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Golden Temple of Dambulla
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Indian Subcontinent >> Sri Lanka >> Religion in Sri Lanka

Religion in Sri Lanka

With 70% of the Sri Lankan population following Buddhism, it is worthwhile to touch upon this religion, even if briefly. Buddhism is not a religion as such, in the sense that it centres round a code of morality and a philosophy of life, rather than a god. Based mainly on the teachings of Gautam Buddha 'The Enlightened One’, Buddhism stresses on the belief that to reach a state of enlightenment is within the scope of every human being. The main stream of Buddhism followed in Sri Lanka is known as `Hinayana’ ("Lesser Vehicle") Buddhism, which is based on the belief that ultimate nirvana is possible for everybody, but one must work towards it, by leading a life of austerity and virtue.

Buddhism came to Sri Lanka through its ties with the Indian Emperor Ashok, whose son Mahinda brought the religion to the island kingdom. Since then, Sri Lanka has come to be regarded as the stronghold of Hinayana Buddhism.

The population of Sri Lanka is made up of a number of different ethnic groups – and this is one of the main causes of the country’s current problems. The Sinhalese make up around 74% of the population and are mostly Buddhists, while the Tamils, approximately 18% of the populace, are mainly Hindus and consider themselves twodistinct entities. One is the Sri Lanka or Ceylon Tamils, who trace their descent from Tamils who came from India over 10 centuries ago, while the 'Hill Country’ Tamils are descendants of Tamil labourers brought in by the British to work on Sri Lankan plantations in the 1800s. Besides the Sinhalese and the Tamils (the two main players in the current ethnic conflict), other groups in Sri Lanka include the Muslims -around 7% of the population, some of them Malays and many of them descendants of Arab traders, the Veddahs - the aborigine peoples who were the original inhabitants of Sri Lanka and the Burghers, descendants of Dutch and Portuguese settlers.

While in Sri Lanka, remember that you’re in the Orient, amongst people whose idea of what is 'not done’ may be very different from your own. It isn’t as if passersby will spring at our throat if you exceed the norms of what is correct social behaviour; you might just invite a lot of unwelcome attention. Just a piece of advice for those visiting Sri Lanka for the first time: dress modestly, especially if you’re a woman (going topless is very obviously unthinkable!). Wearing jeans, trousers, or knee-length skirts is safest on the streets.

For men, there are fewer restrictions, but some rules do apply while visiting places of worship – most Buddhist temples and mosques require you to take off your shoes; you may need to cover your head in Hindu temples, but uncover it in Buddhist temples. Some places, like the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, also do not allow in visitors wearing shorts. Usually, there will be a signboard to this effect outside the site you’re visiting.


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