri Lankan army suffered a heavy defeat, when Tamil Tigers killed about 1400 soldiers in a barracks near the city of Mullaitivu. In 1997, the worst battles in the history of the 14-year civil war took place. The government army tried to seize the main road connecting the Jaffna peninsula to Colombo, but only partially succeeded.

In January 1998, the Tamil Tigers carried out a bloody attack on the Buddhist Temple of the Tooth in Kandy. The government then decided to ban the LITE party, with the result that at that time no official peace talks were possible.

In 1999, President Kumaratunga was injured in a bomb attack, but managed to win the elections of 21 December 1999.

21th century

On 11 August 2000, Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike resigned for health reasons and was succeeded by Parliament Speaker Wickremanayake. Not long afterwards, the 84-year-old stateswoman and mother of the current President died.

On 10 October, President Kumaratunga's Peoples Alliance party (PA) won the parliamentary elections for the second consecutive time and secured 107 of the 225 seats in parliament.

The opposition UNP came second with 89 seats while the JVP came third with 10 seats. Together with some small parties, the PA formed a coalition government with Wickremanayake again as Prime Minister.

In 2000 violence again broke out between the army and the Tamil rebels. However, the government army seemed to have things more or less under control and in November the government announced its willingness to negotiate with the rebels.

Rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran accepted the offer and said he would respect a month-long ceasefire, but demanded unconditional negotiations. However, the government did not accept this offer and in April 2001 the Tamil Tigers announced that they would end their unilateral ceasefire. The Sri Lankan army again immediately went to war against the rebels and again hundreds of people were killed.

On 24 July 2001, more than 1 000 Tamil Tigers attacked Colombo International Airport, but after a firefight with the army, the latter managed to recapture the airport. The national airline Sri Lankan Airlines lost half of its fleet and the total damage amounted to more than 1 billion euros.

After many internal political problems, the parliament was dissolved on 10 October 2001 and new elections were called for 5 December. After a violent campaign in which 57 people died, a curfew was declared at the end of election day. Despite allegations of exclusion of tens of thousands of voters, the opposition United National Party (UNP) won the elections from the ruling People's Alliance (PA) of President Kumaratunga, who then had to swear in her archrival, UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, as Prime Minister.

The new government immediately started peace negotiations with the Tamil Tigers and this resulted in a ceasefire as of 19 December 2001. It was also announced that the economic blockade of the Tamil Tiger areas would be lifted on 15 January 2002.

In February 2002, a permanent truce was agreed in Oslo between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers (LTTE). Also under pressure from the United States, the bloody military operations officially came to an end on 23 February. It was agreed that in the north and east of Sri Lanka, the Tamil rebels would continue to perform administrative, police and military functions. International observers monitored the implementation of the agreement. A good sign was the visit by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe to the Tamil capital Jaffna in March. The strategic road to the Jaffna peninsula was also reopened after thirteen years.

On 16 September 2002, talks began in Thailand on an agreement that would definitively end the 19-year conflict. The rebels, led by Prabhakaran, dropped their demand for total independence for the first time, settling for 'substantial regional autonomy' and a 'homeland' in the north and east of the island. As a concession, the LTTE was removed from the list of banned organisations by the government and a start was made on the return of the estimated 1.5 million people who had been driven out of their homes over the years.

In early December 2002, the government and the LTTE reached an agreement in Oslo on the formation of a federal state. The Tamil Tigers were satisfied with a political solution based on self-determination in a united Sri Lanka.

The year 2003 continued to be peaceful. Only the People's Alliance of President Kumaratunga and especially radical JVP continued to agitate against the agreements reached. They still felt that the Tamil Tigers on the Jaffna peninsula would gain too much power.

In February 2003, the fourth round of negotiations began in Berlin, which was supposed to lead to a definitive solution to the conflict. After another round in Tokyo, however, the LTTE announced that it did not wish to continue talks because the Tamil Tigers had not been given enough consideration in the discussions. On 17 July, the government put forward a number of proposals to govern the areas under Tamil control, but on 31 October the LTTE put forward its own proposals for an Interim Self-Governing Authority (ISGA) with far-reaching powers in areas such as justice, police and taxation. The central government, and certainly President Kumaratunga, rejected these demands, which they considered too radical.

On 5 November 2003, President Kumaratunga declared a state of emergency. She still believed that the government made too many concessions to the Tamil Tigers and that the rebels offered far too little in return. By curtailing the power of the government and parliament, she hoped to gain more influence in the peace process. Three important people involved in resolving the conflict with the rebels were suspended. The President did, however, announce that the government would respect the ceasefire agreed in February 2002. When Prime Minister Wickremesinghe returned two days later, the state of emergency was lifted again.

The parliamentary elections of 2 April 2004 were won by the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) of President Chandrika Kumaratunga. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's United National Party (UNP) got 37.9% (82 seats), the Tamil National Alliance 6.6% (22 seats) and the National Heritage Party 6.1% (9 seats). The result did not bode well for the peace negotiations with the Tamil Tigers, for which Prime Minister Wickremesinghe had worked hard, while President Kumaratunga felt that too many concessions had been made to the rebels. On 5 April, Mahinda Rajapakse was appointed as the new Prime Minister.

On Boxing Day in 2004, a huge natural disaster hit many countries in southern Asia, including Sri Lanka. There was a seaquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale. The epicentre of the quake was off the west coast of Sumatra, near the province of Aceh.

The quake caused a wall of water to wash over the coast of Sri Lanka and many other countries. The waves of this so-called tsunami reached a height of ten metres in some places. In total, more than 125,000 people were killed, including nearly 40,000 in Sri Lanka. The rescue and relief efforts were further complicated by heavy rainfall and flooding. The president since November 2005 is Mahinda Rajapaksa.

In late July 2006, the conflict between the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) entered a new phase. The fiercest fighting has taken place since the Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) of February 2002. A conflict over water supply was the trigger. The fighting is mainly taking place in the North (Jaffna) and the East (Trincomalee) of Sri Lanka. International observers of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) describe the fighting as 'low intensity war'. There are many casualties and a large number of people have fled the violence. In January 2007, 25 opposition members defected to the ruling party of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, which is thus assured of a large majority in parliament. In 2007 and 2008 there were ongoing battles with the Tamil Tigers. In May 2009, the government declared victory over the Tamil Tigers after the last resistance in the northeast was broken. The Tamil Tigers say they will lay down their weapons.

In January 2010, Mahinda Rajapaksa won the presidential election. He sent the parliament home to clear the way for parliamentary elections. In April 2010, the ruling coalition won the elections convincingly. In July 2011, the Tamil National Alliance won the regional elections in the former war zone. In 2012 and 2013, the UN urges better respect for human rights. Sri Lanka hosts the Commenwealth Meeting in November 2013. In January 2015, Maithripala Sirissena becomes the new president. In June 2016, the government acknowledges for the first time that 65,000 people were missing during the civil war and in July, the government announces that Sri Lanka must be fully demilitarised by 2018 and that the army's interference in the lives of civilians will come to an end. In February 2017, the parliament approves the Right to Information Act. This law is intended to combat corruption. In April 2019, Jihadist suicide bombers attack churches and hotels on Easter Sunday, killing more than 350 people. In November 2019, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the younger brother of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, wins the presidential election and in August 2020, President Rajapaksa's SLPP party wins a large majority in the parliamentary elections.


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Geetha Kumari, W.M. / Reishandboek Sri Lanka

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Plunkett, R. / Sri Lanka
Lonely Planet

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Benchmark Books

CIA - World Factbook

BBC - Country Profiles

Last updated May 2024
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