Facts about Sri Lanka

Surface area: 65,610 km2

Capital: Colombo

Population: 21 million

Ethnic structure: Singhalese and Tamils

Languages: Singhalese, Tamil, and English

Religions: Theravada Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam

Because of its location as one of the crossroads of major sea routes, Sri Lanka has been a strategic link between West Asia and Southeast Asia. It has also been a centre of Buddhism from ancient times as well as a bastion of Hinduism. The Sinhalese community forms the majority of the population. Tamils, who are concentrated in the north and east of the island, form the island’s largest ethnic minority.

The Early Periods

Anuradhapura was the long-standing centre of Sri Lanka from the 4th century BC to the 11th century AD. Buddhism was introduced from India during the Anuradhapura period and Sri Lanka became the stronghold of Theravada Buddhism, which later spread from there to Southeast Asia.

After Anuradhapura, the new centre was established in Polonnaruwa at the end of the11th century. Sinhalese culture experienced its golden age there during the reign of King Parakramabahu (1153–1186).

The Colonial Period

In 1592, when Sri Lanka was already partly under European colonial rule, Kandy became the capital of the last independent kingdom of Sri Lanka. The Temple of the Tooth, housing the tooth of Buddha, was built near the royal palace. The cult of the tooth relic, based on the 4th century tradition, gave the protector of the relic the right to rule the country.

A Portuguese colonial mission arrived on the island in 1506. At that point the island consisted of three kingdoms, namely Kandy in the central hills, Kotte on the Western coast, and Yarlpanam (Jaffna) in the north. The Dutch arrived in the 17th century. Although much of the island came under the domain of European powers, the central, hilly region of the island remained independent, with its capital in Kandy.

The British East India Company established control of the island in 1796, declaring it a crown colony in 1802. However, the island was not officially connected with British India. The fall of the kingdom of Kandy in 1815 unified the island under British rule.

The 20th Century

The European colonists established tea, cinnamon, rubber, and coffee plantations. The British also brought a large number of Tamil workers from India to work on the plantations. The city of Colombo was established as the administrative centre.

The struggle for independence began in the 1930s. During World War II the island served as an important Allied military base. A large segment of the British and American fleet were deployed on the island, as were tens of thousands of soldiers committed to the war against Japan in Southeast Asia.

Following the war, pressure for independence intensified. In 1948 the country won its independence as the Dominion of Ceylon. In 1972 the country became a republic within the Commonwealth and the name was changed to Sri Lanka.

From 1983 to 2009, there was sporadic civil war against the government by the Tamil Tigers, a separatist militant organization, who fought to create an independent Tamil state in the island. Both sides have been accused of human rights violations.