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People, Languages & Religions in Sri Lanka


The Sinhalese people form the largest ethnic group in the nation, composing approximately 81.9% of the total population. Tamils are concentrated in the North, East, Central and Western provinces of the country. Tamils who were brought as indentured labourers from India by British colonists to work on estate plantations, nearly 50% of whom were repatriated following independence in 1948, are called 'Indian Origin' Tamils. They are distinguished from the native Tamil population that has resided in Sri Lanka since ancient times.

According to 2001 census data Indian Tamils makeup 5.1% of the Sri Lankan population and, Sri Lankan Tamils 4.3%. Though this figure only accounted for Sri Lankan Tamils in government-controlled areas, not accounting for those in rebel-held territories. There is a significant population (8.0%) of Moors, who trace their lineage to Arab traders and immigrants from the Middle East. Their presence is concentrated in the cities and the central and eastern provinces. There are also small ethnic groups such as the Burghers (of mixed European descent) and Malays from Southeast Asia.

There is a small population on the island of the Wanniyala-Aetto people, also known as Veddahs. These are believed to be the oldest and indigenous ethnic group to inhabit the island.


Sinhalese and Tamil are the two official languages of Sri Lanka. English was the official language under the British and remained so until 1956, when Sinhala became the nation's one official language. This measure was bitterly opposed by the Tamil minority. Riots, disorders and dissension grew, leading to a Tamil civil disobedience campaign and a temporary state of emergency. The 1978 constitution recognised Sinhala as the official language but also recognised Tamil as a national language. Sinhala is a member of the Indo-Aryan subgroup of the Indo-European language family, related to Pali. Tamil is a Dravidian language spoken in northern and eastern Sri Lanka and in southern India. It became an official language in December 1988.

Members of the Burgher community speak variant forms of Portuguese Creole and Dutch with varying proficiency, while members of the Malay community speak a form of creole Malay that is unique to the island.


Of the total population, Buddhists constitute nearly 70% and are almost without exception ethnic Sinhalese; Hindus amount to 15% of the total population and are almost exclusively ethnic Tamils; Muslims account for 8% (and may or may not be Tamil speakers) and include the Moor and Malay communities; and Christians, accounting for 7%, are to be found in the Sinhalese, Burgher/Eurasian and Sri Lankan Tamil communities (not to be confused with the so-called 'Indian Origin' Tamils). A majority of Christians are Roman Catholic, with Anglicans and Baptists also significant, the latter the result of American missionary activity in the north in the 19th century.

The religious atmosphere is traditionally tolerant, and the issues involved in the Tamil insurgency are communal and ethnic rather than religious in origin. The 1978 constitution established Sri Lanka as a secular state and guarantees freedom of religion, while stipulating that Buddhism enjoys the foremost place in the republic.





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