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Cities in SRI LANKA



Sri Lankan Buddhism

According to tradition, Sri Lanka was converted to Buddhism in the 3rd century B.C. Since then, Buddhism has developed into the country's main religion and is characterised, among other things, by an influential monasticism. Today, about 69% of the population, especially the Sinhalese, are Buddhists. Buddhism is not only a religion or a way of life, but also plays a major role in social and political life.

In Sri Lanka, Hindu Buddhism has many characteristics of Mahajana Buddhism and because of the partial mix with Hinduism, Buddhism is also sometimes called Sinhala Buddhism. It is characteristic that more and more standing Buddhas appear, typical for the Mahana Buddhism.

Most striking Buddhist buildings in Sri Lanka are the 'dagobas' (also called: stupa, thoepa or chetiya), dome-shaped shrines with a long cone, in which a relic of Buddha is kept. Many temples have a monastery and almost all temples have a sacred Bo tree (also called bodhi tree or Ficus religiosa). The monks or 'bikkus' must not be married, have a shaven head and wear an orange-yellow robe.

At the foot of the stairs to a temple are two guards, between which lies a moonstone typical of Sri Lankan Buddhism, which forms the entrance to the stairs.

The city of Anuradhapura is a holy city for Buddhists, comparable to Jerusalem for Jews and Mecca for Muslims. This city houses one of the most worshipped relics of Sri Lanka, the Sri Maha Bodhi. It is a cutting of the sacred Bo tree from the Indian town of Bodh Gaya, under which Buddha received his enlightenment. Every day pilgrims from all over the world come to Anuradhapura to see the sacred tree, which is known to be the oldest tree in the world at 22 centuries.

Since 1774, the city of Kandy has held the famous Perahera, one of the largest and most colourful Buddhist festivals in the world, for a fortnight in July and August (the Buddhist Esala month). The Perahera consists of a number of evening processions, spread over ten days. On the penultimate evening (Randoli Perahera), the Tooth of Buddha is carried around in a golden reliquary on the back of a temple elephant. The top left tooth is kept in the Dalada Maligawa, the 'Temple of the Tooth'.


Buddhism originated in India in the 6th century BC. The founder was Siddharta Gautama (560-480 B.C.). In Thailand our era is used, but also the Buddhist era is used. Although it is not exactly known when Buddha was born, the year of birth is taken as 543 BC. The year 2004 is 2546 in the Buddhist era.

The core of Buddha's teachings are the four noble truths:

-Life is suffering.

-The cause of this suffering is desire and attachment to life. As a result, man is trapped in an unholy cycle of birth, death and rebirth.

-By letting go of desire and detachment man can eliminate suffering.

-The eightfold path (right insight, life, striving, meditation, thinking, aim, word and deed) is the only way out of the unholy cycle of reincarnation and leads to nirvana, the state of bliss.

By adhering to a few basic principles, man can influence his fate or 'karma'. The Five Commandments are: do not kill, steal, commit adultery, lie and use alcohol, tobacco or drugs.

Buddhism is actually not a religion, but a philosophical system and an attitude to life. There are no gods. Buddhism does have monks, but again no church organisation.

The king is traditionally the protector of all religions.

After the death of Buddha, the religion split into two directions: mahayana Buddhism and hinayana Buddhism.

Mahayana Buddhism is based on the universal salvation of all living beings and is therefore called the 'great vehicle'. This movement knows 'bodhisattvas', mortals who have already attained enlightenment, but who remain on earth to show people the right path. Mahayana Buddhism has spread to China, Nepal, Japan, Korea and Vietnam.

Hinayana or Theravada Buddhism is also known as the 'School of the Elders' and is mainly found in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia and South India. This direction within Buddhism limits itself to the individual salvation of man, without the intervention of others, and is therefore called the 'small vehicle'. Whoever achieves enlightenment independently becomes an 'arhat'. This status, however, is reserved only for monks. Laymen can only add to their karma during their life on earth and be reborn in a higher position. One can increase his karma by doing good works, such as giving alms to monks and donations to temples. Selfless giving or 'dana' is therefore the main form of virtue that leads to good karma.

Sri Lankan Hinduism

The Tamils introduced Hinduism to Sri Lanka from India. Approximately 15.5% of the total population is currently Hindu. The Hindus live mainly in the eastern and northern part of the island, but also in the south and in the capital Colombo. It is noteworthy that Hinduism has mixed somewhat with Buddhism.

Sri Lanka has about 12,000 monks, who live in about 3,000 monasteries and hermitages. There is also an order of nuns, about 2000 women, but they do not play a major role in Buddhism.


The framework for Hinduism is the four Vedas, religious texts written in Sanskrit. These Vedas were introduced around 1000 BC. Hinduism is a very tolerant religion without dogmas, has no church organisation and no founder. Hindus do, however, strongly adhere to certain rules and customs. For example, the rigid caste rules are still often applied and temples are only accessible to their own followers.

The most important principle in Hinduism is the belief in 'samsara', the cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth or reincarnation. The law of 'karma' then determines how you will return in the next life. If you have ended your life positively, you will return to a higher social rank on earth. The ultimate goal ('moksha') is liberation from the cycle of rebirths. At the latest on one's fifth birthday, one is admitted to the religious community by shaving one's head hair or 'churakarma'. Life is concluded with the cremation or 'antyeshtikarma'.

Hinduism has many gods, but they are all manifestations of the three main gods, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. These three gods can be traced back to one principle: Brahman, symbol of the balanced cosmos, the All.

Brahma is the primal god and creator of the universe and the essence of things. He has four arms and four heads. From the four mouths, the four Vedas are said to have come for the first time. The most famous Brahma temple is in Pushkar.

Vishnoe is the god who protects life and maintains the cosmos. He has visited the earth in various, often animal, guises. His symbols are the conch and the discus and his vehicle is the 'garuda', the mythical eagle. A popular manifestation of Vishnoe is Krishna, a youth playing the flute.

Shiva is both creator and destroyer. He has five faces, four arms and three eyes and, like Vishnoe, has various manifestations. Shiva's life companion is Parvati, the goddess of life force. The symbols of Shiva are the trident and the phallus or 'lingam', the symbol of fertility. The followers of this god are the holy men or 'sadhus'.

Ganesh, the god of wisdom and prosperity, is the son of Shiva and Parvati. Ganesh has an elephant head and his vehicle is a mouse.

In Sri Lanka, Skanda (also called Murugan, Kartikeia and Subramanya), the other son of Shiva and Parvati, is also widely worshipped in almost every temple. Skanda is depicted with a peacock beside him and holding the sacred lance or 'sheet' in his right hand.

Hinduism has many holy books, which are divided into two groups. The first group consists of the 'shruti' or revelations, texts of a superhuman, therefore divine, origin. To this group belong the Vedas, hymns, proverbs and philosophical treatises, which were probably written between 1500 BC and 1500 AD.

The second group of writings consist of the 'smriti', written by humans. Among the smriti are the famous epics Mahabarata and Ramayana, written between 1000 BC and the beginning of our era.

Of particular note is the spread of belief among the Sinhalese in demons and magical powers, and the importance attached to astrology. An astrologer is often consulted for almost all important events, such as weddings and births.

He also predicts the early course of a child's life by taking into account the time of birth and the position of stars and planets.

Islam and Christianity

Approximately 7.5% of the Sri Lankan population is Christian, most of whom belong to the Roman Catholic Church, which in Sri Lanka is administratively organised into one archdiocese with six dioceses. The coastal region around Negombo, in the northwest of Sri Lanka, is known for its many Catholic churches from the Portuguese era. Approximately 80% of the population is Catholic here.

Protestant denominations include Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists and Presbyterians. In the capital Colombo, the monumental Wolvendael Church is situated, the largest and most impressive Dutch Reformed church of Sri Lanka. The church was built in 1749 on the foundations of a Portuguese place of worship. Most Burghers are Christians.

Approximately 7.5% of the population of Sri Lanka is Muslim. They live mainly in the eastern and southeastern part of Sri Lanka and include descendants of Arab, Voorindische and Afghan traders. Hambantota is the largest city on the south coast and here lives the largest group of Malay Muslims in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lankan Muslims generally adhere strictly to traditional norms.


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Last updated May 2024
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