Located 18 miles (29 kilometers) off the southeastern tip of the Indian subcontinent, Sri Lanka lies about 400 miles (645 kilometers) north of the equator. Colombo is the capital and largest city. A new capital, Sri Jayawardenapura-Kotte, was designated in 1977. The country has a total land area of 25,332 square miles (65,610 square kilometers).

Land and Climate

This pear-shaped island nation, known as Ceylon until 1972, is 272 miles (438 kilometers) long and 140 miles (225 kilometers) wide at its broadest point. Largely flat and rolling, the terrain is distinguished by a cluster of mountain peaks, the highest of which is the 8,281-foot- (2,524-meter-) high Pidurutalagala in the south-central portion of the country. Numerous rivers originate in the mountains and flow in all directions toward the sea.

Sri Lanka's climate is tropical, with high humidity and year-round temperatures averaging 80o to 83o F (27o to 28o C). Two monsoon seasons occur each year. The southwest monsoon from May to October and the northeast monsoon from December to March bring adequate amounts of rainfall. The north averages about 40 inches (100 centimeters) of rain annually, and as much as 200 inches (500 centimeters) falls in the mountainous area of the southwest.

Unstable weather conditions throughout Sri Lanka's history have produced severe droughts, particularly in the northern part of the country. In ancient times reservoirs were built to hold rainfall for irrigation. The oldest of these, believed to have been built in about 300 BC and discovered abandoned and overgrown with dense scrub, has been restored for use. During the 1960s extensive work began on numerous irrigation projects. The accelerated Mahaweli Scheme, one of the major undertakings, includes many dams and provides the population with electricity, a regular water supply, and new land for cultivation.

Logging, along with slash-and-burn methods of farming, has resulted in rapid deforestation. Wildlife preserves, covering 10 percent of the island's land area, have been created to protect timber growing in the forest and jungle areas. The conservation effort has also improved the protection of indigenous animal life, including elephants, bears, leopards, crocodiles, and peacocks.

People and Culture

The population, estimated at more than 16.8 million in 1989, has a diverse ethnic composition. About three quarters of the people are Sinhalese, 18 percent are Tamils, and 7 percent are Muslims of Arab descent. Smaller ethnic groups include Malays, Burghers, and Veddas, tribal people who are the original inhabitants of the island. Sri Lanka's major cities with populations of more than 100,000 are Colombo, Dehiwala-Mount Lavinia, Moratuwa, Jaffna, Kandy, and Sri Jayawardenapura-Kotte.


The Sinhalese came from northern India in about 540 BC. (2,540 years ago) They speak Sinhalese and live primarily in the southwest. Ninety percent of them are Buddhists.

The Tamils are divided into two distinct groups. The Sri Lankan Tamils, whose roots on the island date back nearly 2,000 years, are concentrated in the northern and eastern coastal regions--particularly around Jaffna. The Indian Tamils were brought from southern India in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to work as laborers on the large agricultural estates in the south-central hill country. Both groups practice the Hindu religion and speak the Tamil language.

Both Sinhalese and Tamil are official languages. The Burghers are largely English speaking. English is used extensively in administration and education.

Sri Lanka's literacy rate of about 86 percent compares favorably to that of most South Asian countries. Schooling is free and compulsory from ages 5 to 13. Free secondary and college and university education is also available.

Buddhism, which came to Sri Lanka in the 3rd century BC, is the predominant religion and the foundation of Sinhalese culture. Kandy, the ancient capital, is located in the foothills of the hill country and is the center of traditional culture. Here Sri Lanka's most prized possession, the sacred tooth of Buddha, is enshrined in the Temple of the Tooth.

The government-supported health system provides free medical care. A successful family planning pro-gram has lowered birthrates significantly. Sri Lankans have a low incidence of major endemic and infectious diseases. The infant mortality rate in 1991 was 25 per 1,000 live births, one of the lowest in Asia.


The foundation for economic development was laid in the second half of the 19th century, when coffee and tea plantations were established in the hill country surrounding Nuwara Eliya. The national economy is heavily dependent upon agricultural exports. Tea is by far the principal export crop. Others are rubber, coconuts, and spices, especially cinnamon. The principal ports are Colombo and Galle. Breeding grounds of the pearl oyster are located in the Gulf of Mannar off the northwest coast.

More than 80 percent of the people work on small subsistence farms, where the main food crop is rice. Rice output grew in the 1980s as a result of the expansion of land available for cultivation and from the impact of the Green Revolution. The nation has been self-sufficient in rice since the mid-1980s.

Sri Lanka is rich in industrial rocks and minerals such as graphite, mica, silica sand, quartz, feldspar, and gemstones. The nation is the world's largest producer of graphite, a form of carbon that is used in the making of pencils. Long known as a land of gems, the island has dozens of varieties of precious and semiprecious gemstones. Mined around Ratnapura, the gems include sapphires, rubies, aquamarines, moonstones, topazes, garnets, amethysts, and zircons.

The island state of Sri Lanka was known as Ceylon until 1972. Like India, it was for a long time a colony of Great Britain; and like India it developed a strong nationalist movement early in the 20th century. A Ceylon National Congress was formed in 1919. In response to pressure the British government allowed a new constitution to be issued in 1920, which satisfied some nationalist demands for self-government.

A second constitution in 1931 opened the political process by granting some political power to the residents of Ceylon. The experience in democracy that this constitution provided led to more demands for independence. A third constitution in 1945 enlarged the areas of self-government, but Britain still managed foreign policy and defense. Finally, in 1947, the Ceylon Independence Act made the island a free state within the Commonwealth.

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