Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka, a large island lying at the southernmost tip of India, was an important maritime center from ancient times, linking the East with the West. The Greeks called

Homes The South The 19th Century
Refugees in Pakistan. In many South Asian countries, Muslim women wear saris inside the home, but are obliged to wear head-to-toe coverings called burqas outside the home. © Lynsey Addario/Corbis. Reproduced by permission.

it Taprobane, and the Arabs Serendib. Sri Lanka's recorded history dates from the mid-first millennium b.c.e. Around 400 b.c.e. King Pandukabhaya began developing the arts and established close contacts with Buddhist India. Theravada Buddhism remains the dominant religion of Sri Lanka's majority Sinhalese people today. Early sculptures show close linkages with Indian tradition and the figures are seen wearing flowing draped garments.

Sri Lanka has absorbed a great deal of external influence during its history. Arab traders drawn to the spice and textile trade visited the island from late Roman times onward. Colombo and Galle had colonies of Arab traders, who introduced Islam to Sri Lanka. Portuguese traders settled in coastal areas in the early sixteenth century. The Portuguese settlements were taken over by the Dutch in the mid-seventeenth century; the British, who established a colonial regime in 1833, in turn, expelled the Dutch. European influence on Sri Lankan culture can be seen in dress, especially among the so-called Burghers, who are of mixed Dutch and Sinhalese ancestry. Early drawings show Burghers mingling traditional dress with European elements. Men wore over the sarong a long coat with puffed sleeves and a sash, as well as a hat. Women dressed in a sarong and upper cloth combined with European jackets. However, many people continued to wear clothing not affected by European influence.

The Sri Lankan population includes two major elements, the Sinhalese and, especially in the northeastern part of the island, the Tamils. The latter were migrants from southeastern India, many brought in by the British as plantation workers in the nineteenth century. The two communities have distinctive clothing traditions.

The traditional dress of the Sinhalese women is the sarong worn with a stitched blouse and a scarf over the shoulder. In some cases the sarong has a frill at the top. Some wear a blouse with lace inserts at the waist and the sleeves, with a silver belt. Men wear a sarong and a kamiz (tunic). The fact that two women heads of state have always worn the Sinhalese national dress has influenced even the Burghers to adopt the traditional costume. Tamil women wear the saris draped in the traditions of their community, while the men wear the veshti, a white sarong. Muslim men, who trace their roots to Arab settlers, wear a colorful sarong with a tunic and a cap. Muslim women traditionally wore local dress; however, in the early 2000s many have adopted Islamic dress, including wearing the headscarf.

Sri Lanka Galle Women Traditional Wear

A Sri Lankan Hindu in traditional attire. While some Sri Lankan attire has been influenced by Arab and Western styles, others have remained untouched by these outside elements.

© Bettmann/Corbis. Reproduced by permission.

A Sri Lankan Hindu in traditional attire. While some Sri Lankan attire has been influenced by Arab and Western styles, others have remained untouched by these outside elements.

© Bettmann/Corbis. Reproduced by permission.

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