The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka (ශ්රී ලංකා ප්රජාතාන්ත්රික සමාජවාදී ජනරජය —Srī Lankā Prajātāntrika Samājavādī Janarajaya in Sinhalese and இலங்கை ஜனநாயக சோசலிச குடியரசு — Ilaṅkai jaṉanāyaka cōcalica kuṭiyaracu in Tamil), historically called Ceylon, is an island country in South Asia. Sri Lanka has maritime borders with India to the northwest and the Maldives to the southwest. The island lies on the Indian Plate, a major tectonic plate that was formerly part of the Indo-Australian Plate. It is in the Indian Ocean southwest of the Bay of Bengal, between latitudes 5° and 10°N, and longitudes 79° and 82°E. Sri Lanka is separated from the Indian subcontinent by the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Strait. According to Hindu mythology, a land bridge existed between the Indian mainland and Sri Lanka. It now amounts to only a chain of limestone shoals remaining above sea level. Legends claim that it was passable on foot up to 1480 AD, until cyclones deepened the channel. Portions are still as shallow as 3 feet (1 meter), hindering navigation.
Sri Lanka consists mostly of flat to rolling coastal plains, with mountains rising only in the south-central part. The highest point is Pidurutalagala, reaching 8,281 feet (2,524 meters) above sea level. The climate is tropical and warm, due to the moderating effects of ocean winds. Rainfall pattern is influenced by monsoon winds from the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal. The “wet zone” and some of the windward slopes of the central highlands receive up to 98.4 inches (2,500 millimeters) of rain each year, but the leeward slopes in the east and northeast receive little rain. Most of the east, southeast, and northern parts of Sri Lanka comprise the “dry zone”, which receives between 47 and 75 inches (1,200 and 1,900 mm) of rain annually.
The arid northwest and southeast coasts receive the least amount of rain at 31 to 47 inches (800 to 1,200 mm) per year. Periodic squalls occur and sometimes tropical cyclones bring overcast skies and rains to the southwest, northeast, and eastern parts of the island. Humidity is typically higher in the southwest and mountainous areas and depends on the seasonal patterns of rainfall. An increase in average rainfall coupled with heavier rainfall events has resulted in recurrent flooding and related damages to infrastructure, utility supply and the urban economy.
Sri Lanka’s documented history spans 3,000 years, with evidence of pre-historic human settlements dating back to at least 125,000 years. Its geographic location and deep harbors made it of great strategic importance from the time of the ancient Silk Road through to World War II. Sri Lanka was known from the beginning of British colonial rule until 1972 as Ceylon. The island’s recent history has been marred by a thirty-year civil war which decisively ended when the Sri Lankan military defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009.
A diverse and multicultural country, Sri Lanka is home to many religions, ethnic groups, and languages. In addition to the majority Sinhalese, it is home to large groups of Sri Lankan and Indian Tamils, Moors, Burghers, Malays, Kaffirs and the aboriginal Vedda. The island has a rich Buddhist heritage, and the first known Buddhist writings of Sri Lanka, the Pāli Canon, date back to the Fourth Buddhist council in 29 BC.
Sri Lanka is a republic and a unitary state governed by a semi-presidential system. The legislative capital, Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte, is a suburb of the commercial capital and largest city, Colombo.
In antiquity, Sri Lanka was known to travelers by a variety of names. According to the Mahavamsa, the legendary Prince Vijaya named the land Tambapanni (“copper-red hands” or “copper-red earth”), because his followers’ hands were reddened by the red soil of the area. In Hindu mythology, such as the Ramayana, the island was referred to as Lankā (“island”). In Tamil, the island is referred to as Eelam.
Ancient Greek geographers called it Taprobanā (Ταπροβανᾶ in Ancient Greek) or Taprobanē (Ταπροβανῆ) from the word Tambapanni. The Persians and Arabs referred to it as Sarandīb (the origin of the word “serendipity”) from the word Cerentivu. Ceilão, the name given to Sri Lanka by the Portuguese Empire when it arrived in 1505, was transliterated into English as Ceylon. As a British crown colony, the island was known as Ceylon; it achieved independence as the Dominion of Ceylon in 1948. The country is known in Sinhalese as Śrī Laṃkā (ශ්රී ලංකා) and in Tamil as Ilaṅkai (இலங்கை). In 1972, its formal name was changed to “Free, Sovereign and Independent Republic of Sri Lanka”. Later in 1978 it was changed to the “Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka”. As the name Ceylon still appears in the names of a number of organizations, the Sri Lankan government announced in 2011 a plan to rename all those over which it has authority.
The Dominion of Ceylon was proclaimed on February 4, 1948, replacing the British Colony of Ceylon. D. S. Senanayake became the first Prime Minister. Prominent Tamil leaders including Ponnambalam and Arunachalam Mahadeva joined his cabinet. The British Royal Navy remained stationed at Trincomalee until 1956. A countrywide popular demonstration against withdrawal of the rice ration, known as Hartal 1953, resulted in the resignation of prime minister Dudley Senanayake.
S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike was elected prime minister in 1956. His three-year rule had a profound impact through his self-proclaimed role of “defender of the besieged Sinhalese culture”. He introduced the controversial Sinhala Only Act, recognizing Sinhala as the only official language of the government. Although partially reversed in 1958, the bill posed a grave concern for the Tamil community, which perceived in it a threat to their language and culture.
The Federal Party (FP) launched a movement of non-violent resistance (satyagraha) against the bill, which prompted Bandaranaike to reach an agreement (Bandaranaike–Chelvanayakam Pact) with S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, leader of the FP, to resolve the looming ethnic conflict. The pact proved ineffective in the face of ongoing protests by opposition and the Buddhist clergy. The bill, together with various government colonization schemes, contributed much towards the political rancor between Sinhalese and Tamil political leaders. Bandaranaike was assassinated by an extremist Buddhist monk in 1959.
Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the widow of Bandaranaike, took office as prime minister in 1960, and withstood an attempted coup d’état in 1962. During her second term as prime minister, the government instituted socialist economic polices, strengthening ties with the Soviet Union and China, while promoting a policy of non-alignment. In 1971, Ceylon experienced a Marxist insurrection, which was quickly suppressed.
In 1972, the country became a republic named Sri Lanka, repudiating its dominion status. The first stamps inscribed Sri Lanka were issued on May 22, 1972. Sri Lanka is the only country to include details in a stamp in three languages viz. Sinhala, Tamil and English.
Prolonged minority grievances and the use of communal emotionalism as an election campaign weapon by both Sinhalese and Tamil leaders abetted a fledgling Tamil militancy in the north during the 1970s. The policy of standardization by the Sirimavo government to rectify disparities created in university enrollment, which was in essence an affirmative action to assist geographically disadvantaged students to obtain tertiary education, resulted in reducing the proportion of Tamil students at university level and acted as the immediate catalyst for the rise of militancy. The assassination of Jaffna Mayor Alfred Duraiyappah in 1975 by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) marked a crisis point.
The government of J. R. Jayawardene swept to power in 1977, defeating the largely unpopular United Front government. Jayawardene introduced a new constitution, together with a free-market economy and a powerful executive presidency modeled after that of France. It made Sri Lanka the first South Asian country to liberalize its economy. Beginning in 1983, ethnic tensions were manifested in an on-and-off insurgency against the government by the LTTE. An LTTE attack on 13 soldiers resulted in the anti-Tamil race riots in July 1983, allegedly backed by Sinhalese hard-line ministers, which resulted in more than 150,000 Tamil civilians fleeing the island, seeking asylum in other countries.
Lapses in foreign policy resulted in India strengthening the Tigers by providing arms and training. In 1987, the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord was signed and the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) was deployed in northern Sri Lanka to stabilize the region by neutralizing the LTTE. The same year, the JVP launched its second insurrection in Southern Sri Lanka, necessitating redeployment of the IPKF in 1990. In October 1990, the LTTE expelled Sri Lankan Moors (Muslims by religion) from northern Sri Lanka. In 2002, the Sri Lankan government and LTTE signed a Norwegian-mediated ceasefire agreement.
The 2004 Asian tsunami killed over 35,000 in Sri Lanka. From 1985 to 2006, the Sri Lankan government and Tamil insurgents held four rounds of peace talks without success. Both LTTE and the government resumed fighting in 2006, and the government officially backed out of the ceasefire in 2008. In 2009, under the Presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Sri Lanka Armed Forces defeated the LTTE and re-established control of the entire country by the Sri Lankan Government. Overall, between 60,000 and 100,000 people were killed during the 26 years of conflict.
Forty thousand Tamil civilians may have been killed in the final phases of the Sri Lankan civil war, according to an Expert Panel convened by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. The exact number of Tamils killed is still a speculation that needs further study. Following the LTTE’s defeat, the Tamil National Alliance, the largest Tamil political party in Sri Lanka, dropped its demand for a separate state in favor of a federal solution. The final stages of the war left some 294,000 people displaced.
According to the Ministry of Resettlement, most of the displaced persons had been released or returned to their places of origin, leaving only 6,651 in the camps as of December 2011. In May 2010, President Rajapaksa appointed the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) to assess the conflict between the time of the ceasefire agreement in 2002 and the defeat of the LTTE in 2009. Sri Lanka has emerged from its 26-year war to become one of the fastest growing economies of the world.
During Sri Lanka’s 68th national independence day celebrations on February 4, 2016, the Tamil version of the national anthem Sri Lanka Matha was sung for the first time since 1949 at an official government event, the independence day celebrations. Lifting of the unofficial ban on the Tamil version had been approved by President Maithripala Sirisena (who had said he would unite the nation after the civil war ended in 2009) and by others in the government. This step was viewed as part of the plan for reconciliation. Other steps are also being taken to mend ethnic divisions between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority, according to a November 2016 article in National Geographic. Naturally, Sri Lanka Matha was also sung in the majority Sinhalese. Some groups, and Sri Lanka’s former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, were opposed to the government officially allowing the Tamil version to be sung.
Scott #678 is a 35-cent lithographed stamp released on May 13, 1983, the lowest denomination in a set of four, plus a souvenir sheet, released to mark that year’s Vesak Day. The stamp portrays a mural in Colombo painted by George Keyt; it is perforated 12½ x 12.
Vesak (Vesākha in Pali and Vaiśākha in Sanskrit), also known as Buddha Purnima and Buddha Day, is a holiday observed traditionally by Buddhists on different days in India, Sri Lanka, China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Nepal, Tibet, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia and Myanmar and in other places all over the world. Sometimes informally called “Buddha’s Birthday”, it commemorates the birth, enlightenment (Buddhahood), and death (Parinirvāna) of Gautama Buddha in the Theravada or southern Buddhist tradition.
The decision to agree to celebrate Vesākha as the Buddha’s birthday was formalized at the first conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists held in Sri Lanka in 1950, although festivals at this time in the Buddhist world are a centuries-old tradition.
For more on Vesak Day as well as how it is celebrated in my adopted home of Thailand, please see my ASAD blog entry from May 10, 2017, Visakhapuja Day / วันวิสาขบูชา.