Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka – How did it get its name?

Sri Lanka

may be small but its history is certainly mighty!!  Spanning over three thousand years (according to Brian Roberts 2006,  there is evidence of pre-historic human settlements dating back at least 125,000 years ago), this little island saw its fair share of rulers, governors, invaders and regimes.  Each of these ‘changes’ is filled with great legend and fable and over time, these have become intertwined in the history books.  It could be argued, that they are directly linked to the variety of names that this ‘Blessed Land” has had.

Paddy Fields in Sri Lanka

I feel it is important here, to mention the Veddhas.  They were the first ‘recognised’ inhabitants and indigenous people of Sri Lanka.  A hunter gatherer race living of the land, their name came from the Pali word meaning ‘bowman”.  They were thought to have inhabited Sri Lanka as far back as 32,000BC. I cannot find any trace of what they called our island but feel the need to mention them, as they have first claim on Sri Lanka. It is thought that they originally came from India but there is no known proof of this, so they could be descendant from any Southeast Asian country.

 The Many Names of Sri Lanka

Being situated on important sea routes, it wasn’t long before the Veddhas had ‘visitors’. With each one giving this island their own name, below is a list of some of the key ones:

LANKA (Sanskrit) 5114 BCE

Simply meaning ‘island’, this is thought to be the first known documented name for the island.  The most ancient of names, it was used in the story of Ramayana, where King Ravana steals Princess Seetha to Lanka.  Rama manages to save her with the help of Hanuman the Monkey God and chipmunks, who helped to built a bridge between India and Sri Lanka.  A story that fascinated me as a child and still does today.  If you head to Nuwara Eliya in the hills,  you will find a shrine to Princess Seetha where it is believed she was held captive.

Another theory, is that “the name Lanka is derived from the Tamil word “ilanku” (இலங்கு), which means “to shine” or “to glitter”, thus making Lanka a name that means “that which glitters”.[1] It earned this name on account of the glittering of the gold and gems found on its surface.” (Wikipedia)


Old flag of Ceylon Sri Lanka



Lankadeepa was the name used during the time of Gautama Buddha.  He was the founder of the philosophy that is Buddhism 2,500 years ago.  The name Lakdiva, thought to be in use around the same time simply means ‘island of Lanka’ or ‘The land of Lanka’.



This name came to be after Prince Vijaya and his 700 followers arrived on the island in the 5th Century BC.  The sand on the beach where he landed was copper coloured with hues of red and brown.  Tamba means copper in Sanskrit, and hence the name.  His kingdom is considered to be the first and the beginnings of the Sinhalese Kings that reigned over the island for thousands of years to come.

Bentota Beach Sri Lanka


Simply meaning ‘the island of the Sihala”.  This name came to be because Prince Vijaya and his followers were Sihala – because of his supposed lion ancestry and so a part of the ancient chronicle of Sri Lanka’s history.



This is the earliest reference of name for the island in Indian literature by Kautalya in “Arthasastra”and means ‘beyond the Ocean’.



Thought to come from the word ‘Parasamudra’, this was the translated name version used by ancient Greeks.



Simply an abbreviation of “Palaesimoundu” this was a name also used by the ancient Greek writers.


TAPROBANE (Greek) 0336 BCE

One of the first Greek geographers, Eratosthenes, referred to Sri Lanka as ‘The Island of Taprobane’, quite possibly derived from the previous name Tambapanni.  Pliny (24-79AD) and Ptolemy (an Egyptian) in the mid 2nd century AD also referred to Sri Lanka as ‘The Island of Taprobane’.  The Romans commonly used this name for the island.  This name appears in John Milton’s “Lost Paradise’ and in ‘Don Quixote’ as a mystical place!



This was a name used by the ancient Indians and most likely came from the name Sihaladeepa.



Another name used by ancient Indians and probably came from the name “Sihala”.


ILANKAI (Tamil) 1284 CE

The ancient name used by the Tamil community for the island.



A name used by the 10th Century historian Al – Biruni or Abu Rihaan Muhammed



This is the name by which the Arabian and Persian Traders referred to the island and means ‘The Island of Rubies’, being an island famous for its precious stones.  It is probably one of the better known old names and is a thought to be a translated version of the Indian name of Sidhaleepa which means ‘the dwelling place of lion’s island’.  This name is also thought to have led Horace Walpole (18th Century) to create the word ‘serendipity’ which means when something happens in an unexpected but positive way!!!



“Ibn Shahriyar, the Arab author of the book Ajab-al-Hind meaning Marvels of India, written in the year 960 A.D.refers to Sri Lanka by the usual Arab term Serendib, but states that the country was also known as”Saheelan”. (taken from Internetstones)



This is the name by which the Europeans referred to Sri Lanka.  These names are all thought to be variations of Saheelan and which led to the eventual name of Ceylon.

Old Ceylon flag Sri Lanka

CEYLON (English) 1796 CE

This name was introduced by the British and the island kept this name even after Independence in 1948. It was the name synonymous with tea, sugar cane, coffee, pepper and many other commodities that were exported out into the world.  It is a name still commonly associated by many with the island.


It was only in 1972, when Ceylon became a Republic, that the name was changed to Sri Lanka – meaning Resplendent Land.  Then, in 1978, when Sri Lanka created an Executive Presidency, the name was officially changed one last time to the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.

Today most of us simply refer to this wonderful island as Sri Lanka! In Sinhala it is written as ශ්‍රී ලංකා and in Tamil it is written as இலங்கை.

The Sri Lankan flag has also changed with each passing regime, ruler and invader.  A separate blog post on this can be found here.

Flag of Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan Independence Day, which marks its political independence from British rule in 1948, is commemorated on the 4th February.  The perfect day to share this post about the many names that our island has had.  A rich woven tapestry of stories, legend and fable, Sri Lanka is not just a name ….. it is an exotic and wondrous odyssey!!

NB. This post is simply an over view of some of the more prominent names that the island has had.  It is by no means exhaustive and my background is not based on in depth research.  I have pulled this blog together based on various readings and if I have missed any important facts or names please do let me know.  I can add them in (with reference to your contribution) and make this more comprehensive.

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