Located in the Indian Ocean about 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of the southern tip of India, Sri Lanka is a tear-drop-shaped island that is 65,610 square kilometers (25,332 square miles) in area, which is roughly the size of Ireland or West Virginia. Sri Lanka measures about 435 kilometers (270 miles) from north to south and is 225 kilometers (140 miles) form east to west at its widest point. The coastline around the island stretches for more than 1,000 miles. The Palk Strait separates Sri Lanka and India. It is only 22 miles wide at its narrowest point.

About 43.5 percent of the country is good for agriculture (compared to 44.3 percent in the U.S. and 12.3 percent in Japan) and most of this arable land is along the coast, in the northern plains, and in the tea-growing region of the central highlands. About 7 percent of Sri Lanka is covered by pastureland and 29 percent by forests and woods. The remaining 27 is made up primarily of mountains and marshes.

Sri Lanka has a mountainous interior and coast plains which surround most of the country. Rolling plains punctuated by long ridges cover most of the island. These rise towards mountains in the south. The north is more arid. The vast northern plains are parched with drought from June to October, but drenched with monsoon rains during the winter (the opposite of India). Many tanks (reservoirs) have been built here to collect water when it rains and store it to use when it is dry.

The less extensive southern plains, which receive more precipitation than the northern plains, are covered by large tracks of forest. Dense tropical vegetation includes giant tree ferns, towering palms and valuable tropical hardwoods such as ebony and satinwood.

The rain-drenched central highlands is a prime tea growing region. The highest mountains are over 2440 meters (8,000 feet) high. The highest mountain is 2524-meter (8,280-foot) -tall Pidurutalagala. The better known Adam’s Peak is almost as high at 2243 meters (7,360 feet). The coast contains many coconut-lined lagoons. A chain of sandbars and island, called Adam's Bridge, almost connects Sri Lanka with India. The largest island, Mannar Island, is connected by a bridge to the Sri Lankan mainland. South of Sri Lanka the Indian Ocean stretches unimpeded all the way to Antarctica.

Location of Details About Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is located 880 kilometers (547 miles) north of the equator. It geographic coordinates are 6 55 N, 79 50 E and the entire island lies in the tropical zone between 5° and 9°N and between 79° and 82°E. Sri Lanka is south and slightly east of the southernmost point of India, separated from that country by the Palk Strait, which is 23 kilometers (14 miles) wide.

The total area of Sri Lanka: 65,610 square kilometers (25,332 square miles). Land: 64,630 square kilometers (24,954 square miles). Water: 980 square kilometers (378 square miles). Sri Lanka ranks 123rd in the world in terms of size. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020 =]

Land boundaries: none. Coastline: 1,340 kilometers (833 miles). Territorial sea limits: 22 kilometers (12 nautical miles). Exclusive economic zone:370 kilometers (200 nautical miles). Contiguous zone: 44.5 kilometers (24 nautical miles). Continental shelf: 370 kilometers(200 nautical miles) or to the edge of the continental margin

Terrain: mostly low, flat to rolling plain; mountains in south-central interior: mean elevation: 228 meters (748 feet). Lowest point: Indian Ocean: 0 meters. Highest point: Pidurutalagala 2,524 meters (8,281 feet)

Sri Lanka has a strategic location near major Indian Ocean sea lanes. It has no territories or dependencies.

Geology of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka was once part of the Indian subcontinent. Only 29 kilometers (18 miles) of shallow sea separates it from India. Situated on the Indian Tectonic Plate, the island is a mass of crystalline rock on which three regions are categorized: 1) a coastal belt that rises from sea level to 30 meters(100 feet); 2) a belt of rolling plains puncuated with ridges rising to 150 meters (500 feet) in the south; and 3) an irregularly shaped mass of hills and mountains with elevations of over 1,830 meters (6,000 feet) in the center,. [Source: “Geo-Data: The World Geographical Encyclopedia”, 2003]

More than 90 percent of Sri Lanka's surface lies on Precambrian strata, some of it dating back 2 billion years. The metamorphic rock surface was created by the transformation of ancient sediments under intense heat and pressure during mountain-building processes. The theory of plate tectonics suggests that these rocks and related rocks forming most of south India were part of a single southern landmass called Gondwanaland. Beginning about 200 million years ago, forces within the earth's mantle began to separate the lands of the Southern Hemisphere, and a crustal plate supporting both India and Sri Lanka moved toward the northeast. About 45 million years ago, the Indian plate collided with the Asian landmass, raising the Himalayas in northern India, and continuing to advance slowly to the present time. Sri Lanka experiences few earthquakes or major volcanic events because it rides on the center of the plate. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

The island contains relatively limited strata of sedimentation surrounding its ancient hills. Aside from recent deposits along river valleys, only two small fragments of Jurassic (140 to 190 million years ago) sediment occur in Puttalam District, while a more extensive belt of Miocene (5 to 20 million years ago) limestone is found along the northwest coast, overlain in many areas by Pleistocene (1 million years ago) deposits. The northwest coast is part of the deep Cauvery (Kaveri) River Basin of southeast India, which has been collecting sediments from the highlands of India and Sri Lanka since the breakup of Gondwanaland.*

Dr. Deraniyagala, Consultant to the Sri Lankan government on Archaeology, said that Sri Lanka was an extension of the Indian subcontinent for at least 8,00,000 years of the last one million years, when the sea level was lower than it is at present. Sri Lanka and India were part of one (land) mass, linked by a land bridge. It was estimated that the sea level could have dropped on at least 17 occasions in the last 7,00,000 years, resulting in the creation of a land connection. The last separation from India would have occurred about 7,000 years ago.

Topography of Sri Lanka

About four fifths of Sri Lanka is flat or gently rolling. The south-central part of Sri Lanka is a rough plateau bisected by a range of mountains whose highest peak is 2,524-meter (8,281 foot) Pidurutalagala. Coastal plains lie between the mountainous and the sea Topographically, Sri Lanka can be divided into of two main areas: 1) the mountainous south-central region; and the 2) and the low-lying northern, eastern, and southwestern coastal plains. In the north, the coastal plain extends from the eastern to the western sides of the island, covering the middle northern part. Rivers and streams flow towards the sea in all directions from the central mountain area. Dense vegetation covers a large swaths of the island, particularly the southern and western coasts. There are large tea estates in the highlands. Rubber and coconut trees coastal areas and midlands. [Source: “Cities of the World” , The Gale Group Inc., 2002; “Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of Physical Geography”, The Gale Group, Inc., 2003]

Extensive faulting and erosion over time have produced a wide range of topographic features, making Sri Lanka one of the most scenic places in the world. Three zones are distinguishable by elevation: the Central Highlands, the plains, and the coastal belt. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

The south-central part of Sri Lanka — the rugged Central Highlands — is the heart of the country. The core of this area is a high plateau, running north-south for approximately sixty-five kilometers. This area includes some of Sri Lanka's highest mountains. (Pidurutalagala is the highest at 2,524 meters.) At the plateau's southern end, mountain ranges stretch 50 kilometers to the west toward Adams Peak (2,243 meters) and 50 kilometers to the east toward Namunakuli (2,036 meters). Flanking the high central ridges are two lower plateaus. On the west is the Hatton Plateau, a deeply dissected series of ridges sloping downward toward the north. On the east, the Uva Basin consists of rolling hills covered with grasses, traversed by some deep valleys and gorges. To the north, separated from the main body of mountains and plateaus by broad valleys, lies the Knuckles Massif: steep escarpments, deep gorges, and peaks rising to more than 1,800 meters. South of Adams Peak lie the parallel ridges of the Rakwana Hills, with several peaks over 1,400 meters. The land descends from the Central Highlands to a series of escarpments and ledges at 400 to 500 meters above sea level before sloping down toward the coastal plains.*

Most of the island's surface consists of plains between 30 and 200 meters above sea level. In the southwest, ridges and valleys rise gradually to merge with the Central Highlands, giving a dissected appearance to the plain. Extensive erosion in this area has worn down the ridges and deposited rich soil for agriculture downstream. In the southeast, a red, lateritic soil covers relatively level ground that is studded with bare, monolithic hills. The transition from the plain to the Central Highlands is abrupt in the southeast, and the mountains appear to rise up like a wall. In the east and the north, the plain is flat, dissected by long, narrow ridges of granite running from the Central Highlands.*

A coastal belt about thirty meters above sea level surrounds the island. Much of the coast consists of scenic sandy beaches indented by coastal lagoons. In the Jaffna Peninsula, limestone beds are exposed to the waves as low-lying cliffs in a few places. In the northeast and the southwest, where the coast cuts across the stratification of the crystalline rocks, rocky cliffs, bays, and offshore islands can be found; these conditions have created one of the world's best natural harbors at Trincomalee on the northeast coast, and a smaller rock harbor at Galle on the southwestern coast.*

Geography and the People of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka lies practically in the center of the Indian Ocean and thus has climatic and cultural links with three continents. Monsoon winds, driving against Sri Lanka's peaks, support lush vegetation on the southern half of the island, but the northern half is a dry zone. The winds affect human culture as well, having brought wave after wave of immigrants and merchants following the southerly trade routes. Outsiders found a wide range of ecological niches on the coast, on the plains, or in the mountains, and they built a remarkably variegated civilization. Merchants long have sought Sri Lanka as the source of pearls, jewels, spices, and tea. Visitors for centuries have marvelled at the beauty and great diversity of the island. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

The South Asian landmass to the north has strongly influenced Sri Lankan culture in the past and continues to do so. From an outlander's perspective, some of the main aspects of Sri Lankan society — language, caste, family structure — are regional variants of Indian civilization. From the perspective of the islander, however, the Indian influence is but the largest part of a continuing barrage of stimuli coming to Sri Lanka from all sides. The people of the island have absorbed these influences and built their own civilization.

The largest city is Colombo with around 750,000 people 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 legislative capital of Sri Lanka. Other important cities including are Dehiwala–Mount Lavinia, Kandy, Galle, Jaffna, Anuradhapura, Matara, Negombo, Ratnapura and Trincomalee

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

Some of Sri Lanka’s most notable geographical features are man-made. According to the “Geo-Data: The World Geographical Encyclopedia”: “Sri Lanka's largest lake, Maduru Oya (63 square kilometers, 24 square miles), is a modern reservoir in the central highlands. Other large reservoirs include Randenigala (27 square kilometers, 10 square miles), Victoria Falls (23 square kilometers, 9 square miles), and Kotmale (10 square kilometers, 4 square miles). These huge highlands reservoirs were formed by the damming of the Mahaweli River for irrigation, hydro-electricity, and water supply projects completed between 1977 and 1983. Sri Lanka has forty-six large dams and many smaller hydropower projects. Nature sanctuaries have been established around the reservoirs to protect the watersheds, but tens of thousands of people were displaced as a result of the construction, and valuable agricultural land was submerged. The reservoirs are becoming choked with silt and the water levels are dropping.” [Source: “Geo-Data: The World Geographical Encyclopedia”, 2003]

Ecological Zones in Sri Lanka

The pattern of life in Sri Lanka depends directly on the availability of rainwater. The mountains and the southwestern part of the country, known as the "wet zone," receive ample rainfall (an annual average of 250 centimeters). Most of the southeast, east, and northern parts of the country comprise the "dry zone, which receives between 120 and 190 centimeters of rain annually. Much of the rain in these areas falls from October to January; during the rest of the year there is very little precipitation, and all living creatures must conserve precious moisture. The arid northwest and southeast coasts receive the least amount of rain — 60 to 120 centimeters per year — concentrated within the short period of the winter monsoon. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

The natural vegetation of the dry zone is adapted to the annual change from flood to drought. The typical ground cover is scrub forest, interspersed with tough bushes and cactuses in the driest areas. Plants grow very fast from November to February when rainfall is heavy, but stop growing during the hot season from March to August. Various adaptations to the dry conditions have developed. To conserve water, trees have thick bark; most have tiny leaves, and some drop their leaves during this season. Also, the topmost branches of the tallest trees often interlace, forming a canopy against the hot sun and a barrier to the dry wind. When water is absent, the plains of the dry zone are dominated by browns and grays. When water becomes available, either during the wet season or through proximity to rivers and lakes, the vegetation explodes into shades of green with a wide variety of beautiful flowers. Varieties of flowering acacias are well adapted to the arid conditions and flourish on the Jaffna Peninsula. Among the trees of the dry-land forests are some valuable species, such as satinwood, ebony, ironwood, and mahogany.*

In the wet zone, the dominant vegetation of the lowlands is a tropical evergreen forest, with tall trees, broad foliage, and a dense undergrowth of vines and creepers. Subtropical evergreen forests resembling those of temperate climates flourish in the higher altitudes. Montane vegetation at the highest altitudes tends to be stunted and windswept.*

Mountains and Highlands of Sri Lanka

South central Sri Lanka is dominated by the Central Highlands averages more than 1,500 meters (5,000 feet) in altitude and reaches a maximum altitude of 2,524 meters (8,281 feet) at Pidurutala Peak, the highest point on the island. Adam's Peak (2,243 meters, 7,360 feet) is another high mountain.

The southwest part of Sri Lanka is a series of ridges and valleys. Close to the sea the ridges are low and parallel to the coast, but inland they become mountain chains alternating with long, narrow depressions. The Sabaragamuwa Ridges cover nearly the entire southern region of the country. The central highlands (also known as the hill country) are distinguished by high mountain walls. Adam's Peak, a pilgrimage destination, is here. The Piduru Ridges comprise the central mass of the hill country. This nearly inaccessible massif includes Pidurutalagala. The northernmost sections of the central highlands embraces the Dumbara, or Knuckles, group of mountains. Knuckles Peak is 1,863 meters (6,112 feet) high. The Dolosbage mountain group is separated from the rest of the central highlands by the Mahaweli River valley. Deep, narrow valleys lie between the ridges creating a rock maze here. [Source: “Geo-Data: The World Geographical Encyclopedia”, 2003]

A series of high plains in the central highlands includes the Hatton Plateau, which ranges in elevation from 914 to 1,219 meters (3,000 and 4,000 feet). The rivers that flow between its ridges join together to form the Mahaweli River. A large portion of the Hatton Plateau is used for tea cultivation. The historic town of Kandy, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is situated on the Kandy Plateau in the northwest central highlands. The Kandy Plateau is divided by ridges and valleys and by the Mahaweli River gorge. The Horton Plains is highest plateau in Sri Lanka at 2,130 meters (6,988 feet). Situated in the southern central highlands, it embraces a 32-square-kilometer (12-square-mile) national park.

Plains, Hills, Forests and Wetlands of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka southeastern plain is interspersed with rounded hills that are the bare tops of eroded mountains. Gentler, grass-covered hills occur in the Uva Basin of the central highlands. Grasslands occur in the central highlands, the arid north, and along the eastern hills. [Source: “Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of Physical Geography”, The Gale Group, Inc., 2003]

The Uva Basin has distinctive wet grasslands called patanas. Gal Oya, in the southeast, is a national park, with tall grasses and monsoon forest. It has medicinal plants and is an elephant habitat. The Horton Plains are grasslands mixed with temperate forest, though the forests are dying off.

About 25 percent of Sri Lanka is covered by forest, and 20 percent of that is tropical rainforest. Sinharaja, in the southern lowlands, is Sri Lanka's last significant primary rainforest, and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve. Tropical evergreen rainforests are found at low and high elevations of the wet zone. Mangrove forests are declining along the coasts. Remaining forest cover exists mostly in disconnected patches of protected land.

Dry zone forests include thorn forests in the northwest and southeast, dry evergreen forests, and deciduous monsoon forests. The eastern slopes of the central highlands contain savannah forests that are very susceptible to burning and droughts.

Forests at one time covered nearly the entire island, but by the late twentieth century lands classified as forests and forest reserves covered only one-fifth of the land. The southwestern interior contains the only large remnants of the original forests of the wet zone. The government has attempted to preserve sanctuaries for natural vegetation and animal life, however. Ruhunu National Park in the southeast protects herds of elephant, deer, and peacocks, and Wilpattu National Park in the northwest preserves the habitats of many water birds, such as storks, pelicans, ibis, and spoonbills. During the Mahaweli Garga Program of the 1970s and 1980s in northern Sri Lanka, the government set aside four areas of land totalling 190,000 hectares as national parks. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988]

Sri Lanka's wetlands include freshwater marshes such as Muthurajawela, a peat bog between Colombo and Negombo; rare swamp forest, such as the Walauwa Watta Wathurana in the south near Ratnapura; and 42 salt water lagoons. Two sites in Sri Lanka are declared Wetlands of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention: Bundala National Park, a lagoon network abundant in waterbird species; and Annaiwilundawa Sanctuary, a 12th Century system of cascading water tanks.

Rivers, Lakes and Waterways in Sri Lanka

A total of 103 rivers and streams radiate from he central hills of Sri Lanka and flow in a radial pattern to the sea. The largest river, the Mahaweli Gangas runs from near Adam’s Park to Trincomalee on the east coast. The Mahaweli flows northeastand is 341 kilometers (206 miles), long. It has been incorporated into a large dam and irrigation project. There are number of scenic waterfalls where the rivers originating in the high mountains flow over the plateaus down to the plains. One survey counted 272 waterfalls on the island.

Most of Sri Lanka's rivers are short. There are sixteen principal rivers longer than 100 kilometers in length, with twelve of them carrying about 75 percent of the mean river discharge in the entire country. The second longest river is the Aruvi Aru (170 kilometers) in the northwest. The other main rivers range in length from 100 to 156 kilometers (62 to 97 miles). The Yan flows from the center of the island northeast to the Bay of Bengal. In the southeast, the relatively short Gal runs eastward from Gal Oya National Park to the ocean, and just north of it the Maduru runs to the coast near Batticaloa. The southern end of the island has the Gin River, and the northwestern region has rivers at nearly even intervals running westward from the center to the coast. From north to south, they are the Aruvi Aru, Kala, Mi, Deduru, and Maha Rivers.

In the highlands, river courses are frequently broken by discontinuities in the terrain, and where they encounter escarpments, numerous waterfalls and rapids have eroded a passage. Once they reach the plain, the rivers slow down and the waters meander across flood plains and deltas. The upper reaches of the rivers are wild and usually unnavigable, and the lower reaches are prone to seasonal flooding. Human intervention has altered the flows of some rivers in order to create hydroelectric, irrigation, and transportation projects. In the north, east, and southeast, the rivers feed numerous artificial lakes or reservoirs (tanks) that store water during the dry season. During the 1970s and 1980s, large-scale projects dammed the Mahaweli Ganga and neighboring streams to create large lakes along their courses. Several hundred kilometers of canals, most of which were built by the Dutch in the eighteenth century, link inland waterways in the southwestern part of Sri Lanka. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Although Sri Lanka has few natural lakes, there are over 12,000 bodies of water ranging from tiny ponds to huge artificial reservoirs doezesn of kilometers across. The oldest of the traditional reservoirs, known as tanks, is believed to be Basawakkulam, built about 300 B.C.. It is also quite large, and covering more than 30 square kilometers (11 square miles). There are as many as 10,000 tanks of various sizes. There are also flood plain lakes, called villus, which are generally near river bends. [Source: Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of Physical Geography, The Gale Group, Inc., 2003]

Sri Lanka's largest lake, Maduru Oya (63 square kilometers, 24 square miles), is a modern reservoir in the central highlands. Other large reservoirs include Randenigala (27 square kilometers, 10 square miles), Victoria Falls (23 square kilometers, 9 square miles), and Kotmale (4 10 square kilometers, square miles,). These reservoirs are located in highlands are created between 1977 and 1983 by damming the Mahaweli River for irrigation, hydroelectricity, and water supply. Altogether Sri Lanka has 46 large dams, and many smaller hydopower projects. Nature sanctuaries have been established around the reservoirs to protect the watersheds. However, but tens of thousands of people were displaced for the projects, and valuable agricultural land was submerged. The water levels in some reservoirs has dropped and heavy silting has occurred.

Land Use and Settlement Patterns in Sri Lanka

Land use in Sri Lanka: agricultural land: 43.5 percent; arable land: 20.7 percent; permanent crops: 15.8 percent; permanent pasture: 7 percent; forest: 29.4 percent (2011 estimate); other: 27.1 percent (2011 estimate). Irrigated land: 5,700 square kilometers (2012).Agricultural land is divided into arable land (land cultivated for crops like wheat and rice that are replanted after each harvest) and permanent crops (land with for crops like citrus, coffee, and rubber that are not replanted after each harvest) and permanent pasture (land used for grazing animals such as cattle and sheep). The amount of arable land is 1 percent in Saudi Arabia, 20 percent in the United States, and 32 percent in France). [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

The dominant pattern of human settlement during the last 2,500 years has consisted of village farming communities. Even in the 1980s, the majority of people lived in small villages and worked at agricultural pursuits. Traditional farming techniques and life-styles revolve around two types of farming — "wet" and "dry" — depending upon the availability of water. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

The typical settlement pattern in the rice-growing areas is a compact group of houses or neighborhood surrounding one or several religious centers that serve as the focus for communal activities. Sometimes the houses may be situated along a major road and include a few shops, or the village may include several outlying hamlets. The life-sustaining rice fields begin where the houses end and stretch into the distance. Some irrigated fields may include other cash crops, such as sugarcane, or groves of coconut trees. Palmyra trees grow on the borders of fields or along roads and paths. Individual houses also may have vegetable gardens in their compounds. During the rainy seasons and thereafter, when the fields are covered by growing crops, the village environment is intensely verdant.*

The nature of agricultural pursuits in Sri Lanka has changed over the centuries and has usually depended upon the availability of arable land and water resources. In earlier times, when villagers had access to plentiful forests that separated settlements from each other, slash-and-burn agriculture was a standard technique. As expanding population and commercial pressures reduced the amount of available forestland, however, slash-and-burn cultivation steadily declined in favor of permanent cultivation by private owners. Until the thirteenth century, the village farming communities were mainly on the northern plains around Anuradhapura and then Polonnaruwa, but they later shifted to the southwest. In the 1980s, wide expanses of the northern and eastern plains were sparsely populated, with scattered villages each huddled around an artificial lake. The Jaffna Peninsula, although a dry area, is densely populated and intensively cultivated. The southwest contains most of the people, and villages are densely clustered with little unused land. In the Central Highlands around Kandy, villagers faced with limited flat land have developed intricately terraced hillsides where they grow rice. In the 1970s and 1980s, the wet cultivation area was expanding rapidly, as the government implemented large-scale irrigation projects to restore the dry zone to agricultural productivity. In the 1980s, the area drained by the Mahaweli Ganga changed from a sparsely inhabited region to a wet rice area similar to the southwest. Through such projects, the government of Sri Lanka has planned to recreate in the dry zone the lush, irrigated landscape associated with the ancient Sinhalese civilization.*

Beginning in the sixteenth century and culminating during the British rule of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the plantation economy came to dominate large sections of the highlands. Plantation farming resulted in a drastic reduction in the natural forest cover and the substitution of domesticated crops, such as rubber, tea, or cinnamon. It also brought about a changed life-style, as the last hunting-and-gathering societies retreated into smaller areas and laborers moved into the highlands to work on plantations. Through the late twentieth century, workers on large plantations lived in villages of small houses or in "line rooms" containing ten to twelve units. The numerous plantations of small landholders frequently included attached hamlets of workers in addition to the independent houses of the plantation owners.*

The coastal belt surrounding the island contains a different settlement pattern that has evolved from older fishing villages. Separate fishing settlements expanded laterally along the coast, linked by a coastal highway and a railway. The mobility of the coastal population during colonial times and after independence led to an increase in the size and number of villages, as well as to the development of growing urban centers with outside contacts. In the 1980s, it was possible to drive for many kilometers along the southwest coast without finding a break in the string of villages and bazaar centers merging into each other and into towns.*

Oceans, Seas and Coastal Area of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is situated in the northern Indian Ocean, with the Bay of Bengal the east and the Laccadive Sea to the southwest. The waters surrounding the island are so deep that Sri Lanka is almost unaffected by tidal variations and large whales, including blue whales and sperm whales come relatively close to the shores. The Palk Strait and Palk Bay separate India from the Jaffna Peninsula of northern Sri Lanka. The chain of limestone shoals and islands, called Adam's Bridge, and the Gulf of Mannar lie between Sri Lanka's northwest coast and India. Coral reefs extend around the Gulf of Mannar and sections of the southern and eastern coasts. Some of the coral has died as a result of pollution, dynamite fishing, and changes in sea temperatures due to global warming. [Source: “Geo-Data: The World Geographical Encyclopedia”, 2003]

A few small islands extend from the north of Sri Lanka to the Indian mainland. Delft (50 square kilometers, , 19 square miles) and Velanai (68 square kilometers, 26 square miles) are in Palk Bay. Mannar Island is part of Adam's Bridge. Mannar Island is the driest, most barren place in Sri Lanka. It has a large number of baobab trees.Kayts, Karaitivu and Pungudutivu are islands in the Jaffna area connected the to Sri Lankan mainland by causeways.

The Jaffna Peninsula is a dry limestone extension in northernmost Sri Lanka. Point Pedro is the north of the Jaffna peninsula with Jaffna Lagoon to the south. Southwest of the Jaffna Peninsula is Adam’s Ridge, a group of roacky islands and limestone shoals formed on an elevated portion of the continental shelf, nearly connecting Sri Lanka's northwest coast to India. South of the Jaffna Peninsula on the western coast is the Kalpitya Peninsula which forms a semicircle enclosing Puttalam Lagoon.

The south and southwest coast of Sri Lanka is famous for its many beautiful beaches, tourist areas and fishing towns. A lighthouse built in 1899 sits on. Dondra Head, the southernmost part of Sri Lanka. The eastern coast also has some fine beaches. The port of Trincomalee is located on Koddiyar Bay, an excellent natural harbor on the east coast. Furth north, where the Yan River empties into the sea, is Kokkilai Lagoon.

Adam’s Bridge

Adam’s Bridge is a chain of limestone shoals, sandbars, islets, reefs and rocky islands that almost connect Sri Lanka with India. The islands lie on an elevated portion of the continental shelf between the southeastern coast of India and the northwestern coast of Sri Lanka and present an obstacle to navigation. Geological evidence suggests that 50-kilometer-long Bridge was once connected India. Ancient Sri Lanka historical chronicles seem to indicate that a foot passage was possible between the two land masses until the 15th century when the land bridge broke up in a cyclone

South Point in Sri Lanka marks the beginning of Adam’s Bridge from the Sri Lankan side. Rameswaram Island, off the southeastern coast of Tamil Nadu, marks the beginning of Adam’s Bridge from the India side. Kanyakumari is located at the southernmost tip of India where the Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea all meet. Geological evidence suggests that Adam’s Bridge is a former land connection between India and Sri Lanka, made with chain of limestone shoals surrounded by a shallow sea of one to 10 meters in depth. The Rameshwaram temple records suggest that Rama’s Bridge was completely above sea level until it was destroyed in a cyclone in. 1480.

According to the great Hindu text The Ramayana a bridge was built by the army of monkeys under the monkey god Hanuman to Lanka to allow Lord Rama to cross to Lanka to rescue his abducted wife Sita. When Rama and Sita and their loyal followers traveled home, to the Kingdom of Ayodhya in northern India they crossed the bridge. When they got to the other side, the bridge dropped down under the sea, leaving only a trail of rocks. The bridge is as holy to Hindus as the Wailing Wall is to the Jews, the Vatican to Catholics, Bodh Gaya to Buddhists and Mecca to Muslims, A 50 -kilometer string of limestone shoals, known as Ram Sethu, helped protected large parts of India from the 2004 tsunami.

The bridge and its surrounding sea was first mentioned in the western worlds in "historical works in the 9th century" by Ibn Khordadbeh in his “Book of Roads and Kingdoms” in A.D. 850, referring to it as Set Bandhai or "Bridge of the Sea". The earliest map that calls it Adam's Bridge was prepared by a British cartographer in 1804, in reference to an Abrahamic myth, in which Adam used the bridge to reach a mountain, which the British identified with Adam's Peak, where he stood repentant on one foot for 1,000 years, leaving a large hollow mark resembling a footprint. [Source: Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau ]

In 2002, Hindu nationalists cited NASA satellite photographs of the shoals as evidence that the events described in the Ramayana really took place. In 2007, a panel of Indian scientists concluded that the bridge was “a geological formation, which took place about 17 million years ago”. That year Hindu nationalists complained about dredging in the area to improve navigation. At least one Hindu leader suggested that the bridge is being protected by Lord Hanuman, the monkey god after a mysterious series of accidents that included the sinking of a dredging vessel called ‘Duck’ and the breaking of a spud on the replacement vessel. Another ship was then sent to retrieve the spud, but its crane snapped and crashed into the sea. [Source: R. Gledhill & J. Page, The Times of London, April 5, 2007]

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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