Sri Lanka

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  • Sri Lanka is a compact nation that packs a serious punch: vibrant culture, palm-studded white sand beaches, virgin rainforest and lush forested highlands, World Heritage sites and ancient cave-temples, incredible food, constant festivals and a deeply spiritual and welcoming people. It’s easy to make your way around, safe and affordable, uncrowded, exciting, relaxing and utterly photogenic.

    Sri Lanka’s culture and early history are intrinsically linked to that of the Indian subcontinent. The island of Sri Lanka is a geological extension of the Indian Peninsula’s Deccan Plateau, having been separated from the mainland by rising water levels somewhere in the Miocene Epoch (between 25 and 5 million years ago). Archaeological findings indicate that Sri Lanka’s earliest inhabitants were Paleolithic peoples who used rough stone tools to hunt and gather. By the time of the Upper Paleolithic period (30,000 – 25,000 years ago) finer hunting and gathering tools were in use, and by the start of the first millennium BC, Sri Lanka’s indigenous population had begun experimenting with agriculture and irrigation.

    Sri Lanka’s earliest surviving written records are the Buddhist chronicles of Dipavamsa, Mahavamsa and Culavamsa, written in the 5th century AD in Pali, the ancient sacred language of Buddhism. Sri Lanka’s two largest ethnic groups, the Sinhalese and the Tamils, are the result of the migration of different groups from India to Sri Lanka in the 5th and 3rd centuries BC, respectively. The Sinhalese developed from Indo-Aryan language speakers who migrated from northern India, and the Tamils from Dravidian language speakers from eastern, southern and central India. According to the Mahavamsa, the first Indians to settle on the island were the exiled Indian Prince Vijaya and his entourage of 700. The Mahavasma records that the Prince arrives on the west coast of Sri Lanka and shortly afterward encounters the Hindu deity Lord Vishnu, who had been asked by the Buddha to protect Vijaya and his followers.

    At this time, Sri Lanka’s local indigenous clans were the snake-worshipping Nagas and the demon-worshipping Yakkas. After spotting a dog and following it in search of a village or settlement, Vijaya’s men become ensnared by the supernatural powers of a local Yakka princess, Kuveni. Vijaya catches up to the men and threatens to murder Princess Kuveni unless she releases the men, upon which Kuveni decides that not only will she release the men, but she will also help Vijaya to win the kingdom. Kuveni then assists Vijaya in overthrowing royal family. Vijaya marries Kuveni, with the indigenous Vedda people of Sri Lanka said to be the descendants of their two offspring, but Vijaya later desires an Indian wife, and requests an Indian princess be sent from the mainland. Upon the new wife’s arrival, Vijaya banishes Kuveni and their children from the kingdom, and upon returning to her home she is murdered by her countrymen as revenge for her betrayal of the Yakkas. Vijaya marries his Indian princess, and begins the reign of Sri Lanka’s first Sinhalese kingdom. Vijaya’s new marriage produces children, with the Sinhalese people said to be their descendants.

    The Sinhalese genesis creation myth is widely accepted and revered, and some elements of the narrative are corroborated by Tamil (Hindu) texts, ancient inscriptions and other historical accounts, including the Ptolemy world map. However, modern archaeological findings have led to controversy over contradictions, such as evidence that the Vedda were the aboriginal inhabitants of the island prior to the arrival of the Sinhalese, with evidence of direct ancestral links to Sri Lanka’s prehistoric inhabitants. There has also been a hypothesis since the late 20th century that the Sinhalese civilisation was founded by Indo-Aryan merchants, given the presence of archaeological evidence of Indo-Aryan merchant trade-based settlements along the coast. The hypothesis claims that the most wealthy and powerful of these new clans was the Sinhalese, who then later gave their name as ancestors to all of the other different clans.

    Regardless of the controversy, Indo-Aryan settlements did grow in different parts of the island from around the 5th century BC, and the Sinhalese culture that developed during the Anuradhapura period (3rd century BC– 10th century AD) bears witness to the integration of indigenous, Indo-Aryan and Dravidian elements. According to the chronicles, the city of Anuradhapura was founded by the third king of the Vijaya dynasty in the 3rd century BC. With its strongest kingdom and government yet, the city grew in size, population and wealth, with the kingdom expanding into the north-central regions. It was during the reign of India’s Mauryan emperor Ashoka (273–232 BC) that Ashoka’s son Mahendra headed for Sri Lanka, on a mission to spread the teachings of the Buddha. Upon meeting the Sinhalese king Tissa near Anuradhapura and converting him to Buddhism, the missionaries were invited to settle in the kingdom where they proceeded to preach and win new converts, both royal and commoner. Ashoka’s daughter Sangamitta was also in the missionary party and had brought with her from India a sapling from the sacred Bodhi tree, under which the Buddha had sat and attained enlightenment. The sapling was planted in Anuradhapura with a Buddhist temple built around it, with the tree still existing today, having been continuously tended by humans for the past 2,000+ years, and many cuttings were taken from the Anuradhapura bodhi tree and planted at temples throughout Sri Lanka.

    Many converts joined the sangha (Buddhist monkhood), monasteries and shrines were built, and strong bond between the Buddhist clergy and the monarchy was established. The Sri Lankan monks were instrumental in the transition from oral history to written documentation, and developed the Theravada school of Buddhism that is now one of Buddhism’s major branches. The arrival of the sacred tooth relic (one of the Buddha’s teeth) in 371 AD cemented Buddhism as the majority faith once and for all. Ties between the Buddhist monkhood and the monarchy would continue to be strengthened over the centuries as monks and royals took turns helping each other in the face of successive invasions from southern India, with the spread of Buddhism and the spread of the Anuradhapura kingdom being symbiotically linked. Apart from being briefly interrupted by a Pandyan (southern India) invasion in 432, Anuradhapura remained a political and religious capital for 1,300 years.

    The royal capital was moved from Anuradhapura to the city of Polonnaruwa in the 7th century as it was considered easier to defend against invasions from southern India, and the ancient city would go on to be the royal capital of both the Chola and Sinhalese kingdoms, reaching the height of its glory in the 12th century. Following the collapse of Polonnaruwa, successive Sinhalese dynasties were largely unable to gain control over more than their base cities, and the weakened kingdoms were susceptible to domestic and foreign invasions (India, Malaysia, China) between the 13th – 16th centuries. A Tamil kingdom had been established in the Jaffra Peninsula, with Nallur as its capital. The Jaffna kingdom began aggressively push southward, beginning a tradition of Tamil-Sinhalese conflict.

    The “Dry Zone” of northeastern Sri Lanka suffered from a depletion of royal treasury and water stores for irrigation that soon emptied its villages, with new Sinhalese settlements being established in the monsoon-watered ‘Wet Zone’ of the southwestern lowlands. This shift in geography and climate was accompanied by great change in crop choices, agricultural techniques, land use and land control. At the same time, Jaffna was cementing itself as the centre of Tamil Hindu culture, establishing deep roots via the practice of the Hindu faith and a blossoming of Tamil language literature. While culturally and structurally akin to the Tamil regions of southern India, Jaffna was cultivating a unique Sri Lankan Tamil identity.

    In the early 16th century a Portuguese fleet was blown accidentally off course to Colombo, initiating trade relations between the savvy Portuguese merchants and the spice-rich Sri Lankans. The Portuguese were able to manipulate ambitious rulers and expand their own power, and by the early 17th century the Portuguese controlled a significant portion of the island. Portuguese language spread, as did Roman Catholicism, with the building of many churches and schools. The arrival of Dutch ships at the start of the 17th century was seen as an opportunity to gain naval support for the campaign to attack the Portuguese, but by the mid-17th century the Dutch had themselves gained control over considerable territory, including the lucrative cinnamon-growing regions and the island’s entry and exit harbours. First the Portuguese, and then more significantly, the Dutch, exerted great influence of the development of Sri Lanka’s trade, taxation, land use, military and legal systems, and major infrastructure was constructed. Roman Catholicism was declared illegal under the Dutch, and Christianity (Protestant and Calvinist) was spread through Dutch schools, churches and missions.

    During the French Revolution wars (1792–1801) the British took advantage of the French capture of the Netherlands, by moving into Sri Lanka from India. The Dutch conceded the island in 1796, and in 1802 the British had declared Sri Lanka, or as the British renamed it, Ceylon, a colony of the British crown. The first decades of the 19th century saw a wide range of social reforms including an intense focus on commercial agriculture for export, the abolition of slavery, push of English language and Christianity, and reforms to the economy, structure of legal and education systems, and the role and structure of government. By the 20th century, a growing nationalism was sweeping Ceylon, uniting Sinhalese and Tamil leaders against the common threat of foreign occupation. They formed the Ceylon National Congress in 1919 and continued to apply pressure during World War II. By 1947 a new constitution and the Ceylon Independence Act has been drawn up, recognising Ceylon as an autonomous entity but still under allegiance to the crown. Elections were held for a new parliament, and true independence came in 1948 when the new constitution came into effect.

    While Ceylon’s English-educated, upper class elite enjoyed the new constitutional changes, the mass Sinhalese and Tamil majority found the government’s Westernised values irrelevant, and felt their religions, languages and cultural heritages were being completely ignored and unrepresented. This gulf between the government and its people continued to widen, fueling political discontent and growing nationalism. The 1950s and 60s were marked by political instability, the ebb and flow of the nationalist movement and the growth of a new Sinhalese/Buddhist nationalism. Sinhala language was made the country’s sole official language, and Sinhalese culture and Buddhism were state supported, fuelling growing frustration among the country’s alienated Tamil/Hindu and European/Christian communities. By the early 1970s, Ceylon was experiencing serious economic problems and the government was facing growing discontent from many different groups. In 1972, a new constitution declared Ceylon the Republic of Sri Lanka, with Buddhism recognised as the nation’s foremost faith and Sinhalese once again declared the official language.

    Sri Lanka’s first decades as a republic were marked by continued economic decline, high unemployment and political instability that escalated in the 1980s as Tamil minority groups began organising insurgency campaigns. Bases for these campaigns were concentrated in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, as well as the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. There were many different Tamil insurgent groups, most of which were hostile towards each other, but it was the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, commonly known as the Tamil Tigers, who grew to be the strongest and most feared. The insurgent campaigns by the Tamil Tigers caused an eruption of anti-Tamil riots in the capital of Colombo, in which Tamil citizens were attacked and their property destroyed, forcing many to flee to India as refugees. After years of battle between the Tamil rebel groups, the government and the Sri Lankan army, a cease-fire was finally negotiated in 2002, however, the violence resumed within a couple of years. It was within this climate of political unrest and instability that Sri Lanka was rocked by its worst natural disaster, when a gigantic tsunami hit the Sri Lankan coast following the Indian Ocean earthquake of December 2004. More than 35,000 people were killed, thousands more injured or missing, and more than half a million people lost their homes and livelihoods.

    As the country fought to rebuild after the tsunami, conflict between the government and the Tamil rebels raged on. In January 2009, government troops were successful in gaining control of the town the Tamil Tigers used as their administrative centre, along with many other Tamil-controlled territories. By May, the last of the Tamil rebel territories were claimed and the leaders of the Tamil Tigers killed during a final Sri Lankan army offensive, effectively destroying the Tigers. The 26-year civil war was devastating to Sri Lanka’s economy, and between 70,000-80,000 civilians were killed during the dark years of civil unrest. Sri Lanka’s economy has been steadily improving since 2009, however political and social tensions still exist between the country’s ethnic minority groups and the Sinhalese majority. But like its neighbor India, a visit to Sri Lanka tells not of wars and occupations, but of ancient human civilisation, deep spirituality and vibrant, colourful cultures. Sri Lanka has emerged from the darkness of civil war, like her people, humble and hopeful. This is an incredible destination once safe again, with countless natural and cultural treasures awaiting the curious traveller.

  • Buddhist (official, 70.2%); Hindu (12.6%); Muslim (9.7%); Roman Catholic (6.1%); other Christian (1.3%) (2011 census)

    Sri Lanka is a deeply religious nation, with all but the tiniest fraction of the population reporting that religion is central to their daily lives

    The country’s Sinhalese follow Buddhism (mostly the Theravada branch), the country’s Tamils follow Hinduism, and Sri Lankan Moors and Malays follow Islam. The arrival of Portuguese, Dutch and British missionaries saw the spread of Christianity, with the bulk of Sri Lanka’s Christian population practicing Roman Catholicism, with small communities of Anglicans and Protestants

    The Theravada school of Buddhism, one of the faith’s two major branches, originated here. The monkhood in other countries that follow Theravada Buddhism—such as Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand—look to Sri Lanka for spiritual leadership

    The original religion of Sri Lanka’s indigenous Veddas was animism, with many Vedda people having since incorporated Buddhist and/or Hindu beliefs and customs into their faith

    Sri Lanka has undeniably close cultural affinities to India, but also a cultural profile that is uniquely Sri Lankan, owing to its history and religious/ethnic mix

    For its size, Sri Lanka is densely populated. 75% of Sri Lankans live in rural areas, and those that do live in urban areas generally maintain very close ties with their home village. The majority of rural families are financially poor and rely on agriculture or fishing to support themselves

    Marriage is the norm, and Sri Lanka has one of the world’s lowest divorce rates. Marriages were traditionally arranged by family elders based on horoscopes, caste and familial ties. Many young people choose their own partners these days, although family approval is critical. Children are an essential asset to the family, and the elderly are the respected heads of the family. The village is the heart of Sri Lankan society, with urban dwelling populations still retaining close ties to their home villages

    Sri Lankan society follows the Indian social stratification system known as the caste system, but with less significance or visibility than in India. According to the caste system, which has existed for thousands of years, families are segmented into a hierarchy of hereditary social/occupational groups, with a person generally being expected to marry based on caste and to follow certain rules regarding behavior and interaction with other castes

    Women have equal standing in most areas of Sri Lankan society, but the Sri Lankan female disposition is usually one of polite deference to the men in her life. In 1960, Sri Lanka became the first country in the world to elect a female Prime Minister. The national focus on education means that Sri Lankan women have access to career opportunities in all fields. Women are the traditional custodians of home duties, which is a position held in high regard. Affluent women may have paid help to manage their home duties, whereas poorer women will usually juggle home duties with their farming work

    Religion is an important part of daily life and respect should always been shown near religious buildings, shrines and sacred sites. Shoes and hats always must come off before entering a holy place, and you should be dressed very modestly

    Sri Lankans are generally conservative in dress and visitors should try their best to assimilate by wearing modest attire. Shoulders and legs should be covered, and women especially will find that dressing in neat and modest clothing with limit unwanted attention

    Modesty extends to public displays of affection: kissing and canoodling in public are seen as sexual acts and are not acceptable to locals, especially in more conservative rural areas

    Shoes should always be removed before entering someone’s home, and you should avoid ever touching or pointing at anyone with your feet

    As in many Asian and African countries, Sri Lankans eat with their right hand—but never the left hand, as this is reserved for wiping yourself after the toilet, taking off shoes and other unsavory tasks. You should not eat, pass food, wipe your mouth or shake hands with your left hand. It is customary to wash your hands before and after a meal, and washing water will be provided at any restaurant or kitchen. If in doubt, try to watch and copy locals

    As elsewhere in the Islamic world, the holy month of Ramadan is a time of prayer and sacrifice for Sri Lanka’s Muslims, during which people abstain from eating, drinking, smoking and sexual relations from sunrise to sunset. Travelers visiting during the month of Ramadan should show respect to locals by not flaunt any of the above in public during daylight hours

    Smoking and consumption of alcohol are banned in many public spaces, so drink only in a bar or restaurant, and be careful where you light up a cigarette

    Aurudu is the Sri Lankan New Year celebration, occurring on the 13th April (New Year’s Eve) and the 14th April (New Year’s Day). It is celebrated by Buddhists and Hindus alike, but is unique to Sri Lanka. Many people return home for Aurudu, and it’s a joyous time as families gather together to prepare special foods, share feasts and exchange gifts

    Poya (called Uposatha elsewhere) are recurring holidays that occur each month on the full moon. Many religious festivals revolve around poya days, during which Sri Lanka’s Buddhist faithful reflect on the teachings of the Buddha, and visit temples to take offerings and join in religious rituals. Each poya is a national public holiday, and the sale of alcohol and meat is banned on these days

    Sri Lankans flock to the sacred city of Kandy in July-August each year for the vibrant Esala Perahera festival, to pay homage to one of Buddhism’s most sacred relics, the sacred tooth of the Buddha. It’s a time of great revelry and joy as the streets fill with people watching the grand procession of costumed dancers, fire twirlers and elaborately dressed and decorated elephants

    On the January poya, the Duruthu Perahera festival in Colombo celebrates a visit made by the Buddha to Sri Lanka

    A month later on the February poya, Colombo hosts the Navam Perahera festival, one of Sri Lanka’s largest

    Vesak Poya is a nationwide two-day holiday falling over the May poya, celebrating the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha

    The Hindu Kataragama festival (July-August) takes place in the town of Kataragama each July-August, and is the culmination of a pilgrimage walk undertaken each year by thousands of devotees. Upon arrival in the town, pilgrims worship and bring gifts and offerings to the shrine, and many people express their faith by walking on hot coals, rolling on hot sands or piercing their skin with hooks

    Vel is a Hindu festival celebrated in Colombo and Jaffna each July-August in honour of the god of war, Murugan

    Although predominantly a Buddhist nation, Sri Lanka has a significant Muslim population who observe the important religious dates and festivals of the Islamic calendar as elsewhere in the Muslim world. The holy month of Ramadan is a time of prayer and sacrifice for Muslims, during which people abstain from eating, drinking, smoking and sexual relations from sunrise to sunset—so travelers should try not to flaunt any of these during daylight hours while visiting during Ramadan. Ramadan falls in the 9th month of the lunar Islamic calendar, with dates changing each year

    Eid Al-Fitr (or simply Eid) is the breaking of the fast at the end of Ramadan, a time for celebration to mark the end of a month’s sacrifice. People gather with loved ones to share special feasts, and children generally receive new clothing, small gifts and money from relatives. Eid Al-Adha (aka Eid Al-Hajj) is another important Islamic holiday, marking the end of the Hajj (Mecca pilgrimage season) and the start of the Feast of the Sacrifice

    Sri Lanka’s Christian communities observe the birth and resurrection of Jesus Christ with Christmas and Easter

    The major secular holiday is Independence Day (4 February)

    Total population is 20,263,723 (2011 census), growing at a rate of 0.86%.

    The median age is 31.8 years; with 24.7% aged 0-14 and 8.7% aged 65+.

    Sex ratio is 0.96 males to 1 female.

    The urban population is 15.1% (2011), with an average annual rate of urbanisation of 1.36%. Sri Lanka’s percentage of urban population is among the lowest in the world.

    Sinhalese (74.9%); Sri Lankan Tamil (11.2%); Indian Tamil (4.2%); Sri Lankan Moor (9.2%); Burgher (0.2%); Malay (0.2%); other (0.1%) (2011 census). Sri Lanka is a nation of great ethnic diversity. The majority of the population are Sinhalese (Buddhist), with significant minority groups including the Tamils (Hindu), Moors and Malays (Muslim), the Christian Burghers of mixed Sri-Lankan/European descent (mostly Portuguese, Dutch, German and British), and indigenous groups such as the Veddas (or Wanniyala-Aetto, meaning ‘forest people’).

  • Amazing views from upon Mihintale&#160;-&#160;<i>Photo:&#160;Alex Robertson</i>

    Sri Lanka is very much a tropical country, with distinct dry and wet seasons and a generally warm and humid climate. This is caused by the island’s equatorial tropical latitude and the influence of the northeast and southwest monsoons, in which alternating wet/dry periods are caused by the seasonal reversal of prevailing winds.

    Elevation and rainfall are the two key factors in Sri Lanka’s daily and seasonal climate variations, and your experience of Sri Lanka’s different seasons will depend largely on your location on the island. It’s never really a bad time weather-wise to visit Sri Lanka; you just need to know which side of the island to head to.

    The southwest monsoon brings rain and winds to Sri Lanka’s southwestern regions between May and September, and a dry season between December and March. The northeast monsoon brings a dry season to the northeastern regions between May and September, and rain and winds between October and January. The crossover period from October to mid-November can see rain and thunderstorms across the whole island. Despite the seasons, the humid coastal plains of the southwest (Wet Zone) receive much more reliable rainfall that the more arid plains of the north, east and south (Dry Zone).

    The driest and best months to visit are generally Dec-Mar for the southwest and hill country, and Apr-Sep for the northeast and ancient cities.

    There is negligible variance is annual temperature ranges in all but the Central Highlands region, where elevation moderates the tropical climate and you will experience milder conditions and wider daily and yearly temperature ranges.

    In Colombo, average daily temperatures range from a minimum of 22.3°C (72°F) to a maximum of 30.9°C (88°F) in January, to a minimum of 25.5°C (78°F) to a maximum of 30.4°C (87°F) in June.

    In Kandy, average daily temperatures range from a minimum of 18.4°C (65°F) to a maximum of 28.3°C (83°F) in January, to a minimum of 21.4°C (71°F) to a maximum of 28.4°C (83°F) in June.

    In Anuradhapura in the central-north, average daily temperatures range from a minimum of 20.9°C (°F) to a maximum of 29.6°C (°F) in January, to a minimum of 24.5°C (°F) to a maximum of 34.3°C (°F) in April.

    In Nuwara Eliya in the Central Highlands, average daily temperatures range from a minimum of 9°C (48°F) to a maximum of 20°C (68°F) in January, to a minimum of 11.4°C (53°F) to a maximum of 22.8°C (73°F) in April.

    Sri Lanka is an island southeast of India, surrounded by the Bay of Bengal, Indian Ocean, Laccadive Sea, Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Strait

    65,610 sq km / 25,332 sq mi (122nd largest country in the world), divided into 9 administrative provinces

    Sri Lanka is ranked 69 out of 178 countries (with a strong improving trend) on the Environmental Performance Index (2014), which quantifies and benchmarks performance of government environmental policies and outcomes

    Environmental issues include deforestation, soil erosion, air pollution in Colombo, coastal degradation from mining activity and pollution, freshwater contamination from industrial waste and sewage, threatened wildlife populations due to poaching and urbanisation, waste management

    Natural hazards include occasional cyclones and tornadoes

    Despite its relatively small size, Sri Lanka is an island of rich natural beauty and diverse flora and fauna. It also has one of the world’s highest rates of endemism among its plant and animal species

    Distribution of wildlife is dependent on rainfall and the subsequent distribution of different flora. Around one-third of Sri Lanka’s land area is covered with natural vegetation

    Original forest has been heavily cleared for timber, agriculture and settlement. Sinharaja Forest Reserve (southern lowlands) and Peak Wilderness Sanctuary (hill region) are Sri Lanka’s last significant remnants of virgin rainforest

    Major agricultural crops are rice, tea, tropical fruits, vegetables, spices and oilseed crops (such as sesame, sunflower and groundnut)

    The lowlands of the Wet Zone are dominated by moist, evergreen tropical rainforest, with a canopy of tall hardwoods including ebony, teak, ironwood and silkwood, and a forest floor of wild orchids. It is also here in the fertile wet lowlands that we find many paddies for cultivating rice

    Moist deciduous and dry evergreen forests typify the lowlands of the Dry Zone, giving way to scrubby patches of stunted drought-tolerant vegetation in the most arid areas

    The hill regions are dominated by evergreen montane forest and moist subtropical cloud forest. Forests thin out in the highest areas of the hill region, with montane grasslands covering the sections between forest. The conditions of the hill region make the area favourable to the cultivation of rubber and tea plantations

    The coastal regions are dotted with indigenous coconut palms and are also home to moist rainforest, marine wetlands, mangrove forests and grasslands that support a wide diversity of animal life

    Sri Lanka’s most famous plant species is the Bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa), the sacred tree of Buddhists, Hindus and Jains. It was under a Bodhi tree in India that the Buddha sat and attained enlightenment, and saplings from the original sacred Bodhi were brought to Sri Lanka, along with Buddhism, in the 3rd century BC. Most Buddhist temples will have one or more Bodhi trees planted on their grounds, with the Sri Maha Bodhi in Anuradhapura having been continually tended by humans for more than 2,000 years

    Notable Sri Lankan wildlife includes Sri Lankan elephants (a subspecies of the Asian elephant), leopards, sloth bears, buffalo, deer, monkeys, langurs, lorises, macaques, jackals, civets, mongooses, boars, flying foxes, bats, squirrels, porcupines, dugongs and crocodiles, along with many different reptile, amphibian, insect, butterfly, bird and fish species

    The island of Sri Lanka is considered geologically to be an extension of the Indian Peninsula’s Deccan Plateau. The bulk of the island is occupied by a vast plain punctuated with low ridges, valleys and rocky mounds of up to 300 m (1,000 ft)

    Fringing the plain is 1,340 km (833 mi) of coastline consisting mostly of sandy beaches and lagoons, dotted with occasional rocky cliffs and promontories, deep-water bays and small islands and islets. Trincomalee Bay on the northeast coast is one of the world’s finest (and fifth largest) natural harbours

    The heart of the island is the Central Highlands in southern central Sri Lanka, a mountainous area of peaks, plateaus, ridges and cliffs dissected by valleys and basins. Within the highlands are Sri Lanka’s highest mountains: Pidurutalagala (2,524 m / 8,281 ft), Kirigalpoththa (2,395 m / 7,858 ft) and Adam’s Peak, also known as Sri Pada (2,304 m / 7,559 ft)

    The Central Highlands are flanked on the northern, eastern and southern sides by a series of sharp escarpments, the most dramatic of which is the near-vertical 1,220 m (4,000 ft) precipice of World’s End, in Hortons Plains National Park

    Adam’s bridge (also known as Rama Setu or ‘Rama’s Bridge’) is a chain of sandbanks and limestone shoals runs under shallow waters between southeast India and northwest Sri Lanka, forming a partial land bridge and separating the Gulf of Mannar from the Palk Strait. According to Hindu mythology, it is the remnants of an extensive bridge built by the god Rama with the help of an army of monkeys, so that he may cross from India to Sri Lanka to rescue his wife Sita

    Sri Lanka has no natural lakes but over a hundred rivers, all of which rise in the highlands but many of which are seasonal rivulets, drying up annually. At 335 km (208 mi), the Mahaweli is the country’s longest river, with its largest drainage basin. The Mahaweli runs a course from the Hortons Plains National Park to empty into the Bay of Bengal, southwest of Trincomalee Bay

    Ancient City of Polonnaruwa (1982) The story of Polonnaruwa stretches right back to the 3rd century BC, with the town becoming the royal capital in the 7th century. The ancient city would go on to be the royal capital of both the Chola and Sinhalese kingdoms, reaching the height of its glory in the 12th century. Architectural triumphs of Polonnaruwa include monumental buildings, grand gardens and Parakrama Samudra, an incredible 2,500-hectare man-made water reservoir. A walk through the ruins of this ancient city gives a fascinating insight into the development of Sri Lankan civilisation in the hands of successive kingdoms

    Ancient City of Sigiriya (1982) Rising sharply from the surrounding forested plains is a dramatic granite monolith, so steep that its top overhangs its sides. Perched dramatically atop the gigantic rock pillar are the ruins of the ancient city of Sigiriya, built by King Kassapa I in the 5th century. At the top of the monolith are the ruins of the fortified palace built by Kassapa in the shape of a lion, with giant rock and plaster staircases leading up to the top through the lion’s mouth. The rock faces of the impressive monolith have been adorned with beautiful rock carvings and frescoes, and the poem inscriptions (‘Sigiriya graffiti’) left by pilgrims and admirers as far back as the 6th century

    Sacred City of Anuradhapura (1982) The sacred city of Anuradhapura was built around a sapling from the sacred Bodhi tree, the tree under which the Buddha sat and achieved enlightenment. A sapling from the original Bodhi tree in India was brought to Sri Lanka in the 3rd century BC, along with the Buddhist faith. Anuradhapura served as a political and spiritual capital of Sri Lanka for 1,300 years, and the site contains majestic palaces, monasteries and monuments. The city is one of the most sacred and important shrines of Buddhism, with the Sri Maha Bodhi tree of Anuradhapura having been continually tended by humans for more than 2,000 years

    Old Town of Galle and its Fortifications (1988) The fortified city of Galle was founded by the Portuguese in the 16th century, achieving the height of its development under the Dutch in the 18th century. With its sea wall, ramparts, fortresses, public buildings, churches, warehouses, private houses and gardens, Galle is the finest example of a European-built fortified city in South and Southeast Asia. The town is a remarkable example of military architecture, and bears witness to the historical importance of Galle as a port of call, and to the unique application of European architecture in a South Asian context

    Sacred City of Kandy (1988) The charming city of Kandy is one of Sri Lanka’s most important historical sites and is revered as one of its most sacred places. Founded in the 14th century, the city became the capital in 1592 and was to be the last seat of Sinhala royal power, before the British takeover in 1815. The city has many splendid formal buildings and monuments, including a royal palace, audience hall, temples and a bathhouse, many of which are beautiful decorated with painting, carving and sculpture. Within Kandy’s ancient royal palace complex is the Temple of the Tooth, a temple enshrining one of Buddhism’s most sacred relics, a tooth from the Buddha’s mouth. Pilgrims flock to Kandy each year for the vibrant Esala Perahera festival, to pay homage to the sacred tooth

    Golden Temple of Dambulla (1991) The Golden Temple of Damballa is a remarkable series of Buddhist cave-temples set within the caves and shelters of a giant rock monolith. There is archaeological evidence that the site has inhabited by humans as far back as prehistoric times, and Buddhist monks have used the cave-temples since the 3rd century BC, when the faith first arrived on the island. The caves feature exquisite religious art including giant golden Buddha statues, smaller sculptures, cave paintings and rock carvings

    Sinharaja Forest Reserve (1988) Set in the southwestern lowlands of Sri Lanka’s Wet Zone, the spectacular Sinharaja Forest is the country’s last significant tract of undisturbed virgin rainforest, and is home to the country’s lion’s share of endemic plants and animals, including myriad bird and butterfly species, leopards and Sri Lankan elephants

    Central Highlands of Sri Lanka (2010) The Central Highlands region encompasses the major wilderness areas of Peak Wilderness Protected Area, Horton Plains National Park and Knuckles Conservation Forest. The Central Highlands area provides habitat for a huge diversity of important flora and fauna, and is an area of immense beauty and spiritual significance to the Sri Lankan people. It’s home to Sri Lanka’s highest peaks, including the sacred Sri Pada (aka Adam’s Peak) which is of particular religious importance

  • World Youth Adventures can tailor make a school expedition to Sri Lanka to your school’s budget and curriculum requirements.

    Talk to us about your next school expedition, or if you need some ideas check out the trips below.


  • Capital City:  Colombo
    Time zone:  Sri Lanka is +5 and a half hours ahead of UTC/GMT
    Language:  Sinhala (official)
    Currency:  Sri Lankan Rupee
    Highest Mountain:  Pidurutalagala
    Highest Mountain Elevation:  2,524 m / 8,281 ft
    Yellow background with two panels overlaid. The smaller (left side) panel features two equal vertical bands of green (left) and orange (right). The larger (right side) panel is maroon background with a yellow emblem of a lion holding a sword, with a yellow Bodhi leaf in each of the four corners of the panel. The lion signifies Sinhalese ethnicity, the sword signifies sovereignty, and the four Bodhi leaves signify the influence of Buddhism and stand for the four Buddhist virtues of loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy and calmness. Green stands for Sri Lankan Moors, orange for Tamils, maroon for the Burghers and yellow for Sri Lanka’s other ethnic groups