The Sinhalese generally follow Buddhist-influenced customs similar in many ways to those followed by Buddhists in Southeast Asia The Tamil generally follow Hindu-influenced customs similar in many ways to those followed by Hindus in India. There is a lot of overlapping with Buddhist and Hindu customs. [Source: “The Traveler's Guide to Asian Customs and Manners” by Elizabeth Devine and Nancy L. Braganti]

Bambi L. Chapin and Kalinga Tudor Silva wrote in “Countries and Their Cultures”: “Many of the most important rules of etiquette serve to mark differences in social rank. Both Sinhala and Tamil contain a range of linguistic markers for status as well as relative social distance and intimacy. In routine social interactions, personal names are avoided in preference to nicknames, relationship terms, or other titles. [Source: Bambi L. Chapin and Kalinga Tudor Silva, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“Gender is also an important factor in determining appropriate conduct. Among all but the most urbanized, women are expected to defer to men of relatively equal status and to avoid all implication of sexual impropriety by keeping themselves well covered at all times. They are also expected to refuse all alcohol and tobacco and to refrain from direct physical contact with men. Between members of the same gender and with children, however, there is a great deal of physical contact that emphasizes closeness.”

Greetings in Sri Lanka

The traditional greeting among both Sinhalese and Tamils is the Indian-style namaste, with Tamils saying “namaste” or “hello” and Sinhalese saying “Aibowan” (“Ayubivan”) or “hello.” To perform a proper namaste, one should hold his or her palms together, with the fingertips at chin, level and nod rather than bow.Namaste" literally means "I bow to thee” or “I honor the godhead within.” The gesture is a sign of respect and is used by men and women when meeting members of the same or opposite sex. It is similar to praying gesture performed before an image of a deity at a temple. [Source: The Traveler's Guide to Asian Customs & Manners by Elizabeth Devine and Nancy L. Braganti]

Sri Lankan men often shake hands with Western men. Sri Lankan women generally don't shake hands with men. Western men should be careful about touching both Sinhalese and Tamil women. Women who are very good friends sometimes embrace. Men who are very good friends also sometimes embrace.

Use titles when being introduced to someone. Don't use the first name unless you know someone very well. “Mahataya” (Sir) is often tacked on the end of a the last name of Sinhalese males as a sign or respect. “Nona” (Madame) is often tacked on the end of a the last name of Sinhalese females as a sign or respect. “Aiyaa (father) is often tacked on the end of a the last name of Tamil males as a sign or respect. Nona” (mother) is often tacked on the end of a the last name of Tamil females as a sign or respect. Aiyaa and Nona can also be used alone without any name.

The Western style of shaking hands is becoming more common. Women sometimes kiss friends and relatives on both cheeks. Typically, the Sinhalese do not say "Thank you," but instead say something that translates roughly as, "May you receive merit." [Source: D. O. Lodric, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009 *]

Names in Sri Lanka

Many Sri Lankans have really long, multi-syllable, difficult-to-pronounce names. Name arrangements can be complex. Many Sri Lankans have two long surnames and a given name with the given name in the middle and one surname at the beginning end their name and another surname at the end of their name. Some Sri Lankans use their second surname preceded by the initials of their first surname and their given name.

Sri Lankan name soften express the relationship between the named individual and other people. Tamils sometimes follow the Indian custom of using on name and preceding it with the initial of the name of their father’s first name. .

On history use of names in Sri Lanka, Asiff Hussein, a Sri Lanka journalist and writer, wrote: “Place-names and personal names have also been subject to phonetic change. For instance, we find Situlpavuva vihara in the south being described as chitalapavata vihara in inscriptions in situ. The site which is supposed to have been built by King Kakavanna Tissa in the 2nd century B.C is called Chittalapabbata in the Pali Mahawamsa. [Source: Asiff Hussein, 2011, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

As for personal names, an interesting example is seen in the Kumbukveva Pillar inscription of the 10th century. The inscription records a proclamation to the effect that the female attendants of a foot through vessel (pen mindiyan) in the village shall be recruited from among the descendants of the lineage of one Doti (Doti himisura nuvata parapuren). According to the Mahavamsa, Jotiya was a Nigantha or Jaina monk who lived in Anuradhapura around the 4th century B.C. and for whom King Pandukabhaya built a house near the lower cemetery. An application of the phonetic laws that have characterised the evolution of Sinhala will easily enable us to identify this Doti with the Jotiya of the Mahavamsa.

The appellation nuvata used to describe this personage is in fact the Sinhala equivalant of the Pali nigantha. These few examples will suffice to show the profound influence phonetic change has exerted on the evolution of Sinhala throughout the ages.

Naming Customs in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka, throughout the ages, has always comprised of a mix of ethnic groups consisting of the majority Sinhalese, and the minority Tamil, Moor (Muslims of Arab origin), Malay (Muslims of Malay origin), Burgher (Anglo-Sri Lankan) and Christians. History records that the earliest Sinhalese civilization originated from West Bengal in former India which is now a part of the newly created state of Bangladesh. The Moors are Muslims who are direct descendant of the Arabs while the Malays are also Muslims who originated from the Far East. The Christians are mainly converts from the Sinhalese and Tamil communities during the colonial rule of the Portuguese, Dutch and British. [Source: Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

The Sinhalese community usually have two names. The first is called the "GE" (Sinhalese for House or Tribe, pronounced "gay") Name while the second is the actual name of the individual. The "GE" name may indicate the place from which their family originated, the title or profession of the Head of the family or any other special characteristic of the family that prevailed at the time. Hence a person may be called "Muhandiramla GE Simon" which indicates that he hails from the "House of Muhandiram" and his name is Simon. Muhandiram is a title meaning an appointed commissioner or leader of a locality. This prefix "GE" name is carried down through all descendants irrespective of whether they are male or female and would serve more effectively for searching such family connectivity. Sinhalese women usually adopt the second name of the spouse after marriage, yet keep their prefixed family or "GE" name in tact. The Sinhalese, usually, use an initial to indicate the first name rather than spell it out in its full form

The Tamil community have a completely unique and different method of nomenclature. They also, usually, use two names, the first representing their father's name and the second representing their own. Eg; Ponnambalam Ramanathan indicates that the individuals name is Ramanathan and he is the son of Ponnambalam. The son of P. Ramanathan would then become Ramanathan Arulanantham, where the son's name is Arulanantham and is prefixed by the name of his father. The Tamils, like the Sinhalese, usually, use an initial to indicate the first name rather than spell it out in its full form. Women too use the same naming structure but do adopt the husbands name after marriage. Searching for connectivity using names for Tamils can be difficult unless one recognizes the convention they usually adopt.

It must also be noted here that both Sinhalese and Tamil communities maintain a caste system, even until today, and this caste system can also have its influence on providing them prefixed names or titles.

Moors, who are Muslims of Arab origin, have multiple methods of naming amongst their community. Many of those in villages and remote towns use their fathers name as a prefix, similar to the Tamils, differing in only by the fact that they may use more than one name for the prefix. Eg; Muhammad Ismail has a son and names him Muhammad Ismail Muhammad Saleem where the sons name is Muhammad Saleem. The names Muhammad or Ahmed are commonly used across the board as first names for male Muslims while the names Fathima or Sithy or Ummu or Noor are used for females. Furthermore Muslims have a tendency to give more than one name for their offspring. This, usually, rises from the fact that all members of both spouses family take part in contributing these names. Modern Muslims living in the metropolitan areas and big cities, have adopted the use of the running Surname as is used in western cultures. This is a direct influence of the Colonial era. Malays too follow the practice of carrying on the Surname throughout their descendants. However they have a tendency to use the Prefix TUAN for males and GNEI for females as a standard similar to the Muhammad and Fathima of the Moors. Although Islam does not recommend the giving up of the family name by women after marriage most Muslim women have adopted the modern western method of taking their husbands name. Muslims also have a tendency to use initials to depict all their names except the last one thus giving rise to many names like, M.S.M. Irfan or A.L.M. Rasheed.

By this they sometimes become known to the rest of the community by the initials instead of the last name, ;eg ALM or MSM. Many Muslims living in the Central Province of the country also have Sinhalese "GE" names prefixed to all their Muslim names. This has been, mainly, on account of special titles and honour rendered upon them by the ancient Sinhalese Kings for various services and work rendered by them to the Royalty and Community during that era.

The Burghers, who are direct descendants of Colonial Europeans and the locals, either Sinhalese or Tamil, conform to the western system of naming where the Surname is carried down the line. Women, of course, adopt the Surname of the husband after marriage.

The Christians, who are mostly descended from converts from Sinhalese Buddhists and Tamil Hindus during the colonial era adopt the modern western method of nomenclature keeping their surnames running down the line. However, some of them may still carry their prefix "GE" names, if they were previously Sinhalese. Some Tamil Christians still maintain their original Hindu system of nomenclature keeping their immediate fathers name as a prefix.

Thus it will be seen that Sri Lankans have a mixed variety of naming conventions and methods amongst all their ethnic groups to such an extent that it would be almost impossible to use any fixed type of search methodology to research their progeny. This fact is very important to be borne in mind by those using presently established methods of search using Surnames or Family Names.

Public Customs in Sri Lanka

When I took a crowded train from Kandy to the tea-growing hill region I engaged in nice, equitable seat sharing system. Some people had seats and others were standing, but periodically they would change, with people giving up their seats for people who were standing. After a while people would rotate again and the process continued until enough got off the train and no one was standing any more.

According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: “In public, people tend to speak in hushed tones if at all, although leaders and sellers are expected to shout. Large emotional displays of any type are uncommon in public. Greetings are often unvocalized, with broad smiles exchanged between strangers and a friendly raised eyebrow to frequent acquaintances. When new people are involved in a conversation, the mutual acquaintance is asked questions about the stranger. Seldom does direct self-introduction occur. Unusual behavior of any kind draws unconcealed observation. [Source: Bambi L. Chapin and Kalinga Tudor Silva, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Public displays of affection are frowned upon. Men and women rarely show affection in public. It has traditionally been considered respectful for men and women to maintain a distance of one meter from one another. Members of the same sex often hold hands. If you see two men or two women holding hands, they are probably friends, siblings or cousins. It doesn’t mean they are gay

When accepting or giving something, you should use your right hand. The left hand is considered dirty. The taboo of using the left hand is especially strong where people eat with their hands and among Muslims. See Eating Customs, Toilets, Hygiene . Displays of anger and aggression are looked own upon with contempt. Outward expressions of hostility are considered boorish and crude. Having a fit will not help you get your way: it will only make people think you are crazy. People generally go out of their way to avoid conflict. ) Show respect towards elders.

Head and Feet in Sri Lanka

Among many people in South and Southeast Asia, the head is considered the highest and most sacred point of the body, both literally and figuratively, and the bottoms of the feet are lowest, least sacred and dirtiest part of the body. Thus, it is considered rude to point your foot at a person or a sacred object. Pointing your foot at someone is like saying you are the lowest, dirtiest creature on earth. Also don't expose the soles of your feet. Never put your feet on a table or couch. When sitting on the floor keep you legs crossed or tucked under you so you do not point your foot at anyone. When sitting in a chair don’t cross you legs. Don’t push anything to anyone with your feet. Don’t step over someone or a special object that is on the floor. Apologize if your feet accidentally touch something, particularly a person.

Because the feet are considered the dirtiest part of the body a great effort is made to avoid steeping over someone, food, utensils and sacred books. It is much more polite to ask someone to move than to step over them. If you accidently touch someone with your feet you can touch your hand to their feet or make a gesture that implies that you apologize.

Don't pat a child on the head. Patting the head is disrespectful. Many South Asians carry good luck charms in their shirt pockets instead of their pants pockets, because the higher up you go on the body the more evolved it is.

Social Customs in Sri Lanka

Both Tamil and Sinhalese Sri Lankans are well known for their hospitality in entertaining guests. They are very welcoming and willing to chat with strangers. All you have to do is introduce yourself. They extend all kinds of invitations

Good conversations topics: family, education, cricket, hobbies, overseas relatives. Topic to avoid: Sinhalese and Tamil troubles, politics, India, and caste. Avoid the question, "What does you father do?" It implies asking a person what their caste is." Also, don't ask a person what their religion is.

Sri Lankans tend to be punctual. In social situations, women often hang it one group and men hang out in another group. Offer thing with the right hand and take things with two hands. Never criticism someone. You may cause that person to loss of face.

Social Customs of Kandyans Over 100 Years Ago

T. B. Parnatella wrote in 1908: “When a kinsman is seen approaching the house, some one should go forward a step or two to welcome him, and having conducted him to the house, should offer him a seat. If he is not closely related, it is against etiquette for the visitor to take a seat without being asked to do so. When a low-caste man comes into a house he should remain standing until he is given a mat or a kolomba (the lowest kind of stool, roughly made out of a piece of log) to sit upon. And it is also against the rules of etiquette to delay in giving him a kolomba or a mat. [Source: T. B. Parnatella, “Sumptuary Laws and Social Etiquette of the Kandyans,” The Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain & Ireland, 1908; Lanka Chronicle, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

“Dignified language, (like '' Adukku sappayam vemu," "Let us partake of there past.'' must be used respectfully to the assembly. It is wrong to use such colloquial terms as waren ("come"), diyan ("give"), palayan ("go"), either to a superior or to an equal in an assembly. Such terms as ayubowan ("good sir "), yahapat venta (" please draw nigh "), lebemda (" please give it"), awasara ("may I ")* are suitable.

“When a woman is confined, the females in the neighbourhood should visit the child and its mother. If the new-born baby is not handed over to the female visitors to take in their arms, it is a breach of etiquette. They would certainly be offended were the custom omitted. When the relatives living at a distance come to know of the birth of the child, they come one by one with a presentation box or basket, full of sweetmeats, plantains, &c. To them also the baby should be handed. On such occasions too it is, usual to give presents to the child by those who love it. [Source: T. B. Parnatella, “Sumptuary Laws and Social Etiquette of the Kandyans,” The Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain & Ireland, 1908; Lanka Chronicle, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

“The expenses at childbirth, puberty ceremony, wedding celebrations, and funeral rites, are limited. At every one of these occasions the dhoby (washerman) is benefited most; but even he is prohibited from asking anything more than the fixed amount. A request for more than the amount is never granted. Though it is not usual to give wedding presents to relatives, every one invited, whether male or female, is bound to give presents to a girl at the ceremony of her coming of age. If one cannot afford to give a present, it is customary not to attend the festival.

Gestures in Sri Lanka

Indians wobble their head side to side in a way that is strange to Westerns to indicate “yes.” Some people seem to move their head from side to side and up and down at the same time in a fluid motion. Many foreigners think they are going “no.” For Sri Lanka, nodding up and down can mean “no.” “The chin is leading, while the head moves upward once or twice in a disparaging fashion.” To avoid confusion get a direct yes or no answer.

Sri Lankans waggle their heads and smile as a sign of acknowledgment and respect. The twisted head gesture has many purposes. It can mean “okay,” “sounds good” or it indicates that a person is listening and paying attention.

Don't gesture by pointing with your finger. South Asians often point using their chin or eyes. When beckoning someone don't use your finger; face your palm downward and move your fingers, together, back and forth. Don’t whistle or wink. Whistling is something you do to beckon an animal. It is considered dirty to show the show the soles of your feet. See Head and Feet above

Don't smile at members of the opposite sex. It is regarded as flirtatious. Sri Lankans have a reputation for not smiling as much as other Asians for this reason.

Home Customs in Sri Lanka

It is customary to remove one's shoes or sandals when entering a private home, Buddhist or Hindu temple or mosque. In homes raised off the ground, shoes or sandals are left at the stairs. Otherwise they left outside the doorway. Sometimes they are placed to the side of the door. Don't have holes in your socks.

Many middle-class and upper-class people have servants. Dhobis (male servants who collect laundry) often enter rooms without knocking. Other servants often come to the room to bring coffee or tea around 7:30am. Treat servants with respect. To do otherwise is considered rude not only to them but also to their employers. At the same time don’t be shocked if your host orders the servants around to do things they could easily do themselves. Don’t offer to help; servants are expected to do that.

It is customary for house guest to bring a small presents. Some chocolates or some nice tea is sufficient. Don’t bring flowers, especially frangipani flowers which are associated with death and religious offerings. Presents are generally opened in private. Is considered rude to open a present in front of the present giver.

Home Customs of Kandyans Over 100 Years Ago

T. B. Parnatella wrote in 1908: “Should a kinsman call at a house even on a day of no special importance, he must be welcomed by going forward as aforesaid, questioned about his "pleasures and sorrows," and meals prepared as soon as possible. It is against etiquette to ask such questions as "Are you hungry ?" "Should any thing be prepared '' " &c. After serving him with food, &c., he should be questioned concerning his visit, and when he gets ready to go away, one or every one of the inmates should follow him some distance. It is customary to go as far as the stile, if not further, in following the visitor. [Source: T. B. Parnatella, “Sumptuary Laws and Social Etiquette of the Kandyans,” The Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain & Ireland, 1908; Lanka Chronicle, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

“Strangers should also be treated respectfully, though not to the same degree. When a worthy man comes into the house he is saluted. This is done by bringing the palms in contact in front of the face and making a bow. This is the national greeting among the Kandyans. It is the usual way of greeting, as hand-shaking is among the English. If one is saluted by another at a gathering or when alone, whether with or without the offer of betel, the salutation must be returned. If it is not so returned, it is against etiquette. When one offers forty betel leaves (two sets) to a headman or a nilame, the giver must first cut the stalks of the leaves, and then approaching, place them with f slight bow in the receiver's stretched out hand, with the stalk end towards him. Saluting should follow this. It is against custom to break these rules and hand over betel in an assembly If a present is to be given for a favour" it must also be placed on betel so given.

“If a wedding party is coming to a house, a messenger should be sent in advance. When the party has come within a calls distance of the house, it should stop and fire a gun once or twice. This will, be answered by the inmates of the house when they are ready to receive the party. After this the party should be welcomed by those of the house coming forward, led into the house, and well attended to. The routine of entertainment has already been described.”

Eating Customs in Sri Lanka

Many people in Sri Lanka eat with their hands. Both at home and in restaurants they often begin by scooping rice on their plates. Then they put curry on top and mix everything with their fingers and make a rice-and-curry balls which they pop into their mouths. Roti (round flatbread) is used to scoop up rice, curry and other stew-like dishes. Sri Lankans insist that food tastes much better when eaten with the fingers.

Always eat with your right hand. Finger bowls are often placed at the table for washing your fingers and hands. Most Sri Lankan wait until they are finished eating to wash off their hands. If there are no finger bowls you can excuse yourself and get up and wash your hands.

At meals, men usually eat first. Women eat last after they have served the men and children of the household. This generally does not apply to visitors who are served first, regardless of gender. Westernized family may use silverware, which is usually offered to foreign guests. [Source: Bambi L. Chapin and Kalinga Tudor Silva, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Sri Lankans like to drink and socialize for a couple of hours before having dinner. Meals are served family style with people helping themselves to what they want to eat from a central serving dish or dishes. It is no big deal if someone accidently drops some curry on the table while serving themselves.

Feel free to ask for second helpings, or leave food on your plate. You don't have to worry so much about offending someone. It is often a better strategy from a politeness point of view to take several small helpings rather than one large one. You can indicate you are finished by slightly pushing ahead your plate,

There is really no such thing as Dutch treat. Usually, whoever invites also pays. Food on the street is often offered in a banana leaf that can be thrown away. In rural areas, many Sri Lankans families use plantain leaves for plates. Plantains are cooking bananas. The leaves measure about one by two feet (30.5 to 61 centimeters)

Eating Customs of Kandyans Over 100 Years Ago

T. B. Parnatella wrote in 1908: “When relatives meet together and sit at meals at a festival it is wrong to begin to eat, although food is served in full, without permission from the company. One should not ask for rice, or for certain curries, whilst feasting. It is the work of those who wait to watch carefully and to supply the wants, whether rice or other things. Whilst feasting only the respected members of the company may speak, and it is unbecoming to say anything disagreeable. Water should be served round before calling for the repast. Without doing this, it is very wrong to invite the guests, saying in a homely style. " Api itin bat kamu" "Now let us eat rice," as is usual in the household on other days.

“While partaking of food the individuals composing the assembly should be spoken to as respectfully as possible. Whilst in company it is uncivil to get up and walk away after meals before others. One should wait without washing, his hand, even if he has finished before others, till they also finish eating. On all important occasions the ladies should be fed first. It is also becoming to feed the pingo-bearers who have accompanied the guest beforehand in an outhouse. When they are served with water, the chief among them should be served first. Even if one should attempt to serve the wrong person, whether among gentle or common folk, by mistake, it should not be allowed by others, but the proper person should be pointed out.

“Soon after meals every one must be offered a quid of betel. This is done by placing the betel leaves, chopped arecanuts, chunam, catechu, niyadandu, tobacco, and spices (cloves, &c.), neatly on a kind of tray (of metal or wood. sometimes highly ornamented), which is passed round so that even one may select according to his taste. Three different trays must be got ready: the one for the ladies' chamber should either be handed to, or placed near, the chief lady of the company; the other should be placed near the chief man of the gentlemen s' party; and the third handed over to the head servant for distribution among them.”

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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