Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is an island nation that lies off the southern tip of India.  The island is characterized by lowlands around its periphery and mountains near its center.  It is a tropical land that is associated bio-geographically with the Indian subcontinent.  Indeed, a land bridge connected Sri Lanka to the Asian mainland as recently as 10,000 years ago.  It is therefore not surprising that one finds most of the same species of wildlife in Sri Lanka as in southern India. 


photo M. Noonan

The human population of Sri Lanka is now 20 million, with an economy focused primarily on rubber, tea, coconuts, clothing, spices, eggs, and beef.  The Gross Domestic Product in 2003 was 48 billion US dollars.  Urban settlements and cultivated fields dominate the landscape, but areas of lush tropical forests are also quite widespread and are interspersed among the human settlements throughout the nation. 


photo M. Noonan

The culture of the majority Sinhalese is vibrant.  The influence of Buddhism, the predominant religion, is apparent in most aspects of daily Sinhala life.  Their form of Buddhism follows the teachings of the enlightened Indian prince Siddartha Gautama who first came to the Sri Lanka in the city of Anaradhapura.  In this ancient city, the Sri Maha Bodhi tree is purported to have been planted from a cutting of the Bo tree under which Buddha himself meditated when he was enlightened. 

    
photo M. Noonan

Buddhist devotees seek to follow a middle path between excessive desire and excessive suffering.  They pursue this  through wisdom, morality, and meditation.  Buddhism preaches equality of spirit and is one of the few major religions that promotes gender equity.  In addition, learning is very important in Buddhism.  Beginning in the third century BCE, free education was offered in any Sri Lankan Buddhist monastery, and a tradition of widespread education has been a cultural characteristic ever since.  After WWII, education became governed by the state, and kindergarten through university grades are now offered free to all citizens.  Sri Lanka has a remarkably high literacy rate, at almost 93% of all adults.


photo M. Noonan

The North is the cultural heartland of the Tamils, who are Hindu by religion, and who make up eighteen percent of the population.  Culturally, this area is closely tied to southern India, from which the Tamils originally immigrated.  An additional nine percent of the population is Muslim, and a small percentage are Christians.  To the north are the Veddahs, or people of the forest, who also comprise a small percentage of the overall population.  They are hunters and gatherers that live in the Kele-Weddo jungle between the Sinhalese and Tamil regions. 

The legendary past of Sri Lanka differs for each religion.  Buddhists claim that Sri Lanka was halfway to paradise, and that Buddha stepped on Mount Sri Pada to get there.  Christians call this same mountain Adam’s Peak, for they claim that Adam once stood there to look back on the Garden of Eden.  The Hindus believe that their mythical hero, Rama, skipped across Sri Lanka’s islands to India to rescue his wife, Sita, from her abductees in the epic tale Ramayana.  Scientifically, it is believed that the Sinhalese arrived in the fifth or sixth century BCE to replace, by conquest, the Veddahs that previously lived there.

However, to the average Sri Lankan, past religious history and modern ethnic rivalries have very little impact on their daily lives.  People of all ethnicities share communities, schools, and even marriages.  As a result, the visitor to Sri Lanka in modern times has the opportunity to observe a rich, vibrant blend of cultures that embraces the true uniqueness of this remarkable country.

     
photo M. Noonan


 


photo M. Noonan

The Hindu God Ganesha

The elephant has also been a recurring symbol in the two main religions of Sri Lanka.  For the Sinhalese followers of Buddhism, they believe that Buddha’s mother saw a white elephant in a dream just before his birth.  In the capital city of Kandy, the greatest elephant in the country carries a casket containing Buddha’s tooth through the streets every year.   For the Tamil followers of Hinduism, Ganesha, the elephant god, is known as the "remover of obstacles".  It is one of five main deities, representing success, education, wisdom, and wealth. 

In a world of rapidly vanishing wild spaces, the process of preserving the Asian elephant in Sri Lanka has been truly amazing.  The Sri Lankan people have unquestionably entered the modernized world in every respect.  Yet they have still maintained the natural resources necessary for the survival of their native wildlife.  Among the very many amazing species that inhabit the island, the Asian Elephant is certainly the most visible. 


photo M. Noonan

For thousands of years, elephants have played a crucial role in support of Sri Lankan agrarian life.  Its immense strength has lent itself easily to work in the fields and forests.  Now, as the role of the elephant in daily life becomes less and less important, it has become the Sri Lankans’ turn to support the elephants through conservation efforts. 

Today, the working elephant has been mostly replaced by trucks and farming equipment in Sri Lankan life.  Now, the elephant is beginning to play a key role in the tourism industry, drawing nature conservationists and cultural tourists from around the world.  Although it is no longer necessary for survival by the people of Sri Lanka, it will certainly continue to play a key role in the rich cultural heritage that is being passed on to future generations.                         


photo M. Noonan
Sri Lanka roadside sign says "Protect our wildlife resources with love care"

 

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