The island of Sri Lanka lies like a little emerald on the dark waters of the Indian Ocean. This lush tropical island (644 kilometer from the equator) has been the home of animals such as the elephant and the leopard, which inspired so much of the sculptural art of the region and can still be seen roaming wild in the jungles of the south-east. Exotic birds shared this jungle haven, and recent archaeological evidence confirms that this paradise has supported human life for over 10,000 years.
This tiny island (435 kilometers long and 225 kilometers at its maximum width) emerges from the sea on a bed of gneisses and schists, granite-layered with crystalline limestone and quartzites. Here and there great stone boulders erupt from their bed of green jungle and stand serene and powerful against the blue sky. The palace retreat of Sigiriya was built on a mighty stone boulder that protrudes 200 meters above the plains, and the colossal images of the Buddha at Gal Vihara owe some of their special beauty to the lovely streaked grey granite outcrop from which they were carved.
The hilly region of the island is concentrated in the center of the southern part. From here nature worked for centuries to bring rich deposits of gems down to the lowlands and valleys. Ratnagiri, the city of gems, to the south west of the island is still one of the largest producers of precious and semi-precious stones in the world: blood red rubies, sparkling blue sapphires, burnt yellow topaz, crystal-green alexandrites, royal purple amethysts, and quartzes.
The ancient inhabitants of the island who found the gems did not have to go far to sell them. For over two thousand years merchants braved the seas from the east and west to buy these coveted miracles of the earth. Favourable monsoon clouds that swept in from the south-west brought traders from India, Persia, and the Arab world many centuries before the Christian era. Roman coins have been found in several places on the island and trade links with China and south-east Asia continued for centuries. The island also found its place in the literature of the ancient world, Tambarpanni, the copper-red land, which the Greeks called Taprobane. The prefix Sri connotes all that is auspicious, gracious, and prosperous. Lanka, the kingdom of Ravana in the epic Ramayana, where the hero Rama came to rescue his wife, Sita. In the Hindu Puranas the island, Lanka was believed to be a tiny piece of Maha-meru (the mountain that upholds the world) which had fallen into the sea. It was given to Kubera (lord of riches and wealth) who built a radiant jewel palace there in which he 'lived, was adorned and worshipped by all'. Serendib (from which words like serenity and serendipity came to English) was the affectionate pseudonym given to this idyllic place by the seafaring Arab traders.
In the sixteenth century, oversea trade interests brought the Portuguese and then Dutch to this gem and spice island. Sri Lanka was thus the first region in the subcontinent to be colonized by the Europeans. First came the Portuguese colonists, then the Dutch, and finally the British who, after taking Kandy in 1815, ruled the whole island. Today, almost fifty years after attaining independence from foreign rule, a complex culture flourishes in the island with a mixed population of Sinhalese, Tamils, Moors, Burghers, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians.
The south and south-west areas are relatively wet, receiving two monsoons a year, and the tropical jungles have endowed the inhabitants with much-prized timber for building purposes. Even today domestic architecture, as in many parts of southern India (Kerala), is constructed of clay bricks, timber beams, and pillared verandas, thatched or tiled sloping roofs.
The plains of the north and north-east are comparatively dry, and it was here that one of the island's greatest contributions to civilization were made-an effective, sustainable water system still in use today. Far back, at the beginning of the Christian era, rulers of the land realized the importance of water conservation and evolved a practical system of tanks and canals protected by forests and green gardens. For agricultural irrigation and domestic use the tanks stored rainwater that poured over the island during the brief rainy months of the year, manifesting the thought of the great twelfth century ruler Parakrama Bahu: 'Let not one drop of water reach the sea without first serving man.' This island has several rivers that flow down from the hills across the plains to the sea, but it was this network of tanks (wewa) that brought the greatest prosperity to the people. The perennial water source supported the magnificent building projects at Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, and Sigiriya centuries before the scene of action moved to the pretty hill capital of Kandy and later to the present-day west coast capital of Colombo.