Sinhala People

Sinhala People

සිංහල ජාතිය.
Wariyapola Sri Sumangala Thera

2nd Row: Prince VijayaKing DutugamunuParākramabāhu the GreatKing Vimaladharmasuriya IKing Rajasingha II

3rd Row: Queen Viharamaha DeviPandit AmaradevaLester James PeriesKumaratunga MunidasaBrahmachari Walisingha Harischandra

4th Row: Cyril PonnamperumaSarath GunapalaNalin de SilvaV. K. SamaranayakaW. S. Karunaratna

5th Row: D.S.SenanayakaS.W.R.D.BandaranayakaSirimavo BandaranayakaMalini FonsekaChristopher Weeramantry
Total population
Greater than 15 Million
Regions with significant populations
 Sri Lanka       15,173,820 (74.88%)
 United Kingdom ~100,000 (2010)[2]
 Australia 29,055 (2008)[3]
 Italy 68,738 (2008)[4]
 Canada 19,830 (2006)[5]
 USA 13,890 (2006)[6]
 Singapore 12,000 (1993)[7]
 Malaysia 10,000 (2009)[8]
 New Zealand 7,257 (2006)[9]
 India At least 3,500[10][11]
Sinhala, English, Vedda
Related ethnic groups
Sri Lankan people, Indo-Aryans, Bengali people, Vedda people, Rodiya people, Tamil people

The Sinhalese (Sinhala:සිංහල ජාතිය Sinhala Jathiya) are an ethnic group native to the island of Sri Lanka.[12] They constitute 74.9% of the Sri Lankan population and number greater than 15 million.[1] The Sinhalese identity is based on language, historical heritage and religion. The Sinhalese speak Sinhala, an Indo-Aryan language, and are predominantly Theravada Buddhists,[13] although a small percentage of Sinhalese follow branches of Christianity. The Sinhalese are mostly found in North central, Central, South, and West Sri Lanka. According to legend Mahavamsa they are the descendants of the exiled Prince Vijaya who arrived from East India to Sri Lanka in 543 BCE. But the popular Sinhalese folklore and some references in Mahavamsa to times before Vijaya, indicate the Sinhalese are actually descendants of earlier inhabitants of Sri Lanka; (Raksha, Yaksha, Deva and Naga) who intermixed with Vijaya and the other Aryan invaders from India.[14]


One clarification for origin of Sinhala is from siw (four) Hela (Pristine). Raksha, Yaksha, Deva, Naga were the four powerful hela tribes.[15]


Ancient history

The genesis myth and early recorded history of the Sinhalese is chronicled in two documents, the Mahavamsa, written in Pāli around the 4th century CE, and the much later Chulavamsa (probably penned in the 13th century CE by the Buddhist monk Dhammakitti). These are ancient sources which cover the histories of the powerful ancient Sinhalese kingdoms of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa which lasted for 1500 years. The Mahavansa describes the existence of fields of rice and reservoirs, indicating a well-developed agrarian society. The folklore of the Sinhalese people also speaks of many royal dynasties prior to the Sinha royal dynasty: Manu, Tharaka, Mahabali, Raavana, per the oldest Indian epic poemRamayan and consists many places in relation to this story such as Adam's Bridge (Rama Setu),Sita eliya and falls(where Princes Sita stayed and bathed)Ravana Falls (where King Ravana Bathed and enjoyed),

1 A section of the mural at Ajanta in Cave No 17,depicts the 'coming of Sinhala'.The prince (Prince Vijaya) is seen in both of groups of elephants and riders.

2 The consecration of King Sinhala (Prince Vijaya) (Detail from the Ajanta Mural of Cave No 17).

According to the Mahavamsa, the Sinhalese are descended from the exiled Prince Vijaya and his party of seven hundred followers who arrived on the island in 543 BCE. Vijaya and his followers were said to have arrived in Sri Lanka after being exiled from the city of Sinhapura in West Bengal, East India.[16] Buddhism is then said to have been introduced to the Sinhalese from India by Mahinda, son of the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka the Great, during the 3rd century BCE.

Medieval history

During the middle ages Sri Lanka was well known for its agricultural prosperity under the Parakramabahu in Polonnaruwa during which period the island was famous around the world as the rice mill of the east. Later in the 13th century the country's administrative provinces were divided into three independent kingdoms: Kingdom of Sitawaka, Kingdom of Kotte and the Kandyan kingdom.[17] The invasion by Magha in the 13th century led to migrations by the Sinhalese to areas not under his control. This migration was followed by a period of conflict among the Sinhalese chiefs who tried to exert political supremacy. Parakramabahu VI in the 15th century was the only Sinhalese king during this time who could bring back the unity of the whole island. Trade also increased during this period, as Sri Lanka began to trade Cinammon and a large number of Muslim traders were bought into the island.[18]

In the 15th century a Kandyan Kingdom formed which divided the Sinhalese politically into low-country and up-country.[18]

Modern history

The Sinhalese have a stable birth rate and a population that has been growing at a slow pace relative to India and other Asian countries.


Main article: Culture of Sri Lanka

Sinhalese culture is an unique one dating as far back as 2600 years and has been nourished by Theravada Buddhism. Its main domains are sculpture, fine arts, literature, dancing, poetry and a wide variety of folk beliefs and rituals traditionally. Ancient Sinhalese stone sculpture and inscriptions are known worldwide and is a main foreign attraction in modern tourism. Sigirirya is famous for its frescoes. Folk poems were sung by workers to accompany their work and narrate the story of their lives. Ideally these poems consisted of four lines and, in the composition of these poems, special attention had been paid to the rhyming patterns. Buddhist festivals are dotted by unique music using traditionally Sinhala instruments. More ancient rituals like tovils (devil exorcism) continue to enthrall audiences today and often praised and admired the good and the power of Buddha and gods in order to exorcise the demons.

Concerning popular music, Ananda Samarakoon developed the reflective and poignant Sarala gee style with his work in the late 1930s/early 1940s. He has been followed by artists of repute such as Sunil Shantha, W. D. Amaradeva, Premasiri Khemadasa, Nanda Malini, Victor Ratnayake, Austin Munasinghe, T. M. Jayaratne, Sanath Nandasiri, Sunil Edirisinghe, Neela Wickremasinghe, Gunadasa Kapuge, Malini Bulathsinghala and Edward Jayakody.

Dramatist Professor Ediriweera Sarachchandra revitalized the drama form with Maname in 1956. The same year, film director Lester James Peries created the artistic masterwork Rekava which sought to create a uniquely Sinhala cinema with artistic integrity. Since then, Peries and other directors like Vasantha Obeysekera, Dharmasena Pathiraja, Mahagama Sekera, W. A. B. de Silva,Dharmasiri Bandaranayake, Professor Sunil Ariyaratne, Siri Gunasinghe, G. D. L. Perera, Piyasiri Gunaratne, Titus Thotawatte, D. B. Nihalsinghe, Ranjith Lal, Dayananda Gunawardena, Mudalinayake Somaratne, Ashoka Handagama, and Prasanna Vithanage have developed an artistic Sinhala cinema. Sinhala cinema is often made colorful by the incorporation of songs and dance adding more uniqueness to the industry.


Main article: Sinhala language

The Sinhalese speak Sinhala, also known as "Helabasa"; this language has two varieties, spoken and written. Sinhala is an Indo-Aryan language[13] brought to Sri Lanka by northeast Indians who settled on the island in the 6th century BCE.[19][20] Sinhala developed in a way different from the other Indo-Aryan languages because of the geographic separation from its Indo-Aryan sister languages. Sinhala was influenced by many languages, prominently Pali, the sacred language of Southern Buddhism, and Sanskrit. Many early Sinhala texts such as the Hela Atuwa were lost after their translation into Pali. Other significant Sinhala texts include Amāvatura, Kavu Silumina, Jathaka Potha and Sala Liheeniya. Sinhala has also borrowed words from other Indian languages and the colonial languages Portuguese, Dutch, and English.[21]


Main articles: Sri Lankan literature and Sinhalese literature

Sandesha Kavyas written by Buddhist priests of Sri Lanka are regarded as some of the most sophisticated and versatile works of literature in the world. The Sinhala language was mainly inspired by Sanskrit and Pali, and many words of the Sinhala language derive from these languages. Today some English words too have come in as a result of the British occupation during colonial times, and the exposure to foreign cultures through television and Hollywood movies. Additionally many Dutch and Portuguese words can be seen in the coastal areas.

Folk tales like Mahadana Muttha saha Golayo and Kawate Andare continue to entertain children today. Mahadana Muttha tells the tale of a fool cum Pundit who travels around the country with his followers (Golayo) creating mischief through his ignorance. Kawate Andare tells the tale of a witty court jester and his interactions with the royal court and his son.

In the modern period, Sinhala writers such as Martin Wickremasinghe and G. B. Senanayake have drawn widespread acclaim. Other writers of repute include Mahagama Sekera and Madewela S. Ratnayake. Martin Wickramasinghe wrote the immensely popular children's novel Madol Duwa. Munadasa Cumaratunga's Hath Pana is also widely known.


The form of Buddhism in Sri Lanka is known as Theravada (school of elders). The Pali chronicles claim (e.g., The Mahavansa) that the Sinhalese as an ethnic group are destined to preserve and protect Buddhism. In 1988 almost 93% of the Sinhalese speaking population in Sri Lanka were Buddhist.[22] Observations of current religious beliefs and practices demonstrate that Sinhalese as a religious community have complex worldview as Buddhists. Due to the proximity and on some occasions similarity of certain doctrines, there are many areas where Buddhists and Hindus share religious views and practices. This can lead to the opinion that Buddhists have adopted religious elements from Hindu traditions in their religious practices. Some of these practices may relate to ancient indigenous beliefs and traditions on spirits, worship of deities and godlings and some figures appear to demons. Some of these demonic figures are used in healing rituals and may be native to the island.[21][23][24]

Prominent Sri Lankan anthropologists Gananath Obeyesekere and Kitsiri Malalgoda used the term "Protestant Buddhism" to describe a type of Buddhism that appeared among the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka as a response to Protestant Christian missionaries and their evangelical activities during the British colonial period. This kind of Buddhism involved emulating the Protestant strategies of organizing religious practices. They saw the need to establish Buddhist schools for educating Buddhist youth and organizing Buddhists with new organizations such as the Young Men's Buddhist Association, as well as printing pamphlets to encourage people to participate in debates and religious controversies to defend Buddhism.[25]

There is a significant Sinhalese Christian community, in the maritime provinces of Sri Lanka.[21] Christianity was brought to the Sinhalese by Portuguese, Dutch, and British missionary groups during their respective periods of rule.[26] Sinhalese Christians mainly follow Roman Catholicism, followed by Protestantism.[22] Their cultural centre is Negombo.

Religion is considered very important among the Sinhalese. According to a 2008 Gallup poll, 99% of Sri Lankans considered religion an important aspect of their daily lives.[27]


Sinhalese girl in Osaria and a Sinhalese man in National dress.

Traditionally during recreation the Sinhalese wear a sarong (sarama in Sinhala). Men may wear a long-sleeved shirt with the sarong, while women wear a tight-fitting, short-sleeved jacket with a wrap-around called the cheeththaya. In the more populated areas, Sinhalese men also wear Western-style clothing — wearing suits while the women wear skirts and blouses. For formal and ceremonial occasions women wear the traditional Kandyan (Osaria) style, which consists of a full blouse which covers the midriff completely, and is partially tucked in at the front. However, modern intermingling of styles has led to most wearers baring the midriff. The Kandyan style is considered as the national dress of Sinhalese women. In many occasions and functions, even the saree plays an important role in women's clothing and has become the de facto clothing for female office workers especially in government sector. An example of its use is the uniform of air hostesses of Sri Lankan Airlines.[21]


Main article: Sinhalese cuisine

Sinhalese cuisine is one of the most complex cuisines of South Asia.Due to its proximity to South India, the cuisine of Sinhalese shows some influence, yet is in many ways quite distinct. As a major trade hub, it draws influence from colonial powers that were involved in Sri Lanka and by foreign traders. Rice, which is consumed daily, can be found at any occasion, while spicy curries are favorite dishes for lunch and dinner.[28] Some of the Sri Lankan dishes have striking resemblance to Kerala cuisine, which could be due to the similar geographic and agricultural features with Kerala. A well-known rice dish with Sinhalese is Kiribath, meaning "Milk Rice." In addition to sambols, Sinhalese eat "Mallung", chopped leaves mixed with grated coconut and red onions. coconut milk is found in most Sri Lankan dishes to give the cuisine its unique flavor.

Visual art and architecture

Developed upon Indo-Aryan architectural skills in the late 6th century BCE Sinhalese people who lived upon greater kingdoms such as Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa have built so many architectural examples such as Ruwanwelisaya, Jetavanaramaya - second tallest brick building in the ancient world after Pyramid of Giza, and Abayagiriya - third tallest brick building in the ancient world. And also with the ancient hydrolic technology which is also unique to Sinhalese people to build ancient tanks, systamatic ponds with fountains moats and Irrigational reservoirs such as Parakrama Samudra, Kawdulla and Kandalama. Sigirya which consider as the 8th wonder of the world is a combination of natural and man made fortress, which consists so many architectural aspects.

Performing arts

Performing arts of the Sinhalese people can be catogarized into few subsections.

  • Down-county (Pahatharata) performing arts (Music and Dances) have significant dancing style which is using for cure illnesses and spiritual clarification.the main feature in this dances is dancer wear on Masks representing various Gods and Demons.and use elements such as fire and water to bless people.
  • Sabaragamuwa performing arts (Music and Dances) have also a significant dancing style mainly to entertain people.
  • Folk Music and Dances differ accroding to the casts of Sinhalese people and also some times in regional wise - mainly popular among small children,specially girls.These arts are widely performing during Sinhalese New year period.

Martial arts

Main article: Sinhalese martial arts

Angampora is the traditional martial art of Sinhalese. It combines combat techniques, self-defense, sport, exercise and meditation.[29] Key techniques observed in Angampora are: Angam, which incorporates hand-to-hand fighting, and Illangam, which uses indigenous weapons such as Velayudaya, staves, knives and swords. Its most distinct feature is the use of pressure point attacks to inflict pain or permanently paralyze the opponent. Fighters usually make use of both striking and grappling techniques, and fight until the opponent is caught in a submission lock that they cannot escape. Usage of weapons is discretionary. Perimeters of fighting are defined in advance, and in some of the cases is a pit.[30][31] Angampora became nearly extinct after the country came under British rule in 1815, but survived in a few families until the country regained the independence.[32]

Sinhala Medicine


The Sinhalese have a long history of literacy and formal learning. Instruction in basic fields like writing and reading by Buddhist Monks pre-date the birth of Christ. This traditional system followed religious rule and was meant to foster Buddhist understanding. Training of officials in such skills as keeping track of revenue and other records for administrative purposes occurred under this institution.[33]

Technical education such as the building of reservoirs and canals was passed down from generation to generation through home training and outside craft apprenticeships.[33]

The arrival of the Portuguese and Dutch and the subsequent colonization maintained religion as the center of education though in certain communities under Catholic and Presbyterian hierarchy. The British in the 1800s initially followed the same course. Following 1870 however they began a campaign for better education facilities in the region. Christian missionary groups were at the forefront of this development contributing to a high literacy among Christians.[33]

By 1901 schools in the South and the North were well tended. The inner regions lagged behind however. Also, English education facilities presented hurdles for the general populace through fees and lack of access.[33]

Geographic distribution

In Sri Lanka

Within Sri Lanka the majority of the Sinhalese reside in the south, central and western parts of the country. This districts with the largest sinhalese populations in Sri Lanka (>90%) are Hambantota, Galle, Gampaha, Kurunegala, Moneragala Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa.[34]

Outside Sri Lanka

Main article: Sri Lankan diaspora

As with many of the people from former colonies, Sinhalese have emigrated to several countries. There are small communities in the UK, Australia, United States and Canada with Sinhalese ancestry. In addition to this there are many Sinhalese, who reside in the above mentioned countries and countries in the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Europe, temporarily in connection with employment and education. They are often employed as guest workers in the Middle East and professionals in the other regions.

Main article: Sri Lankan Australian

The 2006 Census in Australia found that there were approximately 29,055 Sinhalese Australians (0.1 percent of the population). That was an addition of 8,395 Sinhalese Australians (a 40.6 percent increase) from the 2001 Census. There are 73,849 Australians (0.4 of the population) who reported having Sinhalese ancestry in 2006. This was 26 percent more in 2001, in which 58,602 Australia reported having Sinhalese ancestry. The census is counted by Sri Lankans who speak the Sinhalese language at home.

Census data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2004 reported that Sinhalese Australians are by religion 29.7 percent Catholic; 8.0 percent Anglican, 9.9 percent other Christian; 46.9 percent "Other Religions" (mainly Buddhist), and 5.5 percent no religion. The Sinhalese language was also reported to be the 29th-fastest-growing language in Australia (ranking above Somali but behind Hindi and Belarusian).

Sinhalese Australians have an exceptionally low rate of return migration to Sri Lanka. In December 2001, the Department of Foreign Affairs estimated that there were 800 Australian citizens resident in Sri Lanka. It is unclear whether these were returning Sri Lankan emigrants with Australian citizenship, their Sri Lankan Australian children, or other Australians present on business or for some other reason.

Main article: Sri Lankan Canadians

In the 2001 Canadian census, 10,000 people identified themselves as of Sinhalese ancestry, out of 62,000 Sri Lankans.

Main article: Sri Lankans in India

There are a small amount of Sinhalese people in India, scattered all around the country, but mainly living in and around the northern and southern regions. Delhi has the largest concentration of Sinhalese people with 1,100, the states of Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra have 800 and 400 respectively. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands and the state of Gujarat have 200 each while other states such as Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Karnataka, West Bengal, Jharkhand have populations ranging from 60 to 30 people.[35]

Main article: Sri Lankans in Italy

It is estimated that there are 30,000-33,000 Sinhalese in Italy. The major Sinhalese communities in Italy are located in Lombardia (In the districts Loreto and Lazzaretto), Milan, Lazio, Rome, Naples, and Southern Italy (Particularly Palermo, Messina and Catania). But they have also opened businesses such as restaurants, cleaning enterprises (e.g., Cooperativa Multietnica di Pulizie Sud-Est), call centres, video-shops, traditional food shops, and minimarkets.[36]

Many Sinhalese have migrated to Italy since the 1970s. Italy was attractive to the Sinhalese due to perceived easier employment opportunities and entry, compared to other European countries.[36]

In the late 1970s, Sinhalese Catholic women migrated to Italy to work in elderly homes. This was followed by a wave of Sinhalese migrants who worked for Italian entrepreneurs in the early 1980s. Italy was often seen as a temporary destination, but many Sinhalese decided to settle there. Many Sinhalese have also migrated to Italy, mainly through the Balkans and Austria.[36]

Admission acts also encouraged more Sinhalese to migrate to Italy. For example, the Dini Decree in 1996 made it easier for Sinhalese workers to bring their families to Italy. In Rome, Naples, and Milan, the Sinhalese have built up "enlarged families", where jobs are exchanged among relatives and compatriots.[36]

The major organisation representing the Sinhalese in Italy is the Sri Lanka Association Italy.[36]

New Zealand

The early arrivals to come to New Zealand from what was then British Ceylon were a few prospectors attracted to the gold rushes. By 1874, there were 33 New Zealand residents born in Ceylon.

After 1950 under the Colombo Plan, some students and trainees received education in New Zealand. Up until the late 1960s, the number of New Zealand residents born in Ceylon remained static. As a demand for skilled professionals in New Zealand grew, it led to a noticeable increase in the number of immigrants about this time. Racial and economic tensions in Dominion of Ceylon, made worse after the declaration of the republic in 1972, also swelled immigrant numbers.[37]

In 1983, the Sri Lankan Civil War began with Sinhalese political dominance being challenged by the militant Tamil Tigers, who sought a separate Tamil state within Sri Lanka.[37] After the 1983 riots in Sri Lanka ushered in an extended civil war, many Sri Lankans, both Tamil and Sinhalese, fled Sri Lanka, the number of arrivals from Sri Lanka to New Zealand and the Sri Lankan-born population in New Zealand rose dramatically.[38]

The numbers arriving continued to increase, and at the 2006 census there were over 7,000 Sri Lankans living in New Zealand.[37]

Sri Lankan New Zealanders comprised 3% of the Asian population of New Zealand in 2001. Out of the Asians, the Sri Lankans were the most likely to hold a formal qualification and to work in white-collar occupations. Sri Lankans mainly worked in health professions, business and property services, and the retail and manufacturing sectors, in large numbers. Most lived in Auckland and Wellington, with smaller populations in Waikato, Manawatu, Canterbury and others.[39]

United Kingdom
Main article: Sri Lankans in the United Kingdom

Now there are many Sri Lankan associations in the United Kingdom. The Sinhalese community is well represented by many old boys associations of prominent schools in Sri Lanka and many temple organizations associated with Buddhist and Hindu temples represent both Sinhala and Tamil communities in the UK. Though Sinhala people in particular and Sri Lankans in general have migrated to the UK over the centuries beginning from the colonial times, the number of Sinhalese people in the UK cannot be estimated accurately due to inadequacies of census in the UK. The UK government does not record statistics on the basis of language or ethnicity and all Sri Lankans are classified into one group as Asian British or Asian Other.

The Sinhalese have not neglected the use of Sinhala language in the UK. For the Sinhala readers, the newspaper Lanka Viththi (Information on Lanka) was created in 1997 to provide Sinhala reading materials for the Sinhalese UK community. This particular monthly newspaper, the first of its kind outside Sri Lanka, celebrates its successful survival in abroad. Available:[40]

In 2006, a Sinhala TV channel called Kesara TV[41] was set up in London to provide the Sinhala-speaking people of the UK a TV channel in Sinhala.[42]. This development in entertainment industry had a short life which resulted in the dissolving of the company in 2009.[41] Some of the Sinhalese community have been against the public display of support for the LTTE in the 2009 Tamil Diaspora protests in Westminster, London.[43] Some of the Sinhalese community in the UK have faced violence from some British Sri Lankan Tamils over the ethnic conflict in the Sri Lankan Civil War. Several Sinhala-owned fried chicken shops in North London and a Sinhalese Buddhist temple in Kingsbury were vandalised in 2009.[44]

United States
Main article: Sri Lankan American

The Sinhalese number about 12,000 in the USA.[45] The New York City Metropolitan Area contains the largest Sri Lankan community in the United States, receiving the highest legal permanent resident Sri Lankan immigrant population,[46] followed by Central New Jersey and the Los Angeles metropolitan area.

Genetic studies

Studies looking at the origin of the Sinhalese have been contradictory. Older studies suggest a predominantly Sri Lankan Tamil contribution followed by a significant Bengali contribution with no North Western Indian contribution,[47][48] while more modern studies point towards a predominantly Bengali contribution and a minor Tamil and North Western Indian (Gujarati & Punjabi) contribution.[49][50][51] Multiple studies have found no significant genetic difference between the Sinhalese and the three other major ethnic groups in Sri Lanka (Sri Lankan Tamil, Indian Tamil and Sri Lankan Moor).[48][52][53][54][55][56]

It is debatable whether the Sri Lankan population have genetic links to Far East Asian populations however due to their close links to North East India, there is a likelihood of some traces of East Asian genes.[57][58]

See also


Other references

  • De Silva, K. M. History of Sri Lanka (Univ. of Calif. Press, 1981)
  • Gunasekera, Tamara. Hierarchy and Egalitarianism: Caste, Class, and Power in Sinhalese Peasant Society (Athlone, 1994).
  • Roberts, Michael. Sri Lanka: Collective Identities Revisited (Colombo-Marga Institute, 1997).
  • Wickremeratne, Ananda. Buddhism and Ethnicity in Sri Lanka: A Historical Analysis (New Delhi-Vikas Publishing House, 1995).

External links

  •  This article incorporates public domain material from websites or documents of the Library of Congress Country Studies.
  • CIA Factbook-Sri Lanka
  • Department of Census and Statistics-Sri Lanka
  • Ethnologue-Sinhala, a language of Sri Lanka
  • CIA Factbook-Sri Lanka
  • Sinhalese
  • Who are the Sinhalese
  • Sinhala Music Radio