The History of Sri Lanka
History of Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has a long and complex history that includes ancient kingdoms, colonial rule, independence struggles, and modern challenges. The island has been shaped by its diverse cultures that date back thousands of years, religions, and ethnicities, and has a rich heritage of art, architecture, and literature.
Prehistoric Period: Archaeological evidence suggests that Sri Lanka has been inhabited for at least 125,000 years. Stone tools and pottery fragments have been found in various parts of the island, indicating the presence of prehistoric communities.
Ancient Period (543 BCE - 1017 CE): Sri Lanka was known as "Heladiva" or "Lanka" in ancient times. In the 5th century BCE, it was inhabited by several indigenous tribes. In 543 BCE, the island was united under King Vijaya, who is considered the first king of Sri Lanka. The ancient period saw the rise of powerful kingdoms such as Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, which built impressive cities, palaces, and Buddhist stupas. Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka in the 3rd century BCE, and it became a prominent religion on the island.
Medieval Period (1017 CE - 1505 CE): During the medieval period, Sri Lanka saw the rise and fall of various kingdoms, including the Chola, Pandya, and Jaffna kingdoms. In the 11th century, the Chola dynasty from South India briefly ruled over Sri Lanka. The island also experienced invasions by the Pandya and Magha dynasties, which led to significant political and cultural changes.
Colonial Period (1505 CE - 1948 CE): In 1505, the Portuguese arrived in Sri Lanka and established a foothold in the coastal areas. The Dutch followed in the 17th century and gradually gained control over most of the island. The British, who arrived in the late 18th century, defeated the Dutch and took control of Sri Lanka in 1796. Under British rule, Sri Lanka was known as Ceylon, and the British introduced coffee and tea plantations, which had a lasting impact on the economy and culture of the island.
Independence and Post-Independence Period (1948 CE - present): Sri Lanka gained independence from Britain in 1948 and became a republic in 1972. The country faced various challenges, including ethnic tensions between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority, which led to a civil war that lasted for 26 years until 2009. Sri Lanka has made progress in recent years in terms of economic development and infrastructure, but challenges such as political stability, human rights, and reconciliation efforts continue to shape its history.
Culture, Customs and Etiquette
The Right-hand rule – Always give, receive and eat with your right hand. It is considered extremely bad manners to use your left hand for eating (sorry left-handers).
Environmental responsibility –in many parts of Asia, disposal systems are inadequate and recycling of plastics is limited. Sri Lanka is no exception. Plastic bags will be offered for everything! If you wish to buy fruit and vegetables from local stalls, please bring a re-usable bag with you.
The law protects certain endangered species of flora & fauna. Export and possession of these species as well as of wild animals, birds, reptiles etc., is illegal. The production and sale of items made from wild animals and reptiles, e.g.: Leopard skins, crocodile skins, elephant tusks etc., is also illegal.
Never buy coral if it’s offered for sale. Similarly, don’t buy sea shells or turtle shells (or eggs). All of Sri Lanka’s five species of Turtle are endangered.
Language and Communication
Sinhala and Tamil are the official languages in Sri Lanka. English is generally understood by most people in major cities and towns, outside of this, knowledge of it thins. English is spoken in all hotels, major restaurants and shops. Road signs are written both in Sinhalese & English throughout the country.
Telephone facilities are available extensively throughout the country. There are many telephone booths which accept coins, but the clarity and talk times may be short. IDD facilities are available in most tourist hotels.
Country code and how to dial area codes
Dialling in – Sri Lanka’s country code is 94, (e.g. If you need to call a number in Colombo, dial +94 11 2XXXXXX). If you are calling a mobile number, you dial the number after the country code (eg. dialling a Dialog number, dial +94 77X XXXXXX).
Mobile technology in Sri Lanka
All mobile operators support the GSM technology on GSM 900/ 1800 bands. WAP & GPRS is widely supported. 3G and wireless broadband is available in Colombo. Wi-Fi zones are available in selected spots in major towns.
Local mobile connection
Wi-fi is common in hotels, hostels, restaurants and cafes across the touristed areas of Sri Lanka. Travellers can also purchase a tourist SIM card for the duration of their Sri Lanka tour if they wish to stay connected. Both Dialog and Mobitel offer tourist SIM packages that are valid for 30 days.
The mobile call rates are relatively cheap for both local and IDD calls. There are many mobile operators in the country (Dialog, Mobitel, Etisalat, Hutch etc.). Dialog and Mobitel have counters at the Colombo Airport and you can obtain a connection on arrival. A Dialog connection will cost about Rupees 1500. Top up cards are freely available island-wide. You can buy top-up cards for denominations of Rupees 100, 400 & 1000. Be sure that your phone is `dual band’ and unlocked.
hotels provide WIFI facilities Most hotels provide internet facilities. There are internet cafes in most towns with ADSL connection. Connections in smaller towns will be slow. Large 5-star.
Shopping and Entertainment
Sri Lanka has a wide variety of handicrafts on sale. Sri Lankan masks are a very popular item, as are Ceylon Tea, batiks, wood carvings, gemstones, semi- precious stones, lacquer-ware, and hand-made Silver and Brass objects. Please avoid ornaments made from tortoise shells & ivory, and woodcarving made from ebony and turtle shell. We will take you to the government run ‘Laksala’ stores who understand Australian customs laws.
Nightlife in Sri Lanka
Colombo, Negombo and Hikkaduwa are places with active night life.
Colombo has some great pubs, night clubs, karaoke lounges and bars. Friday and Saturday nights are the busiest for all night partying.
Negombo and Hikkaduwa have great beach restaurants and bars.
A 10% service charge is included in bills for food and accommodation; however, tipping is a customary way of showing your appreciation for services rendered. A rule of thumb is to tip 10% of the total amount due. Your housekeeping staff, doorman and bellboy all expect a little tip. A tip between 100 – 200 rupees for each service is considered sufficient.
Note: Tipping and porterage costs are included in your Culinary and Cultural tour.
Traveling and Photography
When is the best time to travel?
Sri Lanka has 2 monsoon seasons:
May to July – South West Monsoon
October – January – North East Monsoon
Dos and don’ts of local photography
Ask permission before taking photographs of people and respect their wishes if they refuse. Minority groups in particular are often unhappy to have their photo taken. Travellers should avoid paying for the right to take a photo as this has been found to encourage begging amongst sections of the local community.
It is forbidden to take photographs inside the cave temple complex of Dambulla. Never use flash photography on murals inside temples and other places; it can cause significant damage to them.
Similarly, flash photography is forbidden at the frescoes of Sigiriya, never pose beside or in front of a Buddha statue (i.e., with your back to the statue). Such conduct is considered extremely disrespectful. Never take a photo of a monk without asking permission. Tourists are sometimes asked for money for taking photos. Always ask before you shoot whether payment is expected.
Never take photos of dams, airports, roadblocks or anything to do with the military. Don’t use your camera around Colombo Fort.
Processing digital photos
There are many franchised photo shops such as Kodak and Fuji with advanced digital imaging services in major towns. Almost all types of digital data storage devices are accepted. It’s always advisable to keep a backup of your pictures before handing over for processing.
It’s always advisable to bring a USB cord (camera to PC) so you transfer the pictures to a PC. The internet cafés are ideal for this (you’ll find them all around the country). Simply copy the pictures to the PC and then burn them into a CD. This is much cheaper than processing through a photography shop/ studio. It’s best to make two copies of the CD. One you keep with you, the other send it home in the post. That way you can always keep your memory cards empty to capture more photos!
Digital camera accessories such as memory cards and batteries are available in Colombo, Kandy and a few major towns.
What to Eat
The Portuguese, Dutch and British invaders along with the Arab, Chinese, Indian and Malay traders all contributed to the melting pot of food that makes Sri Lanka famous worldwide for its unique cuisine. Sri Lankan cuisine offers a palate of mild and delicately flavoured dishes to hot and fiery ones. The dishes are flavoured with an assortment of herbs and spices, garlic, ginger, lemon grass and curry leaves. See my blog on spices www.petestravellingpans.com
Sri Lanka’s famous dishes
Rice and Curry – Considered the national dish of the country, Sri Lankan rice and curry consists of fluffy rice that is served with a variety of side dishes commonly called curries. There are typically three to five different meat and vegetable curries served along with the rice. This is accompanied with a Sambol (freshly grated coconut ground together with chilli and spices) Mallum (finely shredded leaves with coconut), and papadums. This specialty is a typical home-cooked dish and an undisputed staple on restaurant menus throughout Sri Lanka.
Hoppers – Hoppers in their simplest form are bowl-shaped pancakes made from fermented rice flour and coconut milk. Cooked in small round hopper pans over a medium heat flame, hoppers tend to come out crispy round the edges, thicker at the bottom. Hoppers can be simply seasoned with salt and pepper or made spicy with hot fresh chili sambols. There are many other types of hoppers such as the egg hopper, which is made with an egg poached into its centre. Milk hoppers and jaggery hoppers are a sweeter variety.
String Hoppers - String hoppers are carefully prepared by squeezing rice flour dough through a sieve-like metal appliance to form thin delicate noodles on small woven bamboo trays. These trays are then gently steamed until cooked. The finished product is light, lacy warm noodles to be served with a spicy sambol, lentils and meat or vegetable curry. It is a very popular dish that is eaten at any meal of the day.
Kottu Roti - made from a finely shredded roti bread and mixed with sizzling hot vegetables, egg or meat and curry sauce. It is traditionally stir-fried on a heated BBQ style plate. The clashing sound of this being made is ‘food music’ to Sri Lankan people, it can be heard ringing out from roadside cafes and restaurants late into the night.
Pittu - introduced to the Sri Lankan cuisine by the Malays and Tamils during the European colonial era. It is a soft, fluffy mixture of ground rice and grated coconut steamed in a bamboo pipe and served with freshly squeezed coconut milk and aromatic curries. Eaten at any meal of the day.
Lamprais - introduced to Sri Lanka by the Dutch Burghers, Lamprais has a unique flavour and a delicious aroma. It consists of rice cooked in stock, eggplant, a meat curry (usually chicken or beef however vegetarian is also available), spicy onion sambol, boiled egg and a Frikadelle (crumbed meatball) All of this is wrapped in a banana leaf and slow cooked in an oven. The flavour of the banana leaf infuses into the food giving it its characteristic aroma and taste.
Kiribath – This is a traditional Sri Lankan dish which directly translates as milk rice. It is eaten usually at breakfast with a sambol and curries, it can also be eaten with Kitul Panni (Honey from the Kitul palm). It is also eaten on the first day of the year and at any other celebration.
The major fruit varieties grown in Sri Lanka are mango, papaya, pineapple, avocado, banana, watermelon, rambutan, mangosteen, wood apple, guava, pomegranate and jackfruits. Banana, pineapple and papaya are commercially grown whereas other varieties of fruit come from home gardens for the most part. Fruits are grown all around the island of Sri Lanka, from the coastal belt lining the country to higher elevations in the hill country. The variety of fruits grown in each region varies significantly, depending on the climate and soil conditions. Some of them are rare and endemic to the country and play a very important role in Sri Lankan cuisine. Locals make curried fruits, eat ripe fruits after meal and also drink fresh fruit juices.
Sri Lanka and its spices
The history of spice in Sri Lanka is a fascinating one that spans several centuries. Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, has been a hub for spice trading and production since ancient times. Spices have played a significant role in Sri Lankan culture and economy for thousands of years. This island nation is renowned for its high-quality spices, which include among others, cinnamon, cardamom, pepper, clove, and nutmeg.
Sri Lanka was one of the major ports of the legendary Spice Route. Arab traders first introduced cinnamon to Sri Lanka in the 7th century AD, and it quickly became a prized commodity. The island's cinnamon trade flourished in the 16th and 17th centuries when European traders, particularly the Portuguese, Dutch, and British, arrived on the scene. The Portuguese were the first to establish a colony in Sri Lanka, and they monopolized the island's cinnamon trade for over a century. However, the Dutch eventually took control of the spice trade, and they established a cinnamon monopoly that lasted until the British arrived in the 18th century.
During the Dutch period, Sri Lanka's spice trade reached its peak, with cinnamon being the most valuable commodity. The Dutch established plantations in the southern and western regions of the island and introduced new spices such as nutmeg and pepper. They also developed new methods of cultivation and processing, which improved the quality and yield of spices. The Dutch influence on Sri Lanka's spice industry can still be seen today, with Dutch-style houses and canals still present in the coastal towns of Galle and Negombo.
The British took control of Sri Lanka in 1815, and they continued to develop the spice industry. However, their focus was more on tea, which they introduced to the island in the 19th century. Nonetheless, Sri Lanka remained a major producer of spices, and its reputation for high-quality cinnamon, in particular, remained intact. The British also introduced new spices, such as cardamom, which were cultivated in the central highlands.
Today, Sri Lanka remains one of the world's major producers of spices, with cinnamon, pepper, and cardamom being the most significant. The island's spice industry employs thousands of people and contributes significantly to the country's economy. The quality of Sri Lankan spices is widely recognized, with cinnamon from Sri Lanka being considered among the best in the world.
Sri Lankan cuisine is a rich and vibrant mix of flavours, influenced by the island's geographical location and its historical interactions with various cultures. Spices play a crucial role in Sri Lankan cooking, adding depth and complexity to the dishes. Following are some of the most commonly used spices in Sri Lankan cuisine and their significance.
Cinnamon is one of the most important spices in Sri Lankan cooking. It is used in both sweet and savory dishes, and its warm, sweet aroma adds depth and richness to curries, rice dishes, and desserts. Cinnamon is also believed to have medicinal properties and is used to treat various ailments.
Cardamom is another important spice in Sri Lankan cuisine. It has a warm, aromatic flavour that is perfect for adding depth and complexity to curries, rice dishes, and desserts. It is also used to flavour tea, and its medicinal properties are believed to aid digestion.
Cloves have a strong, pungent flavour and are used in small quantities in Sri Lankan cooking. They are often used to flavour rice dishes, curries, and meat dishes. Cloves are also believed to have anti-inflammatory properties and are used to treat toothaches and other ailments.
Coriander is a popular herb in Sri Lankan cuisine, and its seeds are used as a spice. The seeds have a warm, citrusy flavour and are used to flavour curries, chutneys, and pickles. Coriander is also believed to have medicinal properties and is used to treat digestive issues and other ailments.
Turmeric is a bright yellow spice that is widely used in Sri Lankan cooking. It has a slightly bitter, earthy flavour and is used to give curries, rice dishes, and other dishes a vibrant colour. Turmeric is also believed to have anti-inflammatory properties and is used to treat various ailments.
Mustard seeds are used to add a pungent flavour to curries and other dishes. They are often used in pickles and chutneys and are also believed to have medicinal properties.
Curry leaves are a staple in Sri Lankan cooking and are used to flavour curries and rice dishes. They have a slightly bitter, earthy flavour and are also believed to have medicinal properties.
Fenugreek seeds have a slightly bitter flavour and are used to add depth and complexity to curries and rice dishes. They are also believed to have medicinal properties and are used to treat digestive issues and other ailments.
Cumin seeds have a warm, nutty flavour and are used to flavour curries, rice dishes, and meat dishes. They are also believed to aid digestion and are used to treat various ailments.
Black pepper is a common spice in Sri Lankan cooking and is used to add a pungent flavour to curries, rice dishes, and meat dishes. It is also believed to have medicinal properties and is used to treat digestive issues and other ailments.
The combination of these spices, along with other ingredients such as coconut milk, creates a unique and flavorful cuisine that is truly one of a kind.
The Vedda are a minority indigenous group of people in Sri Lanka who, among other self-identified native communities such as Coast Veddas, Anuradhapura Veddas and Bintenne Veddas, are accorded indigenous status. The Vedda minority in Sri Lanka is in threat of becoming extinct. Most speak Sinhala instead of their indigenous languages which are nearing extinction.
It has been hypothesized that the Vedda were probably the earliest inhabitants of Sri Lanka and have a direct line to the stone age man.
The original language of the Vedda’s is the Vedda language, which today is used primarily by the interior Veddas of Dambana. Communities such as Coast Veddas and Anuradhapura Veddas, who do not identify themselves strictly as Veddas, also use Vedda language for communication during hunting and or for religious chants. When a systematic field study was conducted in 1959 it was determined that the language was confined to the older generation of Veddas from Dambana. In the 1990s, self-identifying Veddas knew few words and phrases in the Vedda language, but there were individuals who knew the language comprehensively. Initially, there was considerable debate among linguists as to whether Vedda is a dialect of Sinhala or an independent language. Later studies indicate that it diverged from its parent stock in the 10th century and became a Creole and a stable independent language by the 13th century, under the influence of Sinhala.
Veddas were originally hunter-gatherers. They used bows and arrows to hunt game, harpoons and toxic plants for fishing and gathered wild plants, yams, honey, fruit and nuts. Veddas are famously known for their rich meat diet. Venison and the flesh of rabbit, turtle, tortoise, monitor lizard, wild boar and the common brown monkey are consumed with much relish. The Veddas kill only for food and do not harm young or pregnant animals. Game is commonly shared amongst the family and clan.
Some observers have said Veddas are disappearing and have lamented the decline of their distinct culture. Land acquisition for mass irrigation projects, government forest reserve restrictions, and the civil war have disrupted traditional Vedda ways of life. Between 1977 and 1983 under the Accelerated Mahaweli Development Project and colonization schemes, approximately 51,468 hectares were turned into a gigantic hydroelectric dam irrigation project. Subsequently, the creation of the Maduru Oya National Park deprived the Veddas their last hunting grounds. In 1985, the Vedda Chief Thissahamy and his delegation were obstructed from attending the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations. Dr. Wiveca Stegeborn, an anthropologist, has been studying the Vedda since 1977 and alleges that their young women are being tricked into accepting contracts to the Middle East as domestic workers when in fact they will be trafficked into prostitution or sold as sex slaves.
Cultural assimilation of Veddas with other local populations has been going on for a long time. "Vedda" has been used in Sri Lanka to mean not only hunter-gatherers but also to refer to any people who adopt an unsettled and rural way of life and thus can be a derogatory term not based on ethnic group.
Why visit Sri Lanka?
Sri Lanka, a small island nation located off the southern coast of India, is a hidden gem that's often overlooked by travelers. However, this tropical paradise is a must-visit destination that offers an unforgettable experience for visitors. From its unique culture and cuisine to its UNESCO heritage sites and friendly people, here's why you should consider visiting Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka's culture is a blend of Indian, Portuguese, Dutch, and British influences. It's a rich and diverse cultural tapestry that's reflected in the country's architecture, art, music, dance, and festivals. For example, the Kandy Esala Perahera is an annual festival that takes place in the city of Kandy, where decorated elephants parade through the streets with drummers and dancers in traditional costumes. It's a spectacular display of Sri Lankan culture that's not to be missed.
Sri Lankan cuisine is a delicious fusion of spices, flavors, and textures. The food is typically spicy, but not overwhelmingly so. There is the staple rice and curry and some must-try dishes that include hoppers, a type of pancake made from rice flour and coconut milk, and kottu roti, a popular street food that consists of chopped up roti, vegetables, and meat or egg. For those with a sweet tooth, Sri Lanka's desserts are also a treat, with dishes such as watalappan, a coconut custard, and bibikkan, a spiced cake made with coconut and treacle.
Sri Lanka is home to eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites, each of which is a testament to the country's rich history and culture. These sites include the ancient city of Anuradhapura, the Sigiriya Rock Fortress, and the Golden Temple of Dambulla, all of which are stunning examples of ancient Sri Lankan architecture and art. The sites also offer visitors a glimpse into the country's Buddhist heritage, which has played a significant role in shaping Sri Lanka's culture and society.
Sri Lankan people are known for their warmth, hospitality, and kindness. From the tuk-tuk drivers to the street vendors, locals are always ready to help visitors navigate the country and make the most of their stay. Sri Lankans are also proud of their culture and history, and they are always happy to share it with visitors. Engaging with locals can be an incredibly rewarding experience, as it allows visitors to gain a deeper understanding of Sri Lankan culture and way of life.
Sri Lanka is a unique and beautiful country that offers a wealth of experiences for visitors. From its rich culture and delicious cuisine to its UNESCO heritage sites and friendly people, there's something for everyone, so why not add this stunning destination to your travel bucket list? You won't be disappointed.
Pete is a Sri Lankan born Australian with over 40 years experience in hospitality. Pete has a deep love and understanding of the culture, cuisine and hospitality industries of both countries - knowledge which he weaves into his culinary tours.