Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka

Country Sri Lanka
Capital city Colombo
Population 20,277,597 (2012)
Total area 65,610 km2
Formation /
Highest point Pidurutalagala (2,524 m)
GDP $ 6,046 (IMF, 2012)
Currency sri lankan rupee (LKR)
Code LK (LKA)
Calling code +94
Internet TLD .lk


Sri Lanka, a pear-shaped island in the Indian Ocean, is 804 km (500 mi) north of the equator and separated from the Indian mainland by 29 km (18 mi) at the closest point. Sri Lanka is often referred to as the Resplendent Isle or the Isle of Delight. It has a total area of 65,610 sq km (25,332 sq mi) and a total coastline of 1,340 km (832 mi). The longest distance north to south is 435 km (270 mi), that east to west 225 km (140 mi).

Sri Lanka has two geographical regions. A flat or gently rolling plain, occupying four-fifths of the country, makes up the entire northern half of the island and continues around the coast of the southern half. The southcentral part is hilly and mountainous, ranging from 900 to 2,100 m (3,000 to 7,000 ft) above sea level, with two abruptly ascending platforms flanking the Uva Basin, the Hatton Plateau, the Kandy Plateau, the Knuckles Group, and the Piduru Ridges. There are 16 significant rivers, of which the longest are the Mahaweli Ganga (332 km; 206 mi) and the Aruvi Aru (167 km; 104 mi).

Sri Lanka

Climate and Weather

Sri Lanka has a generally uniform tropical climate, with little variation in daily or seasonal temperature. Humidity is high throughout the year, frequently around 90 percent. The average annual temperature for the whole country ranges from 26.7°C to 28.3°C (80°F to 83°F). The highest temperature recorded is 36.7°C (98°F), in the region around Trincomalee. The island has two monsoon seasons, from the southwest in May and from the northeast in November. The dry zone, in the north, the central plain, and the southeastern plain, receives 1,270 to 1,900 mm (50 to 75 in) of rainfall annually, while the wet zone, in the southwestern plain and southwestern uplands, receives 2,540 to 5,080 mm (100 to 200 in) per year. Two small arid zones, stretching from Puttalam to Jaffna and from Tangalla to Pottuvil, receive some 630 to 1,260 mm (25 to 50 in) per year.

Plants and Animals

Must of Sri Lanka is covered in rain forest, with teak, ebony, and silkwood trees present. Orchids grow wild. The drier northern part of the country has grasslands and shrubs. Stunted forests and rhododendrons grow in the highlands. Many animals inhabit the island, including elephants, wild boars, deer, sloth bears, leopards, monkeys, crocodiles, turtles, and snakes. Migratory birds stop in Sri Lanka between January and April. Flamingos are one of the most noticeable bird species.

Ethnic Composition

Sinhalese, the ethnic majority (74 percent), form a fairly homogeneous group, though they are sometimes divided on the basis of geography and culture into the low-country Sinhalese and the Kandyan Sinhalese. The next most populous group is the Sri Lankan Tamils (18 percent), who have never been fully assimilated into the social or cultural mainstream. Moors constitute about 7 percent of the population, while Burghers and Malays form smaller ethnic groups. Some thousands of Veddahs, the original inhabitants of Sri Lanka, survive in Uva and the northcentral areas.

The caste system is reportedly breaking down among Buddhists, but it remains important when marriages are arranged and continues to be widely observed among Hindu Tamils. Members of virtually all of Sri Lanka’s ethnic minorities occupy prominent positions in all walks of public and private life, but since independence the Sinhalese majority has steadily strengthened its position of influence in most sectors of society.


Sinhala and Tamil are the official languages, as spoken by about 74 percent and 18 percent of the population, respectively. The government commonly employs English, and about 10 percent of the population speak it well.


Buddhists constitute 70 percent of the population, Hindus 15 percent, Muslims 7 percent, and Christians 8 percent. Buddhism in its Theravada form is the religion of most of the Sinhalese, Hinduism that of the Tamils, and Islam that of the Moors and Malays. The constitution makes no reference to an official religion. However, Buddhism is generally identified with Sinhalese nationalism and the Sinhala language. Christianity cuts across ethnic lines, with about 1.6 million followers, most of them descendants of converts to Roman Catholicism from the Portuguese era.

Though Sri Lanka is officially secular, since the advent of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party there has been increasing Buddhization of public life. Buddhist observances and activities are promoted through official participation and in some cases receive public funds. The Buddhist clergy is also becoming increasingly politicized. There is no discrimination against religious minorities, but a number of recent reforms have worked against the Christian minority, such as the abolition of Sundays as weekly rest days and the nationalization of Christian missionary schools.


As early as the sixth century b.c.e. Sri Lanka’s first settlers, the Veddahs, a dark, nomadic “pygmy” people, occupied the region. During the fourth century b.c.e., a number of Sinhalese kingdoms existed. In the third century Buddhism was introduced to the region by Mahinda, the son of the Indian Mauryan emperor Ashoka. The region was subject to constant invasion and had any number of claimants to power over the course of the next millen-

Sri Lanka was under the control of three major Western colonial powers from the mid-16th century to the mid-20th century. The Portuguese were in control of coastal Sri Lanka for nearly 150 years, beginning in 1505. The Dutch supplanted them beginning in 1658 and were, in turn, supplanted by the British, who were successful in bringing the entire country under their control. British rule was relatively benevolent, compared to that of the Dutch and the Portuguese; by permitting indigenous participation in the governmental process, through the Donoughmore Constitution of 1931 and the Soulbury Constitution of 1946, the British prepared Sri Lankans for eventual self-government. Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was originally called, became an independent nation within the Commonwealth in 1948. After independence, political power oscillated between the United National Party (UNP), a moderate pro-Western party, and the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP), a nationalist party that stressed nonalignment, Buddhism, and democratic socialism. Ceylon was governed from independence until 1956 by the UNP, under the leadership of first Don Stephen Senanayake, then his son Dudley Senanayake, and finally Sir John Kotalawela.

The SLFP, under Solomon Bandaranaike, came to power in 1956 following a campaign in which it demanded that Sinhala be made the country’s sole official language. The SLFP’s aggressively Sinhalese program was met with a wave of Tamil civil disobedience, which, in turn, generated violent anti-Tamil programs. Bandaranaike, attempting to work out a compromise between the two factions, was assassinated in 1959 by a militant monk who felt he had betrayed the Sinhalese cause. Bandaranaike was eventually succeeded by his wife, Sirimavo R. D. Bandaranaike, who pursued an increasingly nationalistic, anti-Western program.

nium. In 1070 King Vijayabahu drove out the Indians and established the capital at Polonnaruwa. The new kingdom prospered, especially under King Parakramabahu; however, it fell to Indians again in 1215 and remained under Indian control for the next 300 years.

The UNP won the 1965 election under the leadership of Dudley Senanayake, who modified the strict language policy of the SLFP. Economic issues—especially inflation and unemployment—dominated the 1970 campaign, which was won by the United Front, composed of the SLFP, the former Trotskyist Lanka Sana Samaja Party (LSSP), and the Communist Party. In 1971 a radical Sinhalese group, the Maoist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), launched an abortive revolt that was quickly suppressed by the army.

The United Front government proclaimed a new constitution in 1972 that declared the nation a republic and changed its name to Sri Lanka. Although much of the government economic program was implemented, the various elements of the front quarreled over the pace of nationalization, and by 1977 LSSP and Communist Party members had been removed from the government.

Following an extremely bitter campaign in 1977, the UNP won an unprecedented victory over the SLFP, capturing 142 out of 168 seats in the legislature. The National Assembly adopted a constitutional amendment providing for a presidential system on the French model, and Junius R. Jayewardene was sworn in as president in 1978. He was reelected in 1982. That year the term of the National Assembly (by then renamed the Parliament), due to expire in 1983, was extended to 1989 through a constitutional amendment.

During the 1980s politics was dominated by the conflict between the Sinhalese majority in the south and the Tamil minority in the north. In 1983 a state of emergency was declared in an attempt to contain the Tamil rebellion. The level of violence escalated in the mid-1980s, and by 1987 the militant Tamil groups, primarily the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), had fought government forces to a standstill.

India, concerned that the revolt might spread to the Tamils in southern India, persuaded the Sri Lankan government to sign an agreement allowing Indian forces to disarm the rebels in return for political reform in Tamil areas. Initially, several rebel groups cooperated with the Indians, but violent opposition to the agreement grew in the south, leading to a resurgence of the extremist JVP. The agreement split the UNP, and Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa won the 1988 presidential election, barely avoiding a runoff. The UNP maintained a majority in the 1989 legislative elections but with fewer than the two-thirds majority necessary for implementing constitutional changes.

India and Sri Lanka ended a protracted dispute over the withdrawal of Indian troops in September 1989. The deadline for withdrawal was December 1989, but changes in the Indian government resulted in delays, and the last troops were not withdrawn until March 1990.

The JVP insurgency was crippled in 1989 when the government killed or arrested all its leaders. For the next three years the country was plunged into a reign of terror in which 30,000 to 60,000 people were murdered. A breakaway Tamil group declared an independent homeland, and fighting between internal combatants continued until 1995, when the parties agreed to a truce. The truce was short-lived, however, and the government retook the Jaffna Peninsula by force. Despite overwhelming numbers, the government was unable to end the violence.

The country continued to move between truce and warfare into 2002. The government and the Tamil Tigers finally signed a cease-fire agreement in February, and the state spent most of the year decommissioning weapons, reopening roads, and engaging in talks with the rebels. The situation appeared to be on its way to resolution when the two sides agreed to a power-sharing deal in December.

Yet in April 2003 the Tamil Tigers pulled out of the peace talks, claiming that they were being marginalized.

President Kumaratunga found herself in the midst of a political crisis that resulted in her suspending Parliament and dismissing three ministers. Parliament quickly reopened, but talks with the Tigers were still suspended. In April 2004 Kumaratunga’s party won only 105 of 225 parliamentary seats, short of a majority. The rebels continued to agitate; a renegade Tamil Tiger commander, Karuna, went underground with his supporters after splitting off from the main rebel group, and in July a suicide bomber hit Colombo, raising fears of renewed terrorism. The year 2004 ended on a particularly disheartening note after a massive tsunami hit the coastline, killing more than 38,000 people in Sri Lanka alone and leaving many thousands homeless. In mediated talks in Geneva in early 2006 the Tamil Tigers and the government reaffirmed the 2002 cease-fire.


The constitution of May 22, 1972, was amended by the National Assembly on October 4, 1977, and promulgated on September 7, 1978. The constitution incorporates a chapter dealing with fundamental rights and a chapter on principles of state policy. These principles include the establishment of Buddhism as the “foremost” religion and Sinhala as the official language, the progressive advancement of socialist democracy, and the abolition of social and economic privileges.

The amended constitution established a strong presidential form of government on the French model. The president is the head of state, and the presidential term of office is six years. He may serve no more than two terms. The president has the power to appoint and dismiss members of the cabinet, including the prime minister, and to dissolve Parliament. Sri Lanka was the first country in Asia to adopt universal suffrage for both men and women over age 21 (later reduced to 18).


Legislative power is vested in the Parliament, a 225-seat unicameral body elected for a six-year term through universal suffrage in a system of modified proportional representation. There are no by-elections; successors to members of the Parliament leaving before general elections are appointed by the head of the party that nominated the outgoing member. The Parliament has supreme legislative authority;

Under the 1972 constitution the National Assembly, renamed the Parliament in 1978, is the supreme instrument of legislative, executive, and judicial powers. The president cannot veto legislation. The legislature can remove the president through a two-thirds vote following a finding of misconduct by the Supreme Court. Laws passed by the Parliament are also not subject to judicial review, although there is a provision for a constitutional court to determine whether a provision in a bill is inconsistent with the constitution. Members of the Parliament are required to take an oath of loyalty to the unified state of Sri Lanka under a 1983 constitutional amendment.

Political Parties

Since 1947 political power has alternated between the two principal parties, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), which also operates as the center of an alliance called the People’s Alliance (PA), and the United National Party (UNP). The UNP is a right-wing party that appeals to the upper-middle class and noncommunal groups. The SLFP/PA leans more toward the left and espouses a bigger role for the state. By 1977 each party had held power for a total of 15 years. In the 2004 elections, the SLFP won 105 parliamentary seats, the UNP 82. The remaining seats went to an assortment of minor parties.

Local Government

Sri Lanka is divided into eight provinces: Central, North Central, North Eastern, North Western, Sabaragamuwa, Southern, Uva, and Western. There has been talk of dividing North Eastern into two provinces, Northern and Eastern. Each province is led by an elected council and a governor appointed by the president. Councils share power with the central government on matters such as education, health, social services, rural development, agriculture, security, and taxation.

Legal System

The administration of justice is based on Roman-Dutch civil law, the British common law tradition, and three customary codes—Sinhalese, Tamil, and Muslim. Sinhalese law is also known as Kandyan law, Tamil law as Desawalamai law. Criminal law comes mainly from the British tradition. Family and inheritance law comes from local practices.

At the apex of the court system is the Supreme Court, with a chief justice, 10 puisne judges, and a commissioner of assizes, who enjoys the same rights and powers as a Supreme Court judge. There also exist a Court of Appeal and a High Court. For judicial administration the country is divided into five judicial circuits, and each circuit is subdivided into districts and divisions, the former with district courts and the latter with magistrates’ courts. Lower courts include courts of requests, municipal courts, and rural courts. At the lowest level are conciliation boards that try minor civil and criminal cases. Court systems and court procedures were simplified and standardized by the 1973 Administration of Justice Law. The constitution guarantees the independence of the judiciary, and lawyers and judges are held in high esteem. Members of the court are appointed by the president.

Human Rights

In terms of civil and political rights, Sri Lanka is classified as a partially free country. Sri Lanka has been under democratic governments continuously since independence, but pressures on the political system have been intense because of Tamil uprisings. An extremely militant minority of Tamils, a welldirected leftist alliance, and an entrenched Buddhist right-wing group have brought Sri Lanka to the brink of totalitarianism a number of times. There have been cases of arbitrary imprisonment, disappearance, torture, and rape of women in police custody. Some civilians have died in fighting between the military and the LTTE. The government has interfered with privacy rights and with freedom of the press. Violence against women and human trafficking in women and children are problems.

Foreign Policy

The island’s major foreign policy orientation is toward India. The relationship between the two countries is complicated by the fact that the Tamils (a people of Indian origin related to the Tamils of South India) have been waging a bitter struggle for independence over the course of several decades. Although the Indian government is officially neutral in this struggle, it is suspected that the principal guerrilla group, the LTTE, receives clandestine help from its ethnic kinsmen across the straits. The ongoing civil war has not only cost Sri Lanka billions in physical losses but has also turned international public opinion against the nation on account of the serious violations of human rights, assassinations, bombings, and extrajudicial killings.

In world diplomacy, Sri Lanka has been active with the Non-Aligned Movement and has promoted sovereignty and growth in the developing world. It has friendly relations with the United States, which has given the country more than $1.6 billion since 1948.

Defense and Military

Sri Lanka has an army, navy, air force, and police force. Total membership in 2003 was over 240,000, all volunteers. The police force controls internal security and participates in occasional military operations against the LTTE. The rest of the military has been primarily occupied in dealing with LTTE terrorism. There is also a 20,000-member Home Guard that supplies security in the villages near the war zone. The defense structure is headed by the president, and the line of command runs through the minister of defense.


Since 1977 Sri Lanka’s government has moved away from state control of the economy and has enthusiastically privatized, deregulated, and encouraged foreign investment. The economy has recovered from a crisis in 1999 and 2000. Relative peace in 2003 allowed the economy to grow, though continued political uncertainty and disasters such as major floods have impeded development. The 2004 tsunami was somewhat devastating to the economy, especially on the local level; the country has received billions of dollars in aid to assist in recovery from the disaster.

As of 2004 the most active economic sectors were textile and clothing manufacture, food processing, insurance, banking, and telecommunications. Textiles and garments accounted for 63 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2003. Plantation crops such as tea are becoming less important.


Sri Lanka has suffered from a series of environmental problems common to developing nations. As land has been cleared for agricultural and other purposes, deforestation and soil erosion have increased. The country has witnessed a growing threat to its unique animal life from poachers. Freshwater is being polluted by industrial waste and raw sewage. Largely unregulated mining activities are increasing pollution and threatening coastal areas. The nation is prone to flooding and natural disasters such as the 2004 tsunami.

Living Conditions

Sri Lanka is a relatively poor nation, and the civil war has harmed the infrastructure. Many areas have been dangerous due to sporadic fighting. The electrical supply is unreliable and many people do not have access to clean water. Public transportation consists of overcrowded buses and slow trains. Traffic is unpredictable and dangerous. In the cities Sri Lankans live in high-rise apartments; in the countryside houses are made of mud with thatched roofs. The tsunami of December 2004 destroyed many homes, and the island has been slow to recover.


Sri Lanka provides free health care to its people, though some citizens choose to pay for private care. Both Western and Ayurvedic medicine are widely available. Life expectancy is high, at 73 years, and the infant mortality rate is low, with fewer than 15 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2004. Common diseases include cholera, malaria, dengue fever, and hepatitis. The HIV infection rate has so far been quite low, but some cases have appeared, probably as caused by foreign tourists visiting prostitutes.

Food and Cuisine

Rice is the staple of Sri Lankan cuisine and can appear at every meal; it comes in white and red varieties and can been cooked in water, milk, coconut milk, or meat stock. People make pancakes out of rice flour, topping them with eggs, honey, or yogurt. Many Sri Lankans are vegetarian. Common foods include curry, lentils, vegetables, fruits, fish, and chicken. Sri Lankan food can be very spicy. A popular alcoholic beverage is toddy, made from palm-tree sap.


Women have equal rights under the law, including equal property and inheritance rights. Still, the various ethnic and religious groups have their own “personal” laws, which place some limitations on women. Some Tamil families believe women should not be seen working in public. Some Muslim women are discouraged from seeking higher education or employment. One important result of the plantation workers’ strike in 1984 was the adoption of equal wages for men and women in that sector. The Ministry of Labor is reportedly considering equalizing wages in all organized sectors of the economy. Women fill important posts in the civil service, the professions, and business, but the majority are found in manual or semiskilled jobs. Women vote in large numbers but otherwise play a more limited role than men in the political process. Sri Lankans are proud that they had the world’s first woman prime minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike. In 1983 the president created the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and Teaching Hospitals and gave the minister, a woman, cabinet rank.

Women are still expected to play the main role in caring for homes and families and as such have a great deal of power within the household. Fertility is low; in 2004, each woman bore an average of 1.85 children.


Most Sri Lankans are not overly poor; per capita GDP was about $4,000 in 2004, although as late as 1997 about 22 percent of the population was estimated to be living below the poverty line. Unemployment was 7.8 percent in 2004. About 38 percent of the workforce is employed in agriculture, 45 percent in services, and the rest in industry. Tea is one of Sri Lanka’s most important agricultural products, for which most of the work must be laboriously performed by hand; in general, agriculture is still mostly done by hand and with the assistance of water buffaloes. Industries include rubber processing, clothing manufacture, and petroleum refining. Women make up over one-third of the labor force, with many working in formerly male-dominated professions. About 800,000 Sri Lankans work abroad, most of them in the Middle East; these expatriates send home about $1 billion annually.


In theory, schooling is free, universal, and compulsory for 10 years, from ages five to 15. Large proportions of children of both sexes attend school, though dropout rates are high for the children of poor parents. The academic year begins in January and is divided into three terms. The medium of instruction is Sinhala or Tamil, depending on the region, but English is a compulsory second language from the third primary grade onward. Religion is a compulsory subject. Children wear uniforms and treat their teachers with great formality.

Sri Lanka has 12 state-run universities. Students must pass a national entrance examination before attending; the pass rate is about 15 percent. The nation also has technical and vocational colleges, teacher-training colleges, and institutes offering certification in a variety of fields.

Science and Technology

Sri Lanka’s technological infrastructure is hampered by a sporadic electricity supply. Telephone services are inadequate, especially in rural areas, but the government has privatized the national telephone company and hopes that this will result in improvements. The Internet is becoming an increasingly important source of information, and most Sri Lankan newspapers now have online editions.


Sri Lanka has a variety of news media, public and private, broadcasting and publishing in all major languages. Though prepublication censorship does not exist, a copy of every newspaper, book, and periodical published in Sri Lanka has to be deposited with the registrar of newspapers, while film, concert, and theater productions require official permits. Despite this, government restrictions on the press and media have decreased, and both newspapers and broadcasters regularly criticize the government and debate politics. There have been some threats against journalists, especially in the east.

In 2004 there were eight privately run television stations and more than a dozen private radio stations. The Sri Lankan Broadcasting Corporation runs two television stations and broadcasts radio programming in Sinhala, Tamil, and English.


Sri Lankan culture combines Buddhist and Hindu traditions, with some remnants of Dutch and British colonialism. The island is covered with Buddhist sculptures and pagodas called stupas. Art forms include metalwork, weaving, pottery, and wood carving. Sri Lankan gem carvers are world renowned. Sinhalese dancing is characterized by acrobatic moves and narrative symbolism. Devil dancing is a dance style used to exorcise demons. The drum is the most important musical instrument.

Folklore and Mythology

Storytelling is a common recreational activity in rural areas. Both children and adults enjoy listening to folktales, which usually have some moral or religious lesson. Folk dramas include masked plays depicting folktales, dancing, drumming, and exorcisms.

The Sacred Bo-Tree in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka’s first capital, is believed to have been grown from the tree under which Buddha received enlightenment. The Buddha’s right collarbone is said to reside in the Thuparama Dagoba.

Entertainment and Recreation

Sri Lankans love to visit friends and relatives and receive visitors in their homes. Men and women usually go into separate rooms, women to talk and weave baskets, men to play bridge. Children play games such as cat’s cradle, dice, and simple board games. Television is very popular. Schools serve as community entertainment centers, hosting sporting events and performances of plays, music, and folk dramas. In the cities, people go to bars, restaurants, discos, and movies. People who live near the ocean enjoy going to the beach.


Sri Lankans value politeness, gentleness, and restraint. They remove their shoes when entering shrines and temples. The standard greeting consists of placing the palms together in front of the chest and saying “Ayubowan,” which means “long life” in Sinhalese. Most people eat with their fingers, using their right hands.

Family Life

Sri Lankans love their children, holding celebrations to mark milestones in children’s lives and diligently attending school performances and sporting events. Family ties are quite strong, and it is common for extended families

to live near one another, sometimes in compounds that include several houses. Though the husband is considered the head of the household, the wife is often in charge of finances and has the last word on who her children marry. Marriages are usually arranged by parents. Most Sri Lankans belong to castes, into which they are born, but castes do not have the same socially stratifying effect that they do in India.

Personal Appearance

Men wear Western clothing in the cities, while in the countryside they dress in sarongs. Women wear Indian saris or skirts called redde. Clothing is often brilliantly colored.


Cricket is the most popular sport, and the players on the national team have the status of heroes. Other sports include soccer, volleyball, and elle, a game similar to baseball. Schools sponsor sporting events, and many children play on teams. Horse racing is a popular spectator sport, and many Sri Lankans enjoy betting on races.


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