10 Things You Might Not Know About: Sri Lanka

“The most beautiful island in the world” is how Sri Lanka was already called by Marco Polo. It is no wonder: Sri Lanka is exotic, diverse and has one or two surprises in store. What the name Sri Lanka stands for, what exactly “tea-railways” are, and why elephant droppings are not worthless – well, continue reading, and you’ll find out!

1) Ceylon

Sri Lanka was formerly called Ceylon. After Sri Lanka lost its independence in the 16th century and the British finally took control after the Portuguese and Dutch, Sri Lanka was named Ceylon. It was not until a republic was formed in 1972 that the name was changed to the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.

And by the way: The name Sri Lanka comes from Sanskrit and means “honorable island” or “shining land.” But among other things, Sri Lanka bears the auspicious name “Pearl in the Indian Ocean” due to its waterdrop-like shape and its location in the Indian Ocean. It is, therefore, also often referred to as the “tear of India.”

2) No Trains Without Tea

Credits: Petr Sevcovic

The railways in Sri Lanka would not exist without tea. And tea would not exist without the British. They brought the aromatic drink to Sri Lanka in 1824. Today the tropical island nation is one of the leading tea exporters in the world (alongside China, India, and Kenya). The famous Ceylon tea also comes from there.

3) One Language, Two Languages, Three Languages…

Credits: Florian Wehde

There are two main ethnic groups on the island. The Sinhalese speak Sinhala, and the Tamils ​​speak Tamil. But both groups can speak English in order to communicate with one another. Most of the traffic signs and lettering on buses and trains are also in English, next to the two national languages.

4) Don’t Mess With Buddha

Credits: Julia Ricard

The monks in Sri Lanka are quite patient and will overlook one faux pas or the other. But there are limits: Buddha statues must not be climbed or soiled under any circumstances. Buddha tattoos are viewed as disrespectful and are best covered up. Besides, you shouldn’t wear shirts with a Buddha print in Sri Lanka. In fact, you can even expect penalties for this, or, in the worst case, you will be even refused entry.

5) Elephants Produce Paper

Credits: Jayakody Anthanas

Elephants are not only a symbol of Sri Lanka, but their droppings are also even used to make environmentally friendly paper. This creates jobs for the locals and at the same time, protects trees. You can visit the shop, factory, and the museum of the elephant dung paper at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage.

6) The Oldest Tree

Credits: A. Savin

The oldest tree ever planted is located in Anuradhapura, the capital city of North Central Province in Sri Lanka. But this tree is no ordinary tree: “Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi” is a sacred fig tree in Mahamevnāwa Park. Tradition says it is a branch from the main right branch of the historical “Sri Maha Bodhi” in Buddha Gaya, India, under which Buddha achieved enlightenment. This is the oldest living tree in the world, dating back 2,000 years and stands on a pedestal framed by a gold lattice. The Buddhists in Sri Lanka believe that Buddhism will remain in Sri Lanka as long as the Sri Maha Bodhi has green leaves.

7) Cinnamon

Credits: Uriel Soberanes

In ancient times, cinnamon was a special gift for kings and gods. But its origin was kept secret for a long time. Only later, it was revealed that cinnamon is the bark of a tree that is peeled off, dried in quills, and, in the end, is ground to what we consider cinnamon powder. With a share of over 80% globally, Sri Lanka is still the largest exporter of cinnamon today, with even eight different species of cinnamon trees.

8) The End Of The World

Credits: Eddy Billard

Located in the middle of the Horton Plains National Park, you’ll end up at “World’s End.” This mighty cliff is ~4,000 meters (~2.5 miles) high and enables a direct view to the Indian Ocean. Because of this, people back then justifiably thought it was indeed the world’s end. But the spectacular view from World’s End can only be enjoyed before 11.00 am. After that, the fog will cover the cliffs.

9) Endemic Animals

The tropical island is blessed with an impressive wealth of species. Hardly any other country has a greater variety of animals and plants. So it shouldn’t be such a surprise that there are even 21 mammal species that can only be found in Sri Lanka. These endemic (meaning that they’re exclusively found on this island) mammals include the Sri Lankan Elephant, Sloth Bear, Leopard, and the Blue Whale – also known as “The Big Four.” 

10) All The Dogs Are The Same

Credits: Daniele Franchi

Talking of animals: there’s only one dog breed on the entire island. Although they vary with color and sizes, they will undoubtedly share the same grand-grand-grand-grandfather and grand-grand-grand-grandmother. And it makes sense – since Sri Lanka is indeed an island, it’s not that new breeds of dogs will surprisingly show up and breed with the local dogs to add some new genes to the gene pool.