The recorded history of Sri Lanka dates back from about the 6th century before Christ when Lanka, as it was then called, was invaded by an armed force under the leadership of Prince Vijaya who had been exiled from India by his father Sinhabahu.
The history of the island from the time of Vijaya’s invasion has been preserved through the centuries by a number of books written by contemporary scholars. The most complete and reliable of these accounts is the Mahawansa, originally compiled in the 5th century AD by a Buddhist priest and scholar named Mahanama. In addition there were other books such as the Dipawansa, Rajavali, and Pujawali which add to the information about the country, its peoples, its rulers and the ancient civilisations that existed.
Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka around the 4th century BC during the reign of King Devanampiya Tissa. From then onwards the island nation was guided by the teachings of the Buddha. Buddhism was the state religion and encompassed all aspects of life in the land and the succession of kings that formed the great Sinhalese dynasty all administered their rule through a collaborative and consultative process with the monasteries.
The growth of Anuradhapura which was the country’s capital during the period from the 5th century BC to the 2nd Century BC was marked by an extensive system of rice cultivation fed by water from man-made tanks. With frequent invasions by the Cholas of South India and also as a result of internecine feuds among the ruling monarchy, the capitals of Lanka moved to Polonnaruwa, Dambulla, Kurunegala, Kotte and Kandy. Many of these ancient capitals were part of the hydraulic civilisation that closely linked kingship with the practice of the Buddhist religion.
The spread of malaria ultimately led to the abandonment of the ancient capitals in the arid zone; Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Dambulla, and Sigiriya. The massive monuments built in homage to the Buddha as well as the associated buildings of an ancient civilisation were left to be swallowed by the jungle tide. These ruins, now collectively referred to as the Ruined Cities of Sri Lanka, although ravaged by the vagaries of weather and nearly lost in the mists of antiquity, were rediscovered in the 19th century by awe struck British administrators of the time.
Since then much has been done to preserve the integrity of the sites which are an ever present reminder of architectural wonders from a Sinhalese civilisation that existed over 2000 years ago. The sacred cities of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Dambulla and Sigiriya are part of the World Heritage Movement and are indeed as evocative in architectural splendour as the ancient civilisations of ancient Rome and Greece.