The island nation of Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, comprises of two primary ethnic groups — the Sinhalese and the Tamils. The first Sinhalese arrived on the island probably from northern India in the late sixth century B.C. The Tamils, from the Tamil region of India, arrived sometime later around the third century B.C.
Until colonial powers controlled Ceylon, Sinhalese and Tamil rulers fought for dominance over the island. This strife effectively divided the island into two parts. In the north, the primarily Hindu Tamils claimed control, while the south was predominantly Buddhist Sinhalese.
The first colonial power to arrive on the island was the Portuguese in 1505. The Dutch India Company later took possession from 1658 to 1796. Then the British took control, and in 1802 Ceylon became an English Crown colony. The British developed coffee, tea and rubber as primary island exports for nearly 1 1/2 centuries. However, on Feb. 4, 1948, after pressure from Ceylonese nationalist leaders (which briefly unified previously warring factions), Ceylon became a self-governing dominion of the Commonwealth of Nations.
S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike became the prime minister of Ceylon in 1956 and promoted Sinhalese nationalism by making Sinhala the country's only official language and giving state support to Buddhism. This marginalized the Tamil minority, and in 1959, Bandaranaike was assassinated by a Buddhist monk. His widow, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, became the world's first female prime minister in 1960.
Soon after Ceylon changed its name to Sri Lanka ("resplendent island") in 1972, tensions between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil separatists began to escalate further, and war erupted in 1983. After President Ranasinghe Premadasa was assassinated at a May Day political rally in 1993, the next president, Chandrika Kumaratunga, promised to restore peace to the country but was herself injured in a terrorist attack. By early 2000, nearly 64,000 lives, mostly civilians, were claimed in the 18-year war.
Following a tenuous cease-fire in February 2002 between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), violence again intensified in 2006. In 2007, the government regained control of the Eastern Province. Then in May 2009, the government announced the defeat of the LTTE and that its leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, had been killed.
After the conflict ended, the government enacted an ambitious program of economic development, often financed by loans from the Government of China. In addition to efforts to reconstruct its economy, the government has resettled more than 95 percent of those civilians who were displaced during the final phase of the conflict and released the vast majority of former LTTE combatants . At the same time, there has been little progress on politically difficult issues such as reaching a political settlement with Tamil elected representatives and holding accountable those alleged to have been involved in human rights violations.
Source: The World Factbook, 2014.
Sri Lanka has always valued the importance of learning, and since the country gained independence in 1948, the government has made education one of its highest priorities. Primary enrollment for both boys and girls has been well over 90 percent, with higher enrollment for boys and strong emphasis on secondary education. This high rate of enrollment has been possible due to a well-developed network of public schools. Due in part to this success, Sri Lanka is, academically speaking, one of the best performing countries in South Asia.
Although not a state religion, the constitution accords Buddhism the "foremost place" and commits the government to protecting it. The constitution also protects the rights of other minority religious groups to practice their beliefs freely. Even so, there have been some problem areas between different groups.
Holidays and Festivals
Sri Lankan art has been largely influenced by Buddhist tradition and is expressed in various forms including painting, sculpture and architecture. Nature is a recurring theme in Sri Lankan art, as seen in the many temple paintings and carvings representing images of birds, elephants, wild animals, trees and flowers.
Sri Lankan music has been influenced by three dominant cultural traditions -- Buddhism, European colonization (particularly the Portuguese), and historical as well as commercial Indian culture. For example, the hypnotic sound of the Kandyan drums in traditional Sri Lankan music is very much influenced by Buddhism and can still be heard in both Buddhist and Hindu temples today.
When the Portuguese first arrived on the island, they brought with them ukuleles and guitars as well as African slaves called kaffrinha. These slaves also brought their own form of music, further diversifying the musical roots of the island. The dance of the African slaves was known as baila.
Folk music in Sri Lanka is unique to members of different castes and is sung today as a form of cultural expression. However, such music originated as a way to pass the time while one was working. Today, much of Sri Lanka's modern music is influenced by the Bollywood culture in India.
Sports and Games
New Year's Day, Jan. 1
Duruthu Poya Day, Jan. 10: the observance of the Buddha's first visit to Sri Lanka
Tamil Thai Pongal Day, Jan. 14: a harvest festival
National Day, Feb. 4
Navam Poya Day, Feb. 9: a special festival with parades and decorations
Maha Sivarathri Day, Feb. 23: a time of fasting and prayer for Hindus
Milad un-Nabi (Birth of the Prophet), March 9
Bak Poya Day, April 9: the observance of the Buddha's second visit to Sri Lanka
Good Friday, April 10
Sinhala and Tamil New Year, April 13-14
May Day, May 1
Vesak (Buddha Day), May 8-9
Eid al-Fitr (End of Ramadan), Sept. 21
Eid al-Adha (Hadji Festival Day), Nov. 28
Christmas Day, Dec. 25
Duruthu Poya Day, Dec. 31: a Buddhist public holiday
Visit the Compassion blog to read about Christmas in Sri Lanka.
Volleyball has long been a favorite sport on the island. However, the national pastime is either watching or playing cricket. Cricket fields are scattered across the island, and when big matches are televised, it's not unusual for businesses to close. In 1996, for example, the whole country shut down when the Sri Lankan team beat Australia in the finals to win the Cricket World Cup.
Rice is a main staple in Sri Lankan cuisine. Flavorful curries are used to make a wide variety of rice dishes ranging from meat or fish-based dishes to vegetables and even fruit. Along with the main curry dish, a typical Sri Lankan meal includes side dishes such as chutneys, pickles and sambols, which can be extremely spicy. Coconut sambol is the most famous and is made from ground coconut, chilies, dried Maldivian fish and lime juice. These ingredients are ground to a paste and eaten with rice. Along with rice and various curries, coconut milk is a common ingredient in Sri Lankan cuisine and gives it its unique flavor.
"Short eats" — a variety of hamburgers, hot dogs, Chinese rolls, patties and pastries — are a popular snack. Mallung is another popular dish, made of chopped leaves, grated coconut and red onions.
Dal Curry Recipe
- 1 cup of masoor dal (whole red lentils)
- 1 tsp. curry powder (Sri Lankan)
- 1 clove garlic
- salt to taste
- 1/4 teaspoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon chili powder
- 1 green pepper
- 1/2 red onion
- 1/2 stick cinnamon
- 1/2 cup of coconut milk
- basil leaves
Put masoor dal into a sauce pan and add 2 cups of water. Add all the above except the coconut milk and salt. Once the masoor dal becomes a sauce, add the coconut milk. Cook for about 5 minutes over medium heat.
If desired, sprinkle fried onion and garlic on top of the curry to taste. Add salt to taste.
Compassion in Sri Lanka
Sinhala is the official language of Sri Lanka.
- Ow (Yes)
- Nae (No)
- Sthuthiyi (Thank you)
- Sa-dha.ra.yen.piliganimu (You are welcome.)
- Karuna-ka.ra.la (Please)
- Sama-wenna. (Excuse me.)
- Hallo (Hello)
- Gihin ennam (Goodbye)
- A-yubo-wan, suba. Udhae-sa.nak (Good morning.)
- A-yubo-wan, suba. Ra-thriyak (Good night.)
- Engreesi (English)
- Oya-ge nama.Mokakdha? (What is your name?)
- Hambu una eka loku sathutak (Nice to meet you.)
- Kohomadha. Ithin? (How are you?)
- Hondha (Good)
- Nara.ka (Bad)
Sri Lanka Facts and Figures
Compassion's work in Sri Lanka began in 2010 with the Child Survival Program. The Child Sponsorship Program was started in 2012.
Child Sponsorship Program
Children are busy with school during the week so they meet at the child development center on Saturdays and holidays. If the children come to the center during lunchtime, they receive lunch, which consists of rice, meat or fish, vegetables and fruit. The children also get biscuits and milk and, on some days, fresh juice.
Typical extracurricular activities might include camps, sporting events, field trips and talent shows. Parent meetings are held so that parents can get to know what kind of activities are conducted at the center and to also build relationships among the parents and the teachers.
Visit the Compassion blog to learn more about our work in Sri Lanka.
||21,866,445 (2014 estimate)
Sinhala (official) 74%, Tamil 18%, other 8%
Note: English is commonly used in government and is spoken competently by about 10% of the population
||Buddhist 69.1%, Muslim 7.6%, Hindu 7.1%, Christian 6.2%, unspecified 10% (2001 census provisional data)
Definition: Age 15 and over can read and write.
|Percentage of population using improved drinking water sources
|Percentage of population using adequate sanitation facilities
||Tropical monsoon; northeast monsoon (December to March); southwest monsoon (June to October)
|Percentage of population urbanized
||15.1% (2011 estimate)
||Male: 72.85 years
Female: 79.99 years
|Under-5 mortality rate
||10/1,000 (2012 estimate)
|GDP per capita
||$6,500 (2013 estimate)
||Sri Lankan rupees (LKR)
|Number of people living with HIV/AIDS
||3,000 (2012 estimate)
|Percentage of population living below $1.25 a day
||4% (2007-11 study)
Sources for facts: The World Factbook, 2014; The State of the World's Children, 2014