Geography of Sri Lanka

Information About the Island Nation in the Indian Ocean

Colombo City, Sri Lanka
Colombo City, Sri Lanka.

shan.shihan / Getty Images 

Sri Lanka is a large island nation located off of India's southeast coast. Until 1972, it was formally known as Ceylon, but today it is officially called the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. The country has a long history filled with instability and conflict between ethnic groups. Recently though, relative stability has been restored and Sri Lanka's economy is growing.

Fast Facts: Sri Lanka

  • Official Name: Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka
  • Capital: Colombo (commercial capital); Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte (legislative capital)
  • Population: 22,576,592 (2018)
  • Official Language: Sinhala
  • Currency: Sri Lankan rupees (LKR)
  • Form of Government: Presidential republic
  • Climate: Tropical monsoon; northeast monsoon (December to March); southwest monsoon (June to October)
  • Total Area: 25,332 square miles (65,610 square kilometers)
  • Highest Point: Pidurutalagala at 8,281 feet (2,524 meters)
  • Lowest Point: Indian Ocean at 0 feet (0 meters)

Sri Lanka's History

It is believed that the origins of human inhabitation in Sri Lanka began in the sixth century BCE when the Sinhalese migrated to the island from India. Around 300 years later, Buddhism spread to Sri Lanka, which led to highly organized Sinhalese settlements in the northern portion of the island from 200 BCE to 1200 CE. Following this period were invasions from southern India, which caused the Sinhalese to migrate south.

In addition to early settlement by the Sinhalese, Sri Lanka was inhabited between the third century BCE and 1200 CE by the Tamils, who are the second-largest ethnic group on the island. The Tamils, who are predominantly Hindu, migrated to Sri Lanka from the Tamil region of India. During the early settlement of the island, Sinhalese and Tamil rulers frequently fought for dominance over the island. This led to the Tamils claiming the northern part of the island and the Sinhalese controlling the south to which they migrated.

European inhabitation of Sri Lanka began in 1505 when Portuguese traders landed on the island in search of various spices, took control of the island's coast, and began to spread Catholicism. In 1658, the Dutch took over Sri Lanka but the British took control in 1796. After establishing settlements in Sri Lanka, the British then defeated the king of Kandy to formally take control of the island in 1815 and created the Crown Colony of Ceylon. During British rule, Sri Lanka's economy was based mainly on tea, rubber, and coconuts. In 1931, however, the British granted Ceylon limited self-rule, which eventually led to it becoming a self-governing dominion of the Commonwealth of Nations on February 4, 1948.

Following Sri Lanka's independence in 1948, conflicts again arose between the Sinhalese and the Tamils when the Sinhalese took over majority control of the nation and stripped over 800,000 Tamils of their citizenship. Since then, there has been civil unrest in Sri Lanka and in 1983 a civil war began in which the Tamils demanded an independent northern state. The instability and violence continued through the 1990s and into the 2000s.

By the late 2000s, changes in Sri Lanka's government, pressure from international human rights organizations, and the murder of the opposition Tamil leader officially ended the years of instability and violence in Sri Lanka. Today, the country is working toward repairing ethnic divisions and unifying the country.

Government of Sri Lanka

Today, Sri Lanka's government is considered a republic with a single legislative body consisting of a unicameral Parliament whose members are elected by popular vote. Sri Lanka's executive body is made up of its chief of state and president—both of which are filled by the same person, who is elected by a popular vote for a six-year term. Sri Lanka's most recent presidential election took place in January 2010. The judicial branch in Sri Lanka is composed of the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals, and the judges for each are elected by the president. Sri Lanka is officially divided into eight provinces.

Sri Lanka's Economy

Sri Lanka's economy today is mainly based on the service and industrial sector; however, agriculture plays an important role as well. The major industries in Sri Lanka include rubber processing, telecommunications, textiles, cement, petroleum refining, and the processing of agricultural products. Sri Lanka's main agricultural exports include rice, sugarcane, tea, spices, grain, coconuts, beef, and fish. Tourism and the related services industries are also growing in Sri Lanka.

Geography and Climate of Sri Lanka

Overall, Sir Lanka has a varied terrain but it mainly consists of flatlands. The south-central portion of the country's interior features mountain and steep-sided river canyons. The flatter regions are the areas where most of Sri Lanka's agriculture takes place, aside from coconut farms along the coast.

Sri Lanka's climate is tropical and the southwestern part of the island is the wettest. Most of the rain in the southwest falls from April to June and October to November. The northeastern part of Sri Lanka is drier and most of its rain falls from December to February. Sri Lanka's average yearly temperature is around 86 degrees to 91 degrees (28°C to 31°C).

An important geographic note about Sri Lanka is its position in the Indian Ocean, which made it vulnerable to one of the world's largest natural disasters. On December​ 26, 2004, it was struck by a large tsunami that hit 12 Asian countries. Around 38,000 people in Sri Lanka were killed during this event and much of Sri Lanka's coast was destroyed.

More Facts about Sri Lanka

• The common ethnic groups in Sri Lanka are Sinhalese (74%), Tamil (9%), and Sri Lankan Moor (7%).
• Sri Lanka's official languages are Sinhala and Tamil.


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Briney, Amanda. "Geography of Sri Lanka." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Briney, Amanda. (2021, February 16). Geography of Sri Lanka. Retrieved from Briney, Amanda. "Geography of Sri Lanka." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).