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The Ceylon Press Companion to Belief, Culture & Society
in Sri Lanka


A, a


Abeysekera, Karunaratne

“Come mild wind and convey my sad feelings,” wrote Abeysekera. Ours too - for the poet song-writer, who died in his early fifties, in 1983, was a much-loved, much-missed literary and cricket all-rounder. Beginning his career at a jejune 20 years old, he went on to write the lines of well over 2,000 songs. His award-winning lyrics underwrote the careers of some of the island’s most popular singers; and called to mind a gentle, kinder world, where there was room enough for emotion, feelings – and, of course, love. “My eyes are closing, and your image alone is seen,” he wrote in one of his most renowned hits. His fascination with cricket won him a place as the first notable Singhala broadcaster on the subject, his agile creativity well up to the task of having to invent cricketing terms for actions then unknown in the Singhala language.

Illustration courtesy of the artist's Facebook Page.


Abrar Mosque

Claimed as the island’s oldest mosque, Beruwala’s Abrar Mosque dates back to 920 CE - but was brutally improved in 1986 by a Provincial Governor. Indeed, over the recent centuries, so much of the ancient mosque has been forcibly renovated that its tangible antiquity is more a whisper than a certainty. But its claims to a deep and real history are strongly grounded, for Beruwala, located on the SW coast of the island, is said to be the country’s very first Muslim settlement, established sometime in the 10th CE by a Somali Sheikh - Yusuf bin Ahmad al-Kawneyn. A man much given to spreading the word of the Prophet to neighbours near and far, the Sheik was called "the most outstanding saint in Somaliland". The Sri Lankan Moor descendants of these early settlers make up the town’s majority population, and the masjid’s devotees, 3,000 of which can fit into its cool interior at any one time in answer to the shahadah, calling them in five times a day.

Illustration courtesy of the mosque's Facebook Page.



A historical Sinhala term for land that is granted to someone for the duties they render or the office they hold.

Illustration: A Sketch map of Kandy and environ in1815. Public Domain.



A Buddhist country with deep Muslim and Hindu traditions, Sri Lanka could never be accused of minimalizing religion. It is no surprise to learn that this was also said to be the country to which Adam fled when exiled from the Garden of Eden. If so, he may have experienced a sharp sense of déjà vu upon arrival - for if ever there is a natural environment akin to that described in Genesis, it must surely be Sri Lanka. Archaeological or documentary corroboration of the Adam-in-Sri-Lanka myths are, at best, elusive; but it is believed that he left a foot print on the top of the sacred mountain of Sri Pada (Adam's Peak). This is disputed by Buddhists who claim the footlike depression belongs to Lord Buddha. Hindus argue that it was left there by Hanuman or Shiva; whilst other Christians state it is actual a mark made by St Thomas.

But if his eponymous mountain has because a mildly litigious landmark, Adam can also claim the remarkable Adam’s Bridge, the causeway that links Sri Lanka to the rest of the Asian landmass. His association, post expulsion, with super large things is not surprising given that one of Allah’s hadiths have him at sixty cubits tall – some 27 metres high.

Illustration: The Angel of Revelation by William Blake.


Adam’s Peak

Few Sri Lankans, and fewer still visitors, have not taken the trouble to ascend Adam’s Peak, a 7,359 foot mountain in the south of the island, flanked by forest, home to elephants and leopards, glinting with rubies, and sapphires, and the source of three major rivers. So it is unsurprising that no less a tourist than Alexander the Great is said to have made a journey up the sacred mountain. It holds at its top a depression that is claimed by Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, and Hindus, as – respectively - the footprint of the Buddha, Adam, and Siva.

Albeit somewhat late in the day, Ashraff, a 15th century Persian poet describes the royal visit, proceeded, he says, by obligatory orgies and partying, in his poem “Zaffer Namah Skendari”. A century before, the sweetly-named Arab explorer, Ibn Batuta (“son of the duckling”) describes coming across a grotto at the foot of the mountain inscribed with the word "Iskander," an Asian variant of the name “Alexander.” Fa Hein, a Chinese explorer, describes his trip uphill in 412 CE. and the Italian merchant Marco Polo mentions it in his Travels of 1298 CE. But long before this many a Sri Lankan king has made the ascent, starting with King Valagambahu who apparently discovered the famous footprint in around 100 BCE.

Despite being the country’s second highest mountain, its unique teardrop shape leaves it standing out from the surrounding mountains like a giraffe among a zebra herd, its distinctive shape immortalized in the “Sixth Voyage of Sindbad the Sailor” in Scheherazade’s “Thousand and One Nights”. The engaging royal storyteller wrote of “marvels which are indescribable” and that “the mountain is conspicuous from a distance of three days, and it contains many rubies and other minerals, and spice trees of all sorts.” But perhaps what makes it most remarkable is the fact that it is respected as a place of pilgrimage for all the important religions on the island; and has been trouble-free for nearly its entire history.

Three paths lead to the top – the Ratnapura route, the Kuruwita route and the Hatton route. The pilgrim climb, regarded by all as exceptionally meritorious, takes several long hours, and is usually scheduled between December to April, a reliably dry period. More reckless pilgrims visit it out of season, battling heavy rain, extreme wind, and thick mist, more in search of rescue parties than God. The aim of all pilgrims to get to the top just before daybreak so as to witness a glorious sunrise prior to carrying out an variety of religious rites. It is not place for hermits: on weekends it is estimated that 20,000 people make the challenging ascent and up to five people a season die on the journey.

Illustration: A photograph by Unbekannt of Adam's Peak taken in 1926. Public Domain.



A Sinhala term for the chief officer in the Kandyan kingdom. The official was referred to as the first adigar or mahadigar, and took precedence over all other chiefs in the kingdom.

Illustration courtsey of Todd White Art Photography.


Adisham Hall

A comforting cross between the architectural outreaches of Kent’s Leeds Castle; and a cosy Cotswold Cottage, Adisham Hall overlooks the tea plantations around Haputale. Built in 1931, and standing proudly in a gentle time warp created by its architects R. Booth and F. Webster, it is as if the hit song of that year, Noël Coward’s "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" could still be heard drifting down its long green driveway. The house was built by Sir Thomas Villiers, a descendant of Lord John Russell, one of Britain’s most reforming prime ministers - but commerce not social enterprise ran in Villers’ veins – and he was to go onto become one of the principal businessmen of the colony. He retired in 1949, selling up and sailing back to England for the last ten years of his life. By 1963 his home had passed into the hands of The Benedictine Order and the house became Saint Benedict’s Monastery. Within its granite walls, many of the old rooms have been preserved, a Chapel created to house a chip of St Benedict himself; a shop set up to sell jams, cordials, and jellies; and inspirational quotations such as ”Lost time is never found again” dotted optimistically around its grounds and gardens.

Illustration: Adisham Hall courtsey of Diethelm Travel Sri Lanka.

Amana Bank

An Islamic bank founded in 2011 with over thirty branches in the country. At the time of writing, its company reports listed one billion rupees of customer deposits. It claims, “to conduct all its operations under the principles of Islamic banking,” to which end it has a Sharia Supervisory Council to provide advice. It is one of just twenty-four banks licensed to do business in Sri Lanka.

Image courtsey of Amana Bank.



As in most nations, magic and superstition are alive and well on the island, though perhaps not quite as strong as once they were. Integral to this are amulets – those varied charms that keep misfortune at bay. All too easily, demons are thought to manipulate weather, raise storms, direct lightening; determine droughts, or even a woman’s fertility.

The amulet is often a shell or a boar’s tusk enclosed in a case and containing a charm, engraved, or written out on a copper or gold plate or an ola leaf. It is worn as a bracelet or necklace – or even around the waist. The charm is weaponized by incantations. And in such a deeply Buddhist country as this, most children wear a 'Panchauda,' a gold or silver pendant decorated with the symbols associated with Lord Buddha’s life, with the charm incanted over an altar of flowers with incense burning all about. In Tamil Sri Lanka, many wear the Pottu – a mark on the forehead in red or black to protect the wear against the evil eye, a tradition which has also spread into many Buddhist families too. Similarly, the malign effects of the evil eye are also dissipated by animal teeth, cobra hood rings or horseshoes above doors. Prosperity and good fortune is more likely if you wear rings or bangles that enclose elephant hair.

But best of all – for protection against all life’s travails – is the Navaratna ring, made up of 9 types of gems:
Ruby (Sun);
Pearl (Moon);
Emerald (Mercury);
Red Coral (Mars);
Yellow Sapphire (Jupiter);
Diamond (Venus);
Blue Sapphire (Saturn);
Hessonite (Rahu, the ascending lunar position in astrology);
Cat’s Eye (Ketu, the descending lunar position).

And there are also a host of other more specific protection that can be turned to including shark’s teeth, to prevent muscular cramps when swimming; and a piece of iron in a child’s lunchbox to block evil spirits getting at the food.

Image courtsey of The British Museum.


Arankele Forest Hermitage

An illustration of an early 19th century drawing by Captain_Charles_Auber of the Arankele Forest near Kurunegala. Public Domain.



A Sinhala term for forest dwelling monks.

Illustration: Mahamevnawa Buddhist monk courtsey of wallpaperflare.


Asala Perahara

A Sinhala term for a religious ceremonial procession or important ritual.

Illustration courtsey of



In Sri Lanka it is not just what you do that matters. When and where you do it is just as important. A standard, well-entrenched discipline, astrology is widely used to ascertain the most auspicious time for important events – marriages, housebuilding, elections, company start-ups, naming ceremonies and many religious rituals. The well-regarded Sri Lanka Foundation adult education centre is among many to offer certified courses in the subject, and you don’t have to look far online or down most town streets, ministerial offices, or state buildings to come across one happy to chart your course.

Doing things in the right place at the right time is a matter of great importance. To determine such auspicious facts Sri Lankans turn, almost to a person, to astrologers and fortune-tellers. The starting point is most usually the person’s individual horoscope. This is determined by detailing all the planetary movements over the person’s lifetime and then writing them out on a Tailpot palm leaf.

In this the signs of the Zodiac are of course known by different names:
Aries (Mesha);
Taurus (Vrshabha);
Gemini (Mithuna);
Cancer (Kataka);
Leo (Sinha), Virgo (Kanya);
Libra (Thula);
Scorpios (Vruschika);
Sagittarius (Dhanu);
Capricorn (Makara);
Aquarius (Kumbha);
Pisces (Meena).

Most of the corresponding rituals are based on times calculated according to astrology and often based on agriculture. And it all starts with Mesha, or Aries. New Year begins not at midnight, but at the time determined by the astrologers, and the Sinhala and Tamil New Year only occurs when the sun moves from Pisces to Aries. Its exact calculation set by astrologers a week or so after the start of the year but the key Vesak Festival, which marks the dawn of the Buddhist new year, comes at least another month later. With its focus on this sun (of central importance to a farming community), moving into Aries heralds the Aluth Avurudda Mangallaya – the new rice festival. During this, the first rice is plucked and processed and donated to the temple, especially The Temple of the Tooth. It is typically followed by the Punyakalaya – a period of time devoted to religious duties. This is known as the nona gathe or neutral period - a little gap between the two years - when one is best advised to be wholly preoccupied with religious duties, including cooking Kiribath.

Illustration: Lord Buddha's horoscope picture courtsey of



Past the occasional roadside shop, barber salon and office for Birth, Deaths, and Marriages, and almost lost in the jungle many miles north of Dambulla, the tiny village of Avukana hints at a more glorious past with its stunning 14 metre statue of Lord Buddha. Academics (as they do) argue about whether the statue is 5th or 8th century - but whomsoever wins that fringe debate, there is no argument about the sheer beauty of the piece.

The lofty standing Buddha is captured by his unknown sculptor making a gesture of blessing - but the way in which his delicate pleated clothing clings with astonishing realism to his body indicates that the sculptor was familiar with two key regional art movements - the naturalistic Hellenistic Gandhara school, and the more sensuous Amaravati school. There is - in such records as do exist – a tantalising hint as to its creator. A mere 15 kilometres away, at Sasseruwa, stands an almost exact copy of this statue – almost, but not quite as good; and one fatally left unfinished. The local villagers tell of a competition between a master sculptor and his pupil to finish the commission first; and the master won. Sadly, as the two statues are at least 400 years apart in age, this lovely tale could only have some residual truth in a parallel universe – but it amply shows how rich and ready are local folk tales to help fill in the many gaps in the island’s long and sometimes impenetrable history.

Illustration: the Avukana Buddha statue courtsey of


B, b



An historical Sinhala term for tax.

Illustration: The Hammillava Rock Inscription No 144 Inscriptions of Ceylon Vol II- S Paranavitane during the period of King Mahasen (277-304 CE). This early record ends with the sentence ‘ This is a legal enactment has been promulgated and recorded, having had it written on stone’. The line of this inscription mentions a Maha[ Ka]laka nakara [A revenue agency]. The lines regulate briefly an accounting system. Image courtsey of sirimunasiha.files.

Bank of Ceylon

Indefatigably dedicated to the daily task of proving that Soviet era customer care and service are not yet dead, the Bank of Ceylon is one of just twenty-four banks licenced to do business in Sri Lanka. It is also its largest bank and one of the largest businesses on the island, with an asset base of more than three trillion rupees. With over six hundred branches, an online service that would defeat Bill Gates, an unshakable faith in form-filling, paper-circulation and closing early, it is also a useful tool for many a Finance Minister, and has, so far, and not unsurprisingly, successfully resisted all calls for the sort of privatization that its future salvation most needs.

Image courtsey of Bank of Ceylon.

Bank of China

The Bank of China has but one branch in Sri Lanka – in Colombo, largely set up it seems to better service China’s much gossiped about financial interests in the country. It is one of just twenty-four banks licenced to do business in Sri Lanka and one of five that coyly offers up[ but a single branch presence. Reading perpendicular Lushi poetry written to the literary standards of Han Dynasty Yuefu verse presents a task marginally simpler than deciphering one of its balance sheet.

Image courtsey of


Like biblical flowers of the field, the island’s banks are a profitable wonder to behold, with numerous independent bodies whose branches bloom like mangos in the remotest of places. Awash with credit cards, loans, savings, deposit and current accounts and numerous other financial services, including Byzantine online facilities, banks are part of the great glue that makes the country work. Some, such as the Hatton National Bank and the Commercial Bank, are keen and efficient. Others, like the Bank of Ceylon and the People’s Bank are entrenched state-owned piggy banks whose colossal reach is slowly being eroded by nimbler competitors. A quarter of the twenty four banks licenced to provide commercial banking have but a single branch in the country, mysterious flag flying redoubts often located in the more agreeable office blocks. A further fifth own to just five or so branches per bank. The most networked eight banks share between them almost two and a half thousand branches – roughly one branch every twenty six square miles of Sri Lanka, a density that would make most Westerners envious as they witness the gradual evaporation of banking branch networks burnt away by online services. The 2023 national bankruptcy that devastated the country - and remains a source of great pressure – led the Central Bank to note recently that the “the financial sector is likely to encounter significant challenges in the face of the current economic environment with the contraction in economic output, sovereign debt restructuring, high interest rate environment, tax revisions and high exposure of the banking sector to SOBEs.” Despite this, the banking sector emerged through the crisis with striking resilience, dexterously navigating it way through treacherous currents and giving the country as degree of robust security without which levels of hardship would have undoubtedly reached wholly intolerable levels. Nearly forty percent of the banks have been able to maintain customer deposits of over five hundred billion rupees a piece, with a several recording deposits in trillions on their glowing balance sheets. The Central Bank list of licensed commercial banks are:

1. Amana Bank
2. Bank of Ceylon
3. Bank of China
4. Cargills Bank
5. Citibank
6. Commercial Bank of Ceylon
7. Deutsche Bank
8. DFCC Bank
9. Habib Bank
10. Hatton National Bank
11. Indian Bank
12. Indian Overseas Bank
13. MCB Bank
14. National Development Bank
15. Nations Trust Bank
16. Pan Asia Bank
17. People's Bank
18. Public Bank Berhad
19. Sampath Bank
20. Seylan Bank
21. Standard Chartered Bank
22. State Bank of India
23. Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC)
24. Union Bank of Colombo

Image courtsey of


Basnayaka Nilame

An Sinhala term for the most important lay officer in a devela, a shrine of gods.

Illustration of Ruhunu Kataragama Maha Devale Basnayake Nilame Pradeep Nilanga Dhala Bandara, courtesy of


Bawa, Geoffrey

One of Asian’s most influential architects, Bawa’s buildings radically changed the way in which people lived and worked, his creativity inspiring generations of new architects throughout the region to challenge and transform the built environment.

The Guardian puts it best: "Bawa's portfolio of work included religious, social, cultural, educational, governmental, commercial and residential buildings, and in each of these areas he established a canon of new prototypes. Early experiments in what was known as tropical modernism were tempered by a growing interest in the traditional architecture and building materials of Sri Lanka. This led to the development of an architecture that was a blend of both modern and traditional, of east and west, of formal and picturesque, that broke down the barriers between inside and outside, between building and landscape, and that offered a blueprint for new ways to live and work in a tropical city."

Whilst this observation sets out well the context for his achievements, it has yet to capture the liberating experience of moving about within one of his buildings. His city houses most typically centred around an inner courtyard, one wisely constructed to keep the focus personal - all the better to keep the foolish world at bay. Within its cool quite spaces, there is intimacy, peace; the space to think and live with minimal interruptions. The homes he built in the countryside, not least for himself at Lunuganga, enlist fields, plantations, hills and valleys as extra rooms, the built landscape opening out onto the natural one, a series of interconnected rooms that sometime only seem to end on the horizon. His public buildings were clean massive confident occupations of space, rooms opening into one another, breathing together like a single organic city, a lofty forest of light cement, glass, wood and plants.

A lawyer, who retrained as an architect, Bawa spent much of his younger years partying or studying in Europe, especially the UK. Independence in 1948 brought him more firmly back to the country of his birth. A Burgher mix of Sinhalese, German and Scottish, he came from that slim, rich impossibly lavish section of society that flared briefly with barely a care in the world until the ethic and political demons caught up on the country’s daily life enmeshing it in civil war and economic chaos.

As many of his contemporaries fled, Bawa stayed put, building first his own home in Lunuganga; and then an architectural practice that promoted his new vision of architecture - not just in Sri Lanka but in India, Indonesia, Mauritius, Japan, Pakistan, Fiji, Egypt and Singapore too. His homes in Bentota and Colombo magnetised all who had talent and originality, local or traveller; and his parties and gift for hospitality are still talked about today.

His parents must have done something right for both Bawa and his brother were not just both gay – but also hugely talented landscape gardeners too; and their adjoining country house gardens would put to shame anything better known in Florence, Oxfordshire or the South of France.

Should your week ahead look a little pedestrian, give it some purpose and take a trip round all his surviving Sri Lankan buildings.

The easiest ones to visit are his old office – now the Gallery Café which offers a heart-warming menu of martinis; his old home in Colombo - Number 11; 33rd Lane, Bagatelle Road, Colombo 03 – now a museum, but one you can spend the night at; and his country house, Lunuganga in Bentota; also now a museum cum hotel. The balance of his surviving architecture is:

1948–97 LUNUGANGA GARDEN, Bentota. Open to the public.

1958–62 CLASSROOMS FOR ST. THOMAS’ SCHOOL, Galle Road, Colombo.

1960–61 HOUSE & SURGERY FOR DR ASH DE SILVA In Galle; a private residence.

1960–62 ESTATE BUNGALOW, Strathspey Estate, Maskeliya. By appointment only.

1959–60 OFFICES FOR AUTOMOBILE ASSOCIATION, Sir Marcan Markar Maw, Colombo.

1960–69 BAWA’S OWN TOWNHOUSE, 33rd Lane, Bagatelle Road, Colombo 3. Admission by ticket.

1961–63 BARTHOLOMEUSZ HOUSE, 2 Alfred House Gardens, Colombo 3, now The Gallery Café.

1961–62 NAZARETH CHAPEL FOR GOOD SHEPHERD CONVENT, Bandarawela. Open by permission.

1961–63 FLATS FOR MRS. AF WIJEMANNA on Ananda Coomaraswamy Maw., Colombo 7. Private residences.

1962–64 HOUSE FOR CHRIS & CARMEL RAFFEL, Ward Place, Colombo 7. A private residence.

1963–65 HOUSE FOR LEELA DIAS BANDARANAYAKE, Mount Lavinia. A private residence.

1963–64 MONTESSORI SCHOOL FOR ST. BRIDGET’S CONVENT, Maitland Crescent, Colombo 7. By appointment only.

1963–65 ESTATE BUNGALOW FOR BAUR & CO., Polontalawa, By appointment only.

1965–66 CLASSROOM BLOCK FOR LADIES COLLEGE, Ernest de Silva Mawatha, Colombo 7. By appointment only.

1965–66 YWCA BUILDING, Rotunda Gardens, Colombo. A public building.

1966–69 STEEL CORPORATION, offices, & staff housing in Oruwela. By appointment only.

1967–69 HOUSE FOR PIETER KEUNEMAN, now a beauty salon, Inner Flower Road, Colombo 3. Access by permission.

1967–69 BENTOTA RESORT, Railway Station & Tourist Village, Bentota. All public buildings.

1967–73 BENTOTA BEACH HOTEL, Bentota. A public building.

1967–74 SERENDIB HOTEL, Bentota. A public building.

1969–70 PUBLIC LIBRARY, Kalutara. A public building.

1969–71 OFFICE DEVELOPMENT opposite Matara Bus Station. A public building.

1970–72 4 ROW HOUSES FOR FC DE SARAM, 5th Lane Colombo 3. Only two remain, both private residences.

1971–73 HOUSE FOR STANLEY DE SARAM, Cambridge Place, Colombo 7. A private residence.

1972–74 HOUSE CONVERSION FOR MR & MRS H.E TENNAKOON in Bagatelle Road. A private residence.

1973–76 NEPTUNE HOTEL, Beruwala. A public building.

1974–76 AGRARIAN RESEARCH & TRAINING INSTITUTE, Wijerama Maw., Colombo 7. Access by permission.

1975–77 NATIONAL INSTITUTE FOR MANAGEMENT STUDIES, Vidya Maw., Colombo. Access by permission.

1975–79 OFFICES FOR STATE MORTGAGE BANK, Hyde Park Corner, Darley Road, Colombo. A public building.

1976–78 SEEMA MALAKA ORDINATION TEMPLE, Beira Lake, Colombo. A public building.

1978–80 INTEGRAL EDUCATION CENTRE, Subodhi, Bolgoda Lake. Access by permission.

1978–80 HOUSE FOR LIDIA GUNASEKERA, 87, Galle Road, Bentota. Now a guest house.

1978–79 TOURIST POLICE STATION, Galle Road, Beruwala. A public building.

1978–81 HERITANCE TRITON HOTEL, Ahungalla. A public building.

1978–80 STAFF HOUSING FOR THE MINISTRY OF POWER, Sarana Rd, Colombo 7. Private residences.

1979 THE RATNASIVARATNAM HOUSE, Bhaudaloka Mawatha, Geoffrey Bawa, Colombo .

1979–82 NEW SRI LANKA PARLIAMENT, Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte. Access by special permission.

1980–88 RUHUNU UNIVERSITY CAMPUS, Matara. Access by appointment.

1982–83 VOCATIONAL TRAINING CENTRE, Ladies College, Inner Flower Road, Colombo 3. Access by appointment.

1982–83 PILGRIMS’ REST HOUSE, Anuradhapura. A public building.

1984–86 STABLE CONVERSION FOR SUNETHRA, Bandaranaike Horagolla. A private residence.

1985–86 HOUSE FOR RICHARD FITZHERBERT, Dikwella, Tangalle. Now a guest house.

1985–91 House for Cecil & Chloe de Soysa. Off Dharmapala Maw., Colombo 3. A private residence.

1990 REMODELLING & EXTENSION TO SINBAD HOTEL, Kalutara. A public building.

1991–94 KANDALAMA HERITANCE HOTEL, Dambulla. A public building.

1991–95 HOUSE FOR ROHAN & DULANJALEE JAYAKODY, Park Street, Colombo 2. A private residence.

1995–97 LIGHTHOUSE HOTEL, Galle. A public building.

1996–98 BLUE WATER HOTEL, Waduwa. A public building.

1997-98 HOUSE FOR PRADEEP JAYAWARDENE, Red Cliffs, Mirissa. A private residence.

1997–98 HOUSE FOR DAVID SPENCER, Rosemead Place, Colombo 7. A private residence.

Illustration courtsey of David Robson.



A Sinhala term for a monk or priest in a Buddhist order.

Illustration of monks at Polonnaruwa, courtsey of


Braund, Allin

A British artist working in the middle of the 20th century. He was especially inspired by the sea and in his many semi-abstract prints conjures up its colours and movement. Born on the North Devon coast, he had spent most of his childhood by the sea. As an adult, in the Royal Marines in the Second World War, he served on Royal Navy ships in the Mediterranean and Ceylon

The illustration is one of eight lithographs known as The Sea Suite, published by the St George’s Gallery, in London during the 1950s and ‘60s. Image courtesy of the artist.


Buddha, Hand Gestures of

Even the most serene and pacific statue of Lord Buddha offers a dynamic lesson in the evangelising of fundamental Buddhist beliefs – but such insight is only readily available to those amongst us who can interpret the gestures he is pictured making with his hands and fingers. For if ever hands can speak, those of Lord Buddha most certainly do. There are at least 11 core messages encoded in such hand signals, known as “mudras,” some with the most subtle of further variants; and most, but not all, in common use in Sri Lanka.

Easiest is all the “Anjali Mudra” - a 1 on 1 respectful gesture of greeting, palms pressed together at heart level, thumbs resting on the chest. At the other end, and not for the faint hearted, is the “Uttarabodhi Mudra.” Here, index fingers touch and point up; all other finger entwin at heart level – a bold gesture of supreme enlightenment, brought about by connecting oneself with divine universal energy. This Murda finds its nearest cousin in the “Jnana” or “Wisdom Mudra” - thumb tip and index finger touching as a circle and facing inwards, representing spiritual enlightenment.

The most popular Mudra is probably the “Karana Mudrā,” made by raising the index and little finger and folding all other digits, to ward off evil, negative thoughts – and demons. And not a hundred miles away from this is the “Abhaya Mudra” – or “gesture of fearlessness," a pose made with the right hand raised to shoulder height, arm crooked, palm facing outward, fingers upright; left hand hanging down at the side of the body. In this pose, Buddha represents protection, peace, and the dismissal of fear. Popular too is the “Bhumisparsha” – or “Earth Witness Mudra.” Here, all 5 fingers of the right hand touch the ground, to symbolise Buddha’s enlightenment under the bodhi tree. The left hand - held flat in his lap - symbolises the union of method and wisdom.

The remaining 5 Mudras are more complicated, eclectic, or doctrinal - or, quite possibly, all three.

The “Varada Mudra” is a largely one-handed affair. Here, the left hand hangs at the side of the body, palm open, facing forwards with all fingers extended – a representation of charity and compassion, one finger each for: Generosity; Morality; Patience; Effort; and Meditative Concentration.

The “Dhyana” or “Meditation Mudra” is made with one or both hands resting on the lap and is a gesture of mediation made when concentrating on Buddhism’s substantial body of “Good Laws” and the attainment of spiritual perfection.

The “Vajra Mudra” symbolises the unity of all Buddhist beliefs, the erect left hand of the forefinger being closed into the right fist, the tips of both fingers curled together.

The “Vitarka” or “Discussion Mudra” has the thumb and Index finger touching, the remaining fingers pointing straight, the gesture reflected with both hands and indicative of talking about and communicating Buddhist teaching.

And last of all is the famous “Wheel of Dharma” or “Dharmachakra Mudra.” Here the thumb and index finger of both hands touch at their tips to form a circle that represents the union of method and wisdom. To really complicate (or enrich) things, the 3 free fingers of both hands are also extended, and carry their own separate meanings. The 3 extended fingers of the left hand symbolize Buddha, the Dharma (the doctrine of universal truth), and the Sangha (the Buddhist monastic order, of monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen). Those of the right symbolize the 3 main tools for his teaching – namely: the Hearers - who practice the teachings they listen to and – after 3 lifetimes - achieve "small" enlightenment; the “Solitary Realizers” who cultivate merit and wisdom over a 100 eons to achieve "middling" enlightenment; and the Mahayana or 'Great Vehicle' - collectively, Buddhist traditions, texts, philosophies, and practices.

Illustration courtsey of


C, c


Capital Punishment

An illustration from Robert Knox's book "A Historical Relation of the Island of Ceylon" of an execution by an elephant, published in 1681. Public Domain.

Cargills Bank

Attached to the more famous Cargills Supermarkets, Cargills Bank was started in 2014 and has a little over 20 branches, one of just twenty-four banks licenced to do business in Sri Lanka. At the time of writing, its last report detailed almost forty five billion rupees in customer deposits.

Image courtsey of Cargills Bank.


Set up in 1979 and with a single branch in Colombo, Citibank Sri Lanka, is a scion of the American bank and is one of just twenty-four banks licensed to do business in Sri Lanka, which it does with uncharacteristic inconspicuousness, one of just five or so banks that has circumvented the notion of branch networks.

Image courtsey of Citibank.


Colombo Cricket Club

A photograph by Unbekannt of the Colombo Cricket Club Ground in 1912. Public Domain.



An historical term for an administrative division under Dutch rule; sometimes known as a commandery.

Commercial Bank of Ceylon

Publicly listed, the Commercial Bank is the largest private bank in the country and its third largest bank, after the two bombastic state-owned relics, The Bank of Ceylon and the People’s Bank. With two hundred and sixty-eight branches, it has a strong global reputation, and has been ranked among the top One Thousand Banks in the world for nearly eleven successive years. A child of various mergers and takeovers, it traces its history back to 1920, a depressing year that is otherwise most noted for the ending of the global Spanish Flu – and with it the lives of up to 50-100 million people. Its customer deposit base hit a record of over two trillion rupees in its last reported figures at the time of writing. Its reassuming professionalism makes it the pin up girl of the nation’s banking sector, one of just twenty-four banks licenced to do business in Sri Lanka.

Image coursety of Commercial Bank of Ceylon.



A painting (acrylic on canvas) by Lincoln Seligman of Cricket on the beach 2012. Image courtsey of the artist.


D, d


Set up in 1955, the DFCC is a state bank that has moved, like Mata Hari, into the public sector with a spaghetti-like rostrum of shareholders and a cosy, if complicated, relationship with government. At the time of writing, it had one hundred and thirty-nine branches and sees itself as “A Pioneer, Pathfinder and Trailblazer.” Its last records indicate that it has three hundred and ninety-two billion rupees worth of customer deposits. It is one of just twenty-four banks licenced to do business in Sri Lanka.

Image courtsey of DFCC.



A Sinhala term for a religious structure built over a relic, most typically a dome shaped monument.

llustration of The Thuparama Dagoba at Anuradhapura, painted in 1873 byConstance Frederica Gordon Cumming.



An historical Sinhala term for the levy paid on water to the king or to other offices or people who owned the water.



A watercolour by Clive Wilson of Dambulla. Image courtsesy of the artist.

Deutsche Bank

Set up in Sri Lanka in 1980, Deutsche Bank has but one branch in the country – albeit in one of the more opulent office developments in Colombo. Although focused more on the corporate market, its purpose on the island remains a modest mystery but is remains, beguilingly, just one of twenty-four banks licenced to do business in Sri Lanka.

Image courtsey of The



A shrine to Buddhist gods.



Villagers and villages attached to a devale, or shrine to Buddhist gods.

Illustration by the celebrated artist Samuel Daniell -of a village scene between Galle and Matura about Six Miles from Galle in 1801 ( bodycolour over graphite on paper). Public Domain.


Devil Dancers

Illustration of Devil Dancers from a hand-coloured photograph dating to 1900-1920. Public Domain.



A coastal village near Matara, Dikwella is a much loved by sea-seeking tourists; and by those moved by impressive Buddhist temples. The little settlement boasts an 18th century statue of Lord Buddha that is 160 feet high. The statue sits outside a temple, much enlarged from its earliest beginnings 250 years ago. The temple is unusual in the space it gives to celebrating, in uncensored detail, what happens to sinners who fails to follow the path of enlightenment. Being swan into pieces, boiled alive or merely disembowelled are just three of the options available.



A Sinhala term for the provinces of the old Kandyan kingdom, governed by a Disave.



A Sinhala term for the governor of a province belonging to the old Kandyan kingdom. The term was adopted by the Dutch for their maritime provinces; and was later used within the administrative hierarchy for native officials under British rule.

Illustration of A Kandyan Dissava and Priest of Boodhoo, John Davy (1821). Public Domain.



A Sinhala term for property that is granted to individuals employed by the state or its monasteries.



A sketch of a Sinhalese washerman in Kandy from 1898. Public Domain.


Durava Elu

A Sinhala term for the Singhalese caste of toddy tapper.


Durbar, Kandy

Illustration by Henry Payne of The Duke of York and Cornwall at the Durbar in Kandy in 1901. Public Domain.


E, e


Emblem of Ceylon, The British

A variety of designs, mostly linked to the crown coat of arms, were used by the British in their government of Ceylon, before they eventually settled, close to the end of their occupation of the island, on a symbol unique to the country – that of an elephant, walking, as it had done since 1505 on the Portuguese Emblem, through coconut palms with mountains in the background.

Illustration: Public Domain.


Emblem of Ceylon, The Dutch

The emblem used by the Dutch to administer Ceylon was almost identical to that of of the Portuguese – featuring an elephant walking though palm trees with mountains behind. But they added a key new detail, one that fitted very nearly with their entire economic purpose of being on the island at all – a few bales of the ultra-valuable cinnamon crop that they harvested across the island. More interesting each sub district they governed had its own version of the heraldic arms. In Trincomalee a mercenary soldier from Java is included. In Mannar a plant, hedyotis puberula, cherished for its dyes, was adopted. A fort and a bridge dominate the shield of Matara; and a single fort the shield of Kalpitiya. Ships features on the symbols of Chilaw and Puttalam; and a clay pitcher for Negombo.


Emblem of Ceylon, The Portuguse

From 1505 to 1658 the flag that fluttered over Portuguese Ceylon was identical to the one that flew over Portugal itself, featuring 7 gold castles and 5 blue shields within a red shield surmounted by a crown. But the emblem they used to rule the country was very different, displaying and elephant walking though palm trees with mountains behind.


Emblem of Sri Lanka, The

National emblems differ from national flags in as much as they are used by the state to validate their administration of the country. Sri Lanka’s colonial overlords adopted emblems for the island featuring elephants that they ran alongside their national flags (or in the case of the Dutch, the arms of the VOC). But by 1972 the country has developed an entirely new Emblem, which is still in use today. It was designed by the Venerable Mapalagama Wipulasara Maha Thera, a Buddhist monk and artist and features the traditional lion of the national flag. The lion sits within a round frame of lotus leaves and rice grains, the Wheel of Dharma above his head and Sinhalese sun and moon symbols beneath him.


F, f

Festival Calendar, The

Although most people, government workers aside, work on Saturdays, the annual work load is lessened by the fact that Sri Lanka probably has more public holidays than any other country. Taken together, they would add an extra month to the year. To the many Buddhist festivals, Christian, Hindu, and Muslim festivals have to be added – some long ago merged with ancient animist and agricultural ones. It is striking, though not surprising in so religiously-minded a country, that so many of the festivals are also public holiday, regardless of their religious origins. Here is a list of the thirty three most notable ones, each one an opportunity to lay a glittering happening on the otherwise workaday weeks and months of the year:

1. Patti Pongal. A Tamil festival ceremony for gratitude to cows that occurs in January.

2. Duruthu Poya. Occurring in January, this celebrates the first of the Buddha's visits to Sri Lanka – and the start of the three-month pilgrimage season to Adam's Peak

3. The Harvest Festival. A Hindu festival over 14-15 of January to celebrates Surya, the Sun god; Indra, the bringer of rains; and the cow. Observed mostly by Tamil farmers, it marks the first rice harvest of the year. It is seen as an opportunity for decluttering too and houses are cleaned and painted, and floors decorated with the leaves of fruit trees. Sweet rice is consumed in generous quantities and cow horns are painted, with some even wrapped in saris.

4. Duruthu Perahera. Taking place at the Kelaniya Temple near Colombo, this Buddhist festival commemorates the third visit of Buddha to Sri Lanka, with attendant elephants, torch bearers and dancers.

5. Independence Day. On the 4th of January large stands are erected along Galle Face Green for the country’s leading figures to sit and watch the armed forces march past.

6. The New Rice Festival. A Buddhist festival held in January at the Temple of the Tooth.

7. Medin Poya. A Buddhist festival in March that marks Lord Buddha's first visit to the island.

8. Maha Sivarathri. A Hindu festival in February or March to honour Shiva by fasting and all-night vigils.

9. Eid-e-Milad an-Nabi. A Muslim festival held in March to celebrated the birth of the prophet Muhammad.

10. Bak Poya. A Buddhist festival in April to mark Lord Buddha's second visit to Sri Lanka.

11. The National Oil Anointing Ceremony. Organized by the Health, Nutrition and Indigenous Medicine Ministry and the Ayurvedic Department and held in April, the festival is meant to ensure good health for the year ahead. Whether many people outside the ministry know about it is debatable.

12. Sinhala & Tamil New Year. Occurring on the 13-14th of April, the festival brings together Tamils and the Sinhalese to celebrate New Year. A cross between Thanksgiving, Christmas, and News Years Eve, it is a time for families, milk rice and parties.

13. Good Friday and Easter Day. A Christian festival with a movable date, held to mark the crucifixion of Christ.

14. Vesak Poya. The Poya held in May is the most important Buddhist poya of the year, cramming in three anniversaries: the birth, enlightenment, and Nirvana of Lord Buddha. Every possible structure is decorated and at night paper lanterns, some of titanic proportions, flicker with gentle lights. Food is shared in huge quantities; the devout meditate and fast and the last pilgrims climb Adam’s Peak.

15. Labour Day. Held on the 1st May and a traditional bank holiday, though given the generous closing hours the banks often give themselves, an extra holiday seems superfluous.

16. Remembrance Day. Held in May, the day has had a significant identity change since it was first created by President Mahinda Rajapaksa to mark the defeat opf the LTTE. It was then called Victorty Day. But within five years, Rajapaksa’s successor, President Maithripala Sirisena had it renamed Remembrance Day.

17. Ramadan. A Muslim festival held in June to mark the Prophet Muhammad visitation by the angel Gabriel.

18. Poson Poya. Held in June this is the second most important poya day of the year and commemorates the arrival of Buddhism to Sri Lanka in the 3rd century BCE. Festivals are widespread – but most especially glittering at Mihintale where the event took place.

19. Esala Poya. Held between July to August to mark Lord Buddha's first sermon and the arrival of the sacred Tooth Relic in Sri Lanka.

20. Esala Festivals. Throughout July and August Esala festivals are held at numerous temples, the dates held like poker cards to the chest until the very last moment, but always guaranteed to reach a climax for the full moon. The most famous of these is the Kandy Perahera, a pageant that runs for ten days with elephants dressed in silk, dancers, fire eaters, whip crackers and contented priests marching through the narrow streets of the hill city to crowds of thousands. Notable too is the Dondra Perahera held near Dikwella in southern Sri Lanka, and the fourteen day long Kataragama Perahera centred around the multi religious temple of Kataragama and attracting Buddhist, Hindus, Muslima and the Vedda, many of whom will have pilgrimaged there from other towns, and all of whom will plunge into the Manik Ganga for the cleansing water cutting ceremony.

21. The Water Cutting Ceremony. Held after the last Perehera procession in a number of places on the island – but most importantly on the Menik Ganga. The festival is designed to purify the clothes of the god that may have been polluted by sex. Once the auspicious time is determined - usually early in the morning - the object of veneration is placed in the river, accompanied by priests and even elephants,. People gather just downstream of it to splash and immerse themselves in the water, some of which, they hope, may derive from the holy object themselves. Flasks are filled, and – at least in more agrarian times – the multiple would go home, confident that the harvest was all but guaranteed.

22. Munneswaram. A Hindu festival often also attended by Buddhists that is held in the 1st week of August near Chilaw and dedicated – not least by lots of fire walking - to the God Siva.

23. Nikini Poya. A Buddhist festival moistly observed by monks to kick start three months of fasting in memory of Lord Buddha’s death. It is also known as Vas or Rain Retreat.

24. Vel Festival. The central Hindu festival of the year which celebrates the god Kartikeya (also known as Murugan or Kandhan) with elaborate processions, which feature chariots and spears.

25. Binara Poya. A Buddhist festival held in September to mark Lord Buddha's journey to heaven.

26. Dussehra. A Hindu festival that symbolises the triumph of good over evil that is held over September/October to honour the Mother Goddess Durga’s victory over the evil buffalo demon Mahishasura.

27. Vap Poya. A Buddhist festival held in October to mark the end of fasting and the Vas Retreat, and commemorate Buddha's return to earth. It is usually accompanied by Katina Ceremonies (the Month of Robes) when money is donated to monasteries to buy new robes for the monks.

28. Deepavali. The Hindu Festivals of Lights that marks the return of Rama from exile and the triumph of light over darkness. Many people, regardless of religion in Sri Lanka wish that the Central Electricity Board might pay a little more attention to the lessons that derive from Deepavali.

29. Il Poya. A Buddhist festival held in November to mark Lord Buddha’s ordination of sixty disciples to spread his teachings.

30. Hajj. A Muslim festival held in November to kick start the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca.

31. Christmas Day. A Christian festival to celebrate the birth of Christ.

32. Unduvap Poya. A Buddhist festival of great importance in Anuradhapura which marks the arrival of the sapling of the bo-tree to Sri Lanka from India.

33. The Hakma Dance. An annual Adivasi Veddha festival that lasts two days focused on protecting the community and wild animals from diseases and to ensure a bountiful of bee honey harvest.

Image courtsey of Best Sri Lanka Tour.

Finance Companies, Licensed

The financing of loans to individuals and businesses in Sri Lanka is a topsy turvy world, and was so even before the economic implosion of 2022. The island has a sizable history of bad debt that acts as a significant drag on the economy, and unsurprising the bar to granting loans is tortuous and set up to fail a large number of applications. Even so banks and finance companies continue to push out a snowstorm of advertisements offering just such loans. But they are evenly matched by the effort that also goes into securing savings deposits. All twenty-four of the commercial banks licensed to do business in the country participate in this market – as do over thirty finance companies who operate under a more restrictive licence to accept of deposits and lend money. At the time of writing, these include:

1. Abans Finance
2. Alliance Finance Company
3. AMW Capital Leasing and Finance
4. Asia Asset Finance
5. Assetline Finance
6. Associated Motor Finance Company
7. CBC Finance (previously known as Serendib Finance)
8. Central Finance Company
9. Citizens Development Business Finance
10. Commercial Credit and Finance
11. Dialog Finance
12. ETI Finance
13. Fintrex Finance
14. HNB Finance
15. Lanka Credit and Business Finance
16. LB Finance
17. LOLC Finance
18. Mahindra Ideal Finance
19. Mercantile Investments and Finance
20. Merchant Bank of Sri Lanka and Finance
21. Multi Finance
22. Nation Lanka Finance
23. Orient Finance
24. People's Leasing & Finance
25. People's Merchant Finance
26. Richard Pieris Finance
27. Sarvodaya Development Finance
28. Senkadagala Finance
29. Singer Finance
30. Siyapatha Finance
31. SMB Finance
32. Softlogic Finance
33. U B Finance Company
34. Vallibel Finance

An drawing by Christian Wilhelm Allers of a Moneylender in Kandy in 1898. Public Domain.



A pen ink with wash on paper illustration by Lincoln Seligman of Fisherman Sri Lanka 2015. Image courtsey of the artist.



A painting by Andrew Macara of Football in Bentota 1998. Image courtsey of the artist.


G, g



A Sinhala term for the Kandyan kingdom’s royal villages.


Gal Vihara

A photograph by an unknown English Photographer of the Gal Vihara Standing Buddhist Statue dating from 1870-90 . Public Domain.



An historical Sinhala term dating back to the earliest period of the Kandyan kingdom to denote a monk who had been admitted to a monastic order, but was not yet celibate.



A Sinhala term for a village council.



A Sinhala term for a caste of farmers, sometimes also known as Goyigama.


H, h

Habib Bank

A Pakistani based bank licensed to operate in Sri Lanka since 1951, Habib Bank has three branches and is one of just twenty-four banks licenced to do business in Sri Lanka. At the time of writing, their last audited assets showed a modest figure of 17.8 million rupees.

Image courtsey of Habib Bank.

Hatton National Bank

Beginning life in 1888 amongst the hill station’s tea planters and plantation workers, HNB, grew to become one of the country’s top publicly listed banks, one of just twenty-four banks licenced to do business in Sri Lanka. At the time of writing,, its most recent reports stated that it has one and a half trillion rupees in customer deposits. Efficient, personable and the winner of many awards, it should not be confused with HNB Finance, a company it grew out of the micro financing Grameen Bank and whose processes and competencies would try the patience of the long dead.

Image courtsey of HNB.

Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC)

In 1892, a year relatively hum drum in international terms (notable for being Arthur Conan Doyle's first Sherlock Holmes story), HSBC, then still a Chinese teenager, set up its first branch in Sri Lanka. Here, tea, not opium, fuelled its nascent prosperity. With worldwide assets today stated at well over ten trillion dollars, its global expansion has been breathless, though a far gentler cadence has marked its many decades on the island. With just thirteen branches, it has chalked up assets of over four hundred and fifty billion rupees at the time of writing. It is one of just twenty-four banks licenced to do business in Sri Lanka.

Image courtsey of Google Street View.

Housing Development Finance Corporation Bank of Sri Lanka (HDFC)

Founded in 1984, the HDFC is a building society that became a bank, albeit one still under majority government control. With thirty-nine branches and fifty billion rupees in customer deposits, it is unlikely to set the financial world aflame despite being one of just twenty-four banks licenced to do business in Sri Lanka.

Image courtsey of HDFC.


I, i

Indian Bank

Dating bank to 1906 Madras (now Chennai), the Indian Bank has two branches in Sri Lanka – in Colombo and Jaffna; and what modest trade they do lies buried beneath reports of leaden opaqueness. Despite this, it remains, albeit enigmatically, one of just twenty-four banks licenced to do business in Sri Lanka.

Image courtsey of Balu Velachery.

Indian Overseas Bank

The Indian Overseas Bank has a single branch in Colombo. “Been here few times,” wrote one Mohamed A in a sorrowful online testimonial, “Silent - and doesn't feel like a bank at all.” Even so, the IOB remains one of just twenty-four banks licenced to do business in Sri Lanka.

Image courtsey of Indian Overseas Bank.


Issurumuniya, The

An illustration of The Issurumuniya by Felse taken in 1926. Public Domain.


J, j


Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi

An early 20th century French illustration of the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi, the sacred Bo tree in Anuradhapura. Public Domain.



Illustration by S Shepherd & C Bourne of Jewellers of Galle in 1872. Public Domain.



A 19th century French engraving of Jewish women in Ceylon. Public Domain.


K, k



A Sinhala term for a provincial secretariat.


Kachcheri Mudaliyar

A Sinhala term for a governmental assistant who helps or supports a government agent or the provincial secretariat.



A Sinhala term for the standard coins issued in the 1st and 2nd century CE by the Anuradhapuran kingdom. Also known as kahapana, they were made of various metals and so differed significantly in their weight.



A Sinhala term for the self-selected or appointed headman of a group of labourers in the plantation sector.



A Sinhala term for the Sinhalese caste of fishermen.


Kelaniya Raja Maha Viharaya

An illustration of the Kelaniya Raja Maha Viharaya taken by an unknown photographer in 1880. Public Domain.



A Sinhala term for a masked drama.



An historical Sinhala term for the administrative unit of a province of the Kandyan kingdom. It was later used under British rule to describe a revenue district, overseen by a Mudaliyar in low country districts or a or Korale Mahaththaya in upcountry districts.



A Sinhala term for the tax applied to erica nuts.


Kruys Kerk

An illustration by Cornelis Steiger of the interior of the church in Jaffna Fort, seen from the South side. Public Domain.



In the blandest of terms, a Kumarihaami might be cautiously described as an elderly lady who enjoys considerable influence within her family and community. But this in no way captures the degree of social richness, and power - shot through with often obstinate and glittering eccentricity - that is a proper Kumarihaami. A cross between a dowager duchess and an exiled Queen, her word is law and her recommendations ignored at your very considerable peril. Nancy Aster, the Empress Dowager Cixi or the fictional Dowager Countess of Grantham in “Downtown Abby” are all good foreign examples. Sri Lankan examples today can be found in any town or village on the island. Or, better still, on the pages of many a contemporary Sri Lankan novel, not least Ashok Ferrey’s “The Ceaseless Chatter of Demons.”



A Sinhala term for dried fish, most typically sourced historically and in the present day from the Maldives as Maldive fish, and used as a key ingredient in many Sri Lankan dishes.


L, l



An illustration of a photograph by Alfred William Amandus Plate of Lace Makers in the 1890s. Public Domain.



A Dutch term for the civil courts authorised by the VOC to rule over all land disputes.



A Portuguese term used in Sri Lanka to mean soldier or guard, and later adapted by the Dutch as lascorijn; and by the British as lascariin or lascar. In its original Portuguese sense it referred specifically to the local soldiers they recruited to overcome their chronic manpower shortages as they fought for control of the Kotte and Kandyan kingdom. Most lascarins were Catholic converts and they made up, numerically, the vast bulk of the Portuguese colonial army. They were notorious for abruptly changing sides, most sensationally at the Battle of Gannoruwa in 1638, a defining moment in the Portuguese withdrawal from the island which left just 33 soldiers alive from an initial force of 4,000. Under Dutch rule these soldiers were organised into groups of 24 led by two or three native headmen. Under British rule these soldiers morphed into ceremonial roles though some were retained as bodyguards for Mudaliyars, the most powerful native families.


M, m

MCB Bank

“What makes us stand apart,” states the MCB Bank, a Shariah compliant Pakistani bank set up on the island in 1994, “is our empathy with you, our customer, a deep understanding of your hopes and aspirations, combined with the ability and willingness to listen to you.” It has a single branch in Colombo, and, at the time of writing, its most recent reports state a modest eighteen billion rupees worth of customer deposits. It is one of just twenty-four banks licenced to do business in Sri Lanka.

Image courtsey of MCB Bank.


Mada Idam

A Sinhala term for the muddy land on which wet paddy (rice) is grown.


Maha Mudaliyar

A British Sinhala term to denote the highest position in the native hierarchy of officials; most typically the chief aide to the Govenor.


Mahadatika Mahanaga, King of Anuradhapura

The thirty seventh monarch of the Vijayan Period (543 BCE - 66 CE), the dates of his reign being 9 CE – 21 CE.

Succeeding to the Anuradhapuran throne in 9 CE on the death of his brother, Bhathika Abhaya, Mahadatika Mahanaga was to rule with evident obscurity until his death, natural or otherwise, in 21 CE.



A Sinhala term for an epic poem.



A Sinhala term used in the Kandyan kingdom to name the Great Court of Justice.



A Sinhala term for death duties.



A photogrpah from 1926 (photographer unknown) of the beginning of the stone steps at Mihintale. Public Domain.



A Sinhala term for a chief headman, most typically empowered under British rule as the administrator of a Korale, or revenue district.


Mudra, The Abhaya

Considered to be the most energizing of all Lord Buddha’s mudra, The Abhaya Mudra is known as the gesture of fearlessness, and is said to dispel fear, and invoke peace.

This hand gesture is formed with the right hand raised to shoulder height, arm bent and palm facing outward with the fingers upright and joined. The left hand rests down.

Image courtsey of Exotic India.


Mudra, The Anjali

For those looking to make an easy start on the Byzantium symbolism of the hand gestures of Lord Buddha, The Anjali Mudra is a perfect place to start. Press your palms together at heart level, thumbs resting on the chest – and you have done it, made a 1 on 1 respectful gesture of greeting.

Illustration: The Namaskara or Anjali Mudra, here depicted by a Tibetan Buddha. Image courtsey of


Mudra, The Dharmachakra

Quite possibly the most complicated and involved hand gesture ascribed to Lord Buddha, the famous “Wheel of Dharma” takes a little bit of practice.

The thumb and index finger of both hands touch at their tips to form a circle. This represents the union of method and wisdom. Next, the 3 free fingers of left hands are extended and symbolize Buddha, the Dharma (the doctrine of universal truth), and the Sangha (the Buddhist monastic order, of monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen). So too the right fingers, which, when extended, symbolize the 3 main tools for his teaching – namely: the Hearers - who practice the teachings they listen to and – after 3 lifetimes - achieve "small" enlightenment; the “Solitary Realizers” who cultivate merit and wisdom over a 100 eons to achieve "middling" enlightenment; and the Mahayana or 'Great Vehicle' - collectively, Buddhist traditions, texts, philosophies, and practices.


Mudra, The Dhyana

Best known as the Meditation Mudra, this piece of symbolic Buddhist hand gesturing is made with one or both hands resting on the lap. It envisages the practitioner meditating on Buddhism’s abundant body of “Good Laws” which can be used to attain spiritual perfection.

Illustration courtsey of The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Mudra, The Jnana

One of Lord Buddha’s most winning symbolic hand gestures. Thumb tip and index finger touch as a circle and face inward. In this simple bit of symbolism, you have the signal for wisdom and spiritual enlightenment.


Mudra, The Karana

Bad day? Low self-esteem? Bothersome devils? Not for nothing is this hand gesture of Lord Buddha probably the most used and powerful. Raise the index and little finger and fold all other digits. In one sweep you have made the sign to ward off evil, negative thoughts – and demons.


Mudra, The Uttarabodhi

For those looking to play in the big league, the Uttarabodhi Mudra is one of the most profound symbolic hand gestures made by Lord Buddha. Index fingers touch and point up; all other fingers entwin at heart level. This is the gesture of supreme enlightenment, made possible by connecting yourself with divine universal energy.


Mudra, The Vajra

In this relatively dynamic piece of Buddhist hand gesturing, the erect left hand of the forefinger is closed into the right fist, and the tips of both fingers are curled together. Thus is symbolised, with inimitable simplicity, the unity of all Buddhist beliefs.


Mudra, The Varada

One of Lord Buddha’s more complicated pieces of hand symbolism, but well worth the study. Let your left hand hang at the side of your body, palm open, facing forwards with all fingers extended – and you have a perfect representation of charity and compassion, with each finger donated to a different virtue: Generosity; Morality; Patience; Effort; and Meditative Concentration.


Mudra, The Vitarka

A Buddhist hand gesture that has thumb and index finger touching, and the remaining fingers pointing straight, both hands occupied with the same action. Known colloquially as the Discussion Mudra, this artful piece of symbolism is concerned with talking about and communicating Buddhist teaching.



A Sinhala term for the Kandyan kingdom’s head of revenue, a title later used more widely under British rule within the colonial administrative hierarchy.



An illustration of a photograph by Henry W Cave entitled "Ruined Cities of Ceylon, Moonstone Guardstones and Steps" from 1904. Public Domain.


N, n



A Sinhala term for a play that consists of song and verse.



A tiny pilgrim village – also known as Dalhousie – that is most useful positioned for those determined to climb Adam’s Peak. Its shops are full of such beneficial items as warm clothing and water flasks; and its name comes from the nearby Dalhousie tea estate whose ownership, though not noticeably Scottish, goes back to at least at a Mr F.G.A. Lane in 1885.

National Development Bank

Now a private bank, the NDB began operations in 1979 as a state-owned finance institution, one of just twenty-four banks licenced to do business in Sri Lanka. It now has one hundred and thirteen branches. At the time of writing, its most recent report stated six hundred and seventy-two billion rupees in customer deposits.

Image courtsey of National Development Bank.


National Flag

The Sri Lankan lion became extinct some thirty-seven thousand years BC, but this has not stopped it dominating the current national flag. Quite possibly an earlier design of the lion flag travelled here as Prince Vijaya standard in 486 BC. It was used thereafter right across the country’s many kingdoms, including those of Sitawaka, Kotte and Kandy – but not by the Portuguese, Dutch or British colonists. It was returned to once again at Independence in 1948 when a simple design of a yellow knife-wielding lion within a yellow frame on a red background was adopted, the cornered decorated with Bo leaves.

Its current design dates to a significant revision in 1972; the lion then being joined by as many symbols as a metaphysical painting. Minorities are represented in the orange (Tamil) and green (Moor) stripe; and the yellow border (Malays, Burghers, Veddas, Kaffirs and the Sri Lankan Chinese). The Singhala occupy the overall maroon background. Four expectant Bodhi-tree leaves highlight the virtues of loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and self-control. The saffron border depicts unity. The lion himself is scattered with deeper meaning: intelligence (nose), purity (beard); a non-materialist outlook (front paws), hair (wisdom), and The Noble Eightfold Path (tail hairs). His sword stands for national sovereignty – but also water, fire, air, and earth.

In the height of the Civil Was, in 1987, individual flags were adopted for each of the country’s provinces. A golden bird, lion, and cobra feature on the Western Province flag, decorated with bo tree leaves and the four attributes of Buddhism. A lion with fig leaves dominates the flags of both the Sabaragamuwa and Southern Provinces, and a lion with fig leaves and lotus flowers that of the Central Province. A buffalo with sun, moon and stars is displayed on the North Western Province’s flag; a swan on Uvas’; and a fish, lion and eagle for the Eastern Province. The flag of the North Central Province is noticeably different to all others, featuring the first stupa in ancient Anuradhapura and an image of King Parakramabahu the Great, from Polonnaruwa. A greater degree of abstraction characterises the flag of the Northern Province - blocks of red (Hinduism), white (peace), and green (agriculture) framed by a blue border representing the sea.

National Savings Bank

The National Savings Bank is a useful state-owned bank with two hundred and two branches and a cozy relationship with the sclerotic Sri Lanka Post and its 3,412 sub-post offices. Because it is bound by law to invest a minimum of sixty percent of its deposits in government issued and guaranteed securities, its 1.43 trillion-rupee deposit base has made it a piggy bank for the state finances. It is one of just twenty-four banks licenced to do business in Sri Lanka. Its offshoot, the Sri Lanka Savings Bank, is also independently licenced to provide banking on the island.

Image courtsey of National Savings Bank.

Nations Trust Bank

Founded in 1999, NTB now has ninety-six branches and is one of just twenty-four banks licenced to do business in Sri Lanka. At the time of writing, their most recent reports stated sixty-six and a half billion rupees in customer deposits.

Image courtsey of Nations Trust Bank.



A Sri Lankan Buddhist sect - also known, for its origins, as The Siam – that was founded by Upali Thera and located largely around Kandy.


Number 11

Hidden down the 33rd Lane that turns off Colombo’s Bagatelle Road is Geoffray Bawa’s private town house, a rambling architectural marvel and museum which, whilst not run as a regular hotel, lets out two rooms to visitors. With demand far outstripping supply, getting to stay there can prove tricky – but lucky guests then have the great good fortune of having the entire museum, with its gorgeous assemblage of curios and masterpieces, all to themselves once the day trippers have gone.

Image courtsey of The Geoffray Bawa Trust.



A Sinhala term for an operatic drama which contains a notable proportion of prose dialogue as opposed to just song and verse.


Nuwara Eliya Golf Club, The

A photograph by Alfred William Amandus Plate entitled "18th Hole and Club House Golf Links Nuwara Eliya Elevation 6200 Feet" dating to 1890-1910. Public Domain.


O, o


P, p

Pan Asia Bank

Founded in 1995 and now with eighty five branches in Sri Lanka, Pan Asia is one of just twenty-four banks licenced to do business in Sri Lanka. At the time of writing its most recent reports stated one hundred and seventy-one billion rupees in customer deposits.

Image courtsey of Daily FT.



A Sinhala term for a place of worship, most typically a Buddhist temple.



A Sinhala term for hereditary property, also known as pamunu.



A Sinhala term for the sub division of a korale, which is part of the administrative unit of a province.


Pearl Fishing

Pearl Fishermen - a 19th centuary engraving of the French School. Public Domain.

People's Bank

One of Sri Lanka’s main state-owned commercial banks, the People’s Bank was founded in 1961 and now has seven hundred and thirty-nine branches. It is one of just twenty-four banks licenced to do business in Sri Lanka. At the time of writing its most recent reports stated 2,565.4 billion worth of customer deposits. It has not been without those standard moments of excitement typical of many state owned enterprises when, in 2019, corruption and mismanagement led to a loss in excess of two billion rupees.

Image courtsey of People's Bank.


Pingo Carrier

An illustration of a photograph by Alfred William Amandus Plate of a Pingo Carrier in the 1890s. Public Domain.



A Sinhala term for almsgiving.



A Sinhala term for a place of education that is attached to a temple.


Pitawala Pathana

A celebration of that most modest of all plants, grass, Pitawala Pathana is found in the middle of the island beyond the road to Matale and north of The Knuckles. Here, at over 1200 metres above sea level grows a grass no taller than 10 mm, across ten square hectares of thin soil. The resulting natural grassland meadows play host to only the hardiest and least demanding species including the rare Marble Rock Frog, so endangered as to be facing extinction full on, with little hope of a reprieve. For those who like their fauna and flora to be on the flasher (Versace) side, Pitawala Pathana will only disappoint; but if subtlety, utter peace, and the road less travelled is your beat, then it will have been well worth the journey to have come here.



A Dutch term to describe the proclamations of the VOC.


Police Vidana

A Sinhala term that most typically describes an unpaid village headman responsible for law and order


Porcupine Quill Boxes

A Victorian favourite made from ebony and porcupine quills, with occasional panels of now forbidden ivory, Porcupine Quill Boxes are the subject of fierce, secretive collectors for they are rarely if ever made today. They became something of a Sri Lankan speciality in the 19th century, with production centred around Galle, Matara and Matura. Given that the porcupine has some 30,000 quills and sheds them with alacrity, it leaves, in theory anyway, plenty to spare for artisan carpenters. It is the quills of the adult beasts that are used as those of the winningly-named infants, the porcupettes, are considered too soft.

Public Bank Berhad

A large public bank in Malaysia, Public Bank Berhad has but one branch in Sri Lanka – in Colombo – and little discernible evidence of meaningful commercial activities or customer deposits. Despite this, it remains one of just twenty-four banks licenced to do business in Sri Lanka.

Image courtsey of Public Bank Berhad.


Purana Village

A Sinhala term that for an ancestral village or a village that has a long and ancient history.



A Sinhala term the very earliest coins – small, oval, oblong and square - in circulation on the island until about the 2nd century CE.


Q, q


R, r



A Sinhala term from the Kandyan kingdom for the service due to a king or temple. Under British rule it came to describe compulsory service to the state more generally.



A small village famous for hosting the country’s longest road tunnel, a 738 foot long structure much feared by claustrophobics along the A5 Peradeniya to Nuwara Eliya highway.



A Sinhala term from the Kandyan kingdom to describe the chief of a district.



Illustration shows a sketch by Edward Lear of a view of Ratnapura from 1874. Public Domain.



An illustration by Pierre Sonnerat of " Ravana demon king of Ceylon" from "Voyage aux Indes" published in 1791. Public Domain.

Regional Development Bank (Pradheshiya Sanwardhana Bank)

A government owned bank founded in 2010, the RDB is one of just twenty-four banks licenced to do business in Sri Lanka. At the time of writing its reported eight hundred and thirty-three billion rupees of assets lay scattered across a modest branch network.

Image courtsey of Regional Development Bank .


Rubber Tapper

A 19th century illustration of a worker cutting a rubber tree with spiral cutting. Public Domain.


Ruwanwelisaya Stupa, The

Illustration of a photograph of the Ruwanwelisaya Stupa. Public Domain.


S, s



A Sinhala term for the Sinhalese caste of cinnamon peelers.



A Sinhala term for an unordained monk.

Sampath Bank

Founded in 1987 and now with two hundred and twenty nine branches Sampath Bank’s most recent reports stated a total of over one trillion rupees in customer deposits at the time of writing. It is one of just twenty-four banks licenced to do business in Sri Lanka.

Sanasa Development Bank

Set up in 1997, one of just twenty-four banks licenced to do business in Sri Lanka, Sanasa is a bank modelled on co-operative lines and has ninety four branches on the island. At the time of writing, it last reported customer deposits stood at over one hundred billion rupees.

Image courtsey of



An historical Sinhala term for royal grants, most typically made by inscription on copper plates.



Picture this: a small road, cutting through jungle and hills far north of Dambulla , going nowhere special. In between rocky outcrops and volcanic tree roots lie the many scattered remains of stupas, moonstone entrances to lost sacred rooms, antique inscriptions, cave cells for over 100 hermetic monks; and the many linked buildings and structures for a substantial monastery.

Welcome to Sasseruwa, famous - when there was a collective memory for such things - for its massive (almost 12 metre) standing statue of Lord Buddha. It rises, dwarfed by a vast overhead rock canopy, unfinished, much weathered, but resiliently present, one in a style of increasingly few similar examples of rock-carved Buddhas left around the world since the Taliban decided to blow their own up in faraway Afghanistan. Once so important as to merit one of the actual saplings of the Sri Maha Bodhi tree; a meeting place for kings and armies, a sanctuary for the avenging Anuradhapuran king, Valagamba in the 1st BCE, Sasseruwa is today almost entirely forgotten.

Seylan Bank

Founded in 1987, and now with one hundred and seventy-one branches, Seylan Bank overcame so troubling an entanglement with the discredited and bankrupt Golden Key Credit Card Company as to nearly lose its footing on the living world altogether. It has since recommenced credible banking activities and, at the time of writing, its most recent reports state total customer deposits standing at five hundred and forty-nine billion rupees. It is one of just twenty-four banks licenced to do business in Sri Lanka. Its motto, if true, would mark it out as unique among banks worldwide: “The Bank that is Just, Fair and Consistent.”

Image courtsey of The


Snake Charmer

An illustration of a photogrpah by Alfred William Amandus Plate of Snake Charmers around 1890-1910. Public Domain.



A Sinhala term for a drama, with the story mostly enacted in mime by mask-wearing characters.


Sports, Blood

Illustration from a London magazine of the 1890s of Elephant_Shooting in Ceylon. Public Domain.

Standard Chartered Bank

Standard Chartered Bank is a child of the Victorian era, its Sri Lankan offshoot expressed through a handful of branches in the better parts of Colombo. It is typical of a British bank that has always looked east not west, with most of its income coming from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Its total customer deposits here are left modestly implicit but it remains one of just twenty-four banks licenced to do business in Sri Lanka.

Image courtsey of Standard Chartered Bank.

State Bank of India

The State Bank Of India is India’s largest bank but its five Colombo branches are a sentimental throwback to the days when coffee powered the Sri Lankan economy. It set up here in coffee rush days of 1864 and now modestly pursues the usual activities of a bank no longer fuelled by the boom years that gave it birth, one of just twenty-four banks licenced to do business in Sri Lanka.

Image courtsey of State Bank of India.

State Mortgage and Investment Bank

Set up in 1931, the State Mortgage and Investment Bank is a relatively small bank struggling to break free of its home base in housing and agriculture in order to debut into the wider, richer world of consumer banking, industry, and manufacture. It is one of just twenty-four banks licenced to do business in Sri Lanka.

Image courtsey of State Mortgage and Investment Bank.



A Sinhala term for a religious structure built over a relic, most typically a dome shaped monument.

Illustration: A full reconstruction of the first stupa in Sri Lanka, along with its later Vatagage which was built over the monument. Known as the Thuparama Stupa in Anuradhapura, today only the stupa remains. The Vatadage structure reconstructed in this model in the main museum of Anuradhapura. Public Domain.


T, t



A illustration from 1892 by an unknown artist for Singer sewing machines. Public Domain.



Talpe is to Unawatuna what Greenwich Village is to Manhattan – a right-next-door sort of place well placed for partial release from the business of the main drag - its coral encased beach dotted with cafes sitting astride the outlet for the Koggala river.


Tea Pickers

A highly romantic illustration from advertisements of tea plantations in Ceylon in the 1960s. Public Domain.


Temple of the Tooth

A watercolour by Clive Wilson of The Temple of the Tooth in Kandy. Illustration courtsey of the artist.



A Sinhala term for gifts.



Forty kilometres north west of Anuradhapura and now so far off the beaten track as to render it firmly backwater, Thanthirimale nevertheless has a most glamorous past. Some even claim it to be the long lost capital of one of the country’s very first kings, Panduwasdewa. Capital or not, it shot to fame when the daughter of the Indian Emperor Ashoka, the Princess Sangamitta, brought a sapling of the original Bo tree to Sri Lanka in 288 BCE. As the princesses disembarked from her ship and travelled south she paused for the night in Thanthirimale, and here the pot with the sacred sapling rested, through ‘rested’ is to understate the botanical energy of the little tree. The villagers insisted that overnight one branch grew separately out from the pot, and this they planted in their village, thereby beating by several days the claims of the famous Sri Maha Bhodi of Anuradhapura to have been the first and original plant sent from India.

As the centuries ticked on, and the terrible invasions that destroyed the Anuradhapura Kingdom erupted, the debates about the tree must have slowly fallen into silence; and all was lost. At some point in the 19th century the place was reidentified, and the ruins of temples and marvellous structures, ponds and statues were gradually uncovered. So too were special caves ear-marked for meditating monks of the 1st century BCE, and decorated with the sturdy scripted letter of Brahmi, one of the most ancient writing systems of South Asia.



A small village north of Trincomalee, Thiriyai is nevertheless more than worth a detour to - for nearby stands what is said to be the island’s first Buddhist Stupa, built to house the hair relics of the Lord Buddha. Constructed around the 4th century BCE by traders from the Pallava Kingdom, the temple, known as the Girihandu Seya, is surrounded by that rarest of architectural forms, and one unique to Sri Lankan Buddhism – a vaṭadāge. This circular structure was typically constructed around a stupa to protect and enhance it, carved with elaborate designs and ascending with concentric columns that supported a wooden roof. Very few of these still exist; that one does so from so long ago is little short of a miracle.



A Sinhala term for a register of land.


Thunhavul Land

A Dutch Sinhala term from the late 18th century that referred to Dutch land grants which mandated that a third of the land had to be planted with cinnamon.


U, u



A modest town near Ratnapura, best known for its proximity to the Udawalawe National Park, one of the closest national parks to Colombo where elephants can reliably be seen. It also marks the place where a four kilometre dam holds in the country’s third largest water reservoir, harnessing it to a hydro-electric plant.



A Sinhala term for service to the state.

Union Bank of Colombo

Founded in 1995 and now with sixty-six branches, it is one of just twenty-four banks licenced to do business in Sri Lanka. At the time of writing the bank’s most recent reported customer deposits stood at LKR 85,798 million rupees.

Image courtsey of Union Bank of Colombo.


V, v



There is a city in China - Xi'an, sometimes also known as Ch'ang-an aka Hao, which has changed hands 58 times. Were someone to do that piece of maths for Vavuniya, it may well prove to come close to that record, for it is, and always has been, a frontier town between Sinhala and Tamil Sri Lanka, caught up in every war and invasion from Prince Vijaya in the 5th BCE, through the Cholas and Pandyan invasions, to those of the European colonists - and later, the Civil War. Surrounded by the flat lands of the Vanni, and acting as a gateway to the Tamil north, the town is small and focused entirely on trying to recover something of its pre-Civil War prosperity.


Vedda, The

Illustration shows a photograph by Unbekannt of a Vedda commuinity in 1926. Public Domain.



A Sinhala term for a village official with police authority.


W, w



“Adversity makes a man wise, not rich:” a popular Sinhala saying.


X, x


Y, y



“The more one yields, the more one is beaten,” a popular Singhala saying.


Z, z

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