Identification. The official name of the nation is the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. In 1972, the national constitution discarded the name Ceylon and adopted the name of Sri Lanka. In Sinhala, the language of the majority, Sri means "blessed" and Lanka is the name of the island.
The island's history of immigration, trade, and colonial invasion has led to the formation of a variety of ethnic groups, each with its own language and religious traditions. Besides the majority Sinhala Buddhists, the nation also includes Sri Lankan Tamils, Tamils of recent Indian origin, Muslims, semitribal Väddas, and Burghers, descendants of intermarriages between Sri Lankans and Europeans. Although the members of these groups share many cultural practices, beliefs, and values, ethnic differences have become especially marked since the nation's independence in 1948. These differences and the exclusive policies of the Sinhala-dominated central government have led to escalating ethnic conflicts, including the current civil war in which Sri Lankan Tamil rebels are fighting for an independent nation in the northern and eastern regions of the island to be called Eelam.
Location and Geography. Sri Lanka is a small tropical island off the southern tip of India. The island nation covers approximately 25,332 square miles (65,610 square kilometers) and is divided ecologically into a dry zone stretching from the north to the southeast and a wet zone in the south, west, and central regions. This contrast in rainfall combined with topographical differences has fostered the development of regional variation in economy and culture. The north-central plains are dotted by the ruins of ancient kingdoms built around man-made lakes. The northern tip of the island is the traditional home to the Sri Lankan Tamils who consider Jaffna, its principal city, their cultural and political center. The dry lowlands of the eastern coast, site of fishing and rice cultivation, are particularly diverse both ethnically and culturally, with Muslims, Tamils, and Sinhalas composing almost equal portions of the population in some areas. The central highlands are famous for tea plantations and, in the southwestern part, gem mines. Kandy, the principal city of this central "Hill Country," was the seat of the last of the indigenous kingdoms and continues to be an important ritual, administrative, and tourist center. The southern coastal lowlands are the site of coconut, rubber, and cinnamon estates, an active fishing industry, and beautiful beaches. Located on the west coast is the island's largest city, Colombo, a hub of international commerce as well as the seat of government administration located on its outskirts in Sri Jayawardenepura.
Demography. According to the islandwide census in 1981, there were nearly 15 million inhabitants of Sri Lanka. This population was concentrated in the wet zone and around the principal cities, although barely three million people were considered to live in urban areas. At that time, there were approximately eleven million Sinhalas, two million Sri Lankan Tamils, one million Tamils of recent Indian origin, 1.5 million Muslims, and less than seventy thousand people of other ethnicities. Although the civil war in the north and east of the island has thwarted subsequent census plans, it was estimated that the population in 2000 stood near nineteen million.
Linguistic Affiliation. There are three official languages in Sri Lanka: Sinhala, Tamil, and English. Sinhala, the language of the majority, and Tamil, spoken by Muslims as well as ethnic Tamils, are the
Symbolism. The official symbols of Sri Lanka are largely drawn from those representing the Sinhala Buddhist majority. Sinhala means "lion's blood" and the lion is the central image on the national flag. Also pictured on the flag and other emblems of national culture are the leaves of the sacred Bo Tree under which the Buddha found enlightenment. Other symbols central to Sri Lankan Buddhism and Sinhala mythology have also become icons of national identity, such as the Tooth Relic of the Buddha, the possession of which has provided legitimacy to Sinhala rulers for thousands of years.
There are also symbols of national culture that reflect a more integrated national identity. For instance, the color blocks on the nation's flag represent each of Sri Lanka's three major ethnic groups. The Sri Lankan elephant is a symbol of national heritage and of prosperity, both for its long association with wealth and royalty and for its association with Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu god of wealth. The betel leaf and oil lamp are used to mark special occasions. Images of the island's natural resources, such as palm trees, gems, and beaches, are promoted as part of the tourist industry and other international commercial enterprises. The players and events that are part of the wildly popular national cricket team serve as symbolic foci of national culture. Further, the performance of certain islandwide customs, such as bowing in respect, serve as symbolic enactments of a national cultural identity.
History and Ethnic Relations
Emergence of the Nation. There is archaeological evidence that the island was inhabited as early as 10,000 B.C.E. The present-day Väddas, who live in remote areas of Sri Lanka and use a simple technology, are apparently descended from these early inhabitants mixed with the later arriving Tamils and Sinhalas, who were both well established on the island by the third century B.C.E. It is widely believed that the Sinhala people migrated to the island from north India, bringing their Indo-Aryan language and some version of Brahmanism with them, although Buddhism was introduced in their principal areas of settlement during the third century B.C.E. The Tamils emigrated to the north of the island from southern India, bringing Hinduism and their Dravidian language with them. The Sinhalas, the Tamils, and various south Indian invaders built powerful kingdoms with advanced agricultural projects and elaborate religious institutions, kingdoms that periodically brought the island under the authority of a single regime.
Because of its important ports along the East-West trade routes and desirable goods, traders were drawn to the island. Some of these Arab traders made Sri Lanka their permanent home, adding Islam to the island's religions. In the early sixteenth century Portuguese traders introduced Christianity as they began to make use of the island, eventually gaining control over productive portions of it.
In 1638 the king of Kandy drove out the Portuguese with the help of the Dutch. The Dutch then kept the land for themselves, controlling all but the kingdom of Kandy until they were driven out by the British in 1796. In 1815 the British ousted the last king of Kandy, gaining control over all of Sri Lanka, which remained a British colony until 1948.
On 4 February 1948, Ceylon, as the nation was then known, became politically independent of Great Britain, though it remained part of the Commonwealth.
National Identity. The current Sri Lankan national identity is dominated by the Sinhala majority, although this identity is resisted by the minority ethnic groups. Since independence, national leadership has consistently appealed to the Sinhala majority and the strength of the Buddhist monastic orders, marginalizing the non-Sinhala, non-Buddhists from the Sri Lankan identity and limiting access to state-controlled benefits. Despite the politicization of separate ethnic identities, there is a core of cultural beliefs, practices, and values that are largely shared among the people of Sri Lanka, particularly in the domains of the economy, social stratification, gender, family, and etiquette.
Ethnic Relations. Sri Lanka has always been home to a multiethnic and multireligious society. Because of the historic fluidity in migration and marriage patterns, the physical attributes of the principal ethnic groups are widely distributed. While conflicts between various groups have periodically flared up, beginning in 1956 the ethnic rivalry between the Sinhala-Buddhist majority and the Sri Lankan Tamil minority has intensified to an unprecedented level and led to the eruption of civil war in 1983. Since that time, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a militant organization of Sri Lankan Tamils, have been fighting for an independent Tamil state in the north and east.
Urbanism, Architecture, and the Use of Space
In the precolonial period, only the ruling elite and religious establishments were permitted to have permanent buildings. As a result, most of the archaeological ruins represent the heritage of elite culture, the ancient states, and the temple complexes, many of which are still in use today. The most elaborate of Sri Lanka's architecture continues to be dedicated to religious purposes, ranging from the imposing domes of the mosques to the graceful spires of the Portuguese churches to the ornate and colorful figures covering the Hindu temples to the white, bell-shaped dagobas that house the relics of the Buddha. The influences from these religious traditions have combined with the influences of the colonists and more modern designs to produce a diverse architectural landscape in the urban areas as well as the rural, where 70–80 percent of the population continues to live.
Residential buildings vary widely according to the socioeconomic status of their inhabitants. Rural peasants live in small temporary wattle and daub (stick and mud), thatched houses whose style has remained unchanged since ancient times. In the urban area of Colombo, half of the residents are estimated to live in "low income" areas characterized by crowded dilapidated buildings and adjoining watte, built of a hodgepodge of thatch, wooden planks, and corrugated metal sheets along railways and roadways, beaches, rivers, and canal banks. In this same city are modern apartment buildings and colonial-era gated compounds with attached servants' quarters.
All over the island, there is a preference for whitewashed cement houses with polished cement floors and windows designed to keep out the heat and light but let in the air through built-in vents. The front of the house with its sitting room, bedrooms, dining area, and veranda is typically separated from the back of the house in which the kitchen and washing areas are located, a division that reflects notions of the danger of pollution by outsiders. Buddhist, Hindu, or even Christian shrines are often located within the house or the garden areas that surround it.
Public spaces provide the setting for a variety of valued activities. Each community, no matter how small, contains a public school, a place of worship, and a shop or two where people can buy daily necessities as well as exchange gossip. Wells, rivers, and other bathing places are also important social gathering places.
Food and Economy
Food in Daily Life. Sri Lanka's staple meal is a large serving of rice accompanied by up to twelve different side dishes of vegetables, egg, meat, or fish stewed together with peppers, spices, and often coconut milk. This rice and curry meal is traditionally eaten at midday, although it may also be served in the evening. The traditional morning and evening meals are usually composed of a traditional starchy staple, such as string hoppers (fresh rice noodles), hoppers (cup-shaped pancakes), roti (coconut flat bread), or thosai (sourdough pancakes), served with a sambol (a mixture of hot peppers and other vegetables, served cool) and one or two curries.
A variety of snacks and beverages are also eaten periodically throughout the day. Strong, sweat tea, usually with milk, is drunk alone or following a small serving of finger food or sweets, especially at mid-morning and late afternoon. Curd, a yogurt made from the milk of water buffaloes or cows, is often served as a dessert with palm syrup or sugar. A rich variety of fruits is available year-round.
Eating outside of the home has not been very common, although it is becoming more so. In almost every town there is at least one Chinese-style restaurant where alcohol is also served, as well as Sinhala, Muslim, and Tamil restaurants and traditional snack booths. In the capital, Western chain restaurants as well as other foreign-style foods are increasingly available.
There is some ethnic variation in foods and customs, as well as food taboos. For instance, Muslims avoid pork while Hindus are often vegetarian. Sinhala and Tamil people tend to take care that the foods served together create a balance of hot and cold energies. They also typically will not accept food prepared by those of relatively lower caste status.
Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions. Kiribath, rice cooked in coconut milk, is part of nearly every ceremonial occasion in Sri Lanka. Kawum (sweet oil cakes) and other special snacks are also popular at special events. Alcoholic beverages do not play a role in the formal rituals of Sri Lanka, being condemned by Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism alike. Alcohol is, however, a ubiquitous part of men's social gatherings, where beer, toddy (fermented palm nectar), arrack (distilled palm nectar), and kassipu (an illegally distilled beverage), are consumed in great quantities.
Basic Economy. Sri Lanka's economy is shifting away from its traditional agricultural base to include production for an international market, a shift accelerated by a major policy change in the 1977 transition from a socialist-style, state controlled economy to a free market economy lead by the private sector. By the mid-1990s, roughly one-quarter of the population was employed as skilled workers in agriculture, fishing, or animal husbandry; one-quarter in skilled craft or factory production; one-quarter in administration, medicine, law, education, accounting, sales, services, or clerical work; and one-quarter as unskilled laborers. In spite of this shift away from agriculture, Sri Lanka has recently achieved near self-sufficiency in rice production and other staple foods.
Land Tenure and Property. Although private ownership of land has been well established in Sri Lanka since the precolonial period, most of the land is currently owned by the state and leased to private individuals and companies. Religious establishments also own substantial tracts of land. Today as in the past, private property is passed from parents to children, with the bulk of landholdings going to sons. Although the sale of housing lots is a growing industry, the sale of agricultural land is relatively uncommon. This, in combination with the subdivision of property with each generation, has created very small holdings of paddy land, which are inefficient to farm, something that the World Bank has identified as the primary cause of poverty in Sri Lanka.
Commercial Activities. Sri Lanka's towns and villages as well as its urban centers are typically active sites of commercial exchange. Most of the nonplantation agricultural crops that are not consumed in the home are sold at local markets, along with traditional craft products such as brass, pottery, and baskets, which are largely produced by hereditary caste groups. Repair, construction, tailoring, printing, and other services are always in demand, as is private tutoring. Tourists are also the focus of a range of commercial activity.
Major Industries. The major industries in Sri Lanka are involved with agricultural production and manufacturing. Nearly one-third of the agricultural production of the island is from the tea and rubber estates, products that are partially processed locally. The production of textiles and apparel; food, beverages, and tobacco; and wood and wood products together account for a quarter of all manufacturing. Heavy industry is largely confined to government-controlled steel, tire, and cement manufacturing, oil refining, mining, and quarrying. Transportation, construction, and energy production are also important locally oriented industries. In addition, the ongoing war effort, the education system, and the tourism industry comprise significant sectors of the economy.
Trade. In recent years, the sale of garments manufactured in Sri Lanka has outstripped the more traditional
Modern office buildings often share space with older religious structures, forming a diverse architectural landscape in cities such as Colombo.
Division of Labor. Traditionally, the division of labor in Sri Lanka has been largely based on caste, gender, and ethnicity. Although members of all ethnic groups participate to some degree across the range of occupations, particular ethnic groups are thought to predominate in certain occupations, for instance, the Sinhala in rice cultivation and the public sector, and the Muslims, Tamils, and recent immigrants in trade. Different castes are also associated with particular occupations, which is not necessarily reflected in the actual work that people do. Symbolically associated with occupations such as rice farming, the largest and highest status Sinhala castes are typically land holders and recipients of service obligations from the lower castes. The lower status service castes are associated with hereditary crafts such as mat weaving, jewelry making, and clothes washing. Increasingly, these hereditary statuses are being replaced by education and command of English as the most important determinants of employment.
Classes and Castes. Even though the ideal of social equality is widely diffused in contemporary Sri Lanka, stratification according to caste and class, as well as gender and ethnicity, continues to be very important. Class is determined by attributes such as wealth and education while caste, a traditional part of Hindu and Buddhist society in Sri Lanka, is determined by birth into a predetermined status hierarchy, typically understood as a matter of reward or retribution for one's deeds in previous lives. The traditional correspondence between these statuses was upset by 450 years of colonial rulers who often privileged members of certain, relatively low-status castes, effectively raising their class status and that of their offspring. The importance and legitimacy of caste continues to be undermined by political and economic developments. Class differentiation, on the other hand, is increasing both in day-to-day social interaction and manifestations of disparities.
Symbols of Social Stratification. Traditionally, caste identity was extensively marked by ritual roles and occupations, names of individuals and places, networks of social relations, and regulations of dress and housing. Degrees of difference within the caste hierarchy were also marked by forms of address, seating arrangements, and other practices of deference and superiority. Today, where these hierarchical relations continue, there is a degree of uneasiness or even resentment toward them, particularly among the educated younger generations. Class status, in contrast, is increasingly manifested in speech, dress, employment, education, and housing. In general, elite classes can be identified by their command of English, education in exclusive schools, executive-level employment, possession of valued commodities, and access to international networks, whereas the lower classes are associated with manual labor, minimal comforts, and a lack of social contacts with the elite.
Government. Sri Lanka is governed by a democratically elected president and a 225-member parliament. The president serves for a term of six years and has the power to dismiss the parliament, out of which the president selects cabinet members, a prime minister, and a chief justice. Although regular elections at all levels of government have been held since independence, there are increasing allegations of tampering and violence. The current leadership is considering a new constitution in which greater powers would be reserved for the provincial governments, a move calculated to address the ethnic conflicts and end the nation's civil war.
Leadership and Political Officials. Although a spectrum of political parties campaign within Sri Lanka, political leadership is almost exclusively drawn from the traditional, propertied elite. Family lineage and caste affiliation figure prominently in selection of candidates at all levels. Since independence, only two parties have drawn the majority of their leadership from the lower classes and challenged the control of the elite: the ultraleft Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, who staged armed insurrections that posed a significant threat to the stability of the nation in 1971 and again between 1987 and 1989, and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Since political leaders distribute state-controlled benefits and resources, such as access to employment, quality schools, and even passports, their constituents work to stay in their good graces. These elected leaders, who typically distribute resources preferentially to their supporters, make an effort to be seen as benefactors and are often more personally accessible than many bureaucrats.
Social Problems and Control. Although crime rates are rising, Sri Lanka's citizens are generally respectful of both formal and informal laws, as well as of each other. Throughout the nation's history, however, there have been periodic explosions of violence and lawlessness. Since the 1980s, there have been massive riots, bombings, and insurrections that have effectively challenged the authority of the state and resulted in massive bloodletting. Large portions of the island are not under the control of the state but are in the hands of the LTTE rebels. In response to these challenges, the government has periodically declared states of "emergency rule" that extend its constitutional authority.
The police, the military, and the judiciary system are in place to maintain government control. Imprisonment is the main legal sanction for those who are convicted of violations of the law. The death penalty, suspended for many years, is being considered for re-introduction in response to the perceived rise in crime and violence.
Informal sanctions also provide strong deterrents against socially unacceptable behavior. Rumor and gossip are particularly feared, whether these take the form of village talk, anonymous petitions to the newspapers, or posters mounted in public spaces. Acceptance in the family and other important social groups to which one belongs and how one's behavior reflects on the reputation of these groups are among the most powerful motivators of social compliance. The threat of sorcery or divine retribution on an injured party's behalf, as well as more earthly threats of violence and revenge, also act to ensure good behavior.
Military Activity. There are three branches of the all-volunteer national military: the army, the navy, and the air force. Since independence, Sri Lanka's military, once largely ceremonial, has been called on to counter civil violence and terrorist activities, as well as provide more peaceable services, such as coastal supervision and surveying. Since 1983, they have been fighting a full-scale civil war against the LTTE army which is reportedly well-trained and internationally funded. Between 1990 and 1995, defense spending made up the largest portion of the national budget, comprising over 20 percent of annual expenditures.
A man operates a Heidelburg printing press at a printer shop in Sri Lanka.
Social Welfare and Change Programs
Sri Lanka has often been referred to as the model welfare state. With free and universal education and health care, subsidized transportation, and a wide range of public sector programs to assist the poor, the quality of life is high in comparison with other developing countries. Since the change in economic policies of 1977 which emphasize private sector growth, however, the quality and availability of these government services have been eroding and have been increasingly replaced by private resources accessed by the middle and elite classes. Besides the difficulty posed by reductions in state funding, the civil war has created additional challenges to the welfare system as up to 1.5 million people have been displaced, a group that has been targeted for relief and resettlement by nongovernmental organizations and private donors.
Nongovernmental Organizations and Other Associations
Since 1977, foreign-supported nongovernmental organizations have proliferated, providing welfare services and promoting social agendas such as human rights, fair elections, conflict resolution, and peace initiatives. Other civil organizations that are more locally led and membership-based, such as trade unions and cooperatives, are largely dependant on or part of the political sector of Sri Lankan society. Religious organizations are the primary exception to this, and are independent from political society, which tends to regard them with fear and respect. Another notable exception is the Sarvodaya Movement which has been active since 1958, mobilizing volunteer labor for community service.
Gender Roles and Statuses
Division of Labor by Gender. In Sri Lanka, there is a strong tradition of both men and women working, with men focusing more on income opportunities and women focusing on the household. Currently, women's participation in the paid labor force is significant, although not evenly distributed, concentrated in professions such as nursing, teaching, tea picking, and garment construction. In manufacture and agricultural work, men are typically assigned tasks considered more physically demanding, while women are assigned the more repetitive, detail-oriented work at which they are thought to be better than men. Opportunity for foreign employment for women, while relatively available and well-paying, is restricted to domestic work, whereas opportunities for men are more varied, ranging from manual labor to engineering. Within the home, regardless of their engagement in paid labor, women and girls do all food preparation and most other domestic work.
Although most schools are segregated by gender, education has always been important for both boys and girls in Sri Lanka. The literacy rates for men and women are similarly high; the last census in 1981 found that 87 percent of females over the age of ten years were literate, compared to 91 percent of males.
Leadership roles in Sri Lanka are largely held by men, with some important exceptions. Sri Lanka elected the world's first female prime minister in 1960, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, whose daughter is the current president of the nation. While this is not indicative of the political power of women in general, it is true that Sri Lankan women have held voting rights since they were instituted in 1931 and have long held certain property rights. The large majority of religious leaders and officiants are also male, while women tend to be overrepresented among their followers.
The Relative Status of Women and Men. It is a widely held position among social scientists as well as lay people that the status of women is relatively high in Sri Lanka, especially in comparison to other South Asian nations. There has never been the practice of child marriage or the burning of widows in Sri Lanka. Even though most groups on the island prefer for new brides to move into their husbands' homes, women traditionally retain strong ties with their own natal families. Additionally, although it is expected among most groups for the bride's family to give the groom a dowry, in practice this property commonly remains in the possession of the wife until she passes it on, typically to her daughters.
Despite these traditional practices and the full rights of citizenship that women in Sri Lanka enjoy today, women consistently defer to men across all domains of life, including the workplace and the home. Women also bear the greater weight of social expectations and sanctions for noncompliance. In addition, sexual harassment and assault, while seldom reported to the authorities, are common experiences.
Marriage, Family, and Kinship
Marriage. In all ethnic groups, marriages are traditionally arranged by the families of the couple. "Love marriages" initiated by the couples themselves are, however, increasingly common. Regardless of who initiates the marriage, the bride and groom are expected to be of the same socioeconomic status, ethnicity, and, for Buddhists and Hindus, caste status, although the groom is expected to be slightly older, taller, and educationally and professionally more qualified than the bride. Additionally, there is a preference among Tamil and Sinhala groups for cross-cousin marriage, which is marriage with the child of one's father's sister or one's mother's brother. Among Muslims, the preferred match is between parallel cousins, the children of two brothers. It is also considered best if the couple are of similar ages.
The age at which people marry is on the rise, especially for women. According to the 1981 census, over a quarter of those over twenty have never been married. Divorce, while increasingly common, still occurs in less than 1 percent of marriages. Remarriage following divorce or the death of a spouse is possible for both men and women, although it is uncommon for previously married women to marry never-married men.
Domestic Unit. Ideally, a husband and wife live in their own household with their unmarried children, even if that household is actually a small section of an extended family home. In Sri Lanka, individual households are identified by cooking practices, so that, even within a larger house, a wife will cook for her husband and children independently from others who may live within the structure, perhaps sharing the same kitchen.
While women may have a great deal of power within a family, ultimate authority belongs to the oldest male member of a household, whether that is the father, husband, brother, or son. Sri Lankans express a preference that their first child be a girl, whom they believe will help care for and be a disciplining influence on younger siblings. While overall there is a preference for sons, this is not as strong as in other South Asian countries.
Inheritance. The majority of Sri Lankan families practice bilateral inheritance, giving a portion of the family possessions to all children in the family. In practice, fixed property such as land and the family home go to sons and mobile property such as cash and jewelry go to daughters, usually in the form of her dowry.
Kin Groups. In Sri Lanka, the notion of ancestral place and the kin group associated with it is very important, even as people move to other areas because of employment opportunities or displacement. This hereditary home is the site of life-cycle
A woman picking tea at a plantation in Sri Lanka. Approximately one-quarter of the workforce is employed in the agricultural sector.
Infant Care. In Sri Lanka, young children are highly adored, fondled, and indulged by everyone, both male and female. Infants are traditionally kept with their mothers or female relatives. Babies are carried until they can walk and sleep with mothers until they are school-aged, at which time they are encouraged to move into a bed with their siblings. Nearly all mothers breast-feed their children, commonly through the first year.
Child Rearing and Education. Throughout childhood, important rituals are conducted around culturally significant milestones, such as the first feeding of solid food and the introduction of the letters of the alphabet. The coming of age ritual following a girl's first menstruation is an important marker of her entrance into the adult world, although there is no such similar rite of passage for boys.
As children grow, they are expected to develop a sense of lajjawa, a feeling that combines shyness, shame, modesty, and fear. It is cultivated early in childhood and used to teach self-control, beginning with bowel-control training, which starts at one year, then with weaning and nudity, and later with school performance.
Although mothers perform most of the child rearing, they are more responsible for their daughters' discipline and tend to be more indulgent with their sons. Fathers tend to indulge all of their children under five, at which point they take on a stricter disciplinary role, particularly with their sons whom they are responsible for controlling. Corporal punishment is quite common, especially from older males to boys.
In Sri Lanka, education has always been highly valued and encouraged. School attendance is compulsory between the ages of six and fourteen, although children often attend preschool and typically continue until the completion of the secondary level. Academic competition starts early, as parents scramble to place their children in the better primary schools, and continues with three sets of standardized exams that determine access to subsequent
Stilt fishermen in the waters near Weligama, Sri Lanka. Fish are a large part of the Sri Lankan diet.
Higher Education. All of Sri Lanka's universities are government sponsored and attendance is free. Admission is determined by exam, so that only 2 percent of Sri Lanka's children eventually are enrolled in the universities, although children from affluent families frequently gain admittance to foreign universities. Of those who enter the Sri Lankan university system, the majority go into the arts, which includes humanities and social sciences, a course of study taught in the vernacular languages. Unemployment following graduation is high for these students, reflecting a disjuncture between market needs and university education. Those who attend the technical/professional schools, which are taught in English, tend to be more employable. Opportunities for postgraduate education are quite limited within the country.
Protests against authorities are well established among university students at all levels. New entrants to the university student community are routinely subjected to "ragging," a form of collective harassment by the senior students in an effort to create a sense of common identity and an anti-establishment consciousness.
Many of the most important rules of etiquette serve to mark differences in social rank. Both Sinhala and Tamil contain a range of linguistic markers for status as well as relative social distance and intimacy. In routine social interactions, personal names are avoided in preference to nicknames, relationship terms, or other titles.
Gender is also an important factor in determining appropriate conduct. Among all but the most urbanized, women are expected to defer to men of relatively equal status and to avoid all implication of sexual impropriety by keeping themselves well covered at all times. They are also expected to refuse all alcohol and tobacco and to refrain from direct physical contact with men. Between members of the same gender and with children, however, there is a great deal of physical contact that emphasizes closeness.
At meals, women usually eat last, after they have served the men and the children of the household, although visitors are served first, regardless of gender. While the more Westernized may use silverware, food is commonly eaten with the right hand, a preference that extends to other domains as well.
In public, people tend to speak in hushed tones if at all, although leaders and sellers are expected to shout. Large emotional displays of any type are uncommon in public. Greetings are often unvocalized, with broad smiles exchanged between strangers and a friendly raised eyebrow to frequent acquaintances. When new people are involved in a conversation, the mutual acquaintance is asked questions about the stranger. Seldom does direct self-introduction occur. Unusual behavior of any kind draws unconcealed observation.
Religious Beliefs. Buddhism, the religion of the majority of people in Sri Lanka, is given a place of preference in the national constitution and public life, although Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity are also practiced by significant portions of the population. Except in the case of Christians, who are drawn from a variety of ethnic groups, these religious traditions map directly onto the three major ethnic groups: Sinhala/Buddhist, Tamil/Hindu, and Muslims.
The 1981 census reported that 69 percent of the population considered themselves Buddhists, 15 percent Hindus, 8 percent Muslims, and 8 percent Christians. In practice, however, there is a degree of blending between these practices as well as an incorporation of ancient indigenous and astrological beliefs.
Sri Lankan Buddhists and Hindus, in particular, share a number of foundational beliefs and ritual practices. The moral codes of both of these religious traditions recommend moderation and restraint, Hindus stressing the discipline of one's behavior and Buddhists advocating "the middle path." In both, the concept of karma and rebirth are central, ideas that posit that one's actions in this lifetime determine the kind of life into which one will be reborn through the quantity of merit that one earns. While both Buddhism and Hinduism also propose that one can escape the cycle of rebirth, a goal that is highly elaborated within Buddhism, the acquisition of spiritual merit to gain a better rebirth either for one's self or one's loved ones generates much of the religious activity of the laity. Among the participants in both of these religions, there is also a belief in a broad pantheon of gods, spirits, and demons, into which many local deities have been absorbed. These beings may be male or female, benevolent or malevolent, moral or amoral, but they are all considered subject to the same laws of death and rebirth as other beings. Devotees, including some Muslims and Christians, appeal to these gods to assist them with a variety of (mostly worldly) concerns.
Religious Practitioners. In Sri Lanka, each of the four major religions are served by native religious leaders, although not exclusively; the island is home to training institutions for specialists in each of its organized religions.
The largest and most active group of religious specialists are the members of the Buddhist monkhood, or Sangha, who are ordained for life to follow a path of celibacy committed to the disattachment from worldly life. As temple monks, they provide spiritual guidance to the laity, serve as role models, and act as a source of merit acquisition for those who support them. They do not, however, traditionally play a role in secular matters or life-cycle rituals, except the death rites. Well organized and often in control of fair amounts of property, the Sangha have considerable influence in society, both historically and today.
The priests of the various gods are more independently organized. The ethnicity of the priests depends on their clientele more than the origin of the gods they serve. Tamil Hindu priests are born into their roles, almost traditionally but not exclusively coming from the Brahman caste. Sinhala Buddhist priests, who serve many of the same gods, are drawn from the laity and are increasingly likely to be women.
Members of both the Buddhist and Hindu laity also play a variety of specialized religious roles as mediators, renunciates who withdraw from worldly pursuits, and other kinds of adepts.
Rituals and Holy Places. Sri Lanka is home to many sacred sites visited by foreigners and locals alike. Kandy's Sri Dalada Maligawa, which houses the Tooth Relic of the Buddha, is an active temple complex that is the ritual center of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. During this temple's annual perahera season, the Tooth Relic is paraded through the torch-lit streets, accompanied by dancers, drummers, and elephants. While this is the island's largest perahera, or religious procession, other temples around the island host their own at different times of the year.
Pilgrimage is an important religious activity for many Sri Lankans. Kataragama, the most popular and elaborate of the pilgrimage centers, is primarily dedicated to the deity, although it is visited by members of all four of the island's religions. The summit of Sri Pada, or Adam's Peak, another important
Wading in a pool of brackish water, a man pans for rubies, sapphires and other gems using a basket at one of Sri Lanka's many pit mines.
Death and the Afterlife. Death ceremonies are quite elaborate in Sri Lanka, usually conducted by the families of the deceased in conjunction with religious officiants. Bodies are first embalmed in a secular, medical process and then returned to the families for funeral rites involving the gathering of extended family and the sharing of food, followed by either burial or cremation. Among Buddhists and Hindus the body is kept in the ancestral home for as long as a week while a variety of rituals are performed to give merit to the deceased in order to ensure a good rebirth. A series of purification rituals are also performed to protect the family members from the pollution from the body. White is the color associated with funerals, except for monks whose death is marked with yellow. Following a death, white banners, flags, and other decorations are put up according to the status of the deceased. Anniversaries of a death are also marked by rituals performed by family members.
Medicine and Health Care
The quality of life in Sri Lanka is among the highest in the developing world based on indicators such as its average life expectancy of seventy years, a relatively low infant mortality rate, and a well-developed infrastructure that provides safe drinking water and latrines to at least two-thirds of its inhabitants, an adequate food supply, and an extensive network of health-care providers.
In Sri Lanka, several different types of health systems are available. The state's free and universal health-care system includes Western allopathic medicine as well as South Asian Ayurvedic treatments. In addition, there are a variety of private clinics offering Western and Ayurvedic services, indigenous herbal specialists, and ritual healers. In general, people do not see these various health systems as mutually exclusive or contradictory, simultaneously accessing different systems for the same or different types of ailments.
Dosha, which loosely translates as "troubles," is the central concept that integrates these various health systems. Within Ayurveda, the concept refers to the physical and emotional problems resulting from imbalances in the body humors of heat, coolness, and wind. But the concept of Dosha is much broader in the folk system, referring to all kinds of problems including financial, academic, and social difficulties. Imbalances may result from food, spirit attack, or contact with some other extreme and may require different treatment approaches available from the different health systems.
Although there is a certain amount of popular knowledge about illness prevention, diagnosis, and treatment derived from these different systems, each is primarily administered by trained practitioners. Doctors, nurses, and other health-care workers are trained in modern Western allopathic medicine through Sri Lanka's university system as well as in foreign institutions. Ayurvedic doctors are trained in university-affiliated colleges in Sri Lanka and India. Indigenous herbal medical training is passed through apprenticeship from father to son. Different types of healing rituals are also conducted by experts—such as exorcists, drummers and other caste-based professionals, and priests and priestess of the gods—sometimes in consultation with astrologers.
All Saturdays and Sundays are public holidays, as is the Poya Day of each month which marks the full moon. Independence Day on 4 February and May Day on 1 May are also public holidays. During April, the island largely shuts down for a week as its Sinhala and Tamil residents celebrate the traditional new year, the exact day of which is determined by astrologers. In addition, the major Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and Christian days are also reserved as public holidays.
The Arts and Humanities
Support for the Arts. Whether nationally acclaimed or only locally recognized, Sri Lankan artists are primarily supported by the clients who commission or purchase their work. In addition, some larger corporations sponsor particular projects and the government gives some small stipends and positions of honor to notable artists.
Literature. Sri Lanka has a long and prolific history of written as well as oral literature. As early as the fifth century C.E. , both Sinhala and Tamil writers were recording histories and religious stories, as well as writing on more secular topics. This tradition continues today as fiction writers, poets, playwrights, and journalists write in all three of the nation's languages; some of their works have been translated into other languages as well. However, Sri Lanka's university and public libraries, once reputed to be the best in South Asia, are underfunded and poorly maintained as a result of increased budgetary constraints since 1977.
Graphic Arts. Religious topics and institutions heavily influence Sri Lanka's statuary and pictorial art. Local handicrafts, encouraged during the socialist days, have been challenged by less expensive imports since 1977. Some of these traditional handicrafts, such as pottery and basket weaving, are caste-based activities and tend to be more utilitarian than decorative. Others, such as wood carving, are highly ornate and well respected in international as well as local markets.
Performance Arts. Performance is the most vibrant of all art forms in Sri Lanka, particularly drumming and dancing. All fully professional theater productions are performed in a ritual context, although there is also modern, secular theater which is semiprofessional. There are also numerous forms of music produced and appreciated on the island including traditional drumming, religious chanting, work songs, South Asian and Western classical music, as well as contemporary popular music and film songs from national artists and abroad. Although appealing to different sections of the community, performances of all types are typically well-attended in Sri Lanka.
The State of the Physical and Social Sciences
Sri Lanka's medical, engineering, and sociological fields are internationally respected although they are challenged by lack of funding and the loss of many of the best researchers to foreign institutions. Additionally, the switch from English to the vernacular languages in the social science departments of the universities has made it difficult for scholars to participate in an international exchange of ideas.
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—B AMBI L. C HAPIN AND K ALINGA T UDOR S ILVA
Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, island country lying in the Indian Ocean and separated from peninsular India by the Palk Strait. It is located between latitudes 5°55′ and 9°51′ N and longitudes 79°41′ and 81°53′ E and has a maximum length of 268 miles (432 km) and a maximum width of 139 miles (224 km).
Proximity to the Indian subcontinent has facilitated close cultural interaction between Sri Lanka and India from ancient times. At a crossroads of maritime routes traversing the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka has also been exposed to cultural influences from other Asian civilizations. Ancient Greek geographers called it Taprobane. Arabs referred to it as Serendib. Later European mapmakers called it Ceylon, a name still used occasionally for trade purposes. It officially became Sri Lanka in 1972.
The distinctive civilization of Sri Lanka, with roots that can be traced back to the 6th century bce, is characterized by two factors: the preservation of TheravadaBuddhism (the orthodox school of Buddhism having its literary traditions in the Pali language) and the development over two millennia of a sophisticated system of irrigation in the drier parts of the country. This civilization was further enriched by the influences of Hinduism and Islam.
In 1948, after nearly 150 years of British rule, Sri Lanka became an independent country, and it was admitted to the United Nations seven years later. The country is a member of the Commonwealth and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation.
Colombo, which emerged as the main urban centre during British rule, remains the executive and judicial capital of Sri Lanka; Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte, a Colombo suburb, is the legislative capital. For administrative purposes, the country has been divided into nine provinces and subdivided into 25 districts.
Sri Lanka is densely populated. The majority of its people are poor, live in rural areas, and depend on agriculture for their livelihood. A physical environment of wide-ranging diversity makes Sri Lanka one of the world’s most scenic countries. As the home of several ethnic groups, each with its own cultural heritage, Sri Lanka also has a highly varied cultural landscape.