Srí Lanka


    Sri Lanka's first settlers were the nomadic Veddahs. Legend relates them to the Yakkhas, demons conquered by the Sinhalese around the 5th or 6th century BC. A number of Sinhalese kingdoms, including Anuradhapura in the north, took root across the island during the 4th century BC. Buddhism was introduced by Mahinda, son of the Indian Mauryan emperor Ashoka, in the 3rd century BC, and it quickly became the established religion and the focus of a strong nationalism. Anuradhapura was not impregnable. Repeated invasions from southern India over the next 1000 years left Sri Lanka in an ongoing state of dynastic power struggles. The Portuguese arrived in Colombo in 1505 and gained a monopoly on the invaluable spice trade. By 1597, the colonizers had taken formal control of the island. However, they failed to dislodge the powerful Sinhalese kingdom in Kandy which, in 1658, enlisted Dutch help to expel the Portuguese. The Dutch were more interested in trade and profits than religion or land, and only half-heartedly resisted when the British arrived in 1796. The Brits wore down Kandy's sovereignty and in 1815 became the first European power to rule the entire island. Coffee, tea, cinnamon and coconut plantations (worked by Tamil laborers imported from southern India) sprang up and English was introduced as the national language.Then known as Ceylon, Sri Lanka finally achieved full independence in 1948. The government adopted socialist policies, but promoted Sinhalese interests, making Sinhalese the national language and effectively reserving the best jobs for the Sinhalese, partly to address the imbalance of power between the majority Sinhalese and the English-speaking, Christian-educated elite. It prompted the Tamil Hindu minority to press for greater autonomy in the main Tamil areas in the north and east.The country's ethnic and religious conflicts escalated as competition for wealth and work intensified. When Bandaranaike was assassinated in 1959 tryingto reconcile the two communities, his widow, Sirimavo, became the world's first female prime minister. She continued her husband's socialist policies, but the economy went from bad to worse. A Maoist revolt in 1971 led to the death of thousands. One year later, the country became a republic and made Sri Lanka its official name. In 1972 the constitution formally made Buddhism the state's primary religion, and Tamil places at university were reduced. Subsequent civil unrest resulted in a state of emergency in Tamil areas. Sinhalese security forces faced off against young Tamils, who began the fight for an independent homeland. Junius Richard Jayewardene was elected in 1977 and promoted Tamil to the status of a 'national language' in Tamil areas. He also granted Tamils greater local government control, but violence escalated. When Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) secessionists massacred an army patrol in 1983, Sinhalese mobs went on a two-day rampage, killing several thousand Tamils and burning and looting property. This marked the point of no return. Many Tamils moved north into Tamil-dominated areas, and Sinhalese began to leave the Jaffna area. Tamil secessionists claimed the northern third of the country and the eastern coast. They were clearly in the majority in the north but proportionately equal to the Sinhalese and Muslims in the east. Violence escalated with both sides guilty of ethnic cleansing. By 1985, there were 50,000 internal refugees, 100,000 Tamil exiles in India, no tourism, slumping tea prices and dwindling aid (because of human rights abuses). Government gains in 1987 led to Tamil unrest in India, prompting concerns of an Indian invasion. The two governments agreed that the Sri Lankan Army would retreat and an Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) would maintain order in the north and disarm the Tigers. The agreement led to Sinhalese and Muslim riots in the south over the government 'sell-out' and Indian 'occupation'. Sri Lanka became a quagmire of inescapable violence. A 1989 Sinhalese rebellion broke out in the south and the Marxist JVP orchestrated a series of strikes and political murders. The country was at a standstill. When the government's talks with the JVP failed, it unleashed death squads that killed JVP suspects and dumped their bodies in rivers. A three-year reign of terror resulted in at least 30,000 deaths. The IPKF withdrew in 1990. The Tigers had agreed to a ceasefire but violence flared almost immediately when a breakaway Tamil group unilaterally declared an independent homeland. Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a Tamil suicide bomber in 1991 and Premadasa suffered the same fate in 1993. Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga became prime minister in 1994, and president in 1995, and for the second time her mother Sirimavo Bandaranaike became prime minister. In early 1995, the Tamils broke a truce and the government responded with a massive military operation that seemed to put Sri Lanka on the path to peace. But the Tigers regrouped and, by mid-1996, launched damaging attacks on government troops stationed in northern Sri Lanka and terrorist strikes in Colombo. The massacre in mid-October 2000 of 26 unarmed Tamil prisoners by a crowd of Sinhalese in the hill country town of Bandarawela resulted in violent demonstrations and retaliatory attacks. Chandrika Kumaratunga won a second term in office in December 1999. Days before the vote, the president and People's Alliance coalition leader was the target of a LTTE suicide bomb attack in which she lost the sight in one eye. In December 2001, Ranil Wickramasinghe, who lost the 1999 elections, became prime minister when the United National Party swept parliamentary elections. This could have led to deadlock between Parliament and the executive in dealing with high inflation, high unemployment, poor infrastructure and, of course, the 18-year-old civil war, but unexpectedly promising peace talks with the LTTE have facilitated cooperation in the political process. Peace talks brokered by a Norwegian delegation inspired a one-month cease-fire beginning 24 December 2001 (the first in seven years), renewed in January 2002. With the lifting of a seven-year-old embargo on LTTE-controlled territory, it seems peace is not a pipe dream.


The tragedy of Sri Lanka stems from its ethnic intolerance and militant readings of religious philosophy. The Sinhalese are predominantly Buddhist, the Tamils mainly Hindu, and there are sizeable Muslim and Christian Burgher (descendants of Dutch colonists) minorities. The Sinhalese speak Sinhalese, the Tamils and most Muslims speak Tamil and the Burghers often speak English. The Muslims are scattered all over the island and are thought to be descendants of early Arab or Indian traders. They have largely steered clear of the civil conflict, though there have been clashes between Muslims and Tamils in the east. The Tamils in the hill country are recent low caste arrivals brought in by the British to work on the plantations. They share little in common with the Tamils of the north who have been in Sri Lanka for over 1000 years. The hill country Tamils have generally managed to avoid being drawn into the current ethnic conflict.

Sri Lanka's classical architecture, sculpture and painting is predominantly Buddhist. Stupas sprinkle the countryside, and there are several extravagantly large Buddhas sculptures, notably at Aukana and Buduruvagala. Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa have the most impressive archaelogical legacy, but Kandy is the most thriving cultural centre today. Colonial remnants include Dutch forts, canals and churches and British residences, clubs and courthouses. Galle is the finest colonial city on the island.

Sinhalese dancing is similar to Indian dance but relies on acrobatics, nimbleness and symbolism to unfold its narratives. Kandy is a good place to see 'up-country dancing', but Colombo or Ambalangoda are the places to witness the ritualistic exorcism of 'devil dancing'. Folk theatre combines dance, masked drama, drumming and exorcism rituals to vividly recreate Sri Lankan folklore. Woodcarving, weaving, pottery and metalwork are all highly developed crafts, and Sri Lanka is especially renowned for its gems. Ambalangoda is the best place to see Sri Lankan masks; Ratnapura is the centre of Sri Lanka's gem trade.

Rice and curry - often fiery hot - dominate meal times and usually include small side dishes of vegetables, meat and fish. Indian curries such as vegetarian thali, delicately flavoured biriyani and kool, a boiled, fried and dried-in-the-sun vegetable combo, are also available. Hoppers are a unique Sri Lankan snack, similar to a pancake, served with egg or honey and yoghurt. Coastal towns have excellent fish and most travellers are happy to live on the delicious local tuna. There's plenty of tropical fruits to choose from, the tea is terrific and the beer acceptable.



Colombo, the island's largest city, is noisy, frenetic - and just a little crazy. Thankfully, the breakdowns, snarled traffic and power cuts are received with a shrug and a smile. 'No problem' might be the national motto; it's certainly the one phrase everyone knows and can say. While the city holds less obvious interest than many other parts of the island, it's still a colourful enough place and worth a visit to see what makes Sri Lanka tick.

Colombo is a relatively easy city to find your way around. To the north is the Fort district, the country's business centre, which has department stores, book shops, airline offices and is the site of the Central Bank which the Tamil Tigers blew up in January 1996. There are also ample sights such as the clock tower, a former lighthouse, the president's residence (known by incorrigible traditionalists as Queen's House), and a cluster of colonial buildings which lend the district an aura of bygone Empire.

Immediately south of here is Galle Face Green, a seafront expanse of occasional green graced by cricket games, kite flyers and trysting lovers. Cinammon Gardens, further south, is Colombo's most fashionable neighbourhood, with elegant mansions, tree-lined streets and the city's largest park. East of the fort is the pungent Pettah bazaar district. Walk through and marvel at the riot of goods - fruit, vegetables, meat, gems, gold, silver, brass and tin junk.

Culture buffs shouldn't miss the National Museum, which has a good collection of historical works, the Art Gallery, which focuses on portraiture and temporary exhibits by local artists, and the city's many mosques and Buddhist and Hindu temples. After familiarising yourself with Sri Lankan culture, check out the island's fauna at the Dehiwala Zoo. The highlight here is an afternoon elephant show. The closest real beach is at Mt Lavinia, a faded resort 10km (6.2mi) south of the city.

Budget accommodation, cheap food and the best shopping can be found in the Fort and Pettah districts. Nightlife is moribund, though a visit to the cinema in the Fort district is an experience.


Anuradhapura is Sri Lanka's first capital, a potent symbol of Sinhalese power, and the most extensive and important of Sri Lanka's ancient cities. It became a capital in 380 BC and for over 1000 years Sinhalese kings ruled from this great city. Its impressive remains were 'discovered' in the early 19th century and have been in the process of restoration ever since. They lie to the west and north of the modern town of Anuradhapura. The Sacred Bo-Tree is the city's holiest site, and was grown from the tree under which Buddha achieved enlightenment. The Thuparama Dagoba, the oldest of many temples in Anuradhapura, is believed to contain the right collar-bone of Buddha. The Jetavanarama Dagoba is the largest remaining structure and may once have been over 100m (328ft) in height and housed an estimated 3000 monks. There are also museums that invite exploration, marvellously restored twin ponds which were used by monks as ritual baths, and immense tanks built to provide irrigation water for the growing of rice. The best way to explore the area is by bicycle. The remains of the ancient lakeside city of Polonnaruwa, 75km (46mi) south-east of Anuradhapura, date mostly from the reign of the Indian Chola dynasty in the 11th and 12th century, but they cover a more compact site and are in an excellent state of repair. Anuradhapura is 250km (155mi) north of Colombo. There are plenty of Colombo-Anuradhapura buses each day; you can either catch an older style bus or lash out on a ride in an inter-city airconditioned bus. Trains also go to Anuradhapura but are dependant on the security situation in the north.


The port of Galle, thought by some to be the Biblical city of Tarshish, splendidly illustrates the solidity of the Dutch presence in Sri Lanka. The 36-hectare (89 acre) Dutch Fort, built in 1663, has withstood the ravages of time. Its massive ramparts surround the promontory that forms the older part of Galle, and shelters within its walls sturdy Dutch houses, museums and churches. This area has a quiet, relaxed atmosphere that seems almost detached from the flow of history. The New Oriental Hotel, built for Dutch governors in 1684, is a colonial gem with a wonderfully atmospheric bar. Nearby is a tiny sliver of a beach suitable for a dip, though most travellers prefer to head along the coast to the fine beaches at Unuwatuna, Weligama and Tangalla. Plenty of public and private buses run up and down the 107km (66mi) stretch between Colombo and Galle, as well as any number of daily express trains.


Hikkaduwa is the island's most developed beach resort, though it's looking rather forlorn these days. It has a range of accommodation, good restaurants and pleasant cafe-lined beaches. There's good snorkelling at an attractive and easily accessible coral sanctuary, scuba diving at a number of wrecks in the bay, tours by glass-bottomed boats and pretty good surfing. It's a relaxed place, similar to many Asian beach resorts popular with Western travellers. There are also plenty of handicraft shops catering to tourist whims, a Buddhist temple, a nearby lake with abundant birdlife and some pretty dangerous traffic hurtling down the main road. Frequent buses run the 87km (54mi) down the coast from Colombo, or there are four daily express trains that are worth considering. There are a few slow trains as well but these can take up to three or fours hours.


The laidback 'capital' of the hill country, and the historical bastion of Buddhist power, is built around a peaceful lake and set in a picturesque bowl of hills. It has a distinctive architectural character thanks to its gently sloping tiled roofs and the town centre is a delightful compendium of old shops, noise, buses, markets and hotels. Its standout attraction is the octagonal Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Tooth), a temple which houses Sri Lanka's most important religious relic - the sacred tooth of Buddha. There are daily ceremonies of homage to the Tooth Relic, each attracting white-clad pilgrims carrying lotus blossoms and frangipani.

During the frenetic Kandy Esala Perahera celebrations, a replica of the shrine is carried through the city on an elephant. Other sights include the small but excellent National Museum, the Peradeniya Botanic Gardens, and the Udawattakelle Sanctuary, a peaceful haven for birdlife. There are plenty of lovely scenic walks around Kandy, one of which leads to the Mahaweli, where you may see elephants being bathed. The Kandyan Art Association & Cultural Centre beside the lake has good displays of local crafts and an auditorium for popular dance performances.

Kandy is just on 100km (62mi) north east of Colombo and although the town lacks an airport, there are any number of buses and trains running between the two destinations.


The spectacular rock fortress of Sigiriya is an impregnable fortress, a monastic retreat, and a rock art gallery. Built in the 5th century AD to fend off a feared invasion, it is situated atop a 200m (656ft) high rock, and at the height of its glory must have been akin to a European chateau plonked on top of Uluru. There are water gardens, 5th century rock paintings of well endowed damsels, a 1000-year-old graffiti wall recording visitors impressions of the pin-ups, a couple of enormous stone lion paws and tremendous views.

To get to Sigiriya from Colomba, hop on a bus that stops at Dambulla, and from there catch any of the hourly buses going to the rock fortress, a total of 191km (118mi) away.