Culture & Art

Customs and Lifestyle
Diet and Eating
Rice is the staple in the Sri Lankan diet and is the basic food for all meals. Each ethnic group in Sri Lanka has its own repertoire of dishes, but each has also borrowed from the others over time; thus, Sri Lankan cuisine is a combination of all the different types. Several different curries are popular, from mild to very spicy. Sri Lankans typically consume little meat, but eat large amounts of pulses (peas and beans) and nuts. A main meal usually begins with rice or bread, followed by a curry or dhal (lentils) and a vegetable such as cabbage or carrots. Favourite foods include pol sambol, which is scraped and spiced coconut, and katta sambol, which is a very spicy mixture of fried onions and chillies. Cakes and sweetmeats are also an integral part of the country’s diet. Tea is served with most meals and as a refreshment.
The different religions of the country play a large role in determining what people eat. Those who adhere strictly to Buddhist doctrines do not eat flesh of any kind. Some Buddhists include fish or eggs in their diet. Many Hindus are vegetarians; those who do eat meat do not eat beef. Muslims do not eat pork.
The people of Sri Lanka enjoy many sports introduced by the British, including football, rugby, and cricket. Tennis, badminton, swimming, fishing, and horse racing are also popular, and people like to play chess, bridge, and other table games. Attending cinemas showing European-language and Sri Lankan films is a popular pastime. Sri Lanka has a long tradition in the dramatic arts, and people enjoy both live and puppet theatre.
Holidays and Celebrations
Because the Buddhist calendar is based on the moon’s phases, every Poya Dawasa, or full-moon day, is a holiday. In addition, each major religion has at least one holiday that is also a national holiday. For example, the country marks Id ul-Fitr, the Islamic feast at the end of the month-long fast of Ramzan (Ramadan) and Id ul-Adha, the Islamic Feast of the Sacrifice. Easter (including Good Friday) and Christmas (25 December) are celebrated by the Christians. Diwali, the Festival of Lights, is a Hindu celebration. Many other religious holidays honour the Buddha or Hindu deities. The Tamil Thai-Pongal Day marks the return of the sun after a month of “evil days”; the sun brings a new period of goodwill. The Sinhalese and Tamil New Year is usually celebrated in April with great fanfare and rejoicing. During New Year festivities, Sri Lankans participate in a number of activities, from indoor games just for women to outdoor sports such as elephant racing or wrestling. Political holidays include National Day (4 February), May Day (1 May), and National Heroes’ Day (22 May).


The Buddha statue at Mihintale.
Hindu Devotess engaing in 'Kavadi' at a Vavuniya temple.

                                      The island is the home of two main traditional cultures: the Sinhalese (centered in the ancient cities of Kandy and Anuradhapura) and the Tamil (centered in the city of Jaffna). In more recent times a British colonial culture was added, and lately Sri Lanka, particularly in theurban areas, has experienced a dramatic makeover in the western mold.
Until recently, for example, most Sri Lankans, certainly those in the villages, have eaten traditional food, engaged in traditional crafts and expressed themselves through traditional arts. But economic growth and intense economic competition in developed countries has spilled over to most of Sri Lanka, producing changes that might variously be identified as progress, westernisation or a loss of identity and assimilation.

New Year Traditions

    In Sri Lanka they celebrate the New Year on 13 or 14 April because they use the Hindu calendar to set the date for the festival. They clean their houses during the days leading up to the New Year, they might even paint their houses and they also make several types of sweets to be eaten on New Year's Day. No food is cooked and there are no lights or fires lit on the night before New Year. They visit family, friends etc. Their first meal is pongal milk rice and is cooked by the father or chief male relative. They play games such as Gudu which is a game similar to cricket or baseball but with a small stick and a large stick. Another game is played with coconuts where you try to smash each others coconut.


Elephants at the Esala Perahera.
Every year on or about April 13 Sinhala and Tamil people celebrate Sinhala and Tamil New Year Festival, and Muslims celebrate RamadanEsala Perahera (A-suh-luh peh-ruh-ha-ruh) is the grand festival of Esala held in Sri Lanka. It is very grand with elegant costumes. Happening in July or August in Kandy, it has become a unique symbol of Sri Lanka. It is a Buddhist festival consisting of dances and richly decorated elephants.
There are fire-dances, whip-dances, Kandian dances and various other cultural dances. The elephants are usually adorned with lavish garments. The festival ends with the traditional 'diya-kepeema'. The elephant is paraded around the city bearing the tooth of Buddha. However the new year for tamils have been established as being on January 14 from this


As it might be surmised, the Buddhist paintings of the early 20th century constitute an impressive diversity in styles as can be seen from the temple murals of the time.  Several centuries of colonial domination of the country, and the resultant exposure to various art traditions and also the rise of nationalism and the quest for an authentic art tradition can be considered as the root cause for this dynamism in art styles in the Buddhist mural tradition of Sri Lanka.  The George Keyt murals at Gotami Vihara, the Solius Mendis murals at Kelaniya Raja Maha Viiharaya and the numerous murals by M.Sarlis, all done during the first 4decades of the 20th century, are the best examples to illustrate this diversity in styles.
Murals of Gotami Vihara, painted in the 1930s by one of Sri Lanka's most important modernist painters presents a Buddhist mural done in a style that has successfully synthesized Pablo Picasso's cubism, the linear beauty of Anuradhapura paintings and the sensuality of traditional Indian sculpture into a sensual and sumptuous artistic language.
Murals of the Kelaniya Raja Maha Viharaya, painted by Solius Mendis in the late 1930s and early 1940s was an attempt to revitalize the Sinhalese classical art tradition of Anuradhapura.  The result however is not a reinvention of the classical tradition but an amalgamation of several Indian, and European visual idioms into a style that recalls the classical naturalism of Anuradhapura.
M.Sarlis Buddhist murals and his lithographic prints on Buddhist themes can be considered as the first formulation of a popular tradition of Buddhist art in Sri Lanka, out side the ethos of the feudal elites and the urban bourgeoisie.  His was an art form that did not look back to Kandy or Anuradhapura for artistic inspirations.  His style, which is largely of borrowings from western naturalism in a somewhat 'folk' manner, constituted an art language that is interesting and 'beautiful' in its own way.  His style had the basics of any 'popular art tradition' of the 20th century: the glitter, and the meretriciousness.


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