Sri Lanka - Background information


History
Natural history
People and culture

History

It is probable that Sri Lanka was inhabited 500,000 years ago. Since it was a lush and fertile island of forests, plains and animals, with rivers abundant with fish, it would have been an attractive place for wandering prehistoric man to settle. The domestication of plants, broadening the food supply of hunting people, may have occurred some 12,000 years ago.

If Southeast Asia was the cradle of human civilisation, Sri Lanka would have benefited from the development of agriculture, pottery making and the fashioning of stone tools introduced by seafarers from neighbouring archipelagos such as the Philippines and Indonesia. Archaeological evidence suggests that reclusive Stone Age hunter-gather societies survived in the island’s unexplored jungles up to 1,000 years ago. Today the Veddas are regarded as a living link with the original inhabitants.

Sri Lanka was actively involved in trading with other countries long before the birth of Christ, and was regarded as an island of great bounty. For traders, the island was regarded as the granary of Asia. Greek merchants came during the time of Alexander the Great (r335–323BC) to trade in precious stones, muslin and tortoise shells, and the island was known as a source of ivory as well as rice. Buddhism was introduced to the island 250 years before the birth of Christ, a century after the foundation of Anuradhapura, which flourished as capital for 14 centuries until 1017.

Natural history

Elephant safari Sri Lanka by Gehan de Silva WijeyeratneSri Lanka is home to the world's second-largest population of Asian elephant © Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne

A few hundred years ago, almost the entire island was covered by natural forest complemented by an abundance of flora and fauna common to a tropical monsoon climate. Unfortunately, very little thought was given to conservation by the pioneers of the plantation development of the country. As a result, total forest cover today comprises less than 30% of the island’s area. This includes around 15,800km2 of closed-canopy or dense natural forest, and 4,500km2 of sparser forest cover. Despite this, Sri Lanka is one of the most world’s most biodiverse eco-travel destinations, with at least 242 butterfly, 450 bird, 120 mammal, 107 freshwater fish, 120 amphibian and 200 reptile species recorded. In addition, 830 flowering plant species are endemic to the island, including 230 so rare that they are in danger of extinction.

Mammals

Toque monkey Sri Lanka Gehan de Silva WijeyeratneThe most widespread primate in Sri Lanka, often seen in the vicinity of Buddhist temples both active and ruined, is the toque macaque © Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne

Sri Lanka is home to around 120 indigenous mammal species, of which 92 can be classified as terrestrial – a list dominated by bats, rodents and other small creatures – and the remainder as marine. The island provides an important stronghold for several charismatic large mammal species, notably Asian elephant, leopard, sloth bear, water buffalo, wild boar and several species of deer and small carnivore, allowing national parks such as Yala, Wilpattu, Udawalawe, Minneriya and Gal Oya to rank among the best safari destinations in Asia. Outside of national parks, monkeys are very common, often in the vicinity of Buddhist temples, where their mischievous presence is tolerated by monks and visitors.

Birds

Indian peafowl Sri Lanka Shahin OlakaraShutterstockSri Lanka is undoubtedly one of Asia's best birding destinations © Shahin Olakara, Shutterstock

Sri Lanka is one of Asia’s most rewarding birdwatching destinations. True, the number of species recorded isn’t particularly high – roughly 450 in total, of which 238 are breeding residents, 144 regular migrants, and the remainder irregular or vagrant – but it still impressive for an area a quarter the size of the UK, especially when you consider that it includes 33 full endemics (species whose range is restricted to the island), 43 further species regarded as endemic to South Asia, and 68 endemic subspecies. 

This relatively modest national checklist also makes Sri Lanka a great starting point for first-time visitors to Asia, as it is easy enough to get to grips with Sri Lanka’s avifauna even within the duration of a normal holiday, which would ideally be timed between the start of November and the end of March, the core season for migrant species (though some arrive as early as mid-August or stay on into early May).

People and culture

LAce making Sri Lanka by Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library Beeralu lace-making was introduced by the Portuguese in the 16th century © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library 

The mixed heritage of today’s Sri Lanka results in a varied and vibrant culture, combining influences from Buddhist, Hindu and Islamic cultures as well as colonial lifestyles. There is a thriving artistic tradition in painting, music, dance and theatre and, perhaps surprisingly, architecture. The varied building styles are easily visible on any drive through the country and add diversity to the city, suburban, coastal, agricultural and forest landscapes. 

Individual Sri Lankans, whatever cultural background has influenced them, appear dedicated and determined, while preserving a somewhat orthodox outlook on life. Agriculture is regarded as a respected profession and many Sri Lankans are lifelong vegetarians or decline to eat a particular meat because of individual belief. Cricket is followed religiously. Sri Lankan culture is enhanced by frequent rest days either for religious or government decreed holidays. 

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