10 Things You Didn’t Know About Sri Lanka

An island of diversity, in population and religion.

Sri Lanka
Kandalama Lake, Sri Lanka. Photo: Jetset Times

Sri Lanka is one of the most diverse islands in the world, regarding language, religion, and population. Sinhalese make up the largest ethnic group with 85%, the rest include: Sri Lankan Tamils, Sri Lankan Moors, Tamils of Indian origin, Burghers who are of European descent, Malays, and Vedda people who are the indigenous people on the island.

Although Sinhala and Tamil are the two official languages in Sri Lanka, english is also widely spoken and taught in school. The multi-religious island consists of Buddhists (70%), and the rest made up of Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Catholics.

It is no secret that Sri Lanka also suffered from a 25-year civil war, although often known as a travel destination, here are some things you might have not known about this island of diversity and a sordid history.

1. Balangoda Man.

The earliest human settlement found in Sri Lanka is in the Balangoda Man – hunter gathers who lived in caves approximately 34,000 years ago. They also created the Horton Plains – now a National Park in Sri Lanka – by burning trees so they could catch game. From oats and barley during this time, Balangoda Man seemed to have developed agriculture around this early period.

2. The Cinnamon Man.

From Balangoda Man to cinnamon, the spice was found in Egypt but is native to Sri Lanka. This indicates the early trade between two places.

3. Iron Age, then Hydraulic Civilization led to Buddhism.

When you visit Sri Lanka, famous landmarks including: Anuradhapura and Sigiriya, symbolize the beginnings of city-settlement before 900 BCE. These sites multiplied in hectares within centuries which was significant around this time.

During 500 BCE, Sri Lankans were known for their advanced hydraulic civilization which included the constructions of: largest reservoirs and dams of the Old World, pyramid-like Stupas which led to the beginning of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

While visiting Sri Lanka, you’ll come across several stupas from massive to small. These are known to keep relics – typically remains of monks or nuns – and used as a place for meditation.

Sri Lanka
Sleeping Buddha, Sri Lanka. Photo: Jetset Times

4. Anuradhapura Period.

An important part of Sri Lankan history is Anuradhapura Period from 377 BC to 1017 AD, since King of Upatissa Nuwara, Pandukabhaya became the first monarch, the first true Sri Lankan King. He also moved the administration to Anuradhapura to establish a cosmopolitan citadel, reorganized the population by ending battles between locals and the Sinha people.

Sri Lanka
Cultural Triangle, Sri Lanka. Photo: Jetset Times

5. Portuguese & Dutch occupations.

During the 16th century, the Sinhalese moved their capital from Colombo to Kandy because the Portuguese established a port in Colombo then expanded throughout Sri Lanka’s coastal areas. Local Buddhists disliked the Portuguese occupation, especially since they converted many lowland Sinhalese to Christianity.

When the Dutch arrived in mid-1600’s, the Sinhalese were thankful for the rescue from the Portuguese. The Dutch and the Sinhalese had agreed for the Dutch to own trade monopoly over Sri Lanka, but once the agreement was breached, the Dutch took over Colombo and controlled the entire island except for Kandy. They prosecuted Portuguese settlers and Catholics, but not the Buddhists, Hindus, nor the Muslims.

6. Kingdom of Kandy, and the sacred Tooth Relic.

The last independent monarchy of Sri Lanka was the Kingdom of Kandy during the late 1500’s. It brought the sacred Tooth Relic (the symbol of religious royalty) to Kandy. Today, you can visit the Temple of the Tooth.

Sri Lanka
Temple of the Tooth, Kandy. Photo: Jetset Times

7. Dutch Burghers.

The Dutch occupation left a new group of people in Sri Lanka referred to as: Dutch Burghers. Even today, this ethnic group are a mixture of Dutch, Portuguese and Sri Lankan descent. Most of Dutch Burghers are Christians, they peak English, Sinhala and Tamil.

Some Dutch Burghers in the East Coast don’t even speak English but instead, they speak Portuguese-Tamil creole at home. This derived from centuries ago, when Dutch settlers mixed heavily with Portuguese Burgher women.

8. The British and the Ceylon Tea.

Sri Lanka
Tea Gardens, Sri Lanka. Photo: Jetset Times

At times, you may have heard Sri Lanka referred to as Ceylon. In 1796, the British occupied the coastal area of the island and called it Ceylon, to prevent the Dutch giving Sri Lanka to the French during Napoleonic Wars. The British discovered coffee, rubber, and especially tea as products for successful trade, and transformed Ceylon tea into a commerce machine by importing large numbers of Tamil workers from south India. They worked in poor conditions, similar to cattle.

9. Independence finally granted.

Although Sri Lanka was granted independence in 1948, the island was a Dominion of the British Empire until 1972. Six years later, a constitution made the Executive President the head of state.

10. 25-year-long civil war.

The Sri Lankan Civil War started in 1983 and ended in 2009. Initiated by LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) which was an independent Tamil state conflicted against the government while 80,000 to 100,000 people were killed during the war.

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