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Religious entities in Sri Lanka © rhythmicdiaspora / Flickr
Religious entities in Sri Lanka © rhythmicdiaspora / Flickr

11 Things to Know About Sri Lanka's Local Culture

Picture of Orana Velarde
Sri Lanka Hub Writer
Updated: 11 January 2018

Sri Lanka, the spice island, is situated south east of India on the Indian Ocean. Increasingly popular with travelers, tourists and nomads, the culture here is rich and full of stories. With a mix of cultures and beliefs, the fusion has created an interesting place to visit. Sri Lanka is not just beach resorts and tea plantations, there is so much more to discover.

They were colonized three times

Sri Lanka was a colony of three different countries. Between 1517 and 1638, the island was under Portuguese rule. Many words in Sinhalese sound like Portuguese words and some food, like short eats are reminiscent of that time. The Portuguese Kandyan King asked the Dutch for help at the beginning of the 1600s. The Dutch-Portuguese war raged for years, ending in a Dutch victory and subsequent take over of part of the island. The Kandyan King kept his place in Kandy. The descendants of the Dutch settlers are called Burghers and are still a considerable group in Sri Lanka. After the disastrous Dutch take over, it was not difficult for the British to take over the island in 1796. There are many reminiscent British customs still in practice, like high tea. Sri Lanka became independent in 1815. Being colonized by three different cultures has influenced the culture of Sri Lanka to the point that all three are still present in the country today.

They have just got out of a civil war

Sri Lanka was victim to a civil war that lasted almost 30 years. A group of Tamils from the north and east wanted to gain independence from the rest of the country. An insurgency in 1983 by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam was the beginning of the war against the government. Many lives were lost and the country was ravaged to the point of despair. Peace started to appear when a ceasefire was declared in 2002, but it wasn’t until 2009 that the Tamil Tigers were finally defeated by the government. During the war, tourism to the island was scarce. Since the end of the war, the country has opened up to visitors and economic growth.

There are four religions

Of all the people in Sri Lanka, most are Buddhist, others are Hinduist, some are Muslim and another group is Christian. They all live quite comfortably with each other and are usually respectful of each other. Older generations don’t believe in intermixing religions with marriage but that is changing with the younger Sri Lankans. Visitors will find Buddhist temples, Hindu kovils, Muslim mosques and Christian churches throughout the island. Some areas are more concentrated with one religion than another.

There are three official languages

The main language of the island is Sinhalese, close behind comes Tamil and the third language is English. Most people, either Sinhalese or Tamil will know a little bit of English, with more of the younger generation learning at a faster rate. All street signs are in the three languages and if its only in one language then it will be English. Locals appreciate visitors learning the local languages but it really isn’t necessary as English will usually be enough to  communicate.

There are almost 30 public holidays throughout the year

All four religions in Sri Lanka have religious celebrations and festivities. Most of these are considered public holidays for the entire country. The most unusual, although memorable holiday is Poya, an island-wide celebration of the full moon. Poya is a public holiday every single month. Sri Lanka is one of the countries with the most public holidays a year for good reason!

The first female Prime Minister in the world was Sri Lankan

On July 21 1960, Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the first elected female Prime Minister in the world. She served for three terms, as matriarch of an important political family. Her party, the Freedom Party was founded by her late husband who was murdered by a monk during his ruling as Prime Minister. Bandaranaike took control of the party and became the first female political leader of the modern world.

The 30-something generation is changing the country for the future

During the long civil war, many Sri Lankans who were able, left the country with their children. After the war, some families came back in their entirety and others with now grown up children returned with international educations and worldly ideas. The 30-somethings have started businesses, opened restaurants, created innovative startups and are improving the economy for the future.

Serendib, Ceylon and now Sri Lanka

The name Sri Lanka was adopted in 1972 after the island was called Ceylon during the British rule. The word lanka is an old Tamil word that makes more sense with the island country. In antiquity, the island was called Serendib by the Arabs and Persian merchants, a word that was regenerated into the word “serendipity.” All reference to Ceylon has been slowly eradicated from national institutions and companies. Although it is unlikely that Ceylon Tea will change its name any time soon.

The island is famous for the mining of sapphires and rubies

The Ratnapura area in Sri Lanka is world famous for the amount of corundum gems found in the watery soil. Sapphires and rubies have been mined in the country since ancient times. A famous star sapphire called “The Star of India” was actually found in Sri Lanka. Sapphire and ruby jewelry is easy to find and not too expensive to buy. Buying gems in quantity is not complicated and the mines in Ratnapura can be visited for special finds.

Rice and Curry

The official meal of Sri Lanka is rice and curry. A complete meal of steamed heirloom or basmati rice surrounded by all sorts of curries. The types of curry vary from meats, poultry and fish curry to vegetable and even fruit curries. These are accompanied by sambols, which are fresher concoctions made either with coconut or leaves to freshen up the palette. An unmissable addition is the papadum, also a tool to eat it all with just your right hand.

The Veddah are the original natives

The original peoples of Sri Lanka are the Veddah. Now more mixed with the colonists and later settlers, there are still some Veddah communities around the island. Mostly inside or around national parks, they live among nature and hunt for a living.

To find out more about Sri Lanka’s culture, why not come and spend some time on the island? There is much more to discover.