For thousands of years, the name of Sri Lanka was scripted on maps all over the world, in a multitude of exotic languages, marked prominently for those early seafarers and traders. We were a crossroads, a vital port-of-call in the great movement of goods and skill in the ancient world. This convergence of life from all corners of the world, mixing with the great civilizations that rose from the island’s anthropogenic bedrock resulted in a rich and colorful culture.
We start our trail from the ancient landscape of north-central Sri Lanka, the seat of the island’s monarchy for over a thousand years. Even with the plethora of sites to choose from one rises heads and shoulders above the rest as an example of peerless engineering prowess – the rock fortress of Sigiriya. Built by King Kashyapa in the 5th century CE, the fortified palace, considered by some as the eighth wonder of the world, has become one of Sri Lanka’s most iconic silhouettes, evoking memories of a culture as old as time. To the north-west and the east of Sigiriya are the great bastions of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa where, under the guiding hand of kings, monuments and temples proliferated across the land, many still standing today.
As spectacular as the ruins are, however, the culture of a people is not embodied solely by silent remnants of a bygone era. Festivals celebrating the myriad religions and faiths of Sri Lanka are vibrant, larger-than-life examples of culture, coalescing down through history to become a part of a modern narrative that is uniquely Sri Lankan. From the Nallur festival in Jaffna to the pageant of the Temple of the Tooth, festivities of all faiths populate the Sri Lankan calendar and are looked forward to by everyone. Food, of course, is one of the greatest ambassadors of our culture; so much so, in fact, that Sri Lanka’s gastronomic landscape warrants an article all to itself. In short, however, the fiery and aromatic spices that add multiple layers of flavour to our dishes and untold health benefits are now widely recognized and celebrated across the globe.
Cultures grow and assimilate newer elements into their identity as time goes on and Sri Lanka is no exception. If countries were asked to dress up as their favourite sport, Sri Lanka would show up with a bat, and a blue and yellow jersey. On every available patch of grass all over the island, you are sure to find children, teenagers, and adults enjoying a game of cricket, often with a piece of wood or an old chair playing the role of the wicket and slippers demarcating the crease. Introduced by the British in colonial times, cricket was wholeheartedly embraced by Sri Lankans as our very own and the lion totem proudly raised alongside the traditional stalwarts of the game. The 1996 world cup win sparked an entirely new subculture in the sport’s demographic, and we took the colourful wigs, face paint, and the trumpeting tunes of the papare band all the way to the hallowed green at Lords, stamping our seal on the sport forever.
Our trail winds its way up the hills for the final stop of our cultural expedition, culminating, as all great stories do in Sri Lanka, with a steaming cup of tea. Introduced to the country in a desperate attempt to save the losses caused by the devastation of the coffee plantations due to a blight, tea flourished in the cool mountain slopes of Nuwara Eliya. Today, Sri Lankan is not only the favoured beverage of Sri Lankans young and old, it is also the country’s most iconic export, prized as the most sought-after tea in the world and the perfect end to our trail in celebration of Sri Lanka’s culture.