People of Sri Lanka

The beauty of Sri Lanka lies on its blue seas and golden beaches, its jungles and its mountain peaks.

The people of Sri Lanka are divided into ethnic groups. The four major ethnic groups are the Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and Burghers. Historical circumstances have favored more groups at different times.
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Yakka, Rakshasa and Naga
The earliest surviving chronicles from Island say that the tribes of Yakkas (demon-worshippers), Rakshasas and Nagas (cobra-worshippers) inhabited the Island prior to the migration of Vijaya in 6th century BC. At that time the Yakkas were very powerful and expert horsemen who are chiefly responsible for the irrigation system in dry zone for the development of the famous Hydraulic Civilization in the Indian Ocean’s Island. The Yakkas had established cities like Sirisavastu, Lankapura and Vijitapura. With the decline of the Hydraulic Civilization, the people migrated to the wet zone and built minor irrigation structures.

Rakshasas were a tribe described to have large bodies. The forefathers of the famous Rakshasa King Ravana lived along with the Yakkas. The Yakka king Vaisravana was the elder brother of the Rakshasa king Ravana.

Naga people lived mostly along the coast. There were Naga Kingdoms, Kings and temples. Naga kingdoms have existed in Nagadipa (Jaffna peninsula) and Kelaniya in Buddha’s time. Today the Naga people’s existence is not known by most people. In the north-east of India a state called Nagaland the home of the Naga people still exists.


The hunter-gatherer people known as the Wanniyala-Aetto or Veddas are the last descendants of the ancient inhabitants of Sri Lanka, predating the arrival of the Sinhalese. They are the original hunting and gathering societies that gradually disappeared as the Sinhalese spread over the Island. Present day Veddas live in urban areas.


Gypsies or Ahikuntikas, are a small community living peacefully, surrounded by nature, moving from place to place. The Gypsies are also called Nomads since they travel from place to place. They make a living by using snakes and monkeys for tricks and palm reading or fortune telling. Most women and men enjoy illicit liquor, smoking of ganja are some of their common practice. The Gypsies are a happy bunch of people cherishing a human right of their own – ‘Born free and live as the wind blows’.


The Sinhalese are the largest ethnic group in Sri Lanka. They are distinguished primarily by their language, Sinhala. The Sinhalese claim to be the descendants of Prince Vijay and his band of immigrants from northern India. The Sinhalese gradually absorbed a wide variety of casts from the Island and from southern India.

The Sinhala speakers were Buddhists, the Buddhist religion reinforced the solidarity of the Sinhalese as an ethic community. Their shared language and religion unite all ethnic Sinhalese, but there is a difference between the “Kandyan” and the “low-country” Sinhalese.


The Tamils use the Tamil language as their native tongue. Tamil is one of the Dravidian languages found in India. The Tamil speakers in Sri Lanka are divided into two groups the Sri Lankan Tamils and the Indian Tamils that have quite different origins and relationships to the country.

Ethnic Tamils are united to each other by their common religious beliefs, the Tamil language and culture. Some 80 percent of the Tamils are Hindus, they have little contact with Buddhism, and they worship the Hindu pantheon of Gods.

Muslims (Moors)
The Muslims have their own separate sites of worship, religious and cultural heroes, social circles, and even languages. The Muslim community is divided into three main sections- the Sri Lankan Moors, the Indian Moors and the Malays, each with its own history and traditions.

The Sri Lankan Moors lived in coastal trading and agricultural communities, preserving their Islamic cultural heritage. The Indian Moors are Muslims who trace their origins to immigrants searching for business opportunities during the colonial period.

Malays (Ja Minissu)

The Malays originated in Southeast Asia. Their ancestors came to the country when both Sri Lankan and Indonesia were colonies of the Dutch. Most of the early immigrants were soldiers, posted by the Dutch colonial administration to Sri Lanka, who decided to settle on the Island. Other immigrants were convicts or members of noble houses from Indonesia who were exiled to Sri Lanka and never left.


The term Burgher was applied during the period of Dutch rule to European nationals living in Sri Lanka. There are two types of Burghers in Sri Lanka the Dutch Burgher and the Portuguese Burghers. They have generally remained Christians and lived in urban locations. After independence, the Burgher community lost their influence and in turn has been shrunken in size because of emigration.

Colombo Chetties

The Colombo Chetties are merchants. Majorities of Colombo Chetties community are Christians, however, historically speaking, their religion has been Hinduism. The Colombo Chetties have made great contributions to the Socio-Economic development of Sri Lanka, in trade and finance they were among the first importers and exporters of traditional and non-traditional goods. They are creditable to have introduced teak plantations in Sri Lanka. The Colombo Chetty people live in perfect harmony with all ethnic groups of Sri Lanka.

Jews in Sri Lanka

Jews in Sri Lanka have been living in the Island since the 9th century. These early Jews in Sri Lanka were forced to abandon their faith and identity by the Portuguese. Neither practicing Jews, nor people who preserved knowledge of being descendants of Jews, survived from the early period, although Jewish lineages may be Present.

Sri Lankan Blacks (Kaffirs)

The Sri Lankan Kaffirs are an ethnic group in Sri Lanka; they are descents of Portuguese traders and the African slaves. When Dutch colonialists arrived, the Kaffirs worked on cinnamon plantations along the southern coast. Both the Dutch and the British used the Kaffirs as part of the naval force and for domestic work. Baila is a form of dance music popular in Sri Lanka, originated from the Kaffirs. Sri Lanka Kaffir culture is linked back to their distant African past which is rapidly disappearing. The descendants of the Kaffir slaves are still a distinctive community found mainly in Puttalam, Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Negombo.

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