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Sri Lanka History, Language and Culture

History of Sri Lanka

Woven through Sri Lanka’s absorbing history is a story of strife between the country’s two biggest ethnic groups: the Buddhist Sinhalese and the Hindu and Muslim Tamils. Almost every ancient site has two conflicting legends surrounding it, and historians often struggle to distinguish fact from myth. What is generally agreed is that Buddhism arrived on the island in the 3rd century BC, reputedly carried here by the son of the Indian emperor Ashoka.

The earliest Sri Lankan civilisation was based around the city of Anuradhapura, which still endures as an atmospheric ruin, along with its successor city, Polonnaruwa. The collapse of Polonnaruwa after more than two centuries saw Sinhalese power shift to the southwest of the island, creating a cultural split with the largely Tamil coastal settlements in the north, who looked to India for guidance.

This historical division survived the colonising attempts of the Portuguese, Dutch and British, and continued through WWII and independence from British colonial rule in 1948. Increasing centralisation of power within the Sinhalese community and marginalisation of Tamils led to riots in the 1950s and ultimately civil war. By the early 1980s the Sinhalese government were locked in a seemingly endless cycle of violence with the rebel organisation that came to be known as the Tamil Tigers.

A long-awaited deal between Sri Lanka's government and the rebel Tamil Tigers (LTTE) was concluded in early 2002, but fighting became much more serious in 2006 and much of the country became no-go areas for tourists, particularly the Tamil heartland in the north of the island. In 2009, the government escalated their offensive, and succeeded in killing the leader of the LTTE, Velupillai Prabhakran, bringing 26 years of conflict to an end.

Since then, peace has endured, but allegations persist of civilian massacres and human rights violations by both sides, but particularly by government forces, in the final years of the conflict. Many international politicians have called for an independent enquiry into war crime allegations, and this may finally materialise with the change of leadership from the militaristic Mahinda Rajapaksa to the more conciliatory Maithripala Sirisena.

Still, this vibrant little island has proved adept at bouncing back from adversity. Over a decade on from the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, which killed more than 30,000 people across the country and destroyed many coastal towns, the country is powering ahead of the rest of the region both socially and economically. With tourism booming and infrastructure expanding, the future of Sri Lanka looks bright.

Did you know?
• Though Sri Lankans are mad about cricket, the national sport is actually volleyball.
• Cinnamon originally comes from Sri Lanka and is used in many local dishes.
• Sri Lanka was known as Ceylon until 1972.

Sri Lanka Culture

Religion in Sri Lanka

The majority of the Sinhalese population practises Buddhism (70%). Minority religions include Hinduism (almost exclusively practised by the Tamil population), Christianity, with the majority denomination being Roman Catholic (around 6% of the population as opposed to 0.8% who are Anglicans) and Islam (practised by around 10% of the population).

Social Conventions in Sri Lanka

Shaking hands is the normal manner of greeting, and it is also common to see people greet by bringing both hands together and saying "Ayubowan" which means "have a long life" when they first meet with someone. It is customary to be offered tea when visiting and considered impolite to refuse. Punctuality is always appreciated, although it may not be reciprocated as the concept of time is a little loose. If visiting someone's home, or place of business, bring a small gift is appreciated.

When visiting Buddhist temples, modest clothing should be worn (don't show bare legs and upper arms). Shoes and hats must be removed when entering places of worship too.

Jackets and ties are not required by men except for formal functions when lightweight suits should be worn. Women may choose a dress or opt for a blouse with a shirt or pair of toursers.

Expect a significant amount of head waggling which can mean yes, no or maybe.

Public displays of affection between couples are frowned upon while public nudity and homosexuality are illegal.

Language in Sri Lanka

The major languages spoken are Sinhala and Tamil. English is spoken by around 10% of the population, and a further small minority speak Portuguese Creole, a hangover from colonial times.

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