Protect and Uphold ‘SINHALE’ :  The Nation of Sinhala Patriots Part I
Posted on February 3rd, 2016

Dr.  Daya Hewapathirane

  It was in the last quarter of the 20th century that the name Sri Lanka was inappropriately imposed upon our motherland, known historically for centuries as ‘Sinhale’, ‘Sihala-deepa’,   or ‘Heladiva’, all of which mean the land or island of the Sinhala or  ‘Hela’ people. According to ancient Pali chronicles including the Mahavamsa (The Great Chronicle”) written in the 5th century CE), Vijaya and his followers the first Sihala or  ‘Hela’ (Aryan) settlers of this island were Vijaya and his followers who arrived in the 6th century BCE or more than 2500 years ago, from northeastern India. They soon became the dominant community of the island with Vijaya as the first king who ruled from 543 to 505 BCE. In the Dharmapradeepikava”, written in the 12th century, by the renowned ancient scholar Gurulugomi, refers to Vijaya and his men as ‘Sihala’. The Sinhala rulers developed and maintained cordial relations with India which saw a striking improvement with the ascendency of Asoka as the Emperor of the Indian sub continent. He developed a strong relationship with the Sinhala king Devanampiyatissa. It was at this time, in the 3rd century BCE, that Buddhism was introduced to the isIand on the initiative of Emperor Asoka. With the conversion to Buddhism of the king, royalty and nobility,  there was widespread adoption of Buddhism by the people at large. It soon became the    common religion and way of life of the mass of people, which importantly included the native tribes –    Yaksha, Raksha, Naga and Deva, who were four indigenous tribes  living in the country at the time of arrival of the Sihala people.

Buddhism and the way of life it propagated had a strong influence in bringing people together. Soon the various groups of people began to assimilate and integrate to become a single community. This community came to be known as the Siv-hela”, where siv” means four – implying the four native tribes. This is an instant where Buddhism has had a most remarkable impact in bringing people together, bringing about an incredible societal change with highly positive long term implications for the country. It was the name Sivhela” which later turned out to be called Sinhale”, which prevailed for many centuries as the name of the island although in corrupted forms during the European colonial period.

About 1600 years ago, Fa Hien, the celebrated Chinese Buddhist pilgrim traveler monk who visited the island in the year 413 CE and lived in Abayagiriya Anuradhapura for two years, mentions in his records the name of this island at that time as Sihaladvip” or the island of the Sinhala people (See: Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms, being an account by the Chinese Monk Fa-hien of his travels in India and Ceylon, AD 399-414, in search of the Buddhist Books of discipline – translated and edited by James Legge, Oxford, 1886).

The European colonial powers used their own designations to identify our country, with the Portuguese calling it Ceilan”  and the British calling it Ceylon which are corrupted versions of the authentic name Sinhale”. It is important to note that in the Sinhala version of the Kandyan Convention of 1815, known as the Udarata Givisuma the name of the country is mentioned as Sinhale (See copy of the original document exhibited at the Mahanuwara Sri Dalada Maligava Museum on the upper floor of Maligava Annex) .

It is noteworthy that all names by which the country was known in ancient times were Sinhala names – Sinhale, Thunsinhale, Sihala-dweepaya, Heladiva, Helabima – all names meaning the land of the Sinhala people. The Sinhala people inhabited this island as its leading community for more than 2500 years.


Sinhale derives its distinct identity and unique character as an exclusive nation, owing to the unique combination of Sinhala socio-cultural norms and values that characterize it. They form the cultural foundation of this nation from ancient times. It is noteworthy that these cultural traits – tangible and intangible, evolved within this island. They were enriched and reinforced within the island. Sinhale the Sinhala Nation incorporates the tremendous cultural wealth of the Sinhala people recognized the world over for its richness and uniqueness. The Sinhala language originated and developed within this land.  All place names of the country, urban and rural that developed in the past and are continued until present times, are in Sinhala. All geographical and environmental features of the country – mountains, valleys, rivers, lakes and other bodies of water, coastal features, forests, vegetation types are named in Sinhala.  As far as the human or cultural environment of the island is concerned, A most widespread and historically significant landmark of the island’s cultural environment is the Buddhist vihara or shrine and it is noteworthy that all of them bear Sinhala names. The same is true of all other Buddhist establishments – old and new. The Sinha kodiya or the unique national flag and all other traditional national insignia developed within this land bear the image of the lion which is symbolic of Sinhale or the nation of the Sinhala people.


Buddhism was formally introduced to the country in the 3rd century BCE or more than 2200 years ago and forms the predominant way of life of the large mass of people. The norms and social values of the Sinhala nation are derived from Buddhist ethics and principles. Non-violence, peaceful coexistence, compassion, tolerance, virtuous and simple lifestyle, spirituality and the development of insight have been the cornerstone. From early times, the inspiration for all aspects of the island’s development- economic, cultural, social and spiritual was drawn from Buddhism. Traditional Buddhist education has been a vital force in the preservation of both Buddhism and the Sinhala culture in the past. Buddhist monks, scholars and the Sinhala royalty were be at the forefront in this venture. Buddhist shrines were the centres of cultural and spiritual life for the Sinhala people. The written history of Sri Lanka and popular Sinhala literature, folklore and rituals, teach children from an early age the uniqueness of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, the long relationship between Buddhism and the culture and politics of the island, and the importance of preserving this fragile cultural inheritance.

The Sinhala are the largest ethnic group in Sri Lanka, amounting today to about 75% percent of the island’s 20.3 million population. They are distinguished primarily by their language, Sinhala.  The Sinhala language which evolved within the island, forms the defining element of this ancient culture. The Sinhala language and Buddhist culture are integral and inseparable components of the nation’s cultural heritage. All Buddhists in Sri Lanka speak Sinhala. Until recently, their shared language had a strong unifying effect on the Sinhala community and the Buddhist religion further reinforced the solidarity of the Sinhala as a unique cultural community. From ancient times until today, Buddhist monks or Bhikkhus have been in the forefront as the traditional leaders of the nation and custodians of the Sinhala Buddhist national culture of the country. The names and titles of these bhikkhus have always, been exclusively in Sinhala. All activities, religious and cultural conducted in the nations Buddhist temples are in the Sinhala language. For that matter, all traditional cultural activities, ceremonies and festivals are invariably conducted in the Sinhala language. Sinhala terminology characterizes all tangible items and aspects associated of Sinhala culture.


                During its long history, this country of the Sinhala people was subject to several foreign invasions and associated plundering and violence.  Buddhism, the predominant religion of the Sinhala community, their rich culture founded on wholesome Buddhist principles, and their peaceful livelihood were threatened and undermined during the periods of foreign rule. But they survived in spite of these calamities. Recorded history states that, since 230 BCE, Sri Lanka was invaded as much as seventeen times by South Indian Dravidian Tamil speaking invaders.  They ruthlessly wiped out entire Sinhala villages along their way to Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa the royal capitals of the past. These highly prosperous Sinhala Buddhist capitals were ransacked and plundered and the people subject to untold atrocities. This was a part of Tamil invasions and occupation of our land for varying periods of time in the past. They killed Sinhala Kings or forced them to the retreat to the south. These Tamil invaders sat on the Sinhala throne and ruled over the Sinhala people for about 170 years at different times.

The Tamil threat to the Sinhala Buddhist kingdoms had become very real in the fifth and sixth centuries CE. Three Hindu empires in southern India–the Pandya, Pallava, and Chola, were becoming more assertive. Tamil ethnic and religious consciousness matured during this period. In the meantime, in India, Buddhism was becoming vulnerable to pressure and absorption by Hinduism and its influence was receding. It was during this time that Chola, Pallava and Pandya Tamils were instrumental in repeated invasions and threats to our Buddhist Sinhala rulers. During their invasions and rule, they were instrumental in the massive destruction of Buddhist shrines, monasteries and places of learning. Vast libraries were set on fire and destroyed.

 EUROPEANS UNDERMINING THE SINHALA CULTURE                                                                                

Tamil invasions and atrocities were followed in early 16th century by European invasions. First the Portuguese and later the Dutch invaders, with their gun powder and soldiers, brought in a reign of terror in the country. There was widespread killing and destruction and undermining of Buddhism and Sinhala culture.   All Buddhist shrines and places of learning in the maritime areas under the control of the Portuguese, were demolished. Buddhist monasteries were razed and their priceless treasure looted and libraries were set on fire. The Catholic Portuguese period (1505 – 1658) constitutes a long and poignant chronicle of oppression and injustice meted out to the Sinhala Buddhists. The Catholic Portuguese were the first colonial power to pave in this country the way to almost continuous religious tensions – the repercussions of which is felt to this day in Sri Lanka. The Dutch, who ousted the Portuguese in 1640, occupied the places under Portuguese control. They continued similar trade activities and started converting people to their form of Protestant Christianity. They too were instrumental in destroying Buddhist temples, monasteries and the royal palace.


The British finally in the early 19th century, capturing the entire country, did the most catastrophic and shattering damage to our Sinhala Buddhist cultural heritage and thereby to our language. They not only introduced their language as the medium of communication in all affairs of governance and economic activities, but took direct measures to undermine the Sinhala language and culture. English was forced upon our people as the language of administration, the language in which justice was meted out, the language in which government records were kept. The Sinhala language and ordinary Sinhala people, suffered immensely during the British period of occupation.  During the British colonial era from 1796 to 1948, and a good part of the post-independence period, the promotion of the English language and Western cultural norms was the order of the day as far as the political establishment of the country was concerned. The urban English education system had much to do with this undesirable development. School educational services were basically the monopoly of the Catholic and Christian missions and English was the medium of instruction. European cultural norms were promoted in these schools.


Higher learning at this time was basically bifurcated; the rural masses and bhikkhus studied Sinhala and other oriental languages whereas in the urban areas English was the medium of instruction and communication. Opportunities for advancement were highly limited to the former. They were low-paid and distant from the government whereas the latter were better paid and enjoyed more benefits from government. It is simply a miracle that Sinhala language was able to survive this tragic situation for over four and a half centuries. It was the dedication of the Sinhala scholars, especially our Buddhist scholar Bhikkhus, and the inherent strength of the Sinhala language that may be cited as main reasons.

To serve their self-interests the British practiced the “divide and rule” policy by setting

one community against the other. It is a well known fact that the British gave special privileges to the Tamil minority and those of the Christian faith. They were provided with better opportunities for education, employment and other government services. They soon became privileged communities. Inevitably this policy had a highly divisive effect on the local community. This was the beginning of social disharmony and racial problems in our country and the British should be held responsible for promoting this undesirable and unfortunate state of affairs in our country. Additionally, the blind adoption of foreign elements without understanding the principles behind them, especially the political party system, introduced divisiveness and disharmony in the Sinhala community. This has been clearly manifested particularly during the last two decades.


The well recorded history of immigrant minority communities in our country shows that in early years, especially prior to the arrival of European colonial powers, there was a high degree of harmony and integration among the minority settler communities of the country such as the Tamil, Muslim and Malay, and the existing mainstream Sinhala community.  These communities were respectful of the traditional norms and vales of the country and they became active participants in the affairs of the nation even at its highest levels. Most of them were peaceful and useful citizens of the Sinhala Nation. The Sinhala Nation has always permitted members of minority communities with different cultures, languages and religions to enjoy the same basic human rights and opportunities like the indigenous people. The policy adopted was to live and let live” among others of the Sinhala Nation, as one people, irrespective of apparent cultural differences. The Sinhala Nation in the early period expected all to live as members of One Nation, which is the traditional Sinhala or Hela Nation. Once the settler communities make Sinhale or Heladiva their home, it necessarily became their homeland and also their Nation. One does not have to give up one’s culture in order to be a part of another nation. All what is required is to acknowledge the culture of the place one has made one’s home and try to integrate with the national system. One is free to follow and practice one’s culture and religion as long as it does not violate, counter or undermine the National Culture or the culture of the Nation. In the early years prior to the 16th century, Sinhale was marked by a well-established and all-pervading Sinhala national socio-cultural system. This situation prevailed until about the latter years of the European colonial period, when things began to change.

Colonial domination resulted in untold disruption of the normal affairs of the country. There were significant and far reaching political, economic and socio-cultural changes to which our people were subject. The former political, economic and social order and stability underwent significant changes, impacting on the attitudes and relationships between the Sinhala nationals and other communities. The British Divide and Rule” policy of operation led to serious ethnic divisiveness and conflicts. This resulted in undue privileges for the Tamil minority as opposed to the mainstream Sinhala community. The idea was to bring about increased animosity between the two ethnic groups to make is easy for the cunning British to fish in troubled waters”. The relative geographical isolation of minority communities in some parts of the country further increased the divisive tendencies of the different communities.

WESTERNIZED URBAN SUB CULTURE                                                                    

During the almost 500 years of European colonial rule, there was a gradual deterioration of the once strong Sinhala Buddhist culture in the country as a whole Substantial numbers of people, especially in the coastal areas were converted to Christianity through determined missionary efforts of the Portuguese, Dutch, and British. When the British left Sri Lanka in 1948, they made sure that power remained in the hands of the English educated and English speaking few, who were toeing their line. It was a westernized Colombo based sub-culture dominated by Christians, who inherited power-political, administrative, and economic. Most of the qualified professionals at the decision-making level in the public and private sectors and also in big businesses subscribed to this sub-culture. It was a new elite skilled in the use of the English language and mannerisms. A somewhat mixed, cosmopolitan outlook differentiated this urban elite from the more ‘old fashioned’ predominantly Buddhist, Sinhala speaking rural folk. Their attitudes and actions either directly or indirectly had the effect of denigrating to an inferior state, the Sinhala cultural norms including the Sinhala language and their simple Buddhist way of life. Most of them were products of the Christian Missionary education system. They were not taught and were not conversant with the history and the culture of their country. Among them were those who returned from Britain, with an education influenced by leftist ideals and were known as leftists” or Marxists” of the time. These so-called “intellectuals” were also inheritors of the Colombo urban sub culture. Some were token Buddhists who could not relate to the traditional local culture. What developed here was a form of sub-culture which was referred to by some Sinhala compatriots as  Thuppahi culture” which accorded a highly step-motherly treatment to Sinhala language and culture. This had a strong negative impact of undermining and decimating the commonly spoken traditional language of the nation to an inferior position. The step-motherly treatment of Sinhala culture and language by the  government, the urban elite and the Catholic and Christian missionary education establishment, continued even after the country attained political independence in 1948.

 INTERRUPTIONS TO RESURGENCE OF SINHALA CULTURE                                                                           

A resurgence of Sinhala culture was evident in the 20th century, with the emergence of several outstanding Sinhala patriots who were bent on reviving Sinhala culture and language. Sinhala was made the official language of the country in 1957, and Sinhala was made the medium of instruction for Sinhala children up to Grade V. The late fifties and sixties saw the emergence of many inspiring cultural pursuits which led to a noticeable revival in many aspects of Sinhala culture. The literary works of these Sinhala patriots, appealed to the hearts of a generation that was just beginning to shed the last vestiges of European socio-cultural domination of their nation. Among them were some outstanding Buddhist bhikkhus whose work on literature and Buddhist spirituality was widely acclaimed.

It was at this time that a Cultural Affairs Ministry was established in the country and two Pirivena’s were elevated to university status. Among other developments at this time which had direct implications for the revival of the traditional culture was the take-over of missionary schools by the government. Sinhala Buddhists including leading Buddhist bhikkhus were in the forefront in the initiative to take-over schools and making higher education accessible to all irrespective of religious affiliations. This enabled the rural Sinhala youth to come to the forefront and many were able to secure university education and excel in various professional fields. However, this period of healthy growth which began in 1956, was short lived. During the last few decades, the Sinhala Buddhist community underwent traumatic experiences owing to the efforts of the local Marxists to counterbalance the imbalance created by the outer-oriented Colombo clan. There were youth uprisings in the south and in the north resulting in widespread violence. Leadership at all levels – political, professional and secular – deteriorated during the past few decades. This was also a time which saw extreme divisiveness, animosity and criminal activity among people supporting opposing political parties.

 WITHHOLDING TEACHING  OF THE NATION’S HISTORY                                                                  

Another negative and harmful development during this time, specifically in 1975, was the withholding of the teaching of the history of Sri Lanka in schools. This was a highly objectionable step taken by the Muslim minister of Education at that time. This explains that fact that most youth of the last two decades were not conversant with the history of their country and their traditional culture. They were unaware that their country is the oldest continually Buddhist country in the world. They were unaware of the fact that the history and culture of their people have been shaped and mounded by Buddhism since its introduction to the island over 2200 years ago. Being unaware of the richness of their cultural heritage, one cannot blame the youth to have become indifferent to their culture and become subject to undue influence of other cultures. Our youth did not have genuine Sinhala role models to follow. This may be considered as the greatest tragedy that befell the Sinhala nation, because youth determine the future of the nation and are The learning of Sinhala literature, Sinhala culture and history by our children is fundamental to bringing about an attitudinal change in our younger generation. This will make them develop a sense of pride in their outstanding cultural heritage. They will begin to be appreciative of the wholesome values of their glorious culture, and this will help them to develop a lifestyle and livelihood that is beneficial to them and the society in general.


Although the Sinhala language and subsequently both Sinhala and Tamil were made the official languages of the country, for all practices purposes, the language of government continued to be English during the past few decades. Knowledge of English has been a big advantage and sometimes an essential requirement for better employment in both the public and private sectors. It was difficult to get ahead in society without a knowledge of English. The heightened importance accorded to spoken English at the expense of Sinhala was clearly evident during this time, so much so, those who spoke English were considered by many as the more educated ones that should be emulated. There has been a tendency among some of the English educated folk, to observe western mannerisms and attitudes and consider themselves to be more refined, cultured and a step above the others. This unwarranted and ridiculous attitudinal changes that learning English or being able to speak the language has brought about not only tends to alienate this group of individuals but also has led to divisiveness, especially among our youth. This trend has made some of our youth to shy away from their own language and culture. Such disregard and disrespect for the Sinhala language had the tendency to push other aspects of Sinhala culture to the background, often moving people further away from their traditional culture and values. There is no question that there are many positive aspects to the learning of other languages and other cultures. But unfortunately it is the superficial, worthless and undesirable aspects of Western  culture that have been of appeal to most English-speaking urban people

There is no dispute that on many counts, knowing English is highly advantageous, especially for our youth. A working knowledge of English has become a requirement in a number of fields, occupations and professions such as medicine and computing. It is very helpful in learning and improving many useful skills. It is a global language and over a billion people speak English to at least a basic level. Besides, it is one of six official languages of the United Nations.

The youth of the 1980’s and 1990’s grew up at a time when there were extreme forms of political unrest and violence in the south and north. There was polarization of ethnic communities. The economic and social trends and developments at this time such as globalization without a human face, introduction of television characterized by highly commercialized and often crude programs, expansion of tourism industry without restrictions, and increase in overseas employment encouraged outer oriented attitudes and lifestyles of most youth and the disintegration of many families.

An encouraging development in 2005 was the introduction of the teaching of the History of Sri Lanka in schools as a compulsory subject from Grade I to ‘GCE O’ levels.   Also evident during the last decade was an increased interest in the development and promotion of Sinhala performing arts, especially traditional dances. The teaching and study of Sinhala Aesthetic studies have become popular in the school curriculum. Sinhala music and songs have received a boost owing to the influence of the electronic media especially television and radio.

Dr. Daya Hewapathirane 

February 04, 2016


Continued  in Part -2 

To be Published in the Lankaweb under the title:



One Response to “Protect and Uphold ‘SINHALE’ :  The Nation of Sinhala Patriots Part I”

  1. Lorenzo Says:


    Sadly true because their LOYALTIES lie elsewhere in Tamil Madu Endia and Mecca Saudi Arabia.

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