Every visitor to Sri Lanka will appreciate the religious, ethnic and linguistic diversity of the island, but they will quickly realise that the Sinhalese Buddhist culture is the most dominant. Nearly 75% of the population in 2012 were Sinhalese, with the largest minority group, mainly located in the remoter north and east coastal areas, being the Sri Lankan Tamils at 14%.
With a history of Buddhism going back to the 3rd century, this tear-drop island has continued through the ages to embrace and nurture Buddhist philosophies and practices. Today there are estimated to be over 6,000 monasteries and up to 20,000 practising monks.
The island has some of the most exciting Buddhist monuments, including some of my favourites in the Heritage North: Dambulla (with Golden Temple and Cave Temple); Anuradhapura (Samadhi Statue, Mirisawetiya Dagaba as well as Jetavana and Abhayagiri Monastries); and Polonnaruwa (Rankoth Vehera, Mediririya Watadgeya).
Furthermore Kandy’s ‘Temple of the Tooth’ (Sir Dalada Maligawa) as well as Kirivehera Temple (which, according to Mahavamsa tradition, is where Gautama Buddha attained enlightenment) are two of the most significant spiritual sites.
One of the delights of travelling in Sri Lanka is that the Theravada Buddhist practices are apparent in everyday life and will seep deep into any visitor’s holiday itinerary. Across markets, town centres, rural farmlands, coastal villages, local ceremonies and bus stations, Buddhist shrines, incense burners and cultural exhibits dominate. Whether cut into trees, strapped onto rickshaws or quietly placed in corner of your room, an awareness and acknowledgment of spiritual life is never far away.
Mixing with monks and pilgrims, whether in temple gardens, picnic areas, historic shrines, beach viewpoints or in one of the tasty eateries not only allows for a burst of Buddhist colour and incense, but also offers a chance to discuss Buddhism and further appreciate how deep-rooted it is on this southern sub-continent island.
Having travelled the length and breadth of the island over the years, I find one of the most welcoming aspects of arriving in Sri Lanka (from wherever in the world), is the immediate sense of Buddhist calm. It soon descends on you and pervades whatever routine you had planned.
Long may this last, with the parallel hope being that the island’s 25 year Civil War (between the Sinhalese military and Tamil independence movement) – which started on my 21st birthday in 1983 – stays firmly a thing of the past.
If it does, it allows us all to delight in travelling through Sri Lanka’s Buddhist culture. Heeding the word of Lord Buddha himself who proclaimed ‘It is better to travel well than to arrive’.