Sri Lankan Culture

Sri Lankan culture, customs and etiquette

Nestled like a teardrop in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka is a land of vibrant colours, rich history, and warm hospitality. With a cultural heritage spanning thousands of years, Sri Lankan culture is a colourful blend of indigenous traditions, colonial influences, and religious diversity that reflects its diverse ethnicities, religions, and landscapes.

Cultural Diversity

Sri Lanka is a melting pot of cultures, with its population comprising Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, and other ethnic groups. Each community contributes to the country’s diverse cultural landscape, enriching it with unique customs, traditions, and practices.

Despite the diversity, there is a strong sense of national identity and unity that transcends ethnic boundaries, fostering harmony and mutual respect among the different communities.

Religious Diversity

Sri Lanka is a land of religious diversity, with Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity coexisting harmoniously and shaping the country’s cultural landscape. Buddhism holds a central place in Sri Lankan culture, with the majority of the population adhering to the Theravada tradition.

The island is dotted with ancient Buddhist temples, stupas, and monasteries, many of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Buddhist temples, such as the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy and the Dambulla Cave Temple, are sacred sites of pilgrimage and spiritual practice, where devotees gather to offer prayers, light oil lamps, and pay homage to the Buddha.

Buddhist rituals and practices, such as almsgiving, meditation, and pilgrimage, are deeply ingrained in Sri Lankan society, shaping daily life and cultural expressions.

Hindu kovils, Muslim mosques, and Christian churches also play important roles in Sri Lankan religious life, reflecting the country’s multiculturalism and religious tolerance.

Sri Lanka Festivals and Celebrations

Sri Lanka celebrates a multitude of cultural festivals and holidays throughout the year, that showcase the country’s rich cultural heritage and religious diversity.

One of the most important festivals is the Sinhala and Tamil New Year, also known as Aluth Avurudu or Puthandu, is one of Sri Lanka’s most important cultural festivals, marking the beginning of the traditional new year according to the Sinhala and Tamil calendars.

Celebrated in April, the New Year is a time for renewal, prosperity, and community gatherings, with rituals such as lighting hearth fires, preparing traditional sweets, and engaging in auspicious activities believed to bring good fortune for the year ahead.

The New Year festivities are characterised by joyful celebrations, colourful decorations, and spirited games and rituals that showcase the vibrancy of Sri Lankan culture.

Another beloved tradition is Vesak, the Buddhist festival commemorating the birth, enlightenment, and passing away of Lord Buddha, celebrated with colourful lanterns, processions, and acts of charity. Other major festivals include Thai Pongal, the Tamil harvest festival, and Deepavali, the Hindu festival of lights.

Ayurveda and Traditional Medicine

Ayurveda, the ancient system of traditional medicine, has deep roots in Sri Lankan culture and is practiced widely throughout the country. Ayurvedic treatments, such as herbal remedies, massage therapy, and yoga, are used to promote health, balance, and well-being, drawing on the wisdom of ancient texts and holistic healing practices.

Ayurvedic spas and wellness resorts offer visitors the opportunity to experience the benefits of Ayurveda firsthand, rejuvenating mind, body, and spirit in the tranquil surroundings of Sri Lanka’s natural beauty.

Social Etiquette and Customs

Hospitality, or “Atithi Devo Bhava,” is a cherished value in Sri Lankan culture, with guests welcomed with open arms and treated with utmost respect and generosity. Sharing a cup of tea, offering refreshments, and engaging in lively conversation are common expressions of Sri Lankan hospitality.

Sri Lankan society values respect, humility, and harmony in social interactions. Greetings are typically warm and respectful, with a nod, a smile, or a gentle handshake being customary.

It’s important to show deference to elders and authority figures, maintain eye contact during conversations, and use polite language and honorifics when addressing others.

Sri Lankans are known for their friendliness, hospitality, and willingness to help others, with acts of kindness and generosity being valued virtues that contribute to social cohesion and mutual respect.

In Sri Lankan culture never touch or pat the top of the head of Buddhist monks, including children who practice at a temple. Be respectful to monks. There’s no particular etiquette for Westerners – just be polite. Always give them a seat on a crowded bus (unless you’re disabled or elderly).

When visiting a temple or attending a social gathering, it is important to observe the customs and traditions of the local community.

It is highly controversial to discuss politics, particularly the Sinhalese/Tamil divide or the LTTE. The 26-year-old civil war which ended in 2009 has seen thousands of attacks throughout the country, including suicide bombings and massacres which have killed scores of politicians and civilians on both sides alike.

Whether you’re exploring the ancient ruins of Anuradhapura, trekking through the lush jungles of Sinharaja, or savouring the flavours of traditional Sri Lankan cuisine, Sri Lanka offers an unforgettable cultural journey for all who visit its enchanting landscapes and welcoming communities, be sure to embrace the sights, sounds, and spirit of Sri Lankan culture for an experience that celebrates the richness and diversity of this island paradise.