Sri Lanka activities and attractions | Culture and History

Culture & History

Sri Lanka is an island nation with an ancient cultural heritage that dates back over 2,500 years. Ruins of ancient kingdoms and archeological findings provides fascinating insights into a sophisticated ancient society which possessed advanced knowledge of science and technology, town planning and design, and valued the aesthetic beauty of the arts. A significant event in the history of Sri Lanka was the introduction of Buddhism in the 3rd century B.C. which then became an integral part of Sinhalese culture and civilization on the island. The many natural resources of this tropical island along with its natural harbours and strategic location, has attracted many nations in the past. As early as the 5th century, ships from Egypt, Persia, Arabia, and China docked at the ports to barter their goods for treasures from this island including precious gems, pearls, spices, and scented woods. The Portuguese colonized the island in the 17th century followed by the Dutch and the British changing the course of history. In 1948 Ceylon as it was then called, gained independence from Britain. Today Sri Lanka is a kaleidoscope of religions and ethnicities with deep rooted traditions influenced by its past history. The majority of the population is Sinhalese but there are significant communities of Tamils, Muslims, Burghers (descendents of the Dutch), and Malays all of whom contribute to make this a colourful and vibrant society.
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Don’t Miss
Polonnaruwa’s ancient Buddhist rock sculptures
Sigirya’s Rock Fortress
Dambulla’s cave paintings and Buddha statues
A pooja at the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy
The Kandy Perehara, one of the finest cultural festivals in Asia
Tissa’s ancient Dagobas set amidst lush green paddy fields
Pooja time at the Hindu shrines at Kataragama
Kataragama Perehara in July or August
Magical night-time climb up the sacred Adam’s Peak
Galle’s 17th century Dutch Fort, a UNESCO protected World Heritage site
Dutch canals, churches and forts of Negombo and Kalpitiya

Sri Lanka History
Sri Lanka has a fascinating documented history dating back to 543 BC covering a period of over 2500 years of civilization.  The great chronicle Mahawamsa and many other historical manuscripts such as Deepawamsa, Chulawamsa Rajavaliya and Pujavalia have provided much of Sri Lanka’s documented history.   Fascinating archeological findings provide further information on the island’s earlier settlements.

The first major legendary reference to the island is found in the Indian epic - Ramayana, thought to have been written around 500 B.C. The Ramayana tells of the conquest of the island by Rama - an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu and Rama's quest to save his abducted wife, Sita from Ravanna - the demon god of Lanka.  According to scholars, this is a poetic account of the early southward expansion of Brahmanic civilization.  Legend also has it that Adam’s Peak – the 2,234 metre mountain located in the southern highlands of Sri Lanka is where Adam set foot on earth.  Archeological findings also reveal that several Stone Age settlements existed on the island dating back to pre-historic times.

According to the Mahawamsa, in 6th century B.C. Vijaya, an Indian Prince landed on the North Western shores of Sri Lanka and established himself as the ruler of the island with the help of Kuveni – a local demon worshipping princess.  Kuveni's offspring are the folkloric ancestors of the present day Veddas.

A significant event in the history of Sri Lanka was the introduction of Buddhism.  The Indian  emperor Asoka sent his son Mahinda to the island in 3rd century B.C. and introduced Buddhism to the reigning Sinhalese king Devanampiya Tissa who then followed the Indian emperor’s strategy of merging the political state with Buddhism.  As a result, Buddhism became an integral part of Sinhalese culture and civilization on the island. 
King Devanampiya Tissa founded the first capital city of Sri Lanka Anuradhapura.  This ancient kingdom survived for more than 1200 years amidst many foreign invasions and was ruled by more than 100 Sinhala Kings.  It was during this period that the Sri Maha Bodiya - a sapling of the sacred Bo Tree, under which the Lord Buddha attained enlightenment, was brought to Sri Lanka. Many other spectacular creations such as the Sigiriya Rock Fortress, Dambulla Cave Temples, Ruwanweli Maha Stupa and many other Stupas, palaces and monasteries were built.  Ruins of this architectural legacy still remain.

After Anuradhapura was destroyed by the South Indian Cholas, the kingdom was established in Polonnarawa in 1073 AD by King Vijayabahu. Polonnaruwa was the capital of Sri Lanka for more than 200 years. Many temples, palaces and a large number of irrigation tanks were built by the great Kings of Polonnaruwa.  These ancient irrigational tanks continue to provide water to the rural areas.  The Kingdom of Polonnaruwa ended following an invasion by Magha the ruthless Kalinga Prince from India in 1213 AD. This resulted in a shift of capitals and the population to the central and south western parts of the island where it was considered safer and more appropriate for defending against invading forces. As a result the Kingdoms were moved from Polonnaruwa to Dambadeniya and then to Yapahuwa, Kurunagala, Gampola, Kotte and finally to Kandy.

Since the 13th century AD, many invaders from South India followed by the Portuguese, Dutch and the English invaded and captured certain parts of the island, mainly the coastal area that were important for sea trade. But the Sinhalese Kings retaliated and won back the power on many occasions. However, in 1815 AD, the British who were controlling the coastal areas of the country at the time won over Kandy the last Kingdom of Sri Lanka, becoming the first foreign nation to rule the entire island.  Since 1815 Sri Lanka was a British colony until February 1948 when Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as it was then known, became an independent member of the British Commonwealth.

Red Dot’s Cultural Itineraries
Sri Lanka’s famous historical sites have become the staple of many a travel programme. But, with Red Dot, you can experience Sri Lanka's magnificent heritage in much more imaginative style. We are also enthusiastic about taking you to impressive ruins off the major tourist beat. We can also design a holiday with culture & heritage at its core – but with so much more. You might like to take a hot-air balloon ride, or to cycle along peaceful, rural roads and tracks. And here’s an enticing Lifestyle possibility – Ayurveda – meaning `the Science of Life’, is an ancient form of healing and well-being that dates back 5,000 years to the Vedic era in India. Ayurveda is considered to be the oldest healing science in the world. Use your cultural exploration as an excuse for a thorough detox! If you just hanker after beaches, the cultural triangle is convenient for Nilaveli on the stunning east coast. Negombo, close to the airport on the west coast, is also a convenient starting or finishing point if you want a few days on the beach.
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Ancient Sites
Sri Lanka’s archeological and heritage sites scattered across the country tells of a fascinating ancient history that dates back 2,500 years. Ancient kingdoms of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa dating back to the 3rd century B.C., the magnificent Sigiriya rock fortress, and the Dambulla rock temple provide a glimpse into this ancient civilization. Climb the 1,840 granite steps up to the dagoba at Mihintale, where Buddhism is said to have been born in Sri Lanka. Visit the jungle village of the Veddas - Sri Lanka’s indigenous inhabitants. The Veddas or Wanniya-laeto (forest- dwellers), preserve a direct line of descent from the islands’ original Neolithic community dating from at least 16,000 BC. (More)

Temples, Kovils, & churches
Sri Lanka is a kaleidoscope of religions and ethnicities with deep rooted traditions. The majority of the population is Sinhalese but there are significant communities of Tamils, Muslims, Burghers (descendents of the Dutch), and Malays all of whom contribute to make this a colourful and vibrant society. Walk down a street in Colombo, along the coast or in the rural areas and you are bound to come across a Buddhist temple, Hindu Kovil, mosque or a church, at times located in close proximity to each other. (More)

Pereharas & Festivals
The `Perehara’ is a cultural procession - an ancient historic ritual where tradition, religion, and the arts all come together. These processions display traditional folklore, music and the rhythmic dance forms. Dancers, drummers, flag bearers representing the different provinces, Chieftains in traditional attire, and scores of elephants dressed in glittering cloaks are all a part of these colourful pageants. Pereharas are a showcase of Sri Lanka’s creative talents as well as its colourful and ancient culture heritage. Several pereheras are conducted by Buddhist temples and Hindu kovils across the country at different times of the year. The Kandy Perehara is considered one of the most spectacular festivals in Asia. (More)

A vast network of National Museums and Archeological museums maintained by the government are scattered across the country and provides a fascinating glimpse into Sri Lanka’s deep rooted cultural heritage, natural history, and traditional folklore. (More)

Hiring Cultural Guides
As a visitor to Sri Lanka it is important that you know the range of Guide services available to you and most importantly know the limitations of each level of Guides. It is illegal for a person to accompany and explain about attractions to a tourist without a valid Guide License and such people could get arrested and taken away by the Tourist Police, keeping the guests stranded. If your transport is arranged by Red Dot, we will provide you with one of our English speaking drivers who are able to explain historical attractions to you in detail, making the experience more meaningful. Our selected group of drivers mainly consists of professional Chauffeur Guide license holders who are legally permitted to explain and educate visitors about these attractions. However, bear in mind that a licensed Chauffeur Guide is only permitted to offer his services to a group of a maximum of six visitors. (More)

Local customs & law

It is important for all visitors to Sri Lanka to have a sound knowledge of local customs and law especially when visiting cultural, religious and historical sites.  Given below are relevant customs and regulations:

• According to the law of the country, it is illegal to smoke or drink in public. Smoking and consuming alcohol is strictly prohibited at all cultural and religious attractions.

• No visitors are allowed to enter religious places under the influence of alcohol.

• Selling and serving of alcohol is prohibited on Poya full moon days as these days have a religious significance, according to Buddhism.

• Visitors of both genders have to wear decent clothing to cover the body appropriately when visiting religious places and shorts and sleeveless tops are not acceptable.  This rule is strictly adhered to at all religious sites especially the Sacred Bo Tree and Stupas in Anuradhapura and the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy.

• Visitors should remover hats, caps, shoes and slippers when entering buildings and sites with religious monuments. Most of these places have a secure facility at the entrance for visitors to leave behind shoes and slippers for a very small fee.

• At some attractions such as Dambulla and Kandy, visitors have to purchase a camera permit for their still photo and video cameras.

• No one is allowed to take photographs with Buddha Statues facing the back to the statue. This should be followed by all visitors as a sense of respect to religious monuments.

• At historical places of archeological and cultural value such as Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya, where many ruins of ancient buildings are found, visitors should refrain from walking on the brick walls, touching wall murals and frescoes.  This can cause damage to these ancient ruins.

The golden rule for all visitors to cultural religious and historical attractions is to 'take back only good memories and photographs leaving behind only foot steps'.

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