Sri Lanka is a small, pear-shaped island located in the Indian Ocean, at the tip of India, about 400 miles north of the equator. Between the island and the mainland are the gulf of Mannar and the Palk Strait; at its closest point, Sri Lanka is about 14 miles from the mainland. At one time there was a land bridge between the island and the mainland. Indian legend has this bridge, currently called Adam’s Bridge, as being built by King Rama (Incarnation of the God Vishnu) in his struggle to subdue Ravanna, the demon king of Lanka. Aerial photographs reveal a series of limestone shoals under the water that are remains of a land connection that was, according to Sri Lankan history, destroyed by a typhoon. Whether this was a natural or man-made bridge is a subject of controversy.
Sri Lanka’s strategic position, in the Indian Ocean on the trade routes between West and East Asia and Africa made it a trade center for centuries and brought many peoples and influences to the island. Due to its proximity to India, it is not surprising that the majority of its settlers came, at one time or another, from India. However, the island has been influenced by Arab and African traders, by Chinese and Southeast Asian traders, by the Portuguese, Dutch and English traders and colonists. Out of these disparate peoples and influences, a Sri Lankan society and culture was created.
Sri Lanka is slightly larger than the U.S. state of West Virginia, with a total area of 25,332 sq. miles. The island extends 270 miles from the North to the South and 140 miles East to West at the farthest points. It has 833 miles of coastline, with many good harbors. Lying in the center of the Indian oceanic plate, the island experiences few earthquakes. Being exposed to the sea, however, means that tidal waves and tsunamis can easily devastate the coastal areas.
The topography of Sri Lanka is extremely varied for such a small island, giving it three distinct zones and many scenic places. The South-central part of Sri Lanka, the Central Highlands is the heart of the country and includes a number of mountains ranging up to 8,280 ft above sea level, several large plateaus, and broad valleys. The land descends from the Central Highlands in a series of escarpments to the coastal plains. Most of these plains are between 98 and 656 ft above sea level and these constitute the majority of the island’s land surface. The third area is a coastal belt which surrounds the island and which varies from sea level to 90 ft above it; much of this consists of sand beaches, coastal lagoons, rocky cliffs, bays and excellent natural harbors. The best of these harbors are Trincolmalee on the Northeast coast and Galle on the Southwest coast. The harbor at Columbo, enhanced by man, is another excellent harbor.
Much of Sri Lanka is well watered and thus excellent for agriculture which is a major export and means of livelihood. Sixteen major rivers rise in the Central Highlands and flow towards the sea; the longest are the Mahaweli Ganga and the Aruvi Aru. Man has been changing Sri Lanka’s landscape for centuries and today hydroelectric and irrigation projects have altered the course of these rivers which have been dammed, connected with canals, and drained of water to feed artificial lakes and reservoirs.
Its position close to the equator gives Sri Lanka a tropical climate, with the temperatures moderated by winds and rain. The mountains of the highlands have cooler temperatures, while the lower lying areas are hot and humid. Temperatures range from the low fifties to the low nineties, with the mean temperature being a relatively comfortable 79-85 degrees Fahrenheit. Sri Lanka has a monsoon climate with two monsoon periods, the longest being mid-May to October, with monsoon winds and rain coming from the Southwest. The second monsoon period, December to March, brings Northeastern monsoon winds and heavy rainfall. The two inter-monsoon periods are slightly drier but subject to light winds, cyclones and squalls. Humidity is high throughout the year with the highlands being less humid than the lowlands but with average overall humidity in the 70% range. The mountains and the southwest of the country are known as the “wet” zone with lots of rainfall; the southeast, east and northern parts comprise the “dry” zone which receives less rainfall, much of it during the monsoon months and which relies on water reservoirs for irrigation and drinking water. The northwest and southeast coasts receive little rainfall, even during the monsoons.
Sri Lanka has a wide range of indigenous plants and animals, many of which are also found in Southern India, but some, such as the Ceylon elk (sambhur) and the polonga snake are unique to Sri Lanka. While the wide range of mammals, birds and reptiles once found in Sri Lanka has been reduced by human habitation and land use, water buffalo, deer, bear, elephants, monkeys, and leopards are still found in the forests and plains. Vegetation ranges from that of the equatorial rain forest to the dry and more temperate highland zones and includes a wide range of trees, flowers, herbs, etc, including bamboo, ebony, satinwood, and palm trees. Since 1937, some measures have been taken to preserve wildlife and by 2001 about 13% of the country’s total land area was protected. 14 mammal and 11 bird species are endangered, including the Asian elephant, green labeo, spotted loach, four species of turtle, etc. Two of the most important wildlife preserves are Ruhunu National Park in the Southeast which protects herds of elephant, deer, and peacocks, and Wilpattu National Park in the Northwest which preserves the habitats of birds such as storks, pelicans, ibis, and spoonbills. The principal environmental problems today are rapid deforestation which has led to soil erosion and destruction of wildlife habitats and water pollution; water has been polluted by industrial, agricultural and mining by-products as well as by untreated sewage. About 70% of the rural inhabitants have access to pure water.
The population of Sri Lanka in 2003 was estimated at about 19,065,000 persons (compare West Virginia, about the same size at less than 2 million), making it 53rd in world population. The government has enacted extensive family planning programs and today the growth rate is low. About ¼ of the population lives in urban areas while the rest of the population engages in agriculture, fishing, mining and other rural industries. The plantation economy, begun under the Portuguese and continued under British rule, resulted in drastic reduction of the forest cover and changed the small village farming patterns into large communities of workers on rice, sugarcane, coconut, and tea plantations. Fishing settlements ring the coast and fish is source of export as well as a major component of protein in the diet.
Sri Lanka consists of two major and several minor ethnic groups. The Sinhalese make up about 74% of the total population while the Sri Lankan Tamils (descended from medieval Indian settlers) are 18% of the population, Sri Lankan Moors 7%, and the aboriginal Veddas, Malays, and others are about 1% of the population. The major political problem has been the decades long struggle between the Tamils (Hindu in religion, Tamil in language) and the majority Sinhalese (language: Sinhalese; religion: Buddhist) as the Tamils have been engaged in a separatist struggle wishing to create a Tamil homeland. A truce signed in 2001 has created more conditions of stability although terrorist acts still continue at sporadic intervals.
Sri Lanka has two official languages, Sinhalese and Tamil; English, which was the official language under the British and until 1956, is still widely spoken and used in government offices. Tamil became first a national language in 1978 and then the second official language in 1988 after much agitation by the Tamils who staged riots, terrorists acts, a civil disobedience campaign, and outright civil war. Sri Lanka is a religiously tolerant country and the 1978 constitution established it as a secular state and guaranteed freedom of religion, while stipulating that Buddhism enjoys the foremost place in the republic. About 70% of the population ( Sinhalese) are Buddhist; about 15% Hindu (ethnic Tamils); about 8% Muslim (most are Tamils, but some are Malay or Arab); 7% are Christians, most of whom are Roman Catholic.
Today about 35% of the population is engaged in agriculture and about 75% of those grow the three main export crops: tea, coconuts, and rubber. Rice is another major crop and a dietary mainstay along with sugar, pepper, cinnamon, chilies, sesame, cardamom, tobacco, cashew nuts, betel leaves, coffee, and cocoa. Industries include textiles, wood products, rubber and plastics as well as oil refining and mining. Textiles is the largest industrial sector accounting for about 50% of the total exports. The government today is investing in promoting electronics, machine tools, ceramics, and glassware, and light and heavy engineering.
Sri Lanka has about 7,000 miles of highways, 909 miles of railroad track, 15 airports and a merchant fleet of 18 ships. The major international airport is Katunayaka, 24 miles North of Columbo. Communications are improving as the government puts money into high technology industries; there are over twice as many mobile phones as land lines today and this sector is rapidly growing. Sri Lanka was the first nation in South Asia to have its own radio broadcast center and today has a thriving radio and television broadcast industry as well as internet service providers.
For a map of Sri Lanka, please see Mapquest Atlas