The Sinhala people are the majority ethnic group in Sri Lanka, and they mainly occupied the southern part of the island. Today scholars accept that the ancestors of the present Sinhala people migrated from or through North India at different periods beginning from the 5th or 4th century BC. It is also accepted that although they mainly migrated from the north of India the present-day identity of the Sinhala people has been formed by mingling with South Indian sociological realities which prevailed throughout their history.
From the 3rd century BC, the socio-historical context of Sri Lanka began to develop with the Buddhist ethics and values of that era. As Buddhism had the capacity to intermingle with and redefine the pre-Buddhist cosmic beliefs of Sri Lanka, it was able to penetrate into the lives of Sri Lankan people. In this manner, Buddhism became an integral phenomenon in Sri Lankan society. This is even made clear in the great chronicle of Sri Lanka, the “Mahavamsa”, which was written by Mahanama, a Buddhist monk, and which has a pro-Buddhist and Sinhala attitude. According to the Mahavamsa the arrival of Vijaya, the first king of Sri Lanka, took place on the day of the death of the Buddha. The Mahavamsa records,
When the guide of the world, having accomplished the salvation of the whole world and having reached the utmost stage of blissful rest, was lying on the bed of his nibbana, in the midst of the great assembly of gods, he, the great sage, the greatest of those who have speech, spoke the sakka who stood there near him: ‘Vijaya, Son of king Sihabahu, with seven hundred followers. In Lanka, O lord of gods, will my religion be established, therefore carefully protect him with his followers and Lanka.When the lord of gods heard the words of the Tathagata he from respect handed over the guardianship of Lanka to the god who is in colour like lotus.
Apart from the South Indian Hindu influences in Sri Lanka, Buddhism was not under the heavy influence of any other meta-cosmic religion. Therefore until the arrival of the Portuguese at the beginning of the 16th century Buddhism in Sri Lanka had a free, independent and uninterrupted eighteen centuries in which to shape and fashion the lives of Sri Lankan people. Yet it is doubtful that there was an identity called “Sinhala Buddhist” which was hostile to other ethnic groups.
From the pre-Christian era until the end of the Kandyan Kingdom in the first quarter of the 19th century, many so-called Sinhala kings had wives from South India. Almost all of the Buddhist temples were under the influence of Hinduism, even with the existence of Hindu gods in Buddhist temples. As a consequence even today it is very hard to find a Buddhist temple without a Hindu god.
Although it is not certain when the present exclusive concept of the “Sinhala Buddhist” identity began, it is likely that this concept has its early roots in the Kingdoms of Kotte and Seetewaka. In 1557 AD Dharmapala received baptism and became a Christian. When he became the King of Kotte Kingdom and the first Sri Lankan Christian king, he donated the lands and buildings of Buddhist temples to Roman Catholic Franciscan missionaries. This made the Buddhist monks and the ordinary Buddhist people angry.
At this point, Mayadunne, the King of Seetawaka, presented himself as the protector of the “Sinhala Buddhists”. Although we see a kind of a seed of “Sinhala Buddhist” at this point the term didn’t become an exclusive one until the latter part of the 19th century. Here the essential element of interest is that the main reason for the development of this term was the involvement of Christians in the political affairs of Sri Lanka, which involvement threatened the resources of Buddhists.