Before it was known as Sri Lanka, the country was called Ceylon. Before Ceylon, Arab traders called it Serendip. It’s a lovely name for a beautiful country that is also referred to as, “The pearl of the Indian Ocean.”
Located just south of India, on the path of maritime trading routes that traversed the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka has long been exposed to diverse cultural and religious influences. Today, the country’s ethnic mosaic includes Sinhalese (around 76%), Tamils (11% Sri Lankan Tamils, and 5% Indian Tamils), and several other ethnic groups.
While the country has strong ties to its closest neighbor, India, the culture of Sri Lanka remains impressively distinctive. Buddhism was introduced into Sri Lanka in the 3rd century BC and continues to flourish there, whereas in India it has all but died out. Buddhism is practiced by the majority of Sinhalese, and Hinduism is practiced by the Tamils.
From the 16th century until she became independent in 1948, Sri Lanka had varying degrees of European colonial influence, and even rule. The Portuguese, Dutch, and British all set up shop in the country at different times, and they have all left their own mark on Sri Lankan culture.
Sri Lanka is a very green and lush country, with diversity in geography as well as culture. Tropical beaches circle the island nation, while the interior is mountainous, and can be very temperate (as well as picturesque). This is the reason the British developed a thriving tea industry in Sri Lanka: the mountains provided the perfect environment and climate.
For all of these reasons and more, Sri Lanka is a great tourism destination with a varied cultural as well as physical landscape. Here are some of the top reasons to explore the Cultural Gems of Sri Lanka with Zegrahm.
Sri Lanka has its fair share of stunning UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Some of the most prominent ones include Sigiriya, an ancient fortress built atop a huge granite monolith; Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka’s medieval capital; the Sacred City of Kandy, with the highly revered Temple of the Tooth; the Golden Temple of Dambulla; and the Old Town of Galle.
Sigiriya, which means “Lion’s Rock,” rises steeply to a massive rocky plateau nearly 600 feet above the lush countryside. It has been occupied since the 3rd century BC, first as a monastery and then, in the 5th century, King Kasyapa constructed a royal residence there.
To get to the top, you have to climb 1,000 steps. But along the way you’re rewarded with beautiful frescoes of women wearing ropes of jewels, and not much else. No one really knows who these beauties are: Some historians have suggested might possibly be king’s courtesans or celestial nymphs.
Polonnaruwa was the royal city of the Polonnaru Kingdom, which was largely built in the 12th century and abandoned about a century later. You can rent a cycle and explore the extensive site, which includes incredible ruins, colorful gardens, green parklands, and exquisite Buddhist carvings. The highlight is the massive reclining Buddha statue. Many Sri Lankans come here to meditate, and it’s easy to see why.
Temples and Architecture
The architecture of Sri Lanka is extremely varied due to the fact that the country has had so many cultural influences, from Arabian traders to European colonists. The many temples, mosques, churches, and other sacred sites you’ll find scattered throughout the country are a testimony to the vibrant spiritual life of Sri Lankans that dates back thousands of years.
Colonial architecture can be seen throughout the country in places like the historic centre of Galle, which is graced with Dutch-colonial buildings.
Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka’s preeminent hill station, retains the aura of an English country village with its Tudor-style homes. Celebrated Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa left behind many stunning modern buildings that combine colonial, tropical, and Le Corbusier-influenced elements.
The most important temple in Sri Lanka is arguably the Temple of the Sacred Tooth in Kandy. The temple houses a tooth of the Buddha, the most important Buddhist replica in the country. While you can’t actually see the tooth, which is heavily guarded, the golden-roofed temple and the complex of smaller temples, shrines, and museums is well worth the visit. It’s a very popular pilgrimage destination for Buddhists from all over Asia.
The Golden Temple of Dambulla is another very popular temple, and also a UNESCO World Heritage site.
World Famous Ceylon Tea
British colonists in Sri Lanka (which was known as Ceylon at the time) created large coffee plantations in the early 19th century. However, the crop was devastated by a fungus and they began growing tea instead. By the end of that century, tea was the country’s major crop.
Sri Lanka is still growing tea today. In fact, it’s the fourth largest tea-producing country in the world. Often still referred to as Ceylon Tea by aficionados, it’s considered to be among the finest in the world, with flavors that range from light and honey-colored (when grown in the highlands) to rich, full-bodied and burgundy-brown (when grown at lower altitudes).
Sri Lanka has four distinct tea-producing regions: Central (encompassing Nuwara Eliya and Kandy), Uva, Southern, and Sabaragamuwa.
There are many ways to enjoy the teas of Sri Lanka, aside from the obvious. The tea gardens of Sri Lanka are found at elevations above 2,000 feet, usually surrounded by immensely beautiful scenery. The tea gardens offer tours of the gardens and production facilities, tea tasting, and, in some cases, the opportunity to stay on the property in a luxury manor house or colonial bungalow.
You can take tours along the tea trail and visit tea gardens in the various regions, sampling the effects of terroir on the teas’ flavor and color. There’s also a tea museum in Hantana, and you can visit Loolecondera Tea Estate where it all began. It was at Loolecondera that Scotsman James Taylor tried to cultivate tea for commercial use in Ceylon for the very first time, in 1867. –Mariellen Ward
BIO: Mariellen Ward is a travel writer and digital storyteller. She has a BA in Journalism and has been published in many leading online and print publications around the world. Her award-winning blog, Breathedreamgo, is one of the top travel blogs about India and South Asia. Mariellen is an advocate of female solo travel and responsible travel.