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Cities in SRI LANKA




Ethnically and culturally, the Sri Lankan population can be divided into five distinct ethnic groups, with some sub-groups within these. All these groups, except the Weddas, have largely maintained their own social and cultural identity.


The original inhabitants of Sri Lanka are the Veddas (Sanskrit: 'hunter with bow and arrow'), who have lived on the island for thousands of years. These earliest islanders were Stone Age hunter-gatherers who are closely related to the African San or Bushmen and the Australian Aborigines. They prefer to call themselves 'people of the forest' or Vanniyalaetto.

Hundreds of years ago, these ancient inhabitants of Sri Lanka still lived all over the island. With the rise of the Sinhalese empires and the later kingdom of Jaffna, they were soon pushed back into remote areas. Moreover, they became increasingly mixed with other population groups.

By the mid-20th century, they had only survived in a few inaccessible jungle areas in the Dry Zone and were able to maintain their traditional nomadic lifestyle. In recent decades, large-scale internal migration has increased the pressure on the Veddas. This has forced them to live in permanent settlements, which has dealt a deathblow to this ethnic group.

A group of several hundred Veddas are trying to preserve their culture in an area east of Mahiyangana and in Nilgala, in the district of Uva, stubbornly but probably in vain.


Despite small differences between them, about 74.9% of the population are Sinhalese. They are largely descended from emigrants from north-west India and Bengal, who migrated to Sri Lanka before our era.

The social structure of the Sinhalese population consists of a caste system of 14 groups, which is not based on origin but on occupation.

Another division within the Sinhalese was until recently that between the so-called lowlanders and highlanders (Kandyans). The lowlanders are the people who live in the coastal areas and are held in somewhat lower esteem than the highlanders, who regard themselves as the more original Sinhalese. Due to the many internal migrations, the difference between lowlanders and highlanders has almost disappeared.


The largest minority in Sri Lanka are the Hindu Tamils, who make up about 11.2% of the total population and originate from South India. They speak a Dravidian language, Tamil, and are divided into the so-called (Sri) Lanka-Tamils, who emigrated from South India long ago and live mainly on the Jaffna peninsula, and the so-called India-Tamils, who were placed on the plantations by the British in the 19th century as workers.

In terms of appearance, they are quite different from the Sinhalese, as they have a less European facial shape and often a somewhat darker skin colour. The Tamil population is divided into a strict five-caste system, based on a religious foundation.

The India-Tamils (4.2%), who make up about one third of all Tamils, live mainly in the central mountainous areas and work as labourers on the tea and rubber plantations. They even often live on the plantations themselves, far away from villages and towns. The India-Tamils, who belong to the lower classes, are therefore virtually ignored socially and politically by the Lanka-Tamils. It was actually intended that the India-Tamils should return to India, but because they are virtually indispensable to the Sri Lankan economy, little has come of the large-scale repatriation. Officially, however, most of them are still stateless and have few civil rights.

The Lanka- or Jaffna-Tamils mainly live in and around the Jaffna peninsula and along the east coast, but they also often work in the big cities.

The Lanka-Tamils have been influenced by the West much more intensively than the Sinhalese. They cooperated much more easily with the colonial rulers during the colonial period than the Sinhalese.

The Dutch and the English therefore preferred to find local officials and trading partners among the Lanka-Tamils rather than among the Sinhalese. Thus, an administrative and commercial Lanka-Tamil elite soon developed. This development has continued even to the present day; the Lanka-Tamils are often better educated, organisationally capable and more commercial than the Sinhalese.

They often use English as their language of communication, wear western clothes and live much less traditionally than the India-Tamils.


The Burghers (from the Dutch 'vrijburgers') make up about 0.8% of the total population, and are the descendants of Portuguese, English and Dutch colonists. It is very likely that the Burghers descend from many more different nationalities. On the ships of the VOC, for example, people from all over Europe were employed.

In contrast to the colonial period, the present-day Burghers have a very subordinate position in Sri Lankan society, both in terms of numbers and social influence. They are notable for their western attitude to life and still use English as their language of instruction. The status of a Burgher depends, among other things, on one's appearance; the (white) European one looks, the better. A Presbyterian or Dutch Reformed religious background is somewhat better than a Catholic background.

Due to the singalisation of society since 1956, the group of Burghers became more and more isolated. This even led to many Burghers emigrating to countries like Canada, New Zealand and Australia in the 1960s and 1970s. It was not until the Jayawardene government came to power in 1977 that discriminatory measures that had previously been proclaimed were revoked. Due to the very high average age of the remaining Burghers, it remains to be seen whether this group will still exist in a few decades' time.

Muslims or Moors

Other population groups are the Islamic 'Moors' of Arab-Singalese origin, divided into Ceylon Moors and Indian Moors. These Muslims make up about 7% of the Sri Lankan population and are descended from, among others, Arab, Pre-Indian and Afghan traders, who were already trading with the Sri Lankans in the 8th century. Also in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries groups of Muslim emigrants came to Sri Lanka, including Malays who came with the Dutch from Java.

The Muslim language is generally Tamil and over the centuries they have gained a prominent position in government and business. In general, the Muslems strictly adhere to the traditional social norms within their group and also form a unified group because of Islam as a common religion.

Most Moors live in the east, around the cities of Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Amparai. Depending on where they live, they speak Sinhalese or Tamil.


The gypsies who roam Sri Lanka originate from India and migrated to the island several millennia ago.

There are different groups, but the most important are: the Ahikuntakaya or snake charmers, the Maddilya or monkey trainers and the groups that specialise in tattooing. The gypsies travel around the island in small groups.


The population is unevenly distributed across the country. In the wet zone and highlands, the countryside is densely populated and most urban areas are located there; the dry zone is sparsely populated, despite several attempts at colonisation.

Of the population, 18.5% live in the cities.

The largest city in Sri Lanka is the capital Colombo with a population of 600,000 in 2017.

Demographic Data

Sri Lanka had a population of 22,409,381 in 2017. The population density is about 342 inhabitants per km2, making Sri Lanka one of the most densely populated countries in Asia.

The population growth rate for 2017 was 0.76%, not much for a developing country and considerably lower than in neighbouring countries. An information campaign for birth control and family planning succeeded thanks to the positive attitude of the various religions and the reasonable education and health care facilities.

Furthermore, women marry at a later age and a high percentage has been sterilised.

The average life expectancy for men is 73.5 years and for women 80.6 years.

Sri Lanka has a relatively young population; 24.1% is between 0 and 14 years old. 66.2 of the population is between 15 and 65 years of age; 9.7% is 65 years or older.

Sri Lanka has a birth rate of 15.2 per 1000 inhabitants and a death rate of 6.2 per 1000 inhabitants. The infant mortality rate is 8.4 per 1000 live births and is therefore relatively low compared to surrounding countries.


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Last updated June 2024
Copyright: Team The World of Info