Legend says that Sinhalese people, the preponderance of the Sri Lankans, are descended from a lion (sinha) whose blood (le') still flows in their veins. According to Mahawamsa the influx of a North Indian prince named Vijaya, the grand son of an ancestral lion, is the preliminary point of the island's continuous history.
Nonetheless the more accepted details, point to that this ancestor of the Sri Lankans may be a "Singh", which is still a common name in Northern India. Son of a minor king, Vijaya, and a band of his cohorts expelled from his father's empire, landed in the island's modern day Mannar area almost by accident. He called the new domicile "Tambapanni" - for the copper colored sand on the beach.
The Greeks who afterwards arrived in Tambapanni, found the name somewhat hard to pronounce, called the island "Tap.ro.bane." This may sometimes be pronounced as 'Thap.ro.baņa'.The Arab merchants who plied the oceans called her "Serendib", a word since evolved to "serendipity", that soothing state of mind.
Legend also has that the Lord Buddha took his last breath at the exact time of arrival of Vijaya and his supporters in Sri Lanka.
Vijaya, after a turbulent romance, married the local enchantress Kuve'ni a member of the ethnic group called Yaksas and convinced her to help him take over the Yaksas. Few years later the marriage turned bitter and he banished her to the forest where she was later killed by her own people for her betrayal. Vijaya, homesick, imported a bride from his home country. His followers, now part of the ruling tribe also imported brides from India and they together became the forefathers of the Sinhalese race.
Buddhism came to Sri Lanka some 236 years after Vijaya's landing in 250 B.C. all through the reign of King Devanampiyatissa at Anuradhapura. The great Indian Emperor Asoka, himself a devout Buddhist, sent his own son Mahinda, a Buddhist priest, to convert the king and his people to Buddhism. Mahinda spent 48 years in Sri Lanka, during which time Buddhism became the religion of most Sinhalese. During this time Emperor Asoka sent another great gift to Sri Lanka, a cutting from the sacred "Bo" tree under which Gautama attained enlightenment. His daughter (Mahinda's sister) a nun, carried it to Sri Lanka and King Devanampiyatissa planted it in his majestic garden. This "Bo" tree, one of the most sacred objects to Buddhists all over the world, is still thriving at Anuradhapura. The original Bo tree in India no longer stands.
Several centuries later, early in the fourth century A.D. Sri Lanka got another great gift from India, the left eye tooth of Lord Buddha. Wars were fought over this precious Relic over the years and the Tooth Relic has come to symbolize the very strength and independance of the Sinhalese nation. Today this Relic is enszhrine in "Dalada Madura" (Temple of the Tooth) in Kandy at one time the hill capital of Sinhalese kings.
In the present day the Sinhalese are the dominant ethnic group in Sri Lanka. They numbered approximately 13.5 million people in the early 1990s. They speak an Indo-European language related to Sanskrit and Pali called Sinhalese or Sinhala and their myths are of a North Indian ancestry. Most Sinhalese are Theravada Buddhists, even if their religion also absorbed gods of Hindu religion. Sinhalese society is organized in a series of castes similar to those of India but less rigid and with no Brahman or Kshatriya castes. The largest and highest of the Sinhalese castes is the Goigama caste, whose members are traditionally cultivators; irrigated rice cultivation is the chief economic activity in Sri Lanka.