CULTURE AND ARTS IN SRI LANKA
The world's first museum was built in Sri Lanka 2200 years ago. It housed the parts of the ship that brought the Bodhi sapling to Sri Lanka from India in 3rd century B.C. The sapling grew into Sri Maha Bodhi (Sacred Bo-Tree) — one of Sri Lanka’s two most scared objects.
The Portugese, the Dutch and British all occupied at least parts of Sri Lanka. In many ways the Portugese left behind more cultural influences, especially in the cases of food and music, than the Dutch or British.
Bryan Pfaffenberger wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Classical Sinhalese civilization excelled in Buddhist architecture, temple and cave frescoes, and large-scale sculpture. In colonial times artisans, few in number by 2001, produced fine ivory carvings, metalwork, and jewelry. A mid-twentieth-century school of Sinhalese painting called the Forty-Three Group sparked a renaissance of Sinhalese art that was expressed in a traditional idiom in the temple paintings of George Keyt. A twentieth-century tradition of Sinhalese fiction and poetry has attracted international scholarly attention. A government-assisted Sinhala film industry produces many popular films, and a few of those movies have won international awards. [Source: Bryan Pfaffenberger, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]
According to “Cities of the World”: Sri Lanka's artistic and intellectual life is lively in some areas. The Institute of Aesthetic Studies is a department of the University of Kelaniya, near Colombo. Instruction includes art, crafts, music, and dance. Private schools teach Eastern and Western dance and music. The country has several theaters, a major museum, and many specialized societies. Few art galleries exist, but interest is active in painting, batik, jewelry, sculpture, and indigenous handicrafts. A national dance troupe performs, and interest in a national theater, and national culture in general, is strong. [Source: “Cities of the World”, The Gale Group Inc., 2002]
“An active and healthy interest also flourishes in Western music, art, and drama. English-language plays are performed by a few amateur groups in Colombo, and drama groups welcome foreign members. Concerts of Eastern and Western music also are given occasionally, and Colombo has an amateur symphony orchestra; many foreigners have joined this latter group. Visiting artists regularly perform with the orchestra or give solo performances.
Sinhalese and Buddhist Culture in Sri Lanka
D. O. Lodric wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”: “The heritage of the Sinhalese is essentially that of Buddhist civilization in Sri Lanka. This includes early literary works the Dipavamsa, (A.D. 350) and the Mahavamsa (A.D. 550) chronicling the history of Buddhism in the island, architecture, temple and cave frescoes, and massive sculptures such as the 14 meter long (46 foot long) reclining Buddha at Polonnaruwa. The Sinhalese evolved their own form of classical dance, usually performed by men, with rapid footwork and acrobatic movements. The "devil-dancing" of the southern coastal lowlands evolved from folk rituals to exorcise demons. Kolam is a form of dance-drama involving masked dancers retelling stories from myth and legend. [Source: D. O. Lodric, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009 *]
“Most Sinhalese follow Buddhism, accepting the religion's fundamental concepts of dharma, samsara, karma, and ahimsa. Dharma refers to the Law (the teachings of Buddha); samsara, the life cycle of birth-death-rebirth; karma relates to the effects of good or bad deeds on a person's rebirths and ahimsa is the doctrine of nonviolence toward living things. They believe that these Four Noble Truths point the way to achieving nirvana (the Buddhist equivalent of salvation). However, the Sinhalese follow the southern or Theravada (also called Hinayana) form of Buddhism. This form remains true to the original teachings of Buddha, holding that there is no God, that Buddha was an ordinary mortal who should be revered but not worshiped, and that everyone is responsible for working out his or her own salvation. Buddhism is reflected in every aspect of daily Sinhalese life. Buddhist monks (bhikkus) play an important role in the Sinhalese community and often wield considerable political power. Monks serve the religious needs of the people, but Sinhalese also worship at the temples (devale) of Hindu gods. The Sinhalese also believe in demons, ghosts, and evil spirits and have a number of folk practitioners to deal with such beings. Small numbers of Sinhalese are Christians (mostly Roman Catholic) or Muslims. *\
According to “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: “The substance of virtually all Sinhala literature and art before the nineteenth century was Buddhist in nature, almost all of it penned or painted by Buddhist monks or religiously inspired laity. Buddhism remains an important theme in contemporary fiction as well. Premodern Sinhala prose was based substantially on Pali sources (Jatakas, vamsa s, sutras, and so forth), while temple and cave paintings represented the extended lives of Buddha within the mythology of the Buddhist cosmos. While Buddhist monks eschewed music, with the exception of chanting, the evolution of dance and music were the by-products of ritual observances (peraharas [public processions] and sokari and kohomba kankariya dramas) performed by the Buddhist laity. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]
Tamil Culture in Sri Lanka
Among Tamils in Sri Lanka, there traditionally has not been much emphasis on the arts. More emphasis has been placed on careers and developing marketable skills that can earn money. According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: Even so, young people today may receive instruction in traditional South Indian classical music (Carnatic music) or South Indian dance (Bharata Natyam) as a means of impressing on them the antiquity and greatness of Tamil culture. Music and dance were formerly associated with low-caste status. “Medicine. There is a pronounced division of labor between scientific medicine and Ayurvedic medicine, which is thought to be more effective for mental illness, snakebite, paralysis, and listlessness.
“The unique culture of Sri Lankan Tamils took on distinctiveness early from its close proximity to the Sinhalese and from waves of immigration from diverse regions of southern India. Many features of Sri Lankan Tamil culture, including village settlement patterns, inheritance and kinship customs, and domestic and village "folk religion," stand in sharp contrast to mainland Tamil customs. One possible reason is that the immigrants who created the first Tamil settlements in Sri Lanka appear to have come not just from the Tamil region of south India but from the Kerala coast as well. [Source: Bryan Pfaffenberger,”Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]
The Sri Lankan Tamil community itself boasts an impressive mythology of cultural and religious uniqueness and superiority. This is particularly true of dominant-caste Vellala Tamils living in the Jaffna Peninsula, who regard their Tamil cousins living in India and the Indian Tamil residents of Sri Lanka, as well as the Sinhalese, as their less civilized inferiors (thus undermining, to some extent, the rationale behind Sinhalese fears of engulfment by the two Tamil communities). According to anthropologist Bruce Pfaffenberger, the Vellala Tamils place great importance on the correct observation of Hindu rituals, the chastity of their women, and the need to maintain precisely the hierarchical distinctions of caste. Pfaffenberger notes that the Vellala regard the Jaffna Peninsula as their natu, or country, and that states ruled by their kings existed there from the thirteenth century until the sixteenth-century arrival of the Portuguese. Although not all Sri Lankan Tamils were members of the Vellala caste, its members dominated local commercial and educational elites, and its values had strong influence on Tamils of other castes. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]
Early Art, Inscriptions and Theater in Sri Lanka
Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: As is often the case in Asia, the early existing textual and visual sources concerning theater and dance in Sri Lanka also mainly deal with the traditions, which were related to the upper classes of society. The writing of inscriptions and chronicles, as well as the carving of stone reliefs, were done mainly by order of the court or the established religious institutions. Thus these sources mostly give information about the traditions of the ruling classes, not of those of the ordinary rural people. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki]
“In general, one can say that, because of its vicinity, the influence of Hindu South India has been strong in Sri Lanka. It can still be recognised in many of the musical instruments as well as in the technique and the aesthetics of some of the Sri Lankan dances. Even an inscription from the period before our era mentions forms of theatrical arts. Later, the famous Mahavamsa (Great Chronicle), which covers Sri Lanka’s early history until the 4th century., mentions dance in both the court and the temple contexts.
“The Culavamsa (Lesser Chronicle) widens its scope to include the golden age of the Polonnaruwa period during the rule of King Parakramabahu (1153–1186). According to the Chronicle, the king himself was an accomplished dancer and he employed hundreds of dancers at his court. The tradition of large groups of female dancers seems to have been popular.
“The religious rites in various temples, both Hindu and Buddhist, involved ceremonial dances, often dedicated to the bodhi tree or the Tooth Relic. The most important ceremonies were, and still are, the Peraheras, which were organised around the island in the summer months. The grandest of them now is the Kandy Perahera, organised annually in the former capital of Kandy in order to venerate the sacred Tooth Relic, during which the relic is carried around the city in a spectacular procession of elephants, musicians and dancers.
From the 15th century onwards poetry gives more detailed information about various forms of dance and theater. In Hindu temples dances were performed in specific dance halls by temple dancers in much the same way as in contemporary South India. During the Kandy period (1592–1815) royal patronage was given to both temple and court performers. Several institutions were established for music, dance and theatrical arts. A new wave of external influences arrived from India and Europe. The former includes folk theater forms, such as nadagama, and the latter pasku, or the Roman Catholic Passion Play.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Sri Lanka Tourism (srilanka.travel), Government of Sri Lanka (www.gov.lk), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated February 2022