Sri Lanka: Sacred Geography

The Los Angeles Geographical Society (LAGS) lecture for November of 2014 was a special one for me because one of the professors from my university was the lecturer.  Dr. Unna Lassiter, (who recently became one of my thesis committee members) has traveled all over the world, but Sri Lanka holds a special place in her heart.  This is especially because of Sri Lanka’s connection to sacred geography.  Sacred geography can be described as the geography of religion or sacred places.

Map of Sri Lanka.  Image from travel.nationalgeographic.com

Map of Sri Lanka. Image from travel.nationalgeographic.com

Dr. Lassiter covered many topics regarding Sri Lanka so this post will not go into much detail about each issue but provide quick facts and interesting points about Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka has the oldest and thus most ancient form of Buddhism, but it has also recently experienced 26 years of war as well as the devastating tsunami of 2004.

History/Tradition

Until 1972, Sri Lanka was known as Ceylon because of British rule from 1948 to 1972.  Sri Lanka is a very socialist country thanks to its Cold War ties to Russian and China.  People’s names can be very, very long and Sinhalese is a difficult language.

Most people live in small towns and villages.  Most of these villages also have clock towers, which were adopted from the British.  People use a tuk-tuk or auto rickshaw, a type of three-wheeled transportation.

An auto rickshaw in Sri Lanka.  Image form Wikipedia.org

An auto rickshaw in Sri Lanka. Image form Wikipedia.org

Many Sri Lankan homes have roofs that do not connect to the walls to maximize airflow.  In Galle though, a city in the south that was built by the Dutch, the homes are made of chunks of coral.  One of the traditions in Sri Lanka is to put ugly masks on new homes to reduce the neighbor’s envy.

Demographics

The average life expectancy is 78 years old with a fertility rate of 2.1.  There are about 21 million people there and 80% of the land is rural.  This can be attributed to the war, which made cities unsafe.

War

The war was a result of two groups, the Tamil and the Sinhalese, fighting each other for power.  The Tamil Tigers were considered severe terrorists.  In 2002, there was a peace agreement but by 2006 the war had gone full blast and eventually the government kicked out the journalists.  In 2009, the Tamil were finally defeated and all were killed.  Part of the fall of the Tamil was due to the capture of Elephant Pass, an important military base.

Religion

Lay Buddhists, who are ordinary people instead of monks, wear white on Sundays.  The other religious group on Sri Lanka is the Hindu Tamils but because of their small numbers they feel excluded from the national identity.  The Sinhalese make up about 75% of the population while the Tamils are about 10-15%.  Muslim Moors are another group and account for about 10% and they face a growing anti-Muslim sentiment.  As for the Tamil diaspora, their number is quite large in Canada and the United Kingdom.

Health

As for health conditions, many people suffer from problems, such as undernourishment, insecticide poisoning and dengue fever.

Rural medicine is practiced and usually means having vision and dental under the same roof.  In terms of advanced medicine, many of the doctors were trained in Russia or China because of Sri Lanka’s position during the Cold War.

Nature

Sri Lanka is one of the 25 biosphere hotspots with many exotic species of trees, giant squirrels and orchids that grow on trees.  The government has been very ambitious in protecting the economy and the environment.  Twenty-five percent of the land is devoted to conservation.  Currently the government is trying to bring in eco-tourism at a level of 1 million people a year.

The land itself is mostly flat then rises to mountains in the center.  This broadness and flatness is most prominent at the coast.  One would have to go about 10-15 miles to reach a change in elevation.  Interestingly, the beaches are traditionally used for cemeteries.  Sri Lanka has two monsoon seasons, one during the spring and the other during the fall.

Animals

When it comes to the animals, few run away because they are used to humans.  Many live in and out of people’s homes.  The people appreciate snakes because of their ability to control the rat population.  In fact, there are 90 species of snakes on the island.

Elephants in particular are very culturally important.  Unfortunately the Europeans settlers, Portuguese, Dutch and especially British, would kill the elephants for sport or for their tusks.  Nowadays there are about 6,000 elephants on Sri Lanka but only about 120 have tusks because of the ivory trade.

The water buffalo is a very important animal as it provides buffalo milk yogurt.  Domestic pets, like the people, suffer from many health problems.  There is very little leftover meat for them to eat and they suffer from malnutrition, mange, worms and a lot of other problems.

Agriculture

In terms of agriculture, Sri Lanka has very old agricultural patterns, which have created their very own ecosystems.  Rice paddies are one of these and all kinds of fruits and vegetables are grown there.  There are also many teak and palm oil plantations and it produces fermented tea.

A tea plantation in Sri Lanka.  Image from Wikipedia.org

A tea plantation in Sri Lanka. Image from Wikipedia.org

Food

Sri Lanka has a wide variety of food.  Fast food, while not like typical fast food in America, is called “short eats” and usually consists of either soft or fried crusts.  There is lots of fishing, which helps provide such foods as crab pancakes.  Lunch packets usually consist of rice, naan bread, a small piece of chicken and whole curry leaves.  In fact, there are over 1,000 varieties of rice in Sri Lanka and it is thought to be the place where rice was domesticated.  There are also many types of finger foods.

If you’re looking for spicy then the Jaffna district is the place to go.  This area is said to have the spiciest food.  An example is the breakfast dish of coconut flour fried with spices and shaped like a cone.

As for spices, popular ones include vanilla, cardamom, cinnamon and others.  Sri Lankans also use lots of ginger, cinnamon, chilies and turmeric.

Other tasty foods include dhal (lentils), samho/sampo (Coconut with chili and lime), string hoppers (vermicelli rice, soaks up curry gravy- milk rice with peas and chili), rambutan (a fruit), cowpeas,  jackfruit, barfi (sweets), vegetables pickled and rubbed in hot chilies, cashew curry and soups, wood apples and betel nuts.  You can read more about these types of foods and see photos of them at An Introduction to Sri Lankan Cuisine.

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