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Jewel of the Indian Ocean Volume 55 Number 4, July/August 2002
by Nancy C. Wilkie

After a 25-year civil war ends, scholars and tourists return to explore Sri Lanka's Buddhist heritage.

The tropical island paradise of Sri Lanka, 30 miles off the southern tip of India, is today, as in the past, a source for spices and gemstones, as well as an exotic destination for those eager to explore its spectacular archaeological remains, wildlife parks, tea plantations, and endless beaches. Pilgrims and tourists gather at ancient and modern Buddhist, Hindu, and Christian monuments, and saffron-robed monks mingle easily with sari-clad women and businessmen in suits, reflecting the diversity of the island's people and history.

The Greeks and Romans, who believed the island was a utopia at the eastern end of the world, knew it as Taprobane, which derives from Tambapanni, one of the island's ancient names recorded in the fifth- or sixth-century A.D. Mahavamsa (Great Chronicle). This work describes the history of the Sinhalese people from the third- or early fourth-century king Mahasena back to the legendary fifth-century B.C. King Vijaya, who was said to have been born from the union of a lion (simha) and a princess. The word simhala or sihala, is the root of Ceylon, the island's name during colonial rule. The Mahavamsa and the Ramayana, a traditional Indian epic, also called the island Lanka or Lanka-dipa (island of Lanka). In 1972, after the end of British rule, Sri Lanka was adopted as the country's name (sri is an honorific term).

Study of the island's archaeological remains began in 1890 when the Archaeological Survey of Ceylon was established by British authorities to examine the remains of Sigiriya and other sites "before the rapidly disappearing monuments of the past have altogether perished." During the years that followed, controversy often erupted between British and native archaeologists and Buddhist monks, the former seeking to preserve the monuments in their original condition, the monks wanting to restore them as places of pilgrimage. Such conflict is inevitable when archaeologists work at ancient sites that still function as places of religious worship. Anuradhapura, Polonnaruva, Sigiriya, Dambulla, Galle (a Dutch fort), and Kandy (the island's last capital prior to the British takeover in 1815) have been placed on UNESCO's World Heritage List.

The majesty of Sri Lanka's ancient monuments and the natural beauty of its tropical setting are legendary. The Arabian Nights describes Sinbad the Sailor's sixth voyage, in which he was shipwrecked on the fabulous island of Sarandib, the popular Arabic name for Sri Lanka. Likewise, a Persian fairy tale called "The Three Princes of Serendip" tells of fortuitous discoveries made by the princes. From this fabled quality of Sri Lanka, Horace Walpole coined the English word serendipty. Even today, every journey to Sri Lanka contains an element of serendipity!

Nancy C. Wilkie, president of the Archaeological Institute of America, led a tour of Sri Lankan archaeological and cultural sites from January 15 to February 1, 2003.

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© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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