Cross-Cultural Experience of Sri Lanka

作者:Hasanthi Urugodawatte Dissanayake 2013-03-06
Sri Lanka, an open, warm, and fascinating culture embracing foreign influences in many respects of social life, is continuously evolving. The strong cultural adaptability of the Sri Lankans has been the driving force in the shaping of the Sri Lankan identity and psyche.



oday’s Sri Lanka is a multi-religious multi-ethnic country, with four main ethnic groups: Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and Burghers. The country boasts highest biodiversity in Asia with approximately 3360 species of flowering plants with about 830 endemic species.

The strategic location of Sri Lanka has indeed played a major role in shaping the history of the island. From the time that man learnt to navigate the ocean, Sri Lanka had been known as a center for trade from the furthest corner of the Mediterranean world to Far East. This is evident from the record of the Pliny the Elder of the Roman Empire and Han Dynasty Historical Record (Han Shu), both dating back to 1st Century AD. Pliny records a diplomatic mission from Sri Lanka to the Ro-man Court as well as Chinese merchant ships coming to ports of Sri Lanka.

Sri Lankan gems and spices were the most famous and sought after commodities of export in the ancient times. In addition, the export of elephants and other exotic animals are also recorded. By around 15th Century AD, the Port of Galle at the southern tip of Sri Lanka became one of the busiest ports in Asia.

An open culture embracing foreign influences

There was a constant flow of peoples from different ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds, and some even settled down in Sri Lanka. With the trade and the influences of merchants and through intermarriages, Sri Lanka inherited many cultural traits of different cultures. This was possible as Sri Lankans are known to have the intrinsic characteristic of warmly welcoming any stranger with their heart and soul, a quality inculcated over generations, based on value system emanating from Theravada Buddhist traditions. Even today, Sri Lankans are known for this warmth extended to total strangers with a genuine smile. In fact, some even say that it is this unassuming and warm welcoming nature of its people that made it possible for Sri Lanka to have been ruled by three European powers!

But as history demonstrates, Sri Lankans are resilient not by being strongly resistant, but by being good at adapting and adjusting, to new situations. There-fore, during the colonization period of nearly four and a half centuries by Portuguese, followed by Dutch and then the British, many aspects have crept in to Sri Lankan culture.

First of all style of dress was influenced, then food, marriage systems, music, art, drama, and even the way of thinking. Many Sri Lankans today wear western clothes, but still many women, especially those in high level jobs in the government sector opt to wear the traditional dress, the saree. The saree of course shows the Indian influence in Sri Lankan culture as Sri Lankans today are a mix of descendants from north and south India who migrated in waves as early as the 6th Century BC and integrated with native tribes.

The use of chilies as an important ingredient in many Sri Lankan dishes was after the arrival of the Portuguese. Prior to that, the taste of the Sri Lankan food was dominated by pepper. Consumption of meat as a food type was also after colonization, as Buddhism does not advocate killing of animals.

The very popular “baila” music and dancing of Sri Lanka, which is a form of entertainment we cannot do without, was inherited from the Portuguese, but gradually became “Sri Lankanized”. The color for weddings and happiness used to be red, but with the Catholic influence, the Sri Lankan brides, even the non-Catholic turned to choose white and also the custom of wearing a veil. These practices continue to this day with slight modifications.

During the colonial times, a culture of polyandry existed in Kandyan Province due to the pressures to gain land for agriculture. This practice was only banned at the turn of 20th century. However, due to British Victorian values based on Christianity which made it common, for men to be monogamous. It is in this back drop that the importance of chastity prior to marriage came into the existence in the Sri Lankan society, a popular virtue of Victorian British times. Although Britain has evolved and today even gay marriages are accepted, Sri Lankan society still retains some of the Victorian values and attaches much importance to the virtues of a woman.

Throughout history, Sri Lanka demonstrates the foreign influences on its art and architecture. The early Buddhist sculptures were influenced by the Matura School of Art in northern India. By around 12th Century AD, more influences of art and architecture of South India, especially Pallawa, is evident. By the 16th century, when the Sri Lankan royalty was inter-marrying with the royals of South Indian Kingdoms, we see great influence of Kerala architecture. In coastal cities, the forts as well as other buildings built by the colonial powers especially Colombo and Galle, demonstrate a Roman-Dutch architecture consisting of tall decorative pillars and ornate facades. The Dutch also influenced furniture styles heavily.

However, the biggest influence was on language with many Portuguese, Dutch and English words being absorbed into local languages. The Roman Dutch Law introduced by the Dutch to Sri Lanka laid the foundation for the Sri Lankan legal system.

Sri Lanka has inherited from the British and continues to cherish a democratic form of governance with welfare features. Its education is free from primary school to university level. At school everyone gets free material for uniforms and free text books. Healthcare is also free. However, there are also private schools, universities and hospitals providing services.

Foreign influence on the paintings

In the arts, the influences over the centuries are evident as well.

It is interesting to note that during the colonial period, Christian influence was seen in Buddhist culture. The concept of Sunday School to study religion, the celebration of Vesak and even the way temples were designed with a fa.ade like a Church!

The Buddhist temple paintings too were greatly influenced. The characters of stories from the time of Buddha or his past lives were painted with western clothes, while ideally it should have been the clothes of contemporary India where the Lord Buddha was born, or Sri Lankan traditional clothes. In one case, the Sri Lankan King who reigned in the 3rd Century BC when Buddhism was officially introduced to Sri Lanka, was wearing a western style shirt, pants and boots!! However, there are also subtle depictions of hell with the king of hell and his disciples in western clothes; demonstrating how the westerners were despised.

In the recent past, a group of Dutch artists volunteered to repaint a temple with murals. When the murals were completed, the devotees of the temple became upset as some painting depicted figures with minimum clothes and in compromising postures, with a very western style of paintings, alien to Sri Lankan Buddhist art and considered unfit for a place of religious worship by the Buddhist society. The angry villagers have re-painted over some parts of the murals. However, the remaining paintings portray an interesting starting point of yet another new tradition perhaps. The background to the stories that was sup-posed to have happened in the 6th century when India had coliseums and other Roman style buildings in the background; a dancer was dressed like a modern day Turkish dancer; women were wearing modern western clothes while some men wore modern western clothes, others wore modern Sri Lankan clothes. Gradually however, this type of paintings will also be assimilated to Sri Lankan Buddhist art.

Foreign influence on liquor andcigarette consumption

The consumption of liquor as a habit and a form of entertainment was almost non-existent in ancient Sri Lanka as Buddhist virtues condemn intoxication. However, today farmers and fishermen resort to sipping a cup or a bowl of local freshly collected toddy from coconut or Palmyrah (a type of palm tree), with a low percentage of alcohol as an energy boost after a day of hard physical work. In Sinhalese the word for “cheers” did not exist until the westerners arrived in Sri Lanka. In fact the Sinhalese word for “cheers” is “saudiya puramu” “saudiya” meaning “cheers” in Portuguese and “puramu” means “let us fill (with)”. In spite of the Portuguese words creeping into the Sinhala language to “cheer” while consuming alcohol, it was not until during the British Period that consumption of alcohol did really get rooted in Sri Lanka as a form of entertainment in abundance. In fact, in the diaries of British officials in Sri Lanka records of how they made vast populations addicted to alcohol in order to make the lo-cal population more malleable to the British Rule and to control the local economy. The first taverns opened in Sri Lanka offered free drinks for months but they were not accepted by the local society. However, gradually the lo-cal “bad guys” started visiting the taverns and persuaded the local communities to join them in drinking for company. After there were many addicts, the taverns would start charging for the alcohol and gradually increased the price. The same system was used in Canada with the natives; and similarly in China with opium during Qing Dynasty.

The habit of smoking, another vice and an addiction, introduced to Sri Lanka by the colonial rulers. I remember as a child growing up in the 1970s and growing up in a non-smoking household, how much smoking in public places, even where it had sign boards “Smoking is Prohibited” bothered me. In many instances when I objected to smoking I was ignored or scolded by smoking adults. However, the attitudes of people have changed in the sub-sequent decades and now smoking in public places, especially in public transport and public buildings is something respected by Sri Lankans of today.

This change did not happen overnight and has been a collective effort of both the government as well as civil society. The Government brought in legislation to ban smoking in public places, government offices, and regulated advertising about smoking and even depicting smoking on television. The government also carried out strong campaigns to educate the public about the adverse effects of smoking which had a great impact on the society. Many private sector establishments too voluntarily followed the practice and stopped smoking at workplaces. With the growing awareness of the health implications, especially for the passive smokers, the habit of smoking is far less common among young people now. It has become a common practice among the smokers to request for permission even in private residences.

Sri Lankans always welcome guests with open arms; offering the best we have to our guests. It is not uncommon for a Sri Lankan to give his master bedroom to the guests and for the host to sleep on the sofa. Sometimes, in a poor household, after offering food to a guest, the host family even does not have enough for themselves. These are the true Buddhist values that have got embedded in to Sri Lankan culture.

Sri Lanka continues to adapt foreign influence with ease all the time. There is always a resistance at first for new and strange things, but after a while, it is merged within the existing culture. This cultural adaptability has given stamina and courage to Sri Lankans to rise from the wrath of a tsunami, a 30-year conflict and continue to face the future, with hope, optimism and of course with a smile. The enchanting and genuine smiles emanating from within, projecting Buddhist values in the society, irrespective of ethnicity or religion, is the true unification of Sri Lanka and its identity and its psyche.