Elsewhere Series 3 (Part One): Sri Lanka: A Prehistoric Paradise

Sri Lanka is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Here, look:

I have never been here, not out of any sort of prejudice, nor a cultural fear, visiting a tiny Asian nation I am only learning about as I write this (and who doesn’t want to see elephants up close?) But the fact that this Edenesque paradise exists is endlessly appealing. It seems an awful lot like heaven, although if such a place is true, no doubt I will end up elsewhere.

But why do I title this piece “Prehistoric Paradise?” Well for one thing there is evidence of human civilization existing there as long as 500,000 years ago. There was definitely a culture present during the Paleolithic and Mesolithic eras, based upon recovered tools and bones and other relics. There have also been discovered the bones of nearly Homo-Sapien man literally inside caves, places with etchings on the walls and examples of pictorial communications.

The political and social history of Sri Lanka is a long one as well. Located south of India, this island nation was once of tremendous strategic importance on the ancient (as well as modern) Silk Road, serving as a trading post between South Asia and Africa, for whichever larger nation was then controlling the place.

In fact, Sri Lanka’s name has gone through many changes throughout this dense history. Currently the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka (in English translation, anyway), the numerous colonial governments that have run the nation have imposed their own identities upon it.

Initially known simply as Lanka (which means “island”), the island was rapidly renamed in the Tamil language Ilanku, which means “to glitter” after navigators from India discovered gold and jewels within its caves. Later the Romans, Arabs and Persians all had their say, ravaging the natural beauty of Sri Lanka in quest for its riches. They each began calling it by a variation of the word “serendipity” in their separate languages (“Serendivis,” Serandib,” and “Serandip,” respectively). This was a curious name considering the enslavement and slaughter of the people, and the demands of constant warfare between the different empires, although it is also safe to say that many of the higher ups within each nation spent some vacation time on Sri Lanka, raping and murdering at their leisure.

Prior to those wars an exiled Indian Prince, Vijaya, after running away from his home in forgotten disgrace in 543 BC, settled on the island and, even before rapidly conquering it with his followers, named it Tamraparni, which in Sanskrit means “copper covered leaf” (?) Prince Vijaya, at least in the epics he had his court historians tell, is considered to be the first king of Sri Lanka. Later works refer to Vijaya’s reign, including John Milton’s Paradise Lost (https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?isbn=9780393962932&n=100121503&cm_sp=mbc-_-ISBN-_-used), Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote (https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?isbn=9781853260360&n=100121503&cm_sp=mbc-_-ISBN-_-used), where the island is painted even more fantastically and renamed “Trapobana,” and, most significantly, in the Portuguese national epic Os Lusiadas (https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/BookDetailsPL?bi=30169374377&searchurl=kn%3Dos%2Blusiadas%26sortby%3D17&cm_sp=snippet-_-srp1-_-title22).

Rulers such as Prince Vijaya afterwards ruled the island (sometimes with the permission of whichever nation had them presently conquered) all the way until 1815, when the British came. A major transformation of society occurred around 250 BC when Buddhism arrived, missionary monks claiming hold on Mahinda, son of then ruler Ashoka. When Mahinda took over the nation, everything changed.

There were still constant pirates rampaging off the coast of Sri Lanka, and eventually other nations attempted invasions, trying to fully conquer the island. Sometimes they succeeded, usually they failed, but the curious thing, no matter the outcome, regardless of who took over to reign, each new leader was seduced by the tranquil glory of the place in between the chaos of war, and converted to nativism, often going to war with the very nations that sent them to take the island.

The rise of Buddhism on Sri Lanka was massive, aimless natives still living in prehistoric conditions welcoming the hope of a new way of life to bring them into the modern world. The nation became filled with monks, with a transcendentalist fervor that was unmatched even in India or China. There erupted a sect of fanatical Buddhists in Sri Lanka who, unlike the traditionally peaceful believers, set about with forced conversions and the occasional assassination of political leaders, the most significant being the freely elected Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in 1959.

Bandaranaike was a left-wing nationalist who ran on a platform of defending “the besieged Sinhalese culture.” This was the majority ethnicity, and much of the rest of the diverse culture took offense at these efforts, claiming the intention was to destroy the traditional languages and native ways of life numerous different people had lived with for thousands of years. The assassination set off a series of coups and Communist infiltration, which eventually led to the yet again reformation of the island.

Back to the distant past:

In 993 AD Sri Lanka was divided into two separate territories after India invaded. They would eventually capture the emperor Mahinda V, dragging him back to India, where he would die in prison years later. Mahinda V had been a terrible leader, a dilettante who spent most of his time having orgies in temples like the one above. He repeatedly refused to pay the army’s soldiers, which eventually led to their abandonment of his rule, joining in with the invaders.

During Mahinda V’s reign the nation, for the first time in its recorded history, had descended into extreme poverty, children literally dying in the streets from malnutrition and dehydration. When India invaded Mahinda V first fled to Southern Sri Lanka, establishing a makeshift rule until a much larger invasion in 1017 conquered the whole island, finally reuniting it in 1070.

The Indian leaders continued to be seduced by Sri Lanka, pouring their hearts and souls into their new home, improving the irrigation and farming systems, thus saving the lives of the many residents. Most of the citizens converted to the slightly different style of Buddhism the Indians imported, and the nation rested in peace for a short time.

The ruler who had done so much for the good of the nation, known to history as Parakramabahu the Great, died in 1186. Parakramabahu truly earned the addition to his name, overseeing the single largest irrigation project in the history of the world up to that time, establishing more than 1000 new reservoirs, and repairing all the decaying dams and waterways throughout the land. He even led wars against India, where they not only were liberated, but actually took a portion of the mainland as their own. He attacked Ramanna (now Myanmar) because the rulers of that land kept insulting not just Parakramabahu, but the people of Sri Lanka themselves.

After Parakramabahu’s death, everything seemed to once more fall into disrepair. By 1215 Sri Lanka was back into dire poverty, the irrigation system collapsing, when a pirate named Kalinga Magha, known to Sri Lankan history as Magha the Tyrant, arrived and sacked and looted the country for the first time since the reign of the Persians more than a thousand years before.

Magha the Tyrant had two goals as leader (he ruled Sri Lanka for 21 years), and that was to acquire as many riches as he could from the increasingly desiccated land, and to destroy all native traditions and cultures, setting up a new religion with himself as the vengeful god. This led to a massive migration of the people back into the mountains, into the caves in a desperate attempt to escape Magha’s barbarity.

A revolt was finally led against the army of more than 24,000 soldiers Magha had at hand by King Vijayabahu III, who managed to exploit the discontent of Magha’s soldiers and force the tyrant to flee to a smaller portion of Sri Lanka known as Jaffna, where it is suspected Magha originally came from. He ruled there until his death in 1255.

From there Sri Lanka descended into more than 200 years of family struggles and civil wars, the endless refrain from this period of history all over the world. Brothers battled brothers, fathers versus sons–even mothers and daughters got into the fray as gender roles were far less restrictive in this region than they were in the west. All this finally came to an end in 1505, when the Portuguese arrived.

Lourenco de Almeida was an explorer and the conqueror of the southern tip of India. When he arrived and saw the wonders of Sri Lanka he fell in love. Rapidly he oversaw the building of numerous ports, eventually taking over the both the northern and western coasts. This led to a heavy influx of Portuguese onto the island, many of them Inquisitional missionaries for the Order of Christ. True believing Buddhists were slaughtered en masse, many of them so content in their faith that they lit themselves on fire before the Portuguese had a chance to torture them. The then nominal ruler of Sri Lanka, Vimaladharmasuriya I, fled into the interior of Sri Lanka, where he believed he and his people were more secure. This worked until 1619, when Portugal conquered the entire island, installing their own choice of a series of kings, none of whom lasted long. The island was renamed Ceylon, a name which stuck around for hundreds of years, only prefaced with ‘Portuguese,’ ‘Dutch,’ and finally ‘British.’

In 1638 the Dutch ruler decided that he wanted Ceylon for himself, and he hired the Dutch East India Company, one of the first gigantic corporations in the history of the world, to throw the Portuguese out. This battle became the center piece of a much larger war, the Dutch-Portuguese War, which began all the way back in 1602, a worldwide conflict of competing empires for their dominant place in the world. The war extended from the Americas to Africa, and all the way into India, and the even farther east. It also involved Spain (whom the Portuguese were allied with), and the Netherlands. In every way this more than sixty year battle (an extension of the 80 Years War) should be considered World War I.

The Dutch East India (and their sister the West India) Company rapidly obliterated the Portuguese, who followed the lead of the native Ceylonese and fled to the center of the country, which became a breeding ground for radicals and revolutionaries. A new ethnic group emerged out of the cross-breeding of the Ceylonese and the Portuguese, known as the Burgher people, repopulated much of the region. They would later emerge as a separate power within the nation.

Despite the seemingly endless warfare, the kingdom in the center managed to survive all the way up until the Napoleonic Wars of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Once France conquered the Netherlands, Great Britain saw Sri Lanka as up for grabs. They raced their superior navy to the island and quickly took it in 1796. The then ruler of interior Sri Lanka was a sickly old man named Sri Rajadhi Rajasinha, who died a year after the British invaded. His nephew, who came to be known as Sri Vikrama Rajasinha, was only 18 years old at the time, came into power and began fighting a resistance against the British with surprisingly successful results.

The interior empire managed to maintain their independence of another twelve years until the absolute control of the island was taken by the British East India Company, one of the greatest military powers of its day (greater, perhaps, even than England itself). The Treaty of Amiens had granted England control of Ceylon and, despite the fact that France repeatedly reneged on this deal, by the end of the French Revolutionary Wars and the final fall of Napoleon Bonaparte, English rule of the island was uncontested. The interior capital of Kandy finally collapsed in 1817, ending all independent rule on Ceylon.

After this the British East India Company controlled the island and the people in much the same way they did with other protectorates under their control. The chief crop of Ceylon was coffee, and a broad market was opened up in the west. More than gold and jewels, coffee became the chief interest among those seeking to make their fortune. After fourteen years of plundering the nation, an economic depression hit Europe, forcing the price of coffee down. This led to the British imposition of taxes on nearly everything in Ceylon: guns, shops, boats–even dogs. The outraged people once again rebelled when the crown insisted on six free days of labor, thus restoring slavery to the island.

The economy of Ceylon was saved by both the development of a new brand of tea and the rise of the rubber industry towards the end of the 19th century. By the early 20th century Ceylon was thriving as one of the prizes of the British empire. As World War I sent the world into anarchy, the island remained a safe plantation society, the separate ethnic groups forging treaties, and the younger generations becoming increasingly educated. There was a slow-moving socialist movement developing.

After the war there was a demand for many constitutional reforms, things that the British were not interested in implementing. They managed to make some deals with a few corrupt parliamentarians, giving them new, more impressive colonial titles, and allowing the nation to sink into deeper and darker dictatorships. The British managed to split these titles into transparent competitions of loyalty between the recently unified Sinhalese and Tamil populations, knowingly splitting them apart into increasingly violent protests and racial wars.

Ganapathipillai Gangaser Ponnambalam emerged as a national leader in 1937, forming the first Tamil political party in Ceylon’s history. In parliament he demanded that the nation be divided into 50/50 representation, with the majority Sinhalese getting half, and all of the other ethnic groups the other half. This was rejected after seven years of debates and further demands and compromises offered, in 1944.

Throughout World War II Ceylon remained a mostly ignored island in the Indian Ocean, running as a business-as-usual colony of the British Empire. After the war, as England was losing much of its power and influence, as their preoccupation with India overwhelmed their post-war business alongside the burgeoning Cold War, Ceylon gained its independence in 1948, still facing ethnic problems, but momentarily unified with the idea of freedom.

The British remained off the coast until 1956, protecting their increasingly dwindling properties. In 1953 there was a large popular uprising–a hartel–inspired by the increasingly dominant socialist party leaders, calling for widespread strikes and outright business shut downs to protest the imposition of a rice ration. This was the first uprising of the citizens of Sri Lanka against an elected leader. It had tremendous consequences for the future.

When Prime Minister Bandaranaike was assassinated in 1959, the religious conflicts then exploding all over the world came to Ceylon. One of those religions–which overtook Buddhism for a time–was Soviet Communism. Bandaranaike’s wife, Sirimavo took over the government upon her husband’s death. She was very popular among the masses, and even more popular with the military. She was such an influential leader that she managed to withstand and then thrive as the result of a failed coup attempt.

The changes to the nation that Sirimavo Bandaranaike made were vast, including removing English as Ceylon’s primary language and replacing it with native Sinhalese. Of course this lead to wide outrage among the more than two million Tamil people, who were additionally riled up by opportunistic political leaders. Sirimavo eventually sent troops in to arrest the leaders and kill a few protesters as a statement. When the workers tried to cause business shutdowns and impact the once again growing economy, she simply nationalized the means of production and hired only party loyalists. By 1964 Sirimavo had invited both the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China to invest in the nation, and the infiltration of Communist ideology was nearly complete. And while Sirimavo, after signing the papers, insisted to the people that she had signed a policy of non-alignment, she left office shortly thereafter and was replaced by a stooge to the Russians.

Ethnic conflicts were reaching a boiling point around this time.

What can only be called a race war exploded between the Sinhalese and Tamil, a chaotic war paralleling, in some rather profound ways, the war in Vietnam. It became less about ethnic dominance than political absolutism after a short time and the initial massacres. In 1971 a Marxist insurrection broke out, with the Communists claiming numerous small towns, one after the other, for two months, until the military caught up with them and put them down. In 1987 this same group, with a new generation of leaders, would make a similar effort with far more success.

In 1972 Ceylon officially changed its name to Sri Lanka, using this as an emotional calling together of the nation, finally throwing off the scourge of its colonial history. Of course the success of this style of politics reignited the still festering ethnic battles as politicians of both Sinhalese and Tamil background began using the politics of outrage to enrage their bases, ungluing social cohesion once again.

In 1977, seven years after Sirimavo Bandaranaike had regained the Prime Minister’s seat, J.R. Jayewardene won in a landslide election. He would remain in office until 1989. Jayewardene was a new style of leader for the rapidly modernizing Sri Lanka. He introduced a new constitution, which, over the years, provided amendments for term limits, rules to handle corrupt officials, including impeachment and criminal prosecution, while excluding the President from prosecution (he also altered the government enough to change the name of the highest office from Prime Minister to President, making the Prime Minister more of a ceremonial title of honor), the making of Tamil as a second official language, as well as numerous redistricting provisions, the increase in the number of members of parliament, and new laws regarding the committees who vote high court judges into office.

Jaywardene also proposed drastic economic reforms, transforming Sri Lanka into a free market economy. All these new laws distracted the President from the still simmering ethnic tensions, as well as the rise of a terrorist organization called The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who were seeking to succeed from from Sri Lanka and form their own radical state. Their first move came in 1975 when they assassinated the mayor of Jaffna. As they rose in power and influence, they eventually grew large enough to launch the Sri Lankan Civil War, a bloody conflict that lasted from 1983 until 2009.

It was in 1983 when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTEE) attacked and killed 13 Sinhalese soldiers, beginning a race riot that led directly to the civil war. The murders of these soldiers devolved into something now known as Black July, which was a week of anti-Tamil pogroms, enraged Sinhalese taking to the streets of the mostly segregated Tamil towns, burning, looting and murdering everything in their path.

It was also during this crisis that Muslims began being targeted by mobs on either side. The LTEE attempted to exile them into other nations, while the Sinhalese did not much care what happened to them, so long as they were gone. It is, of course, unfair to name the two ethnic groups as specifically responsible for this horrible time, but those who led the duel-headed mobs identified themselves as hard-line supporters of the superiority of their own race.

If you can believe it, following Jayewardene’s twelve years in office, Sirimavo Bandaranaike was back in the spotlight, surviving an assassination attempt by the LTEE and assuming the leadership of the opposition party. Her daughter, Kumaratunga, had risen in the political movement and, following the assassination of her chief rival in 1994, Kumaratunga was elected President of Sri Lanka. She named her mother Prime Minister, despite her declining health.

When Sirimavo (who had been the first female Prime Minister of any nation in the history of the world) died of a heart attack in 2000, three days of national mourning were declared. She has since been re-evaluated (and re-evaluated again) and has come to be known as a woman’s hero, enduring as much trouble and danger as she was forced to, and still managing to come out on top. It is easy in hindsight to ignore many of the ignoble or even evil acts a leader commits all in the name of patriotism, and that appears to be the case regarding this influential woman.

Sri Lanka was devastated in 2004 by the Asian earthquake and tsunami, which killed more than 35,000 people on the island and disrupted the economy so drastically that it still has yet to fully recover. The civil war, at the same time, was still raging. As it began to wind down in 2009 several of the more radical factions went on killing sprees, slaughtering children, burning and blowing up crowded buildings and town squares. It is estimated that throughout the entire war as many as 100,000 people were killed.

Today Sri Lanka is still attempting to reconcile the warring factions within its midst. It is a nation of more than 20,000,000 people, and it is a hectic, very busy place, peopled by mostly diligent and hard-working individuals, seeking the same things, I suppose, as everyone else in the world, living in the shadow of racial and ethnic and religious conflicts; trapped in a world where money is often the only thing that matters and the earth seems to be turning against us with an apocalyptic harshness.

In 2016, on the celebration of the 68th Independence Day, the Tamil version of the national anthem was sang for the first time since 1949. This caused some grumbling among several political leaders, and resulted in a few minor squabbles, but otherwise seemed to point in the direction of a new, better way of life, one where it is only religion which divides people. A recent poll listed Sri Lanka as the eighth most religious country in the world, with 99% of the people stating that religion has a very important role in their lives. (The nations in front of it are, in order, Bangladesh [Wednesday’s essay], Somalia, Ethiopia, Niger, Yemen, Indonesia, and Malawi). Sri Lanka is still vastly majority Buddhist, but Hinduism and Islam are both growing rapidly while Christianity continues to diminish.

And yet for all of this past and coming conflict, and for all of the differences and hatred that even a place such as this has engineered over its hundreds of thousands of years of civilized history, there is one thing left to remember before judging the ancient land too harshly, because this is still Sri Lanka:



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