Sri Lankans have shared a long history with the peoples and cultures of the Indian subcontinent. From ancient times, the proximity of Sri Lanka to the mainland exposed it to many different cultural influences. At the same time, Sri Lanka’s insularity as an island meant that its people modified those influences to create traditions all their own.

Art and Architecture

The ancient cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa contain some of Sri Lanka’s most renowned architectural treasures. Located in the north central region, these once-resplendent cities served as the capitals of Sinhalese kingdoms from the 300s bc to the ad 1200s. The ancient cities contain the ruins of numerous palaces and Buddhist temples, rock sculptures of the Buddha, and Buddhist memorial mounds called dagobas (stupas).

Some of Sri Lanka’s standing Buddha rock sculptures are colossal in proportion. Among the tallest and best preserved is the Buddha in Aukana, located about 51 km (about 32 mi) southeast of Anuradhapura. A free-standing sculpture hewn from solid rock, it stands 13 m (42 ft) in height, including its carved lotus-petal pedestal. The ruins of Polonnaruwa include the rock temple of Gal Vihara, where a series of four large Buddha sculptures—one standing, two sitting, and one reclining—were cut from a granite ridge in the 1100s. The standing Buddha is 7 m (23 ft) tall, and the reclining Buddha is 14 m (46 ft) long. The rock temple of Isurumuniya Vihara, built in the 200s bc at Anuradhapura, is renowned for its rock carving of two lovers. The temple overlooks the Tissawewa tank, one of three ancient reservoirs in Anuradhapura.

Many of the paintings of the ancient kingdoms have been obliterated by the passage of time. The cave temples of Dambulla, however, contain brilliantly colored wall paintings depicting the arrival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and other historic events. The frescoes of Sigiriya, a rock fortress built in the ad 400s, depict nonreligious images similar in form to paintings found in the Ajanta Caves in east central India.

Sri Lanka’s many Buddhist relics, sculptures, and temples attest to the importance of the religion in Sri Lanka since ancient times. Among the most revered Buddhist relics are the sacred bo tree at Anuradhapura, dating to the 200s bc when the teachings of the Buddha were introduced, and a tooth believed to be that of the Buddha, enshrined in the Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Tooth) in Kandy.

The ancient ruins of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Dambulla, and Kandy have been designated World Heritage Sites by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Music and Dance

The Sri Lankan tradition of folk drama includes the kolam, a masked drama, and the sokari and nadagam, stylized dramas with song and dance. Sinhalese classical dance includes the highly athletic Kandyan form, which originated in the central highlands when the region was part of the kingdom of Kandy from the ad 1500s to 1815. The Kandyan performances include representations in dance of animals and birds, as well as stories from the Ramayana, a Sanskrit epic of ancient India. The dances are accompanied by complex drum rhythms. Tamil classical dance includes bharata natyam, a highly stylized form that originated in southern India. Baila, a style of song and dance introduced by the Portuguese in the 1500s, is widely popular in Sri Lanka.


Early Sinhalese literature was primarily religious. Buddhist monks compiled what are considered the earliest texts of Sri Lanka. The Mahavamsa (Great Chronicle), written in the ad 500s in Pali (the language of Theravada Buddhism), chronicles the rise and fall of successive Sinhalese kingdoms in Sri Lanka, beginning with the legendary colonizer of the island, Prince Vijaya, in the 500s bc.

The development of Sinhala as a vernacular and literary language is well illustrated in the rock fortress of Sigiriya. From the 600s to the 1400s, visitors to the fortress created a wall of Sinhala graffiti, scribbling nearly 1,500 pieces of prose and poetry on a highly polished wall of rock. Poems based on the Jatakas, the stories of the lives of the Buddha, were composed in the Sinhala language from as early as the 1200s.

Poetry flourished as the earliest literary form in the Tamil language. After Sanskrit, Tamil is the oldest literary language of the Indian subcontinent (see Indian Literature). This strong Tamil literary tradition was part of the cultural heritage of Tamils who migrated to Sri Lanka in ancient times. The earliest known Sri Lankan Tamil poet was Eelattu Poothanthevanar, whose poems were included in the Tamil cankam (sangam) poetry anthologies compiled in southern India before 250 ad. A distinctly Sri Lankan Tamil literary tradition first developed in the 1940s with the works of the so-called marumalarchi (renaissance) writers Mahakavi, A. Kandasamy, and Varadar. The poetry of Mahakavi, in particular, helped distinguish the literature of Sri Lankan Tamils from that of Tamils in southern India.

Sri Lankan writers established fiction as a literary form in the 1900s. Martin Wickramasinghe was one of Sri Lanka’s first modern Sinhalese novelists. He authored a trilogy that captured social changes related to the end of colonialism in Sri Lanka. The novels of the trilogy were Gamperaliya (Village Revolution; 1944), Yuganthaya (End of an Era; 1948), and Kaliyugaya (Inauspicious Era; 1957). A large body of modern literature has developed in both the Sinhala and Tamil languages. Writers producing poetry and fiction in English include Jean Arasanayagam, Ann Ranasinghe, and Romesh Gunesekera. Their works examine the effects of ethnic strife and war in people’s lives. Award-winning Canadian writer Michael Ondaatje based his humorous semiautobiographical novel Running in the Family (1982) on his return visit to Sri Lanka, the country of his birth and childhood.

From: Encartar

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