In the late 1980s, vast differences remained in the wealth and life-styles of citizens in Sri Lanka. In urban areas, such as Colombo, entire neighborhoods consisted of beautiful houses owned by well-off administrators and businessmen. This elite enjoyed facilities and opportunities on a par with those of middle- and upper-middle-class residents of Europe or North America. In the countryside, families that controlled more extensive farms lived a rustic but healthy life, with excellent access to food, shelter, clothing, and opportunities for education and employment. In contrast, at lower levels in the class pyramid, the vast majority of the population experienced a much lower standard of living and range of opportunities. A sizable minority in both the cities and rural villages led a marginal existence, with inadequate food and facilities and poor chances for upward mobility. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Intervention by successive governments has had marginal success in decreasing the differences between income groups. In the rural sector, legislation has mandated a ceiling on private landownership and has nationalized plantations, but these programs have provided extra land to relatively few people. Although resettlement programs have benefitted hundreds of thousands of people, they have not kept pace with population growth. In rural environments, most people remained peasants with small holdings, agricultural laborers working for small wages on the lands of others, or landless plantation workers. Migration to the cities often did not lead to a great improvement in people's life-styles because most immigrants had little education and few skills. As a result, urban slums have proliferated; by the 1980s almost half the people in greater Colombo were living in slums and shanties. Because economic growth has not kept pace with these population changes, double-digit unemployment continued with the poorest sections of the urban and rural population suffering the most. A hard-core mass of poor and underemployed people, totalling between 20 and 25 percent of the population, remained the biggest challenge for the government.

Cramped and insufficient housing detracted from the quality of life in Sri Lanka. In the 1980s, most housing units in Sri Lanka were small: 33 percent had only one room, 33 percent two rooms, and 20 percent three rooms. More than five persons lived in the average housing unit, with an overcrowding rate (three or more persons per room) of 40 percent. In urban areas, permanent structures with brick walls, tiled roofs, and cement floors constituted 70 percent of houses, but in the countryside permanent houses made up only 24 percent of the units. The rural figures included a large number of village dwellings built of such materials as thatch, mud, and timber, designed according to traditional styles with inner courtyards, or verandas, and providing ample room for living and sleeping in the generally warm climate. The rates of overcrowding were declining in the 1980s, as the government sponsored intensive programs for increasing access to permanent housing. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]


Towns and Villages in Sri Lanka

Many Sri Lankan communities are set up along the “one village, one tank” pattern. The village (gama) is downstream from a man-made reservoir known as a tank. The tank is used to irrigate rice paddies, which in turn are surrounded by houses. A typical small town has a pharmacy, chili shop and bicycle repair shop.

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”: “Although many Sinhalese live in cities and towns, and their living conditions differ little from other urban populations in South Asia, the Sinhalese are by and large a rural people. They live in villages, hamlets, and isolated farmsteads scattered across the island. A typical agricultural village is made up of a cluster of houses situated on slightly elevated land and surrounded by paddy fields. Nearby, especially in the dry zone, may be one of the many "tanks" constructed over the centuries to store water for irrigation. The village itself will typically have a well, a temple, and perhaps a school and and an informal clinic. [Source: D. O. Lodric, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009 *]

Tamils in Sri Lanka have traditionally been a rural people. Under the British they became more urbanized. Many of the their towns look like oversized villages. Tamil towns and villages gave traditionally been centered around a temples with, in some cases, separate neighborhoods for separate castes.

Buildings and Spaces in Sri Lanka

According to“Countries and Their Cultures”: “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. [Source: Bambi L. Chapin and Kalinga Tudor Silva, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“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.

Bryan Pfaffenberger wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “The rural-urban balance has not changed significantly as of the beginning of the twenty-first century, due to an almost complete lack of industrial development, as well as to Sri Lanka's vigorous rural social service program (vestiges of which still function despite the conflict). Traditional villages are nonnucleated. Lanes wander through the village. Land is traditionally divided into three categories: house land, garden land, and paddy land. Traditional houses are made of mud and thatch; wealthier villagers construct stucco houses roofed with ceramic tiles. Houses are situated within a private fenced compound, which is usually planted with mangoes, coconut palms, and palmyras. [Source: Bryan Pfaffenberger, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]

Housing in Sri Lanka

According to the “Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations”: “Rapid population growth, along with a slowdown in construction during and immediately following World War ii (1939–45), led to a serious housing shortage, high rents, high building costs, and many unsanitary and unfit houses in Sri Lanka’s first decades after independence. Preliminary results from the 2001 census indicated a total of 4,687,157 housing units nationwide. As of 2000, the average household had 4.5 members. About 64 percent of all households were nuclear families. About 96 percent of urban dwellings and 73 percent of rural dwellings had access to safe drinking water. Only 73 percent of all households had access to safe sanitation systems. in the indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, about 88,544 housing units were completely destroyed or severely damaged. [Source: “Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations”, 2007]

According to“Countries and Their Cultures”: “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. 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. [Source: Bambi L. Chapin and Kalinga Tudor Silva, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Homes in Sri Lanka

A traditional house in Sri Lanka has one or two rooms and its own garden and is separated from other houses. Traditional houses have mud and plaster walls and a thatched roof made of woven palm fronds. Nice homes have glass windows, stucco and/or brick walls and ceramic tile roof. A traditional cadjian (coconut fond) dwelling has a timber frame, walls made of woven coconut fond mats and a coconut fond thatch roof. These structures are easy and cheap to build, breath and are relatively cool in hot weather and need to be rebuilt every three years or so.

According to the “Encyclopedia of Sexuality”: “Except in the Tamil areas, Sri Lankans typically do not construct walled domestic compounds. Rural Sinhalese homes are usually made with sun-baked brick, with tile or elephant grass for the roofing. The house compound is an open area that extends into a garden plot where manioc, banana, coconut, and vegetables are grown. Whenever possible, rice fields are adjacent to the homes, while the chena (or swidden) fields (where mainly maize, millet, sesame, and long beans are grown) are usually located in more remote areas of secondary scrub. In rural areas, the mud streets, footpaths, cultivation fields, scrublands, rivers, reservoirs, irrigation channels, forestlands, and garden compounds are places where children meet, work, and play. Homes in middle- to upper-class neighborhoods are usually protected by a fence or wall. [Source: Robert T. Francoeur, Victor C. de Munck, Ph.D., Patricia Weerakoon, Ph.D., “Encyclopedia of Sexuality”, 2002]

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”: Traditional building materials of mud and thatch are being replaced by cement and tiles. Each house stands in a garden in the midst of coconut, mango, papaya, and other trees. In front of the house is a veranda, where men sit during the day and sleep at night. A single door provides access to the house, where women and children sleep. There are typically two rooms and a kitchen, although sometimes the hearth is a lean-to attached to the back of the house. Most villagers sleep on mats, and only the more affluent have beds and simple wooden tables and chairs. Some households have their own well. Many houses have pit-latrines dug in the garden. [Source: D. O. Lodric,“Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009 *]

Tamil houses have traditionally been hidden behind natural fences of trees and bushes which also provides natural fertilizer (mainly leaves) for their gardens. The house have traditionally been built of the same materials used to make Sinhalese horses. The gardens often contain mango and coconut trees.

Urban Life in Sri Lanka

Urban population: 18.7 percent of total population (2020) (compared to 83 percent in Great Britain and 21 percent in Ethiopia). The rate of urbanization for Sri Lanka: 0.85 percent annual rate of change (2015-20 estimate). Major urban areas: Colombo (capital): population: 613,000 (2020); Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte (legislative capital): population: 103,000. (2018) [Source: CIA World Factbook]

In the late 1980s, In urban areas, such as Colombo, entire neighborhoods consisted of beautiful houses owned by well-off administrators and businessmen. This elite enjoyed facilities and opportunities on a par with those of middle- and upper-middle-class residents of Europe or North America. Cramped and insufficient housing detracted from the quality of life in Sri Lanka for many people. In urban areas, permanent structures with brick walls, tiled roofs, and cement floors constituted 70 percent of houses, [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

According to“Countries and Their Cultures”: 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. [Source: Bambi L. Chapin and Kalinga Tudor Silva, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]


Colombo is a busy and friendly city, cooled by ocean breezes and choked by exhaust fumes. Situated around a deep water port, prized by colonizers, it is the capital, largest city, most important commercial center and major gateway to Sri Lanka. Tourist usually don't linger for long because there isn't much to see except for the markets and a few colonial buildings.The population of Colombo is around 750,000 in the city proper. The Colombo metropolitan area has a population of 5,648,000 according to the Brookings Institution, about double what it was in 2000. The Colombo metro area embraces Sri Jayewardenapura Kotte, the capital of Sri Lanka..

Colombo is what Bombay would be like if it was cleaned up and shrunk to a tenth of its size. Glass and concrete buildings share the European sections of town with colonial-style government buildings and wide avenues. The streets are clogged with taxis, beat-up buses, bullock carts, motorized three-wheel rickshaws and lots of crows. Markets sell spices, fresh slices of mango and coconuts with a straw. Often in the afternoon a crackling lightning storm moves in from the west and drenches the city's streets. No beggars pull at your sleeves.

Colombo is primarily a European creation inhabited by Sri Lankans. None of the great Sri Lankan dynasties were centered there. Some were nearby. There are reference to it being used as a way station for travel between east and west in the A.D. 5th century. By the 8th century Arab traders had a community here. The Portuguese made it into a trading center after they arrived in 1505. The Dutch expanded it and used it to export spices. The British expanded it even more, and made it into a city, and used to ship out tea.

Up until the early 1990s, Colombo managed avoid the civil war that had ravaged northern Sri Lanka but the uneasy peace was shattered in 1996 when a truck filled with a half ton of explosives was detonated in the downtown area, killing 18 and injuring around 100. In 1997 a bomb was set in front of the Inter-Continental hotel. After that the city was monitored by soldiers dug in behind sand bags.

Western Sri Lanka: a Mega Smart City?

In 2016, Sri Lanka announced it was partnering with Siemens to transform its entire Western Province in one huge smart city.“ ReadWrite.com reported: ,Sri Lanka signed an agreement to gain smart city expertise from Siemens, the German engineering and technology giant. Siemens will be contributing its smart city expertise to help the government develop cost-efficient infrastructure and reduce congestion in the country’s Western Province. [Source: Donal Power, ReadWrite, May 25, 2016]

“Sri Lanka’s move comes as neighboring India recently ramped up efforts to transform many of its most populous urban areas into smart cities. The Ministry of Megapolis and Western Development is the Sri Lankan state department tasked with developing a vast smart city that will become a commercial, aviation and naval hub for the Asian region over the next five years. The Megapolis Ministry, which sounds vaguely like an industrial band from the 1980s, plans to develop new cities in Bandaragama, Kadawatha, Kottawa and Kerawalapitiya as part of the initiative. “We are… happy to partner with Siemens whose expertise and technologies will contribute to the Western Province’s intensive efforts to eliminate congestion pressure on urban infrastructure, services and environment with a focus on reducing the per unit capital cost of infrastructure,” said Lakshman Jayasekara of the Western Region Megapolis Planning Project in a statement.

Sri Lankais in the process of rebuilding its economy after a debilitating 25-year civil war. In its move to modernize Sri Lanka’s economy and cope with its rapid urbanization, the ministry is looking for smart city solutions to such issues as traffic, energy, environment, garbage, slums and livelihoods. “With its global expertise, Siemens has the portfolio, the know-how, and the expertise to help cities become more livable, more competitive and more sustainable,” said Sunil Mathur, CEO of Siemens India. “This will enable the national economy to leverage the benefits of economies of agglomeration brought about by urbanization.” The ministry will be involved primarily in macro-level planning of the Western Megapolis region, developing and implementing insight on bio-geophysical and socio-economic aspects.

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

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