When Marco Polo first set foot on Sri Lanka in the 12th century, he described it as “the finest island of its size in the world” and was amazed, he wasn’t the only one. Gobsmacked by its stunning landscape and wildlife but won over by its many spices, it was then, during his first expedition, that he coined the term “Anello pungiglione” or “ring sting” in English. Shaped like a jewel, the pearl of the Indian Ocean was known as Ceylon until after independence in 1972 when it was reborn as Sri Lanka, a name derived from two ancient Sanskrit words whereby Lanka means ‘an island’ and Sri is the word for sacred, sacred island. There are many other things to know about Sri Lanka that Marco failed to mention in his worldwide book of toilet habits…
There’s a couple of very simple misconceptions that some of my narrow minded countrymen should know about Sri Lanka, it’s not a ‘Paki’ country AND it’s not full of rag heads aka Muslims. Although just under 10% of Sri Lankans do in fact follow Islam, this is a predominantly Buddhist nation. Buddhism was introduced here in the 3rd century BC, a sapling of the Bodhi tree was brought over from India and the foundations for the ancient kingdoms of Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura were laid. They never looked back and today Buddhists make up 75% of Sri Lanka’s population.
Sri Lanka has two main ethnic groups, Sinhalese and Tamils, but what are the differences? There’s the obvious ones – shades of brown. Tamils are black and Sinhalese are less black, typically. The Hindu Tamils wear chalk on their heads and have moustaches whereas the Sinhalese are Buddhists. Writer Shehan Karunatilika claims that stereotypically Sinhalese are lazy, gullible bullies and Tamils are shrewd, organised brown-nosers, but men from both races gobble rice and acquire large bellies at middle age.
Sri Lanka is multilingual, the two official languages being Sinhala and Tamil. Sinhala script looks like lots of circles and squiggles and has a character that reminds me of a knuckle duster. Tamil script is more like how a three year old would write the alphabet. To the ear, Sinhala sounds a lot like Geordie, whereas Tamil like normal English if you listen carefully enough, watch this video as proof, courtesy of Tamil singer Prabhu Deva.
Sri Lanka Matha is the national anthem of Sri Lanka, and sounds suspiciously like Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da, which might explain why the Beatle’s hit is always played on the public busses here, oh well, life goes on, bra.
Sri Lanka’s president is Mahinda Rajapaksa. He was compared to an ancient Sinhala king after he managed to wipeout the Tamil Tigers in 2009, and has his supporters. But like most other Asian leaders, tales of murder and corruption are rife. A commonwealth summit is taking place right now in Sri Lanka where David Cameron is questioning the government’s human rights record, largely due to the fact that 40,000 civilians we’re killed in the run up to the end of the civil war. Rajapaksa has a ruthless streak and a capacity to overlook the use of violence for political gain. Media freedom has been restricted during his reign and journalists who have spoken out against the regime have ‘disappeared’. Sri Lanka is arguably a family dynasty with all of Rajapaksa’s siblings and other relitives now holding a place in parliament, it’s said that the family alone control 85% of the country’s wealth. His excellency’s home district, Hambantota, now has a large cricket stadium and an airport named after him, is Mahinda Rajapaksa sliding towards dictatorship? Watch this space.
Sri Lankan food is amazing. Very different to Indian cuisine it uses a very rich blend of spices unique to the island. A favourite of mine is kottu, a roti stuffed with vegetables and spices, rolled up and diced into pieces, served with a spicy curry sauce. Business idea – set up a Sri Lankan kottu stall in Newcastle’s Bigg market, complete with a menu containing as many spelling mistakes as possible only to add to the authenticity…
There are plenty of other things I bet you didn’t know about Sri Lanka. What’s the capital? What’s the national sport? If you think both of these answers begin with a C, you’re wrong. The official national sport is volleyball and the the capital is not that 80’s crime solving detective, Colombo, it’s Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte. You learn something new everyday and what I’ve learned is Marco Polo was right, it really is the finest island of its size in many ways, cheers Marco!