From very early on, the word ‘Sihala’ was used to describe the island, its people and its language. Historian G.C. Mendis suggested in 1948 that ‘Simhala’ was the name applied to the island by the people of India and it was the island which gave its name to the people and the language. R.A.L.H. Gunawardene said that the name Sinhala was give first to a dynasty, then to a kingdom and finally to a people. Divyavadana (2 AD) says Tamradvipa became Sinhaladvipa when conquered by Simhala, the son of an Indian merchant.

Local and foreign historical sources confirm that the island was called ‘Sinhaladvipa’ and that its inhabitants and its language were known as ‘Sinhala.’ Dipawamsa stated that the island of Lanka was known as Sihala. Culavamsa spoke of Sinhala and Sinhaladipa, of ‘rulers of Sinhaladvipa’ and ‘Sihala troops’. Sihala vatthu prakarana which contained stories from the time of Saddhatissa (137-119 BC) referred to the island as Sihaladvipa and Tambapannidipa. Valahassa Jataka (5-4 century BC) says two merchants came from Sihaladipa. Brhatsamhita of Varamihira (5 century AD) refers to pearls from Sri Lanka as Simhalaka. The Sinhala work ‘Sarasvati nigandu’ observes that cinnamon is referred to as ‘sinhalam' meaning belonging to the country of Sinhala. (Lankage 2013)

The island was also called ‘Ratnadipa’, the island of precious stones and ‘Tambapanni’ due to its red earth. Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa have used Tambapanni and Tambrapanni. ‘Taprobane’ was the first name given to the island by the Greeks, when they were drawing maps of Asia. It was derived from Tambrapanni. Taprobane has also been used by the Greeks to refer to Sumatra and some other island. Taprobana is the name given to Sumatra in the Catalan Atlas of 1375. Names such as Ratnadipa and Tambapanni are not proper names. They are merely descriptions that could be used to identify a location. Except for these two names, all other names given to the island derive from the word ‘Sinhala’.

Several variations of the word ‘Sinhaladvipa’ have been used by foreign countries when speaking of the island. Weerakkody says ‘these names testify, not only to the variety of nations who visited its shores but also the extraordinary renown which this illustrious island enjoyed from antiquity down to modern times. China had more than thirty names for Sri Lanka, dating from Han dynasty (206 BC), such as 'Se cheng buguo' and 'Si diao guo’. The names all derive from ‘Sinhadipa’. The term widely used from Jin Dynasty (265-429 A.D) was 'Shi zi guo' (Lion country). Buddhist kingdoms in Southeast Asia, such as Burma (Myanmar), Thailand and Cambodia used ‘Sihala’ and ‘Sihaladeepa’.

The Greeks called the island ‘Sieladiba’ and later ‘Salike’. Sielediba was a translation of Sinhaladvipa and Salike came from Salai, which was probably derived from Simhala. Eratosthenes (230-195 BC) and Ptolemaus (2 century) speak of Sinhaladipa. The Greeks briefly called the island Palesimoundou, derived from Parasamudra. Scholars are unable to work out how this name was derived. Ptolemy in the 2nd century; spoke of ‘the island of Taprobane, which was formerly called Simoundoue and now Salike.’ Roman literati referred to island as Serendivi. Cosmas (6 century AD) said that the island was called Sielediba.

Copper plate grant of the Western Chalukya king Pulakesin I (89-90 AD) refer to the island as Sinhala. Nagarjunikonda inscriptions (2 and 3 century AD) records the foundation of monastery named Sinhala vihara. The early Tamil word for Sinhala was ‘Ila’. Two cave inscriptions at Tirappanguram and Kalugamalai refers to ‘Ila". ‘Cinkalam’ was also used. Sri Lanka was referred to as Ilam or Singalam by the Chola kings. Inscriptions of Raja Raja I (985-1014) speak of ‘Ila Mandalam’ and the ‘land of the war-like Sinhalas’.

Arab traders called the island ‘Siyalan’ ‘Singaldib’ ‘Serendib’ and ‘Saheelan’. ‘Saheelan ‘was the Persianised form of Sinhaladvipa. In his KItab-al-Masalk-Wal-Mamalik, the oldest available work of Arab geography, Ibn Khurdabdhbih (c. 345 AD) uses Sarandib. Sarandib was used initially to denote Adams Peak area. The island was called Siyalan and Sahilan. Abu Zayad, Al Biruni and Al Masudi (10th century) spoke of Sri Lanka as Serendib or Zailan. The Portuguese ‘Ceilao’, the Dutch ‘Zeylan’ and the British ‘Ceylon’ all derive from Zailan.

From the Anuradhapura period to the Udarata period the island called itself Sinhaladvipa or a variant of the word. The ‘Kandyan kingdom’ was known as the Sinhala kingdom or ‘Sinhale’. Davy, who was in Ceylon from 1816- 1820 found that the ancient name for the island was Sinhala, ‘for which Lakka and Lanka is now substituted by the natives and commonly used’. Parts of the old Udarata kingdom continued to be known as ‘Sinhale’ under British rule. In Martin Wickremasinghe’s "Gam peraliya’ (1944) Jinadasa goes to ‘Sinhale’ in search of a profitable occupation. The island continued to be called ‘Ceylon’ during the period of British rule (1815-1948). When Sri Lanka re-gained its independence in 1948, it did so as ‘Ceylon.’ Since this was derived from ‘Sinhala’ we could say that the island was continuing under its original name.

Amateur historians who delight in finding about a dozen or so names for the island, ‘an extraordinary array attached to it by other cultures’ (Sunday Times. Plus. 13.7.14 p 8) take the position that Sri Lanka was an entity which lacked its own name and was therefore subject to any name that any interested country wished to give it. They readily endorse the view that Sri Lanka was an island without any personality or identity. This is incorrect. It was recognized from an early period and the different names given all came from some variant of ‘Sinhala’ adjusted to suit each language.

There is evidence to indicate that at least by the 1 or 2 century AD the term ‘Sinhala’ denoted the people as well. Paranavitana pointed out that in the classical Sanskrit literature of India, such as the Mahabharata, the people of Sri Lanka were called ‘Sinhala’ 3rd century Allahabad inscription of Samudragupta refers to the Sinhala people as ‘simhalaka’. A Javanese inscription in Indonesia dated 8 century AD refers to ‘Zelan’ .Knox (1659-1679) spoke of the ‘natural proper people of the island, which they call Chingulays’

Sinhala was also the name of the unique language developed in the island. The name was originally ‘Elu’ and ‘Hela’ then ‘Sihela’. The first history of the island was titled ‘Sihala attakatha.’ Buddhagosa (5 century) said that the Buddhist commentaries were kept in sinhala basa for the benefit of the inhabitants of the island. He said Sinhala was a ‘manorama basa’. Dampiya atuva getapadaya (10 century) translates the Pali term ‘sipabhasava' as Sinhala bhasa. Buddhamitra in his Tamil grammar Virasoliam (11 century) stated that the language of the Sinhalese is Sinhala.

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