With its Jungle Book ruins, endless beaches and wildlife-rich national parks, Sri Lanka is popular with everyone from broke backpackers to luxury holidaymakers. But it wasn’t always that way. For over 25 years, Sri Lanka was embroiled in a turbulent civil war that left it cut off from most of the western world – the world’s well-kept secret. The tourists started to trickle in 2009 with the end of the war, and slowly (and very surely) the tourism infrastructure here has ramped up. Think you know all there is to know about this South Asian country? Here are a few interesting facts about Sri Lanka we’ll wager you haven’t heard before.
Interesting Facts About Sri Lanka
1. It’s the only place in the world where you can see the world’s largest land and marine mammals in one day
For wildlife buffs, there can be few greater destinations than Sri Lanka. It’s the stronghold of the Asian elephant, which roams around the Udawalae and Yala National Park, as well as the Indian Ocean Blue Whale. Hotfoot to Yala and you can see both in one day. You’ll need to get up early though.
2. Sri Lanka has a sacred mountain
Sri Lanka has a fair few sacred strings to its bow, but Adam’s Peak stands out as one of the most important. Soaring 2,243 metres (797 feet) high, it’s important pilgrimage site for a number of religions. The curious depression at its summit, known as the Sacred Footprint or the Sri Pada, is claimed by Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and Christians. The original Buddhist story tells that this is the footprint of the Buddha himself, made for the local god Saman. Muslims claim that Adam made the footprint, as the first man to set foot on earth after being cast out of heaven. In Hindu tradition, Shiva created the footprint.
Most people climb Adam’s Peak at night in order to reach the top for dawn, for the best views.
3. It elected the world’s first female prime minister
In 1960, Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the sixth Prime Minister of Ceylon and the world’s first-ever female prime minister. She won a landslide victory and served three terms: 1960–1965, 1970–1977 and 1994–2000.
4. Tea, tea, tea
For a relatively small country, Sri Lanka produces an awful lot of the world’s tea. It’s the world’s fourth-largest tea producer (following China, India and Kenya) and the third-largest exporter. The three main varieties are Ceylon black, Ceylon green and Ceylon white tea. It’s home to some big names in the tea world too. Lipton, possibly now best-known for its ice tea, was founded in Sri Lanka by the Glasgow-born grocer Sir Thomas Lipton. He purchased 5,500 acres of the Dambatenne Tea Plantation in Ceylon’s high country and began exporting it directly to his shops in the UK in the late 19th century.
5. It’s home to one of the oldest trees in the world
The Sri Maha Bodhi, in Anuradhapura, has been lovingly tended to for over 2,000 years. Planted in 288 BC, it’s the oldest living human-planted tree in the world with known planting date. It’s thought to have been grown from a cutting brought over from Bodh Gaya, in India, the tree under which Buddha found enlightenment. Today, it houses most of the most sacred Buddhist relics in Sri Lanka. In 2014, the government banned any construction work within 500 metres of the tree that might harm the tree.
6. Sri Lanka has been inhabited for at least 35,000 years
Archaeologists found human remains dating back to 38,000 BC near Balongoda. The human, known as Balangoda Man, has a thick skull, depressed nose, heavy jaw, short neck and very large teeth. Cultural remain found alongside skeletal fragments include geometric microliths and stone tools.
7. It’s nicknamed ‘the teardrop of India’
Sri Lanka takes the name after its shape, which looks like a tear surrounded by water. Another common nickname is the ‘Pearl of the Indian Ocean. Sri Lanka has had a few nicknamed over the years. In antiquity, Prince Vijaya named the island Tambapanni (‘copper-red earth’, because his hands reddened from the red soil where he landed. In Hindu mythology, it appears as Lanka, which means land. Ancient Greeks called it Taprobana, the Persians called it Sarandib (from serendipity) and the Portuguese called it Ceilão. When the British arrived, they rebranded the country Ceylon. It officially became the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka in 1972.