South Asia: Sri Lanka and the Maldives

A HUMAN PERSPECTIVE For centuries, Sri Lanka and the Maldives have been ports of call for ships from around the world. The Greeks, Romans, Persians, Chinese, and Arabs all knew about these islands. Arab traders referred to Sri Lanka as Serendib, and they called the Maldives the “Money Isles” for their abundance of cowrie shells—seashells first used in ancient times as currency. Later, European traders came for spices, ivory, pearls, and other goods. Throughout history, visitors have been drawn to these islands in the Indian Ocean. The explorer Marco Polo referred to the Maldives as “one of the wonders of the world.”

History of the Islands

Because the islands are close to India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives have strong ties to the Indian subcontinent. Even so, each country has its own distinct history.


In the sixth century B.C., people from the northern plains of India crossed the narrow strait separating the subcontinent from Sri Lanka. They came to be known as the Sinhalese. They absorbed the island's native inhabitants and created an advanced civilization on Sri Lanka. They adopted Buddhism and built sophisticated irrigation systems that allowed farming on land that was dry. In the fourth century A.D., another group of Indians began to arrive. These were the Tamils—Dravidian Hindus from southern India. The Tamils brought a different culture and language to Sri Lanka. They settled the northern end of the island, while the Sinhalese moved farther south.

Europeans began to colonize Sri Lanka in the 16th century. First came the Portuguese, followed by the Dutch. The British took control of the island—which they called Ceylon—in 1796 and ruled until its independence in 1948. In 1972, Ceylon changed its name to Sri Lanka and became a republic.

After independence, tensions grew between the Sinhalese and Tamil populations. The minority Tamils (about 18 percent of the population) claimed discrimination at the hands of the Sinhalese majority (about 74 percent). They began to call for an independent state to be called Tamil Eelam (Precious Land of the Tamils). In the 1980s, civil war broke out between the government and the rebels, who were called the Tamil Tigers. Violence has claimed many lives since then and continues to disrupt Sri Lankan life.


The Maldives were settled by Buddhists and Hindus from Sri Lanka and India some time around the sixth century B.C. Later, Arab traders made frequent visits. By the 12th century, the population had converted to Islam. Six dynasties of Muslim rulers, or sultans, governed the Maldives after that, despite periods of foreign intervention. In 1968, the Maldives declared itself a republic, headed by an elected president. With its 1,200 islands comprising a land area of just 115 square miles and its population of only about 300,000 people, the Maldives is one of the world's smallest independent countries.

Life in the Islands

As in the rest of South Asia, religion and ethnicity are key factors in the social and cultural life of Sri Lanka and the Maldives.


Sri Lanka is a diverse mix of ethnic and religious groups. Sinhalese Buddhists make up nearly 75 percent of the population, while Tamil Hindus make up about 18 percent. Around 7 percent of the people are Muslims, who are descended from the early Arab traders. There is also a small community of Christians of mixed European descent, known as Burghers.

Most Sinhalese live in the southern, western, and central parts of the country. The Tamils are concentrated in the northern Jaffna Peninsula, where much of the fighting has taken place. Another group of Tamils lives in the central highlands. These people are the descendants of Indian migrants who came to work on British plantations in the 19th century. Muslims live mainly in the eastern lowlands. The capital city, Colombo, is a busy urban center. But most Sri Lankans continue to live in smaller towns and villages scattered across the country.

The population of the Maldives is also multi-ethnic. Most of the people are descended from the early Sinhalese and Dravidian inhabitants, who mixed with Arab, Southeast Asian, and Chinese traders over the centuries. The official language is Divehi, a language unique to the Maldives. Arabic, Hindi, and English are also commonly spoken.


Religion plays a key role in the culture of Sri Lanka. Buddhist and Hindu temples, Muslim mosques, and Christian churches dot the landscape.

Art and literature are strongly influenced by those religious traditions. Folk dancing is a notable cultural tradition. The most famous style is Kandyan dancing, the national dance. The dances tell the stories of local kings and heroes and are performed at Buddhist festivals. During the yearly Perahera festival, dancers dressed in glittering silver headpieces and jewelry leap and spin in complex, acrobatic movements.


Muslim customs have a strong influence on the culture of the Maldives. Islam is the state religion, and no other religions are allowed. One of the highlights of Maldivian culture is bodu beru (“big drum”) music and dance based on drumming. In a bodu beru performance, dancers sway to the drumbeat with increasing intensity. This musical tradition has strong African influences.

Economic Activity in the Islands

Like small countries everywhere, the Maldives and Sri Lanka face tough economic challenges. Yet, each country has made good use of its resources to promote economic growth. Today, Sri Lanka has the highest per capita income in South Asia, and the Maldives is not far behind.


Like most of South Asia's economies, the economy of Sri Lanka is based on agriculture—mainly rice farming. But unlike most other countries of the region, Sri Lanka has large areas devoted to plantation agriculture. These large farms produce crops such as tea, rubber, and coconuts for export. While this type of agriculture is declining, Sri Lanka is still one of the world's leading tea-producing countries. Although manufacturing is increasing, other sectors of the Sri Lankan economy are less important. Overcutting has damaged the timber industry, and the fishing and mining industries are relatively small. One exception is gem mining. Sri Lanka is famous for its gemstones—including sapphires, rubies, and topaz.

World Tea Production

The economy of the Maldives is different from the economies of the rest of South Asia. Farming is limited by a lack of land, and most food has to be imported. Fishing—for tuna, marlin, and sharks—was long the main economic activity. It still provides one-fourth of the jobs and a large share of the country's export earnings. But it has been replaced in importance by tourism. The islands' beautiful beaches, coral reefs, and impressive marine life draw visitors from around the world.


Until the 1980s, tourism was also growing in Sri Lanka. Then civil war began, and the tourist industry collapsed. Warfare has also disrupted other economic activities and damaged the country's infrastructure—its roads, bridges, power systems, and other services. Until peace returns to Sri Lanka, the economy is likely to struggle. While the Maldives is at peace, it faces a challenge of a different kind: global warming. The islands lie very low in the water, and any rise in sea level—caused by melting of the polar icecaps—could flood them completely. Scientists say this could happen by the end of the 21st century. In this chapter, you read about modern life in South Asia. In the next chapter, you will read about issues facing South Asians.