LOCATION: Sri Lanka
POPULATION: 15 million
RELIGION: Buddhist (Theravada); small numbers of Christians and Muslims
The Sinhalese are the major ethnic group of Sri Lanka, an island located off the southern tip of India. It is believed that the Sinhalese are descendants of peoples that came from northern India and settled the island around the fifth century BC . The name Sinhalese reflects the popular myth that the people are descended from a mythical Indian princess and a lion ( sinha means "lion" and le means "blood").
The ruler of Sri Lanka converted to Buddhism during the third century BC . Since that time, the Sinhalese have been mainly Buddhist in religion and culture. Ancient Buddhist texts provide stories of the early history of the Sinhalese people. By the first century BC , a thriving Sinhalese Buddhist civilization existed in the northern part of Sri Lanka. For some reason, this civilization collapsed in the thirteenth century.
Like many other peoples of south Asia, the Sinhalese later came under the influence of European nations. The Portuguese landed on Ceylon (the English name for Sri Lanka) in 1505 and soon gained control of much of the island. The Dutch replaced the Portuguese in the mid-seventeenth century, who were in turn driven out by the British in 1798. The island and its people formed part of Britain's Indian Empire until 1948, when Ceylon was granted independence. The country adopted the name Sri Lanka in 1972. Its capital is Colombo.
According to 1995 estimates, the Sinhalese population is about 15 million people. This is about 80 percent of Sri Lanka's population. The Sinhalese are distributed over most of the island, except for the far northern districts near Jaffna and the eastern coastal areas where the Hindu Tamils live.
The island of Sri Lanka is 25,332 square miles (65,610 square kilometers) in area. It is separated from the Indian mainland by a strait only 22 miles (35 kilometers) wide. The main feature of the landscape is the Central Highlands, averaging more than 5,000 feet (1,500 meters) in altitude and reaching a maximum altitude of 8,281 feet (2,524 meters) at Pidurutala Peak. The southwestern flanks of these mountains and the nearby lowlands are known as the island's "wet zone." These areas receive as much as 196 inches (500 centimeters) of rain per year from the southwest monsoon. The northern and eastern lowlands lie in the shadow of the mountains and form Sri Lanka's dry zone. In this area, rainfall averages less than 79 inches (200 centimeters) and drops below 39 inches (100 centimeters) in places. The island has an equatorial climate, with little variation in temperature throughout the year. Average monthly temperatures at Colombo range only between 71.6° F (22° C ) in the winter months and 78.8° F (26° C ) in the summer months.
The Sinhalese speak Sinhala, an Indo-Aryan language brought to Sri Lanka by the north Indian peoples that settled the island in the fifth century. Because it was geographically separated from other Indo-Aryan tongues, Sinhala developed in its own way. It has been influenced by Pali, the sacred language of southern Buddhism. To a lesser extent, it has also been influenced by Sanskrit. It also has borrowed words from Dravidian languages of southern India, mostly Tamil. Sinhalese is written in its own alphabet.
The Sinhalese have many legends about heroes and kings. When Prince Vijaya first came to the island of Lanka from northern India, so the tale goes, his men were imprisoned by the evil Kuveni, the queen of a Yaksha clan. (The Yakshas were a group of often demonic mythological creatures who possessed magical powers.) When Vijaya went to search for his men, he found Kuveni and threatened to kill her. Kuveni, who had taken on the form of a beautiful maiden, begged for her life. She promised to release the men, give Vijaya a kingdom, and become his wife. Using her magic powers, Kuveni helped Vijaya destroy the Yakshas. Vijaya ruled as king in Lanka, the couple lived together for many years, and Kuveni gave birth to a son and a daughter. However, when a marriage was arranged for Vijaya with an Indian princess from the mainland, Vijaya banished Kuveni from his life. As she was leaving, Kuveni cursed the king for this, and as a result he and the ruler who followed had no children. A magical dance was needed to remove the curse.
Most Sinhalese people follow Buddhism. They accept the religion's basic concepts of dharma, samsara, karma, and ahimsa . Dharma refers to the Law (the teachings of Buddha); samsara, to the life cycle of birth-death-rebirth; karma relates to the effects of good or bad deeds on a person's rebirths; and ahimsa is the doctrine of nonviolence toward living things. Buddhists believe that these Four Noble Truths point the way to achieving nirvana (the Buddhist equivalent of salvation). However, the Sinhalese follow the southern or Theravada (also called Hinayana ) form of Buddhism. This form remains true to the original teachings of Buddha, holding that there is no God, that Buddha was an ordinary mortal who should be respected but not worshiped, and that everyone is responsible for working out his or her own salvation. Buddhism is reflected in every aspect of daily Sinhalese life. Buddhist monks (bhikkus) play an important role in the Sinhalese community and often have a fair amount of political power. Monks serve the religious needs of the people, but Sinhalese people also worship at the temples (devale) of Hindu gods. The Sinhalese also believe in demons, ghosts, and evil spirits. They have a number of folk magicians to deal with such beings. Small numbers of Sinhalese are Christians (mostly Roman Catholic) or Muslims (followers of Islam).
Major festivals for the Sinhalese include the Sinhalese New Year in April and the Vesak festival in May, which commemorates the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha. During the Esala Perahera, a two-week festival held in the city of Kandy, the Tooth Relic of the Buddha is paraded through the streets on the back of an elephant. Thousands gather to see the relic and its accompanying procession of decorated elephants, temple officials, schoolchildren, dancers, and acrobats. A fire-walking festival held at Katagarama attracts pilgrims from all over the island, as do other sacred centers of Buddhism.
Sinhalese rites of passage involve a mixture of Buddhist customs and folk traditions. In rural areas, difficulties in pregnancy are often blamed on evil spirits or black magic. A magician (kattadiya) may be called in to deal with the situation with charms and mantras (sacred words). The birth of a child is eagerly awaited, and male babies are preferred. The newborn baby is given a few drops of human milk with a touch of gold to endow the child with strength and beauty. Offerings are made both at the temple and to Buddhist monks. There are few formal ceremonies. But the time when a child is taught to read letters (at about three years of age) is an important one.
No special rites mark a boy's reaching adolescence, but a girl's first menstruation is marked by a ceremony.
Death rites are fairly simple. The Sinhalese do not believe in the existence of a soul, but instead that a human being is a combination of five elements. At the time of death, these elements are dispersed (separated) and the most important one, consciousness, will be reborn in a new existence, according to the laws of karma.
If possible, bhikkus (Buddhist monks) are called to the bedside of a dying man to chant from the Buddhist scriptures. After death, the dead person's face is covered with a handkerchief and the big toes are tied together. Oil lamps are lit, flowers are spread on the bed, and religious books are read during the night. The body is prepared, then either cremated or buried. Bhikkus preside at the funeral ceremony, and a white cloth is offered to the leader of the bhikkus, who delivers a brief sermon. All those who attend the funeral take a bath to rid themselves of the pollution of death, and relatives gather for a simple meal. Close relatives wear white clothes, a sign of mourning in southern Asia.
Ayubowan (greeting) is the word used by the Sinhalese when they meet or part. They usually also clasp their hands in front of them and bow slightly. The European style of shaking hands, however, is replacing traditional forms of greeting. Women often kiss friends and relatives on both cheeks.
The Sinhalese are well known for their hospitality in entertaining guests. Typically, the Sinhalese do not say "Thank you," but instead say something that translates roughly as, "May you receive merit."
Although many of the Sinhalese live in cities and towns, where their living conditions differ little from those of other city populations in southern Asia, the Sinhalese are by and large a rural people. They live in villages, hamlets, and isolated farmsteads scattered across the island.
A typical agricultural village is made up of a cluster of houses on slightly higher land surrounded by rice paddies. Nearby, especially in the dry zone, may be one of the many tanks constructed over the centuries to store water for irrigation. The village itself usually has a well, a temple, and perhaps a school and an informal clinic. Traditional building materials of mud (for walls) and thatch (for roofs) are being replaced by cement and tiles. Each house stands in a garden in the midst of coconut, mango, papaya, and other trees. In front of the house is a porch, where men sit during the day and sleep at night. A single door opens into the house, where women and children sleep. There are typically two rooms and a kitchen, but sometimes the fireplace is in a lean-to attached to the back of the house. Most villagers sleep on mats. Only the wealthier people have beds and simple wooden tables and chairs. Some households have their own well. Many houses have pitlatrines (toilets) dug in the garden.
The Sinhalese have castes (inherited social and economic status levels) based historically on occupation. But the system is much less rigid than the caste system in India. There are no Brahmans (priests), caste rankings are less significant, and in the cities caste observance is rapidly disappearing. Caste is, however, important in marriage. About half of the Sinhalese population belongs to the highest caste, the agricultural Goyigama . Other castes include washermen (Hinna), metalworkers (Navandanna), and drummers (Berawa). The Rodiya (formerly traveling beggars) are considered to be among the lowest castes.
The Sinhalese marry within their caste, but they also have further limitations. Each caste is subdivided into microcastes (pavula), and women must marry men of equal or higher status within the caste. Marriages are usually arranged, and cross-cousin marriages are preferred (that is, with a man's father's sister's daughter or mother's brother's daughter). Preparations include the casting of horoscopes and negotiation of the dowry (if any is to be paid). The actual ceremony is relatively simple. In some cases, there may be no formal ceremony.
The wife usually moves in with the husband's family, but couples who can afford it prefer to set up their own household. A woman takes on the responsibility of running the household. She may also work to contribute to the family income. Her main role, however, is to bear and raise children, preferably sons. In general, women are treated with respect in Sinhalese society.
The traditional clothing of the Sinhalese is the sarama , a type of sarong (a wrapped garment). Men may wear a shirt with the sarama; when they go bare-chested, they throw a scarf around their shoulders. Women wear a tight-fitting, short-sleeved jacket with the sarama. In the cities, Sinhalese have adopted Western-style clothes. Women wear skirts and blouses, but they prefer the Indian sari for formal and ceremonial occasions.
Rice, eaten with a serving of curry (a spicy dish), is the staple food of the Sinhalese. A family usually has three meals a day, although "morning tea" may be nothing more than that—tea, perhaps with rice cakes, fruit, or leftovers from the previous evening meal. Lunch consists of rice served with vegetable and meat curries and sauces such as sambol , a spicy mixture of grated coconut and chili, peppers, pickles, and chutneys. The evening meal is rice eaten with as many curry dishes as a family can afford.
Although orthodox Buddhists are strict vegetarians, many Sinhalese eat meat, poultry, fish, and eggs. Many Sinhalese dishes are cooked in coconut milk. A meal is usually followed by fresh fruits or sweets. Tea and coconut milk are the usual drinks. Pan , or betel nut (seed of the betel palm) eaten with lime, is taken after meals and often throughout the day.
The Sinhalese literacy rate (the proportion of people able to read and write) is around 90 percent, among the highest of any community in southern Asia. Education is required up to the age of fourteen, and parents are responsible for making sure their children attend school. Education is free from kindergarten to the university level, but there is a shortage of places for qualified university applicants. The number of Sinhalese girls who remain in school to complete their educations is higher than average in southern Asia.
The heritage of the Sinhalese is basically that of Buddhist civilization in Sri Lanka. This includes early literary works (the Dipavamsa from AD 350 and the Mahavamsa from AD 550) chronicling the history of Buddhism on the island. It also includes architecture, temple and cave paintings, and massive sculptures such as the 46-foot-long (14-meter-long) reclining Buddha at Polonnaruwa. The Sinhalese developed their own form of classical dance, usually performed by men, with rapid footwork and acrobatic movements. The "devil dancing" of the southern coastal lowlands developed from folk ceremonies to exorcise (drive away) demons. Kolam is a form of dance-drama involving masked dancers who retell stories from myth and legend.
About 80 percent of the Sinhalese people are rural and engaged primarily in subsistence farming (growing only enough to survive on). Sri Lanka's commercial plantations—producing tea, coconut products, rubber, cinnamon, cardamom (another spice), and pepper—provide some jobs for the population. Manufacturing industries in Sri Lanka are poorly developed and show only slow growth. However, the recently established clothing industry in a free-trade zone near Colombo now accounts for nearly half the value of Sri Lanka's exports. Sinhalese people in the cities and towns are engaged in government work, the professions, business, trade, and the service industries. Still, unemployment is a severe problem in Sri Lanka.
Sinhalese children play in the same ways as other young people in southern Asia—tag, hide-and-seek, dolls, marbles, and so forth. Indoor activities include board games and various string games such as cat's cradle.
Gambling is popular among adults, but many traditional sports such as cockfighting have been banned. Buffalo fights and elephant fights are still staged as part of Sinhalese New Year celebrations. Sports such as cricket, soccer, field hockey, and track-and-field were introduced by the British and are still played in schools and colleges. Cricket is by far the most popular spectator sport.
The Sinhalese have radio and television programming and can also see English and Sinhala movies. In rural areas, however, there is often little extra income to spend on such activities, so villagers relax in more traditional ways. They spend time sharing news with their neighbors and visiting local fairs. They go on pilgrimages and watch religious processions, folk dances, folk theater, and puppet shows.
Sinhalese crafts include wood and ivory carving, stonework, and metalwork in brass, gold, and silver. Pottery and basketry are traditional cottage industries. Sri Lanka has been known for centuries for its gemstones; jewelry making and the cutting of sapphires, rubies, and semiprecious stones continue to this day
In terms of some social characteristics (health and education, for example), the Sinhalese are not typical of southern Asia. But they do face many problems of the region. Sri Lanka is basically an agricultural country, but growing enough food is a problem, and landlessness in rural areas is increasing. Unemployment and underemployment are serious problems, and slow industrial growth limits economic expansion and job creation.
None of this is helped by the continuing ethnic conflict between the Sinhalese and the Tamils on the island. Tamil separatists in northern areas around Jaffna are engaged in armed rebellion against the government, which is controlled by the Sinhalese. This has included random terrorism, the assassination of a prime minister, much loss of life, and constant charges of human rights violations. This rebellion creates a serious economic burden; in addition, millions of valuable tourist dollars have been lost. Until this conflict is resolved, it is unlikely that Sri Lanka can deal with its social and economic problems.
Johnson, B. L. C., and M. Le M. Scrivenor. Sri Lanka: Land, People, and Economy. London, England: Heinemann, 1981.
Wijisekera, Nandadeva. The Sinhalese. Colombo, Sri Lanka: Gunasena, 1990.
Yalman, Nur. Under the Bo Tree: Studies in Caste, Kinship, and Marriage in the Interior of Ceylon. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.