Thursday, October 28, 2010

Formerly Ceylon

I'm currently in Colombo, the capital of what used to be called Ceylon:  it became Sri Lanka in 1972 but due to my advancing age, I often follow the British habit of calling new countries by their colonial names so I don't have to remember the new ones (e.g. Myanmar is still Burma for me and its capital is still Rangoon, not Yangon).  At least Sri Lanka still considers itself "the pearl of the Indian Ocean" so not everything has changed.  This is my first time in Sri Lanka, although Gertrud and I did make an airport stop in Ceylon about 40 years ago.  To me the former name immediately conjures up images of the British colonial tea and rubber plantations which are still being worked.  However today, the country's primary foreign exchange  earner is the labor of Sri Lankans in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the Emirates and other oil-rich countries of the Middle East.

Sri Lanka is about half way around the world and approximately a 24 hour flight from Washington.  I reached it via Atlanta and Dubai on one of Delta's new flat bed-flights and was able to get about 9 hours sleep.  I actually arrived in Colombo quite refreshed and can't imagine going on any more flights of this duration in "cattle" class. I'm now spoiled and our kids inheritance will have to take a hit if Gertrud and I take any more vacations further away than Europe.

I'm only here a few days and don't have much time to see the sights so can only report my basic impressions.  My biggest surprise has been to discover that Sri Lanka is about 70 percent Buddhist (the rest being Hindus, Muslims and Christians). I had somehow pictured it as being primarily Hindu or Muslim and much like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.  It feels more like Burma or Nepal with many pagodas, stupas and temples dotting the landscape. An interesting local tradition is Poya, a Buddhist public holiday for religious observance which takes place at each full moon (12-13 times a year). (

A Colombo City View
In terms of ethnicity, approximately 75 percent of Sri Lankans are Sinhalese with about 15 percent being Tamils (about half of the Tamils have their roots in Sri Lanka and the other half are of Indian origin). In the early 1970s the Sinhalese-run government declared Buddhism the official state religion and Sinhalese the official language. This stirred up the Tamils, who are Hindu, and they began agitating to secede and to create an independent Tamil state. The "Tamil Tigers" (,8599,1869501,00.html) became infamous due to their early use of brutal, terrorist tactics against civilian populations and have been emulated by other terrorist groups since.