Sri Lanka is an island well known to merchants and seafarers of the ancient world as it was located on one of the main sea routes traversed in those days. The direct trade between the West and Ceylon commenced towards the end of the first century and developed rapidly thereafter.
Numerous first-hand accounts of the country and its peoples became available to Greek and Roman geographers and this information formed the basis of the remarkably descriptive account of the island by the geographer and cartographer Ptolemy in the middle of the second century.
The island is mentioned in almost all the literature written by travellers from the Mediterranean world who were in search of the unknown and undiscovered East and its treasures. Famed travellers from the west who later recorded descriptions of their travels like Marco Polo, Ibn Batuta, Marignolli and others all wrote about this fabulous land of wealth and beauty.
Many centuries later, Sir Emerson Tennent writing about Ceylon in 1859 exclaimed that “there is no island in the world, Great Britain itself not excepted, that has attracted the attention of authors in so many distant ages and so many different countries.”
The most poignant tribute paid to the island was by a papal legate about six centuries ago who said “from Ceylon to Paradise, according to native tradition is forty miles; there, may be heard the fountains of Paradise!”
Early chronicles mention that at the time of Gotama Buddha, Ceylon was known as Lankadipa. It thereafter acquired the additional name Tambapanni. According to tradition, this was derived from a legend that described the hands of the wearied men of Wijeya, founder of the Sinhalese kingdom. They were reddened by the copper coloured sand when they threw themselves down upon landing in Ceylon after a voyage from north India. Wijeya, according to ancient legend was of “lion” ancestry and he and his followers were called Sihala, the originators of the Sinhalese “race.”
The country acquired many names over the centuries that followed, most of these names evolving from descriptions and tags from seafarers and travellers in an era which predated the advent of mass communication. The island was called at various times Serendib, Taprobane (derived from Tambapanni), Zeilon, Ilion, Zeilan, Seilan,and Lanka.
The island was familiar to the intrepid Arab travellers long before the rise of Islam, and the tales of the Arabian Nights are fraught with the wonders of the fabled land of Serendib. Many historians of the past have conjectured on the origin of the name Serendib, which has since found a permanent place in the English lexicon through the word serendipity - defined as ‘the facility of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident.”
Such a connotation suggests that the name Serendib as ascribed to the island by seafarers and navigators of yore, meant a pleasant country discovered by travellers unexpectedly and by accident. Historically however there is quite a logical explanation to the evolution of the name. According to the Mahawanso or the Great Chronicle which contains the oral and written history of the island, from the time of King Wijaya (543 BC) the country was called Sinhala-diva or Sinhala-dwipa meaning the “dwelling place of lions’” by its inhabitants.
This was later converted to “Silan-dwipa” and “Seren-diva” which was further corrupted to “Serendib” by later Arabian navigators. With the expansion of Portuguese maritime interests, the name Serendib was reduced to Zeilan and the British converted that name to Ceylon.
When the country declared itself a republic in 1972, the Constituent Assembly proposed a change of name to Sri Lanka which means “Lanka the Blessed.” It is a comforting thought to know that the Sri Lankans of today are heirs to a great tradition of ancient cultures, a land of unsurpassed beauty, and a nation that is fiercely independent.
Sri Lanka, like most of the other countries of the east was untouched by the industrial and agrarian revolutions that transformed Europe and gave the European region a kick-start to enter what is today termed the developed world.
The country however was the bearer of an ancient civilisation marked by learning and renowned for the manner in which it harnessed the country’s natural resources for sustaining its people.
A country renowned for its natural beauty with a concentration of flora and fauna unsurpassed by any other country of its size in the world, Sri Lanka has also an abundance of natural features like mountains, waterfalls and a variety of agro climatic zones. Its bio-diversity is extensive to the point that few countries in the world can match it for the indigenous flora and fauna that is found there.
During a period of about four centuries, from the 16th to the 20th centuries, the country was largely under the rule of western powers, notably the British, which transformed the country from a peasant economy to a plantation dominated economy.
Tea, rubber and the native coconut were cultivated on a large scale especially in the South Western areas of the land. Island-wide physical infrastructure consisting of roads, railways and harbours brought the country into a position where it could trade internationally and join the global family of nations.
Meanwhile much of the natural beauty of the country remained unaltered. The mountains, the Montane zones, the wild life reservations and the ruined cities dating back to over 2500 years of civilisation combined with the sandy beaches around the island made the country a prime target for tourism. Tourist arrivals exceeded a million in 2014 and continue to grow.
Tourists are attracted by the unique system of roads which traverse the country from the low coastal areas to the central hills which extend up to around 4000 feet above sea level. These provide motorists with superb opportunities to see the country from many vantage points. The country’s waterways are numerous and are becoming increasingly popular for white water rafting. The 208 mile Mahaweli River originates in the central hills and flows into the sea at the north-eastern port of Trincomalee, one of the finest natural harbours in the world.
Sri Lanka is one of the few countries where in a few days you can visit pristine beaches, mist-clad mountains, tea plantations, wildlife reserves and ancient historical cities and monuments. And what better way to see this paradise on earth than on a classic Royal Enfield motorcycle.
Sri Lanka’s development was stifled significantly due to a thirty year old ethnic conflict which debilitated progress seriously. With end of the conflict six years ago, the country has engaged in renewing and expanding its physical infrastructure and modernising its transport and communication systems.
With high literacy and numeracy rates (the highest in the South Asian region) and with free education and medical facilities, its population was effectively protected from grinding squalor and poverty seen in many other countries in the region. Consequently it can boast of a well educated workforce now participating with vigour in fields such as information technology, banking and finance.
From the beginning of the 19th Century the commanding heights of the Sri Lankan economy have been dominated by the plantation sector largely consisting of produce from tea, rubber and coconut estates. In recent decades there has been some diversification including the vigorous promotion of gem production and export. Sri Lankan sapphires and a variety of semi precious stones feature prominently in international jewellery salons.
More recently, especially after the end of the ethnic conflict, tourism has taken a significant role in the national economy. The number of hotel beds have more than doubled over the last decade and tourist arrivals have for the first time exceeded a million visitors during 2014. Some interesting additions to its tourist attractions in recent years have been dwarf blue whale watching, a spectacle only seen around Sri lanka, white water rafting and eco tourism.
The Boxing Day tsunami 10 years ago was a devastating blow to the country, destroying life and property on an unprecedented scale. This once in a century “natural” disaster helped to garner both national and international resources for rebuilding and rehabilitation and the country has consequently developed a capability for dealing with such unforeseen natural calamities. Though the country is subject to the excesses of monsoonal showers resulting in minor floods, they are nowhere near the scale of the devastation caused by major rivers in the South Asian and South East Asian Region such as the Ganges, Yellow River and the Mekong.
The country’s natural fertility, and the hydraulic systems introduced in ancient times, have insulated it from severe drought and famine which are tragic cyclical events that are common in the Asian region.
With its natural resources, skilled workforce and geographic location within the region, Sri Lanka is now poised to take a leading role in the South Asian Region.
From ancient times Sri Lanka has been renowned as the best source of spices in the world. Travellers to the country during ancient times have described the enchanting smell of spices wafting through the air as the sailing vessel drew closer to the island.
In fact it was the lure of spices that brought military adventurers to the country and who upon arrival did not want to leave. The first western nation to conquer part of the country were the Portuguese whose arrival was described by a historian in these terms” “if the vagaries of wind and wave brought the Portuguese to Ceylon, the lure of cinnamon kept them here.”
Today Sri Lanka can rightly claim to be the spice centre of the world. No other country can claim to have the variety and the quality of almost the entire range of spices that grow naturally in the country. Cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg, cardamoms, cloves, turmeric and tamarind grow in abundance in this fertile land and are processed and exported to countries around the world. It is axiomatic therefore that spices should feature prominently in the culinary traditions of the country.
With a long history of contact with maritime nations, the country has been exposed to a variety of culinary traditions from both the west and the east. While the country has its own nascent culinary base, it certainly has also developed an international tradition based on the influence of neighbouring countries and metropolitan powers that exercised military and political influence on it over the past six centuries. Thus Sri Lanka’s own domestic tradition of food and drink has been complemented over the years by the influence of Indian, Malaysian, Portuguese, Dutch, Arab and British cuisine.
Sri Lanka’s staple food is rice, and like all other rice growing nations, its main complement is the famed “curry.” Sri Lankan curries are known for the delicate mix of spices and coconut milk that are used in their preparation. They are used to enhance the flavour and preserve the exotic taste and appetising aromas that seduce the taste buds of the diner.
Surrounded by the Indian Ocean, the island has a long tradition of harvesting the bounty from the seas around it. Much of the country’s cuisine is based on fish of which there is a wide variety available for purchase at all times of the year from seaside stalls and markets. Commonly available fish range from the ubiquitous yellow finned tuna and Spanish mackerel to the smaller varieties. Lobster, crab and prawns also feature prominently on the national menu and are produced for the table in traditional curried, baked or fried cuisine.
Sri Lanka has many ethnic groups such as the Sinhalese, Tamils, Malays, Moors, Burghers and Eurasians. Each ethnic group has its own distinct cuisine. Thus the country has several streams of culinary tradition based on ethnic origin and culture, combined with local produce.
The coconut tree which is an all pervading element in Sri Lanka’s terrain, especially in coastal areas, has a dominant role to play in its food culture. The coconut is used in a variety of dishes that complement a meal of rice. The juice extracted from its kernel and the kernel itself is used in a large number of dishes which would titillate not only the palate of the locals but has proven to be attractive alternatives to the somewhat bland dishes of the west.
The coconut is also the base for the production of coconut wine as well as the stronger distilled drink called Arrack, first introduced by the Portuguese but now a refined alcoholic drink akin to malt whisky.
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