Sri Lanka lies in the Indian Ocean, a teardrop-shaped island that hangs like a pearl earring off the south eastern coast of India. It is an extremely beautiful land, enjoying a lush tropical climate, and the many national parks and wildlife preserves within its verdant landscapes are home to a colourful riot of endemic flora and fauna. Miles of coastline offer beaches of all kinds, many quite deserted and wild, but you can find chic seaside resort facilities as well, mainly along the south western coast, with surfing, snorkelling among the coral reefs, and whale-watching excursions among the delightful activities on offer.
Sri Lanka is slowly emerging as a very desirable holiday destination since the end of the civil war in 2009. Tourism is still low-key, but the charms and beauty of the island are attracting increasing numbers of holidaymakers from all over the world. Its culture stretches back 2,500 years, and the predominant influence of Buddhism in its beautiful art and architecture can be seen throughout the island in its temples and shrines, many in ruins but most still in use. Hinduism and the later traditions of Christianity and Islam also have their place in Sri Lankan culture and folklore, and the island’s name, adopted by the national constitution in 1972, is Sanskrit for “Sacred Island”.
The majority of Sri Lanka’s population are Sinhalese, an Indo-Aryan race who are predominantly Buddhist. Sri Lankan Tamils constitute the island’s second major ethnic group; a Dravidian race, and probably the original inhabitants of India, they are primarily Hindu, and inhabit mostly the north and east of Sri Lanka. The Tamil language is spoken by Tamils and the island’s Muslim population as well. Tamil immigrants from the Indian continent were brought into Sri Lanka in the 19th century by the British to work the plantations. The bloody civil war which wrenched Sri Lanka apart for decades was an attempt to create a separate Tamil state in the north of the island, and is an inglorious chapter in Asian history that hopefully has been forever closed, in spite of lingering human rights issues.
Sri Lanka has had many names over the years. The third-century Muslim traders named it “Serendib”, a corruption of the Sanskrit for “Place of the Lions”, and the origin of the wonderful word “serendipity” - “the happy accident”. The British named it “Ceylon”; it was a Crown Colony until 1948, and today English is the third official language. The Sri Lankan flag was adopted in 1950 and tells the story of the country’s diverse peoples. At the centre of a dark red rectangle, with a Bodhi leaf (the sacred fig-tree of Buddhism) in each corner, a proud golden lion wields a ceremonial sword, and represents the Sinhalese majority. To the left are two wide stripes each occupying a quarter of the area of the red rectangle: an orange stripe represents the Sri Lankan Tamils, and a green stripe represents the Muslim faith of the Sri Lankan Moors. The yellow border that frames the flag represents people from any culture living in Sri Lanka, an inclusive gesture indicative of the hopes for peace and prosperity for this beautiful island.