“Where exactly is Sri Lanka?” “Is Sri Lanka a part of India?” “Why should I travel to Sri Lanka?” “Is Sri Lanka safe?” “What makes Sri Lanka so special?” Why should I travel to Sri Lanka?”
These are some of the most common questions that I get when I talk about my beautiful “second home.” The pearl of the Indian Ocean, SRI LANKA. A place where my family and I have fallen in love with, not just because the island nation is absolutely astounding in what it offers to see and experience, but because of the amazing people and culture. Especially among westerners, Sri Lanka is obscure and not thought of as a top tour destination.
A lot of this is related to the history and difficulties that have devastated the nation and the people. Most recently, the terror attacks that took place on Easter Sunday 2019 has been an incredibly trying time. I was there on that Sunday and felt the grief, shock, and devastation that such a peaceful country was thrown into. The loss of life was heartbreaking and the fear of the unknown was tangible in the air.
I have experienced something stronger than evil. I have experienced something stronger than hate. I have experienced something stronger than fear and terror.
I have experienced Sri Lanka.
I have come to identify Sri Lanka with one word: RESILIENT. Sri Lanka is strong. The people are some of the most incredible and inspiring souls on the planet. Sri Lanka is not only beautiful because of the amazing beaches or the rolling, perfect tea hills. Sri Lanka is not only beautiful because of the exotic wildlife that roams much of the island. Sri Lanka is not only beautiful because of the breath taking waterfalls and temples. Sri Lanka is beautiful because of the people.
Some of my best friends are Sri Lankan. They have lived through war, natural disaster, economic crisis, sickness, terror, religious persecution and more. Yet they are the most loving, peaceful, and warm individuals I have ever known. Their stories inspire me and encourage me to love others and offer hope to those around me.
Sri Lankan hospitality has no rival. The invitation to tea and a tasty meal is commonplace, even among strangers. I have been in more Sri Lankan’s house and made more genuine deep friendships than I could have ever imagined in the short time I have lived here.
Sri Lankan people are extremely helpful and empathetic. They deeply care about community and family and value love and acceptance above all else. Sri Lanka also has a long history of strength, courage, love, peace, and resilience.
A Brief History
Around 500 BC, people from India migrated to the northern part of Sri Lanka. In 260 BC Buddhism was introduced and became an integral part of the Sinhalese culture.
In later times around the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th centuries AD, Sri Lanka became very wealthy and was a prime trader with Persia, China, India, and Ethiopia. After this brief period of prominence, the Sri Lankan people suffered invasion and instability. From the 5th century AD to 1505 AD, Sri Lanka experienced great change in kingdoms, leadership, and development. This constant change hindered the growth and development of the country’s economic, social, and governmental infrastructure.
The Portuguese won a war with the Sri Lankan kingdom in 1520 AD that began over disputes of the exportation of Sri Lankan cinnamon (which still to this day is an important export). The Portuguese continued to influence much of the divided kingdoms in Sri Lanka and conquered most of the land with one exception. The famous Kandyan Kingdom by which the Portuguese made multiple attempts to subdue failed due to the valiant efforts of the strong Kandyans in the central part of the island.
After the Portuguese colonialism, the Dutch landed. The Dutch eventually conquered the Portuguese in 1656 and controlled most of the ports and coast line. The Kandyan kingdom still held out and was resistant to the Dutch. The Dutch eventually defeated the last remaining kingdom of Kandy, giving the Dutch a strong hold over the entire island.
Again, colonialism arrived on this island of Serenity. The British ousted the Dutch in 1796 and they too had troubles with the infamous Kandyan Kingdom. The British defeated the final King of Kandy, Wickrama Rajasinghe, in 1815. In 1833, the British developed the nation’s infrastructure by building roads and rail lines. The British also made English the official language at this time.
The British began large Coffee plantations and exported their coffee in large quantities back to Britain. The industry was generating lots of work and money during this time and “Ceylonese” coffee was becoming a popular import all over the globe.
Devastation happened in 1870 when the slow spread of a fungus called hemileia vastatrix destroyed the coffee plants. The coffee industry in Sri Lanka died. In the late 1800’s tea eventually replaced coffee as the primary export. Rubber and coconuts were also growing exports. During this time, the Buddhism that was originally a defining marker of Sinhalese culture experienced a revival. Hinduism was also gaining traction because of the migrant Indian and Tamil workers whom the British used on tea plantations for labor.
In 1931, Sri Lanka began demanding more independence from Britain and this eventually came to fruition on February 4th, 1948 when Britain officially declared and recognized Sri Lanka a dominion.
From the 1950’s a division began to rise between the Sinhalese and Tamils. In 1956, the legislators made Sinhala the official language and did not include Tamil in any official recognition. In 1972, a new constitution was drafted which gave Buddhism a “foremost place” among the Sri Lankan religions. The name was officially changed to Sri Lanka this year (formerly, it was recognized as Ceylon).
Sri Lanka made history in July 1960 when Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the world’s first female Prime Minister. The international airport carries her name.
Tensions between the Sinhalese and Tamils continued to rise and civil war broke out on July 23, 1983. During this war that lasted over 30 years, thousands of people lost their lives and the nations enhancement was greatly slowed. The war ended in 2009 with the defeat of the Tamil Tigers by the Sri Lankan government.
Sri Lanka has emerged as one of the largest tea exporting countries in the world and has become one of the premier tourist destinations in Asia. Sri Lanka is the only place in the world where you can see the world’s largest land mammal, the elephant and the amazing Blue Whale all in the same day. Sri Lanka truly is the “Pearl of the Indian Ocean” and has so much rich history. One little known fact is the oldest human-planted tree is in Anuradhapura, an ancient city in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka truly stands out and stands above other nations in South Asia with it’s deep religious roots and unique cultural and natural wonders. Sri Lanka is the “Wonder of Asia.”
Hope and Strength.
In spite of all that has happened, the spirit of Sri Lanka remains strong and hopeful. The hardships that the nation was birthed and developed in has made the people extremely resilient, beautiful, and equipped to handle great adversity. I believe the “pain tolerance” of the people is extremely high and what could really destroy them has only made them stronger and more committed to peace.
The true spirit of Sri Lanka can be seen in the hospitality, honor, and respect that you will no doubt experience as you travel to this one of a kind destinations.
Come to Sri Lanka for the wildlife. Come to Sri Lanka for the food. Come to Sri Lanka for the tea. Come to Sri Lanka for the beaches. Come to Sri Lanka for the beautiful rolling hills. Come to Sri Lanka for the Whale watching adventures. Come to Sri Lanka to see Elephants in nature, up close. Come to Sri Lanka to hike “World’s end” and “Adams peak”. Come to Sri Lanka for the Leopards. Come to Sri Lanka to swim with sea turtles. Come to Sri Lanka to surf. Come to Sri Lanka to rest in the quiet and chilly hill country.
But also come to Sri Lanka to experience what truly makes Sri Lanka great. Come to Sri Lanka to experience the people. To experience culture. To experience and see a people who are strong and vibrant. Come to Sri Lanka to see the true miracles and beauty of nature: Sri Lankans.
In 2018, the minister of tourism in Sri Lanka decided that the new branding of travel would be “So Sri Lanka”. The point of this brand was to capture what the thousands of tourists were describing Sri Lanka as. A unique nation, unlike any other destination that can only be described as itself. The tag line So Sri Lanka, really pushes the truth that most travelers know which is “you have to be there to understand.” This is so fitting for Sri Lanka and the spirit of resilience and beauty that I have tried to convey to you. I can write about it, but you really must just experience it. To be resilient is So Sri Lanka. To be beautiful is So Sri Lanka.
A young boy whose life was taken in the Easter tragedy wrote this essay below, from the Sunday Observer’s article entitled “Be Like Kieran” about his experience in Sri Lanka. I leave you with his words describing his experience. May his love for Sri Lanka encourage you to experience it and fall in love with this land and people the same way that he and many other tourists have, including myself.
Come and see what “So Sri Lanka” really means.
Essay by Kieran
“The tropical sun burns bright. On my way to school, red and black buses full of office workers, tuk-tuks of all colors, Porsches, Land Rovers, and BMWs crowd the roads. There are few road rules. I pass a speeding blur of white colonial buildings, ancient banyan trees, old elegant homes behind high walls, short ladies pushing trash carts, small kadeys selling cream crackers and sodas, and road side hawkers offering freshly plucked red rambutans, golden yellow mangoes, young orange coconuts. Steel and glass office towers stand high over small houses. Cranes rise above expensive new apartment buildings. Occasionally I see a Buddhist monk in orange robes.
Lonely, stray dogs roam the streets and sidewalks, scavenging for food, near tourists who turn bright lobster red taking selfies in front of thousand-year-old temples. My cultural connections are why I am here in Colombo, Sri Lanka. My mother and I moved here to help my Ammama (grandma) move back home after nearly 50 years in the U.S. This move was great for her, because her connection to Sri Lanka is strong.
She loves the weather that is perfect for a slow walk, the fruits and vegetables that she grew up with, and the friendly people who don’t mind when she starts up a conversation with any passing stranger asking, “Do I know you?” She is rarely certain whether she is in Colombo or Washington D.C., who she is with, or sometimes even who she is.
Dementia has faded her memories so that they run together like watercolors, an impressionist painting of houses, gardens, people she has known for over 8 years, and sometimes the people closest to her, like me and my mother.
My move to Colombo has helped deepen my connections to my family’s culture. I am learning how to read, write, and – thanks to my grandmother’s maid – speak a little bit of Sinhala, the language of the majority of the population here. I also play a little bit of cricket, the national sport, which is similar to baseball (though I am terrible at both!). I am getting to know many of my distant aunties, uncles, and cousins, many of whom I have not met before. I may forget their names, but not their kindness. I like that strangers call me putha (son in Sinhala) before telling me to tie my shoelaces. It makes me feel like the entire community is supporting me.
I feel like I belong in Sri Lanka. I now have a dark brown tan and my mother says that she cannot pick me out of a crowd of my friends walking out of school, laughing and messing each other’s hair. I have made a lot of friends who are kind, smart, hardworking, and funny after just one year here. It feels like I have been here much longer. No one can tell just by looking at me that I was born ten thousand miles away, that I spent the first 10 years of my life in the U.S., or that I am biracial.
Racially, my cultural connections are diverse. I am one-quarter Sinhalese, one-quarter Tamil, three-eighth Russian, and one-eighth German. My family is Buddhist, Christian, Quaker and Jewish. We celebrate peraharas and poya days, Christmas, and Hanukkah. My ancestors include great uncles knighted by the King of England, high court justices, and Russian farmers.
I am what they call in Sri Lanka a real achcharu, or pickle, made up of many different ingredients and spices. I am connected to many cultures. I am stronger because I belong to them all. But, right now in Colombo, I am #sosrilankan”