The Sanskrit epic Rāmāyana is perhaps the most depicted epic in the world today. Some of the most exotic historic sites in India and the rest of the east, such as the Ellora caves, Mahāvalipuram, Cambodian temples, and several other places in Thailand portray Rāmāyana scenes and characters in their sculptures and paintings. Its literary contents have continued to inspire artists and artesans to depict the Rāmāyana scenes in paintings, on stone and other media for sculptures. Consisting
of 24,000 verses, it is supposed to have been written around 250 to 300 BC, although the events described in it appear to be much earlier, around 1000 BC. Although generally looked upon as a religious epic of the Hindus the contents in relation to Lanka reveal some contents that may be historic.
Many other religious beliefs to stake a claim to Lanka, the present Sri Lanka. To the Mohammedans it was the paradise of Adam and Eve. One Islamic legend says that when Adam and Eve were cast out of the paradise, Adam fell on the island of Ceylon, and Eve near Jeddah, the port of Mecca. They later met each other and lived in Ceylon. Adam’s Peak is a legacy of this legend.
For the Buddhists, it was the island chosen for salvation of Rakshas and Nagas by the Buddha. With such a variety of claims it is not entirely surprising to see Lanka having a multitude of ancient names. The Island’s ancient name, Lanka (Laka or Laksha, thousands) is supposed to be derived from the Sanskrit language, to refer to a multitude of islands around its western coast. In the Pandiyan Saṅgam literature, the southern region in the peninsula is referred to as MaveIlaṅkai (great Lanka), while Lanka, known for its supply of rice to the Tamil kingdom, is referred to as Ilaṅkai. The Sinhalese called the island Sīhala, after the Siṃha (lion) of the Vijaya legend. This name was corrupted to Sinhaladipa, and became the Serendib of the Arabs around the 2nd century AD. During the colonial period Sieladipa became Ceilão, and later ‘Zeilan’, and ‘Ceylon’ under the Dutch and British.
To the Hindus, it was the scene of the epic Rāmāyana battle where Rāma and Rāvaṇa fought over Sītā. The Hindu epic poem, Rāmāyana refers to the island as Ilaṅkai, the most antiquated name for the island. Many holy places in the island are implied in the Rāmāyana. Rāma is said to have prayed for his victory over Rāvaṇa, at the shrine for Siva at Muniswaram (Tamil: mun, ancient or before, Īśvara, Hindu god) in the Chilaw district. The narrow causeway between Ramēśvaram (Hindu gods: Rāma, Īśvara,) in India and Talaimannar served as the crossing point for Rāma before his battle with the Lankan king Rāvaṇa, and we know that this is geographically true. Dandaka forest, the northernmost wildernes of South India (Penninsular India) is where the first conflict between Rama (Aryan) and Surpaanakai, the sister of king Rāvaṇa (Dravidian), began. The legend in many ways is a rerun of the Aryan invasion that occurred thousand years previously in the
Indus which probably captured the imagination of Valmiki.
Following the Rig Veda of the Aryans (c 1400 BC), the next earliest quasi historic document that we can find is the Rāmāyana. The classical historian and Nobel Prize winner in Literature, Theodor Mommsen (1817-1910) quotes: “Imagination, mother of all poetry, is likewise mother of all history.” In the epic a divine monkey from the tribe of Vānarar comes to the island of Ilaṅkai in search of Rāma’s wife, who was abducted by Rāvaṇa, the king of Lanka. Shortly before entering Lanka he stands on Pavalamalai (Pearl Mountain) near Lanka, and observes the island which is regarded as a paradise. In the Kamba Rāmāyanam, a Tamil version of the Rāmāyana written later in the 12th century AD, the divine city of Lanka was built by the architect of God. Its palaces reached for the skies, with shining precious stones embedded in gold. Divine women of the giant race (Rākṣasas) and divine lords were serving giants like King Rāvaṇa. According to Kambar’s description Wind and God could enter the city only with Rāvaṇa’s consent; such was the the defence and glory of Lanka. Men and women happily lived here without the slightest care. Only happy people were seen about, and Hahnuman could not see any signs of discontent as he sifted through Lanka looking for Sītā.
The episode on war, the Uttara- kāṇḍa in the classic, between the Lankan Dravidian king and the Aryan king of India, constitutes 68 chapters out of a total of 537 chapters, in six books. Although in these verses the Rāmāyana narrates unlikely supernatural feats such as the flight of Hahnuman, a monkey god over Lanka, some geographical framework such as the Rama’s Bridge is noted. Rāma and Sītā’s legend still lives on in Sri Lanka through several place-names: Sītāvaka in the
Avissawella district where Sītā is believed to have been held in captivity: Sītākoṭuva, near Gurulupota in Minipe, on the Kandy-Mahiyangana road where Sītā is supposed to have been initially held by the Lankan king: Rāvaṇa, Älla, in Ella (near Badulla), a scenic cave behind waterfalls where Rāvaṇa hid Sītā: Ariṣṭa mountain Riṭigala) where Hahnuman is said to have dumped the earth containing medical herbs from Himalayas: MunĪśvaram Temple where Rāma prayed for his victory: Sītā Amman Kovil, near Hakgala Gardens, where the monkey god Hahnuman found Sītā, and the Rāma’s Bridge (Adam’s bridge) built by Hahnuman and his tribe for Rāma to cross over to Lanka.