Culture in Sri Lanka & behavior as a tourist

Sri Lanka,

formerly Ceylon, became British Dominion in June 1947 and independent within the British Commonwealth on 4 February 1948. On 22 May 1972, Ceylon became a republic with the name “Sri Lanka”.

Sri Lanka is a multifaceted country in every respect.

If you meet the locals with respect, tolerance, openness and a smile on your face, you will experience an unforgettable time in Sri Lanka and will be overwhelmed by the locals’ hospitality and helpfulness.

As local Sri Lanka experts and contact persons on site, we are happy to help you with your travel planning and the implementation of your individual wishes. In advance, we have put together some important information about the culture and right way to deal with it as a guest on the exotic island:

Religion is of great importance in Sri Lanka’s culture, which, as you can derive from the following texts, has a big influence on the life of the inhabitants and the behavior of the tourists.

Greeting:

You fold your hands at face level and bow slightly. Of course, you can also use the usual “hello”. However, shaking hands salutatory is uncommon in Sri Lanka. Especially the left hand must not be used as it is considered impure.

Clothing:

The traditional clothing of the local women is a so-called sari – a rectangular cloth, which is about 6m wide and wrapped elegantly around the body. The sari consists of 3 parts: the decorative shoulder piece, the simple body and the decorative braid at the seam. A short blouse (Choli) in the color of the sari and a petticoat are worn underneath. The sari reveals the origin of the wearer, based on the way it is worn.

The local men wear a traditional leg dress, a dhoti, a long piece of fabric tied together at the waist and wrapped around the legs like trousers. The dhoti, however, is usually only worn on religious occasions. In everyday life, merely men of poorer classes of population and older men can be seen wearing it.  

Out of respect for the locals, as a tourist it is ideal to choose thin, non-transparent, loose clothing covering the shoulders and knees. Pay special attention to this, when you are not in tourist areas or when visiting a temple. You do not have to cover yourself to visit a temple, a T-shirt with longer sleeves is perfectly ok. Before entering the temple, you have to take off your headgear and shoes.

Food:

In Sri Lanka people eat with their right hands without using any cutlery. The locals form small balls, sliding them into their mouths with their thumbs. The palm of the hand never touches the food. The left, impure hand remains under the table. Usually you will get a bowl of water (sometimes with a slice of lime in it) after eating to wash your hands with.

But don’t worry, by now most have adjusted to the tourists’ eating habits and usually serve the food with cutlery.

Sri Lanka’s cuisine consists of a variety of rice and curry dishes, characterized by flavorful native spices and a good amount of spiciness. Typical spices are garlic, chili, ginger, cumin and cilantro.

For vegetarians, Sri Lanka is a paradise. As many locals do not eat meat for religious reasons, there is a wide variety of vegetarian dishes.

The typical national dish is Sri Lankan rice & curry. It is eaten by the locals in different variations, in the morning, at noon and in the evening. It consists of rice and several small bowls filled with different types of curry cooked in coconut milk: chicken/fish/seafood curry, various vegetable curries, coconut sambal (spicy paste of coconut flakes, chili and other spices), and dhal (lentil curry). The traditional Papadam, a very thin, deep-fried flat cake made from lentil flour or a mixture of lentil and rice flour, is eaten with it.

Language:

The majority of the population speaks Singhalese. However, the general lingua franca is English.

By the way: if you are wondering why your Sri Lankan conversational partner is slightly shaking their head during the conversation: it means that the person you are talking to agrees with you.

Relationship/love:

Exchange of affection should not be displayed in public. Holding hands is allowed. In Sri Lanka, it is not uncommon for same-sex partners to hold hands, but in this culture, it is merely an expression of mutual friendship. Homosexuality, on the other hand, is forbidden in Sri Lanka and even punished with long prison terms.

Religion

Sri Lanka is a country of religious diversity.

The majority of the population are Buddhists, with about 70.2 percent. The other religions are divided into 12.6 percent Hindus, 9.7 percent Muslims and 7.4 percent Christians (6.1 percent Catholics and 1.3 percent others).

Out of respect for the locals, the following should be considered:

  • Do not touch, climb or defile a Buddha statue
  • Do not pose in front of or with a Buddha statue
  • Never turn your back on a Buddha statue for a photo
  • Before taking photos at the respective places make sure it is allowed
  • Only enter temples barefoot and cover your shoulders and knees
  • Do not wear any headgear in temples
  • Do not place an image of Buddha on the ground or destroy one
  • Do not smoke in the immediate vicinity of a temple
  • If you have a tattoo of Buddha, cover it up – it has happened in the past that tourists with such tattoos were expelled from the country
  • Do not wear clothes or jewelry with Buddha images
  • No contact with monks (e.g. shaking hands)
  • Often, tourists are invited by locals, given that they are a very hospitable people. It is best to bring a small gift – but don’t be surprised if it is put aside, as it is customary in Sri Lanka not to get excited over gifts and to open them in the presence of others
  • Don’t be surprised if you are eating alone when you are invited to dinner, as it is considered polite that the guest eats first. The host eats later, once the guest has left the house
  • Before entering an apartment, take off your shoes and never point the sole of your foot at others. Since the foot is considered impure, this could be seen as an insult
  • Do not eat with your left hand or use it to hand something to someone, as the left hand is considered impure
  • In general: smile and try to avoid direct criticism, as this is not commonly done and leads to a loss of face

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