Sri Lanka is an island located about thirty kilometers southeast of the southern tip of India. It has an area of about 66,500 square kilometers and a population of over twenty-one million people. The country's official languages are Sinhalese and Tamil; owing partially to Sri Lanka's colonial history, many of its people also speak English. The most commonly practiced religion is Buddhism, though other forms are worship are found there as well. The currency is the rupee. The capital is Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte, located close to the largest city, Colombo.
Sri Lanka has been inhabited for tens of thousands of years. The prehistoric period begins to transition to the historic era around the mid-500s B.C., when the hero Vijaya is said to have crossed the sea from India and made himself king of the island. The Anuradhapura Kingdom was the first state to control the entire island, and it enjoyed mostly uninterrupted control until around the year A.D. 1000. The early Anuradhapura era saw the arrival of Buddhism, in the third century B.C., which helped make Sri Lanka a country unique from nearby Hindu India.
The collapse of the Anuradhapura Kingdom is considered the beginning of the medieval era of Sri Lankan history. The island fractured into a number of states. Meanwhile, European traders and explorers began to arrive in the area. Sri Lanka had always been an important port and the source of valuable trade goods—cinnamon, for instance, is native to the island and was present in Egypt as early as 1500 B.C.—and so it is no surprise that the earliest Portuguese traders found their way to the island in 1505, where they soon established a permanent presence. The divided native kingdoms were unable to resist the newcomers.
After over a century of Portuguese domination, the Sri Lankan rulers appealed to Portugal's rival, the Dutch, for help. The Dutch eventually conquered Sri Lanka along with many of Portugal's other colonial possessions during the long Dutch-Portuguese War of 1602-1658. The Dutch proved to be somewhat milder overlords than their predecessors, but in 1798, during the French Revolutionary Wars, the island was captured by the British. Unwilling to rule merely the coastal regions like the Portuguese and Dutch had done, the British set about conquering the still-independent inland regions as well. The whole island was under British control by 1815. So it remained until 1948, when, as a result of a peaceful independence movement, it was made an independent dominion. The final step toward independence was taken in 1972, and Sri Lanka became a sovereign republic. During the colonial era, Sri Lanka was commonly known as "Ceylon."
Since independence, Sri Lanka has faced several problems, including a long civil war between government forces and separatists rebels belonging to the Tamil community in the north, which ended only in 2009. Sri Lanka has nonetheless been a popular tourist destination, and with the end of the internal conflict, it now offers more opportunities for travelers than ever, from ancient ruins and relics of colonial days to beautiful national parks and modern museums.
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