Sri Lanka Facts and History

Sri Lanka

Getty Images / Shihan Shan

With the recent end of the Tamil Tiger insurgency, the island nation of Sri Lanka seems poised to take its place as a new economic powerhouse in South Asia. After all, Sri Lanka (formerly known as Ceylon) has been a key trading hub of the Indian Ocean world for more than a thousand years.

Capital and Major Cities

Administrative Capital: Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte, metro population 2,234,289

Commercial Capital: Colombo, metro population 5,648,000

Major Cities:

  • Kandy population 125,400
  • Galle population 99,000
  • Jaffna population 88,000


The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka has a republican form of government, with a president who is both head of government and head of state. Universal suffrage starts at age 18. The current president is Maithripala Sirisena; presidents serve six-year terms.

Sri Lanka has a unicameral legislature. There are 225 seats in Parliament, and members are elected by popular vote to six-year terms. The Prime Minister is Ranil Wickremesinghe.

The president appoints judges to both the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals. There are also subordinate courts in each of the country's nine provinces.


Sri Lanka's total population is approximately 20.2 million as of the 2012 census. Nearly three-quarters, 74.9%, are ethnic Sinhalese. Sri Lankan Tamils, whose ancestors came to the island from southern India centuries ago, make up about 11% of the population, while more recent Indian Tamil immigrants, brought in as agricultural labor by the British colonial government, represent 5%.

Another 9% of Sri Lankans are the Malays and Moors, descendants of Arab and Southeast Asian traders who plied the Indian Ocean monsoon winds for more than a thousand years. There are also tiny numbers of Dutch and British settlers, and aboriginal Veddahs, whose ancestors arrived at least 18,000 years ago.


The official language of Sri Lanka is Sinhala. Both Sinhala and Tamil are considered national languages; only about 18% of the population speaks Tamil as a mother tongue, however. Other minority languages are spoken by about 8% of Sri Lankans. In addition, English is a common language of trade, and approximately 10% of the population are conversant in English as a foreign language.


Sri Lanka has a complex religious landscape. Almost 70% of the population are Theravada Buddhists (mainly the ethnic Sinhalese), while most Tamils are Hindu, representing 15% of Sri Lankans. Another 7.6% are Muslims, particularly the Malay and Moor communities, belonging primarily to the Shafi'i school within Sunni Islam. Finally, about 6.2% of Sri Lankans are Christians; of those, 88% are Catholic and 12% are Protestant.


Sri Lanka is a teardrop-shaped island in the Indian Ocean, southeast of India. It has an area of 65,610 square kilometers (25,332 square miles), and is mostly flat or rolling plains. However, the highest point in Sri Lanka is Pidurutalagala, at an impressive 2,524 meters (8,281 feet) in altitude. The lowest point is sea level.

Sri Lanka sits at the middle of a tectonic plate, so it does not experience volcanic activity or earthquakes. However, it was heavily impacted by the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, which killed more than 31,000 people in this mostly low-lying island nation.


Sri Lanka has a maritime tropical climate, meaning that it is warm and humid throughout the year. Average temperatures ranges from 16°C (60.8°F) in the central highlands to 32°C (89.6°F) along the northeast coast. High temperatures in Trincomalee, in the northeast, can top 38°C (100°F). The entire island generally has humidity levels between 60 and 90% year-round, with the higher levels during the two long monsoonal rainy seasons (May to October and December to March).


Sri Lanka has one of the strongest economies in South Asia, with a GDP of $234 billion US (2015 estimate), a per capita GDP of $11,069, and a 7.4% annual growth rate. It receives substantial remittances from Sri Lankan overseas workers, mostly in the Middle East; in 2012, Sri Lankans abroad sent home about $6 billion US.

Major industries in Sri Lanka include tourism; rubber, tea, coconut and tobacco plantations; telecommunications, banking and other services; and textile manufacturing. The unemployment rate and percentage of the population living in poverty are both an enviable 4.3%.

The island's currency is called the Sri Lankan rupee. As of May, 2016, the exchange rate was $1 US = 145.79 LKR.


The island of Sri Lanka appears to have been inhabited since at least 34,000 years before the present. Archaeological evidence suggests that agriculture began as early as 15,000 BCE, perhaps reaching the island along with the ancestors of the aboriginal Veddah people.

Sinhalese immigrants from northern India likely reached Sri Lanka around the 6th century BCE. They may have established one of the earliest great trade emporiums on earth; Sri Lankan cinnamon appears in Egyptian tombs from 1,500 BCE.

By about 250 BCE, Buddhism had reached Sri Lanka, brought by Mahinda, the son of Ashoka the Great of the Mauryan Empire. The Sinhalese remained Buddhist even after most mainland Indians had converted to Hinduism. Classical Sinhalese civilization relied on complicated irrigation systems for intensive agriculture; it grew and prospered from 200 BCE to about 1200 CE.

Trade flourished between China, Southeast Asia, and Arabia by the first few centuries of the common era. Sri Lanka was a key stopping point on the southern, or sea-bound, branch of the Silk Road. Ships stopped there not only to restock on food, water and fuel, but also to buy cinnamon and other spices. The ancient Romans called Sri Lanka "Taprobane," while Arab sailors knew it as "Serendip."

In 1212, ethnic Tamil invaders from the Chola Kingdom in southern India drove the Sinhalese south. The Tamils brought Hinduism with them.

In 1505, a new kind of invader appeared on Sri Lanka's shores. Portuguese traders wanted to control the sea-lanes between the spice islands of southern Asia; they also brought missionaries, who converted a small number of Sri Lankans to Catholicism. The Dutch, who expelled the Portuguese in 1658, left an even stronger mark on the island. The legal system of the Netherlands forms the basis for much of modern Sri Lankan law.

In 1815, a final European power appeared to take control of Sri Lanka. The British, already holding the mainland of India under their colonial sway, created the Crown Colony of Ceylon. UK troops defeated the last native Sri Lankan ruler, the King of Kandy, and began to govern Ceylon as an agricultural colony that grew rubber, tea, and coconuts.

After more than a century of colonial rule, in 1931, the British granted Ceylon limited autonomy. During World War II, however, Britain used Sri Lanka as a forward post against the Japanese in Asia, much to the irritation of Sri Lankan nationalists. The island nation became fully independent on February 4, 1948, several months after the Partition of India and the creation of independent India and Pakistan in 1947.

In 1971, tensions between the Sinhalese and Tamil citizens of Sri Lanka bubbled over into armed conflict. Despite attempts at a political solution, the country erupted into the Sri Lankan Civil War in July of 1983; the war would continue until 2009, when government troops defeated the last of the Tamil Tiger insurgents.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Szczepanski, Kallie. "Sri Lanka Facts and History." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Szczepanski, Kallie. (2023, April 5). Sri Lanka Facts and History. Retrieved from Szczepanski, Kallie. "Sri Lanka Facts and History." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).