Sri Lankans

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Sri Lankans

POPULATION: 20.1 million (2007 estimate)
LANGUAGE: Sinhala; Tamil
RELIGION: Theravāda Buddhism (70%); Hinduism (15%); Islam (7.5%); Christianity (7.5%) (2001 Census)


Sri Lankans are inhabitants of the large island, formerly known as Ceylon, which appears to hang off the southern tip of the Indian peninsula like a teardrop. The modern name Sri Lanka is taken from the Indian epic Ramayana, in which the island is called Lanka. The prefix "Sri" is a common term of respect in South Asia. The island was named Taprobane by the ancient Greek mariners. Arab seafarers called it Serendib, from which has evolved our word "serendipity," meaning the ability to find good fortune without really looking for it. The English name Ceylon is derived from a Sanskrit word that means "Island of the Sinhalese."

Sri Lanka lies at the crossroads of the Indian Ocean. Its early history is one of repeated migrations of peoples from the Indian mainland. The first inhabitants of the island most probably included aboriginal peoples of Proto-Australoid stock who crossed the narrow straits from the southern tip of India. Peoples of Indo-European descent from northern India settled on the island around the 5th century bc, later evolving into the Sinhalese. Tamils from southeast India began to arrive in the early centuries ad and these migrations continued until about ad 1200. At times, kingdoms in South India were powerful enough to extend their control over parts of Sri Lanka.

At the beginning of the 16th century, Sri Lanka entered a new period in its history. This brought contact with the expanding maritime powers of Europe, and later domination by them. A Portuguese fleet landed on Sri Lanka in 1505, and in just over 100 years the Portuguese controlled most of the island. The Dutch replaced the Portuguese and, in turn, gave way to the British. From 1796 to 1948, Sri Lanka, called Ceylon by the British, remained a colony of Britain, forming part the British Indian Empire.

Ceylon achieved its independence from Britain without the communal violence that swept through the rest of the Indian subcontinent at the time. However, tensions between the Sinhalese and Tamil populations were later to lead to a full-fledged civil war. The island nation of Ceylon was officially renamed the Republic of Sri Lanka in 1972.


Sri Lanka is an island in the Indian Ocean lying off the southern tip of India. It is separated from the mainland by the narrow Palk Strait. A string of shoals and islands known as Adam's Bridge crosses the strait, and here Sri Lankan territory is separated from India by only 35 km (22 mi). Sri Lanka is 65,610 sq km (25,332 sq mi) in area, roughly half the size of New York State.

Sri Lanka's topography is dominated by the central highlands, located in the south-central part of the island. Elevation in the highlands averages more than 1,500 m (approximately 5,000 ft) and reaches 2,524 m (8,281 ft) at Pidurutala Peak, the highest point on the island. The mountains play an important role in the human geography of the country through their effect on rainfall. The southwestern flanks of the mountains and the adjacent lowlands are known as the island's Wet Zone. These areas face the full force of the southwestern monsoon and receive as much 500 cm (196 in) of rain a year. The northern and eastern lowlands, the Dry Zone, in contrast receives less than 200 cm (79 in) with totals in some areas dropping below 100 cm (40 in). The island lies close to the equator, between 6°n and 10°n latitude, and so experiences an equatorial climate. There is little seasonal temperature variation, with daytime temperatures on the lowlands reaching between 29°c and 33°c (85°-92°f). Vegetation ranges from equatorial rain forest in the wetter upland to grasslands in the drier north.

The country's population is 20.1 million people (2007 estimate). Sinhalese form the bulk of this population, with 81.89% of the total (2001 Census). Within the Sinhalese community, a distinction is made between "up-country" and "low-country" branches. The former are Sinhalese in the interior mountains around Kandy who clung to their independence while the low-country population came under the influence of the Portuguese and the Dutch. Tamils, who make up 9.43% (2001 Census) of the island's people, are concentrated in the north and the eastern coastal lowlands. In Jaffna, on the northern-most tip of the island, they comprise over 90% of the population. Tamils, too, make a distinction in their own community. Sri Lankan Tamils trace their ancestry on the island back to the early centuries of the Christian Era, while Indian Tamils arrived during the 19th and 20th centuries to work on the tea plantations.

There are other minority communities present on the island. The Sri Lankan Moors are descended from Arab seafarers who arrived on the island in the 9th and 10th centuries. Moors, who have strong fishing and trading interests, form 8%(2001 Census) of the population. They are found along the coast, particularly in the southeast of the island. The Burghers, descendants of Dutch colonists from the 17th and 18th centuries, are a small but distinctive ethnic group. The term is also used to refer to Eurasians, i.e., any Sri Lankans of European descent. There is a small group of Malays in Sri Lanka. The Veddas, a primitive tribal people, are remnants of the oldest settlers of the island. They are Proto-Australoids, with racial affinities to groups such as the Bushmen of Africa and Aborigines of Australia. A primitive hunting and gathering people, they are rapidly being assimilated into Sinhalese society. In addition, there are bands of gypsies wandering the island, making their living from snake-charming, monkey-training, and tattooing.

Following Independence from Britain in 1948, Ceylon was ruled by Stephen Senanayake and his United National Party (UNP), which dominated the country's parliament in the immediate post-independence era. Ceylon, as a former British colony, inherited the British political system with power vested in the prime minister. It was fully expected that the new government would be threatened from the Left, but the island's Marxist parties were too divided to mount an effective challenge. A deteriorating economic situation combined with a rising Sinhalese nationalism, which was identified with Sri Lankan nationalism—a view that was rejected by minorities such as the Tamils—saw Solomon Bandaranaike sweep to power at the head of the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP) in 1956. Bandaranaike's government was unabashedly Sinhalese and Buddhist, but he was assassinated in 1959 and replaced by his wife, Sirimavo. Sirimavo Bandaranaike made a determined bid to secularize education, thus alienating the Roman Catholics, while her policies towards language alienated the Tamils. The Bandaranaikes created a new balance of political forces in Sri Lanka which saw the dominance of the Sinhalese and a decline in the status of minorities.

Despite a move to the left, Bandaranaike's United Front, a coalition of the old SFLP and several communist parties in Sri Lanka held power from 1970 to 1977. A combination of factors, such as unemployment, rising prices, and food scarcities, brought down the Bandaranaike government and in the general elections of 1977 the UNP under Junius Jayawardene won handily. In 1978 a new constitution was adopted, establishing a presidential form of government with Jayawardene as president. The constitution also improved the lot of minorities such as the Tamils. Nonetheless, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), formed in 1972 from various Tamil political groups, became the main opposition and began advocating a separate state for Tamils on the island, a position to which the government was strongly opposed. The years 1983-1988 saw a period of ethnic violence and the emergence of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as the main Tamil separatist group. The period was marked by numerous incidents of violence, with government security forces engaging the LTTE, and many civilians killed in the conflict. However, in 1987 Rajiv Gandhi visited Sri Lanka and agreed to provide military assistance in the form of the Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF). At first it seemed as if the Indian-Sri Lankan accord would be a success, with Tamil groups surrendering their weapons, but the Tamils continued their opposition, and the IPKF was withdrawn in 1990.

In 1988 presidential elections saw Ranasinghe Premadasa of the UNP returned to power and he repealed the state of emergency that had existed since 1983. Violence continued through the 1989 general elections and into the early 1990s, with the LTTE being banned in India, following Rajiv Gandhi's assassination in 1991 (Gandhi was supposedly killed by a LTTE suicide-bomber). Chandrika Kumaratunga of the People's Alliance (a political grouping consisting of the SLFP and various leftist parties), daughter of the Bandaranaikes, became prime minister in 1994 and immediately made overtures to the LTTE concerning unconditional peace talks. Kumaratunga won election to the presidency in late 1994 and resumed peace talks with the LTTE, which resulted in a formal truce between the government and the LTTE in 1995. However, following several rounds of deadlocked talks, the Sri Lankan government launched military offensives against the Tamils, while at the same time developing proposals for devolution, which would give Tamils in Jaffna a degree of autonomy. While successful at first, the Sri Lankan Army was frustrated by a resurgence of the LTTE in 1999-2000. In the meantime, violence continued, with an attempt on the life of President Kumaratunga herself. However, at the end of 2000 the LTTE declared a unilateral cease-fire as a prelude to talks with the government, and in 2002 Norway and several other Scandinavian countries agreed to monitor the implementation of the peace.

December 2001 saw the victory of a UNP-led coalition in general elections, with Ranil Wickremasinghe as prime minister. One of the political consequences of this change in government was a strengthening of the peace process, which saw Norway's involvement. However, in 2004 the UNP coalition was defeated, and Mahinda Rajapakse became head of a rather unstable minority government. In 2005 Rajapakse secured a narrow victory in the presidential elections.

Despite a continued commitment to the peace process by the government and the Tamil separatists, acts of violence (probably carried out by the LTTE) still occur in Sri Lanka. In July 2008 a suicide bomber killed several people (both police and civilians) in Colombo. Even though the Sri Lankan government presented its proposals for devolution in 2007, by 2008 it was unlikely that peace would come to Sri Lanka in the near future.


The linguistic patterns of Sri Lankans broadly mirror the ethnic composition of the island. Thus, Sinhalese speak Sinhala, an Aryan language of the Indo-European language family. This was introduced to the island by the peoples from northern India who settled in Sri Lanka around the 5th century bc. Tamils speak the Tamil language, a Dravidian language that is spoken in Tamil Nadu State on the Indian mainland. Arabic is the language of prayer and religious instruction for Sri Lankan Muslims, though the Moors use Tamil for everyday purposes and the Malays still speak their mother tongue. Although English was used in the past by the Burghers and Eurasians, these communities have now adopted the Sinhala tongue. The language spoken by Veddas is very similar to Sinhala.

Language has emerged as a symbol of the political struggle between Sinhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka. In 1972 Sinhala was made the sole official language of Sri Lanka. Th is enraged the Tamils, who were denied the use of their own tongue for official purposes, and provided fuel for Tamils who wanted a separate Tamil state on the island. Today, both Sinhala and Tamil are official languages of Sri Lanka.


The ethnic communities of Sri Lanka have their own traditions of myth and legend. The Sinhalese, for example, believe they are descended from a lion (sinha means "lion" and le is "blood") whose grandson, Prince Vijaya, came to the island from North India. The Mahavamsa, an important Buddhist work, relates how Vijaya conquered the demoness Kuveni and made her his queen, presenting the history of the island up to ad 350. Much of the Sinhalese folk tradition has its roots in Buddhism. Sri Lankan Tamils, however, take pride in being descended from South Indians who invaded the island nearly 2,000 years ago. As Hindus, their mythology embraces epics such as the Ramayana, which tells how the god Rama, assisted by the monkey-king Hanuman, destroyed the evil Ravana in his kingdom of Lanka (Sri Lanka).


The ruler of Sri Lanka was converted to Buddhism during the time of the Indian Emperor Ashoka (3rd century bc), and since then the peoples of the island have been predominantly Buddhist in religion. Most, though not all Sinhalese are Buddhists, who make up 70% of the population. Buddhism in Sri Lanka is of the southern type, Theravāda Buddhism, which virtually requires becoming a monk to achieve salvation. The Buddhist Sangha, or order of monks, is an important element in Sri Lankan society.

Hindus make up 15% of Sri Lanka's population, and Muslims another 7.5%, or just over 1.5 million people. The effects of colonialism are seen in the 7.5% of Sri Lankans who are Christian (mostly Roman Catholic).


Sri Lankans officially celebrate many Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and Christian holidays. In addition, most businesses are closed on full moon days, which are considered holidays.

One of the most colorful of the many Sri Lankan festivals is the two-week Esala Perahera that is held in Kandy, the ancient hill capital of the island. It is the occasion on which the Tooth Relic of the Buddha is taken out in procession (perahera). Thousands gather to see the sacred tooth (nowadays a replica), carried on the back of an elaborately decorated elephant, pass through the streets. The colorful procession consists of dozens of elephants, temple officials, school children, dancers, and acrobats. The festival held at Katagarama, an ancient place of pilgrimage, is attended by Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians, as well as Hindus. The regular festival calendars of all the religions present in Sri Lanka are observed by their respective communities.


Although modernization has had its effect, many Sri Lankans still follow traditional customs in their life-cycle rituals. In rural areas, for example, when a Tamil girl experiences her first menstruation, she is kept isolated in a specially built hut for at least 16 days before she undergoes a ritual purification. For Muslims, the circumcision of male children is an important ritual. Christians solemnize baptisms and weddings in church. Hindus and Buddhists cremate their dead, while Muslims and Christians practice burial.


Sinhalese are well known for their hospitality to friends, relatives, and even strangers. Guests are invited into the house and offered food and refreshment. This tradition of hospitality originates in Buddhist ideals of charity and compassion. Among the Sinhalese, the same general greeting, "Ayubowan" ("Greetings") is used both when meeting and parting from a person. "Vanakkam" is the Tamil greeting.


Demographic and health statistics set Sri Lankans apart from the other peoples of South Asia because they are not typical of a developing country. Life expectancy for a man, for example, is close to 75 years, compared to 63 in Bangladesh. The annual rate of population increase is 0.78%, quite low when viewed against Pakistan's 2%. The infant mortality rate among Sri Lankans is only 11 deaths per 1,000 live births, whereas among Indians it reaches 58. Per capita income, however, is only us$4,100 (2007 estimate), which is below the average for Asia.

Sri Lankans living in major cities such as Colombo, Kandy, and Trincomalee have access to all the amenities of modern urban living. However, most people (78%) live in villages in the countryside. The typical Sinhalese village is built near a "tank," a reservoir that collects rainwater for irrigation. Houses are mud-walled, thatched, one-room huts, with no windows and a single door. A veranda runs along the front of the hut. Each hut stands on its own plot with a fence marking its boundaries, surrounded by a garden of fruit trees.

Town and country are linked by a network of paved roads and are served by a state-run bus system as well as by private mini-buses. A rail network, though not as extensive as in the past, serves many areas of the island.


The Sinhalese, like their Tamil counterparts, have a caste system which determines ritual status, marriage partners, and even occupation. Marriages are generally arranged, and marriage rituals follow the customs of the community to which one belongs. The woman's role in the family is typical of South Asian societies—managing the household, preparing food for her husband, and above all, bearing children. Average household size is 4.3 persons.


Standard dress among the rural Sinhalese is the sarong (sara-ma), which probably has its origins in Southeast Asia. Men wear this with a shirt, and today women use a jacket, though in the past they are reputed to have gone topless. Urban Sinhalese have adopted Western-style clothes. Women wear skirts and blouses, though they prefer the sari for formal and ceremonial occasions. Muslims wear the shirt and sarong, although the men can usually be distinguished by the caps they wear. In public, Muslim women cover the head and face with their sari in deference to the Muslim custom of purdah, the keeping of women in seclusion. Among Tamils, men wear the verti, a long length of cotton wrapped around the waist and falling to the ankles, with a collarless shirt. Tamil women wear the traditional Indian sari, though in a slightly different manner to the Sinhalese.

The "national" dress of Sri Lankans is basically a white verti and a long-sleeved shirt with a Nehru-style collar. It was popularized by politicians in the late 1950s but is hardly worn by anyone else.


The standard fare of Sri Lankans is rice, which is eaten at every meal. The rice is served on a plate, along with helpings of curry. A curry is a dish made with meat, poultry, fish, eggs, or vegetables, prepared in an assortment of spices. Sri Lankans cook their curries in coconut milk. The rice and curry is accompanied by an assortment of spicy sauces (sambol), pickles, and chutneys. The meal is usually followed by fresh fruits or, on special occasions, by the sweets so popular among South Asians. Hot tea and coconut milk are popular beverages. Pan, or betel nut, is consumed after meals or, indeed, at any time of the day.

There are regional and also ethnic variations in diet among Sri Lankans. Muslim food, for example, is usually much sweeter than Sinhalese or Tamil dishes. Pork is never eaten because of Muslim religious beliefs. Food is also eaten differently, especially on ritual or ceremonial occasions. Men eat separately from women, sitting in groups and sharing food from a single plate. Among orthodox Buddhists, meat is never eaten because of the belief in the concept of nonviolence (ahimsa). It is common for housewives to offer a sampling of the food prepared for the noon meal (nothing containing meat, of course) to the statue of Buddha. Tamils, who regard the cow as sacred, will not eat beef. Rice cooked with coconut milk is an important festival food and is frequently an offering to the gods. At the time of Thai Pongal, a festival honoring the Hindu sun deity, Tamils prepare and ceremoniously consume a specially prepared dish of spiced and sweetened rice.


Sri Lankans are unique among South Asians in terms of literacy and educational levels. The overall literacy rate among the population over 10 years of age was 97.3% in 2003. Th is is the highest of any developing country, and of particular note is the high proportion of girls who remain in school. Th is figure drops only among Muslims, who tend to keep girls at home after puberty. Education is free, from kindergarten through the university level.

Ironically, the high level of education among Sri Lankans is the cause of some dissatisfaction. Many educated people cannot find suitable employment; they are often unwilling to accept lesser jobs and, therefore, add to the ranks of the unemployed on the island.


The cultural heritage of Sri Lanka is closely linked to the traditions of Theravāda Buddhism. An important event in the early history of Buddhism on the island was the arrival of a cutting taken from the sacred Bo tree under which the Buddha found enlightenment. The Emperor Ashoka sent it to the Island, and it was planted in the ancient capital of Anuradhapura. The tree still survives and, as the original Bo tree in Bodh Gaya no longer exists, it is the only living link with the Buddha. The tree is viewed with great reverence by Buddhists from around the world. The Dipavamsa (ad 350) and the Mahavamsa (ad 550) are two important works, written by Buddhist monks, chronicling the early history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

The artistic heritage of Sri Lanka is also strongly Buddhist in nature. The famous "cloud maidens" of Sigiriya, painted on a ledge high on the walls of a rock fortress, are Buddhist paintings that have survived from the end of the 5th century ad. Numerous Buddhist monasteries, temples, and sculptures are found all over the island. The Gal Vihara at Polonnaruwa, with its statue of the reclining Buddha (14 m or 46 ft long), represents one of the highest achievements of Sri Lankan art.

Sinhalese dance differs from Indian classical dance forms in its reliance on body movements, rapid footwork, and acrobatics to tell its story. It is usually performed by males. "Low-country" dancing, performed in the southern coastal lowlands is sometimes called "devil-dancing" because it evolved from folk rituals to exorcise demons. The "up-country" dancing found in the central highlands around Kandy is performed by women as well as men. Kolam is a form of dance-drama involving masked dancers retelling stories from myth and legend.


On gaining independence, Sri Lanka inherited a well-developed plantation agriculture which remains a mainstay of the country's exports. Tea, coconut products, rubber, cinnamon, cardamom, and pepper are the major crops. For centuries, Sri Lanka has been known for gemstones and today still exports sapphires, rubies, semiprecious stones, and pearls. A relatively recent development has been the establishment of a Free Trade Zone near Colombo, the country's capital. Ready-made clothing produced there now accounts for nearly half the value of Sri Lanka's total exports.


Sri Lankans are very fond of sports. Cricket is by far the most popular game, with many clubs participating in league play during the season, which lasts from September to April. Club matches draw large and enthusiastic crowds of spectators. On the international cricketing scene, Sri Lanka is emerging as a major power. In 1996 Sri Lanka achieved an important international honor by winning the World Cup of Cricket, beating countries such as the United Kingdom, Australia, and Pakistan.

Other popular sports include rugby, tennis, and soccer.


Sri Lankans have access to radio and television, although television programming is scheduled only in the evening hours. Programs are broadcast in Sinhala, Tamil, and English. Sri Lanka has a small film industry producing movies in Sinhala.


Artisans in Sri Lanka carry on a tradition of fine craftwork that extends back many centuries. Woodcarving; lacquer work; ivory-carving; metalwork in brass, gold, and silver; jewelry; pottery; and basketry are all represented in the arts and crafts of the island.


Sri Lankans have faced many of the problems typical of newly independent countries, for instance, the need to develop self-sufficiency in food, conversion of a colonial economy, inflation, and high unemployment. Heavy military expenditures, deficit financing, and high petroleum prices on the global markets increased inflationary pressures. Inflation was running at 19.8% in May 2008, the highest level in five years.

A number of Tamil refugees have fled the island to India and the West in order to escape the violence associated with the civil war.

The December 2004 Asian tsunami was an economic disaster for Sri Lanka. Not only were an estimated 40,000 lives lost, fisheries and tourism along the coasts were disrupted, and many people lost their livelihoods. The tsunami, along with political developments, interrupted promising economic policy initiatives and the progress of economic reconstruction.

In some areas, such as health and education, Sri Lanka is a model for the Third World. But the most divisive problem in the country is the conflict between the Sinhalese and Tamils. After independence, Tamil resentment at Sinhalese nationalism eventually led to armed insurgency on the part of Tamils in the northern areas around the Jaffna peninsula. Organizations such as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Eelam is the Tamil name for Sri Lanka), which has received support from Tamils in India, have been fighting for an independent Tamil state in the northern part of the island. India even sent a peacekeeping force to the region for a short time in the late 1980s. The problem remains unresolved today, with continuing armed conflict between the Sri Lankan Army and Tamil separatists.


The majority of women in Sri Lanka are Sinhalese, and as Buddhists they have theoretical equality with men. But like their Tamil counterparts, they live in patriarchies and thus tend to occupy subordinate roles in Sri Lankan society. Tamils are Hindus and share many characteristic of Hindu societies—arranged marriages, casteism, dowries, and the occasional dowry death. Many of these features are mirrored in Sinhalese society. Some Tamil teenagers marry when they are below the legal age in Sri Lanka (18 years) to avoid recruitment by the LTTE.

Sri Lankan women overall enjoy more equitable inheritance rights than women in many other parts of South Asia. The constitution provides for equal inheritance rights for men and women, but Islamic law discriminates against women in the area of property and grants them smaller inheritance shares than male heirs. A daughter, for example, inherits half as much as a son. In Kandyan law, males are also given precedence over females in inheritance of agricultural land.

Violence against women continues to be a problem and to a large extent is due to the long-running conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE. For the duration of the conflict—almost two and a half decades—women have experienced rape, detainment, harassment at checkpoints, and other violations of their personal security. Domestic violence, including marital rape, is another area of concern where legal protection, although strengthened through amendments to the Penal Code, is insufficient and incidents of domestic violence rarely reported.


De Silva, K. M., ed. Sri Lanka: A Survey. London: C. Hurst, 1977

Ghosh, P. S. Ethnicity Versus Nationalism: The Devolution Discourse in Sri Lanka. New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2003.

Johnson, B. L. C., and M. Le M. Scrivenor. Sri Lanka: Land, People, and Economy. London: Heinemann, 1981. Ludowyk, E. F. C. The Story of Ceylon. Rev. ed. London: Faber, 1985.

Tambiah, H. W. The Laws and Customs of the Tamils of Jaffna. Colombo: Women's Education and Research Center, 2001.

Uyangoda, J., Perera, M. ed. Sri Lanka's Peace Process—2002: Critical Perspectives. Colombo: Social Scientists' Association, 2003

—by D. O. Lodrick