The problem here is that there are two completely different versions, depending on if you are Sinhalese or Tamil, the two biggest ethnic groups. The island’s location, its position along hundreds of ancient trade routes and its proximity to India, has resulted in a potpourri of visitors, immigrants, invaders, missionaries, traders and travelers, most from India, but also from East Asia and the Middle East. The original probably came from India as far back as 32,000 BC. Rising waters submerged a land bridge between India and Sri Lanka in around 5000 BC. Migrations continued from India and these all mixed together with the indigenous people. The Anuradhapura Kingdom developed in the 4th century BC and Buddhism arrived from India in the 3re century BC creating the Sinhalese culture. They brought a cutting of the bodhi tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. It survives in Anuradhapura today. The arrival of the tooth relic in 371 AD reinforced the position of Buddhism in Sinhalese society. The Tamils from south India constantly shifted the borders with the Sinhalese kingdoms. Sinhalese power shifted to the southwest of the island by 1400 and a jungle barrier kept the two groups largely apart, sowing the seeds for Sri Lankas ethnic diversity. Arab traders had arrived by the 7th century with gems, cinnamon, ivory and elephants the main commerce items.
The Portuguese arrived in 1505 and they eventually took over most of the island except the central highlands with their main interest, the spice trade. Christianity was introduced and the Buddhist faith was centered in the hill country around Kandy. The Dutch arrived in 1602 and they dominated for the next 140 years except in the Kandy area. They ceded control to the British in 1796 and it was made a British colony in 1802. Kandy was finally subjugated in 1815 and the island was ‘unified’ for the first time. Coffee and rubber were replaced by tea in the 1870’s when an influx of Tamil labourers (the plantation Tamils) from South India occurred. These remain separated from the Jaffna Tamils even today.
In the early 20th century, Sri Lankan nationalism surfaced and the natives slowly gained some representation in the government. Ceylon became fully independent in 1948 but Sinhalese-Tamil tensions slowly grew. In 1972, Ceylon became Sri Lanka, restoring the original name of the island.
In the mid 1970’s, militant Tamils began advocating for an independent Tamil state called Eelam and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) or Tamil Tigers was formed. In 1982, a group of Sinhalese burnt down the Jaffna library and the Tigers killed 13 soldiers in 1983. In a riot in Colombo, now known as Black July, between 400 and 3,000 Tamils were clubbed, beaten, burned, or shot and violence spread to the rest of the country. Many Tamils left the country or fled to the Tamil majority areas of the North and East of the country. The conflict escalated into a 25 year long civil war that would eventually claim upwards of 100,000 lives. Although most wanted peace, extremists on both sides pressed on with the war. Rajiv Ghandi was assassinated in India in 1991, presumably by the Tigers and the president of the country was assassinated in 1993. By 2004, the LTTE controlled only small areas of the north and east, but disaster struck with the December, 2004 tsunami that killed 30,000. Tsunami aid was not shared equally and violence escalated. Despite many attempts at ceasefires, violence, suicide bombs and UN involvement, the Tamils were isolated to a tiny area in the NE by 2009, and eventually were confined to a single area of beach. Several LTTE leaders were killed and in May, 2009, after 26 years, the civil war was finally over.
Decades of delay in investment and progress have been made up for with a vengeance. New roads and airports have been built especially in LTTE areas to try to mend the wounds. The economy is booming. A record number of tourists are visiting.
Sri Lanka has been identified as one of the world’s 25 biodiversity hotspots with a high level of endemism. In the early 1900’s, 70% of the country was covered with natural forest but by 1998, this had shrunk to 29%. In recent years, a further 18% has been lost including 35% of old growth tracts.
At roughly 66,000 sq.kms, it is slightly smaller than Ireland, but sustains 4.5x the population. That’s 22 million people in a space stretching 433 km from north to south and only 244 km at its widest point – like the entire population of Australia taking up residence in Tasmania.
Thrust up out of the encircling coastal plains, the southern center of the island is dominated by mountains and tea plantation covered hills. The highest point is Mt Pedro at 2524 m, but the 2234 m high Adam’s Peak is better known and far more spectacular. The south central uplands are home to the country’s surviving rainforests and hundreds of rivers course down to the paddy rich plains below. North of the hill country are plains that extend to the north tip and comprise the dry zone.
In terms of animals, Sri Lanka has the ‘Big Four’ (leopard, elephant, sloth bear and wild Asiatic water buffalo)) plus the blue whales offshore. Despite being held in high regard, elephant populations have declined significantly because of human-animal conflict. At the end of the 18th century there were 10-20,000 and by the mid 20th century were down to about 1000 due primarily to British big game hunting. There are now about 3-4,000. Elephants need about 5 sq km of land each to support their 200 kg-per-day appetites. They trample farmer’s crops and destroy their buildings. The SW wet zone contains the surviving tropical rain forest with a tall canopy of ebony, teak and silkwood. The central hill zone has cloud forests and rare highland areas with grasslands and stunted trees. Eucalyptus has been planted in tea estates to provide shade.
The Sri Lankan people are basically a gentle lot and provide warm hospitality. See above for information on the Sinhalese who are Buddhist and the Tamils who are Hindu. Both have a caste system. There are about 1.8 million Muslims descended from Arab traders who settled in the 7th century. Christianity is strong in some of the western coastal communities.
Tea was introduced in 1867 by a Scot, James Taylor, when the extensive coffee plantations were decimated by disease. The hill country is perfect for growing tea with a warm climate, altitude and sloping terrain. Fortunes were made by the early growers including Thomas Lipton, a name still famous worldwide. Sri Lanka overtook Kenya in 2008 as the second most important tea producing nation, with an annual production of 330 million kg. Their tea enjoys a premium postioning and its auction prices are more than 50% higher than their main rival and market leader, India. It represents 15% of the economy. Most is exported to Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Besides black tea, it produces green tea with its more pungent flavour, and white tea, which is the most premium of teas and is often called ‘silver tips’. The tea industry is responsible for about 5% of the jobs. Wages for tea pickers are very low, around $3 per day – and the hardworking pickers must pick a minimum of 20 kg per day. Many families live in seriously substandard housing. The vast majority are Tamils.
The bushes are pruned back to around 1 m in height and the new leaves and buds are picked. They are then demoisturized by blowing air and the partly dried leaves are then crushed, starting a fermentation process. The green leaves quickly turn a coppery brown and the art in tea production is knowing when to stop the fermentation process. Using higher heat produces the final brown-black leaf that will be stable for a long time. It takes only 24 hours from picking to packing. Whole leaves are best and the tips (the youngest and most delicate tea leaves) are the very best. Orange pekoe is the very superior grade of Ceylon black tea. Newara Ella is at the heart of high grown tea and Kandy mid-grown tea.