Sri Lanka has the unusual distinction of being one of the few places in the world where all the major world religions — Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity — are practiced in significant numbers.Buddhists (70.2 percent) make up the largest religious group, followed by Hindus (12.6 percent), Muslims (9.7 percent) and Christian (7.4 percent) and other 0.05 percent (2012 estimate). Nearly all the Buddhists are Theravada Buddhists. Almost all Buddhists are ethnic Sinhalese. Most of the Hindus are Tamils. Most of the Christians (6.1 percent) are Roman Catholics. Among the Tamils there are significant numbers or Protestants, including Anglicans, Methodists and Baptists. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”:Sri Lanka's history left the island with a diverse population composed of self-conscious ethnic groups, differentiated by religion, language, and social customs. Hinduism, the island's first religion, came from India during its era of unrecorded history and is the faith of Sri Lanka's largest minority group, the Tamils. Theravada Buddhism was introduced from India during the third century B.C. and is the religion of the island's Sinhalese majority. Arab traders and western colonists brought Islam and Christianity in the tenth and sixteenth centuries, respectively. [Source: “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

About 70 percent of the Sinhalese are Theravada Buddhists. There are large communities of Sinhalese Catholics, especially along the coast. Many Buddhists also worship Hindu gods, believe that demons and spirits cause illness and are very superstitious, especially about choosing times, dates and places to carry out important activities such as marriage and starting a new business. Many Christians and Hindus participate in Buddhist festivals and leave offerings at Buddhist temples, Buddhists, Hindus, Christian and Muslims all attend pilgrimages to Adam’s peak.

The 1978 constitution, while assuring freedom of religion, grants primacy to Buddhism. In 2005, Buddhists made up 69 percent of the population of Sri Lanka, followed by Hindus (15 percent); Christian (8 percent); Muslim (7 percent). With the exception of Christians, who belong to a variety of ethnic groups, religious affiliation has traditionally been tied to the three major ethnic groups: 1) Sinhalese with Buddhism, 2) Tamil with Hinduism and Muslims. Muslims may or may not be Tamil speakers and include the Moor and Malay communities. Christians are found in the Sinhalese, Burgher-Eurasian, and Sri Lankan Tamil communities. [Source: Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations. 2007;Bambi L. Chapin and Kalinga Tudor Silva, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Blending of Religions in Sri Lanka

There is a degree of blending between the major religions of Sri Lanka — Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity — as well as an incorporation of ancient indigenous and astrological beliefs. Buddhism was revived by reformers who borrowed techniques of proselytization and political activity from Christian missionaries — and in so doing altered Buddhism by expanding the role of the laity and emphasizing a rigid Victorian morality. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”, The Gale Group, Inc., 1996]

Bambi L. Chapin and Kalinga Tudor Silva wrote in “Countries and Their Cultures”: “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. Bambi L. Chapin and Kalinga Tudor Silva, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“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.

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: The number of publicly observed holidays in Sri Lanka is 28, the largest number of any country in the world. Almost all public holidays are religious observances, eight of them non-Buddhist. Their official observance is testimony to the fact that Sri Lanka is a truly multireligious country. In addition to the Buddhist Poya Days, national patriotic days, and New Year's observances, the following religious holidays are also publicly observed: Thai-pongal in January; Mahasivaratri in February–March; Dipavali in October–November for Hindus; the Hajj, Ramadan, and Muhammad's birthday according to the shifting lunar calendar for Muslims; and Good Friday in March–April and Christmas in December for Christians. Because of the large number of holidays, it is impossible to live in Sri Lanka without becoming aware of the profoundly variegated religious roots and publicly recognized religious sentiments in Sri Lankan society — religion saturates Sri Lankan social life. Nevertheless, it is also surprising to learn how many Sri Lankans are almost totally ignorant about the basic beliefs and rites of traditions other than their own. In part this is a function of how religion is taught in public schools: Buddhists learn from Buddhists, Christians from Christians, Hindus from Hindus. Therefore, there is never a discussion of other religions, nor is there any type of developed discourse for talking about religion generically. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]

Bryan Pfaffenberger wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: Most Sinhalese are Theravada Buddhists, but there are substantial and largely non-Goyigama Roman Catholic communities in the maritime provinces. Often thought by foreign observers to contradict Buddhist teachings, the worship of Hindu gods in their temples (devale ) meets religious needs that bhikkus (Buddhist monks) cannot address, and the pantheon's structure symbolically expresses the pattern of traditional political authority. At the lower end of the pantheon are demons and spirits that cause illness and must be exorcised. | [Source: Bryan Pfaffenberger”Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]

History of Religion in Sri Lanka

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”:“By about the third century B.C. Buddhist laity had begun to dedicate meditation retreats for Buddhist monks. A line of kingship supportive of Buddhist monks, who would later establish the orthodox Mahavihara tradition of Theravada Buddhism, gained political hegemony by the middle of the third century B.C. Over the next 13 centuries the capital city of Anuradhapura developed spectacularly into a thriving cosmopolitan city and international center of learning. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]

“By the last half of the A.D. first millennium, three major monastic sects (the orthodox Theravada Mahavihara and the more doctrinally eclectic Abhyagiriya and Jetavana) were headquartered in Anuradhapura and dominated cultural, social, economic, and political life throughout the country until the collapse of Anuradhapura, which was brought about by invasions from south India in the A.D. tenth century. These invasions abetted the introduction of Hindu forms of religious practice in Sri Lanka.

“Meanwhile,Arab Muslim traders began to frequent the island from as early as the A.D. eighth century taking with them versions of Islam current in the locales of their origins. Over the centuries many other Muslims migrated to Sri Lanka from south India and Malaysia. In the sixteenth century the Portuguese arrived with colonial designs and their militant Roman Catholicism. The Dutch, who succeeded the Portuguese, were ousted by the British. The British eliminated the last of the Lankan Buddhist kings in 1815 and revolutionized the political system before ceding independence in 1948.

Religion in Pre-Buddhist Sri Lanka

“Prior to the advent of Buddhism, there was evidently no national or state religion systematically organised in the Island of Sri Lanka. In the words of Xuan Zang (Hsuan-tsang) "The Kingdom of Sinhala was addicted to immoral religious worship. [Source: Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

Ancestor Worship: Different kinds of primitive cults were prevalent in the Island in which supernatural being and Yaksas and Yaksinis played an important role. Yaksas called Kalavela and Cittaja were the two most important Yaksas worshipped by the pre-Aryan aborigines. These Yaksas and Yaksinis resided in the Cetiyas. It also appears that people believed in the fact that faithful and devoted persons after their death were born as Yaksas and Yaksas and continued to watch over the interests of their former friends, dear ones and patrons. In fact, Mahinda is reported to have preached on the second day of his arrival in Sri Lanka from the Petavatthu and the Vimanavatthu, two Buddhist texts dealing with the spirits of the dead. This perhaps indicated that Mahinda, at the beginning of his missionary activities in Sri Lanka, thought of winning the hearts of people by appealing to their sentiments through a sermon which they could easily understand and appreciate.

“Apart from the two Yaksas mentioned above, following were the important deities worshipped by the Sri Lankans prior to the arrival of Buddhism: 1) Cetiya (also called Valaramukhi); 2) Cetiya's husband, Jutindhara; 3) Maheja; 4) Jayasena; 5) Kammara-deva: god of smiths; 6) Pura-deva : god, who presided over city; 7) Vyadha-deva : god of huntsmen; 8) Pacchima-rajini, "Western Queen", nothing much is known about her. Some of these deities were actually the ancestors of the people. Houses, shrines and cetiyas were built to honour these deities.

“It is only natural to expect that Mahinda overcame and converted some superhuman beings in Sri Lanka. Mahinda appears to have converted at least one such superhuman being called 'rakus' (demon) who later served Buddhism quite well. God Sumana of Samantakuta (Adam's Peak) was also pre-Buddhist deity. He was, perhaps, originally a Yaksa, and later on was elevated to the position of a deva after his conversion to Buddhism by the Buddha during the latter's first visit to Sri Lanka. Even after the Sri Lankans were converted to Buddhist they desired to continue to venerate their friendly deities. But being Buddhists, they did not like to worship a non-Buddhist deity. They, therefore, converted these deities to Buddhism and elevated them to a higher plane, as in the case of Sumana. Such is also the case with most of the other local gods. There may have been some minor deities who were not converted to Buddhism, but almost all the important deities who survived the introduction of Buddhism became Buddhist sooner or later.

Tree-Worship was also prevalent in the pre-Buddhist Sri Lanka. Tree-worship, as a popular cult is regularly mentioned in the early Buddhist texts and some trees, in fact, were termed cetiyas. In the pre-Buddhist period, banyan and palmyrah were treated as sacred.

Niganthas (Jainas) appear to have already made their presence felt in the pre-Buddhist Island of Sri Lanka, but they were not very many in numbers and were not organised. Jotiya, Kumbhanda and Giri were the three Jainas at the time of King Pandukabhaya. They all had their own monasteries. We hear no more of the monasteries of the Niganthas in later times, and there are no archaeological remains found to indicate the sites of any Jaina monasteries Anuradhapura or elsewhere in Sri Lanka. The Jaina monasteries were probably converted to Buddhist viharas, just as in the case of Giri's monastery in Anuradhapura or the old cetiyas of yaksas in ancient Sri Lanka.

Saivism is the worship of the Hindu god Shiva. “There is reason to believe that Saivism also existed in pre-Buddhist India. The Mahavamsa records that Pandukabhaya built a sivika-sala where Shivalinga was established. The following types of ascetics (samanas) were also present in the Island in fair numbers.; 1. Paribbajakas : Pandukabhaya built a monastery for them.; 2. Ajivikas : Pandubhaya built a house for them.; 3. Pasandas; 4. Pabbajitas; 5. Tapasa : Pandubhaya built a monastery for them.

Cult of Astrology: Cult of astrology was also prevalent in the Island of Sri Lanka prior to the arrival of Buddhism. Even names of persons and some festivals were given after certain constellations. Soothsayers were also known in the pre-Buddhist Sri Lanka.

Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in Sri Lanka

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”:“Degrees of religious tolerance and intolerance have ebbed and flowed historically. But a dominant trait of Sinhala Buddhist culture has been its extraordinary pliability and inclusiveness. For example, the penchant for toleration and inclusiveness is signaled by a remarkable irony of history that occurred in the middle of the eighteenth century, when the Kandyan king Kirti Sri Rajasimha (reigned 1752–81), ethnically a Tamil in origins, provided protection and sustenance to Sinhala Catholics in his kingdom after they fled the low country from Protestant Dutch oppression. Here, a Tamil Buddhist king protected one type of Christian from another. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]

“Muslims and Hindus were also thoroughly integrated into the social fabric of the Kandyan kingdoms (fifteenth through eighteenth century). Late medieval Sinhala literature and contemporary forms of popular religious practice are replete with evidence of this remarkable inclusiveness. The Sinhala Kotte kingdom (fifteenth and sixteenth centuries) also witnessed extraordinary degrees of religious toleration and cultural conflations between Hindu and Buddhist communities.

“Periods of intolerance historically were almost always the by-product of political invasion or machination. Imperial invasions from south India in the tenth and thirteenth centuries destroyed Buddhist monastic infrastructures on the island. Portuguese militancy led to the wanton desecration of many, if not most, Hindu and Buddhist places of worship in the south and west. More recently, following the Sinhala violence against Tamil people in 1983, Sri Lanka's protracted ethnic conflict has been portrayed by some, especially in the Western media, as a religious conflict. While it was clearly not motivated by Buddhist causes, some of the more strident sections of the Sinhala population have appealed to a Buddhist sense of historical ownership of the island as a rationale for the need to defend the political unity of the island on the one hand and to purge popular aspects of religious culture on the other in order to regain a perceived original pristine purity of Theravada Buddhism. “

Buddhism in Sri Lanka

Buddhists make up 70.2 percent of the population of Sri Lanka. Nearly all the Buddhists are Theravada Buddhists. Theravada Buddhism is the kind of Buddhism practiced in Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, Laos and Burma. For the most part it originated in Sri Lanka. Buddhism is given special protection under the Sri Lankan constitution. Buddhism came close to being wiped out in the colonial period due to mass conversion to Christianity and neglect but was revived by reformers who borrowed techniques of proselytizing and political activity from Christian missionaries.

See Separate Article on BUDDHISM IN SRI LANKA

Hinduism in Sri Lanka

Hindus make up 12.6 percent of the population of Sri Lanka. The religion of the majority of people in India and Nepal, Hinduism is referred to as Sanatana Dharma, the eternal faith. Hinduism is not strictly a religion. It is based on the practice of Dharma, the code of life. Since Hinduism has no founder, technically anyone who practices Dharma can call himself a Hindu.

Whereas Buddhism claims a historical founder, a basic doctrine, and a formal monastic structure, Hinduism embraces a vast and varied body of religious belief, practice, and organization. In its widest sense, Hinduism encompasses all the religious and cultural systems originating in South Asia, and many Hindus actually accept the Buddha as an important sectarian teacher or as a rebel against or reformer of ancient Hindu culture. The medieval Arabs first used the term Hindu to describe the entire cultural complex east of the Sindhu, or Indus, River (in contemporary Pakistan). Hindu beliefs and practices in different regions claim descent from common textual sources, while retaining their regional individuality. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: Historically Hindu practices have exercised a profound impact on the religious culture of Sri Lanka, even within the specific context of popular forms of Sinhala Buddhist ritual practice. Indeed, from the fourteenth century c.e., images of deities of Hindu origins (especially Vishnu) have been worshiped alongside the image of the Buddha within Buddhist halls of worship. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]

More-over, the fact that the goddess Pattini and the gods Vishnu, Kataragama, and Natha (originally Avalokitesvara) are regarded as the highest and national guardian deities of the Sinhala pantheon indicates how Sinhala Buddhist religious culture has incorporated and transformed the major trajectories of religion (Sakta, Vaishnava, Saivite, and Mahayana Buddhist) prevalent in the history of south Indian religious culture. Increasingly the liturgical rites constitutive of worshiping these "Buddhist" deities in Sri Lanka reflect the influence of temple-based bhakti (devotional) Hindu practice. Hindu holy men, such as Sai Baba, also attract a considerable following among Sinhala Buddhists in Sri Lanka.

See See Separate Article on HINDUISM IN SRI LANKA

Tamil Hindus

The majority of Tamils are Hindus. The Hinduism practiced by Tamils in Sri Lanka is regarded as practical, philosophical and devotional. Shiva is generally recognized as the most important god and is worshiped indirectly. The worship of other gods, based mostly on self or family interest, is practiced by making offerings to gods that will perhaps help them pass an examination, give birth to a child, have success in business or bring good health to a sick loved one.

Hinduism remains very much alive among the Hindus in Tamil areas of Sri Lanka as it is in Tamil Nadu in India. Most cities and towns have significant temples.Village life often revolves around the worship of local deities.The doctrine of rebirth is not widely embraced by Tamils. The dead tend to be buried rather than cremated and have traditionally been buried under or near the home. Ceremonies are usually held within castes. At middle caste funerals the corpse is wrapped in a cloth and lowered in the ground while male relatives carrying pots of water circumambulate the grave in counterclockwise direction (an inauspicious direction). Death pollution lasts for several days, and is recognized with special foods and ritual cleansing of the body and the house where the deceased lived.The usual period or mourn after a funeral is 35 days.

Major Hindu temples rituals and ceremonies are presided over by non-Brahman priests that belong to a special caste called Saiva Kurukkala. Those that preside over village and family temples are usually ordinary villagers. Some of these are healers who also practice exorcism and spirt possession rites. Astrologers and fortunetellers are often consulted before making important decisions.

Muslims in Sri Lanka

Muslims make up 9.7 percent of the population of Sri Lanka. They are third largest religious group in the country. Of these most are Tamil-speaking Moors (making up 9.2 percent of the total population). Other ethnic groups include fair-skinned Christian Burghers (who descended from Portuguese and Dutch settlers), Europeans and Muslims. There is a small community of Malays. The majority of Sri Lanka's Muslims practice Sunni Islam.

According to “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: “In the closing decades of the twentieth century, the Muslim community experienced fundamental changes because of international and national religious and political dynamics. The spread of Sunni-based conservative practice from the Middle East has contributed to a homogenization process among Sri Lanka's Muslims. Local practices related to the idiosyncratic character of religion in Sri Lanka are increasingly eschewed by Muslim religious leaders in an effort to establish greater orthodoxy throughout the community. Muslim children are increasingly educated exclusively at Koranic-based schools or within the context of international schools, thus leading them to experience, in their youths, further separation from Hindu and Sinhala children. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]

During the past 20 years Muslim females have begun to wear burkhas to cover their heads in public, further marking their identities as distinctively Muslim. At the same time, the civil war in the country has exacerbated relations between Tamils and Muslims. In the early 1990s Muslims were expelled from the northern region of the country by Tamil militants, and several episodes of communal violence between Muslims and Tamils, especially in eastern regions of the island, have created serious tensions. Muslims have also clashed periodically with Sinhalas in Colombo and in the Kandyan highlands, mostly over economic issues. Within the current context of political negotiations to settle the civil war, the Muslim community is demanding political representation separate from the Sinhala and Tamil communities in order to help secure a degree of autonomy within the possibility of a new federal political state.


History of Muslims in Sri Lanka

Arab Muslim traders began to frequent the island of Sri Lanka from as early as the A.D. eighth century taking with them versions of Islam current in the locales of their origins. Over the centuries many other Muslims migrated to Sri Lanka from south India and Malaysia.

By the fifteenth century, Arab traders dominated the trade routes through the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia. Some of them settled down along the coasts of India and Sri Lanka, married local women, and spoke Arabized Tamil rather than pure Arabic. Their families followed Islam and preserved the basic doctrines and Islamic law, while also adopting some local social customs (such as matrilineal and matrilocal families) that were not part of early Islamic society in the Arabian Peninsula. When the Portuguese took control in the sixteenth century, they persecuted the Muslim traders of the southwest coast, and many Muslims had to relocate in the Central Highlands or on the east coast. They retained their separate religious identity, but also adopted some aspects of popular religion. For example, pilgrimage sites, such as Kataragama, may be the same for Muslims as for Hindus or Buddhists, although Muslims will worship at mosques rather than reverence the Buddha or worship Hindu gods. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

The growth in ethnic consciousness during the last two centuries has affected the Muslim community of Sri Lanka. Muslim revivalism has included an interest in the Arabic roots of the community, increased emphasis on the study of Arabic as the basis for understanding the Quran, and an emphasis on separate schools for Muslim children. Whether there should be an independent Islamic law for Muslims, preserving the distinct moral culture passed down from Muhammad, is a continuing issue. On a number of occasions, agitation has developed over attempts by the Sri Lankan government to regulate Muslim marriage and inheritance. In order to prevent further alienation of the Muslim community, in the 1980s the government handled its dealings with Muslims through a Muslim Religious and Cultural Affairs Department.

Christians in Sri Lanka

Christians make up 7.4 percent of the population of Sri Lanka and are outnumbered by Muslims. In the past they made up more than 8 percent of the population and outnumbered Muslims. Most of the Christians (6.1 percent) are Roman Catholics. Most Christians in Sri Lanka are Tamils (of which most are Catholics). Some are Sinhalese Christians.

Most Christians in Sri Lanka are Tamils and most Tamil Christians are Catholics. Sri Lankan Tamils are predominantly Hindus, but there are significant numbers of Roman Catholic and Protestant ones. Christian Tamils regard themselves every much as Tamil as Hindu Tamils, maybe the same way Christian Palestinians do. Many Christian Tamils converted to Christianity during the British colonial period. Many of them were members of lower castes who were educated at English-language schools. Even more might have converted where it not for a Hindu revivalist and reformist movement that tried to get rid of many practices such as animal sacrifices that Christians decried as barbaric. Many traditionalist Hindus were angry about the changes but the movement did restore pride about Tamil Hindu religious traditions and reduced the number of conversions.

There is a small number of Christian Burghers (descendants of Portuguese and Dutch Most Burghers are descendant of Portuguese rather than Dutch. For a while they were quite influential in business and political life. Their influence declined after independence in 1948. The number of Burghers has so sharpy declined that there are hardly any of them any more. Many have moved abroad.

It is said that Adam came to earth at Adam’s peak and his footprint there proves it. During a visit to Sri Lanka, travel writer Paul Theroux met a government officer that offered to show him the graves of Cain and Abel.

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “Christians were historically the best educated. In 1901, approximately 55 percent of Christian males were literate, compared to only 35 percent of Buddhist males, 34 percent of Muslim males, and 26 percent of Hindu males. Among Christian women, 30 percent were literate, compared to 5 percent among Buddhist women, 3 percent among Muslim women, and 2.5 percent among Hindu women. By 1921, within just 20 years, literacy rates among the island's male population rose to 66 percent for Christians, 50 percent for Buddhists, 45 percent for Muslims, and 37 percent for Hindus. For women, 50 percent of Christians were literate, while literacy rates among Buddhist, Muslim, and Hindu women rose to 17 percent, 6 percent, and 10 percent, respectively. [Source: “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

According to “Cities of the World”: English is spoken in many of the larger Colombo churches: Roman Catholic, Church of Sri Lanka (Episcopalian), Scots (Presbyterian), Baptist, Methodist, Christian Science, Mormon, and Dutch Reformed. No Orthodox churches are available. Sri Lanka has no synagogue. In Kandy, English services are held in Anglican, Roman Catholic, Baptist, and other churches. Most have Sunday school programs. Many churches also have services in Sinhala and Tamil. [Source: “Cities of the World”, The Gale Group Inc., 2002]


Animism in Sri Lanka

Many Sri Lankans still believe that sickness is caused by the evil eyes, demons and bad spirits. Even some of the most devout Buddhist and Hindus believe in witchcraft, sorcery and the power of the planets. Before important events or meetings are scheduled astrologers are often sought to find an auspicious date and time.

Demons have traditionally been driven from the bodies of the sick with the lime ceremony. After an auspicious time has been determined, an altar is adorned areca palm fronds and seven species of flower; sanctified with flesh from the sea (dried fish) and the land (leather); and purified with seven limes and some coins to appease the gods. During the ceremony a shaman invokes the names of the gods Tama and Lakshmi and squeezes the limes on the parts of sick person body that are ill, shouting, "Go, go you devils." The limes are then dropped in a bucket of water. If an odd number float back to the top the treatment was a success. [Source: "Ceylon" Donna K. and Gilbert Grosvenor, National Geographic, April 1966]

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: The Vedda community, indigenous inhabitants of the island who have lived traditionally as hunters and gatherers, survive in waning pockets of wilderness in the island's east-central regions. Many of their myths and rites have been absorbed into late medieval popular Sinhala folklore. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]

Sacred Village Tree in Rural Sri Lanka

Reporting from the small village of Kalinapawela near Haldummulla, about 100 kilometers east of Colombo, Florence Wickramage wrote: By side of the road was a tiny cleared patch where two low small rock-stones were placed. By the side of the rocks was a tree with small slips of branches hanging on a low fork from the two branches of the tree. There were empty packets of joss-sticks, pieces of broken coconuts and signs of candle wax on the rock stones. I inquired from an elderly villager R.M.Gunapala (74) who joined us, what happens at this spot. He informed me that a ritual is performed by villagers to the sylvan deity when crossing this corridor entreating his protection on their journey. [Source: Florence Wickramage]

“He said that this area is called the Mangara adaviya, said to be guarded by Mangara Deviyo. A slip of branch is broken from a nearby tree and hung on the fork of the tree at the foot of the rock-stones. A vow is made lighting a candle or a clay lamp and the place incensed with joss-sticks. They pay obeisance to the tree symbolising the sylvan deity and proceed on their way. He vowed that this deity's protection of the villagers has been proved over and over again and no villager had ever been attacked by a wild elephant. I have observed on a visit to Wanathavillu in the Puttalam District the same ritual performed by villagers when they cross jungle land. But in this area the deity is called Aiyanayaka Deviyo and the area Aiyanayaka deviyange adaviya.

“In predominantly Tamil areas as well as in up-country estates, a black stone or a black stone-statue of God Pullaiyar is placed at the foot of trees at certain places and venerated the same way. The God is also known as Gana Deviyo. According to Hindu believers, Gana Deviyo had been commanded by god Shiva to stand by a roadside and it is this command that the Gana Deviyo is faithfully adhering to. Vows made to Gana Deviyo seeking his protection are followed by boiling of milk and offering it to the god seeking protection and grace from him.

There is a popular belief among villagers that the peaceful days of yore and a disciplined and religious society which existed in Lanka decades and generations ago was the result of adhering to these traditional customs, beliefs and rituals. This was confirmed by the elderly villagers we met during our tour to several villages in the Uva Sabaragamuwa province. " Our country was the granary of the east, there were bountiful harvests and we enjoyed a peaceful lifestyle in our villages. This was so because we observed traditional customs and rituals in whatever task we engaged in — be it tilling of our land, harvesting paddy, digging a well or even going through jungle land. This is not so today", a whimsical Gunapala told me when parting... with a sigh and a far away look in his eyes.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Sri Lanka Tourism (, Government of Sri Lanka (, 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

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