The people of Sri Lanka are called Sri Lankans, Ceylonese or Lankan. In the past Sri Lanka was known as Ceylon, Serendib, and Lanka. Serendib is the source of the word serendipity. Sri Lankan(s) is the name describing the nationality or people of Sri Lanka. It is also an adjective used to describe anything associated with Sri Lanka.

During colonial times Sri Lanka was known as Ceylon. The word Ceylon is derived from the word “sinhala” or “simhala”, which is also the root of Sinhalese, the name of Sri Lanka’s largest ethnic group. Ceylon is what the British called Sri Lanka. The Portuguese first named it Ceilão, The Dutch called it Ceilon. Under the name Ceylon, Sri Lanka became independent (from Britain) on February 4, 1948, about five and half months after India and Pakistan became independent. In 1972, the national constitution discarded the name Ceylon and adopted the name of Sri Lanka. In Sinhala, the language of the majority Sinhalese, Lanka means "great and beautiful island." It is name derived from Sanskrit that the Sinhalese have used for millennia to describe their land. “Sri” is an honorific term.

Only about 18.7 percent of all Sri Lankans lives in urban areas (compared to 82. percent in the U.S.) and most of the remaining people live in small agricultural villages. Great strides have been made in family planning and now the population is only growing at the rate of 0.67 percent a year (compared to .6 percent in Britain and 3.8 percent in Niger). The average life expectancy is 77 years; about 23 percent of all Sri Lankans are under 15 and 11 percent are over 60 (compared to 21 and 16.5 percent, respectively for the U.S.).

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]

Character of Sri Lankans

Sri Lankans are generally regarded as very warm, mellow, easy going, hospitable and friendly people. There is an old saying that they are "happiest with a stranger in their streets or a visitor on their doorsteps." They can also be extremely fatalistic and superstitious. Many will take a major action — or even a minor one — with consulting an astrologer first.Dhat is a mental disorder found in Sri Lanka and India characterized by severe anxiety and hypochondria associated with the discharge of semen and a feelings of exhaustion.

Sri Lankans have a reputation for being very flexible and patient. Employers like them because they do what the employees like. They are also said to be very resourceful, making the most of available opportunities. Respect for elders is very important.

A people are sometimes judged by their proverbs. Here are three from Knox’s collection of Kandyan proverbs:
"A beggar and a trader cannot be lost. Because they are never cut out of the way."
"The ague is nothing, but the headache is all."
"To lend another makes him become an enemy."
[Source: Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau ]

Sri Lankans rarely show visible signs of anger. One man told National Geographic, "the middle way of the Buddhist says that he must hold his temper at all times." But some have argued that holding anger in might lead to violence: one explanation of why the Sri Lanka civil war in the 1980s, 90s and 2000s was so brutal.

The Tamils are regarded as more dour and hardworking than the Sinhalese. Tamils have been called the Scots of Sri Lanka. They have traditionally put a great emphasis on education. Many became professionals and civil servants under the British. The Sinhalese are regarded as friendly, easy with a laugh, individually minded and willing to take risks while Tamils are regarded as more serious, hardworking, group- oriented and cautious. Both Tamils and Sinhalese have hierarchal organizations and have incorporated Hindu caste traditions but these tendencies are stronger among the Tamils, because of their Hindu traditions. The Sinhalese have traditionally divided themselves into Kanyan Sinhalese and lowland Sinhalese. Kanyan Sinhalese have traditionally regard themselves as superior to the lowland Sinhalese.

World Happiness Report Score: 4.327 (compared to 7.6 in Denmark and 3.5 in Tanzania). Sri Lanka ranks 130th out of 153 country. The ranking is based on a Cantril ladder survey in which respondents in each economic are asked to think of a ladder, with the best possible life for them being a 10, and the worst possible life being a 0. They are then asked to rate their own current lives on that 0 to 10 scale. [Source: United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network and Wikipedia

Happy Planet Index Score: 33.8, ranking 28th out of 140 countries. compiled by the British think-tank New Economics Foundation, It measures people’s well-being and their impact on the environment through data on life satisfaction, life expectancy and the amount of land required to sustain the population and absorb its energy consumption..]

Sri Lankans: Not Workaholics

E.M.G. Edirisinghe wrote: “Sri Lankans are not workaholics. They are easy-going and much relaxed, and that's why they have all the time to smile all the while which keeps the visitors bemused and enchanted. Perhaps workaholism would have produced broken families and single-parent children in the West more than in any other part of the world. Much publicised Sri Lankan unpunctuality is predicated by the pace of agricultural social norms which demand or need no exact time-sensitivity but only a time-frame. [Source: E.M.G. Edirisinghe]

They know by tradition when to harvest, sow or plough. They know when do the rains come or the New Year or Vesak dawns. This sense of period rather than knowledge of the exact time has moulded Lankans into a community sharing the responsibility and pleasure of all functions, festivals, funerals, rituals together breathing the necessary vitality to rural life.

A festival like Kohomba Kankariya or the customary new year is celebrated for days because the entire village takes part in it. These traditions make the people work in co-operation with one another, teaching each to feel for the other as well. The fact that the Sri Lankans are not at all in a hurry is a psychological State formulated and fortified by Buddhism in its understanding of prolonged existence in Samsara.

Nikan Ava: Polite, Resignation in a Sri Lankan Village

E.M.G. Edirisinghe wrote: Nikan Ava is a commonly used Sinhala phrase found rooted in our society, more particularly in the village. Etymologically, it means Na-Kamma — Ni-kam — Nikan = no work or without work. So "Nikan ava" means Na-Kamma — Ni-kam — Nikan = no work or without work. So "Nikan ava" means "came for no reason" or "came for no purpose", and more cogently " came as there is no other specific work". No English equivalent for this magnificent Sinhala idiom is possible to catch its meaning, mood and the cultural content. Our cultural format being basically different from that of the popular English, such a succinct expression is idiomatically difficult. It reflects the philosophy as well as the social structure of our indigenous life with a rich past. [Source: E.M.G. Edirisinghe]

"Nikan ava" is always uttered in answer to a blunt and open query like "why did you come?" or "what brought you here?" This query is never made on a highway or at another place where one doesn't feel at home. No person visits any home for no purpose or no reason. It could be either to seek a favour or in the spirit of perpetuating friendly relations. But, if questioned as to why one had come, rightly the answer would be ""Nikan ava".

Generally, the villagers are very cautious before revealing the purpose or the job for which they have come to a place. They first assess the situation at the host-home and measure up conviviality in the environment whether the one whom the visitor wants to meet is in an amiable frame of mind or there are others whom he does not want to hear about, what he will talk, request or complain of. Only on finding on overall assessment that the atmosphere is conducive to convey the purpose for which he came, he comes out with what he wants. By this time the host too is attuned to a mood to accommodate, reject or receive his request or complain.

In the meantime, as they become familiar with each other's moods and manners, the host is in the right frame of mind to assess and guess the guest's purpose of the visit. If he is unwilling or unable to accede, he immediately turn to caution an evasion. For instance, if he senses that he had come for a cash loan, his reaction would be to reveal his financial difficulties. On this communication, without hurting the feelings of the other, the transaction is complete. Getting the message in its right spirit, he leaves promising to come later with good relations between the two families continuing to remain unshaken. Then, there are other instance of someone, when asked "What are you doing?", replying "Nikan innawa" (I say doing nothing). This is entirely a different position from "Nikan ava". It means he is "without work" or "free of work".

Ethnic Groups in Sri Lanka

Ethnic groups in Sri Lanka: Sinhalese 74.9 percent, Sri Lankan Tamil 11.2 percent, Sri Lankan Moors 9.2 percent, Indian Tamil 4.2 percent, other 0.5 percent (2012 estimate). According to 2002 data, the Sinhalese made up 74 percent of the total population, followed by Tamils (both Sri Lankan and Indian) at 18 percent and Sri Lankan Moors, 7 percent. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020; “Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations”, 2007]

Sinhalese values dominate public life in Sri Lanka. The Sinhalese are mainly Theravada Buddhists (92 per cent). The rest are mainly Christians. They speaks Sinhala, the national language. Sri Lankan Moors are predominately Muslims. Tamils are mostly Hindus. They speak Tamil. There are also Burghers (descendants of Dutch, British and Portuguese colonists), Eurasians (descended from unions between local people and British colonists), Malays and Veddas Veddas are a small aboriginal tribe located in the most inaccessible forest regions of southeastern Sri Lanka. They make up around one percent of population.

Sinhalese are concentrated in the densely populated southwest. Tamils live predominantly in the north and east. Most Christians are Roman Catholics. The Moors include Muslim descendants of Arab traders but mostly are descendants of Tamils and to a lesser extent Sinhalese. Many Muslims, speak Tamil as their main language. Most Burghers are descendants of Dutch and Britain colonists. Malays (mostly of Arab extraction)

Ethnic Groups Divisions in Sri Lanka

According to the “Encyclopedia of Sexuality”: “ Ethnic groups are mostly divided along religious and linguistic lines; the vast majority of Sinhalese are Buddhists and speak Sinhala, an Indo-Aryan language. The vast majority of Tamils are Hindus and speak Tamil, a Dravidian language. A small but significant number of Tamils and Sinhalese, about 7 percent of the population, converted to Christian denominations (primarily Roman Catholicism). All Moors and Malays are Muslims, and Burghers are Christians. The Vedas, presumed to be the original inhabitants of Sri Lanka, live in dwindling numbers in the south-central and eastern forests. The Vedas adhere to a local mixture of Buddhist and folk beliefs and customs; they are reputed to possess powerful forms of magic. [Source: Robert T. Francoeur, Victor C. de Munck, Ph.D., Patricia Weerakoon, Ph.D., “Encyclopedia of Sexuality”, 2002]

. Each of the main ethnic groups is subdivided into several major categories, depending on variables of religion or geography. There also are sizable Christian minorities among the Sinhalese and Tamil. People living in the central highland region of the country generally adhere more closely to their traditional ethnic customs than lowland dwellers. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

The Tamils in Sri Lanka can be divided into two groups: Sri Lankan ("Ceylon") Tamils and the "Indian" Tamils. Sri Lankan Tamils are descendants of Tamils that arrived beginning in ancient and medieval times through migration and invasion. The "Indian" Tamils are mainly descendants of plantation workers and laborers indentured by the British colonial government during the 19th and 20th centuries. They are mainly Hindus but a minority is Christian. The Moors (both Ceylon and Indian) and Malays who are all Muslims. The Burghers and Eurasians are mostly Christians. [Source: South Asian Free Media Association]

Ethnic groups conflicts have dominated public life in Sri Lanka since the nineteenth century. The two main characteristics that mark a person's ethnic heritage are language and religion, which intersect to create four major ethnic groups — the Sinhalese, the Tamils, the Muslims, and the Burghers. Ethnic divisions are not based on race or physical appearance; some Sri Lankans claim to determine the ethnicity of a person by his facial characteristics or color, but in reality such premises are not provable. There is nothing in the languages or religious systems in Sri Lanka that officially promotes the social segregation of their adherents, but historical circumstances have favored one or more of the groups at different times, leading to hostility and competition for political and economic power. *

History of Ethnic Groups in Sri Lanka

Among the main ethnic groups, the Sinhalese were the earliest inhabitants of Sri Lanka. They are descendants of people that took control of island around the 5th century B.C. Their language, Sinhala, is derived from several Indo-Aryan languages. Many of the Sri Lankan Tamils are the descendants of the early Dravidian invaders from southern India. Tamil is one of the major Dravidian languages of southern India. Indian Tamils are mainly descendants of laborers brought by the British planters in the 19th century to work on tea and rubber plantation and they remain concentrated in the tea-growing region of south-central Sri Lanka. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies”, The Gale Group Inc., 2002]

Many Muslims (Moors) are the descendants of early Arab traders that began settling in Sri Lanka in significant numbers in the 10th century. The Burghers are the descendants of the Portuguese, Dutch, and British who occupied the island from the 16th to the mid-20th century. The Burghers are predominantly Christian and have traditionally spoken English as their first language.

Bambi L. Chapin and Kalinga Tudor Silva wrote in “Countries and Their Cultures”: “Sri Lanka has always been home to a multiethnic and multireligious society. Because of the historic fluidity in migration and marriage patterns, the physical attributes of the principal ethnic groups are widely distributed. While conflicts between various groups have periodically flared up, beginning in 1956 the ethnic rivalry between the Sinhala-Buddhist majority and the Sri Lankan Tamil minority has intensified to an unprecedented level and led to the eruption of civil war in 1983. Since that time, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a militant organization of Sri Lankan Tamils, have been fighting for an independent Tamil state in the north and east. [Source: Bambi L. Chapin and Kalinga Tudor Silva, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

In accordance with a 1964 agreement with India, Sri Lanka granted citizenship to 230,000 "stateless” Indian Tamils in 1988. Under the pact, India granted citizenship to the remainder, of whom about some 200,000 lived in India in the 2000s. Another 75,000 Indian Tamils, who themselves or whose parents once applied for Indian citizenship, chose to remain in Sri Lanka and have since been granted Sri Lankan citizenship. [Source: Countries of the World and Their Leaders Yearbook 2009, Gale]


The Buddhist Sinhalese (pronounced sin-huh-LEEZ or Singhalese) make up 74 percent of the population of Sri Lanka. Sometimes called Sinhala or Singhalese, they speak the Sinhala language, live mostly in southwestern Sri Lanka and are predominately Theravada Buddhists. The name Sinhalese is derived from the term for “dwelling of the lions.” a reference to Sri Lanka’s mythical founder, an Indian princess who is said to have mated with a lion. The Sinhalese are in turn divided among the lowland Sinhalese (44 percent of Sri Lanka’s population) and Kandyan Sinhalese (31 percent.), who have traditionally lived in the highlands and hill country of southern central Sri Lanka.

In 1995, Sinhalese made up about 80 percent of Sri Lanka's population. They are distributed over most of the island, except for the far northern districts near Jaffna and the eastern coastal areas, where Tamils are most heavily concentrated. There are also many Sinhalese living abroad. Some are citizens or residents of other countries. Most are overseas workers. It is difficult to estimate their numbers but there are probably more than a million of them. [Source: “Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of World Cultures”, The Gale Group, Inc., 1999; D. O. Lodric, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009]

The Buddhist religion reinforces the solidarity of the Sinhalese as an ethnic community. In 1988 approximately 93 percent of the Sinhala speakers were Buddhists, and 99.5 percent of the Buddhists in Sri Lanka spoke Sinhala. The most popular Sinhalese folklore, literature, and rituals teach children from an early age the uniqueness of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, the long relationship between Buddhism and the culture and politics of the island, and the importance of preserving this fragile cultural inheritance. Buddhist monks are accorded great respect and participate in services at the notable events in people's lives. To become a monk is a highly valued career goal for many young men. The neighboring Buddhist monastery or shrine is the center of cultural life for Sinhalese villagers. [Source: Library of Congress]

The Sinhalese are the dominant ethnic group of Sri Lanka.Their food, language, customs, house architecture, settlement patterns, culture, literature, weddings, religion, funerals, etc. are also dominant in the nation and therefore for information on these aspects of Sinhalese culture see the separate articles on Food, Language, Customs, Homes, Culture, Literature, Marriage. Religion, etc.

History of the Sinhalese

The Sinhalese are descendants of peoples believed to have come from northern India and settled on Sri Lanka around the 5th century B.C. The name Sinhalese reflects the popular myth that the people are descended from the union of a mythical Indian princess and a lion (sinha means "lion" and le means "blood"). Sinhalese dynastic chronicles trace their origins to the exile of Prince Vijaya who arrived in Sri Lanka with 500 followers from his father's kingdom in north India at the time of The Buddha’s death in 5th century B.C. [Source: Bryan Pfaffenberger, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992]

The ruler of Sri Lanka converted to Buddhism during the 3rd century B.C., and since that time the Sinhalese have been predominantly Buddhist in religion and culture. Ancient Buddhist texts provide accounts of the early history of the Sinhalese people. By the 1st century B.C., a thriving Sinhalese Buddhist civilization existed in the northern area of Sri Lanka. For reasons as yet uncertain, this civilization collapsed in the 13th century. [Source: D. O. Lodric, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009 *]

The Portuguese landed on Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1505 and soon gained control of much of the island. The Dutch replaced the Portuguese in the mid-17th century, but were driven out by the British in 1798. The island and its inhabitants formed part of Britain's Indian Empire until 1948, when Ceylon was granted its independence. The country adopted the name Sri Lanka in 1972. *\

Their shared language and religion unite all ethnic Sinhalese, but there is a clear difference between the "Kandyan" and the "low-country" Sinhalese. Because the Kingdom of Kandy in the highlands remained independent until 1818, conservative cultural and social forms remained in force there. English education was less respected, and traditional Buddhist education remained a vital force in the preservation of Sinhalese culture. The former Kandyan nobility retained their social prestige, and caste divisions linked to occupational roles changed slowly. The plains and the coast of Sri Lanka, on the other hand, experienced great change under 400 years of European rule. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Substantial numbers of coastal people, especially among the Karava caste, converted to Christianity through determined missionary efforts of the Portuguese, Dutch, and British; 66 percent of the Roman Catholics and 43 percent of the Protestants in the early 1980s were Sinhalese. Social mobility based on economic opportunity or service to the colonial governments allowed entire caste or kin groups to move up in the social hierarchy. The old conceptions of noble or servile status declined, and a new elite developed on the basis of its members' knowledge of European languages and civil administration. The Dutch legal system changed traditional family law. A wider, more cosmopolitan outlook differentiated the low-country Sinhalese from the more "old fashioned" inhabitants of highlands. *

D. O. Lodric wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”: “Politically, the Sinhalese, who form the majority of the population and the government in Sri Lanka, have been engaged in what amounts to a civil war with the Tamils in the north of the island since the end of the 1970s. The Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), an association of Tamil political groups that advocated a separate state for Tamils in the north of the island, was formed in 1972. Although TULF tended to be relatively conservative and consisted of Tamils who felt that Tamil objectives could be achieved without violence, TULF was frequently blamed by nationalist Sinhalese politicians for acts of violence committed by militant groups, such as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), during the 1970s and 1980s.*\

“Violence in Sri Lanka became so bad that in 1983 the government declared a state of emergency. In 1987 Sri Lanka signed an agreement with India to provide security forces (the Indian Peacekeeping Force [IPKF]) to control the Tamils, but this was withdrawn in 1990. In 1994 Chandrika Kumaratanga won the presidential election, but a resurgence of violence led to a government offensive to secure the Jaffna peninsula, the Tamil stronghold in northern Sri Lanka. Despite the success of this operation, the LTTE reemerged in 2000 and, even though a cease-fire agreement was signed in 2002, the LTTE continues to bring pressure on the government, with random acts of violence and terrorism occurring. Bomb blasts on buses and trains are common, and in July 2008 several Sri Lankan police were killed in Colombo by a suicide bomber. *\

History of Sinhalese Language and Religion

The Sinhalese are distinguished primarily by their language, Sinhala, which is a member of the Indo-European linguistic group that includes Hindi and other north Indian tongues as well as most of the languages of Europe. It is likely that groups from north India introduced an early form of Sinhala when they migrated to the island around 500 B.C., bringing with them the agricultural economy that has remained dominant to the twentieth century. From early times, however, Sinhala has included a large number of loan words and constructs from Tamil, and modern speech includes many expressions from European languages, especially English. The Sinhalese claim to be descendants of Prince Vijaya and his band of immigrants from northern India, but it is probable that the original group of Sinhalese immigrants intermarried with indigenous inhabitants. The Sinhalese gradually absorbed a wide variety of castes or tribal groups from the island and from southern India during the last 2,500 years. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Ancient Sinhalese historical texts portray Sri Lanka as a land destined to preserve Buddhism. Buddhism had a strong impact on the island and its people as important in social and political affairs. Over time the identity of Sinhalese and Buddhism were forged together, with at least some Sinhalese believing it was their divine mission, to protect and preserve the Buddhist faith. Buddhist also inspired Sinhalese art, architecture and literature. Bryan Pfaffenberger wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Dynastic chronicles trace Sinhalese origins to the exile of Prince Vijaya and his five hundred followers from his father's kingdom in north India. According to the chronicles, Vijaya, the grandson of a Hindu princess and a lion, arrived in Sri Lanka at the moment of the Buddha's death in 486-483 B.C.. [Source: Bryan Pfaffenberger”Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]

“Contemporary Sinhalese scholarship makes much of the connection between ancient Sinhalese kingdoms and Theravada Buddhism; in the third century B.C. the Sinhalese king converted to that religion, and Sri Lanka soon became a bastion of Buddhism in southern Asia even as that religion all but disappeared from the land of its birth. Today's religious intolerance is of modern origin; in antiquity Sinhalese Buddhist kings tolerated Hinduism and provided financial support for Hindu temples.” |~|

Sinhalese Kingdoms

Sri Lanka is home to some of the world’s first great Buddhist kingdoms. Despite frequent invasions by the Hindu Tamils from India, and the occasional dominance of Hindu kingdoms, the Sinhalese were able to preserve Buddhism for 2,300 years. Sinhalese kings ruled Sri Lanka from at least the 4th century B.C. until they were conquered in 1815 by the British. The capitals changed location. Mostly they were centered in the island's dry, north central plain.

The ancient civilization of Sri Lanka emerged and flourished in the islands dry zone-the extensive northern plain region and the smaller plain in the southeast that together encompass more than two-thirds of the island early settlements sprang up on river banks in this region.The pioneers subsisted on rice a crop that depended on the vagaries of the monsoons. Settlements quickly spread across the plains prompting an urgent need for a means of coping with the geological and geographical peculiarities of the dry zone and its frequent droughts Thus Sri Lanka became one of the greatest irrigation civilisations of the ancient world [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988]

Sinhalese kings called their land Lanka, meaning "resplendent." They established city kingdoms with great temples and palaces, based on irrigated rice agriculture built around sophisticated irrigation systems of canals and lake-reservoirs known as tanks that still keep the local population going today. The tanks collected rainwater and diverted river and stream water. In some cases they connected to aqueducts and irrigation channels that were many kilometers long.

Advances in engineering and construction techniques as well as extensive knowledge of hydraulics and water management were necessary to build and maintain the water systems. A great amounts of resources was poured into them. Similar system exist around Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

Earliest Sinhalese Kingdoms

Rajarata was one of three historical regions of the island of Sri Lanka for about 1,700 years from the 6th century B.C. to the early A.D. 13th century. Occupying roughly the northern half of what is now Sri Lanka island, it was the home of several ancient cities, including Tambapanni, Upatissa Nuwara, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, which were established as capitals within the area by successive rulers. Rajarata means “King’s Country.” It was under the direct administration of a raja (king). [Source: Wikipedia]

According to tradition the first kingdom in Rajarata was established by Prince Vijaya in 543 B.C.. He settled near the delta of the Malvathu River between Chilaw and Mannar. According o a local myth, Prince Vijaya married a local princess, Kuveni, to gain control of Rajarata. With her help, he betrayed and killed all of the regional leaders. After his death, the administrative center was moved to the agriculturally-rich countryside area along the river Malvathu Oya. The first three Rajarata centres — Tambapanni, Upatissa Nuwara, and Anuradhapura — were situated close to the Malvathu Oya. King Pandukabhaya, a prince descended from local Yaksha and Sinha tribes, established the stable kingdom in Anuradhapura and won tributes from tribes from other parts of the island.

Administrative centres in Rajarata:1) Tambapanni, Prince Vijaya, founded in 543 B.C.; 2) Upatissa Nuwara, founded by King Upatissa in 505 B.C.; 3) Anuradhapura, founded by King Pandukabhaya in 377 B.C.; 4) Sigiriya, built by King Kashyapa (A.D. 477 – 495) but after the death of the king center moved to Anuradhapura; and 4) Polonnaruwa, founded by King Vijayabahu I.

Against this backdrop of technological and agricultural growth two important cores of Sinhalese civilization rose in the irrigated plains of the dry zone. Anuradhapura, in the center of the northern plain, and Polonnaruwa, further to the southeast near the Mahweli ganga in time and in succession become the capital cities of the whole Sinhalese kingdom.

Polonnaruwa boasted one of the largest and most spectacular of Sri Lankas ancient tanks, the Parakra Samudra, the sea of Parakrama. It was buit by Parakramabahu 1 (1153-1186), one of the greatest Sinhalese rulers. The bund (a small barrier that guides runoff coming from external catchments) of the Parakrama Samudra was nearly nine miles long and rose to an average height of 40 feet. Nothing of this scale was built again until Sri Lanka regained her independence from the British in 1948.

Sinhalese and the Sri Lanka National Identity

Sinhalese values dominate public life. Bambi L. Chapin and Kalinga Tudor Silva wrote in “Countries and Their Cultures”: “The current Sri Lankan national identity is dominated by the Sinhala majority, although this identity is resisted by the minority ethnic groups. Since independence, national leadership has consistently appealed to the Sinhala majority and the strength of the Buddhist monastic orders, marginalizing the non-Sinhala, non-Buddhists from the Sri Lankan identity and limiting access to state-controlled benefits. Despite the politicization of separate ethnic identities, there is a core of cultural beliefs, practices, and values that are largely shared among the people of Sri Lanka, particularly in the domains of the economy, social stratification, gender, family, and etiquette. [Source: Bambi L. Chapin and Kalinga Tudor Silva, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Many Sinhalese view themselves as a "chosen people." The Mahavamsa, an epic piece of "mythohistory" composed by Buddhist monks around the fifth century., traces the origins of the Sinhalese to the regions of northern and eastern India inhabited in ancient times by Aryan peoples. Evidence to back this claim includes not only their language, which is related to the languages of northern India including Sanskrit, but the supposedly "fairer" complexions of the Sinhalese compared to their Dravidian neighbors. The Mahavamsa depicts the history of Sri Lanka as a bitter struggle between the Sinhalese and darker-skinned Dravidian intruders from the mainland. In the eyes of Sinhalese chauvinists, this struggle for survival continues to the present day. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Religion has defined Sinhalese identity over the centuries far more than race. Buddhism was brought to Sri Lanka around the third century B.C. by missionaries sent by Indian emperor Ashoka and was fervently adopted by the Sinhalese king, Devanampiya Tissa (250-c.210 B.C.). The Theravada school of Buddhism was established after a great council of monks and scholars was held on Sri Lanka in 88-77 B.C. to codify the Pali scriptures. The faith was later transmitted by Sri Lankan monks to Southeast Asian countries such as Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia. Sinhalese Buddhists regard Theravada (or Hinayana) Buddhism as the purest form of their religion, unencumbered by the superstitions and false beliefs that allegedly contaminate the Mahayana sects of Buddhism found in East Asia. *

Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalism

According to the Encyclopedia of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, 2005] The misconception among Sinhalese that Sri Lanka was the last refuge of Buddhism was a further factor in the growth of ethnic hostility especially by Sinhala toward Tamils. British rule was regarded as instrumental in the reduction of the preeminence of the Buddhist religion. Sinhala nationalism from the late nineteenth century to the 2000s was largely motivated by a movement of Buddhist revitalization (linked to a reassertion of the value of Sinhala custom) against the effects of colonial domination. This was keenly supported by members of the urban merchant classes situated along the western and southern coasts. [Source: Encyclopedia of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, 2005]

“The various caste-based communities that formed around members of these classes were and continue to be forceful in the pursuit of Sinhala interests defined in opposition to Tamils. The engagement of religion (specifically Buddhism) to nationalist ethnic allegiance is a key factor in generating the passions of the conflict. It politicized the Buddha clergy, making them central to ethnically defined communal political and economic interest (a legacy of the revitalization movement that paradoxically made a doctrinally other worldly religion acutely this worldly). The assassination in 1959 of Prime Minister Bandaranaike, the chief architect of Sinhala ethnic nationalism, by a member of the Buddha clergy, is significant in this regard. In 1972 Bandaranaike's widow, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the then-elected prime minister, declared Buddhism to be the national religion.

“The hostility of mainly ethnic Sinhala majority toward the Tamil ethnic minority has its roots in colonial and postcolonial history. The ethnic categories and their political significance arose during the course of Western imperial intrusions into the island, known as Ceylon from the colonial era and until 1972, and especially under the British who subdued the entire island with their conquest of Kandy in 1815. Ethnic identity became a marker of cultural and social distinction in a colonial political order whose rigidity that was not typical of Ceylon's past. As various scholars have stressed, terms like "Sinhala" and "Tamil" used in ancient precolonial sources often described ruling lineages and structures of political allegiance that were often very fluid. The kings who defended largely Sinhala-speaking populations during the Western invasions (Portuguese, Dutch, and finally the British) were of Tamil lineage from South India. With colonial rule, ethnic distinctions served bureaucratic and governing interests and the social boundaries described ethnically became far less porous and situationally relative than before. Such ethnic boundaries informed the formation of constituencies of political interest and nationalist resistance leading to Independence in 1947 and the burgeoning of postcolonial nationalism.

“Ethnically based political rhetoric of a powerfully nationalist kind further bolstered by appeals to common language and religious affiliation was integral in the formation of political communalism. Moreover, political parties in the postcolonial period expressed a variety of socioeconomic concerns and felt inequalities under cover of debates over ethnicity. The language issue was of supreme importance in the years following independence, when Sinhala (swabasha) became the main language of the state. The policy of Sinhala-only was promulgated by Prime Minister Solomon West Ridgeway Dias (SWRD) Bandaranaike in order to appeal to a largely Sinhalese-speaking peasantry and the lower middle class and working class in the central, western, and southern regions of the island. English, the language of colonialism, was generally seen as a means of exclusion, only available to educated elites and inhibiting the opportunities for employment and upward social mobility of hitherto depressed groups. Tamils were widely perceived as advantaged in the job market (especially in access to the professions and highly prized positions in government bureaucracies) because they were seen as better qualified in their English-speaking abilities (to some degree a legacy of missionary activity in the Tamil north). The postcolonial politics of language intensified ethnic division. Ethnically motivated restrictions on Tamil access to university places (especially in medicine) and to positions in the civil service were a major source of discontent among Tamils from the 1970s.

Shaping of Sinhalese Nationalism

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: ““It is misleading to suppose that a distinct, self-conscious "Sinhala" ethnicity has existed in Sri Lanka for two millennia. Classically, the term Sinhala referred only to the castes regarded as "clean" in the Hindu-influenced social structure of Sinhalese society; the low-ranking service castes were not considered members of this elite group. In the nineteenth century European racialist thought encouraged the extension of the Sinhala category to groups that traditionally were excluded. [Source: Bryan Pfaffenberger”Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]

During the colonial period and the early years of Sri Lankan independence the Sinhalese and Tamils got along reasonably well or at least didn’t have any overt animosity towards one another. After independence in 1948, the Sinhalese felt that their greater numbers entitled them to more rights and powers. As time went on they began to resent the relatively egalitarian arrangement set up by the British. The relationship between the Sinhalese and Tamils began to disintegrate in 1956 when the Sinhalese used their numbers to elect Solomon W.R.D. Bandaranaike as prime minister. Bandaranaike was a populist who changed the careful balanced British policy to favor the Sinhalese.

Bandaranaike made Sinhala the official language of Sri Lanka and the language of the government and promised to give uneducated Sinhalese a more active role in the government. Tamils were required to learn Sinhalese and use it in schools rather than their own language. The British-educated Tamil government elite was thrown out in the cold. The "Sinhala only" policy placed Tamils in the position of quickly learning the Sinhalese or lose their the jobs. They resented this.

Some of the first actions taken by the new SLFP government in 1956 reflected a disturbing insensitivity to minority concerns. Shortly after its victory, the new government presented parliament with the Official Language Act, which declared Sinhala the one official language. The act was passed and immediately caused a reaction among Tamils, who perceived their language, culture, and economic position to be under attack. Before this English was the national language in part because it was not the native language of a particularly ethnic group. One Sri Lankan man told National Geographic, "When we rejected English as our national language, we went from the solution to the problem." [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988]

Anthropologist S. J. Tambiah, himself a Sri Lankan Tamil whose family includes both Hindus and converts to Christianity, argues that in both traditional and contemporary Sinhalese Buddhism the religion's original message of universalism, compassion, and nonviolence was eclipsed by a narrower appeal to nationalism and race: "the Sinhalese chronicles. . . in postulating the unity of nation and religion constitute a profound transformation of the Ashokan message of dharma (rule by righteousness and nonviolence) in a multireligious society of Buddhists, Jains, adherents of Brahmanical values, and others." This was clearly evident, he argues, in the Mahavamsa, which describes King Dutthagamani's heroic defense of Buddhism against invaders from southern India in the second century B.C. as a holy war. Tambiah, a specialist in Southeast Asian Buddhism, asserts that Buddhism in contemporary Sri Lanka has lost its ethical and philosophical bearings ("the substantive contents which make Buddhism a great religion and a source of a rich civilization") and has become either a set of ritualized devotions, undertaken by believers to obtain worldly good fortune, or an aggressive political movement that attracts the poorest classes of Sinhalese. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Politicized Buddhism in its modern form emerged in the opening years of the twentieth century when adherents of the religion, deploring the social evils of alcoholism, organized a temperance movement and criticized the colonial government for keeping taverns open as a source of tax revenue. The campaign was, implicitly, anti-Western and anti-Christian. With the passing of the colonial order, Buddhist activism was increasingly preoccupied with Sinhalese "majority rights," including the "Sinhala Only" language policy backed by SLFP leader S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike (who was assassinated by a Buddhist monk on September 26, 1959), and the agitation to give Buddhism special status in the 1972 constitution. But the equation of nation and religion also meant that any issue involving the welfare of the Sinhalese community, including issues of social equity, were fair game for activist monks and their supporters. *

Thus, in 1986 leaders of the sangha (the community of Buddhist monks) joined with former Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike to establish the Movement for Defense of the Nation to deter President J.R. Jayewardene from making significant concessions to the Tamils. One Buddhist leader, the Venerable Palipane Chandananda, head of one of the major orders of monks, was labelled "Sri Lanka's Khomeini" both for his extremism and his predilection for getting involved in political issues. Lowerranking monks also were frequent hardliners on the ethnic issue. A survey of monks taken during 1983 and 1984 by Nathan Katz, a Western student of Buddhism, revealed that 75 percent of his respondents refused to acknowledge that any Tamil grievances were legitimate. Many commented that the Tamils were an unjustly privileged minority and "it is the Sinhalese who have the grievances." Because of the tremendous prestige and influence of Buddhist monks among Sinhalese villagers and the poorest, least Westernized urban classes, the government in the late 1980s could not ignore the monks' point of view, which could be summarized in a 1985 comment by Chandananda to the Far Eastern Economic Review: "They [the Tamils] are saying that they have lived here for 1,000 years. But they are complete outsiders from India who have been living here temporarily." *


Tamils are the largest minority in Sri Lanka. They make up about 16 percent of the population of Sri Lanka and generally have darker skin than Buddhist Sinhalese, who make up three quarters of Sri Lanka’s population. Tamils live primarily in the north and east and the tea-growing areas of central Sri Lanka. Many are Hindus but some are Christians. Tamil-speaking Muslims are generally viewed as Moors, a separate group.The Tamils are divided in the Sri Lankan Tamils (11.2 percent of Sri Lanka’s population), whose descendants arrived in Sri Lanka many centuries ago, and the so-called Indian Tamils (4.2 percent),who were brought in by the British during the last 150 years.

Sri Lankan ("Ceylon") Tamils are descendants of Tamils that arrived beginning in ancient and medieval times through migration and invasion. The "Indian" Tamils are mainly descendants of plantation workers and laborers indentured by the British colonial government during the 19th and 20th centuries. [Source: South Asian Free Media Association]

About 70 percent of the Tamils in Sri Lanka are Sri Lankan Tamils". They are Sri Lankan citizens with full voting rights. In addition to residing in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, many also live in Colombo and throughout the island. As for the Indian Tamils, which make up about 30 percent of the Tamil population, most were disenfranchised in Sri Lanka by legislation passed in 1948. Because India also refused to recognize them as citizens, the Indian Tamils were considered stateless. A 1964 agreement with India provided for repatriation of many to India and the granting of Sri Lankan citizenship to others on a 60-40 ratio. In 1988, Sri Lankan citizenship was extended to 230,000 stateless Indian Tamils. [Source: Cities of the World , The Gale Group Inc., 2002]

See Separate Article on the TAMILS for information about their food, language, customs, house architecture, settlement patterns, culture, literature, weddings, religion, funerals, etc.

Early History of the Tamils and Sinhalese

Sri Lanka’s history, and the complexity of its society, is at least partly rooted in the reality that Sinhalese and Tamil Sri Lankans were fated by history and geography to coexist in close proximity. This coexistence could be discordant or amicable, and examples of both could be drawn from Sri Lanka's history. This message, however, was lost when the ethnic communities were drawn increasingly into a vortex of rancor and violence beginning in earnest in the early 1980s that made the restoration of harmony a persistently elusive goal for the Sri Lankan government for decades.

Jon Lee Anderson wrote in The New Yorker: “The Sinhalese have traditionally lived in the south, with its lush land and ancient reservoir-fed rice paddies. The Tamils lived in the arid scrublands of the north, known as the Vanni, and the lowland jungles of the east, areas their ancestors had occupied two thousand years ago, during wars of conquest waged by Hindu kings from Tamil Nadu, the southernmost state of India. Sinhalese nationalists trace their lineage to Aryan tribes of northern India, despite the lack of evidence to support the idea. [Source: Jon Lee Anderson, The New Yorker, January 17, 2011]

It is a generally accepted fact that both migrated from India mostly in the 5th or 6th century B.C. The Sinhalese are traditionally believed to be the descendants of migratory Aryans from northern India. It is, however, controversial whether the founder of the Sinhala race came from Bengal or from Gujarat. Be that as it may, the Sinhalese traditionally trace their ethnic origin to Vijaya Singha who was an Indian by birth. The Sinhalese settled in the North-Central, North-Western, and Southern Provinces of Ceylon. [Source: South Asian Free Media Association ^^]

The Tamils also migrated from India to Ceylon. They belong to the Dravidian stock of India. They are divided into the two categories "Ceylon Tamils" (also called indigenous Tamils) and "Indian" Tamils. While the Ceylon Tamils arrived in Ceylon in the pre-Christian period, the Indian Tamils migrated into Ceylon in the 19th and early 20th centuries in the wake of the introduction of plantation economy into the island by the British Empire. The Ceylon Tamils settled in Jaffna, Mannar, Vavuniya, Batticaloa and Mullaitivu in the northern and eastern coast of the country. The Indian Tamils settled in the traditional tea garden areas of Colombo, Kalutara, Kandy, Matale, Nuwara Eliya, Badulla Ratnapura and Kegella. ^^

Not again entering into the controversy of who came first in Sri Lanka, there are numerous accounts of wars between the Armies of Sinhalese and Tamils. The Chola rulers of south India, launched many invasions into the island. At one time the Chola invasions of Ceylon reached their peak as they conquered the whole or most of the island. Different Kingdoms were established in the country. When in 1505, Portuguese sailors landed on the coast of Sri Lanka, they found three Kingdoms in Sri Lanka — a Tamil one in Jaffna and two Sinhala, one in the Kotte (near present day Colombo) and the other in Senkadagalle (present day Kandy). The Tamilian and Sinhalese Kingdoms remained separated under both the Portuguese administration and that of the Dutch who succeeded them. It was only under British colonial rule that, after the administrative reforms of the 1930s, the island was brought under a single administrator. ^^

Who Was the First in Sri Lanka: the Tamils or the Sinhalese

Sri Lanka claims the world's second oldest continuous written history - but history and religious mythology have played a key role in the development of communal animosity. In particular, there is controversy over whether Tamils or Sinhalese were first on the island. [Source: BBC, 16 May, 2000]

The first Sinhalese are said to be Aryans (Indo-Europeans) who arrived in Sri Lanka late in the 6th century B.C., probably from northern India. Buddhism was introduced circa 250 B.C., and the first kingdoms developed at the cities of Anuradhapura (from circa 200 B.C. to circa A.D. 1000) and Polonnaruwa (from about 1070 to 1200). In the 14th century, a south Indian dynasty established a Tamil kingdom in northern Sri Lanka. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

Much of what is known about ancient and medieval Sri Lanka — as well as a lot about ancient and medieval India — is based on the historical chronicles, the “Mahavamsa” (“Great Chronicles”), which describes the history of the Sinhalese beginning with the arrival of the first settlers from northern India in the 6th century B.C. The Sinhalese claim descent from the Aryan settlers from north India, who displaced the Veddas from their territory. Aryan tribes from northern are believed to have arrived in Sri Lanka from southern India around 500 B.C. Some believe that they came from an area currently part of West Bengal and Bangladesh. Prince Vijaya is said to have founded the first Sinhalese dynasty.

There are some people that say the first Tamils were brought to Sri Lanka by the British in the 19th century to pick to tea leaves. Although some arrived then under those circumstances, the true story of the Tamils is much longer and more complicated. The Tamils are a Dravidian people from southern India. It is not known when they first arrived in Sri Lanka. It seems plausible that Tamil fishermen and mariners arrived at a very early date because the southern Indian homeland of the Tamils is so close to northern Sri Lanka (only about 32 kilometers away).

Because the Mahavamsa is essentially a chronicle of the early Sinhalese-Buddhist royalty on the island, it does not provide information on the island's early ethnic distributions. There is, for instance, only scant evidence as to when the first Tamil settlements were established. Tamil literary sources, however, speak of active trading centers in southern India as early as the third century B.C. and it is probable that these centers had at least some contact with settlements in northern Sri Lanka. There is some debate among historians as to whether settlement by Indo-Aryan speakers preceded settlement by Dravidian-speaking Tamils, but there is no dispute over the fact that Sri Lanka, from its earliest recorded history, was a multiethnic society. Evidence suggests that during the early centuries of Sri Lankan history there was considerable harmony between the Sinhalese and Tamils. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Tamil Kingdoms in Sri Lanka

In the seventh century A.D., Tamil influence became firmly embedded in the island's culture when Sinhalese Prince Manavamma seized the throne with Pallava assistance. The dynasty that Manavamma established was heavily indebted to Pallava patronage and continued for almost three centuries. During this time, Pallava influence extended to architecture and sculpture, both of which bear noticeable Hindu motifs. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

By the middle of the ninth century, the Pandyans had risen to a position of ascendancy in southern India, invaded northern Sri Lanka, and sacked Anuradhapura. The Pandyans demanded an indemnity as a price for their withdrawal. Shortly after the Pandyan departure, however, the Sinhalese invaded Pandya in support of a rival prince, and the Indian city of Madurai was sacked in the process.

In the tenth century, the Sinhalese again sent an invading army to India, this time to aid the Pandyan king against the Cholas. The Pandyan king was defeated and fled to Sri Lanka, carrying with him the royal insignia. The Chola, initially under Rajaraja the Great (A.D 985-1018), were impatient to recapture the royal insignia; they sacked Anuradhapura in A.D. 993 and annexed Rajarata — the heartland of the Sinhalese kingdom — to the Chola Empire. King Mahinda V, the last of the Sinhalese monarchs to rule from Anuradhapura, fled to Rohana, where he reigned until 1017, when the Chola took him prisoner. He subsequently died in India in 1029.

Under the rule of Rajaraja's son, Rajendra (1018-35), the Chola Empire grew stronger, to the extent that it posed a threat to states as far away as the empire of Sri Vijaya in modern Malaysia and Sumatra in Indonesia. For seventy-five years, Sri Lanka was ruled directly as a Chola province. During this period, Hinduism flourished, and Buddhism received a serious setback. After the destruction of Anuradhapura, the Chola set up their capital farther to the southeast, at Polonnaruwa, a strategically defensible location near the Mahaweli Ganga, a river that offered good protection against potential invaders from the southern Sinhalese kingdom of Ruhunu. When the Sinhalese kings regained their dominance, they chose not to reestablish themselves at Anuradhapura because Polonnaruwa offered better geographical security from any future invasions from southern India. The area surrounding the new capital already had a well- developed irrigation system and a number of water storage tanks in the vicinity, including the great Minneriya Tank and its feeder canals built by King Mahasena (A.D. 274-301), the last of the Sinhalese monarchs mentioned in the Mahavamsa.

After the Sinhalese empires collapsed in the 13th century the Tamils established a Hindu kingdom in the north in the Jaffna peninsula. There a Hindu king and a palace. In the 16th century the Tamils started getting the upper hand against the Sinhalese , and civil war left the land ravaged and the dams and canals destroyed.

During the thirteenth century, the declining Sinhalese kingdom faced threats of invasion from India and the expanding Tamil kingdom of northern Sri Lanka. Taking advantage of Sinhalese weakness, the Tamils secured control of the valuable pearl fisheries around Jaffna Peninsula. During this time, the vast stretches of jungle that cover north-central Sri Lanka separated the Tamils and the Sinhalese. This geographical separation had important psychological and cultural implications. The Tamils in the north developed a more distinct and confident culture, backed by a resurgent Hinduism that looked to the traditions of southern India for its inspiration. Conversely, the Sinhalese were increasingly restricted to the southern and central area of the island and were fearful of the more numerous Tamils on the Indian mainland. The fact that the Hindu kingdom at Jaffna was expending most of its military resources resisting the advances of the expansionist Vijayanagara Empire (1336-1565) in India enhanced the Sinhalese ability to resist further Tamil encroachments. Some historians maintain that it was the arrival of the Portuguese in the sixteenth century that prevented the island from being overrun by south Indians.

Tensions Between Tamils and Sinhalese

During the colonial period and the early years of Sri Lankan independence the Sinhalese and Tamils got along reasonably well or at least didn’t have any overt animosity towards one another. After independence in 1948, the Sinhalese felt that their greater numbers entitled them to more rights and powers. As time went on they began to resent the relatively egalitarian arrangement set up by the British. The relationship between the Sinhalese and Tamils began to disintegrate in 1956 when the Sinhalese used their numbers to elect Solomon W.R.D. Bandaranaike as prime minister. Bandaranaike was a populist who changed the careful balanced British policy to favor the Sinhalese.

Bandaranaike made Sinhala the official language of Sri Lanka and the language of the government and promised to give uneducated Sinhalese a more active role in the government. Tamils were required to learn Sinhalese and use it in schools rather than their own language. The British-educated Tamil government elite was thrown out in the cold. The "Sinhala only" policy placed Tamils in the position of quickly learning the Sinhalese or lose their the jobs. They resented this.

Some of the first actions taken by the new SLFP government in 1956 reflected a disturbing insensitivity to minority concerns. Shortly after its victory, the new government presented parliament with the Official Language Act, which declared Sinhala the one official language. The act was passed and immediately caused a reaction among Tamils, who perceived their language, culture, and economic position to be under attack. Before this English was the national language in part because it was not the native language of a particularly ethnic group. One Sri Lankan man told National Geographic, "When we rejected English as our national language, we went from the solution to the problem." [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988]

Racial tension between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities erupted into violence in 1983 and continued in varying degrees of intensity in what became one of the world’s longest civil wars. Tens of thousands of people were killed and hundreds of thousands of Tamils fled the island or were internally displaced. According to Time: “It is the friction between the Sinhalese and Tamils that has nearly destroyed the nation. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE, are fighting for a separate Tamil nation in Sri Lanka's north. Their leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, is clever and ruthless — victims of his suicide bomb squads include a Sri Lankan President, Ranasinghe Premadasa, and former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi — and his argument is stark: the Sinhalese can't live with the Tamils peacefully and therefore a separate state is needed. Thus put, it seems like a hopeless tale of two groups speaking different languages and praying to different gods who haven't gotten along from time immemorial.” [Source: Time, February 9, 1998]

In 1992 book on Sri Lanka, "Only Man Is Vile", William McGowan traces back the roots of the conflict to how in 1880 Theosophy's Henry Steel Olcott riled up the Sinhalese with talk about their Aryan superiority over the Tamils, an argument similar the one used by Hitler and his pursuit of racial purity.

Sinhalese Identity, Buddhism and the Tamil Threat

Robert D. Kaplan wrote in The Atlantic: Buddhist Sinhalese “have lived in fear of being overwhelmed by the Hindu Tamils, who, although they are only 18 percent of the population, can theoretically call upon their 60 million ethnic and religious compatriots living just across the Palk Strait in southeastern India. The history of Tamil invasions against the only homeland that the Buddhist Sinhalese possess is not just the stuff of ancient history, but a living reality underpinned by latter-day Tamil terrorism. [Source: Robert D. Kaplan, The Atlantic, September 2009]

Writes the Sri Lankan scholar K. M. de Silva: “Sri Lanka’s location off the coast of South India, and especially its close proximity to [the Indian state of] Tamilnadu, separated by a shallow and narrow stretch of sea serves to accentuate this sense of a minority status among the Sinhalese. Their own sense of ethnic distinctiveness is identified through religion — Theravada Buddhism — and language — Sinhala. They take pride in the fact that Buddhism thrives in Sri Lanka while it has practically disappeared in its original home, India. Their language, Sinhala, has its roots in classical Indian languages, but it is now a distinctly Sri Lankan language, and one that is not spoken anywhere else.

“The Sinhalese, argues de Silva, see their historical destiny in preserving Theravada Buddhism from a Hindu revivalist assault, with southern India the source of these invasions. As they see it, they are a lonely people, with few ethnic compatriots anywhere, who have been pushed to their final sanctuary, the southern two-thirds of Sri Lanka, by the demographic immensity of majority-Hindu India. The history of the repeated European attacks on their sacred city, Kandy, the last independent bastion of the Sinhalese in that southern two-thirds of the island, has only accentuated the sense of loneliness.

“The Sinhalese must, therefore, fight for every kilometer of their ethnic homeland, Bradman Weerakoon, an adviser to former Sri Lankan presidents and prime ministers, told me. As a result, like the Serbs in the former Yugoslavia, the Jews in Israel, and the Shiites in Iran, the Sinhalese are a demographic majority with a dangerous minority complex of persecution.

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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