Interesting Things I Didn't Know About Sri Lanka

By: leelefever on March 14, 2006 - 6:22am
 In coming here, I was pretty clueless about Sri Lanka. I knew it was off the coast of India and that it was affected by the 2004 tsunami, but that was about it. I've now learned so much more and grown to love the island and people.

The early Sri Lankans, dating back from the 5th century BC, were great masters of managing water. They built giant “tanks” which are essentially reservoirs that were used to irrigate fields, manage drinking water, etc. One king supposedly said that no drop of water flowing to the ocean shall go unused. The scale of their innovations in managing water are truly amazing.

UNESCO (United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization) has designated the ancient cities of Sri Lanka as World Heritage Sites and made available funding for excavation of the cities.

Speaking of early Sri Lankans, the aboriginal people were called the “Veddahs”. Veddah means “hunter” in Sinalhese (the dominant language of Sri Lanka). There are still some Veddahs living in the jungles of Sri Lanka.

The country has been invaded again and again over its history. Initially it was the north and south Indians, then the Portuguese, Dutch and finally the English, who colonized Sri Lanka until 1948. It is now an independent nation with a democratically elected government.

A terrorist group called LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Timal Eelam) which has formal connections with Al Qaeda, has been wreaking havoc on Sri Lanka since the 1980’s. The LTTE want an independent federalist state within Sri Lanka and currently occupy the northern third of the island. A female LTTE suicide bomber killed an Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. After 9/11, Sri Lanka received funding from the US to fight LTTE and since, peace talks have mostly ended the violence. Locals say that LTTE fears Americas involvement in what was once a Sri Lankan battle.

The tsunami of 2004 killed between 50-80k people on the southeast coast of the country. The biggest impact has been on tourism, which is still suffering even as most of the tourist activities are away from the impacted areas.

The country’s people are about 80% Buddhist with Hindu, Muslims and Christians making up single digit percentages.

Being Buddhist, animals are given very much freedom to move as they wish. It is normal to see dogs, cows, water buffaloes and monkeys on the side of the road or even in the middle of it.


Except in the capital city of Columbo, women do not usually work outside the home. They do vote and drive vehicles.

Outdoor work (including road building or rock work) is either done barefooted or with flip-flops. Recently I saw a jackhammer operator working away on rock with bare feet, one foot perched on the hammer to provide extra weight.

Sri Lankans, though dark in hair and complexion, don’t look like that much Indians to me. Our speculation is that the colonial population may have become part of the gene pool.

The head movement for “yes” is different than we had experienced. Instead of up and down motion, it is a bobble or wiggle of the head, with the chin moving left to right.  It's easy to mistake for indicating "maybe so, maybe not" in the US.

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