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Understanding & Visiting The Culture Of Sri Lanka


Modified: January 3, 2024

by Neely Bonner



Welcome to the vibrant and culturally rich island of Sri Lanka! Nestled in the Indian Ocean, this tear-shaped paradise is known for its stunning landscapes, ancient ruins, and warm hospitality. With a history spanning over 2,500 years, Sri Lanka boasts a diverse tapestry of traditions and customs that have been shaped by a melting pot of influences.


As you explore this enchanting country, you’ll be captivated by its breathtaking beaches, lush tea plantations, and captivating wildlife. But beyond its natural beauty, it is the rich tapestry of Sri Lankan culture that truly sets it apart.


From the vibrant festivals that fill the streets with color and music to the mouthwatering flavors of traditional cuisine, Sri Lanka offers a sensory experience like no other. The warmth and friendliness of the locals, coupled with their deep-rooted respect for traditions and customs, create an inviting atmosphere for visitors to immerse themselves in.


Whether you’re a history enthusiast, nature lover, or simply looking to dive into a new cultural experience, Sri Lanka has something to offer everyone. From the ancient UNESCO World Heritage Sites such as the Sigiriya rock fortress and the sacred city of Anuradhapura to the thriving arts and crafts scene in the bustling city of Colombo, there is no shortage of fascinating attractions to explore.


This article aims to be your guide to understanding and visiting the culture of Sri Lanka. We will delve into the geography and climate that shape the country, explore the rich history and heritage, dive into the religious beliefs that influence daily life, and discover the mouthwatering delights of Sri Lankan cuisine. We will also take a closer look at the vibrant festivals and celebrations that are deeply ingrained in the fabric of Sri Lankan culture, as well as the etiquette and customs that visitors should be aware of.


So, get ready to embark on an unforgettable cultural journey through Sri Lanka. Let’s dive in and explore the wonders that await!


Geography and Climate

Sri Lanka is a small island nation located in the Indian Ocean, southeast of the tip of India. Despite its size, Sri Lanka boasts an impressive array of landscapes, ranging from pristine beaches and lush tropical rainforests to rolling hills and mist-covered mountains.


The country can be divided into three main geographic regions: the coastal plains, the central highlands, and the northern and eastern plains. The coastal plains, which surround the island, are home to stunning sandy beaches and picturesque fishing villages. The central highlands are characterized by misty mountains, gushing waterfalls, and sprawling tea plantations, offering a tranquil escape for nature lovers. The northern and eastern plains, on the other hand, are relatively flat and feature expansive rice fields and wildlife-rich national parks.


Sri Lanka experiences a tropical monsoon climate, with two distinct monsoon seasons. The southwest monsoon brings heavy rainfall to the southwestern and central parts of the island from May to September, while the northeast monsoon affects the northeastern coast from December to February. These monsoon seasons play a significant role in shaping the country’s landscape, agriculture, and biodiversity.


Temperatures in Sri Lanka remain fairly consistent throughout the year, with average temperatures ranging from 28°C (82°F) on the coast to 18°C (64°F) in the central highlands. However, it’s important to note that the weather can vary depending on the region and elevation. The highlands, for example, tend to be cooler due to their higher altitude.


Due to its diverse geography and climate, Sri Lanka offers a wide range of experiences for travelers. Whether you prefer lounging on sun-kissed beaches, trekking through lush jungles, or exploring ancient ruins, the country’s varied landscapes cater to all interests. From the golden beaches of Unawatuna and Mirissa to the misty hills of Nuwara Eliya and the wildlife-rich Yala National Park, there is something for everyone to enjoy in Sri Lanka’s remarkable natural beauty.


History and Heritage

The history of Sri Lanka is a tapestry woven with ancient civilizations, colonial influences, and cultural diversity. Dating back over 2,500 years, the island has been inhabited by various indigenous tribes and has witnessed the rise and fall of several powerful kingdoms.


One of the most significant ancient civilizations in Sri Lanka was the Sinhalese kingdom of Anuradhapura, which thrived from the 3rd century BC to the 10th century AD. Anuradhapura was a center of Buddhist learning and the site of magnificent stupas, monasteries, and palaces. Today, the ancient city of Anuradhapura is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a testament to the grandeur of its past.


Another important historical period was the reign of King Parakramabahu the Great in the 12th century. He established the city of Polonnaruwa, which became the capital and a flourishing center of trade and culture. The ruins of Polonnaruwa, also designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, feature well-preserved structures such as the Gal Vihara and the Royal Palace.


The arrival of European colonizers in the 16th century greatly influenced Sri Lankan history. The Portuguese, Dutch, and British each left their mark on the island. The Portuguese introduced Roman Catholicism, while the Dutch built forts and contributed to the island’s architecture. However, it was the British who had the most significant impact, ruling Sri Lanka until its independence in 1948.


Today, remnants of the colonial era can still be seen in Sri Lanka’s architecture, such as the Galle Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a prime example of Dutch colonial architecture. The colonial legacy is also reflected in the country’s tea plantations, introduced by the British, which have become an integral part of Sri Lanka’s economy and cultural heritage.


In addition to its ancient and colonial heritage, Sri Lanka is known for its rich cultural diversity. The island is home to multiple ethnic groups, including the Sinhalese, Tamils, Moors, and Malays, each contributing their unique traditions and customs to the social fabric of Sri Lanka.


From vibrant dance forms like the Kandyan dance and the Bharatanatyam to intricate handloom textiles and traditional handicrafts, Sri Lanka’s cultural heritage is alive and thriving. Visiting the local markets and craft villages is a great way to witness the craftsmanship and skill that has been passed down through generations.


Exploring Sri Lanka’s history and heritage is like peering into a kaleidoscope of ancient civilizations, colonial influences, and cultural diversity. It is a journey that offers a deeper understanding of the country’s past and the mosaic of influences that have shaped it into the vibrant and culturally-rich nation it is today.


Religion and Beliefs

Religion plays a significant role in the lives of the people of Sri Lanka, with Buddhism being the predominant religion followed by a significant number of Hindus, Muslims, and Christians. The island’s religious diversity contributes to its cultural richness and is evident in its temples, mosques, and churches scattered across the country.


Buddhism holds a special place in Sri Lankan society and has influenced various aspects of the culture and daily life. The majority of Sinhalese people are Buddhist, and there are numerous Buddhist temples, or “viharas,” throughout the country. The Temple of the Tooth in Kandy is one of the most revered Buddhist sites, believed to house a tooth relic of the Buddha himself. Every year, the Esala Perahera festival takes place in Kandy, where the sacred tooth relic is paraded through the streets, accompanied by dancers, drummers, and ornately decorated elephants.


Hinduism is predominantly practiced by the Tamil community in Sri Lanka. The island is home to several Hindu temples, with the Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil in Jaffna being one of the most prominent. Festivals like Thai Pongal and Maha Shivaratri are celebrated by the Hindu community with great enthusiasm, showcasing their devotion and cultural traditions.


Islam is practiced by the Muslim community, and mosques can be found in various parts of the country. The mosque at Jami Ul-Alfar in Colombo is an architectural masterpiece and a symbol of Islam in Sri Lanka. The Muslim festivals of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha are celebrated with prayers, feasts, and vibrant gatherings.


Christianity, brought to Sri Lanka by Portuguese colonizers during the 16th century, is practiced by a significant minority. There are several churches and cathedrals across the country, with the St. Anthony’s Shrine in Kochchikade and the St. Mary’s Church in Negombo being popular pilgrimage sites.


The religious beliefs and practices in Sri Lanka go beyond the realms of worship and extend to everyday life. Concepts such as “dana” (acts of generosity) and “sila” (moral conduct) are encompassed within the Buddhist teachings and are woven into the fabric of society. The practice of offering alms to monks, participating in religious rituals, and visiting sacred sites is common among the Buddhist population.


Sri Lanka’s religious diversity provides a unique opportunity for visitors to immerse themselves in different cultural practices and experience the harmony that prevails among different religious communities. Whether it’s witnessing colorful processions during religious festivals, exploring ancient religious sites, or engaging in conversations with locals, understanding the religious beliefs of Sri Lanka is an integral part of truly appreciating its culture and traditions.


Language and Communication

Sri Lanka is a land of diverse languages and a multilingual society. The country’s official languages are Sinhala and Tamil, reflecting the two main ethnic groups, the Sinhalese and the Tamils. Sinhala is spoken by the majority Sinhalese community, while Tamil is predominantly spoken by the Tamil community.


In addition to Sinhala and Tamil, English plays a significant role as a link language and is widely spoken and understood, especially in urban areas and among the younger generation. English is commonly used in government institutions, schools, and businesses. This makes Sri Lanka an accessible destination for travelers who communicate in English.


When visiting Sri Lanka, it is helpful to learn a few basic phrases in Sinhala or Tamil to show respect and connect with the locals. Here are a few common phrases to get you started:

  • English: Hello
  • Sinhala: Ayubowan (ආයුබෝවන්)
  • Tamil: Vanakkam (வணக்கம்)
  • English: Thank you
  • Sinhala: Istuti (ඉස්ටුටි)
  • Tamil: Nandri (நன்றி)
  • English: Goodbye
  • Sinhala: Ayubowan (ආයුබෝවන්)
  • Tamil: Poi varen (போவி வரேன்)

It is worth noting that Sri Lankans appreciate it when visitors make an effort to learn a few words in their languages. Even saying a simple “Ayubowan” or “Vanakkam” with a smile can go a long way in creating a positive impression and fostering good communication.


In terms of written communication, Sinhala and Tamil use their respective scripts, while English uses the Latin alphabet. Road signs, product labels, and other official signage are typically displayed in all three languages to cater to the diverse population.


When it comes to non-verbal communication, Sri Lankans value politeness, respect, and maintaining harmony. It is important to be mindful of cultural norms and customs. For example, it is customary to remove your shoes when entering religious sites or someone’s home. Also, addressing someone with their appropriate title, such as “Mr./Mrs./Ms.,” is considered respectful.


Overall, language and communication in Sri Lanka reflect the country’s vibrant multicultural society. Embracing the linguistic diversity and making an effort to engage with locals in their own language can enhance your travel experience and open doors to a deeper understanding of the rich cultural tapestry of Sri Lanka.


Traditional Cuisine

Sri Lankan cuisine is a tantalizing blend of flavors, spices, and vibrant colors that reflect the island’s rich cultural heritage. Influenced by Indian, Middle Eastern, and European culinary traditions, Sri Lankan food is known for its bold flavors, generous use of spices, and abundance of fresh ingredients.


One of the staples of Sri Lankan cuisine is rice, which forms the foundation of many meals. From steamed rice to the iconic rice and curry, rice dishes are a common feature on dining tables across the country. The curries, made with a variety of vegetables, meats, or seafood, are the highlight of Sri Lankan cuisine. They are often spiced with aromatic ingredients such as curry leaves, mustard seeds, fenugreek, and cinnamon.


One of the most iconic Sri Lankan dishes is “hoppers” or “appa,” a type of pancake made from fermented rice flour and coconut milk. Hoppers can be plain or filled with a fried egg, or even with a thick coconut sambal for added flavor. String hoppers, made from steamed rice flour noodles, are another popular breakfast item, usually served with coconut sambal and a curry.


Seafood lovers are in for a treat in Sri Lanka, thanks to its coastal location. Freshly caught fish, prawns, crabs, and squid are commonly used in Sri Lankan dishes. “Ambul Thiyal,” a mouthwatering sour fish curry, and “Jaffna crab curry” are just a few examples of the delicious seafood delicacies you can find in Sri Lanka.


For those who prefer vegetarian or vegan options, Sri Lanka has a wealth of plant-based dishes to offer. “Dhal curry,” made from lentils, is a staple on many Sri Lankan dining tables. “Polos curry,” made from young jackfruit, and “Gotukola sambol,” a salad made from a local leafy green known as pennywort, are popular vegetarian options that are bursting with flavors.


The world-famous spice, Ceylon cinnamon, is a key ingredient in Sri Lankan cuisine. It adds a unique aroma and flavor to dishes like “Ceylon cinnamon tea” and “Watalappan,” a rich coconut custard dessert spiced with cinnamon.


To complement the flavors of the cuisine, Sri Lanka is known for its refreshing beverages. “King coconut water” provides a natural and hydrating respite from the tropical heat, while “herbal teas” like “butterfly pea flower tea” and “rathu kahata” (red tea) are enjoyed for their medicinal properties and soothing effects.


Exploring Sri Lanka’s traditional cuisine is a delightful experience that allows you to savor the unique flavors and spices of the island. Whether you’re dining at a local restaurant or enjoying a home-cooked meal with a Sri Lankan family, the diverse and mouthwatering dishes will leave you craving for more.


Arts and Crafts

Sri Lanka has a rich artistic heritage, with its arts and crafts reflecting the diverse influences and cultural traditions of the island. From intricate handloom textiles to exquisite woodcarvings and traditional pottery, Sri Lanka offers a wide array of arts and crafts that speak to the country’s vibrant cultural tapestry.


One of the most renowned forms of craftsmanship in Sri Lanka is handloom weaving. Dating back centuries, this traditional skill produces vibrant textiles featuring intricate patterns and designs. The weaving centers in places like Kandy and Galle are a hub for the production of saris, shawls, and other woven garments. Gathering around a handloom and watching the skilled weavers at work is truly a captivating experience.


Woodcarving is another prominent art form in Sri Lanka, with intricate carvings adorning temples, palaces, and houses. Skilled artisans create delicate wooden statues, intricate wall panels, and decorative furniture using techniques passed down through generations. Ambalangoda, in the southern region of Sri Lanka, is well-known for its rich wood carving tradition, particularly the devil masks used in traditional dance performances.


The island is also renowned for its pottery and ceramics. Both functional and decorative pieces are carefully crafted, using traditional techniques and natural clay. Soil rich in red and black hues is used to create stunning pottery, including bowls, vases, and unique clay lamps. The city of Anuradhapura, with its ancient pottery traditions, is an excellent destination to explore traditional pottery-making techniques.


Another noteworthy craft in Sri Lanka is the art of traditional mask-making. Masks play an important role in various cultural rituals and performances, particularly in traditional dance dramas. The masks, intricately carved from wood and brightly painted, depict various characters and demons from Sri Lankan folklore. A visit to the Mask Museum in Ambalangoda offers insight into the intricate artistry and cultural significance of these masks.


Exploring local markets and street stalls provide ample opportunities to discover unique handicrafts and traditional artworks. From beautifully painted batik fabrics to delicate lacework and handcrafted jewelry, Sri Lanka offers a treasure trove of artistic creations.


By supporting local artisans and purchasing their crafts, visitors not only bring home unique and meaningful souvenirs but also contribute to the preservation of Sri Lanka’s ancient artistic traditions. The art and craft industry not only provides livelihoods for local communities but also serves as a vessel for passing down cultural knowledge and traditions to future generations.


Immerse yourself in the world of Sri Lankan arts and crafts, and you’ll discover the passion, skill, and creativity that breathe life into these remarkable creations. Whether you’re observing the intricate weaving process, marveling at the skillful carvings, or browsing through colorful markets, the arts and crafts of Sri Lanka offer a window into the country’s rich cultural heritage.


Festivals and Celebrations

Sri Lanka is a land of vibrant festivals and joyous celebrations that showcase the country’s cultural diversity and deep-rooted traditions. From religious processions that fill the streets with music and color to harvest festivals that celebrate the bounty of the land, there is always a reason to celebrate in Sri Lanka.


One of the most revered festivals in Sri Lanka is Vesak, which commemorates the birth, enlightenment, and death of Lord Buddha. During Vesak, the streets and homes are adorned with intricately decorated lanterns and colorful Buddhist flags. Buddhists visit temples to participate in religious observances, make offerings, and engage in acts of generosity. The most significant Vesak celebration can be witnessed in the sacred city of Kandy, where the Sri Dalada Perahera, a grand procession of the sacred tooth relic, takes place.


The Esala Perahera, held in Kandy, is another spectacular festival that attracts locals and visitors alike. This extravagant religious pageant features beautifully adorned elephants, drummers, and traditional dancers parading through the streets to honor the sacred tooth relic of the Buddha. The Esala Perahera is a mesmerizing display of faith, culture, and artistic brilliance.


Deepavali, also known as Diwali, is a significant Hindu festival celebrated with great enthusiasm by the Tamil community. Homes are illuminated with oil lamps, and colorful rangolis decorate the entranceways. Fireworks light up the night sky, and families gather to exchange sweets and gifts. The coastal town of Jaffna is renowned for its elaborate Deepavali celebrations, complete with music, dance, and cultural performances.


Christmas and Easter are celebrated by the Christian community with religious services, carol singing, and feasting. The streets are adorned with Christmas decorations, and churches hold midnight masses to commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ. The coastal town of Negombo is famous for its Christmas festivities, with vibrant processions and lively street performances.


The Sinhala and Tamil New Year, known as Aluth Avurudu or Puthandu, is a joyous celebration that marks the beginning of the traditional Sri Lankan calendar year. Families come together to prepare special delicacies, engage in outdoor games, and light auspicious oil lamps. The New Year festivities, filled with cultural rituals and traditions, are a colorful and lively affair.


Sri Lanka also celebrates various harvest festivals, such as the Thai Pongal festival observed by the Tamil community. This harvest festival is dedicated to the sun god and is marked by the boiling of the first rice of the season in a new clay pot. The rice is then offered to deities and shared as a communal feast. The celebration of Thai Pongal is a time of gratitude, family reunions, and joyful festivities.


Attending festivals and celebrations in Sri Lanka provides a wonderful opportunity to immerse yourself in the country’s vibrant culture and traditions. From witnessing stunning processions to partaking in traditional customs and enjoying delectable food, these festivities offer an unforgettable experience that truly captures the spirit of Sri Lanka.


Etiquette and Customs

When visiting Sri Lanka, it is important to be mindful of the local customs and etiquette to ensure you show respect and sensitivity towards the country’s cultural traditions and values. Sri Lankans are known for their warm hospitality, and adhering to certain etiquette practices can help create a positive and enjoyable experience for both visitors and locals alike.


Greeting and general behavior:

  • Greetings: The traditional greeting in Sri Lanka is to clasp your hands together in a prayer-like gesture and say “Ayubowan” (pronounced A-yu-bo-wan) when meeting someone. It is common to greet elders or those in positions of authority with a slight bow or by touching their feet as a sign of respect.
  • Shoes: It is customary to remove your shoes when entering homes and religious sites. Follow the lead of locals and observe if others are removing their shoes before entering.
  • Public behavior: Sri Lankans appreciate modesty and conservative attire, especially when visiting religious sites. Avoid displaying affection in public, as it may be considered inappropriate.
  • Tipping: Tipping is not a mandatory practice in Sri Lanka, but it is appreciated for exceptional service. In restaurants, leaving a 10% tip is common, or rounding up the bill to the nearest hundred rupees. Tip guides, drivers, and hotel staff according to your discretion and their level of service.

Dining customs:

  • Table manners: When dining with others, it is customary to wait for the host to begin eating before you start. Try to eat with your right hand, as this is the traditional custom in Sri Lanka.
  • Passing food: When sharing a meal, it is polite to pass dishes using your right hand or both hands. Avoid using your left hand, as it is considered unclean in Sri Lankan culture.
  • Leaving food: Leaving a little bit of food on your plate is a sign that you have had enough to eat and are satisfied. Clearing your plate entirely may signal that you are still hungry.

Visiting religious sites:

  • Dress code: When visiting temples and religious sites, it is important to dress modestly, covering your shoulders and knees. Removing your headwear and footwear is also customary.
  • Photography: Always ask for permission before taking photographs inside religious sites. Some areas may have restrictions on photography or may require a small fee.
  • Respectful behavior: Maintain a calm and respectful demeanor when inside religious sites. Avoid loud conversations, making unnecessary noise, or engaging in disrespectful behavior.

Overall, practicing etiquette and customs in Sri Lanka is about displaying respect, politeness, and sensitivity towards the local culture. By following these simple guidelines, you can ensure a harmonious and enjoyable experience while immersing yourself in the rich traditions and customs of this beautiful island nation.


Popular Tourist Destinations

Sri Lanka is a treasure trove of captivating destinations that offer something for every type of traveler. From historical ruins and wildlife-filled national parks to pristine beaches and breathtaking mountains, the country’s diverse landscapes never fail to mesmerize visitors. Here are some of the must-visit tourist destinations in Sri Lanka:

  • Colombo: The bustling capital city of Sri Lanka is a vibrant blend of cultures, markets, and colonial architecture. Explore the bustling Pettah market, visit the National Museum, stroll along Galle Face Green, and indulge in delicious street food. Colombo is also a hub for shopping, dining, and vibrant nightlife.
  • Kandy: Nestled amidst the hills, Kandy is home to the sacred Temple of the Tooth, which houses the relic of Lord Buddha’s tooth. Witness the mesmerizing Kandy Esala Perahera, stroll around the serene Kandy Lake, and explore the Royal Botanical Gardens. Kandy is also a gateway to the lush tea plantations of Nuwara Eliya.
  • Sigiriya: Climb the iconic Sigiriya Rock Fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and marvel at the ancient frescoes and stunning panoramic views from the top. Explore the nearby Dambulla Cave Temples, which house intricate Buddha statues and stunning murals.
  • Galle: Visit the historic coastal city of Galle, where the UNESCO-listed Galle Fort stands as a testament to the country’s colonial past. Explore the cobblestone streets, boutique shops, and charming cafes within the old fort walls. Enjoy sweeping ocean views, visit the maritime museum, and walk along the picturesque ramparts.
  • Yala National Park: Embark on a thrilling safari adventure in Yala National Park, renowned for its leopard population. Explore the park’s diverse landscape and spot elephants, sloth bears, crocodiles, and a wide variety of bird species. Don’t miss the chance to enjoy a sunset on the serene beaches within the park.
  • Nuwara Eliya: Known as “Little England,” Nuwara Eliya is a charming hill station surrounded by picturesque tea plantations. Enjoy scenic train rides, visit a tea estate to learn about tea production, and take in the breathtaking views from the viewpoints. Don’t forget to indulge in a cup of world-renowned Ceylon tea.
  • Mirissa: Experience the laid-back beach vibes in Mirissa, a popular coastal town known for its stunning beaches and whale watching opportunities. Relax on the sandy shores, take a boat tour to spot whales and dolphins, and enjoy fresh seafood at beachfront restaurants.
  • Trincomalee: Explore the pristine beaches and turquoise waters of Trincomalee on the east coast of Sri Lanka. Visit the ancient Koneswaram Temple, snorkel in Pigeon Island National Park, and relax on the beautiful Nilaveli Beach.

These are just a few of the many remarkable destinations Sri Lanka has to offer. Whether you’re a history enthusiast, nature lover, or beachgoer, the diverse landscapes and rich cultural heritage of Sri Lanka are sure to leave you with unforgettable memories.



Sri Lanka is a captivating destination that offers a delightful mix of history, culture, nature, and warm hospitality. From its stunning landscapes and ancient ruins to its vibrant festivals and mouthwatering cuisine, the country truly has something for everyone.


Exploring the rich cultural heritage of Sri Lanka, including its awe-inspiring temples, intricately carved woodwork, and vibrant arts and crafts, provides a deeper understanding of the country’s traditions and values. Engaging with the locals, partaking in their customs and festivals, and immersing oneself in their way of life is a rewarding and enriching experience.


Whether you find yourself lounging on the golden beaches, trekking through lush rainforests, or exploring ancient ruins, Sri Lanka’s natural beauty is bound to leave you in awe. From the bustling streets of Colombo to the mist-covered hills of Kandy and the pristine beaches of Galle, the country’s diverse landscapes offer endless possibilities for exploration and adventure.


As you journey through Sri Lanka, it’s important to show respect for local customs and etiquette. Greeting locals with a warm smile, being mindful of dressing modestly in religious sites, and practicing cultural sensitivity will go a long way in creating meaningful connections and experiencing the true essence of the country.


In conclusion, Sri Lanka is a treasure trove of cultural heritage, natural wonders, and warm hospitality. Whether you’re seeking tranquility in ancient temples, embarking on wildlife safaris, or indulging in delectable cuisine, this beautiful island nation will captivate your heart and leave you with memories to last a lifetime. So, pack your bags, immerse yourself in the vibrant and diverse culture of Sri Lanka, and prepare to embark on an unforgettable journey of discovery.