Sri Lankans enjoy a unique, humble and artistic lifestyle and they deeply enjoy entertaining and touching hearts with their hospitality which has been known for centuries. Culture and values of Sri Lanka is based around the fusion of traditional forms of art, dance and music. It is one that fascinates many due to its uniqueness and mystifying diversity. Nourished by Buddhism in the early 2nd century B.C and also influenced by ancient Indian invasions, the early tribes of the Yaksha and Naga cultured the inhabitants of this tiny island before 300 B.C. using architecture, agriculture and irrigation.
The small nation saw the rise and fall of many great and powerful kings who lead the people and developed the country with their bravery and intelligence. With the fall of the kings came the colonization of the western world when Sri Lanka experienced Portuguese, Dutch and British rule throughout the early 16th to the mid 20th centuries. This introduced democracy, modern education, legal and commercial agriculture systems and added more value to Sri Lanka culture making it even more diverse.
Customs and traditions are deeply ingrained in Sri Lankan society and have been past on from one generation to the next, over a period of 2,500 years. These traditions are intertwined with day to day life of the island’s four ethnic groups, the Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and Burghers and their religions, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. The traditional greeting is with clasped palms, a head nod followed by the words ‘Ayubowan’ which translates to ‘May you live long’. The equivalent greeting in Tamil is ‘Vanakkam’, whilst the Muslims will say ‘Assalamu Alaikum’.
Sri Lanka has three forms of traditional dance, the Kandyan dance, the Low Country dance and the Sabaragamuwa dance. These are performed at rituals held in temples, villages and homes. Folk dance is another popular form of dance, held during harvest season and other festive occasions.
Sarong – A sarong is a garment consisting of a length of printed or plain cloth. It is worn wrapped about the waist and covers the legs. Sarongs are the standard garment for most men in rural and even some urban communities. In cities, you will see a mix of Western clothes and the traditional sarong.
Sari – A traditional sari consists of six yards of often brightly coloured cloth wrapped around the body in a beautiful and flattering pattern. Women from different parts of the country wear varying styles of sari
Diyareddha – The Diyareddha is a widely used bathing costume by women. It is a piece of cloth similar to a sarong tied around the body just under the armpits, reaching down to the knees. It is still used by women living in villages, as they all go to the river for their evening bath.
Traditions and Ceremonies
Poya Days – Before the birth of Buddhism, Asian ascetics would cease worldly pursuits and engage in religious activities on Poya days which occur on the monthly night of the full moon. Today, practicing Buddhists observe Poya days by visiting a temple for the rituals of worship and adhering to the Eight Precepts. Every full moon day is a holiday in Sri Lanka when liquor and meat are not for sale anywhere in the country. Many religious festivals are held on full moon days.
Pirith Ceremony – The chanting of Pirith, a Buddhist ritual, deals with the chanting of select Sutras. Sutras are religious principles sung in rhythm. They relate to the needs and everyday affairs of both Buddhists and priests and are held mainly to evoke blessings. It is an age old belief that the chanting of Pirith will soothe both body and mind.
Harvesting time – The harvesting of paddy is an important event in the village, and takes the form of a celebration. A good harvest is always welcomed by the villagers who will then be assured of a staple diet till the time for next harvest arrives. The ‘Gam Maduwa’ is a village affair of special interest to farmers. It is believed to evoke the blessings of the gods for success in agricultural activities.
New Year (Aluth Avurudda) – A majority of the rituals to celebrate the New Year are based on times calculated according to astrology and are normally woven around agriculture and the time of harvest, which fall in mid April. Sri Lankans visit each other with sweet meats and various other traditional foods. It is a time for love and happiness to be shared among everyone.
Astrology – Sri Lankan are strong believers of horoscopes and stars, sometimes marriages will be arranged depending solely on horoscope matching. They are also used to determine auspicious times for an individual or for an occasion such as a wedding or building a house.
Ayurveda originates from ‘Vedas’, which translates to ‘the oldest available classics of the world’. Sri Lanka has its own Ayurvedic system based on a series of prescriptions handed down from generation to generation over a period of 3,000 years. Ancient kings, who were also prominent physicians as recorded by historians, sustained its survival and prolonged existence.
Traditional Medicine – From ancient times, Sri Lanka had a reasonably developed healthcare system to cater to the needs of people. The ancient chronicle of the country tells of a hospital that was established in the capital city of Anuradhapura in the 4th century B.C. Ancient ruins of hospitals have been discovered and can be explored on excursions to the Cultural Triangle. Most medicines used during those times were derived from every herb, vegetable and fruit as they have a wide variety of medicinal properties.