Sinhalese - History and Cultural Relations



Sinhalese dynastic chronicles trace their origins to the exile of Prince Vijaya and his 500 followers from his father's kingdom in north India. According to the chronicles, which portray Sri Lanka as a land destined to preserve Buddhism, Vijaya (the grandson of a Hindu princess and a lion) arrived in Sri Lanka at the moment of the Buddha's death. In the third century B . C ., the Sinhalese king converted to Buddhism. By the first century B . C . a Sinhalese Buddhist civilization, based on irrigated rice agriculture, arose in the dry zone, with capitals at Anuradhapura and Pollunaruva. By the thirteenth century A . D ., however, a major civilizational collapse occurred for reasons that are still debated (malaria, internal conflict, and South Indian invasions are possible causes), and the population shifted to the southwest. At the time of first European contact in 1505 there were two Sinhalese kingdoms, one in the central highlands at Kandy and one along the Southwestern coast near Colombo. The Portuguese deposed the southwestern kingdom (but not Kandy) and won converts to Roman Catholicism among fishing castes along the coastal littoral, but they were driven out of Ceylon by the Dutch in 1656-1658. A legacy of Portuguese times is the popularity of Portuguese names such as de Silva, Fernando, and de Fonseca among Low Country Sinhalese. The Dutch instituted the Roman-Dutch legal system in the maritime provinces (but not Kandy, which remained independent) and cashcrop plantation agriculture, including coffee, cotton, and tobacco, but few Sinhalese converted to Protestant Christianity. The British took over the island's administration in 1798, brought down the Kandyan Kingdom in 1815, and favored the growth of a European-owned coffee and tea plantation sector in the central highlands. By the early twentieth century a new elite of English-speaking, largely Low Country Sinhalese rose to prominence in trading, petty industry, and coconut and rubber plantation agriculture. In 1932, universal adult suffrage and internal self-rule were granted. Without having to fight for its independence, Ceylon was granted Freedom in 1948 becoming a constitutional democracy on the Westminster model. The country was governed for eight years by an ostensibly panethnic national party of unity, but in 1956 a Sinhalese populist politician won a landslide victory on a platform to make Sinhala the sole official language of government affairs. Tensions rose as Tamils resisted this move, and communal riots occurred in 1958. Sinhalese youths also grew disaffected as the economy stagnated and unemployment mounted in the 1960s. A 1971 insurgency by an ultraleftist Sinhalese youth group called the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (the "People's Liberation Army," or JVP) nearly toppled the government. There were significant Tamil-Sinhalese riots again in 1977, 1981, and 1983; by 1984 a violent Tamil separatist movement had all but driven Sinhalese security forces out of the Tamil north and east; a 1987 accord with India brought 60,000 Indian peacekeeping troops to the Tamil provinces but set off a violent antigovernment campaign by the JVP, which now articulates right-wing Sinhala-chauvinist ideology in addition to its ultraleftist doctrine. More than 17,000 Sri Lankans have died in communal and political violence since 1977.


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