Sri Lankan Culture

The tragedy of Sri Lanka stems from its ethnic intolerance and militant readings of religious philosophy. The Sinhalese are predominantly Buddhist, the Tamils mainly Hindus, and there are sizeable Muslim and Christian Burgher (descendants of Dutch colonists) minorities. The Sinhalese speak Sinhalese, the Tamils and most Muslims speak Tamil and the Burghers often speak English. The Muslims are scattered all over the island and are thought to be descendants of early Arab or Indian traders. They have largely steered clear of the civil conflict, though there have been clashes between Muslims and Tamils in the east. The Tamils in the hill country are recent low caste arrivals brought in by the British to work on the plantations. They share little in common with the Tamils of the north who have been in Sri Lanka for over 1000 years. The hill country Tamils have generally managed to avoid being drawn into the current ethnic conflict.

Sri Lanka’s classical architecture, sculpture and painting is predominantly Buddhist. Stupas sprinkle the countryside, and there are several extravagantly large Buddhas sculptures, notably at Aukana and Buduruvagala. Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa have the most impressive archaelogical legacy, but Kandy is the most thriving cultural centre today. Colonial remnants include Dutch forts, canal and churches and British residences, clubs and courthouses. Galle is the finest colonial city on the island.

Sinhalese dancing is similar to Indian dance but relies on acrobatics, nimbleness and symbolism to unfold its narratives. Kandy is a good place to see `up-country dancing’, but Colombo or Ambalangoda are the places to witness the ritualistic exorcism of `devil dancing’. Folk theatre combines dance, masked drama, drumming and exorcism rituals to vividly recreate Sri Lankan folklore. Woodcarving, weaving, pottery and metalwork are all highly developed crafts, and Sri Lanka is especially renowned for its gems. Ambalangoda is the best place to see Sri Lankan masks; Ratnapura is the centre of Sri Lanka’s gem trade.

Rice and curry – often fiery hot – dominate meal times and usually include small side dishes of vegetables, meat and fish. Indian curries such as vegetarian thali, delicately flavoured biriyani and kool, a boiled, fried and dried-in-the-sun vegetable combo, are also available. Hoppers are a unique Sri Lankan snack, similar to a pancake, served with egg or honey and yoghurt. Coastal towns have excellent fish and most travellers are happy to live on the delicious local tuna. There’s plenty of tropical fruits to choose from, the tea is terrific and the beer acceptable.

Curry Powder

Sri Lankans use two different curry powders. One is referred to as plain curry powder and very similar to the Indian yellow curry powder obtainable from a Oriental or Indian grocery store. The other curry powder is referred to as black (black-dark brown in color) or roasted curry powder and is used for meats.
The yellow curry powder can be used as the base to make the black curry powder. This method is given in the beginning of the booklet.

Coconut Milk

Coconut milk ( the milk obtained from squeezing the meat of the coconut) is a central to Sri Lankan cooking. However as milk is made every day, this process of obtaining the milk is quite tedious. Nestle have been manufacturing powdered coconut milk in Sri Lanka for over a decade and as such has made it much easier to cook Sri Lankan style.
Dairy milk can be substituted at times. However occasions where lime or lemon juice is used there is a good possibility of dairy milk curdling.

Roasted Curry Powder Start with 100 gms raw yellow curry powder. Add about a 1 tablespoon fennel seed, 1 tablespoon garlic powder , 2 pieces lemon grass , 2 cloves, 3 cardamoms , 2 pieces cinnamon and 1 tablespoon mustard seed and roast in a frying pan at low heat for about 3 minutes or until dark brown in color. Then remove and grind to a powder.

Stores & Prices
Vijaya Video & Grocery,
1682 Victory Boulevard,
Staten Island, NY 10314
Tel: 718-720-7538

Lanka Indian Grocery Stores,
95-10, 37th Avenue
Jackson Heights, NY 11372

Prices of items can be obtained my mail from the stores. The stores concerned will mail the goods if paid in advance. They will charge UPS rates which works out to be about $2.50. If cinnamon is purchased ask for the Sri Lankan variety which is light brown/beige and very brittle. They may try to give the dark brown hard variety which not aromatic to the unwary. Prices for some key items are given below.

  • Nestle Milk Powder (350 gms) 3.99
  • Roasted Curry Powder (250 gms) 3.99
  • Raw Curry Powder (100 gms) 1.79


Sri Lanka has an enormous range of Buddhist, Hindu, Christian and Muslim festivals. The Kandy Esala Perahera (July/August) is the country’s most important and spectacular pageant, with 10 days of torch-bearers, whip-crackers, dancers, drummers and elephants lit up like giant birthday cakes. It climaxes in great procession honouring the Sacred Tooth Relic of Kandy. Second in importance is the Duruthu Perahera(January), held in Colombo, which celebrates a visit by Buddha to Sri Lanka.

Other celebrations include National Day (February), which is celebrated with parades, dances and national games; New Year (March/April), celebrated with elephant races, coconut games and pillow fights; Vesak (May), a sacred full moon festival commemorating the birth, death and enlightenment of Buddha; the Hindu Vel festival (July/August) in Colombo, where the ceremonial chariot of Skanda, the God of War, is hauled between two temples; and the predominantly Hindu Kataragama festival (July/August) in Kataragama, where devotees put themselves through the whole gamut of ritual masochism.