Ancient kingdoms: Anuradhapura (437 BC-845 AD), Polonnaruwa (846 AD-1302 AD) (entire cities are UNESCO World Heritage Sites)
Ancient citadels: The Lion Rock citadel (Sigiriya) (479-496 AD) (UNESCO World Heritage Site)
Medieval Kingdoms: Kandy the Royal City (1469-1815 AD) (UNESCO World Heritage Site)
Invaders: Dravidians from South India (Intermittent invasions 161 BC-1236 AD), Portuguese (1505- 1655), Dutch (1656-1795), British (1796-1814)
Colonialist ruler: the British (1815-1948)
Theravada Buddhism: from the 3rd century BC
The most formative event in Sri Lanka's long history is the arrival of Buddhism in the 3rd century BC. This island is the furthest outpost and the most lasting achievement of the missionary efforts of the emperor Asoka. The Sinhalese of Sri Lanka have remained faithful to Asoka's religion - the only people of the subcontinent to do so. They are still adherents of Theravada, the first and simpler form of Buddhism. In the sacred temple at Kandy there is no crowd of sculpted demigods to distract the pilgrim. The only holy thing here is a tooth. But it is, so they say, the tooth of Buddha himself, smuggled to Sri Lanka from India in the 4th century AD, hidden in the folds of the long dark hair of a princess.
Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa: 3rd c. BC - 13th c. AD
At the time of the conversion of the ruling family to Buddhism, in the 3rd century BC, the capital city is Anuradhapura in the north of the island. This becomes the first Buddhist centre of Sri Lanka, characterized by the massive dome-shaped stupas (also known as dagobas) which are built to contain sacred relics. The monks here tend a sacred pipal tree, believed to be grown from a branch of the very tree under which Buddha found enlightenment. The branch of Buddha's tree, they say, was sent by Asoka himself as a precious gift to Sri Lanka.
The main threat to the Buddhist kingdoms of Sri Lanka is raids across the sea from the Tamil rulers of south India. The intruders differ from the inhabitants of Sri Lanka in two respects - in language (Tamil is Dravidian, Sinhalese is Indo-European) and in religion (the Tamils are Hindu).
Kandy and Kotte: 12th - 16th century
In the 12th century Tamil rulers finally establish a permanent Hindu presence in the north of the island. Buddhist Sri Lanka shrinks further south again. By the 15th century there are two related Buddhist kingdoms: one is based in Kandy in the hilly centre of the island; the other occupies a new palace at Kotte, a place surrounded by swampy lagoons a little inland from Colombo, by now a thriving harbour used by Arab traders.
Portuguese and Dutch: AD 1505-1795
On their first visit, in 1505, the Portuguese make a treaty with the king of Kandy enabling them to trade in the island's crop of cinammon. Soon they win permission to build a fort to protect their trade. From this first fort they steadily encroach upon Sinhalese territory until the entire southern part is under their control - restricting the kingdom of Kandy to the highlands.
The Dutch finally get the better of the Portuguese in 1656, when they capture Colombo after a six-month siege. For the next century and more they are able to corner the trade in cinammon, controlling most of the coastal areas of the island under governors sent from the capital of the Dutch East Indies at Batavia. The Sinhalese royal house in Kandy retains a measure of independence, protected by the impenetrable combination of mountain landscape and tropical climate. Both Portuguese and Dutch forces reach Kandy on occasion but are unable to hold it.