Sri Lankan Culture – A Rich Tapestry of Diversity
Sri Lankan culture is a rich blend of the interaction of diverse cultural patterns both indigenous and derived from, trade, religions, as well as, western colonization. The cultural patterns of Sri Lanka today show the lasting impact of a diverse range of cultures.
The overall culture is largely the result of the impact of the introduction of Buddhism, more than 2,300 years ago. This does not erase the heavy influence of Hinduism, together with the lesser impact of Islam, Zoroastrianism, and Christianity, in addition to the pre-Buddhist worship of deities and animism, some of which still remain in the traditions and rituals of the country.
At a time when other societies in the world were boasting of their martial prowess, Sri Lankan society had embraced a religious philosophy based on the rational, where tolerance played a most significant part. Buddhism as it developed in Sri Lanka was not an exclusive state religion, but was rich in its philosophical content to let other breezes too flow into the country. The close proximity to South India saw the impact of Hinduism in the country grows, but not diminishing the overall acceptance of Buddhism.
Infulence on Sri Lankan Culture
Traders from the Arab world, from pre-Mohammedan times, saw the influence of Persians, with their own Zoroastrianism and even Nestorian Christianity in the very early centuries of the Christian era. Later trade with the countries of the Arab world and South India, after the rise of Islam, saw the weaving of Islam too into the cultural fabric of the country. It was very much later, from the early 16th century, that Sri Lanka came under the strong influence of the Christians, who came in search of its much valued spices, peacocks, gems and elephants and stayed over to rule over a part of and finally the entire country.
The advent of Buddhism saw the emergence of an entire civilization that reached a very high degree of development, especially in construction and architecture and the science of hydraulics. The rulers gave their patronage to the construction of great Buddhist “dagabas” or relic chambers for the spiritual upliftment of the people and gave considerable importance to the Buddhist clergy. They also gave similar importance to the temporal needs of the people, and commissioned the construction of great irrigation works that survive to this day.
The ancient and medieval periods of the country, under the influence of Buddhism and Hinduism also saw a great flowering of the arts, especially architecture, sculpture and painting. The temples, palaces and pleasure gardens of the ancient Anuradhapura period (3 BC – 9 AC) and the later Polonnaruwa period (10 – 13 AC) have some of the finest temple and decorative architecture and sculpture in the South Asian region. Polonnaruwa also has some excellent Hindu sculpture showing the co-existence of the Buddhist and Hindu traditions in the country.
Painting was an embellishment of the Buddhist temples, and had its non-religious functions too. The most famous examples of the finest Sri Lankan art are the frescoes seen at the rock fortress at Sigiriya, (6th Century AC). What is left of a whole gallery of the most exquisite frescoes painted on the face of a rock, the heavenly maidens of Sigiriya, is now a UNESCO recognized site of the artistic heritage of man.
Being a largely agrarian society, the cultural development of Sri Lanka was closely associated with the links that the people had with the temple, or place of worship. The essential feature of Sri Lankan society, for many centuries, had been the simple livelihood of the people. The seasons of
festivity largely coincided with the gathering of the harvest, and the important events in the Buddhist calendar.
Sri Lanka lays claim today to being the repository of Buddhism in its most pristine form – the Hinayana (or lesser vehicle) Theravada tradition, which is recognized as the tradition coming down from the earliest followers of Buddhism, including the Buddha’s own disciples
The branch of the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha attained Enlightenment at Bodh Gaya in India, was planted at Anuradhapura over 2000 years ago, and is today the world’s oldest historically documented tree. Similarly, Kandy, the last capital of the Sri Lankans has the Temple of the Tooth, which houses a tooth relic of the Buddha, and is today one of the most revered shrines of Buddhists the world over.
The cultural traditions of Sri Lanka are rich in pageantry. The best known internationally is the "Kandy Perehera", the religious-festive procession held in Kandy in July/August each year, in honour of the Tooth Relic of the Buddha. It has been aptly described an a unique festival of sight and sound. Another festival of significance is that dedicated to the Hindu deity Skanda, held at Kataragama, in the deep south of the island.
The dances of Sri Lanka comprise those that have come down from the very ancient days, to those with the distinct influences of both South and North India. Modern dancing seeks to combine western trends with the traditional forms, often with very considerable aesthetic charm.
There is a wide range of musical tradition in Sri Lanka ranging from folk music to religious chants. The Christian influence in Sri Lankan music is easily noticeable, but of much greater impact has been the North Indian musical tradition, that prevails in most of the country, with the Karnataka music of South India being more appreciated in the North of the country.
In all, Sri Lankan culture today is a pleasant kaleidoscope that combines the influences of the many cultures and peoples that have left their indelible impression on the cultural patterns of the country. It is a culture that in its diversity is a rich tapestry combining the many influences of East and West. As the single country in South Asia that was most exposed to western colonial rule, it has surprisingly retained a great deal of its indigenous traditions, while at the same time absorbing the considerable impact of the West. It this sense the Sri Lankan cultural experience can be described as truly unique among the cultural traditions of South Asia.