Sri lankan americans

by Olivia Miller


The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, is an island in the Indian Ocean approximately 20 miles off the southeastern tip of India. It occupies an area of 25,332 square miles, which is about the size of West Virginia, and has a population of 8.8 million. Sri Lanka means the "resplendent land." Sri Lanka has an equatorial climate, with little seasonal temperature variation. An agricultural country whose chief crop is rice, Sri Lanka is known for spices such as cinnamon, cardamon, nutmeg, pepper, and cloves. Tea, rubber, and coconuts are also important exports. Sri Lanka is also a major exporter of precious and semi-precious stones. The capital city is Colombo.

Seventy-four percent of Sri Lanka's citizens are of Sinhalese origin, while the rest of the population belongs to various ethnic minorities, including Sri Lankan Tamils (12.7 percent), Indian Tamils (5.5 percent), Muslims (7 percent), Burghers, Malays, Parsis, and Vaddhas. Seventy percent of the population is Buddhist, 15 percent is Hindu, eight percent is Islamic, and seven percent is Christian. The country's official languages are Sinhala and Tamil, but English is also spoken throughout Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka's national flag is yellow with two panels. The smaller hoist-side panel has two equal vertical bands of green (hoist side) and orange; the other panel is a large, dark red rectangle with a yellow lion holding a sword and a yellow bo leaf in each corner; the yellow field appears as a border that goes around the entire flag and extends between the two panels.


Serendib, the old Arab name for Sri Lanka, is the source of the word "serendipity," which means "making happy discoveries by chance." Sri Lanka has also been called Ceylon, Teardrop of India, Resplendent Isle, Island of Dharma, and Pearl of the Orient, names that reveal its richness and beauty, and the intensity of affection which it has evoked. The actual origins of the Sinhalese are shrouded in myth. Sri Lanka has had a continuous record of settled and civilized life for more than two millennia. Most historians believe that the Sinhalese came to Sri Lanka from northern India during the sixth century B.C. Buddhism and a sophisticated system of irrigation became the pillars of classical Sinhalese civilization, which flourished in the north-central part of the island from 200 B.C. to 1200 A.D. The first major literary reference to the island is found in the great Indian epic, the Ramayana (Sacred Lake of the Deeds of Rama), thought to have been written around 500 B.C.

Portuguese traders, in search of cinnamon and other spices, seized Sri Lanka's coastal areas beginning in 1505 and spread Catholicism throughout the island. In 1658 the Dutch conquered the Portuguese and took control of Sri Lanka. Although the Dutch were ejected by the British in 1796, Dutch law remains an important part of Sri Lankan jurisprudence. In 1815, the British defeated the King of Kandy, last of the native rulers, and created the Crown Colony of Ceylon. The British established a plantation economy based on tea, rubber, and coconuts. In 1931, the British granted Ceylon limited self-rule. On February 4, 1948, Ceylon became an independent nation.


Sri Lanka, which celebrated 50 years of independence in 1998, is one of southern Asia's oldest and most stable democracies. Sri Lankan politics since independence have been strongly democratic. Two major parties, the United National Party and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, have generally alternated rule. In 1972, a new constitution was introduced which changed the country's name from Ceylon to Sri Lanka, declared it a republic, made protection of Buddhism a constitutional principle, and created a weak president appointed by the prime minister. In 1978, the Republic of Sri Lanka became the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. The ruling party introduced a new constitution based on the French model, a key element of which was the creation of a strong presidency.

Sri Lanka has made significant progress in evolving from a socialist, centralized economy to a more open and free market-oriented economy and society. It has relatively high economic growth, high literacy rates, and low fertility and mortality rates. Agriculture remains the primary source of income for Sri Lanka's predominantly rural population. Unsustainable agricultural and logging practices have resulted in substantial land degradation and reduction in the size of forest reserves. Sri Lanka was one of the first countries to develop a National Environmental Action Plan for biodiversity conservation, protection of coastal zones, forestry, and land and water management.

Since its independence 50 years ago, Sri Lanka has been plagued by hostilities between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils. Since 1983, a civil war waged by Tamil separatists in the country's north and east region has claimed over 55,000 lives and severely damaged the economy. The war is largely confined to Sri Lanka's northeastern province, which is six to eight hours by road from the capital. However, terrorist bombings directed against politicians and others have occurred in Colombo and elsewhere in the country. For the past 15 years, the Sri Lankan government has fought the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), an insurgent organization fighting for a separate state for the country's Tamil minority. In May of 1997, the fighting intensified after the government launched a major offensive aimed at opening a land route to the Jaffna peninsula through LTTE-controlled territory in the north. The offensive resulted in approximately 5,000 casualties on both sides and the displacement of tens of thousands of citizens. The unresolved ethnic conflict in the north and the east is the key issue that prevents Sri Lanka from attaining its development potential.


The earliest Sri Lankans to enter the United States were classified as "other Asian." Immigration records show that between 1881 and 1890 1,910 "other Asians" were admitted to the United States. It is unlikely that many of these were from Sri Lanka. In 1975, immigration records classified Sri Lankans as a separate category for the first time. That year, 432 Sri Lankans immigrated to the United States.


Since the outbreak of hostilities between the government and armed Tamil separatists in the early 1980s, several hundred thousand Tamil civilians have fled Sri Lanka. By 1996, 63,068 were housed in refugee camps in south India, another 30,000-40,000 lived outside the Indian camps, and more than 200,000 Tamils have sought political asylum in the West. According to 1996 U.S. Immigration and Naturalization records, 1,277 Sri Lankans were naturalized. Of this group, 615 had arrived in 1995 and 254 had arrived in 1994, compared with only 68 arrivals in 1993 and 17 before 1985. Sri Lankan refugees admitted to the United States in 1991 (54) and in 1993 (62) contrasted with typical yearly admissions of two in 1989 and six in 1992. This increase coincided with an escalation of ethnic violence in Sri Lanka in the years of high refugee admission to the United States. During the 1980s, an average of 400 Sri Lankans immigrated to the United States each year. In 1998, 322 Sri Lankans were winners of the DV-99 diversity lottery. The diversity lottery is conducted under the terms of Section 203(c) of the Immigration and Nationality Act and makes available 50,000 permanent resident visas annually to persons from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States.


According to the 1990 U.S. Census, there were 14,448 Americans with Sri Lankan ancestry. Of 554 Sri Lankans admitted to the United States in 1984, 117 were 20 and younger, 127 were ages 20 to 29, and 169 were ages 30 to 39. Many Sri Lankans settle in large cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Newark, and Miami that already have Sri Lankan and Indian communities. Sri Lankan Americans who practice Hinduism are likely to settle near an established Hindu community. The same holds true for Sri Lankan Buddhists. For example, when Buddhist monk Venerable Wipulasara arrived in America in 1993, he joined the Buddhist Asian-American community of 30,000 in Tampa Bay, Florida.

Acculturation and Assimilation

While many Sri Lankans come to America prepared earn advanced degrees and move into good jobs, they are shocked at how quickly life moves in their new country. For Venerable Wipulasara in Tampa, meditation had to come between running errands, buying groceries and taking courses at the local high school to improve his English. Wipulasara created a vihar, a small Buddhist temple, in his apartment. Another concession Wipulasara made to American culture was to change the color of his light orange robe because people confused him with highway workers who also wore light orange.

Second-generation Sri Lankans are almost completely Americanized. Parents often send their children to religion courses. Nathan Katz, chairman of the religious studies department at Florida International University in Miami told the St. Petersburg Times that "most immigrants come to America and more or less lead the life they want until they have children. Then they want them to learn the old values." Young people often help each other with the assimilation process. An alliance of students who grew up in the United States but are children of people from India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and other nations formed the Atlanta-based United Indian Student Alliance, hosting yearly conferences attended by more than 1,000 students from 30 universities.


Learning is so valued within Sri Lanka that a solemn ritual, the akuru kiyaweema ceremony, takes place to commemorate a child's mastery of the first letter when he or she is old enough to manipulate fingers, usually around age three. An astrologer determines every detail of the ceremony: the time of day it should take place, which way the child should sit, and what colors should be worn. The person who teaches the first letter to the child must be an educated, respected person who knows and loves the child. The child and teacher sit together on a mat and the teacher lights a brass lamp. Milk, rice, and Sri Lankan sweetmeats are set out in precise order, along with the slate on which the child will scrawl the letter. Usually it is "Ah," the first letter of the alphabet.

Sri Lankans are extremely superstitious when it comes to numbers. For example, no piece of jewelry is made with even-numbered stones. Odd numbers are always considered lucky, with the number seven thought to be particularly magical. Kandyan bridal jewelry consists of seven pendants.

The traditional Sri Lankan meal is served with all dishes on the table at once: rice, fish and meat curries, soup, vegetables and accompaniments. Each guest takes a serving of everything onto the right hand. The food should not touch the hand above the middle knuckles, and the left hand does not make direct contact with the food but is used to pass and serve dishes.


Sri Lankan culture has several sayings and proverbs, drawn from various cultures who once ruled the country, as well as from the dominant religions of Buddhism and Hinduism. The following come from the Buddhist tradition: A defrocked monk will be unable to mix with society; Whatever you love, you are its master. Whatever you hate, you are its slave; If one speaks with a pure mind, happiness will follow him like one's shadow that never leaves; O man, correct thine own self first, then turn to guide others; A wise man shall not let himself get tarnished; May all beings be well and happy, may there be peace on earth and goodwill among men; He prayeth best that loveth best , all things both great and small. "Any coconut leaf will win" is a traditional Sri Lankan saying to the effect that a party can nominate a coconut leaf and the loyal villages will vote for it. A popular saying from the Hindu Deepavali festival is "Hatred will never cease by hatred; hatred ceases by love alone."


In spite of its tiny size, Sri Lanka boasts an amazing variety of spicy foods and styles of cooking, reflecting the diversity of its ethnic communities. The most noticeable influences have been Portuguese, Dutch, Moor, and Malay. Since ancient times, other cultures have traded with Sri Lanka for the spices that grow there. Some of the world's best cinnamon, cloves, and many other spices are indigenous to Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan cuisine is distinguished from that of its neighboring countries by its spices, which are fast-roasted before they are ground and added to the food. Sri Lankans use two different curry powders. One is referred to as plain curry powder and is similar to the Indian yellow curry powder. The other is referred to as black or roasted curry powder and is used for meats. Along with curry, food is seasoned with hot red peppers, tamarind, garlic and ginger, cardamon, cinnamon, curry leaves, fenugreek and tiny black mustard seeds. Red chili peppers were introduced to Sri Lanka by the Portuguese. Modern-day Sri Lankan food has Indian, Portuguese, Dutch, and even a touch of British flavor mixed in. Because foods spoil quickly in Sri Lanka's tropical location, most foods are cooked in liquids to ensure that all ingredients are cooked thoroughly. Rice is eaten at least once a day, usually with very hot curry.

Coconut milk, the liquid obtained from squeezing the meat of the coconut, is central to Sri Lankan cooking. Almost every dish is prepared in coconut milk. Sambols are hot, spicy relishes. Seeni Sambol is a sweet, hot onion dish. Coconut Sambol, or Pol Sambol, as it is known in Sri Lanka, is probably the country's most popular dish. It is made from onion, coconut, and red chili and is served in every home and restaurant. Another favorite dish is egg hoppers. Egg hoppers, traditionally a breakfast food, are made of a rice and coconut batter to which an egg is added while being cooked in a pan that looks like a wok.

Ambul Thiyal is a traditional fish preparation that can be kept without refrigeration for several days. This dish is prepared by placing a fish in a clay pot over an open fire, replacing the lid with another clay pot containing firewood or tinders, and cutting the fish into cubes. Chopped green chilies and bay leaf are then added. The goraka is ground and mixed with a little water. Salt and pepper are added to the goraka and poured onto the fish in an earthenware pot. The dish is cooked over a moderate flame until it is very dry.


Sri Lankan men did not wear garments on their upper body prior to the sixteenth century. This distinction was reserved for royalty and warriors, who wore protective clothing or armor. The lower garment, the dhoti, was worn from the waist to below the knees. Ancient Sinhalese garments, especially those of the upper classes, were divided and neatly arranged in folds horizontally. During very cold weather, a mantle would be worn over the usual dress.

During ancient times, Sinhalese women did not cover the upper part of their bodies. Middle-class women wore only a cloth around their hips while at home, and used another piece of cloth to cover their shoulders when they went outdoors. Upper-class women were often bare-breasted, although heavily bejeweled, and their lower-class female attendants wore a breast-band.

With the arrival of the Portuguese in the early sixteenth century, Sinhalese dress underwent a dramatic change. Sri Lankan men quickly adopted the types of shirts, trousers, socks, and shoes worn by Portuguese settlers. Prior to this time, only upper class Sinhalese wore shoes. In the Kandyan kingdom, women wore a short frock with sleeves that covered the arms. The frock was made of fine white calico wrought with blue and red thread in flowers and branch designs. Both Kandyan men and women wore jewelry. The men wore gold chains, pendants, girdles, and finger rings. Women wore chains, pendants, girdles and rings in addition to earrings, ( kundalabharana ), anklets ( pa-salamba ), bracelets, and toe-rings ( pa-mudu ).

From the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, respectable women covered their upper bodies while women of the low castes and the untouchables ( Rodi ) were prohibited from doing so. On their lower bodies, women wore a garment that was similar to a dhoti. For upper-class women, this garment extended to the ankles. Upper-class women also wore more elaborate lower garments in an array of colors. Women in the lower classes were usually naked from the waist up, and their lower garments did not extend below their knees. During the seventeenth century, upper-class men wore doublets of white or blue calico around the middle torso, a white one next to the skin, and a blue one over the white, with a blue or red sash at the waist. A knife with a carved handle inlaid with silver protruded from the garment folds at the chest.


Bharata natyam is one of the classical dance forms of Sri Lanka and India. During this dance a sari-clad feminine figure, covered with jewels and flowers, strikes a graceful pose. In Sri Lanka, announcements of Arangetram, the traditional first performance by a young artist, are published every month. A bharata natyam performance on stage is a composite art form combining the elements of space management, stagecraft, music, and the presentational aspects of the artist, including makeup, color and sartorial elegance, rhythm, and dramatic content.

Sri Lanka is also known for Devil Dances, dramatic rituals performed by masked dancers who represent demons and characters like Nag Ruska, the King of the Cobras, and Gurulu Raska, the King of Birds. Dancers are trained from around age ten by their elders. The dance lasts throughout one night and is accompanied by the Yak bera, the devil drum. The most well-known of the Devil Dances is the Sanni Yakuma, when 18 demons of disease are summoned around a sick person's house.

Sri Lankan music was heavily influenced by India. W. D. Amaradeva, known as Sri Lanka's greatest singer and composer, mixed North Indian (Hindustani) classical music and Sinhala folk music associated with dance, drama, ritual, and social customs. Buddhist chants and narrative styles are also a part of Sri Lanka's musical heritage. Baila is a genre of music borrowed from the Portuguese. Baila is still the music of choice at middle-class parties.


The one national holiday celebrated by all Sri Lankans is Independence Day on February 4. The full moon day of each month, Poya Day, is also considered a holiday. In addition, Sri Lankan Americans celebrate a wide variety of Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, and Muslim festivals and holidays, according to one's own religious preferences.

For Buddhists, the month of May is the most important full moon holy day of the entire year. On this day, Gautama Buddha was born, gained enlightenment, and passed away. Sri Lankan Buddhists celebrate this holiday by attending religious ceremonies at temples and decorating their homes with lanterns made of colored paper and sticks. Buddhists celebrate the New Year in March or April with coconut games and pillow fights. During October and November, Hindus in Sri Lanka and the United States celebrate Deepavali, or the festival of lights, which symbolizes the destruction of forces of darkness and evil and the re-enthronement of the light of God in individual and collective hearts.


Sinhala and Tamil are official languages in Sri Lanka. The Sinhalese are the largest ethnic group in the country, comprising 74 percent of the population, in 1981. Sinhala is an Indo-Aryan language genetically related to such major south Asian languages as Hindi and Bengali. As a descendant of Sanskrit, the language of the Mahabharatha and Ramayana, Sinhala is also related to European languages such as Greek and Latin. Two varieties of Sinhala are commonly distinguished, the literary and colloquial; agreement between the verb and the subject is found only in the literary variety. It is likely that groups from north India introduced an early form of Sinhala when they migrated to Sri Lanka around 500 B.C. , bringing with them the agricultural economy that has remained dominant during the twentieth century. From ancient times, however, Sinhala has included a large number of words and constructs that were borrowed from Tamil, and modern speech includes many expressions from European languages, especially English. There are 12 Sinhala vowel sounds and there are also double vowels, which are extended sounds. Double consonants are split to finish the previous syllable and begin the following syllable. Tamils and most Muslims speak Tamil, part of the South Indian Dravidian linguistic group.


The palms clasped together, with a gentle bow of the head and the word " Ayubowan, " meaning "Wishing you a long life," is the traditional welcome used by Sri Lankans. " Shaaa " is an exclamation of pleasure and surprise, as one might say upon seeing a beautiful sight. " Ayi yoo " or " appoo " are exclamations of unpleasant surprise, used for everything from hearing a bit of gossip to witnessing an auto wreck. An expression that originated in village culture and continues to be used by modern Sri Lankans is " Koheede Yanne ?" meaning "Where are you going?" In village life, everyone is always interested in where people are heading on the road.

Family and Community Dynamics

The caste system is used to create social divisions within Sri Lanka. The Goyigama caste of the Sinhalese, traditionally associated with land cultivation, is dominant in population and public influence. In the lowlands of Sri Lanka, however, other castes based on commercial activities are influential. The Tamil Vellala caste resembles the Goyigama in its dominance and traditional connection with agriculture, but it is completely separate from the Sinhalese caste. Within their separate caste structures, Sinhalese and Tamil communities are fragmented through customs that separate higher from lower orders. These include elaborate rules of etiquette and a nearly complete absence of inter-caste marriages. However, differences in wealth arising from the modern economic system have created wide class cleavages that cut across boundaries of caste, religion, and language. Because of all these divisions, Sri Lankan society is complex, with numerous points of potential conflict.

Sri Lankan Americans abandon caste restrictions when they acclimate to American lifestyles. Maintaining caste distinctions is not possible for the most part in business and social settings. Sri Lankan Americans live in single family units without relatives, although relatives may migrate to the same community.

In Sri Lanka, among all ethnic and caste groups, the most important social unit is the nuclear family of husband, wife, and unmarried children. Even when economic necessity forces several families (in Sinhala, ge ; in Tamil, kudumbam ) or generations to live together, each wife has her own cooking place and prepares food for her own husband as a sign of the individuality of the nuclear family. Among all sections of the population, however, relatives of both the wife and the husband form an important social network that supports the nuclear family and encompasses the majority of its important social relations. The kindred ( pavula, in Sinhala) of an individual often comprise the group with whom it is possible to eat or marry. Because of these customs, local Sinhalese society is highly fragmented, not only at the level of ethnic group or caste, but also at the level of kindred relations.

The divisions between the castes are reaffirmed on a daily basis, especially in rural areas, by many forms of language and etiquette. Because each caste uses different personal names, and many use slightly different forms of speech, it is often possible for people to determine someone's caste as soon as that person speaks. Persons of lower rank behave politely by addressing their superiors with honorable formulas and by removing their headgear. A standard furnishing in upper-caste rural houses is a low stool ( kolamba ), provided so that members of lower castes may take a lower seat while visiting. Villages are divided into separate streets or neighborhoods according to caste, and the lowest orders may live in separate hamlets.


Sri Lankan Americans are highly educated. Most immigrants have completed some college and many have advanced degrees. Until colonial times, the educational system in Sri Lanka was designed primarily for a small elite. Since independence in 1948, Sri Lanka has also made important gains in education, reaching near universal literacy and primary school enrollment rates. Children from age five to ten attend primary school; from age 11 to 15 they attend junior secondary school (terminating in the Ordinary Level Examination); and from age 16 to 17 they attend senior secondary school (terminating in the Advanced Level Examination). Those who qualify can go on to the university system, which is completely run by the state. In the late 1980s, there were eight universities and one university college with over 18,000 students in 28 faculties, plus 2,000 graduate and certificate students. However, improvements in the educational system created economic difficulties because many graduates were qualified for jobs that did not exist. Women, who made up only about 25 percent of the labor force in the 1980s, were particularly affected. Many Sri Lankans who settle in the United States do so in search of better employment opportunities.


Since the country's independence in 1948, Sri Lankan women have gained legal rights to education and employment. Prior to 1921, the female literacy rate among Christians in Sri Lanka was 50 percent, among Buddhists 17 percent, among Hindus 10 percent, and among Muslims only 6 percent. After independence, women entered the educational system in equal numbers with men. A continuing problem in all fields of technical education was extreme gender differentiation in job training; women tended to enroll in home economics and teaching courses rather than in scientific disciplines.

Although there are no legal impediments to the participation of women in politics or government, social mores within some communities limited women's activities outside the home for most of the twentieth century. In August of 1994, voters elected a parliament that chose a female prime minister for only the third time in the country's history. In November of 1994, a woman was elected president for the first time. Eleven women held seats in the parliament. In addition to the prime minister and the minister for women's affairs, four deputy ministers are women. Although the constitution provides for equal employment opportunities in the public sector, women have no legal protection against discrimination in the private sector, where they sometimes are paid less than men for equal work. Also, they often experience difficulty in rising to supervisory positions and face sexual harassment. Women constitute approximately one-half of Sri Lanka's work force. Women have equal rights under national, civil, and criminal law. However, issues related to family law, including divorce, child custody, and inheritance, are adjudicated by the customary law of each ethnic or religious group. In 1995, the government raised the minimum age of marriage for women from 12 to 18 years. Muslims, however, were allowed to continue their customary marriage practices.


The kinship system of Sri Lanka, like those in most countries of southern Asia and the Middle East, follows the pattern of preferred cross-cousin marriage. This means that the most acceptable person for a man to marry is the daughter of his father's sister. The most suitable partner for a woman is the son of her mother's brother. Parallel cousins—the son of the father's brother or the daughter of the mother's sister—tend to be improper marriage partners. Special kinship terminology exists in both Tamil and Sinhalese for relatives in preferred or prohibited marriage categories. In many villages, people spend their entire childhoods with a clear knowledge of their future marriage plans and live in close proximity to their future spouses. The ties between cross-cousins are so close, in theory, that persons marrying partners other than their cross-cousins may include a special ritual in their marriage ceremonies during which they receive permission from their cousins to marry an outsider. The system of cross-cousin marriage also allows control over property.

Although all marriages are arranged, children can decline the mate that is chosen by their parents. In rural areas, marriages have traditionally been arranged between teenagers. The average age at marriage has been increasing in the last decades of the twentieth century. This is attributed to the longer periods of time that are needed to obtain a college education and establish a stable career.


In rural areas of Sri Lanka, traditional marriages did not require legal registration or a ceremony. The couple simply started living together, with the consent of their parents, who were usually related. Most Sri Lankan families have limited financial resources and do not spend large sums on wedding parties. Wealthier families, especially in urban areas, have a ceremony. The bride may receive a substantial dowry, determined beforehand during negotiations between her family and her future inlaws. Matchmakers and astrologers pick the time for the marriage.

Late twentieth-century wedding ceremonies have been influenced by British and Western culture. Brides wear white, carry flowers, and are preceded by bridesmaids and flower girls as in the typical wedding of the. This contrasts with the Kandyan Sinhalese (more traditional upland dwellers named after the Kingdom of Kandy) bride in her traditional costume of the Osariya (sari) and the complementing regalia. The Kandyan bride tries to dress lavishly, typically wearing a grand sari with gold and silver thread, pearls, stones, beads, and sequins.

The bridal headgear, the nalalpata, is a head-band with a gold gem-studded forehead plate, and was traditionally worn by a ruler. The nalalpata was tied to the forehead of a young prince during a ceremony. A Sinhala wedding is the only time that the nalalpata is worn. It is placed on the middle of the forehead with one stem extending down the middle parting of the hair, and another two branches extending across the forehead up to the ear. Traditionally, the nalalpata was a piece of jewelry embedded in red stones.

The bride wears a mass of chains at the neck. Padakkam, or pendants, are the important part of the chains. Starting from the nalalpata pendant, each successive chain shows off pendants with Sinhala designs. The peti malaya is the last and longest chain encircling the rest. Peti malaya means a garland of flowers or petals. The design of the pendants may vary. The agasthi malaya is a chain made of agate. Some chains have seeds placed at intervals along the chain. The seri valatu is a broad bangle with three smaller bangles joined together. The earrings, known as dimithi, have the shape of an overturned cup with tiny pearls dangling from two ear-studs. Some brides wear armlets to ward off bad luck.


According to United Nations statistics, Sri Lanka ranks second in the world in human rights violations. Sri Lankans fight bitterly along ethnic lines. In Sri Lanka, the different ethnic communities live in separate villages or sections of villages. In towns and cities, they inhabit different neighborhoods. The fact that primary education is in either Tamil or Sinhala effectively segregates the children of the different communities at an early age. Ethnic segregation is reinforced by fears that ethnic majorities will try to dominate positions of influence and repress the religious, linguistic, or cultural systems of minorities. Sinhalese are the dominant ethnic group within Sri Lanka. However, they often feel intimidated by the large Tamil population in nearby India. The combined Tamil populations of India and Sri Lanka outnumber the Sinhalese at least four to one.

The ethnic groups of Sri Lanka have been in conflict with each other since the nineteenth century. Ethnic divisions are not based on race or physical appearance, although some Sri Lankans claim to be able to determine the ethnicity of a person by his facial characteristics or color. There is nothing in the languages or the religious systems in Sri Lanka that officially promotes the social segregation of ethnic groups. Because historical circumstances have favored one or more of the groups at various times, hostility and competition for political and economic power are today's reality. However, Sri Lankan Americans peacefully voice their ethnic differences through fund-raising and political lobbying efforts.


Sri Lanka is a multi-religious country of Buddhist, Hindu, Christian and Muslim followers. The various religious groups practice their faiths in separate communities that are allowed to express their religious convictions. Buddhists constitute the majority with 69.3 percent. Theravada Buddhism (one of two types of Buddhism) was introduced to Sri Lanka in the third century B.C. from India, when a branch of the sacred bo tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment was brought to the island. According to legend, the tree that grew from this branch is near the ruins of the ancient city of Anuradhapura in the north of Sri Lanka. The tree is said to be the oldest living thing in the world and is an object of great veneration. There is no central religious authority in Theravada Buddhism, and the monastic community has divided into a number of orders with different styles of discipline or recruitment. The modern orders originated in the eighteenth century.

Employment and Economic Traditions

According to U.S. naturalization statistics, of the 1,277 Sri Lankans who became U.S. citizens in 1984, 575 had occupations ranging from professional specialties (414) to laborers and service industry workers (110). No occupation was listed for 702 immigrants. Most Sri Lankan Americans are highly educated professionals who come to the United States seeking employment opportunities. Many start their own companies and become well-known in their industries. For example, Sri Lankan American entrepreneurs formed an organization among South Asian businessmen called the Indus Entrepreneurs that aims to provide a support network for entrepreneurs.

Sri Lanka has a developing, mixed public and private economy based on agriculture, services, and light industries. Agriculture accounts for approximately one-fourth of the gross domestic product (GDP) and employs two-fifths of the workforce. Services are the largest sector of the GDP and employ one-third of the workforce. Foreign banks were allowed to open "offshore" branches in Sri Lanka in 1979 as part of a government effort to promote the country as an international financial center for South Asia. In 1990, a successful new stock exchange was founded. All exchange controls on current account transactions were eliminated and more than 40 state firms were privatized. The development of a capitalist economy in Sri Lanka led to the development of a new working class. These upwardly mobile, primarily urban professionals formed a new class that transcended divisions of race and caste. This class, particularly its uppermost strata, was educated in Western culture and ideology.

Politics and Government

Large numbers of educated Sri Lankans, both Sinhalese and Tamil, lived in the United States, Britain, and Western Europe during the 1970s and 1980s. Tamils in the United States played a role in publicizing the plight of their countrymen in the American media and provided the militant movement with financial support. For example, the Sacramento Bee reported on the efforts of a Sri Lankan American professor at Sacramento State University who is a member of the Tamil minority. He works in the United States to help end the bloodshed in Sri Lanka by urging the U.S. government to end military support for the Sri Lankan government. The Tamil Nadu Foundation, Inc., lobbies for Tamil goals and seeks to influence U.S. policies towards Sri Lanka. An increasing number of Western countries have sharply criticized Sri Lanka's dismal human rights record.

Organizations and Associations

Association of Sri-Lankans in America.

Serves as liaison between Americans of Sri-Lankan origin and the U.S. Department of State. Participates in aid programs to Sri-Lanka; promotes Sri-Lankan ethnic values in the United States and seminars on Sri-Lankan issues. Makes travel arrangements for Sri Lankan dignitaries visiting the United States. Maintains charitable program; conducts research. Provides children's services; compiles statistics; maintains speakers' bureau.

Contact: Jay P. Liyanage, Chairman.

Address: 2 East Glen Road, Denville, New Jersey 07834.

Telephone: (973) 627-7855.

Fax: (973) 586-3411.

Friends of Sri Lanka in the United States.

FOSUS was started by a group of Sri Lankan expatriates living in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area whose primary concern is the eradication of Tiger (Tamil) terrorism.

Address: P.O. Box 2479, Kensington MD 20891-2479.


Sri Lankan Association at Mississippi State University.

Helps all incoming Sri Lankan students to orient themselves to Mississippi and aids new Sri Lankans in any way they can.

Address: P.O. Box 2626, Mississippi State, MS 39762.

Sri Lankan Association of Texas A&M.

Organization of students, faculty, and staff and their families of Sri Lankan origin attached to the Texas A & M University. Any member of the university community with an interest in Sri Lanka can become an associate member. Promotes unity, culture, and spirit among Sri Lankans and fosters understanding of Sri Lankan culture among the university community.

Contact: Primary Advisor: Dr. John P. Nichols.

Address: College Station, TX 77843.

Telephone: (409) 845-3211.

Sri Lankan Association of University of Maryland.

Promotes intellectual, social, and cultural interaction among those connected with the University of Maryland, as well as developing leadership skills.

Contact: Manjula Gunawardane, President.

Address: University of Maryland, College Park, MD 20742.

Telephone: (301) 871-5138.

Sri Lanka Student Association at Oklahoma State University.

Non-profit, non-political, educational, and cultural organization that reaffirms Sri Lankan national objectives of Unity, Faith, and Discipline, fosters friendship, goodwill, cooperation, and understanding among the Sri Lankan students.

Contact: Arthur Webb, Staff Advisor.

Address: College of Arts and Sciences, 202 Life Sciences East, Oklahoma State University Stillwater, OK 74078.

Telephone: (405) 744-5658.

Sri Lankan Student Association of Virginia Tech.

Formed in the year 1996; consists of eight members to provide a common forum for Sri Lankan students studying at Virginia Tech; also promotes Sri Lanka.

Address: Virginia Tech. Blacksburg, VA 24061.

Museums and Research Centers

The Tamil Nadu Foundation, Inc.

Formed in 1974 to assist Tamil people through scholarships and relief projects. Addresses the plight of Sri Lankan Tamils. Sponsors an annual conference.

Contact: Paul C. Pandian, Texas chapter.

Address: 10636 Cox Lane, Dallas, TX 75229.

Telephone: (214) 350-5094.

Sources for Additional Study

De Silva, Chandra Richard. Sri Lanka: A History. New Delhi: Vikas, 1987.

Ratnapala, Nandasena. Sinhalese Folklore, Folk Religion, and Folk Life. Dehiwala, Sri Lanka: Sarvodaya Research, 1980.

Ross, Russell R. Sri Lanka: A Country Study. Washington, DC: Library of Congress Federal Research Division, 1990.

Wright, Gillian. Sri Lanka. Lincolnwood, IL: Passport Books, 1994.

User Contributions:

Bieta Fernando
Very nicely done. Unbiased document. Explains the cultural and religeous values and Sri Lankans very well.
This is the reality,and proud of my motherland,thanks for explains the values of it. well done Srilankan Americans!
Fantastic article which all srilankans should read. Lot of them don't know the values and culture. Well done
Dhiya Kuriakose

I'm a journalist who is interested in covering Sri Lankans in the United States and NYC in particular. I was wondering how to get in touch with the author of this piece. Do let me know. Thank you!
I'm 20 year old afte A/L student , I like to go oversea for work and study(partime) ,currently my parents can't afford that much of money to full fill my dream . And I'm thinking anyone who like help me for this let me know (contact me by email) , I'm never give up on my dreams until I make it reality . Thank You!
maya sunethra Rammandala
Great Job. I'm very proud of my country and who written this article about my beautiful country.
I found lot of people did not hear about Sri Lanka and this will be a great gift to them.
Zadie Perera
Good, however, the author forgot to put aiyo and anne in the phrases section!

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