Sri Lanka has always been an island shrouded in mystery.
According to journalist William McGowan:
Even those living in Sri Lanka for many years felt its fundamental impenetrability; the longer you lived there, the more you realized you’d never really know it…
It was a country, after all, that Arab traders had once named Serendip, for its aura of accidental good fortune…If serendipity were to strike the island now, I’m afraid the dose would have to be massive.” (Only Man is Vile, 1992)
Actually, the word serendipity comes from the old name for Sri Lanka (Serendip), not the other way around. “Serendip” derived from the words Sinhala, “dwelling place of lions”, and dwipa, or “island”.
An ancient Persian fairy tale known as The Three Princes of Serendip told the story of three wise princes of the region whose collective intelligence led to good fortune, but only when they weren’t looking for it.
The English word was coined in 1754 by Horace Walpole, in a letter to a friend. His friend had sent him an unframed portrait of Bianca Capello that Walpole had admired. Walpole happened across the Capello coat-of-arms in a book of Venetian arms, which he used to help frame the portrait:
…This discovery indeed is almost of that kind which I call serendipity, a very expressive word…I once read a silly fairy tale, called The Three Princes of Serendip: as their highnesses traveled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of…
McGowen is right though. Sri Lanka is long overdue for some good karma. In addition to the devastation of the December 26, 2004 tsunami, the small island nation has been plagued with civil war ever since its independence, which it won from the British on this day in 1948.
Sri Lankans believe the Lord Buddha visited the islands three times:
“In Lanka, O Lord of Gods, shall my religion be established and flourish.”
Lord Buddha, The Mahavamsa, 6th century AD
Every summer, Sri Lankans display the Sacred Tooth — believed to be the Buddha’s left canine — in an elephant procession known as Perahera.