Why is Sri Lanka not called Ceylon now?

Why Sri Lanka is not called Ceylon anymore

Did you know that Sri Lanka was not always called Sri Lanka? Throughout history, people have given her so many names. Until 1972, she was called “Ceylon.” This is the most popular name out of many names that Sri Lanka used to be called in the past.

It’s the name given to this beautiful country by the Portuguese, which continued through Dutch and British rule. That’s why even today, premium tea produced in Sri Lanka is called “Ceylon tea” but not Sri Lankan tea, since tea production in Sri Lanka started when the country was under British rule, during which it was known as Ceylon.

Did you read our flavorful post about “Ceylon tea”? In case you missed it, I’ll leave the link here.

Sri Lanka has been a colony of Portuguese, Dutch, and British empires since 1505 until 1948. Almost 5 centuries. So when Sri Lanka finally got independence in 1948, the path to rediscovering its true identity was quite challenging. As one crucial step in this journey of rediscovery, the government decided to change the name of the island from Ceylon to Sri Lanka in 1972. Unlike “Ceylon”, which is a name derived from Portuguese, “Sri Lanka” has sanskrit roots that are closer to the country’s long-running history. It was believed that changing the name of the country from a foreign name like “Ceylon” to a native, authentic name like “Sri Lanka” would have a positive impact on reinstating the national identity distinct from the colonial past.

Meaning of “Ceylon” and its origins

Ceylon is the English translation of “Ceilão,” which is the name given by the Portuguese to this country. “Ceilão ” was derived from the local names Silam, Sihala, and Sailan, which are names used to call Sri Lanka when Portuguese first arrived in the country.

Here’s how “Letters From Ceylon” was born

The origin of “Letters from Ceylon”

Since we’re talking about why Sri Lanka is not called Ceylon any more, I thought it’d be better to tell you the reason why I decided to name this website “Letters from Ceylon” but not “Letters from Sri Lanka.”

When I first thought that I wanted to tell the world about why Sri Lanka is a great tourist destination through a blog, I was faced with the challenge of choosing a name for my website. I knew that I wanted my blogs to be like letters written by a Sri Lankan describing the beauty of his country to the world. So, “Letters from” was already on my mind. Then I thought to myself: Which sounds better? “Letters from Sri Lanka” or “Letters from Ceylon”. I felt “Letters From Ceylon” quite sing in my ears. So I went with it. It was a decision purely based on the aesthetics of how it sounds.

A brief history of the names given to Sri Lanka

As I mentioned before, throughout history, Sri Lanka has been called by different names. Let’s dive a little further into the history and see the lineage of names given to Sri Lanka over time.

Before the 6th century BC: Tambapanni, Tamraparni, Taprobana

Prince Vijaya, who is the first king of the island as far as the written history goes, called this new country “Thambapanni or Tamraparni,” meaning “copper-red hands or copper-red soil.” In the legends, it is said that when he first landed in Sri Lanka, the harbor where he landed had a copper-red color, which reddened the hands of his sailors. So, the prince decided to call the land “Thambapanni.” There are several origin stories for the name. This is just one of them.

This name was adopted into Greek as “Taprobana.” The Greek historian Megastheses mentioned Sri Lanka as Taprobana in his literature in the 4th century BC.

From the 6th century BC to the 9th century CE: Silam, Sihala, and Sailan

In the 6th century BC, the island was called “Silam.” This name has a Pali origin. It is transliterated as “Sinhale” in Sinhala and “Ilam” in Tamil.

In the Dipavamsa, which is the oldest Buddhist historical record of Sri Lanka, it has been mentioned that the island of Lanka was formerly called “Sihala.” Which means lion’s abode.

The Chinese Buddhist monk Faxian, who visited Sri Lanka in the period 3rd–4th century CE, has called the island “Sinhala,” or the Lion Kingdom, in his writings.

Since the 9th century, the name “Sailan, Saylan” has been used to refer to Sri Lanka.

From the 9th century to the 15th century CE: Sailan, Saylan, Silan, and Seilan

The above names have been used to mention the country simultaneously by different authors during this time period

The famous Venetian merchant, explorer, and writer Marco Polo has called this island “Seilan” in his writings.

From the 16th century: Ceilão, Lanka, Zeylan, Ceylon

After the Portuguese colonized the country in the 16th century, the local names Silam, Sihala, and Sailan have been translated into Ceilão in Portuguese (from 1505).

In 1640, after the Dutch colonization, the same original names were translated into Zeilan or Zeylan in Dutch.

And after the British arrived, the name was translated into Ceylon in English in 1796.

Until 1972, the island was known as Ceylon.

In 1972, the elected government at the time changed the name of the country from Ceylon to Sri Lanka.

Other names

There’s more. There are so many names for such a small island, right?

In Arabic and Persian literature, Sri Lanka was called Serendip, Seren-dip, Sinhal-dvip, or Sarandip. These names were based on the words Sinhala-dvipa. “Dvipa, dipa” means island. 

Independence and national identity

By the time the country gained independence from the British Empire on February 4, 1948, it was still officially called Ceylon. It was the same way until 1972. In 1972, Ceylon became the “Republic of Sri Lanka” with the new constitution. With the constitution of 1978, the name was changed to “Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka,” which is the currently used official name of the country.

Meaning of “Sri Lanka” and its significance

“Sri Lanka” has historical and cultural significance, as it is derived from Sanskrit and means “resplendent island” or “blessed island” in reference to the country’s natural beauty.

The symbolic importance of adopting the name "Sri Lanka"

The symbolic importance of adopting the name “Sri Lanka” when the country changed its name from Ceylon is multifaceted and rooted in various historical, cultural, and political factors:

Cultural and National Identity: The name “Sri Lanka” holds deep cultural significance as it is derived from Sanskrit, an ancient Indo-Aryan language, where “Sri” means “resplendent” or “holy” and “Lanka” refers to the island. By adopting this name, the country sought to emphasize its cultural heritage and reclaim its indigenous identity, moving away from the colonial legacy associated with the name “Ceylon.”

Post-Colonial Assertion: The change of name from Ceylon to Sri Lanka marked a significant step in the country’s post-colonial journey. It signaled a break from its colonial past under British rule and asserted its sovereignty as an independent nation. Renaming the country was a symbolic act of reclaiming agency and asserting control over its own identity and destiny.

Linguistic Reclamation: The name “Ceylon” has colonial connotations and is associated with the period of British colonial rule, during which the island was known as Ceylon. By adopting the name “Sri Lanka,” which is rooted in the country’s indigenous languages and culture, there was a sense of linguistic reclamation. It represented a shift towards embracing native languages and symbols as a means of asserting independence and cultural pride.

Unifying Symbol: Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious nation with diverse linguistic and cultural traditions. The adoption of the name “Sri Lanka” served as a unifying symbol for the various communities within the country, emphasizing a shared national identity that transcended ethnic and religious differences. It provided a common ground on which all citizens could come together and identify with the nation as a whole.

International Recognition: Changing the name to Sri Lanka helped the country to assert its identity on the global stage. It facilitated a departure from the colonial legacy associated with the name Ceylon and enabled the country to present itself to the world on its own terms. The name change signaled to the international community that Sri Lanka was a sovereign nation with its own unique identity, history, and culture.

In summary, the adoption of the name “Sri Lanka” represented a significant symbolic shift for the country, marking its assertion of cultural identity, independence from colonial rule, linguistic reclamation, and a unifying symbol for its diverse population.

Surely, with the name change, came new hope. Sri Lanka will be bigger and better than Ceylon. With the recent economic crisis, it raises the question. Are we doing justice to the name “Sri Lanka”? Clearly, only a name change won’t make a nation great. And we have a long way to go in order to get the real blessings from this truly “blessed island.”

Did you find this blog post interesting? Let me know in the comments below. I will meet you with another interesting article about “the island with many names.”

Until then, I say goodbye!

නැවත හමුවෙමු😉 (Newatha hamuwemu = Let’s meet again)

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