Sri Lanka Country Information

 Facts at a Glance

AREA: 65,610 sq km (25,332 sq miles).

POPULATION: 19,144,875 (1999).

POPULATION DENSITY: 278.9 per sq km.

CAPITAL: Colombo. Population: 2,026,000 (1993).

GOVERNMENT: Socialist Republic since 1978. Gained independence from the UK in 1948. Head of State: President Chandrika Kumaratunga since 1994. Head of Government: Prime Minister Sirimavo R D Bandaranaike since 1994.

RELIGION: Buddhist, with Hindu, Christian and Muslim minorities.

TIME: GMT + 6.

ELECTRICITY: 230/240 volts AC, 50Hz. Round 3-pin plugs are usual, with bayonet lamp fittings.

COMMUNICATIONS: Telephone: IDD facilities are available to the principal cities. Country code: 94. Outgoing international code: 00. Phone cards are available at post offices and shops. Fax: The General Post Office in Colombo (address below) provides a service. Many hotels also have facilities. Telegram: These can be sent from all post offices. Post: Airmail to Europe takes up to a week. Press: Daily newspapers published in English include the Daily News, The Island and The Observer.


A roughly triangular mountainous area known as the Central Highlands occupies the south-central region of Sri Lanka and is the heart of the country. This highland mass is surrounded by a diverse plain, the general elevation of which ranges from sea level to about 1,000 feet (300 metres). This plain accounts for about five-sixths of the country’s total area.

The Central Highlands have a highly dissected terrain consisting of a unique arrangement of plateaus, ridges, escarpments, intermontane basins, and valleys. Sri Lanka’s highest mountains–Pidurutalagala at 8,281 feet (2,524 metres), Kirigalpotta (7,858 feet), and Adam’s Peak (Sri Pada; 7,559 feet)–are found in this area. The highlands, except on their western and southwestern flanks, are sharply defined by a series of escarpments, the most spectacular being the so-called World’s End, a near-vertical precipice of about 4,000 feet.

The plain that surrounds the Central Highlands does not have an entirely flat and featureless terrain. To the north and northeast of the highlands, the plain is traversed by low ridges that decrease in altitude as they approach the coast. The western and southwestern parts of the plain feature alternating ridges and valleys running parallel to the coast and increasing in elevation toward the interior to merge imperceptibly with the highland mass. Elsewhere the flatness of the plain is sporadically interrupted by rocky buttes and mounds, some of which reach elevations of more than 1,000 feet. The plain is fringed by a coast consisting mostly of sandy beaches, spits, and lagoons. Over a few stretches of the coast there are rocky promontories and cliffs, deep-water bays, and offshore islets.

Geologically, the island of Sri Lanka is considered a southerly extension of peninsular India (the Deccan), with which it shares a continental shelf and some of its basic lithologic and geomorphic characteristics. Hard, crystalline rock formations, such as granite, gneisses, khondalite (a type of metamorphic rock), and quartzite, make up about nine-tenths of the island’s surface and subsurface.


Sri Lanka was part of the Empire of Asoka during the 3rd century, during which time the population was converted to Buddhism. The Sinhalese inhabitants later moved their capital to Polonnaruva in the south of the island to escape from repeated Tamil invasions during the 11th and 12th centuries.

The first Europeans to arrive were the Portuguese, quickly supplanted by the Dutch in the 17th century. In 1796 Sri Lanka (as Ceylon) was acquired from the Dutch by the British. Initially, administration of the island was shared between the East India Company and the Crown, but the latter assumed full control in 1802. Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) eventually won independence in 1948. Past colonisation by the Indians, Portuguese, Dutch and British have all left their mark in architecture, customs, language and agriculture. The country became a republic in 1972, adopting a new constitution along with the Sinhala name, Sri Lanka.

The majority (70%) of the population are Buddhists of Sinhalese descent, but the north and parts of the east of Sri Lanka are dominated by the Tamil population (15%), Hindu by religion, and associated with the Tamils of southern India. Serious conflict arose from the Tamil minority’s demands for a separate Tamil state, and terrorist activity by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Tamil Eelam being the title of their notional independent state) since the 1970s, has provoked increasingly vigorous responses from the Government.

The Indian government became increasingly involved in the conflict, initially as official mediator between the Tamils and the Sri Lankan government but then, after the failure of an armistice in 1987, it intervened militarily on the government side. A large Indian force engaged the Tamils and, by the end of that year, took the crucial Jaffna peninsula, with heavy losses on both sides. However, all the key Tamil leaders and many of the guerrillas escaped into the jungle. With more than 1000 Indian soldiers dead, Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Ghandi struggled to persuade the Sri Lankan government to guarantee certain rights for the Tamil minority, but the Government was constrained by militant Sinhalese.

In 1988 Sri Lankan President Premadasa, the candidate of the United National Party (UNP) which had been in office for a decade already, won the presidential election with a small overall majority. Bogged down in an unpopular war of attrition, the Indian troops withdrew in 1989 and the Tigers reoccupied Jaffna. The assassination of Indian premier Rajiv Ghandi in 1991 was one aspect of the Tigers’ revenge for the Indian military campaign.

With military and political stalemate through 1991 and 1992, the war of attrition continued without decisive military developments or peace manoeuvres. In the summer of 1993, the Sri Lankan army – retrained and re-equipped with foreign support – launched another major offensive on the Jaffna peninsula but was stalled by fierce Tiger resistance. The army’s initiative had come after a further change of presidency, following the assassination of President Premadasa (possibly by the Tigers) in May 1993. The incumbent Prime Minister, Dingiri Wijetunga, replaced him for the rest of the presidential term which expired in December 1994.

The election which followed swept the opposition candidate Chandrikha Kumaratunga into office, ending the UNP’s 17-year stranglehold on the presidency. During 1995, Kumaratunga succeeded, for the first time, in wresting both the military and diplomatic initiative from the Tigers. After a round of negotiations based on the possibility of adopting a new federal structure for the island, the Tigers rejected the Government’s proposals and another major offensive was launched by the army in October 1995. It was spectacularly successful and drove the main Tiger forces, along with much of the civilian population, into the jungle and forest areas surrounding the lagoon.

Although the Kumaratunga government now had the upper hand, the Tigers were far from finished: over the next eighteen months they scored a number of victories which reversed some but not all of their earlier losses. In January 1998, the Government took the step of formally outlawing the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which effectively ruled out anything but a military solution. The army’s most recent campaign against the Tigers in September 1998 saw some of the fiercest fighting yet in the 15-year civil war. Since then fighting has continued largely inconclusively, punctuated by occasional suicide bomb attacks against high profile targets. Several of these occurred during the 1999 presidential elections. The poll, which took place in December, returned the incumbent President Karamatunga for a second term.



Sri Lanka is a land of great cultural diversity. Religion pervades many aspects of life and constitutes a basic element of this diversity. Buddhist and Hindu temples, as well as mosques and churches, with their own colourful rituals, are the most readily visible features of the cultural landscape. Varying degrees of colonial impact, modernizing influences, and wealth and income add other shades to the cultural mosaic.

The people

Ethnic composition
Ethnic, religious, and linguistic distinctions in Sri Lanka are essentially the same. Three ethnic groups–Sinhalese, Tamil, and Muslim–make up more than 99 percent of the country’s population, with the Sinhalese alone accounting for nearly three-fourths of the people. The Tamil segment comprises two groups–Sri Lankan Tamils (long-settled descendants from southeastern India) and Indian Tamils (recent immigrants from southeastern India, most of whom were migrant workers brought to Sri Lanka under British rule). Slightly more than one-eighth of the total population belongs to the former group. Muslims, who trace their origin back to Arab traders of the 8th century, account for about 7.5 percent of the population. Burghers (a community of mixed European descent), Parsis (immigrants from western India), and Veddas (regarded as the aboriginal inhabitants of the country) total less than 1 percent of the population.

The Sinhalese constitute the majority in the southern, western, central, and north-central parts of the country. In the rural areas of the Wet Zone lowlands, they account for more than 95 percent of the population. The foremost concentration of the Sri Lankan Tamils lies in the Jaffna Peninsula and in the adjacent districts of the northern lowlands. Smaller agglomerations of this group are also found along the eastern littoral where their settlements are juxtaposed with those of the Muslims. The main Muslim concentrations occur in the eastern lowlands. In other areas, such as Colombo, Kandy, Puttalam, and Gampaha, Muslims form a small but important segment of the urban and suburban population. The Indian Tamils, the vast majority of whom are plantation workers, live in large numbers in the higher areas of the Central Highlands.

Language and religion

Among the principal ethnic groups, language and religion determine identity. While the mother tongue of the Sinhalese is Sinhala–an Indo-Aryan language–the Tamils speak the Dravidian language of Tamil. Again, while more than 90 percent of the Sinhalese are Buddhists, both Sri Lankan and Indian Tamils are overwhelmingly Hindu. The Muslims–adherents of Islam–usually speak Tamil. Christianity draws its followers (about 7 percent of the population) from among the Sinhalese, Tamil, and Burgher communities.

Ethnic relations

Sri Lanka’s ethnic relations are characterized by periodic disharmony. Since independence, estranged relations between the Sinhalese and the Tamils have continued in the political arena. Intensifying grievances of the latter group against the Sinhalese-dominated governments culminated in the late 1970s in a demand by the Tamil United Liberation Front, the main political party of that community, for an independent Tamil state comprising the northern and eastern provinces. This demand grew increasingly militant and eventually evolved into a separatist war featured by acts of terrorism. The violence to which the Tamils living in Sinhalese-majority areas were subjected in 1983 contributed to this escalation of the conflict. The secessionist demand itself has met with opposition from the other ethnic groups.

The arts

In architecture, sculpture, and painting, Sri Lanka’s traditions extend far back into antiquity. The remnants of ancient works restored and preserved at archaeological sites, while reflecting Indian influences, also bear testimony to the inspiration derived from Buddhism. Classical literature, too, presents a blend of stylistic influences from India with Buddhist themes. Since the beginning of the 20th century, with the literati being exposed to European literature, local creative writing has acquired greater diversity in style and has become more secular in content.

In the performing arts there are several Sinhalese and Tamil folk traditions and a host of recent imports and imitations. Among the folk dance forms, for example, one finds the highly refined Kandyan dancing, which has been associated over several centuries with state ceremony and religious ritual in and around the historic hill capital of Kandy. The more improvised “devil dancing” is performed at healing rites and exorcisms. In drama, modernized versions of folk theatre share the limelight with modern original works and adaptations from Western dramatists. Both Indian and Western influences are strongly apparent in the popular forms of music.

Cultural institutions

Government assistance to the arts is channeled through several institutions under the Ministry of Cultural Affairs. Art, music, and dancing are included in the school curriculum. Advanced training in these and several other fields of fine arts is provided at the Government College of Fine Arts, the Institute of Aesthetic Studies, and several private institutions. The Department of National Archives and the National Museum, both in Colombo, are the main repositories of historical documents and archaeological treasures of the country.


The Buddhist church had been a beneficiary of the hydraulic system of the Dry Zone. Lands, taxes, and water dues were assigned to temples, which also invested in land, had their own tanks excavated, and derived benefits therefrom. Now these sources of revenue had declined. Kings continued their patronage of Buddhism, but their wealth and power had diminished. Nobles and commoners were not rich enough to make substantial benefactions. The great monasteries of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa were disbanded, and new institutions arose in and around the capitals of Dambadeniya, Kurunegala, Gampola, Rayigama, and Kotte, but they were not of the size or stature of their predecessors in the Dry Zone.

The absence of strong political authority also affected the unity and coherence of the Buddhist church. In this period there was a greater incidence of indiscipline and schism than before. Kings were called upon frequently to purge the sangha of undesirable elements, and its “purification” had to be undertaken now and then.

The influence of Hinduism on Buddhist institutions, theology, and ways of life was more marked during this period. The ruling classes mixed extensively with Tamil royal and noble families, and there was an influx of Brahmans from South India to all parts of the country. Deva worship became a marked feature of popular Buddhism. Vedic and post-Vedic gods now assumed importance and were worshiped by kings and commoners in elaborate festivals.

One of the consequences of the drift of the Sinhalese kingdoms to the southwest and the establishment of the Tamil kingdom to the north was the division of the island into two ethnolinguistic areas. Before this division occurred, Tamil settlements were interspersed among the Sinhalese throughout the island. Then the northern and eastern areas became predominantly Tamil; their numbers were strengthened by fresh migrations from South India after the collapse of the Pandyan kingdom in the 14th century.

Jaffna, as the capital of the Tamil kingdom, became the seat of Tamil Hindu culture, with a social organization somewhat akin to that of the Tamil districts of South India. The landowning cultivators, or Vellala, were the pivot of the social structure and the holders of political and economic power. A number of lesser castes stood in varying degrees of service relationship to the Vellala. Hindu institutions were supported by the kings and the people and were strengthened by the influx of Brahmans. Brahmanic temples sprang up in many parts of Jaffna, and rituals and public worship were regularly held. The Tamil language struck firm roots in the island and became one of its indigenous languages. Tamil literary culture was fostered by the support of the Jaffna kings and was enriched by the constant contact with South India, yet it developed an individuality in idiom and speech and acquired some linguistic characteristics that distinguished it from its South Indian parent.


 Facts for the Traveller

PASSPORTS: Passport valid for at least 3 months beyond the length of stay required by all.

VISAS: Required by all except nationals of the following countries who will be issued with visas free of charge on arrival at Colombo airport (for touristic visits only):

(a) 1. nationals of EU countries for a maximum stay of 30 days (nationals of Finland and Sweden may stay for up to 90 days);

(b) 2. nationals of Australia, Bangladesh, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines and the USA for a maximum stay of 90 days;

(c) 3. nationals of Albania, Bahrain, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Indonesia, Israel, Japan, Korea (Rep. of), Kuwait, Latvia, Lithuania, Maldives, Norway, Nepal, Oman, Pakistan, Poland, Qatar, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Switzerland, Thailand, Turkey and United Arab Emirates for a maximum stay of 30 days;

(d) nationals of CIS countries (except Georgia and Kyrgyzstan) for a maximum stay of 30 days.

Note: All business visitors require a visa.

Types of visa and cost: Tourist: ?28. Multiple-entry Business: ?84 (up to 3 months); ?144 (up to 12 months). Transit: ?28. Prices given are for UK nationals. Prices vary according to nationality; contact the Consulate (or Consular section at Embassy or High Commission) for further details.

Validity: As above. Visitors can request to extend their stay by applying to the Department of Immigration & Emigration, Station Road, Colombo 04 (tel: (1) 503 629 or 503 631 or 503 638; fax: (1) 597 511). This is issued at the discretion of the authorities who must be satisfied that the applicant has at least US$25 per day for the stay and holds an onward or return ticket for travel.

Application to: Consulate (or Consular section at Embassy or High Commission); see Useful Contacts section.

Application requirements: (a) Valid passport. (b) Completed application form. (c) 1 passport-size photo signed on the back by applicant. (d) Fee with self-addressed envelope, stamped for ?4, for return of passport. (e) Proof of sufficient funds for duration of stay.

Business: (a)-(e) and, (f) A letter from sponsor in the applicant’s own country accepting financial responsibility for the applicant and guaranteeing his/her return to home country. The company must ensure that the applicant does not undertake any activities which are illegal in Sri Lanka or which conflict with the cultural, moral and religious values of that country.

Working days required: 4.

Temporary residence: Enquire at Embassy or High Commission.




SAFETY/SECURITY: The 17-year-old armed conflict between the Government of Sri Lanka and a Tamil separatist group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), continues. Combat operations in the north-central and eastern parts of the country have been intermittent and often intense. Since March 2000, there have been particularly violent confrontations between government forces and the LTTE in the Jaffna Peninsula. Sri Lankan defense regulations restrict travel in much of the island5.s northern area, including Wilpattu and Gal-Oya national parks. Yala National Park in the southeast was closed following several terrorist incidents in July 1996, but Block One of the Park has since re-opened. Travelers are advised not to travel to the north, east and far southeast of the country. Travelers should not travel further north than Puttalam on the west coast and Anuradhapura in the central north of the country, nor further east than Polonaruwa and Badulla. Travelers are advised not to travel to Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Arugam Bay. The U.S. Government maintains tight security procedures regarding travel of U.S. Government employees, officials and dependents to the north, east and far southeast. those areas.

Because of the security situation, the U.S. Embassy may not be able to provide many consular services to American citizens who travel to the north, east, and far southeast of the country. For example, the Jaffna Peninsula has been at times entirely inaccessible to non-military transport, and civilians have been stranded.

Terrorist Activity: In October 1997 the State Department designated the LTTE as a foreign terrorist organization; that designation was renewed in October 1999. Terrorist activities in the capital city of Colombo and other areas remain a serious threat. In the past several years, the LTTE has also attacked several commercial ships flying foreign flags in the waters off the north and east of the country. While no terrorist attacks against international or domestic aviation in Sri Lanka have been recorded since 1987, threats were directed at domestic air carriers flying between Colombo and Jaffna in 1998. A domestic civilian aircraft flying from Colombo to Jaffna crashed in September 1998 killing everyone on board. The cause of the accident is still unknown.

Bomb attacks remain the greatest terrorist hazard. Political assassinations or attempts are routinely carried out by the LTTE. In March 1999, a suicide bomber killed four people in an attempted assassination in a suburb of Colombo. In July 1999, a suicide bomber killed a prominent moderate Tamil Member of Parliament and his escort in a residential section of Colombo. In December 1999, during the Presidential election campaign, a suicide bomber’s attack on the Sri Lankan President killed 14 and wounded hundreds of others, including the President. Also in December 1999, a bomb attack at an opposition-party political rally killed 10 and injured 43. In January 2000, a suicide bomber killed more than a dozen and wounded several passers-by when she detonated her bomb outside the Prime Minister’s Office after being detected by security personnel. In March 2000, as many as 8 LTTE terrorists attacked a government motorcade traveling on a major Colombo thoroughfare, killing 25 and wounding dozens. In June 2000, a suicide bomber assassinated the Minister for Industrial Development in a Colombo suburb. Twenty-one others were killed and 60 injured in the attack.

In addition to individual suicide bombers, vehicle-mounted bombs have been used by the LTTE. Major hotels have been directly affected by terrorist activities and could be again because of their proximity to likely economic, government and military targets. In January 1998, the Temple of the Tooth, an important religious and tourist site in Kandy, was subjected to a truck bomb; eight people were killed, and the temple, nearby businesses and an historic hotel were damaged.

Small bombs have frequently been placed against infrastructure targets such as telephone switchgear or electrical power transformers. Since the September 1999 detonation of three bombs placed in buses in separate incidents in Negombo and Badula, attacks on buses have increased. In one week in February 2000, seven separate explosions of bombs left on public buses in Colombo and other cities killed three and wounded over 140. Bombs have also been found on trains and on train roadbeds, resulting in one death and injuries to over 50.

Except for minor injuries resulting from an October 1997 detonation of a vehicle bomb near five-star hotels in Colombo, no U.S. citizens were killed or wounded in these incidents. Although U.S. citizens have not been specifically targeted, LTTE operations have been planned and executed with the knowledge that Americans and other foreigners might be killed or injured. Tourists or business representatives traveling in Sri Lanka who are in the wrong place at the wrong time may be inadvertently caught up in random acts of violence. Additional attacks, especially on infrastructure facilities, could result in future tightening of security, causing hardship to travelers.

Americans are urged to exercise extreme caution in Colombo because of possible terrorist activities there. In addition, Americans are advised to avoid political rallies and other mass gatherings, limit exposure to government and military installations and avoid public transportation if at all possible. Street and highway checkpoints staffed by security personnel are common; travelers should closely follow any instructions given. Non-Sri Lankan citizens of Tamil heritage have occasionally been detained during security operations. All U.S. citizens, of any ethnic heritage, are encouraged to keep their passports with them at all times. In the event of a terrorist attack, Americans should monitor local radio and television, seek cover away from windows and return to their homes or hotels when it is safe to do so. The Government has periodically imposed curfews in Colombo; Americans should strictly observe curfew regulations and monitor local radio and television. In May 2000, the Sri Lankan Government activated provisions of the Public Security Ordinance, giving certain government authorities sweeping powers to deal with threats to national security. The government also broadened censorship of foreign and domestic media.

CRIME INFORMATION: Petty street crime such as purse snatching and pickpocketing is common, especially on crowded local public transportation. The Embassy has received an increase in reports of incidents involving violence in the coastal towns of Negombo and Hikkaduwa. Exercise caution in these towns, especially at night. The loss or theft of a U.S. passport should be reported immediately to local police and the U.S. Embassy. U.S. citizens may refer to the Department of State5.s pamphlets A Safe Trip Abroad and Tips for Travelers to South Asia for ways to promote a more trouble-free journey. The pamphlets are available from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402, via the Internet at, or via the Bureau of Consular Affairs home page at

Money & Costs

Currency: Sri Lankan rupee
Relative costs:

  • Cheapt meal: US$1

  • Moderate restaurant meal: US$3-5

  • Expensive restaurant meal: US$6-15

  • Cheap room: US$6

  • Moderate hotel: US$15+

  • Expensive hotel: US$35++


    Ancient sites include Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya, Dambulla, Panduwasnuwara and Yapahuwa. All these places contain the remains of a great civilisation which grew through the centuries under the influence of Buddhism, a gentle faith still preserved in Sri Lanka in its purest form. Vast man-made lakes, large parks, shrines, temples and monasteries speak eloquently of the grandeur of the past and bear testimony to a cultured and imaginative people. The regions in the following guide are used for convenience only and have no administrative significance.

     Getting There & Away

    Sri Lanka’s national airline is Air Lanka (UL).

    Approximate flight times: From Colombo to London is 13 hours 45 minutes, to Hong Kong is 5 hours 10 minutes, to the Seychelles is 3 hours 55 minutes and to Tokyo is 12 hours.

    International airport: Colombo Bandaranayake (CMB) (Katunayake) is 32km (20 miles) from the city. Buses go to the city every 30 minutes. Taxis are available. There are trains to Maradana station (1.6km/1 mile from the city centre); travel time – 1 hour 25 minutes. Airport facilities include duty-free shop, restaurant, bar, snack bar, bank (24 hours), post office, tourist information (24 hours) and car hire.

    Departure tax: SLRs500. Transit passengers and children under two years are exempt. .

     Getting Around

    AIR: The major domestic airport is Ratmalana at Colombo. There are daily flights to smaller airports at Batticaloa, Gal Oya, Palali and Trincomalee. The airport at Jaffna is currently closed.

    Departure tax: SLR50.

    Helicopter tours: Helitours of Ceylon, with pilots from the Sri Lanka Air Force, offers charter tours of major tourist areas.

    RAIL: Trains connect Colombo with all tourist towns, but first-class carriages, air-conditioning and dining cars are available on only a few. New fast services operate on the principal routes, otherwise journeys are fairly leisurely. The total network covers 1500km (900 miles).

    Note: Rail services to Jaffna have recently been much reduced owing to the violent political disruptions in the northern area.

    ROAD: Traffic drives on the left. Most roads are tarred, with a 56kph (35mph) speed limit in built-up areas and 75kph (45mph) outside towns. Bus: An extensive network of services of reasonable quality is provided by the Sri Lanka Central Transport Board. Taxi: These are available in most towns. Car hire: This is available from several international agencies. Air-conditioned minibuses are also available. Chaffeur-driven cars are less expensive and recommended. Avoid remote areas and travelling at night. Documentation: In order to avoid bureaucratic formalities in Sri Lanka, an International Driving Permit should be obtained before departure. If not, a temporary licence to drive is obtainable on presentation of a valid national driving licence. This must be endorsed at the AA office in Colombo. The minimum age for driving a car is 18.

    URBAN: Bus: The Central Transport Board provides intensive urban bus operations in Colombo, where there are also private buses and minibuses. Fares are generally collected by conductors. Services are often crowded. Taxi: These are metered with yellow tops and red and white plates. Drivers expect a 10% tip.

    JOURNEY TIMES: The following chart gives approximate journey times (in hours and minutes) from Colombo to other major cities/towns in Sri Lanka.


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