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Sri Lanka's City Guide & Map

Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon. Lies between a chain of tiny islands known as Adam's Bridge. Sri Lanka is somewhat pear-shaped. The total area of Sri Lanka is 65,610 sq km (25,332 sq mi). Colombo is the commercial capital and the largest city. Sri Lanka has an irregular surface with low-lying coastal plains running inland from the northern and eastern shores. The central and southern areas slope into hills and mountains. The highest peak is Pidurutalagala (2524m/8281ft).

Tropical climate. Upland areas are cooler and more temperate and coastal areas are cooled by sea breezes. There are two monsoons, which occur May to July and December to January. The average annual temperature is about 32 C (about 90 F) in the lowlands and about 21 C (about 70 F) in the higher mountainous regions.

About 74 percent of the population of Sri Lanka is of Sinhalese descent. The largest minority groups are the Sri Lankan Tamils and the Indian Tamils, which together account for about 18 percent of the population. The remaining population includes the descendants of Moors (Arabs), Burghers (Dutch), Malays, and Veddas.

Sri Lanka was part of the Empire of Asoka during the 3rd century, during which time the population was converted to Buddhism. The Sinhalese inhabitants later moved their capital to Polonnaruva in the south of the island to escape from repeated Tamil invasions during the 11th and 12th centuries. The first Europeans to arrive were the Portuguese, quickly supplanted by the Dutch in the 17th century. In 1796 Sri Lanka (as Ceylon) was acquired from the Dutch by the British.

Initially, administration of the island was shared between the East India Company and the Crown, but the latter assumed full control in 1802. Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) eventually won independence in 1948.

Religion plays an important role in Sri Lanka. Most public holidays are based on religious festivals. The annual torchlight temple procession, or Perahara, in which ornamentally covered elephants and hundreds of dancers participate, draws thousands of devotees. Pilgrimages also play an important role here.

The official languages of Sri Lanka are Sinhala, or Sinhalese, and Tamil. Sinhala is spoken by 74 percent of the population. Tamil, a Dravidian language of southern India, is spoken by people living in the northern and eastern provinces. English, is still widely spoken.

Sri Lanka is an independent member of the Commonwealth of Nations, governed under a constitution adopted in 1978. Executive and legislative power are vested in the president and a single-chamber Assembly respectively. The president is directly elected for a 6-year term. The 255-member Assembly is elected by proportional representation.

Buddhism, is the prevailing religious faith, which was introduced into Sri Lanka in the 3rd century BC. As practiced in Sri Lanka, Buddhism exhibits elements of both the Hindu and Islamic traditions. About 69 percent of the population is Buddhist, 15 percent is Hindu, 8 percent is Christian, and 8 percent is Muslim.

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