Location/Culture Reports

Location Report – Sri Lanka

Home to 20 million people, the island is about the same size as the state of West Virginia (or the country of Ireland, for that matter).
Setting: Marco Polo considered Sri Lanka to be the finest island in the world when he visited there in 1292. Situated off the southern tip of India, teardrop-shaped Sri Lanka is separated from India by only 31 miles of the Palk Strait. In fact, one of its many nicknames is “The Teardrop of India.” Home to 20 million people, the island is about the same size as the state of West Virginia (or the country of Ireland, for that matter).

History: The Sinhalese arrived in Sri Lanka late in the 6th century B.C., probably from northern India. Buddhism was introduced around the mid-third century B.C. The next 1000 years saw repeated invasions from southern India, leaving the country in a constant state of conflict. In the 14th century, the Tamil Kingdom was established after a successful invasion from the south of India. Europeans arrived on the scene and the island was occupied by the Portuguese in the 16th century and by the Dutch in the 17th century. After more conflict, the island was ceded to the British in 1796, became a colony in 1802, and was united under British rule by 1815. The country was renamed “Ceylon” and became independent in 1948; the name was changed to Sri Lanka in 1972. Continued tensions between the Sinhalese majority (74%) and Tamil separatists (18%) erupted into war in 1983. The ethnic conflict has continued to fester, resulting in massive human rights violations and a reign of terror in the late 1980s that left tens of thousands dead. After two decades of fighting, the government and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam formalized a cease-fire in February 2002, but progress has been slow and interrupted by violent outbreaks.

Climate & Nature: Sri Lanka has a warm climate, moderated by ocean winds and considerable moisture. The notable “monsoon season” dumps up to 250cm (over 8 feet!) of rain per month on some regions of the country. The southern half of the island is dominated by beautiful and rugged rolling hills of tropical rainforest. The northern half consists of a large, arid shrub and grassland area. Beautiful beaches famous for their surfing are on the southwestern, southern and southeastern coasts.

Sri Lanka has a rich animal life, including large populations of Asian elephants, as well as leopards, monkeys, sloths, wild boar, cobras, crocodiles, dugong, and turtles. The island is an important seasonal home to migrating birds, including flamingoes, which flock to the lagoons, wetlands, and wildlife management areas.

The People: Formerly the country had a primarily agricultural base in tea, coconuts, and other agricultural commodities. However, Sri Lanka's current economy is focused on food processing, textiles and apparel, food and beverages, telecommunications, and insurance and banking. In 2003, plantation crops made up only 15% of exports (compared with 93% in 1970), while textiles and garments accounted for 63%. Strides have been made to improve health care and education with strong results: life-expectancy is 72 years, and the literacy rate is 92%.
Sri Lanka has a very mixed cultural heritage and includes a broad range of Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, and Muslim religious practices.
Sri Lanka has a very mixed cultural heritage and includes a broad range of Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, and Muslim religious practices. Though the Buddha died in northern India, one of his teeth has made it to Sri Lanka and has been kept in Kandy since 1592. The Kandy Esala Perahera (“Parading the Tooth Relic”) is the country's most important and spectacular pageant, with 10 days of torch-bearers, whip-crackers, dancers, drummers, and hundreds of elephants covered with spectacular lights. Basically the “chief” elephant, which is also the last in the parade, carries a replica of the relic of Buddha’s tooth through the streets for hours at a time. Each night of the festival more and more elephants take part and the parades get bigger and more elaborate.

Sri Lanka was among the countries ravaged by the tsunami on December 26th. Estimates are that 30,000 people lost their lives, with 17,000 injured and over a million people displaced from their homes, particularly in the northeastern coastal region. Infrastructure has been badly damaged by the disaster, and much of the country is off-limits to tourists while the reconstruction is going on.

Interesting fact: One of the most visited sites in Sri Lanka is the Pinnawela elephant orphanage, which is home to dozens of orphaned baby elephants. Best time to visit? Bath time!

For further reading:
Lonely Planet
Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage
Country studies: Sri Lanka