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Exploring the Historical and Cultural Heritage of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is a relatively tiny island, but she is an absolute giant in terms of historical and cultural heritage.

Incredibly, Sri Lanka, the pearl of the Indian Ocean, has a documented history dating back over 2000 years. Even more mind-blowing is that it is estimated that the first humans inhabited Sri Lanka over 125,000 years ago. Today Sri Lanka is a multicultural island and is diverse in almost every way – from flora and fauna, to the languages spoken.


Sri Lanka has both Sinhala and Tamil as official languages, with English being considered a linking language. Almost all signage in Sri Lanka is trilingual, which shows off the beautiful scripts of both Sinhala and Tamil. Over 70% of the country speaks Sinhala, and Tamil speakers number over 4 million. Most people speak, or at least understand English and are more than happy to help visitors to the country. Interestingly Sri Lanka also has a handful of people who speak Sri Lankan Portuguese Creole, which actually flourished as the lingua franca on the island for over 350 years.


Of course, Sri Lanka has historically been known for its spices, with Sri Lanka still supplying most of the world’s cinnamon! Sri Lanka was a haven for spice and ivory traders in the 15th and 16th centuries, and the cuisine reflects this. With influences from all over the world, your palette will never be bored, be aware that it is perfectly acceptable for visitors to the country to ask for their food to be made ‘less spicy’, as Sri Lankans are very liberal with their chilli!


Another insight into Sri Lanka’s rich cultural and historical heritage is from the national flag, also known as the Lion Flag. The lion and the maroon background represent the Sinhalese people. The stripes on the left represent the largest minorities in the country, orange representing the Tamils and the green stripe representing Sri Lankan Moors. The flag was adopted in 1972, and if you are in Colombo you should visit the Galle Face Hotel at sunset to see the ceremonial lowering of the flag – everyday at sunset!

Cultural Heritage

Sri Lanka boasts an incredible 8 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, which are landarks selected for their global cultural significance. Sri Lanka is home to six cultural sites and two natural sites, and you’ll be spoilt for choice as a culture vulture!

Let’s begin with the Cultural Triangle, with the triangle ‘points’ being Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Dambulla.

Anuradhapura was built in the 5th century BC and was the Sinhalese capital of Sri Lanka from the 4th century BC until the 11th century, when invasions from South India forced the capital to shift. Interestingly this ancient city was then abandoned and the surrounding jungle overtook it. It was only in the 19th century that it was rediscovered by the British and has since been a Buddhist pilgrimage centre. Anuradhapura is probably Sri Lanka’s most famous ancient city and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982. Not to be missed!

Visiting the magnificent Dambulla Rock Temple cave complex in Sri Lanka is a once in a lifetime opportunity. There are more than 80 documented caves in the surrounding area and the 5 main caves on the rock are the best-preserved in the whole country, located under the vast overhanging rock. With over 150 Buddha statues, endless murals and still being a functional cave monastery – this is a must see.

Today the ancient city of Polonnaruwa remains one of the best planned and preserved archaeological relic cities in the country, which explains its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This truly shows the discipline and ingenuity of the Kingdom’s first rulers. Make sure you grab your sunblock as there are many, many ruins to explore and marvel at. From the ‘Gal Viharaya’, which is 3 incredible statues of Lord Buddha carved out of rock to an incredible tank (man made lake). Little media trivia for you – Polonnaruwa was also used as a backdrop to filmed scenes for the Duran Duran music video Save a Prayer in 1982!

If you’ve seen anything about Sri Lanka, it’s likely you’ve seen images of the Incredible Sigiriya Rock Fortress. When you set eyes on the incredible Sigiriya Rock in person, it is truly awe inspiring. Rising 200m from the scrubland, the true ingenuity and beauty of this world wonder is best absorbed in person. The majestic moat which surrounds the rock and the beautiful water gardens could be an attraction on their own! Let your mind travel back thousands of years as you gaze at the world-renowned frescoes of the heavenly, risque maidens of Sigiriya. Don’t miss them as they are in a sheltered rock cave, as you approach the spiral staircase. Make sure you savour the moment, so always allow yourself plenty of time at the top, insider tip – you don’t really want to be descending in the dark!

It is not often you can see, sleep and eat in a beautifully preserved fort town, like you can in Galle! Initially built by the Portuguese in the 16th century, the fort was later conquered and fortified by the Dutch in the 17th century and then later fell to the might of the British. For hundreds of years Galle was a crucial trading port for spices and other goods, and today you have the pleasure of soaking up all this history in a living fort. The Galle Fort offers stunning architecture, beautiful boutiques, an array of mouthwater restaurants and iconic views from the ramparts.

The final cultural ‘must see’ on our list is the famous Temple of the Tooth, in Kandy. Also known as Sri Dalada Maligawa, this temple is a world renowned place of worship. The left canine tooth of Lord Buddha is enshrined here, and for centuries it was said that whoever holds the tooth relic holds the governance of the country. Kandy was the last capital of the Sri Lankan kingdom, and the temple was designated a world heritage site in 1988. Don’t forget you must always have your shoulders and knees covered in places of religious significance.


We hope we have given you a glimpse into the immensely rich historical and cultural heritage of Sri Lanka. This article just scratches the surface, and you can experience all this plus much more in person!

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