Culture of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is one of the most westernised countries in Southeast Asia, with a large tourist infrastructure and English speaking population. It’s also extremely culturally rich – far beyond our associations of cricket, tea and cinnamon.

Taking influences from four major religions, historic trading nations and neighbouring India, Sri Lanka has been colonised by three European countries over the years. It was granted independence as a Dominion of the British Commonwealth in 1948 when the country was still named Ceylon – as in the tea – before becoming the Republic of Sri Lanka in 1972.

With 25 public holidays a year, the country is said to host more festivals than anywhere else in the world, many of which draw from Buddhism and Hinduism. As well as religion, the festivals encapsulate many elements of Sri Lanka’s culture, from music and dance to art and food.

Sri Lanka Cultural Holidays

Tea and cricket

While volleyball is actually the national sport of Sri Lanka, it’s not as popular as cricket, which was introduced to Sri Lanka by British colonists. In return the Sri Lankans helped us on our path to being a tea-obsessed nation.

One of the largest producers of tea in the world, Sri Lankans have a love affair with their tea just as much, if not more, than Brits. The Ceylon tea is the favoured tipple at breakfast, when visitors come to your house, at festivals and any other time Sri Lankans fancy a brew.

Ancient arts

Sri Lanka is strewn with ancient cities, temples and Buddhist symbols, many of which demonstrate beautiful artworks with religious paintings adorning the monuments. At Sigiriya Rock Fortress, the walls lining the path are awash with frescoes of Sri Lankan women, which UNESCO recognises as the artistic heritage of man.

The temples, palaces and gardens of the ancient Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa cities have some of the finest decorative architecture and sculpture in Southern Asia. Polonnaruwa’s Hindu sculptures demonstrate the coexistence of Buddhism and Hinduism as far back as the 11th century.

Religious icons and festivals

The most prominent form of religion in Sri Lanka is Buddhism, which has been practised on the island for some 2,300 years. In fact, the Theravada form of Buddhism originated in Sri Lanka and has since spread to other parts of Southeast Asia. Hinduism has also influenced Sri Lanka from nearby India and both religions are very much embedded into the culture of the island, as well as being the focus of numerous festivals.

The biggest religious celebrations in Sri Lanka revolve around the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death on Poya days, with the May festival of Vesak Poya being particularly vibrant. Buddhist festivals involve large, brightly coloured parades with dancing, elephants , plenty of food and a public holiday the following day to recover.

In general, Sri Lankans have a simple way of life and a strong appreciation of nature, holding birds in particularly high regard. Many Sri Lankans believe that local gods travel on birds, with the peacock being the sacred bird of the God Kataragama. Sparrows are revered as bringing good luck, so people leave nests outside their home for them. Many flags, arts and crafts symbolising the country also use birds as their icon.

Countries that made their mark on Sri Lanka

The country that’s made the biggest impact on Sri Lankan culture is of course neighbouring India, which is only separated by a small stretch of water at the island’s northern tip.

The Sinhalese people who now make up 75% of Sri Lanka’s population originate from north India, bringing with them the Hindu faith and cooking styles used in many a curry.

As Sri Lanka is a historical trade centre, Christianity and Islam have also made their mark on the country through Arabic and European traders. Three of these countries liked Sri Lanka so much that they colonised it at various times, namely the Portuguese, Dutch, and British – each adding small elements of their culture to Sri Lanka’s.

Portugal provided musical influence in the 15th century, bringing with them cantiga ballads, the ukulele and guitars. And colonial architecture can be seen across Sri Lanka, with undeniably British buildings in Colombo and many Dutch examples in Galle. In terms of cuisine, the Dutch added frikkadel meatballs as a side to Sri Lankan curries and the British popularised roast beef and chicken in the country.