Changing faces, changing names: The history of Sri Lanka in 17 maps

Maps are complicated things. They reveal, and at the same time they conceal. They’re beautiful, but they can also hide the true ugliness of the world. They show the world as it is, and at the same time enforce a particular view upon it.

In one way or another, the urge to chart the earth has existed in people since the earliest ancient records began, and in the case of the island nation of Sri Lanka, the history of the place can be read in how people through the ages have chosen to map it.

I decided to take a look at how maps of Sri Lanka have changed over the centuries, to see what we can learn about our changing relationship with the land, the shifting balance of power and rebellion, and how we’ve tried for centuries to depict that most contentious of things: the way the world is.

The Sakvala Chakraya, carved into granite in Anuradhapura

The ancient Sakvala Chakraya is thought to be one of the earliest known maps, and can be found carved into a granite rock face in the Ranmasu Uyana (Gold Fish Park) in Sri Lanka’s ancient holy city of Anuradhapura. The name means “universal wheel”, and shows the whole world as it was known to its carvers.

Of course, this doesn’t look a lot like the world we know today. While it borrows from the Buddhist tradition of the Mandala, and is thought by some to be a cosmographical diagram, the Sakvala Chakraya is surrounded not by the usual flames or gnashing demon, but with fish, turtles and conch shells swimming around the outside. This suggests to me that this is a map of an island: the earliest known map of Sri Lanka. With that in mind, it’s easy to imagine a complex of roads, canals and tanks falling into place, the  towns and cities and ports.

The Sakvala Chakraya, Tissa-Wewa, Anuradhapura
An etching of the Sakvala Chakraya, showing towns, rivers, roads and the sea.

If this is true, then the Sakvala Chakraya depicts an ordered, balanced world of rigid lines, a world where everything is in its proper place. Easily managed, easily controlled. Since this was most likely carved for a King, as it can be found as part of the Tissa-Wewa royal complex beside the great lake, we can assume that this image of an ordered land would have appealed to the country’s early royalty.

Ptolemy's Geographia Mappa Mundi (Map of the World)
Ptolemy’s Geographia Mappa Mundi (Map of the World)

Apart from the Sakvala Chakraya , the history of maps of Sri Lanka begins, as with the maps of many countries, with Claudius Ptolemy’s Geographia (AD 90 – c. AD 168). This latter-day genius from Alexandria was renowned as a mathematician, astronomer, geographer and astrologer, and his Geographia, written around 150 AD, is the most impressive work of early mapmaking.

Claudius Ptolemy
Claudius Ptolemy

The map played a role in the expansion of the Roman Empire eastwards, and contained the first use of longitudinal and latitudinal lines.

Sri Lanka, or Taprobane, as it was then known, can be seen as the large island surrounded by a constellation of islets in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

Due to how well-known the island was in antiquity, Ptolemy greatly overestimated its size, making it significantly larger than Britain, or even Spain, when it is actually smaller than Ireland.

This is because trade throughout the Indian Ocean was booming around the second century, and Sri Lanka’s position as a hub of maritime trade meant that Roman, Greek, Chinese and African traders all visited its ports for cinnamon and peppercorns, as well as the jewels mined in Ratnapura.

Many Roman trading ports have been identified in India, and Roman and Greek coins, and imitations too, have also been discovered in Sri Lanka.

Trade with the Greeks was even mentioned in the ancient Tamil sangam poems:

The beautiful warships of the Yavanas came to the prosperous and beautiful [port] Muchiri, breaking the white foams of ‘Chulli’, the big river, and returned with pepper, paying for it in gold. 

– Poem no. 149 of Akananuru

Ptolemy depicts the shape of the island impressively well, despite getting its size wrong. However, he shows two separate mountain ranges in the north and south of Sri Lanka, not realising, presumably, that an even more mountainous interior lay between these two fronts, between Kandy and Badulla.

Detail of Ptolemy's map, showing Taprobane, as Sri Lanka was then known.
Detail of Ptolemy’s map, showing Taprobane, as Sri Lanka was then known.

He even manages to depict four of the main rivers of Sri Lanka, although he misses out the largest, the Mahaweli Ganga, which meets the sea at Trincomalee and flows past the ancient capital of Polonnaruwa.

Many of the errors in Ptolemy’s world map would be repeated when the map was rediscovered in the early fourteenth century, and revived the art of mapmaking for the Renaissance.

Unfortunately, much of the history of antique maps of Sri Lanka is dominated by maps drawn by Europeans attempting to understand, explore and dominate the small island kingdom.

Muhammad al-Idrisi’s Tabula Rogeriana, an Arabic Mappa Mundi. The map shown here is upside down, as al-Idrisi orientated his map to face South.

The Tabula Rogeriana of the Arab geographer, Muhammad al-Idrisi, is one notable exception to that rule. The Moroccan-born al-Idrisi’s map brought together knowledge of Africa, the Indian Ocean and the Far East gathered by Arab merchants and explorers, and combined it with the information inherited from classical geographers like Ptolemy, to create the most accurate map of the world at the time. It remained the most accurate world map for the next three centuries, until the Renaissance brought about advances in charting technology.

A detail of Muhammad al-Idrisi's map, showing Sri Lanka.
A detail of Muhammad al-Idrisi’s map, showing Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka can be seen in this detail, with its Arabic name: Sarandib. This, incidentally, is where the word “serendipity” comes from, after a Persian fairy tale, The Three Princes of Serendip, whose heroes always make discoveries by accident.

In fact, the island of Taprobane was so sought-after that when Christopher Columbus landed on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola in 1492, he believed himself to have already reached the shores of Sri Lanka.

Sebastian Münster's woodcut map of Taprobane, with an illustration of an elephant.
Sebastian Münster’s woodcut map of Taprobane, with an illustration of an elephant.

This beautifully-coloured woodblock map of the island, labelled “Taprobana”, is a late sixteenth century depiction by Sebastian Münster (1488 –1552), a German cartographer, cosmographer, and scholar. His work, the Cosmographia of 1544, was the earliest German description of the world.

This map of Sri Lanka is a great example of Ptolemy’s misconceptions surviving into the Renaissance: you can see a small part of India incorrectly poking out in the northeast corner, and an empty plain stretches between two isolated mountain ranges, rather than the single high-altitude massif we can see today. My favourite feature of the map is the large engraving of an elephant standing beneath a tree, which was copied from earlier mapmaker Giacamo Gastaldi’s sketches. The elephant is shown with large padded feet and a scoop on the end of its trunk.

Hondius and Mercator's 1596 map of Ceylon.
Hondius and Mercator’s 1596 map of Ceylon.

Jodocus Hondius and Gerard Mercator (he of the Mercator projection) worked together to publish the Atlas sive Cosmographicae in 1596, in which this beautiful, if slightly angular, map of Sri Lanka was printed.

The antique map is labelled: “The island of Ceylon (Ceilan), which the inhabitants call Tenarisin”.

This East-facing chart shows a number of the country’s features coming more starkly into shape, including the mountainous Hill Country, from which the country’s many rivers find their source. Hondius and Mercator also included the largest river, the Mahaweli Ganga, in their chart, and you can see it meeting the sea at the top centre. The drainage basin of that river covers a fifth of the island’s landmass.

The increased detail and focus of Hondius and Mercator’s map is a result of the work of the Portuguese to chart and document the features of the island as part of their ongoing colonial exercise in Sri Lanka.

The efforts of Dutch mapmakers would also be instrumental in the Dutch seizure of the island from the Portuguese in 1640. A pity, then, that something as beautiful as this map would be the instrument of so much pain, and the wholesale theft of a country’s resources. The Dutch period would last until 1796, when the British closed in for the last phase of European colonialism, which would last until independence in 1948.

Bertius' map of South India & Sri Lanka.
Bertius’ map of South India & Sri Lanka.

Petrus Bertius (1565 – 1629) was a  Flemish theologian, historian, geographer and cartographer who made beautiful and intricate Atlases. A contemporary of Mercator, he worked as a cosmographer to the court of Louis XIII. This map of South India shows Sri Lanka slowly assuming its actual shape. Trading ports being increasingly used by the Europeans to cement their influence on the island are labelled: this is a map where Colombo, Negombo and Chilaw are all clearly visible, and you can even see the shallow sea where the loose collection of sandbars known as Rama’s Bridge connects Sri Lanka to the mainland.

This seventeenth-century Portuguese map of Ceylon shows the growing Portuguese influence on the island they knew as Ceilão. Ceylon grew from an outpost to a fully-fledged colonial territory from 1505 to 1640, when it was ceded to the Dutch. This manuscript map was found in a volume of drawings of cities, ports, and other sites made during the brief Portuguese occupation of Ceylon from 1597 to 1658.

The work is thought to have been done around 1650, and is East-facing, with Colombo, Trincomalee and Galle clearly labelled as important ports. This is the first map to show the Mahaweli as it is: the longest river in Sri Lanka.

Janssonius' 1680 map of the Bay of Bengal.
Janssonius’ 1680 map of the Bay of Bengal.

Johannes Janssonius (1588 – 1664) was a Dutch cartographer and successor to Gerard Mercator. This immaculately plotted map of the Bay of Bengal, published in 1680, after Janssonius’ death, shows the huge strides mapmaking was taking as a science around this time. Sri Lanka, now called Ceylon, can be seen in the top-left of this West-facing map – an orientation not uncommon among Dutch mapmaker of the time.

The shape of the island has been much corrected since Ptolemy’s depiction, and main geographical features are starting to emerge. The carving up of territory between Imperial powers has also begun in earnest in other parts of Southeast Asia, and European galleons tread the waters of the temperate sea.

A map based on the experiences of Englishman Robert Knox.
A map of 1692, based on the experiences of Englishman Robert Knox.

This Dutch map crosses geographical knowledge of Sri Lanka with firsthand experience, gleaned by the English sailor and scientist Robert Knox, who lived on the island for a protracted length of time in the Kingdom of “Conde Uda” (Kandy).

When Knox, an English sea captain in the service of the British East India Company, was shipwrecked in a storm in 1659, and washed up on Sri Lanka’s coast, he lived as a virtual hostage of the Kandyan King Rajasinghe II for 19 years, before escaping to the Dutch-controlled territory. He wrote a treatise on his experiences on the island, entitled:  “An Historical Relation Of The Island Ceylon In The East Indies, Together With An Account Of The Detaining In Captivity of The Author And Divers Other Englishmen Now Living There, And Of The Author’s Miraculous Escape”. The Robert Knox map clearly shows knowledge about Sri Lanka increasing around the world.

Funnily enough, upon his return, Knox presented his friend Robert Hooke with samples of “a strange intoxicating herb like hemp” which he dubbed “Indian hemp” or “Bangue“. Hooke later gave an address to the Society in December 1689 in which he provided what was the first detailed description of cannabis in English, commending its possible curative properties and noting that Knox “has so often experimented it himself, that there is no Cause of Fear, tho’ possibly there may be of Laughter.”

The beautiful artwork of the Dutch map of Sri Lanka shows the King of Kandy riding an elephant, attended by a mahout, and waiting men. In the bottom right, you can see an image of a shirtless Sri Lankan man watching with a curious look as a European mapmaker plots his charts: an indication of the patronising nature of the relationship between the Europeans and their colonial subalterns.

Dutch East India Company map of 1751, showing major fortifications.
Dutch East India Company map of 1751, showing major fortifications.

Here we see the final logical conclusion of the Dutch Imperial adventure in Sri Lanka, and the role mapmaking played in that subjugation. Drawn and published by the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie) in 1751, the map shows the island partitioned into regions with administrative centres, and defended by cannon-armed forts. When we can chart something, this map says, we can control it. Small diagrams of these forts ring the outside like an iron collar, making a not-so-subtle point. Cherubs in the bottom-right corner trumpet the glory of the Dutch colonial enterprise.

A map of the recently-subjugated Kandyan provinces, with the positions of Methodist mission stations.
A map of the recently-subjugated Kandyan provinces, with the positions of Methodist mission stations.

This British map of 1822 shows the positions of Wesleyan Mission stations in Sri Lanka. This Methodist missionary association sent Christian missionaries to preach their religion in colonial dominions around the world, but principally in China. They opened several mission schools and centres in Sri Lanka, and the newly-occupied Kandyan territories.

During the Napoleonic Wars, Britain feared that with the Netherlands under French control, Dutch colonial territories would also fall to Napoleon. To stop this from happening, Britain seized the coastal areas of Sri Lanka in 1796, with the Dutch finally ceding the territory in 1802.

For the first few years of the occupation, the British colonialists allowed the Kandyan Kingdom in the hilly interior a modicum of independence and self-determination.

In 1803, however, the British moved to crush the beleaguered kingdom in the First Kandyan War, but took heavy casualties and retreated. After successfully repelling the British, the Kandyan Kingdom held out for a further 12 years, until 1815, when the British broke the Kandyan resistance, and occupied the hilly interior. After the 1817 Uva Rebellion, the Kandyan peasantry were cruelly repressed, stripped of their lands and reduced to poverty.

During the era of colonial occupation, the British colonialists favoured the semi-European Burghers, certain high-caste Sinhala people and the Tamils, apparently believing them to be better at learning English. This favouritism, and the power of a divide-and-rule approach, exacerbated divisions and enmities which have survived to this day.

This mission map of Sri Lanka was made in the aftermath of the Uva Rebellion, and shows just how uncomfortable the British still felt in their latest occupied territory, which they have here stained in red.

1914 map of Ceylon showing main areas of tea (green) and coconut (red) production.
1914 map of Ceylon showing main areas of tea (green) and coconut (red) production.

This map of Ceylon from 1914 shows it divided into areas of industry and agriculture by its British colonial administration, and split into the province that are still largely intact today.

The red in this map denotes the areas where coconuts were grown. The green denotes tea, which was, and still is, grown upland in the hills, in sprawling plantations. The map also shows areas of heavy fishing in the Southeast.

Ceylon became the British headquarters in the Far East after the fall of Singapore and Burma to the Japanese advance, and its loyalty was intrinsically vital to the British war effort in the region.

At one point, there were significant fears that the Japanese might invade Sri Lanka, or begin a bombing campaign, although such a threat never materialised. The British spent a good deal of money on propaganda to keep the Sri Lankan population behind the war effort.

Tourist map from the 1960s, showing major sights and attractions.
Tourist map from the 1960s, showing major sights and attractions.

This Sri Lankan tourist map from the 1960s shows Sri Lanka as many see it today: as a tourist destination, a collection of sites and attractions. The statue of King Parakramabahu in Polonnaruwa is visible in the map, and the tea plantations of the Hill Country, as well as the jewels of Ratnapura that first brought the Romans and Greeks to the island’s shores.  The 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami and the devastating civil war acted to reduce tourist arrivals, but the number of tourists visiting has recently been increasing.  Sri Lanka attracted over a million tourists in 2012, and its tourist industry accounts for over $1 billion of revenue.

A map showing the proposed "Tamil Eelam", a homeland for the Tamil people in Sri Lanka.
A map showing the proposed “Tamil Eelam”, a homeland for the Tamil people in Sri Lanka.

This map shows the proposed Tamil Eelam, a homeland for the Tamils, which was the avowed goal of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), known colloquially as the Tamil Tigers. The Sri Lankan civil war, which raged from July 1983 to May 2009, lasting 26 years, is estimated to have cost 60,000 – 100,000 lives.

The UN estimates that as many as 15,000 – 20,000 people may have been killed in the final four months of the war, and war crimes allegations include attacks on civilians and civilian buildings by both sides; executions of combatants and prisoners by both sides; enforced disappearances by the Sri Lankan military and paramilitary groups backed by them; acute shortages of food, medicine, and clean water for civilians trapped in the war zone; and child recruitment by the Tamil Tigers.

A Channel 4 documentary called Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields contains information on the last months of the war, and alleged war crimes abuses, though some of its findings have been disputed.

Even in the postwar era, Sri Lankan people have used maps like this one to demonstrate their wish for the country to live in peace, although the prominence of the Sinhala lion on the flag would likely cause some contention among the considerable non-Sinhala elements in the country.

A map showing the different languages and religions of Sri Lanka today.
A map showing the different languages and religions of Sri Lanka today.

Today, Sri Lanka is home to a diverse number of cultures, languages and religions. The Sinhala language is spoken by the Sinhala people, who constitute around 74% of the population and total about 13 million. The Rodiya language, a dialect of Sinhala, is spoken by the low-caste community of Rodiyas. The Veddah people, totalling barely 2500, speak a distinct language, possibly a creolised form of an earlier indigenous language.

The Tamil language is spoken by Sri Lankan Tamils, as well as by Tamil migrants from the neighbouring Indian state of Tamil Nadu, and Sri Lankan Muslims. Tamil speakers number more than 3 million. There are more than 50,000 speakers of the Sri Lankan Creole Malay language, which is strongly influenced by the Malay language.

Language has always been deeply politicised in Sri Lanka. The 1956 “Sinhala Only Act”, which made Sinhala the only official language of Sri Lanka, was one of the major causes of Sinhala-Tamil friction that led to the 30-year conflict of the Sri Lankan Civil War.

A photograph of Sri Lanka from low earth orbit.
A photograph of Sri Lanka from low earth orbit.

Today, satellite technology and the Internet have made maps as accurate and easy to access as perhaps they will ever be. But after nearly two thousand years, have we really got any closer to understanding our relationship with our environment? Even now, are we really seeing the world as it is?

Thanks go to:, Wikimedia Commons, the Paulus Swaen Gallery and all others who provided images.

Read more: Stephen Walters’ stunning maps of London as an island, and the imaginary land of Nova Utopia


10 thoughts on “Changing faces, changing names: The history of Sri Lanka in 17 maps”

  1. Sorry, but the Map of Ceilao dated 1606 – J. Hondius he bought this Map from the Portuguese Cartographer, Cypriano Sancez – Jodocus Hondius he never worked with G.Mercatore, but he bought all the engraved plates of the Atlas sive Cosmographicae, by the heirs of Gerard Mercatore after his death, and has completed the Atlas with new maps, including that of Ceilão, The funder of the Atlas J.Hondius – G.Mercatore was Petrus Placius and this Atlas will appear in the market in the year 1606
    All the best Piero Perondi


    1. I loved this article. To see the evolution of this beautiful island Sri Lanka is incredible. I’ve shared your article with friends and family. I have to read this several times to absorb our history. It brings tears to my eyes, a lot of suffering, disruption, wars, colonization, theft and many more.
      To me my island is still one of the most beautiful places on this planet.


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