Sri Lanka: Hidden Scars Behind Picturesque Beauty

No travel destination can ever solely fulfill all of your travel wishes, but some destinations can certainly offer you a lot to feast your soul and senses on. One perfect example is the ‘pearl of the Indian Ocean,’ the ‘teardrop of India,’ or as it’s officially known, Sri Lanka.

From jungles to beaches, tea plantations, temples, and more, one can easily describe Sri Lanka as breathtaking. However, what most travellers don’t know is that behind Sri Lanka’s awe-inspiring beauty lies a long history of dispute and conflict which contributed greatly to what this nation of ethnic and religious diversity looks like today.

Why Are All the Signs Bilingual?

Upon arriving to any foreign country, the first thing you’re likely to come across is the stream of signage leading you through the airport, and from there on, across the country. One thing that is noticeable in Sri Lanka though, is that all the signs are written in two languages – which may not be recognizably different to the foreign eye – Sinhala and Tamil.

For a considerably small country (65,610 km2) and a moderate population of 21.2 million, being officially bilingual may seem a bit bizarre. However, for a country that has suffered a 25-year-long civil war fuelled by ethnic discrimination, being bilingual is the least that can be done to maintain cohesion and inclusion.

After 150 years of British colonisation – preceded by the Dutch and Portuguese – the Sinhalese ethnic majority was handed the authority, whereby Sinhala was declared the official language, and Buddhism the official religion. For 35 years since Sri Lanka (back then known as Ceylon) gained its independence, the Tamil minority was greatly discriminated against which ultimately led to a civil war that broke out between the separatist group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the government, killing between 70,000 and 80,000 people before it ended in 2009.

Today, bilingual signs are one of many reminders of the importance of ethnic and religious coexistence in Sri Lanka (hint:look up the meaning of the Sri Lankan flag).

Traces of European Colonialism in Sri Lanka

Colonial Galle. Credit: Noel Morata

If cities could speak, they would have endless stories to narrate. While they may not be able to vocally communicate, there are plenty of other means through which cities tell us of their past – such as architecture.

Besides its obvious practical purpose, architecture has since the dawn of time recorded how people lived, as well as the influences that shaped their lives. Strolling through many Lankan cities, the sheer contrast between Asian and European architecture – which seems to majestically blend into one fabric – candidly narrates plenty of Sri Lanka’s past.

The European interest in Sri Lanka manifested as early as the 16th century when Colombo fell under the rule of the Portuguese, followed by the Dutch rule between the 17th and 18th centuries, until the British took over in the 19th century.

Although colonialism caused deep tears in the social fabric of many developing countries across the world, it often also left behind a lot of art and architecture which stands witness to what may be a turning point in history. In Sri Lanka, this takes various forms, from museums, to European houses turned into boutique hotels, as well as forts.

If you’re not interested in delving deep into Sri Lanka’s colonial history, then you may at least enjoy dining in one of its restaurants that were once homes to high ranking European officers and merchants from days long gone.

The Not-So-Sri Lankan History of Ceylon Tea

Credit: Christophe Meneboeuf/ Source: Wikimedia

It seems as though moving through Sri Lanka is guaranteed to be eyegasmic, whether you’re trekking its forests, gliding through its streets on a scooter or tuk-tuk, or commuting by train. One highly recommended activity is to hop on one of Sri Lanka’s scenic trains which take you through the country’s many tea plantations (the most famous is the one connecting Ella and Kandy). But did you know that none of this existed before the British colonial rule?

Riding through the lush green Ceylon tea plantations may be one of the most soul rejuvenating train rides; however, like a lot of colonial impact, it came at a high price. Before Ceylon tea plantations, and coffee plantations before them, there once lived deep jungles which were home to a rich diversity of flora and fauna – all chopped down to turn those lands into coffee plantations.

Nanu Oya Railway Station, Sri Lanka. Credit: Mal B/ Source: Flickr

As the Sri Lankan coffee industry waned in the aftermath of a blight that affected the coffee plantations, Scotsman James Taylor planted the first seeds of what would later turn into the trademark Ceylon tea. Taylor was shortly followed by Sir Thomas Lipton who contributed greatly to the commercialisation of tea. Today, Sri Lanka is considered the third largest tea exporter in the world, preceded by Kenya and China.

After all, who else could have introduced one of the world’s largest tea industries but the Brits?

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