Wildlife & Environmental Issues

At first glance, Sri Lanka looks like a Garden of Eden. The country positively glows in greens and is filled with the noise of endlessly chirping, cheeping, buzzing, growling and trumpeting animals. Add to that the sheer diversity of landscapes and climatic zones and you get a natural wonderland. But it’s a wonderland under serious threat thanks to a combination of deforestation, rapid development, pollution and human–wildlife conflict.

Geography of Sri Lanka

Looking a lot like a plump pear, the island country of Sri Lanka dangles into the Indian Ocean off the southern tip of India. At roughly 66,000 sq km, it’s slightly smaller than Ireland, but sustains 4.5 times as many people. That’s 22 million in a space stretching 433km from north to south and only 244km at its widest point – like the entire population of Australia taking up residence in Tasmania.

Thrust up out of the encircling coastal plains, the southern centre of the island – the core of the pear – is dominated by mountains and tea-plantation-covered hills. The highest point is broad-backed Mt Pidurutalagala (Mt Pedro; 2524m), rising above the former colonial settlement of Nuwara Eliya. However, the pyramid profile of 2243m-high Adam’s Peak (Sri Pada) is better known and far more spectacular.

Hundreds of waterways channel abundant rain from the south-central wet-zone uplands – haven of the country’s surviving rainforests – down through terraced farms, orchards and gardens to the paddy-rich plains below. The Mahaweli Ganga, Sri Lanka’s longest river, has its source close to Adam’s Peak and runs 335km to Koddiyar Bay, the deep-sea harbour of Trincomalee.

North-central Sri Lanka is home to high, rolling hills, including some fantastically dramatic landscapes like the area around the Knuckles Range. These hills give way to plains that extend to the northern tip of the island. This region, portions of the southeast and most of the east comprise the so-called dry zone.

Sri Lanka’s coastline consists of hundreds of mangrove-fringed lagoons and marshes – some now protected wetlands – interspersed with fine white-sand beaches, the most picturesque of which are on the southwest, south and east coasts. A group of low, flat islands lies off the Jaffna peninsula in the north, off-limits during the civil war, but now opening up again to tourism.

Natural Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is an incredibly diverse island, home to rainforests and parched plains, misty mountains and palm-fringed coasts, coral reefs and wetlands. The nation's extraordinary flora and fauna reflect Sri Lanka's very varied range of habitats.

Flora

The southwestern wet zone is home to the country’s surviving tropical rainforest, characterised by dense undergrowth and a tall canopy of hardwood trees, including ebony, teak and silkwood. The central hill zone has cloud forests and some rare highland areas populated by hardy grasslands and elfin (stunted) forests.

Other common trees are the banyan, bodhi (also known as bo or peepu, of religious significance to Hindus and Buddhists), flame, rain, Ceylon ironwood and neem – an assortment of names as colourful as their barks, leaves and especially flowers. There are traditional medicinal uses for almost all of them. In the Hill Country, towering eucalyptuses provide shade in tea estates.

Native fruit trees such as mangoes, tamarinds, wood apples and bananas grow in many private gardens, supplemented by introduced species like papayas and guavas. The jackfruit and its smaller relative, the del (breadfruit), will certainly catch your eye. The jackfruit tree produces the world’s largest fruit; these sacklike, green and knobbly skinned fruit can weigh up to 30kg and hang close to the trunk rather than dangling from the branches.

Fauna

When it comes to animals, it’s not just elephants in Sri Lanka; the island has a huge range of animals for such a small area. And where Africa has its famous ‘Big Five’ (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and Cape buffalo), Sri Lanka has a ‘Big Four’ plus one (leopard, elephant, sloth bear and wild Asiatic water buffalo, plus the ginormous blue whale found offshore).

Feature: Endangered Species

The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species counts over 60 species in Sri Lanka as endangered or critically endangered. They include the Asian elephant, purple-faced langur, red slender loris and toque macaque. All five of Sri Lanka’s marine turtle species are threatened, as are the estuarine crocodile and the mild-mannered dugong, all of which are killed for their meat. Also under threat are several species of birds, fish and insects.

Sri Lanka’s Elephants

Elephants occupy a special place in Sri Lankan culture. In ancient times they were Crown property and killing one was a terrible offence. Legend has it that elephants stamped down the foundations of the dagobas (stupas) at Anuradhapura, and elephant iconography is common in Sri Lankan art. Even today elephants are held in great affection. Of those in captivity, the Maligawa tusker, which carries the sacred tooth relic for the Kandy Esala Perahera, is perhaps the most venerated of all. In the wild, one of Sri Lanka’s most incredible wildlife events is ‘the Gathering’ in Minneriya National Park.

Despite being held in high regard, Sri Lanka’s elephant population has declined significantly. Their plight has become a powerful flashpoint in the ongoing debate about human–animal conflict.

In recent years, attitudes have begun to change regarding the use of elephants in religious rituals such as the Kandy Esala Perahera and as temple guardians. Conservation groups have questioned the ethics of chaining elephants inside temple compounds for traditional (but now increasingly controversial) religious purposes. Sri Lanka's strong conservation lobby has also firmly opposed the export of elephants as gifts to other nations. Nandi, a young elephant from Pinnewala, was donated as a gift to Auckland zoo by President Maithripala Sirisena, but protestors stopped her export in April 2017.

Dwindling Numbers

At the end of the 18th century an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 elephants lived unfettered across Sri Lanka. By the mid-20th century small herds of the decimated population (perhaps as few as 1000) were clustered in the low-country dry zone. Natural selection had little to do with that cull: under the British, big-game hunting delivered a mighty blow to elephant life expectancy. Today experts disagree about whether numbers are increasing or diminishing, but the population is believed to be around 4000 in the wild, half of which live on protected land, plus about 300 domesticated animals.

Human–Elephant Conflict

Farmers in elephant country face an ever-present threat from animals that may eat or trample their crops, destroy their buildings and even take their lives. During the cultivation season, farmers maintain round-the-clock vigils for up to three months to scare off unwelcome raiders. For farmers on the breadline, close encounters with wild elephants are a luxury they can’t afford.

Meanwhile, elephants, which need about 5 sq km of land each to support their 200kg-per-day appetites, no longer seem to have sufficient stock of food staples in the small wildlife safety zones where they are protected. Hunger (and perhaps curiosity) is driving them to seek fodder in other areas – such as arable land abutting their ‘secure’ habitats. The resulting conflict pits elephants against farmers – both just trying to secure their own survival.

Contributing to the vicious circle is unfortunate behaviour on both sides, much of it caused by fencing. Electric fences installed around national parks to contain elephants prevent the animals seeking out neighbouring grasslands (their preferred diet) for grazing. Migration patterns are also disturbed. This leads to elephants going hungry, and possibly starving, according to the Born Free Foundation.

Some elephants leave parks through damaged fences and rampage through farmers' land. Also, as can be seen at Uda Walawe National Park, vendors have set up fruit stands where the park borders the highway, so tourists can feed elephants. An increasing number of elephants now hang out all day by the roadside waiting for their tasty handouts. The idea of actually foraging for their normal diet is soon forgotten.

Possible Solutions

Some people are looking for long-term solutions to the conflict. One involves fencing humans in; or, rather, elephants out of human areas. This approach has been proven effective by the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society, an award-winning wildlife conservation group. Another is to give farmers alternative livelihood solutions and land practices that incorporate elephants. The collection and commercial use of elephant dung is one such enterprise. Spreading around the economic benefits that come from scores of visitors coming to see elephants is another solution.

Finally, encouraging the cultivation of crops which elephants find unpalatable like chillies, citrus fruits and thibbatu (baby aubergines) has proved a successful way to counter human–elephant conflict.

Feature: Biological Hotspot

Sri Lanka’s superlatives extend to its natural world. Conservation International has identified Sri Lanka as one of the planet’s 25 biodiversity hot spots, which means the island is characterised by a very high level of ‘endemism’ (species unique to the area). Sure enough, Sri Lanka tops the charts, with endemism in 23% of the flowering plants and 16% of the mammals. On the other hand, hot spots are targeted as habitats seriously at risk and that's very much the case with Sri Lanka.

Environmental Issues

Sri Lanka's environment is under pressure on many fronts, with deforestation, overdevelopment and urbanisation and coastal erosion key threats.

Deforestation & Overdevelopment

Sri Lanka's biggest environmental threat is arguably deforestation and overdevelopment leading to serious habitat loss. At the beginning of the 20th century about 70% of the island was covered by natural forest. By 2005 this had shrunk to about 20%. Worse, in recent years Sri Lanka has had one of the highest recorded rates of primary-forest destruction in the world: an 18% reduction in forest cover and 35% loss of old-growth tracts.

Chena (shifting cultivation) is blamed for a good part of this deforestation, but irrigation schemes, clearance for cultivation and land ‘development’, armed conflict and, obviously, illegal logging have all been contributing factors.

The boom in Sri Lanka’s economy brought about by peace is bound to put even more pressure on the environment. With tourism increasing rapidly, new construction projects are proliferating. And the track record is not good: after the 2004 tsunami, laws were put in place that banned construction of hotels and restaurants within 100m of the high-tide line, but in many southern and western coastal areas new buildings have been built virtually at the water’s edge.

Coastal Erosion

Well-intentioned but misguided governmental efforts to protect the nation's shoreline have lead to environmental damage in recent years. Concrete breakwaters have been built in many places along the south coast including Unawatuna, Mirissa and Talalla in an effort to prevent coastal erosion and establish sheltered swimming zones. But the resulting tidal changes have caused some bays to lose their sand completely. It remains to be seen whether efforts to regenerate beaches (like the east section of Unawatuna) by pumping new sand on to eroded shores will be successful. Nature will ultimately decide.

In 2015 the Sri Lankan government announced that all the nation's existing 8800 hectares of mangrove forest would be protected, and that 3900 hectares of recently cut mangroves would be replanted. Mangroves protect coastlines from erosion, sustain large numbers of juvenile fish and help safeguard fishing villages from storm damage.

Feature: Responsible Travel in Sri Lanka

The best way to responsibly visit Sri Lanka is by trying to be as minimally invasive as possible. This is, of course, easier than it sounds, but consider the following tips:

Demand green Sri Lanka’s hotel and guesthouse owners are especially accommodating and, as visitor numbers soar, most are keen to give customers what they want. Share your environmental concerns and tell your hosts that their green practices – or lack thereof – are very important to you.

Watch your use of water Travel in the Hill Country of Sri Lanka and you’ll think the island is coursing with water, but demand outstrips supply. Take up your hotel on its offer to save itself big money, er, no, to save lots of water, by not having your sheets and towels changed every day.

Don’t hit the bottle Those bottles of water are convenient but they add up and are a major blight. Still, you’re wise not to refill from the tap, so what to do? Ask your hotel if you can refill from their huge containers of drinking water.

Conserve power Sure you want to save your own energy on a sweltering afternoon, but using air-con strains an already overloaded system. Electricity demand in Sri Lanka is soaring. Try to save as much energy as possible and act as if you are paying your own electricity bill.

Don’t drive yourself crazy Can you take a bus or, even better, a train, instead of a hired car? Even Colombo is more walkable than you may think. And encourage the recent trend of hotels and guesthouses providing bikes for guests. Large swaths of Sri Lanka are best toured during the day on two wheels.

Bag the bags Just say no to plastic bags (and plastic straws, too).

Elephant tourism Sri Lanka has several elephant camps of dubious conservational merit. Avoid anywhere that offers elephants walks using howdah. These magnificent mammals are definitely best seen in a national park.

Green Resources

For information on environmental issues in Sri Lanka, see the following websites.

Centre for Environmental Justice (www.ejustice.lk) Environmental campaign group working with communities to counter damage from dams, water pollution and forest clearance.

Environment Sri Lanka (www.environmentlanka.com) The Department of Forestry & Environmental Science at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura has info on Sri Lankan wildlife and essays on key environmental issues.

Green Movement of Sri Lanka (www.gmsl.lk) A consortium of over 150 groups that are involved in natural-resource management. Among the projects highlighted are ongoing reports of the environmental threats posed by Sri Lanka’s massive road-building schemes and work with vulnerable coastal communities.

Lakdasun (www.lakdasun.org) Visit the helpful forums on this website to get up-to-date information from knowledgable Sri Lankan locals on how to ‘discover, explore and conserve the natural beauty of Sri Lanka’.

Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society (www.slwcs.org) Recognised by the UN for community-based projects that make a tangible impact on poverty, the SLWCS has opportunities for volunteering.

Sidebar: Largest Surviving Tracts of Rainforest

  • Sri Pada Peak Wilderness Reserve (224 sq km)
  • Knuckles Range (175 sq km)
  • Sinharaja Forest Reserve (189 sq km)

Sidebar: Sri Lanka’s UNESCO sites

  • Sinharaja Forest Reserve
  • Central Highlands, encompassing the Sri Pada Peak Wilderness Reserve, Horton Plains National Park and Knuckles Range

Sidebar: Save the Elephants

  • Don’t feed elephants in the wild.
  • Don’t patronise places where they’re in chains.
  • Do visit them in national parks to support conservation.

Sidebar: What Tree is That

What Tree Is That? by Sriyanie Miththapala and PA Miththapala contains handy sketches of common trees and shrubs in Sri Lanka, and includes English, Sinhala and botanical names.

Sidebar: Mullaittivu National Park

In 2010 the site of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam's last stand, Mullaittivu, in the far northeast, was turned from a former theatre of war into a protected area: Mullaittivu National Park.

Sidebar: Sacred Bodhi

The sacred bodhi tree was brought from India when Mahinda introduced the teachings of the Buddha to Sri Lanka in the 3rd century BC. Most Buddhist temples have a bodhi tree, but the most famous is the Sri Maha Bodhi of Anuradhapura, the oldest historically authenticated tree in the world.

Sidebar: Nature of Sri Lanka

The Nature of Sri Lanka, with stunning photographs by L Nadaraja, is a collection of essays about Sri Lanka by eminent writers and conservationists.

People of Sri Lanka

Every day in Sri Lanka, families bring flowers to white-domed dagobas (stupas), women in bright saris walk to rainbow-coloured Hindu temples with offerings for their gods, and whitewashed mosques call the faithful to prayer in the cool dawn. Of course, the country has seen decades of war and violence, and tensions remain. But the traditions continue, and Sri Lankans somehow manage to find moments of peace, all the while greeting visitors with warmth and hospitality as they've done for millenniums.

Tradition & Ethnicity

Traditional Sri Lankan life was centred on the gamma (village), a highly organised hub of activity, where everyone fulfilled specific roles. Agriculture was the mainstay, and some villages focused on particular products – even today you might pass through a ‘cane-furniture gamma’. Every village had a protector deity (or several), usually associated with aspects of nature.

Veddahs

The Veddahs (Hunters) or, as they refer to themselves, Wanniyala-aetto (People of the Forest), are Sri Lanka’s original inhabitants. Each wave of migration to Sri Lanka left the Veddahs with less forest on which to subsist. Today they are so few in number that they don't even make the census, and only a tiny percentage of those retain a semblance of their old culture, which comprises a hunter-gatherer lifestyle and close relationships to nature and their ancestors. The Kele Weddo (jungle-dwelling Veddahs) and Can Weddo (village-dwelling Veddahs) live mainly in the area between Badulla, Batticaloa and Polonnaruwa.

Sinhalese

The predominantly Buddhist Sinhalese sometimes divide themselves into ‘low country’ and ‘high country’ (ie Kandyan). The Kandyan Sinhalese are proud of the time when the Hill Country was a bastion of Sinhalese rule, and still consider Kandy to be the island’s spiritual hub. Although the Buddha taught universalism, the Sinhalese have a caste system, with everyone falling somewhere along the spectrum between aristocrat and itinerant entertainer.

Caste System

Sri Lanka's Sinhalese caste system was traditionally defined by family background and occupation and affected everything from your status in society to seating arrangements at formal events. Originating in India, from Hinduism, the caste system was more a way of dividing a rural, feudal society than a religious doctrine.

Lower castes were expected to perform due deference to those of a higher caste and there were even regulations regarding dress and mode of address. However centuries of colonial rule disrupted the system considerably and today Sri Lankan society is far less rigidly structured. That said, newspaper marriage advertisements still mention caste. And an underclass, the Rodiya, remain at the bottom of the heap, their children rarely studying beyond primary level, while adults usually undertake low-status jobs like street cleaning.

Some say class has replaced caste, with the key attributes of education, employment, family background and command of English being respected. Lightness of skin colour is another (controversial) attribute associated with the nation's higher classes.

Tamils

Most Tamils are Hindu and have cultural and religious connections with South Indian Tamils across the water, though they generally see themselves as a distinct group.

Broadly, there are two Tamil groups in Sri Lanka. 'Jaffna Tamils' live mostly in the North and East and have been settled in Sri Lanka for many centuries. ‘Plantation Tamils’ on the other hand were brought by the British from India in the 19th century to work on tea farms.

The vast majority of Tamils are Hindu, and caste is an important cultural factor. Jaffna Tamils are mainly of the Vellala caste (landlords and blue bloods), while Plantation Tamils mainly come from lower castes. Times are changing, however, and traditional caste distinctions are gradually eroding. That said, intermarriage between castes can be controversial and is often opposed in rural areas.

Moors

The island’s Muslims – called Sri Lankan Moors – are descendants of Arab or Indian traders who arrived around 1000 years ago. To escape Portuguese persecution, many moved into the Hill Country and the east coast, and you’ll still see predominantly Muslim towns like Hakgala near Nuwara Eliya. Most Moors speak Tamil.

Burghers

The Burghers are mixed-race descendants of the Portuguese, Dutch and British. Even after independence, Burghers had a disproportionate influence over political and business life. When growing Sinhalese nationalism reduced their role, many Burghers emigrated. Look out for surnames like Fernando, de Silva and Perera.

Religion

Religion has been the cause of much division in Sri Lanka, but the often-overlooked reality is that Sri Lanka’s many religions mix openly. Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians visit many of the same pilgrimage sites, a Catholic may pay respect to a Hindu god, and Sri Lankan Buddhism has Hindu influences and vice versa.

Buddhism

Buddhism is the belief system of the Sinhalese and plays a significant role in the country, spiritually, culturally and politically. Sri Lanka’s literature, art and architecture are all strongly influenced by it. Strictly speaking, Buddhism is not a religion but a practice and a moral code espoused by the Buddha. Although ‘Buddhist’ now is a deeply entrenched cultural and ethnic identifier, the Buddha taught meditation to people of various religions, and emphasised that no conversion was necessary (or even recommended) to benefit from his teachings, also known as the Dhamma.

Born Prince Siddhartha Gautama in modern-day Nepal around 563 BC, the Buddha abandoned his throne to seek a way out of suffering. After years of rigorous training, the Buddha discovered the Four Noble Truths: existence itself is suffering; suffering is caused by craving for sensual and material pleasures as well as existence itself; the way out of suffering is through eliminating craving; and craving can be eliminated by following a path of morality and the cultivation of wisdom through meditation. After many states of spiritual development – and, probably, many lifetimes – nirvana (enlightenment, or nibbana in Pali) is achieved, bringing freedom from the cycle of birth and death.

Historical Buddhism

King Devanampiya Tissa’s acceptance of the Buddha’s teaching – brought to the island in the 3rd century BC by the son of the Indian emperor Ashoka – firmly implanted Buddhism in Sri Lanka, and a strong relationship developed between Sri Lanka’s kings and the Buddhist clergy.

Worldwide there are two major schools of Buddhism: Theravada and Mahayana. Theravada (way of the elders) scriptures are in Pali, one of the languages spoken in North India in the Buddha’s time, while Mahayana (greater vehicle) scriptures are in Sanskrit. Theravada is regarded as more orthodox, and Mahayana more inclusive of later traditions.

Mahayana Buddhism is practised in Sri Lanka, but the Theravada tradition is more widely adopted. Several factors have consolidated Buddhism, especially the Theravada stream, in Sri Lanka. Sinhalese Buddhists attach vital meaning to the words of the Mahavamsa (Great Chronicle; one of their sacred texts), in which the Buddha designates them protectors of the Buddhist teachings. This commitment was fuelled by centuries of conflict between the Sinhalese (mainly Buddhist) and Tamils (mainly Hindu).

For some Sinhalese, Mahayana Buddhism resembled Hinduism – and indeed was followed by many Tamils in early times – and therefore defence of the Theravada stream was considered crucial. Many Buddhist sites in India were destroyed in the 10th century AD, around the time of a Hindu resurgence (and a popular Hindu text that described the Buddha as a wayward incarnation of Vishnu), further reinforcing the Sinhalese commitment to protecting the tradition.

Buddhist Nationalism

Since the late 19th century an influential strand of ‘militant’ Buddhism has developed in Sri Lanka, centred on the belief that the Buddha charged the Sinhalese people with making the island a citadel of Buddhism in its purest form. It sees threats to Sinhalese Buddhist culture in Christianity, Hinduism and, more recently, Islam. Sri Lankan Buddhism is historically intertwined with politics, and it was a Buddhist monk, dissatisfied with Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike’s ‘drift’ from a Sinhala-Buddhist focus, who assassinated him in 1959, in contradiction of the very first Buddhist precept against killing. Many Buddhist monks have also strongly opposed compromise with the Tamils.

In 2007, hard-line Sinhalese-nationalist monks achieved leverage in the Sri Lankan government through the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU; National Heritage Party). In 2012 a group of monks who felt the JHU was not aggressive enough in protecting Buddhism founded the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS; Buddhist Power Force), which has, along with other radical groups, been implicated in several protests and attacks against Muslim and Christian communities in recent years. At a 2013 opening for a BBS training school, Defence Secretary (and brother of the president) Gotabhaya Rajapaksa said in a speech that 'it is the monks who protect our country, religion and race'.

In 2014 the BBS was widely blamed for inciting anti-Muslim riots in Dharga Town which resulted in four deaths and the burning and looting of Muslim shops, and forced 10,000 people to flee their homes.

Feature: Poya Days

Poya (or uposatha) days fall on each full moon and have been observed by monks and laypeople since the time of the Buddha as times to strengthen one’s practice. Devout Buddhists visit a temple, fast after noon and abstain from entertainment and luxury. At their temple they may make offerings, attend teachings and meditate. Poya days are public holidays in Sri Lanka and each is associated with a particular ritual.

Duruthu (January) Marks the Buddha’s first supposed visit to the island.

Vesak (May) Celebrates the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and parinibbana (final passing away).

Poson (June) Commemorates Buddhism’s arrival in Sri Lanka.

Esala (July/August) Sees the huge Kandy festival, which observes, among other things, the Buddha’s first sermon.

Unduvap (December) Celebrates the visit of Sangamitta, who brought the bodhi tree sapling to Anuradhapura.

Hinduism

Tamil kings and their followers from South India brought Hinduism to northern Sri Lanka, although the religion may have existed on the island well before the arrival of Buddhism, as a result of the island’s proximity to India and the natural cultural exchange that would have taken place. Today, Hindu communities are most concentrated in the north, the east and tea plantation areas.

Hinduism is a complex mix of beliefs and gods. All Hindus believe in Brahman: the myriad deities are manifestations of this formless being, through which believers can understand all facets of life. Key tenets include belief in ahimsa (nonviolence), samsara (the cycle of births and deaths that recur until one reaches a pure state), karma (the law of cause and effect) and dharma (moral code of behaviour or social duty).

Hindus believe that living life according to dharma improves the chance of being born into better circumstances. Rebirth can also take animal form, but it’s only as a human that one may gain sufficient self-knowledge to escape the cycle of reincarnation and achieve moksha (liberation).

For ordinary Hindus, fulfilling one’s ritual and social duties is the main aim of worldly life. According to the Hindu text Bhagavad Gita, doing your duty is more important than asserting your individuality.

The Hindu pantheon is prolific: some estimates put the number of deities at 330 million. The main figures are Brahma, who created the universe, and his consort Saraswati, the goddess of wisdom and music; Vishnu, who sustains the universe and is lawful and devout, and his consort Lakshmi, the goddess of beauty and fortune; and Shiva, the destroyer of ignorance and evil, and his consort Parvati, who can be the universal mother or the ferocious and destructive Kali. Shiva has 1008 names and takes many forms: as Nataraja, lord of the tandava (dance), his graceful movements begin the creation of the cosmos.

In the modern age Shiva, Vishnu and their associated consorts are the most revered deities, while Brahma – once the most important deity in Hinduism – has been demoted to a minor figure.

Islam

Sri Lanka is home to almost two million Muslims – many of whom are descendants of Arab traders who settled on the island from the 7th century, not long after Islam was founded in present-day Saudi Arabia by the Prophet Mohammed. Islam is monotheistic, and avows that everything has been created by Allah.

After Mohammed’s death the movement split into two main branches, the Sunnis and the Shiites. Sunnis emphasise following and imitating the words and acts of the Prophet. They look to tradition and the majority views of the community. Shiites believe that only imams (exemplary leaders) can reveal the meaning of the Quran. Most of Sri Lanka’s Muslims are Sunnis, although small communities of Shiites have migrated from India.

All Muslims believe in the five pillars of Islam: the shahada (declaration of faith: ‘there is no God but Allah; Mohammed is his prophet’); prayer (ideally five times a day); the zakat (tax, usually a donation to charity); fasting during the month of Ramadan; and the hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca.

Christianity

Christianity in Sri Lanka potentially goes back to the Apostle Thomas in the 1st century AD, and it’s certain that in the early centuries AD small numbers of Christians established settlements along the coast.

With the Portuguese in the 16th century, Christianity, specifically Roman Catholicism, arrived in force, and many fishing families converted. Today, Catholicism remains strong among western coastal communities, such as Negombo. The Dutch brought Protestantism and the Dutch Reformed Church, mainly present in Colombo, while evidence of the British Christian denominations includes the stone churches that dot the Hill Country landscape.

Sidebar: Buddhism Beliefs & Practices

In Buddhism: Beliefs and Practices in Sri Lanka, Lynn de Silva combines lucid writing, fascinating information and a scholarly (but accessible) approach to shed light on the island’s Buddhist tradition.

Sideba: Hinduism website

For more information on Hinduism, see www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/hinduism.

Sidebar: Hindu Mythology

In Hindu mythology elephants are seen as symbols of water, life and fortune. They also signify nobility and gentleness, the qualities achieved when one lives a good life. In Sri Lanka, only the elephant parades with sacred Buddhist relics and Hindu statues.

Sidebar: Veddahs

To learn more about historical and contemporary Veddah life and customs, see www.vedda.org.

Sidebar: Multifaith Pilgrimages

  • Adam’s Peak
  • Kataragama
  • Nainativu

Sidebar: Religious Hubs

  • Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil, Jaffna
  • Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, Kandy
  • Kechimalai Mosque, Beruwela
  • Our Lady of Madhu Church, Madhu
  • City of Anuradhapura

Sidebar: Religion in Context

Religion in Context, edited by Jayadeva Uyangoda, is a fascinating collection of essays exploring Buddhism's role in Sri Lankan politics, economics, and gender, class and race relations.

Women in Sri Lanka

Compared to most developing-world countries, the position of women in Sri Lankan society is relatively good, and improving. A gender gap remains, but educational opportunities are excellent, literacy rates are high (above 90%) and child mortality levels are low.

Sri Lankan women have held voting rights since 1931 and Sirima Bandaranaike was elected the world's first female prime minister in 1960. Women have long held property rights.

That said, women's average salaries are well below those of their male counterparts and men still dominate senior positions in the business and political world.

Sri Lanka remains a patriarchal society and violence against women is still a prevalent issue and underreported.

Family Life

The family is the heart of Sri Lankan culture. There's considerable pressure to conform, with the ideal nuclear family of a happy couple blessed with children celebrated above all else. It's still extremely rare for a gay man or woman to come out publicly, for example.

Marriages have traditionally been arranged for children by their respective parents, with prospective partners expected to be from the same religion, class or compatible caste. However 'love marriages' are becoming far more common. Attitudes to change in rural villages are very different from those in the middle-class suburbs of Colombo.

Weddings are huge, flamboyant ceremonies. Sinhalese weddings traditionally involve ancient rituals performed by the bride and groom and their families. The focus of the event is a raised wooden poruwa (altar) which is elaborately decorated, perhaps with flowers, betel and banyan leafs, coconut palm fronds and traditional motifs, and topped with a canopy. There are many rituals to follow in the Poruwa ceremony, which reflect the manner in which the young couple should lead their married life. Generally, new brides will move into their in-laws' house, and her family is still expected to give a dowry, though this is becoming less common.

Sri Lankan Tea

The Dutch may have come to the island in search of spices, but the country is now more associated with an imported plant – tea, introduced by the British. Today, Sri Lanka is among the world’s top tea-producing nations and Ceylon tea is perhaps the nation's most powerful, internationally recognised brand.

Shaping the Nation

Tea came to Sri Lanka when extensive coffee plantations were decimated by disease in the 19th century. The first Sri Lankan tea was grown in 1867 at the Loolecondera Estate, southeast of Kandy. Plantation owners discovered that the Hill Country combines a warm climate, altitude and sloping terrain: a winning trifecta that’s perfect for growing tea.

Shipments of Ceylon tea began filling London warehouses in the 1870s. The public’s thirst for a cuppa proved nearly unquenchable. Fortunes were made by the early growers, which included a name still famous worldwide today: Thomas Lipton. By the 1890s, Lipton's tea plantations were exporting around 30,000 tonnes of tea annually back to London.

Tea production continued to spiral upwards in the 20th century. Forests were cleared and plantations greatly expanded. A running war was fought with various pests and diseases that afflicted the crops, and all manner of chemicals were created to keep the tea plants healthy.

Today Sri Lanka is the world's fourth-biggest tea-producing nation, with 288 million kg yielded in 2016. Sri Lankan tea (branded internationally as ‘Ceylon’ tea) enjoys a premium positioning and its sale prices are well above those of rival nations. Income from tea exports topped US$1.2 billion in 2016.

Despite the British roots of the industry, Ceylon tea today is exported across the globe. Russia is the largest importer of Sri Lankan tea, followed by Iran, Iraq and Turkey.

Besides the various forms of ubiquitous black tea, Sri Lanka produced 2.37 million kg of green tea in 2016, which is known for its more pungent flavour, and white tea, which is among the most premium of teas and is often called ‘silver tips’.

Quality

The many varieties of tea are graded by size (from cheap 'dust' through fannings and broken grades to 'leaf' tea) and by quality (with names such as flowery, pekoe or souchong). Obviously, tea sized as dust is rather inferior. Anything graded in the leaf category is considered the minimum designation for respectable tea. In terms of quality designations, whole leaves are best and the tips (the youngest and most delicate tea leaves) are the very top tier.

The familiar name pekoe is a superior grade of black tea. Interestingly, there is no definitive record of where the 'orange' in the popular orange pekoe moniker comes from. It definitely has nothing to do with flavour, but rather is either an artefact of a designation used by early Dutch tea traders or a reference to the colour of the leaves when dried. Either way, orange pekoe is a very superior grade of Ceylon black tea.

Altitude

Altitude is another vital indication of tea quality. Udawatte (high-grown tea) is considered the finest; it grows slowly, but has a delicate, subtle flavour that makes it greatly sought after – Dimbula, Nuwara Eliya and Uva are three prime growing districts. Udawatte is grown above 1200m.

Medawatte (mid-grown tea) has floral and malty notes and a fullness of body, but is less refined; Kandy is the main centre of production. It’s picked at altitudes of 600m to 1200m, and occupies the middle ground in price and quality.

Yatawatte (low-grown tea) is stronger, higher in caffeine and more robust, but it's not considered as complex; it’s found below 600m. The foothills inland of the coast are centres of low-grown production: Ratnapura and Galle are two important districts.

Cultivation

Tea bushes are typically planted a metre or so apart on contoured terraces to help irrigation and to prevent erosion. A tea bush is around 1m in height, and is regularly pruned to encourage new shoots, prevent flowering and fruit formation and maximise leaf production. Adequate rainfall is essential, as is fertilisation.

Tea leaves are plucked by hand every seven to 14 days, a task traditionally carried out by Tamil women in Sri Lanka. The pluckers have a daily target of between 20kg and 30kg. After plucking, the tea leaves are taken to a factory where they are left to wither (demoisturised by blowing air at a fixed temperature through them). You'll spot the huge factory buildings throughout tea-growing country. Many are more than 100 years old.

The partly dried leaves are then crushed, starting a fermentation process. The green leaves quickly turn a coppery brown as additional heat is applied. The art in tea production comes in knowing when to stop the fermentation, by 'firing' the tea at an even higher heat to produce the final, brown-black leaf that will be stable for a reasonable length of time. Finally the tea is separated and graded according to leaf size.

The workers who regulate the myriad variables to take a day's pickings and produce proper tea, which will demand the premium prices Sri Lankan tea producers count on, are high up the ladder on the plantations. There is a definite art to the process, which has been refined over decades.

It takes only 24 hours from the time tea is picked to process it and load it into bags for shipment.

Tea Workers

Sri Lanka’s tea industry is responsible for more than one million jobs – about 5% of the entire population. Wages are very low: in October 2016 the minimum daily rate for tea pluckers was raised to Rs 730 (less than US$5). Compulsory pension and funeral payments further erode salaries.

Most families live in seriously substandard housing, barracks-like buildings (known as 'lines') on the fringes of plantations. Few have running water or electricity, and wood and coal stoves used for cooking and heating cause respiratory diseases.

The vast majority of tea workers are Tamils. Originally, the British tea barons intended to hire Sinhalese workers, but the labour was unappealing to locals, so plantation owners looked to India. Huge numbers of Tamils were brought over. Today they remain one of the most marginalised groups in the nation. Most are landless, classified as 'Indian Tamils', and disadvantaged by linguistic and cultural differences.

Feature: Visiting Tea Plantations

A great introduction to the endless rolling green fields of the Hill Country’s tea plantations is riding the train from Ella to Haputale. In just a few hours you’ll see dozens of plantations and their emerald-green carpets of tea bushes. Amid it all you’ll see sari-clad pluckers toiling under the sun, busily meeting their quotas for the day.

Tea factories and plantations throughout the Hill Country provide tours to explain the process, usually using machinery and technology that are largely unchanged since the 19th century.

Best Tea Plantations & Factories

Some of our favourite places to get up close and smell the tea include:

Buying Tea

Tea is inexpensive, easy to pack and much loved by almost everyone, so it makes an excellent gift for others at home – or yourself. The tea factories and plantations in the Hill Country have a bewildering array of options on offer. There are also many good shops in Colombo, Kandy and Galle.

Ceylon black tea is the best known and is famous for its citrusy taste. Green Ceylon is characteristically pungent, with a slightly nutty flavour. Ceylon silver tips tea is produced from very young buds that are silvery white, have a delicate flavour and command premium prices.

Best Tea Shops

Sidebar: Tea Propaganda Board

In a (probably unintentional) bit of honesty the nation's main tea producers funded a marketing arm in 1932: the Ceylon Tea Propaganda Board.

Sidebar: Tea Plantation Areas

Tea plantations cover about 1900 sq km. This is primarily in the Hill Country and adjoining regions, especially in the south.

Sidebar: Most popular drink

After water, tea is the world's most popular drink. More tea is drunk every day than every other drink – including coffee, soft drinks and alcohol – put together.

Sidebar: Lion Logo

All the island's teas are branded with a ‘Lion Logo’, which denotes that the tea was produced in Sri Lanka.

Sidebar: Sleeping at Plantations

In the Hill Country, you can stay in a variety of colonial-era cottages that were used by tea-plantation managers. Located in beautiful settings, they are attractive and evocative places to sleep.

Feature: Drinking Tea

Although black tea is fairly forgiving, there are still right and wrong ways to prepare a cup. For maximum enjoyment, keep the following points in mind.

  • Store tea in an airtight container, whether it is loose or in tea bags. It’s prone to absorbing odours, which are especially harmful to some of the delicate blends or flavoured teas.
  • Use fresh water and boil it (water that’s been boiling for a while or which was previously boiled gives you a flat-tasting cup of tea).
  • Too accustomed to tea bags? With loose tea, it’s one teaspoon per average-sized cup plus one extra if you’re making a pot.
  • Let the tea brew. It takes three to five minutes for tea to fully release its flavour.
  • Conversely, once the tea is brewed, toss the tea leaves, whether they were loose or in a tea bag. Tea leaves quickly become bitter once brewed.
  • For milk tea, pour the milk into the cup and then add the tea: the flavours mix better.

Historic Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has over 500 years of colonial heritage. The earliest imported architecture was the fortifications built by the Portuguese, but most are now in ruins or were subsequently rebuilt during the Dutch era (which lasted almost two centuries). Alongside Portuguese and Dutch buildings, there is also a tangible British legacy, stretching across every corner of the nation.

Portuguese

Reminders of 16th- and 17th-century Portuguese influence are dotted around the entire coastline. Tiny islands like Velanai and prominent settlements like Jaffna, Galle and Trincomalee all have the remains of once-important Portuguese defences. Many, such as Mannar fort, are crumbling or ruined, while Colombo’s once-substantial Portuguese enclave (home to many churches and convents) was destroyed by the Dutch in 1655–56.

Dutch

The most impressive testament to Dutch rule is Galle’s remarkable Unesco-listed Fort, a walled city replete with grand mansions and administrative buildings, an elegant old hospital and towering ramparts. Colombo also has important reminders of Dutch rule, including the Wolvendaal church and 17th-century Governor’s Mansion, now the Dutch Period Museum. Elsewhere, there are fine Dutch-period structures in Matara and Dutch-built canals on the west and east coasts.

British

British-era buildings are everywhere in Sri Lanka, from the monumental tea-processing factories and graceful plantation bungalows of the Hill Country to the neoclassical National Museum in Colombo and landmark lighthouses like Dondra Head. For a taste of ‘Little England’, head to Nuwara Eliya, home to grand old stone-clad hotels like the Hill Club and Victorian-style formal gardens. Functional, emblematic reminders of London’s rule endure in the quintessentially British red postboxes and scarlet phone booths that dot roadsides around the country.

Ancient Cities

Forming one of Asia’s most impressive collections of Buddhist art and architecture, this utterly captivating region contains no fewer than four Unesco World Heritage Sites. The monumental dagobas (stupas), ruined palaces, elegant frescoes and outstanding sculptures and carvings comprise Sri Lanka’s greatest monuments. Touring the Ancient Cities region is a delight; it’s largely a rural area, and the main sites are surrounded by scenic dry-zone countryside and fringed by national parks.

Anuradhapura

Prepare yourself: Anuradhapura represents early civilisation on a giant scale. The three colossal stupas that define this stupendous site are some of the largest monuments ever constructed in the ancient world, exceeded only by the pyramids at Giza, Egypt.

Founded in the 4th century BC, Anuradhapura was the epicentre of the island’s Buddhist civilisation for around 1300 years, a city of magnificent monasteries and palaces sustained by an ingenious irrigation system and huge tanks (reservoirs). For Sri Lankans, it’s an important pilgrimage site, home to the Sri Maha Bodhi (sacred Bodhi tree).

This incredible legacy of civil and religious structures is spread over a wide area, with four main zones. Highlights include the wooded Abhayagiri Monastery complex (which once housed 5000 monks), the Citadel and its ruined royal palace, and the Jetavanarama stupa.

Polonnaruwa

Famous for its elaborate carvings, sculpture and temples, Polonnaruwa was the island’s capital from the 11th to the 13th century, a short but glorious period which allowed a flourishing of Buddhist arts and architecture.

The city’s Quadrangle formed a sacred precinct and contained many of Polonnaruwa's most impressive structures, including the Vatadage and its famous moonstone. The Lankatilaka temple has a huge headless Buddha, and don’t miss the artistry at Gal Vihara, which arguably represents the zenith of Sinhalese rock carving.

Sigiriya

The astonishing site of Sigiriya briefly flourished in the 5th century AD under King Kassapa, who constructed a near-inaccessible rocky mountaintop as a location for his royal palace. Clambering up the rock face to the summit, you'll pass the sculpted paws of a giant carved lion, Mirror Wall (which contains a tangle of ancient graffiti) and some superb frescoes. Beneath the rock there's much more to explore: Boulder Gardens, Water Gardens and an impressive site museum.

Dambulla

Halfway up a hilltop, the magnificent Buddhist statues and murals in the cave complex of Dambulla were first fashioned in the 1st century BC, although the site was further embellished by royal patrons, including the kings of Kandy. The artistry is incredible and the condition of the paintings and sculpture remarkable. From the summit you can enjoy sweeping views across to the great rock temple of Sigiriya.

Sri Lanka's Ancient Cities

Anuradhapura A vast ancient Buddhist complex and a profoundly spiritual site.

Polonnaruwa Famous for its intricate carved monuments, temples and Buddhas.

Sigiriya A real rock star, topped by a palace and graced by outstanding murals.

Dambulla Remarkable cave temples containing Buddhist murals and statues.

Ridi Vihara Remote, but has some stunning Buddhist art.

Mihintale Birthplace of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

Aluvihara Fine collection of cave art close to Matale.

Ritigala Huge ancient monastic complex.