Sri Lanka, also called Ceylon, is the tear drop shaped island that hangs on the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent. It has a total area of 65,610 km². Its coastline is 1,340 km long. Sri Lanka's climate includes tropical monsoons: the northeast monsoon (December to March), and the southwest monsoon (June to October). Its terrain is mostly low, flat to rolling plain, with mountains in the south-central interior. The highest point is Pidurutalagala at 2,524.13 m. Natural resources include limestone, graphite, mineral sands, gems, phosphates, clay, hydropower.
In terms of touring the island we recommend to visit the following regions on a clockwise manner that will allow you to discover the main highlights of Sri Lanka. The ancient temples and fabulous 'lost cities' of the Cultural Triangle. A highlight will be your visit to the Sigiriya Rock Fortress. Then proceed to sample the magic of Kandy, from here you can also visit the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage. A breathtaking trip through the lush, tea covered Hill Country and descends to the famous tropical beaches of Sri Lanka from the south to the west coast.
Ancient Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka boasts of more than 2500 years of history and recorded history starts in Sri Lanka in the 4th Century BC with the poetry and written teachings of Lord Buddha. There is ample archaeological evidence of human inhabitation prior to Lord Buddha’s arrival on the island. Civilization in Sri Lanka began as early at 250 BC with the establishment of Kingdom of Anuradhapura. However with the constant invasions from south India the Sinhalese Kingdom kept migrating the south of the island. The most notable ancient capital cities being Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Kandy.
Colonial Sri Lanka
The first Europeans to visit Sri Lanka in modern times were the Portuguese in 1505 and founded a fort at the port city of Colombo in 1517 and gradually extended their control over the coastal areas. Rajasinghe II, the king of Kandy, made a treaty with the Dutch in 1638 to get rid of the Portuguese who ruled most of the coastal area of the island. The main conditions of the treaty were that the Dutch should handover the coastal areas they capture to the Kandyan king and the king should grant the Dutch a monopoly over trade on the entire island. The agreement was disrespected by both parties. By 1660 the Dutch controlled the whole island except the kingdom of Kandy and it was not until 1656 that Colombo fell.
The Dutch, weakened by their wars against Great Britain, were eventually conquered by Napoleon and the Dutch transferred the rule of Ceylon to the British in 1796. By 1815 the British were able to bring the entire island under their rule.
The British ruled over Sri Lanka till 1948 during that period they brought roads and trains to Sri Lanka and after the initial crop coffee failed to prosper on the island, introduced tea, for which the country is now so famous.
Twentieth Century Sri Lanka
In 1972 the country became a republic, the Free Sovereign and Independent Republic of Sri Lanka, the Senate was abolished and Sinhala was established as the official language (with Tamil as a second language). Full independence came as the last remaining ties of subjection to the UK were broken Colonial plantations were nationalized to fulfill the election pledges of the Marxist program and to "prevent the ongoing dis-investment by the owning companies".
By 1977 the voters were tired of Bandaranaike's socialist policies and elections returned the UNP to power under Junius Jayewardene on a manifesto pledging a market economy and "a free ration of 8 seers (kilograms) of cereals". The SLFP and the left-wing parties were virtually wiped out in Parliament (although they garnered 40% of the popular vote), leaving the Tamil United Liberation Front, led by Appapillai Amirthalingam, as the official opposition. This created a dangerous ethnic cleavage in Sri Lankan politics.
In July 1983 communal riots took place due to the ambush and killing of 13 Sri Lankan Army soldiers by the Tamil Tigers. Using the voters list which contained the exact addresses of Tamils, the Tamil community faced a backlash from Sinhalese rioters including the destruction of shops, homes and savage beatings. Hence the beginning of the 25 year old civil war in the island.
Defeat of LTTE
The Sri Lankan government declared total victory on Monday, 18 May 2009. On 19 May 2009, the Sri Lankan military effectively concluded its 26 year operation against the LTTE. Its military forces recaptured all remaining LTTE controlled territories in the Northern Province of the island.
After more than 3 decades of civil war Sri Lanka today enjoys peace and stability in the country and working its way to ensure sustainable peace in the island through reconciliation and economic development.
“I know no nation in the world do so exactly resemble the Sinhalese as the people of Europe” said Sir Robert Knox in his book A historical relation of Ceylan. On that note people of Sri Lanka can be categorized on two bases: ethnic groups and religion. On ethnic base biggest group are the Sinhalese and then the Tamils. On basis of religion followers of Buddhism form the largest community in Sri Lanka. As for education most rural people recieve traditional education. European government introduced western education in Sri Lanka.
People of Sri Lanka are divided into four ethnic groups. These are the Sinhalese, the Tamils, the Muslims, and the Burghers. According to a data collected in 2001 the population percentage in Sri Lanka is: Sinhalese 73.8%, Sri Lankan Moors 7.2%, Indian Tamil 4.6%, Sri Lankan Tamil 3.9%, other 0.5%, unspecified 10%. Two chief characteristics that mark a person's ethnic heritage are language and religion. Sinhals are the largest ethnic group in Sri Lanka. Historians have concluded that groups from north India who migrated to the island around 500BC were later known as Sinhals. Most Sinhalese are the followers of Buddhism.
However Sri Lankans as a nation are friendly, house proud and welcoming, with a languid pace to life especially outside of Colombo. In short a life without the pressures of western materialism makes Sri Lankans happy with their lot and proud of their county which is most obvious in the fanatical support of the national cricket team. Above all else family is still sacred. Old people’s homes do not exist, orphaned children are taken in by relatives. You will be charmed.
Sri Lanka is a multi-religious society. Though Buddhism is the major religion, other religions such as Hinduism, Christianity and Islam are also followed. 70% of Sri Lankans are Theravada Buddhists, 15% are Hindus, 7.5% are Muslims and 7.5% Christians. Sri Lanka was ranked the 3rd most religious country in the world by a 2008 Gallup poll, with 99% of Sri Lankans saying religion is an important part of their daily life.
Buddhism came to Sri Lanka from India during the reign of Ashoka in third century BC and played a significant role in the establishment of Sinhalese kingdoms since the early times, dating back to over two thousand years. Buddhism was regarded the highest ethical and philosophical expression of Sinhalese culture and civilization.
Hinduism is mainly practiced by Tamils in Sri Lanka who ethnically belong to South India where Hinduism was predominantly practiced. Major Hindu Gods that are worshipped in Sri Lanka are Vishnu, Shiva, Kali, Ganesha and Skanda. In ancient times Arab traders from the Middle East visited the southern part of Sri Lanka for their business and later settled in the island. The Muslim community in Sri Lanka attained dominant growth by 10th century A.D.
Christianity first came to Sri Lanka upon the arrival of the Portuguese in the sixteenth century. Under their rule, Roman Catholicism was spread out in a mass scale of the Island with many Roman Catholic schools for the Sinhalese and the Tamils. With the attempts of the Portuguese to Christianize native people, Buddhism and Hinduism were severely affected. During the British rule conversions to Christianity increased. Later on due to the nationalism movement among the Sinhalese who held sway the political power; Christianity in Sri Lanka was somewhat restricted.
The climate of Sri Lanka can be described as tropical and warm. Its position between 5 and 10 north latitude endows the country with a warm climate moderated by ocean winds and considerable moisture. The mean temperature ranges from about 16 °C (60.8 °F) in the Central Highlands, where frost may occur for several days in the winter, to a maximum of approximately 33 °C (91.4 °F) in other low-altitude areas. The average yearly temperature ranges from 28 °C (82.4 °F) to nearly 31 °C (87.8 °F). Day and night temperatures may vary by 4 °C (7.20 °F) to 7 °C (12.60 °F). During the coldest days of January, many people wear coats and sweaters in the highlands and elsewhere.
April to May, the hottest period, precedes the summer monsoon rains. The rainfall pattern is influenced by monsoon winds from the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal: as the winds encounter the mountain slopes of the Central Highlands, they unload heavy rains on the slopes and the southwestern areas of the island. Between December and March, monsoon winds come from the northeast, bringing moisture from the Bay of Bengal. Basically the two monsoons dictates which side of the island has the better weather. The West Coast from November to April and East Coast From May to October.
Sri Lanka’s staple diet is rice and curry. Most tourist hotels will offer a choice of local ‘rice and curry’ meals or European style dishes. It has to be said that the standard and quality of food can vary greatly between establishments. The best way to try Sri Lankan food and cuisine is eating out in good local style restaurants rather than the somewhat bland food to be found in tourist hotels. Vegetarian food is surprisingly uncommon (for a Buddhist country!) and may be difficult to find in some areas. Fish is an important part of the diet in Sri Lanka. The island consumes more fish per head of population than any other country in the world! Beef and Pork are rarely to be found for religious reasons. Chicken and Mutton are the most readily available meats.
Rice And Curry
These tend to be very hot and spicy and are the staple food in Sri Lanka. If you like hot food, you will be in your element! Others may find it advisable to ask for ‘mild curries with less chillies’ especially when eating out at restaurants while on tour (lunch). Side dishes such as Lentils and vegetables may either soothe your palette (salads) or further add to the inferno, such as the fiery hot Coconut Sambol. You will also find a great many varieties of tropical vegetables not found in the West.
Fresh seafood is excellent, especially large prawns, crab, lobster and cuttle fish but again may be hot in its curried form. In Sri Lanka, fish is an essential and important part of the staple diet. A huge variety of fish are to be found in the coastal waters of the island.
A real surprise in Sri Lanka is the existence of an amazing variety of fruits. Even those that are readily available in the UK are to be found in a great number of different mouth-watering varieties. Bananas (over 20 species!), Pineapple, Mango, Passion Fruit, Avocado, Custard Apples, Papaya, and Jackfruit etc are available in season. Many of these are used in fresh fruit drinks of which Lime Juice, Pineapple Juice and Passion Fruit Juice are especially recommended. There are also some delicious seasonal fruits (July-August) that are rarely found in the West such as Mangosteen and Rambutan.
The tap water is not safe to drink. Stick to bottled water or the delicious juices of the ubiquitous king coconut. The local alcoholic drink is arrack and is distilled from coconuts. It is best drunk with soda water or ginger ale. Sri Lanka is famous for its tea production and some of the world’s finest can be drunk at a fraction of the price that you would pay in the west. Be warned though Sri Lankans drink their tea sweet, so watch the sugar bowl.
Local brands include Lion, Carlsberg and Three Coins Pilsner. You will find that most hotels and ‘tourist’ restaurants will charge European prices even for locally made beers. These are very much cheaper at supermarkets and roadside boutiques.
Imported internationally branded spirits (Whiskey, Vodka, Gin etc) are available at all tourist hotels and most restaurants, but at a price. Local spirits include the famous ‘arrack’ (made of fermented coconut), which can be very potent, although some may find the taste slightly rough. If you are willing to give it a go, the recommended brands are Mendis Special, Double Distilled,
VSOA and 7 Year Old Arrack.
Sri Lankans traditionally eat snacks (termed ‘bites’) along with their spirits. These are usually devilled meat dishes and other ‘starters’. Alcohol may not be served (even at your hotel) on the monthly Poya religious holiday, but most will agree to serve alcohol to guests to be consumed in the privacy of your hotel room.
The island remains a popular shopping destination within Asia. Highlights include clothing with many well-known European and American brands available at discounted prices, antiques and furniture, and jewelry. There are also some good craft shops around the island.
Sri Lanka’s rich heritage with a blend of Asian and European influences extends to furniture and object d’art. There are several antique shops where antique Colonial period furniture to ornaments, Moorish porcelain, brass lamps and pottery can be purchased. Ambalangoda and Galle Fort are the most famous places for antiques. There are several shops in Colombo as well where prices are somewhat higher than along the west coast.
Arts and Crafts
Traditional arts & crafts are produced in different parts of the island as home based small and medium sized industries where intricate skills are passed down in generations. These crafts are best purchased from the villages where you can observe how they are produced. You can also purchase these crafts from the government run Laksala outlets in Colombo and Kandy or Lakpahana in Colombo. Several local artisans and entrepreneurs have developed exquisite arts and crafts blending Sri Lankan heritage with contemporary design. These products are made of indigenous materials such as recycled paper, elephant dung, terracotta, and scented woods and oils, and handloom fabrics. Elephant dung stationery, scented candles, relaxing massage oils, handloom toys and linen, Sri Lanka T-shirts and souveniours as well as beautiful hand crafted object d’art are available for sale.
Colombo has all the bigger retail stores if you are interested in buying casual clothing. However if you are interested in taking back a typical Sri Lankan souvenir we recommend Saris for ladies and sarongs for men. You can also get tailor made dresses made out of Saris at more popular tourist resorts such as Hikkaduwa and Unawatuna.
Gems & Jewellery
Sri Lanka is famous for its precious and semi-precious gemstones including Blue Sapphires, Red Rubies, Cat’s Eyes, Alexandrites, Tourmalines, Zircons, Garnets, Amethysts and Topaz. The town of Ratnapura is home to a thriving gem and jewellery industry that dates back to ancient times. Here you can see gems being mined, cut and polished as well as purchase gems. This industry is monitored by the National Gem and Jewellery Authority which has outlets located in Colombo and Ratnapura to check the authenticity of gems that you have purchased. You can purchase exquisite gem studded jewellery set in gold, white gold or platinum in jewellery shops in Colombo, Galle, Kandy and Ratnapura. Given a period of about five days, they will create exquisite pieces to your specifications. Colombo has the best choice of reputed jewellery shops. When you are shopping for gems across the country, make sure you purchase stones from shops that are licensed with the National Gem and Jewellery Authority.
Take home a packet of world famous Ceylon Tea. You have the choice of purchasing directly from tea estates while traveling through the hill country or we buy them from renowned Dilmah Teas and Mlesna Tea centers located in all major tourist destinations.
Sri Lanka is the world’s second largest cinnamon exporter. You can purchase fresh cinnamon from plantations in Mirissa as well as in Koggala. Sri Lanka also produces a wide variety of spices such as cardamom cloves and pepper corn where you can purchase at Matale en route to Kandy at a commercial spice garden.
Religion plays a huge part of the Sri Lankan culture and almost all of the festivals that take place in the island around the year are organized by the major Hindu and Buddhist temples in the island. The processions also called as “Peraharas” are organized by the major Buddhist temples and the famous one is the Esala Perahara of the Temple of the Tooth at Kandy. Apart from that the Hindu temples mostly in the northern part of the island also organizes festivals for their devotees with the most famous one taking place in Nalur Kovil in Jaffna.The exact dates for the festivals are determined annually by the head priests according to the position of the sun/moon and various religious calendars.
Durutu Perahara – Kelaniya Temple Colombo (January)
The Duruthu Perahera is held in January to commemorate the visit of the Buddha to Kelaniya. It’s a grand procession of drummers, dancers, torch-bearers, elephants and acrobats make this perahera puts more emphasis on traditional dance forms of “low –country” which differs from the more popular dance forms of Kandy also known as the “Up- Country”.
Navam Perahara – Gangaramaya Colombo (February)
The Gangarama annual perahera, parades the streets of Colombo for 2 days with all its colour and gaiety, which of late has become the centre piece of the metropolis.
Ruhunu Perahara – Kataragama (July)
The historic religious town of Kataragama is a significant place of worship for both Buddhist and Hindu devotees of the island. Apart from the elephants and the traditional dancers taking part in the parade one of the highlights of the parade is Hindu devotees walking on hot coals to and performing other rituals such as suspending on hooks to show their devotion to god Skanda.
Esala Perahara – Temple of The Tooth, Kandy (July/August)
The grand festival of Esala parades the streets of citadel of Kandy July or August for 10days, it has become a unique symbol of Sri Lanka. It is a Buddhist festival consisting of dances and nicely decorated elephants. There are fire-dances, whip-dances, Kandian dances and various other cultural dances. The elephants are usually adorned with lavish garments. The festival ends with the traditional 'diya-kepeema' which is the last of the series of procession and the only one that takes place during the daytime.
Nallur Festival – Jaffna (July/August)
The annual festival of ‘Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil’ in Jaffna will take place on 04 August. This is the most important festival of the Jaffna Peninsular held in July-August (26 days before the August new moon). The event which brings together hundreds of thousands of Jaffna natives living across the world is known to be the island’s longest festival. 3 and 14 January and is honour of the sun god.
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