A Guide to Sri Lankan Culture

As a popular tourist destination, you would be forgiven for expecting Sri Lanka to have lost much of its own traditional culture, yet this is far from the truth. While it may be the case that some Westernisation has taken place – you’re likely to come across many English speakers and perhaps even the occasional Western fast food joint – Sri Lanka is still very much a country that retains its own identity, culture and traditions. Influenced by different religions, the arts, and its colonial past, Sri Lanka’s culture is rich, diverse, and somewhat difficult to fully summarise in few words, but we’ve highlighted some of its key features so you know what to expect when you pay a visit to the small island nation.

Religion has a significant influence on Sri Lanka’s culture, with Buddhism being the most widely practised belief, but with Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity also observed by smaller numbers of people. You’ll find beautiful temples and religious monuments dotted all over the island which can make great places to visit to gain a deeper insight into the religious values of the nation. The city of Kandy is considered to be the Sri Lankan centre of Buddhism, and is home to the sacred Temple of the Tooth, and is also where the Festival of the Tooth, or Esala Perahera, takes place every July or August. The festival pays homage to the Sacred Tooth Relic of Buddha and involves a parade of lavishly decorated elephants, traditional dancers, and many other visual spectacles which makes this a truly grand occasion that is not to be missed if you’re visiting during the period.

Cricket has to be one of the biggest sources of entertainment for the country. While volleyball is officially the national sport, you’ll find that it is cricket that everyone is much more passionate about. Playing cricket is one of the nation’s favourite pastimes so you're likely to come across many cricket fields during your stay should you wish to partake in a game yourself. Watching national games is also extremely popular, with businesses even been known to close when a major game is being televised. Indeed, when Sri Lanka won the world cup in 1996 the whole country shut down to celebrate.

Sri Lanka is home to some beautiful art, both visual and performance. Buddhism influences much of the art and you’ll see that many paintings, sculptures and architecture incorporate religious elements. Temple and cave paintings are also a key feature of Sri Lanka’s artistic culture that is worth viewing if the opportunity arises. Wooden handicrafts and pottery have long been crafted by both the nation’s natives and foreign settlers, with tourism seeing a revival of the handicraft industry to produce souvenirs for travellers.

Dancing is also popular in Sri Lanka, with a number of classical, folk, and dramatic dances performed as part of different rituals and festivals. Popular dance forms include the Kandyan Dance, Low Country Dance, and the Devil Dance, where costumes will often be donned making these dances true visual performances. Many hotels will now put on performances of these dances for tourists, so you need not wait for a festival in order to witness one of these enchanting routines.

Traditional Sri Lankan cuisine draws influence from Indian cuisine so can be considered rather similar in some respects. Rice and spicy curry dishes make up a large proportion of Sri Lankan cuisine with meat, fish, vegetable, and even fruit curries commonly found on menus. Coconut milk is a common ingredient in many dishes and gives them a distinctive flavour, as well as spices such as cinnamon and chilli powder. Dishes are often accompanied by chutneys, pickled fruit and vegetables, and sambal, a spicy sauce.

In terms of beverages, toddy is a popular alcoholic drink which is made from palm tree sap, while Faluda, a mixed cold drink with syrup, ice cream, jelly pieces and basil seeds is also popular. Sri Lanka is one of the largest tea providers in the world, so it should be no surprise that tea has a large presence in Sri Lankan cuisine. Tea is served often throughout the day, and also when guests come to visit as well as at festivals.

To truly experience Sri Lanka’s vibrant culture plan a trip today by visiting our Sri Lanka page or contacting one of our experts on 020 7843 3531.