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Sri Lanka Culture, Geography and History
Culture and Customs of Sri Lanka
As an important stop on ancient trade routes, there’s a great mix of cultural influences present in modern day Sri Lanka. The majority of Sri Lankans are Sinhalese Buddhists, followed by Tamils (who are mostly Hindu) and a small amount of Christians and Muslims. Various religious festivals and holy times are celebrated regularly in Sri Lanka, from large nationwide holidays to local village celebrations. As a fairly conservative nation, most locals dress modestly and displays of affection are not considered appropriate in public. While consuming alcohol isn’t forbidden at most times, being publicly intoxicated is generally frowned upon.
The influence of the British is still evident in Sri Lanka’s culture, cuisine and buildings. Drinking tea and playing cricket are the most obvious remnants of British colonial rule, although you’ll also find country cottages dotted throughout some rural regions with some serving traditional English fare like roast chicken and beef. Travellers will find that most Sri Lankans, despite having little, are quick to share their food and friendship. Known for being hospitable, generous and kind, when being offered tea or food in someone’s home, it is considered impolite to decline.
Sri Lanka's wacky Kumbuk River Resort allows visitors to sleep inside a massive 40 ft-tall straw elephant
Geography and Environment of Sri Lanka
Situated in the Indian Ocean, the island of Sri Lanka lies just under the Indian subcontinent, to the southwest of the Bay of Bengal. Much of Sri Lanka receives a high level of rainfall during the monsoon season, with the dry northern areas being the exception. Due to the high level of rainfall, tropical evergreen forest proliferates around the country. Despite extensive land clearing for agriculture, there are still pockets of national parks and biosphere reserves around the country that hold much flora and fauna, including herds of wild elephants, deer and a wide range of birds. Sri Lanka’s remaining forests and protected areas are rich in biological diversity and remain popular with tourists looking for wildlife and adventure.
Sri Lanka’s main cities are typically built up, busy and increasingly becoming more multicultural and cosmopolitan. In comparison to Sri Lanka’s fast-paced, city-dwelling residents, many Sri Lankans still live in villages with simple housing and work predominantly in the agriculture and fishing industries.
History and Government of Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka was occupied by hunter-gatherers for thousands of years before the arrival of Sinhalese tribal groups in the 6th century BC. Buddhism arrived on the island sometime during the 3rd century BC and as a result, the city of Anuradhapura became the capital and centre of Buddhism. This Buddhist Kingdom endured years of Tamil raids until Anuradhapura was abandoned in favour of Polonnaruwa in the south. By the 12th century, Tamil rulers had a permanent presence in the north, where Hinduism still flourishes today.
The harbours of the south soon became important trading centres for Arab traders but by the 16th century a new wave of foreign influence began with the arrival of the Portuguese, then the Dutch. Sri Lanka’s wealth of cinnamon and geographic trading advantage appealed to the Portuguese, who slowly took over the island until the Dutch drove them out in the early 17th century. Remnants of this time can still be found in modern-day Sri Lanka, with colonial forts, cannons and other ruins dotted throughout the country, especially along the coast. By 1795, the British arrived and captured the island from the Dutch. Sugar, coffee, tea and rubber plantations were soon established by the British, along with Western schools, churches and colleges.
Sri Lanka (Ceylon) was officially granted its independence in 1948, but continued to maintain relatively good relations with the British. By 1960, Ceylon had the world’s first female prime minster and in 1972, the name Ceylon was replaced with Sri Lanka, which had just become a republic (but remained a member of the Commonwealth). These changes in government and moves towards independence were largely Sinhalese-centric, which created some tension with parts of the Tamil population.
From 1983 to 2009 Sri Lanka endured an intermittent civil war, which resulted in some displacement of people and human rights violations. More recently, parts of Sri Lanka were devastated by the 2004 tsunami, yet Sri Lanka has rebounded with an increasingly stable economy based on agriculture, tourism and telecommunications. With one of the best performing stock exchanges in the world, Sri Lanka has emerged from conflict, natural disasters and colonisation to become a rising tourist and economic hotspot.
Sri Lanka at a glance
- Colombo (population 2 million)
- 21.5 million
- Sinhalese, Tamil
- (GMT+05:30) Sri Jayawardenepura
- Type D (Old British 3-pin), Type G (Irish/British 3-pin)
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