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Many Sri Lankans come to the US yearly. 
Although this cultural profile provides insights into some customs, it does not cover all facets of life. The customs described may not apply in equal measure to all newcomers from Sri Lanka.

  Summary Fact Sheet
Official Name
Sri Lanka
Capital City
Type of Government
Democratic Socialist Republic
19 million
65,600 sq. km
Major Ethnic Groups
Sinhalese, Sri Lankan Tamil, Indian Tamil, Sri Lankan Moor, Burgher, Malay, Veddah
Sinhala, Tamil, English
Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam
Unit of Currency
National Flag
A yellow background with a dark-red square containing a golden lion carrying a sword. In each corner of the square is a leaf of the bo tree, sacred to Buddhists. Left of the square are two vertical stripes, green and orange, representing the Muslim and Tamil peoples.
Date of Independence
February 4, 1948

  Did you know?
The road to Colombo airport was improved with the help of the Canadian government and is called the Canada Friendship Road.

Sri Lanka has been inhabited for thousands of years; plant cultivation there probably began over 10,000 years ago. The first known inhabitants were the Veddhas, who call themselves Vannialatto, meaning "people of the forest." Veddhas still live deep in the rainforest in small villages.
Settlers arrived from northern and southern India between 500 and 300 BC. They settled along the river banks of the northern and southwestern plains. The Sinhalese, who converted to Buddhism in the 3rd century, came from northern India. The Tamils came from the southern states of India and settled in the Jaffna peninsula, still the centre of Sri Lankan Tamil culture.
Both groups cultivated rice, using large-scale irrigation systems in the northern and eastern areas of the island. Sri Lankans were the greatest irrigators of the ancient world; even modern technology would find it difficult to better their feats of engineering.
The island was often a target of invasion from powerful states in southern India. In the 12th century, after repeated invasions from the Chola empire, the Sinhalese moved their capital further south. They became separated from the Tamils by a belt of mountains and dense forest, and set up new cities on the coast and in the inland hills. A strong Tamil kingdom with its capital in Jaffna was established in the north. During this period, the first Arab merchants of Islamic faith arrived and settled on the island.
The 16th century saw the beginning of 450 years of European colonialism in Sri Lanka, which was then known as Ceylon. Portuguese colonists were eventually expelled by the Dutch, who were later succeeded by the British. The British introduced the English language through missionary schools, built roads and railways, and established cinnamon, tea and rubber plantations. Thousands of Tamils from southern India were brought to the country to work on these plantations. Tamils of Indian origin now account for about 5% of the Tamil population.
In 1948, Ceylon became an independent state within the British Commonwealth (although the country's name did not change to Sri Lanka until 1972). In 1956, the government declared Sinhala the country's official language. The Tamils, who constitute almost 20% of the population, felt endangered as an ethnic minority; relations between Tamils and Sinhalese grew increasingly strained.
In 1983, underlying tensions escalated into a pattern of killings, retaliation and revenge. Since then, thousands civilians on both sides have been threatened, tortured and killed. A 1987 Indian-Sri Lankan agreement that sent Indian peace keeping forces into the island ended up in failure by 1990, when violence resumed. Peace negotiations have encountered resistance from both Sinhalese and Tamil militant groups. One Tamil militant organization, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, wants an independent Tamil state; they now control much of northern and eastern Sri Lanka. Not all Tamils are separatists, however. Many support a Canadian form of federalism and want to reach a peaceful settlement. Yet the armed conflict continues, and many Sri Lankans seek political asylum elsewhere.

  Did you know?
In 1960, Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the world's first female prime minister in Sri Lanka.

  Did you know?
Elephants are an important part of Sri Lankan culture. They are decorated for religious processions called peraheras, and their images appear in temples and palaces. Some elephants are still used for work. Others are in danger of extinction due to uncontrolled expansion of agriculture and development.
Sri Lanka (formerly known as Ceylon), is a small tropical island in the Indian Ocean, less than 50 kilometres southeast of India. A belt of high mountains in south-central Sri Lanka gives this island a range of climates. The country can be divided into four regions: the southwest, the central highlands or Hill Country, the east and the northern lowlands. Sri Lanka has two seasons: wet and dry. Heavy rains and monsoons arrive in the north and south at different times of the year.
Sri Lanka's south and central regions receive the most rainfall. There are coconut, cinnamon and clove plantations in the southwest, as well as plants used in Ayurvedic or traditional medicine. Rainforests containing hardwood trees such as teak, ebony and silkwood used to grow here, but these have become scarce due to deforestation. The low country is inhabited mostly by Sinhalese. Colombo, now known as Jayawardenapura, is a major sea port and the industrial and commercial centre of the country.
The Hill Country is the coolest area, with an average temperature of 20°C year round. The highest peaks are Pidurutalagala (2,524 metres) and Adam's Peak (2,224 metres). The country's longest river, the Mahaweli, rises near Adam's Peak and flows north to the sea at Trincomalee in the northeast. Sri Lanka is known for its varied wildlife, and the rainforests of this area are home to thousands of animals, including elephants, leopards, crocodiles, sloths, bears, jackals, peacocks and flying foxes, a bat-like mammal that lives in treetop colonies. Tropical fruits such as pineapple, mango, passionfruit, papaya and avocado grow in abundance. During colonial times, much forest was cleared for tea plantations. Rubber is grown on the lower hills; tea on the higher hills. Kandy, the capital of the Hill Country, is considered the cultural and spiritual centre of Buddhism.
The country's northern and eastern areas are relatively dry. Northern Sri Lanka is subject to frequent droughts; in lowland areas, the weather is hot all year, with temperatures ranging from 27 to 35°C. The landscape is dotted with thousands of reservoirs, built 2,000 years ago to provide a steady source of water. Jaffna, the northern metropolis, is the centre of Sri Lankan Tamil culture. 

Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam are practised in Sri Lanka. Religion, particularly Buddhism and Hinduism, influences political, cultural and social life.
Sri Lanka is an important world centre of Buddhist learning and culture. Approximately 70% of the population-mostly Sinhalese-practise Buddhism, which arose in India over 2,500 years ago. Buddism is based on the life of Siddartha Gautama, the Buddha, who attained boddhi sattwa or a state of nirvana. The faith is centred not on a specific deity, but on a code of conduct propounded by Buddha. In essence, Buddhism states that life is suffering (dukkha) and that all suffering comes from desire, which can be eliminated. Followers work to end desire by following the Eight-fold Path, in which one cultivates love, compassion, meditation and freedom from attachment to material things. Like Hindus, Buddhists believe in reincarnation. Buddhists aim to attain nirvana or inner peace. Although Buddhism does not recognize the caste system, a blurring between religions in Sri Lanka has meant that most Buddhists do identify with a caste.
Hinduism, practised by most Tamils, is an older religion than Buddhism. Central to Hinduism is Brahman, the eternal and infinite source for everything, and to which all returns. While Hinduism has many deities (including Ganesh, Shiva, Vishnu, Parvati and Kali), these are really aspects of Brahman. Three important concepts in Hinduism are samsara, the belief that all living things die and reincarnate; karma, the belief that actions determine the status of the soul in its next incarnation); and dharma, which concerns one's caste or social class. However, modern Sri Lankan Hinduism places little emphasis on caste.
All Sri Lankans regard Adam's Peak in the Hill Country as a spiritual place. The Hindus believe that the stone footprint on the peak belongs to Lord Shiva. Buddhists say the peak was visited by Lord Buddha himself, while Muslims believe it was the place where Adam first set foot on earth. Roman Catholics say the footprint belongs to St. Thomas, who preached in south India.
Colonists introduced Christianity to Sri Lanka in the 16th century, yet attempts at conversion led mostly to the strengthening of Buddhism; Christians remain a small minority. Sri Lanka's Muslims are descendants of Arab traders, Malay fishermen, or people who converted to Islam to escape the caste system. Muslim men attend places of worship called mosques.

  Did you know?
An important ritual when visiting a Buddhist temple is the Buddha puja, in which devotees carry cooked vegetables, rice and sweets to the image of the Buddha.

Did you know?
Most Sri Lankans eat with the fingers of their right hand rather than using forks and spoons.
Most Sri Lankans are born into a caste, a hereditary social class that influences their choice of profession and marriage partner. However, other than in marriage, most modern Sri Lankans pay little attention to caste, and people from different castes intermingle in all areas of life.
Family ties in Sri Lanka are very strong. Seniors live with their adult children, holding a respected place in the family. Extended families may live in compounds that include many relatives' houses and gardens. In childhood, Sri Lankans learn modesty, obedience to their parents and loyalty to their family. The husband is considered the head of the family . Though many women are wage earners, women's primary duties are those of mother and wife. Women are also in charge of finances and often have the last word on their children's arranged marriages.
Girls usually have fewer recreational activities than boys. They spend much time learning domestic skills, while boys have more freedom to explore their surroundings and play with friends. A ceremony is held to mark a girl's first menstrual period. After that, her respectability rests on her modesty.
Marriage, traditionally arranged by parents, is considered the most important event for all Sri Lankans. Some parents identify potential spouses for their children through their network of friends and relatives, marriage brokers, the Internet or newspaper advertisements. Brides are provided with dowries, which may consist of land, a house, money or other valuables. Marriage decisions are based on the woman's dowry or man's assets, the social and religious status of the candidates, as well as the matching of the couple's horoscope. Couples, however, do not have to agree to the match.
The birth of children is considered joyous; significant occasions in a young child's life, such as the eating of its first solid food or learning of the alphabet, are marked with celebrations. Daughters are as welcome as sons.
While urban Sri Lankans may live in high rises, poorer rural families may have houses with mud walls and thatched roofs. In cities, men often wear Western clothing, but elsewhere men wear a long skirt called a sarong, while women wear a skirt called a redde or the Indian sari.

  Did you know?
Buddhist weddings are held on a square platform called a poruwa. After rings are exchanged, the couple feed each other kiri bath (rice cooked in milk) or rice milk. When the couple descends from the poruwa a coconut is broken to wish them happiness and prosperity.

The country's official languages are Sinhala and Tamil. Most Sri Lankans speak one of these as a first language and perhaps English as a second or common language.
Sinhala is a Vedic language that originated in northern India. Years of colonization have influenced the language, and it has incorporated words with foreign roots. For example, one of the words for school, iskola, comes from the Portuguese, while words such as advakat (advocate) come from Dutch. Although it easily incorporates foreign words, Sinhala is a complex language, with certain words changing according to the person's social status, sex, familiarity and age. The spoken form also varies somewhat between the north and south.
Tamil, which is widely spoken in southern India, is an ancient Dravidian language. Sri Lankan Tamil is very similar to its Indian counterpart, the chief differences being in pronunciation. Tamil and Sinhala use their own scripts for writing.
For both languages, the caste system can affect the way people communicate; particularly in rural areas, subtle distinctions of speaking can immediately identify a person's caste.
Sinahlese who are superstitious may use different ways of speaking in certain situations. For example, when hunting and walking in the forest, people use a special language called Kele Bhasava, in which objects are referred to by different words. The language is supposed to outwit evil spirits, who otherwise might understand the speakers' conversation and cause bad luck.
Traditionally, Sri Lankans do not shake hands when they meet or take leave of each other. Instead, they raise their palms below their chin and bow slightly. However, today many people shake hands, though only with those of the same sex. Both Tamils and Sinhalese greet each other with the expressions "I salute the divine spirit in you" and "May you have a long life." Moving the head from side to side can indicate approval or agreement when listening to a conversation.

Karuna kara
Thayavu sailhu
Thank you

  Did you know?
Traditionally, Sinhala's curly script was written with a sharp metal stylus (a kind of pen) on polished palm leaves.

Education in Sri Lanka is free from primary school through to university. Sri Lankans view education as a key to success and have one of the highest literacy rates in Asia-over 90%.
Historically, elite Sinhalese students studied at Buddhist pansal or temple schools, where monks taught a Buddhist curriculum. Higher religious education was available at the pirivena schools. Secular schools were introduced during colonization and linked to Christianity. Under British rule, students learned English subjects and language. An English education subsequently became necessary for entry into administrative and professional positions. This requirement divided the country along class and ethnic lines, as Burghers (persons of European descent) and Tamils found the system more accessible than did the Sinhalese.
Since independence in 1948, the government has made universal education a high priority, with instruction offered in both Sinhala and Tamil. Most students attend state-run schools, which are free. Education is compulsory from age 5 to 13, and attendance for both girls and boys is close to 100%. At the primary level, students learn reading, writing and arithmetic, and also attend environment classes. Students begin to study English in the final primary-school year. Schools are formal: children wear uniforms, and teachers are regarded as authority figures, to be respected.
Social studies and life skills are added to the curriculum in junior-high school, which students attend from ages 11 to 15. In senior high (ages 16 to 17), students learn technical subjects, while at the collegiate level, they select their area of interest and specialize in commerce, sciences or the arts.
Sri Lanka's 12 universities are all state-run. However, because of a national university entrance exam, only about 15% of applicants are accepted. An Open University for distance learning, technical and vocational colleges, and various affiliated institutes all offer diplomas in trades such as accounting, agriculture, teaching and business.
Despite the accessibility of education, Sri Lankan children from poorer families are often more urgently needed at home to help their families earn a living; consequently, the dropout rate is high, especially in the countryside.

  Did you know?
Religion is a compulsory subject in Sri Lankan schools, and university entrance exams include sections on religion.

When they fall ill, Sri Lankans typically try home remedies first. If these fail, they visit the family doctor or the hospital. There are two systems of medicine in Sri Lanka, Ayurveda and Western; government hospitals for both are free, though a private system also exists. Ayurveda is an ancient form of medicine based on the relationship between the earth's five elements-water, air, earth, ether and light-and the five senses of the human body. These relationships affect a person's dosha, or life force. Ayurvedic healing is slow, as treatments involve using herbs and oils for massage, baths and tea. Ayurvedic doctors undergo five years of formal training and an apprenticeship period before they are allowed to practise. They often make house calls and spend a good deal of time listening to patients and studying their symptoms.
Many Sri Lankans attribute illness to an imbalance of the three bodily humours: wind, bile and phlegm. A further cause can be mental, often the influence of malicious spirits (yakshas). Exorcists called yakdessas or kattadiyas are thought to exert control over the spirits through charms, offerings or threats, and by performing a vigorous dance (tovil) to drive out the spirits.
Sri Lankans enjoy good health care through a cadre of well-trained medical staff and a network of hospitals, clinics and pharmacies. Life expectancy averages 72 years (the highest in Asia), and infant mortality is relatively low (16 per 1,000 life births). The government provides a number of health-related assistance programs, including financial aid to the infirm and their dependents; pensions to seniors; drug addiction rehabilitation programs; and vocational training and appliances for persons with physical and mental disabilities. Women employed outside the home receive paid maternity leave.
Many Sri Lankans prefer Western-style treatment for acute or serious diseases. The population is vulnerable to tropical diseases such as malaria, filaria and dengue, as well as fungal infections, heat stroke and diseases transmitted by insects and animals. Hepatitis A, carried by impure water or unclean eating utensils, is common. In recent years, HIV infection has become a serious concern and is linked mostly to prostitution in tourist areas.

  Did you know?
Coriander coffee and ginger tea are excellent home remedies for colds and flu. Samahan, a herbal product for colds, is now available in Canada.

Sri Lankans are sports-conscious. Cricket, introduced by the British in the 18th century, has become the country's most popular sport. When the national team beat Australia to win the 1996 World Cup, the team players were treated as national heroes. Radio broadcasts of games in Tamil, Sinhalese and English can be heard in many public places. In villages, amateur players may replace the regular ball with a mango seed or any other round object.
Elle is Sri Lanka's version of baseball: the ball is smaller and the bat is replaced by a long bamboo stick. Women enjoy badminton and netball. Children spend time playing soccer, volleyball, cricket and hide-and-seek. Families living close to the ocean enjoy going to the beach.
People often spend leisure time with family, at school events or in religious observances. At home, children play a number of games, including engili ellama (spotting the finger), string games similar to cat's cradle, thayam (dice) and board games made from simple materials. Community centres and schools are important places of entertainment: schools regularly promote sporting events, as well as plays, folk drama, dances and musical performances. Parents often attend these events and take great pride in their children's performances. In the cities theatre is popular, and moves, TV and videos have has become extremely so; young people may also go to discos and clubs at the large hotels.
Sri Lanka has a long history of horse racing. Although this sport is now frowned upon, betting on British horse and dog races is a common activity, with little betting shops offering satellite broadcasts of important races.
In Sri Lanka, unexpected visits are welcome. When Sri Lankans visit each other, men and women often break into separate groups. The men may play bridge, while the women get together outside or on the veranda to chat, sing and weave mats and baskets. Particularly in rural areas, storytelling remains an important pastime, both among adults and between adults and children. Folk stories often relate religious and moral themes.

  Did you know?
Sri Lankan kites can be enormous, up to nine square metres. People must use smaller kites to bear the larger ones aloft, plus 60 to 90 metres of string.

Agriculture is Sri Lanka's main economic activity. Nearly half the Sri Lankan labour force lives and works on farms or plantations. Farming methods vary from the traditional to mechanized, though still tend to be labour intensive, with buffaloes being used to draw ploughs, and sowing and harvesting done by hand. The country's main crops are tea, rubber, rice, spices and coconuts. Other significant exports include sugarcane and tobacco; tropical fruit such as mangoes, papaya, pineapple and plantain; spices such as cardamom, cloves and cinnamon; and vegetables like tomatoes. The ocean around the island is home to varieties of fish; ocean fishing, a smaller industry, is mostly still done with non-motorized crafts.
Manufacturing, a smaller sector, is mostly focussed on processing agricultural goods and producing textiles, leather goods, chemical, plastics and cement. Sri Lanka's natural resources, however, have been an important part of the economy. The country mines gem stones such as emeralds and rubies, and produces the best graphite in the world. Extracting salt from the sea is the oldest industry. New projects will exploit the country's potential for petroleum products and hydroelectric power.
Over one-third of the labour force works in the services, which include the public and private sector. The government provides a number of social programs, from seniors pensions, disability assistance and relief for people affected by floods and monsoons. The government also supports some volunteer organizations engaged in social welfare activities. Samurdhi, a small poverty program, helps the country's neediest families with food, shelter or financial assistance. Retirement age for both men and women is age 55.
Women make up one-third of the labour force, and are guaranteed equal rights under the constitution. Some have entered male-dominated professions and managed to reach managerial levels, though women who work outside the home more often do so as unskilled labour in tea, rubber and coconut plantations.
Ethnic conflict has strained the economy, resulting in large expenditures on defense and lost tourism revenues. Unemployment is high (over 10%), particularly among youth.

  Did you know?
Growing tea is a laborious process. The bushes must be regularly pruned, and the leaves and buds picked by hand. The tea is then dried on hessian mats or troughs, crushed, and fermented. Tea was first brought to Sri Lanka in 1867 when coffee plantations were destroyed by disease.

Last Updated: 3/25/09
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