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The Ceylon Press Companion to Sri Lankan Food, Fauna & Flora

A, a

Adam’s Bridge

Until a cyclone hit it in 1470 you could just about walk - at low tide - from India to Sri Lanka. Today, you will need scuba gear – to glimpse the shattered path that still remains on 48 kilometres of partially sunken limestone banks stretching in salty shallows between the two countries. Named for the Biblical Adam, this thread of 103 coral reefs separates the Gulf of Mannar in the south from Palk Bay in the north, and connects Rameswaram, a modest fishing town in India’s Tamil Nadu to Thalaimannar, a still smaller fishing settlement on the tip of Sri Lanka’s Mannar Island. These salty stretches of reef platforms, sandy beaches and mangroves offer a unique home to thousands of species of fauna and flora – fish, lobsters, shrimps, crabs; and the now highly endangered dugon, a marine mammal heralded as the original mermaid by ancient sailors; and closely – if unexpectedly - related to elephants. The very shallowness of the waters means that sea faring traffic finds the aera almost impossible to sail through; and various schemes have, since the 18th century, suggested dredging the watery gaps to create a shipping throughfare. The most recent of these nakedly destructive and environmentally vandalistic schemes, the Sethusamudram Shipping Canal Project, sits atop on a dusty shelf policed by the governments of India and Sri Lanka - an on-off Plan that has been discussed since the mid-1950s and, thankfully, with a price tag of several billion US dollars, one that is unlikely to undergo a malign hatching.

Illustration Courtsey of Google Maps.


A modestly priced ($10 to $100 per carat) semi-precious quartz, agate occurs in a in a wide range of colours including brown, white, red, grey, pink, black, and yellow. Sri Lanka specialises in blue-tinted agate, said to pacify inner anger, and anxiety.

Image courtsey of Sri Lanka Export Development Board.


In buying the semi-precious stone Alexandrite, purchasers gain two jewels for the price of one - for the stone’s unusual light absorbing qualities give it the possibly of such different appearances that it is often known as an emerald by day and a ruby by night. Although relatively scare on the island, Sri Lankan alexandrite's exceptional quality has made it much prized within the jewellery industry; and for between $3,000 - $20,000 per carat, you could sport one for your next appearance in Hallo Magazine. Alternatively, you might search the world for the missing Naleem Alexandrite, a Sri Lankan gem of unparalleled quality – said to be the largest such stone in the world – weighing in at 112 carats. It was sold by a noted gem collector, Al Haj Naleem, in Beruwala but the onward chain of buyers has long since gone cold and it has not been recorded as having been seen anywhere since 2011 – a year of such unpropitious and unparalleled misery as to offer perfect cover for the shy gemstone.

Image courtesy of Sri Lanka Export Development Board.


Sri Lanka is one of the world best sources of high quality amethysts, a semi-precious gem ($20-$50 per carat) that occurs in transparent pastel roses to deep purples. Used in jewellery, as well as alternative healing, its supporters argue that it helps relieve stress and anxiety, fend off headaches, fatigues, and anxiety; and promote cell regeneration.

Image courtesy of Sri Lanka Export Development Board.


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.


A rock phosphate, Apatite is commercially used as a fertilizer and is mined in Sri Lanka at Eppawala, near Anuradhapura.

Image courtsey of Raimond Spekking.


The presence of iron within the crystal of this semi-precious stone is what gives it its cherished green-blue to blue colour variations. Abundant and comparatively affordable ($130 - $900 per carat), it is found in Rathnapura, Rakwana, Morawaka, Hatton, Nawalapitiya, Galle, Matara, Tissamaharama and Lunugamwehera. Its comparative inexpensiveness has not stopped it decorating some of the world’s more famous people, including the French Emperor Louis XV who owned the 109.92 carats Hirsch Aquamarine, Queen Elizabeth II who commissioned an Aquamarine Tiara, Eleanor Roosevelt who collected the gift of a 1,298-carrot aquamarine gemstone when she visited Brazil in 1936 - and the colossal 225,000 carrot Dom Pedro Aquamarine, named after the anachronistic Brazilian emperors, Pedro I and Pedro II.

Image courtesy of Sri Lanka Export Development Board.

Areca Nut Palm

A sketch by Edward Lear of Areca Nut Palms, 1874. Public Domain.


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

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.


Sri Lanka is bat country, its incredible range of environments supporting 30 of the world’s 1400 bat species. Despite the best efforts of Batman and his friends, bats have a troubled reputation with their Halloween and Vampire blood-sucking associations, though only three are known to sip the liquid; and with them the long shadow of vampire bat movies, once the last word in classic Hollywood horror, is slowly abating.

Bats range in size from ones tiny enough to sit comfortably upon a thumb nail to those with a wing span of 1 ½ metres and a weight of 1.6 kilos. They are the only mammals able to truly fly, angels excepted, and are famous for roosting upside down from their feet, viewing the world like happy drunks, a propensity make worse by their extremely poor vision. Using ultrasonic sound and the full capacity of their renowned hearing, they navigate the world, dining off insects, pollen, fruit small beasts and even one another. They are worth observing from a distance for they are enthusiastic harbingers of diseases, especially those best able to leap from animal to human. Most live in large colonies and are much given to hibernation, a habit that accounts for their exceptionally long lifespan – with one bat recorded to have lived 41 years.

Image: Public Domain.

Bat, False Vampire

The reassuringly named False Vampire or Megadermatidae Family is one of 10 bat families the occur in Sri Lanka, which together comprise twenty nine to thirty one bat varieties (depending on your criteria), only one of which is endemic. There are two bats in this little grouping (with 3 others elsewhere in the world), the family name coming from an incorrect folk belief that they enjoyed feasting on blood. Both are tiny – around 100 cm in length, but whilst the Ceylon False Vampire Bat (Megaderma Spasma Ceylonense) prefers to dine on insects (and very occasionally other bats), the Indian False Vampire Bat (Megaderma Lyra Lyra) is much more of a big meat eater devouring birds, and fish. The also differ in colour with the Ceylon variant having fur that is noticeably browner than the grey-blue fur of its Indian cousin.

Image of the Ceylon False Vampire Bat, courtsey of Paul Dunn.

Bat, Free-Tailed

The happily named Free-Tailed or Molossidae Family is one of 10 bat families the occur in Sri Lanka, which together comprise twenty nine to thirty one bat varieties (depending on your criteria), only one of which is endemic. It has but two cadets on the island, a tiny number given the 110 it totals globally, one of the largest of all the bat families. They are well named for they have an uncommon ability to fly fast – and well above the usual restrictive canopy of trees that most bats keep to. The Ceylon Wrinkled-Lipped Bat (Tadarida Plicara Insularis) was first recorded back in 1800 and comes in a typically much smaller size than the Indian Wrinkled-Lipped Bat (Tadarida Aegyptiaca), though their grey fur markings are hard to tell apart.

Image: Public Domain.

Bat, Fruit

The Fruit or Pteropidae Family is one of 10 bat families the occur in Sri Lanka, which together comprise twenty nine to thirty one bat varieties (depending on your criteria), only one of which is endemic. There are four bats in this little grouping, though 60 across the rest of the world. They are famously gregarious and groups of between 15,000-100,000 cluster together like small airborne townships. The Ceylon Fruit Bat (Rousettus Seminudus) is brown to grey brown, and almost 14 cm head to tail. Similarly coloured, though smaller is the Indian Short-Nosed Fruit Bat (Cynopterus Sphinx Sphinx) who is almost impossible to tell apart from the Ceylon Short-Nosed Fruit Bat (Cynopterus Sphinx Ceylonensis). But the unquestioned head of the family is the Common Flying Fox Bat (Pteropus Giganteus Giganteus). These are the megabats of the bat world. With a wing span of 1 ½ metres and a weight of some 1.6 kilos, they effortlessly live up to their name. Nocturnal, fruit eating and curiously infecund (producing perhaps just one offspring per year), they are an unmistakable part of any skyline – especially around city parks where they gather at dusk to hang off trees in infamous colonies. Although unlikely to turn suddenly into airborne artillery, they are best kept at a distance, harbouring as they do such a wealth of diseases as to make biological warfare warriors tremble with dread.

Image of the Common Flying Fox Bat, courtsey of

Bat, Horse-Shoe

The Horse-Shoe or Rhinolophidae Family is one of 10 bat families the occur in Sri Lanka, which together comprise twenty nine to thirty one bat varieties (depending on your criteria), only one of which is endemic. There are two in this little grouping on the island – but 90 others elsewhere in the world. They are far from popular, being linked to both the 2002–2004 SARS outbreak and the global COVID-19 outbreak, with genetic analyses showing that the virus found in China was highly similar to viruses found in horseshoe bats. The Rufous Horse-Shoe Bat (Rhinolophus Rouxi Rouxi) is the more glamorous of the pair, with a bright orange body, its cousin the Ceylon Great Horse-Shoe Bat (Rhinolophus Luctus Sobrinus) being darker in colour. Both are tiny beasts, happiest in moist evergreen forests.

Image of the Rufous Horseshoe Bat, courtsey of Aditya Joshi.

Bat, Leaf-Nosed

The Leaf-Nosed-Shoe or Hipposiderosidae Family is one of 10 bat families the occur in Sri Lanka, which together comprise twenty nine to thirty one bat varieties (depending on your criteria), only one of which is endemic. The family has been much poured over by scientists eager to classify and reclassify its many members. Of the seventy species in the family found across the world, only four of them call Sri Lanka home – and all have a marked preference for dining on beetles. All tend to be small, reddish brown, with a fussy intolerance of habits above 1000 metres, though the Ceylon Bi-Coloured Leaf-Nosed Bat (Hipposideros Bicolor Ater), first described in 1834, is willing to move a little higher up the hills. Barely ten years later, in 1846, as the East Indian took over Kashmir in northern India and Queen Victoria pocketed the Koh-I-Noor diamond, its closest island relative was also first described, the Dekhan Leaf-Nosed Bat (Hipposideros Galeritus Brachyotus). Both came lower down in the pecking order from Schneider Leaf-Nosed Bat (Hipposideros Speoris Speoris), first identified way back in 1800, but ahead of the last of the island’s four leaf-nosed bats, the Great Ceylon Leaf-Nosed Bat (Hipposideros Lankadiva Lankadiva) which was first described in 1850.

Image of Schneider Leaf-Nosed Bat, Public Domain.

Bat, Long-Winged

The unfortunately named Long-Winded or Miniopterinae Family is one of 10 bat families the occur in Sri Lanka, which together comprise twenty nine to thirty one bat varieties (depending on your criteria), only one of which is endemic. It is one of the two smallest bat families here, with but one lone representative, the Long-Winged Bat, Miniopterus Schreiberst Fuliginosus. Twelve cousins live more companionably in other countries as far afield as Austria to Korean. A small creature with reddish grey fur, it is happiest grouping together with relatives in caves, caverns, and rock holes.

Image of the Long-Winged Bat, Miniopterus Schreiberst Fuliginosus, courtsey of Bharagavi Srinivusulu.

Bat, Painted

The glamorous Painted or Kerivoulinae Family is one of 10 bat families the occur in Sri Lanka, which together comprise twenty nine to thirty one bat varieties (depending on your criteria), only one of which is endemic. It has but two cadets on the island and is a relatively rare creature to encounter. One variety, the Painted Bat (Kerivoula Picta Picta) is a solitary beast despite its very glamorous colouring - bright orange or scarlet, with black wings; and tiny, barely 100 mm from tail to nose. Its cousin, the Malpas Bat (Kerivoula Hardwickei Malpasi) is just half the size, and far more ordinary in its light greyish-brown fury costume. It was named after the East India Company soldier, Major-General Thomas Hardwicke, a man as much noted for his love of natural history as for his determination to defeat Tipu Sultan in battles across India. Like many East India, Hardwicke he had a complicated domestic life, leaving behind five illegitimate children and two other daughters born to his Indian mistress.

Image: Public Domain.

Bat, Sri Lankan Woolly

The Sri Lankan Woolly Bat (Kerivoula Malpasi) is the country’s only endemic bat. This tiny creature, barely 50 mm from head to body, was first described by a tea planter, W.W.A. Phillips in 1932. It is said to enjoy sleeping in curled up banana fronds on hills between 500 to 1000 metres, though its sightings are so rare that it has not been properly assessed for a score on the IUCN list of endangered animals.

Image courtsey of

Bat, Tube-Nosed

The Tube-Nosed or Murininae Family is one of 10 bat families the occur in Sri Lanka, which comprise twenty nine to thirty one bat varieties (depending on your criteria), only one of which is endemic. It is one of the two smallest bat families here, with but one lone and very tiny representative, its two closest cousins living elsewhere in South and South East Asia. Averaging little more than 89 cm in length and weighing less than 12 grams, the Ceylon Tube-Nosed Bat (Murina cyclotis Eileenae) gets its somewhat anatomical name from its tubular nostrils and sports a darkish brown covering of fur.

Image of the Ceylon Tube-Nosed Bat (Murina cyclotis Eileenae), courtsey of Vincent Luk.

Bat, Typical Insectivorous

The Insectivorous or Vespertilionidae Family is the largest of 10 bat families the occur in Sri Lanka, which together comprise twenty nine to thirty one bat varieties (depending on your criteria), only one of which is endemic. There are eight bats in this little grouping, which worldwide numbers north of sixty. Four of the species found on the island bear the name “Pipistrel” in the laborious naming gifted to them by science: “bird of the evening”. The Grizzled Pipistrel Bat (Pipistrellus Mordax), unkindly known as “pungent” is rarely seen. Its tiny (5 grams) reddish brown cousin, Kelaart's Pipistrel Bat (Pipistrellus Ceylonicus Ceylonicus) is a little more common but a sad member of the List of Endangered Species, just like its equally tiny cousin, the Indian Pipistrel Bat (Pipistrellus Coromandra Coromandra). The Indian Pigmy Pipistrel Bat – whose touching Latin name is Pipistrellus Mimus Mimus – is even smaller, just 3 grams in weight. Of the remaining four, two – the Greater Yellow Bat (Scotophilus Heathi Heathi) and the Lesser Yellow Bat (Scotophilus Temmincki Wroughtoni) - gain their name for their yellowish bronze brown fur, and can weigh in at up to 50 grams. The other two, also well proportioned, are Van Hasselt's Bat (Myotis Hasselti), discovered in 1840; and Tickell's Bat (Hesperoptenus Tickelli), discovered in 1851.

Image of Kelaart's Pipistrel Bat (Pipistrellus Ceylonicus Ceylonicus), image courtsey of Srinivasulu, B.; Srinivasulu.

Bats, Sheath-Tailed

The Sheath-Tailed or Emballonuridae Family is one of 10 bat families the occur in Sri Lanka, which together comprise twenty nine to thirty one bat varieties (depending on your criteria), only one of which is endemic. There are three in this little grouping, the happy hounds of the bat world with faces that best resemble a dog, and fur that is reddish grey - though the Pouch-Bearing Sheath-Tailed Bat (Taphozous Saccolaimus Crassus), a rare and retiring create, tends to be blacker in its markings. It is larger and less gregarious than the Black-Bearded Sheath-Tailed Bat (Taphozous Melanopogon) which can sometimes be found in colonies of many hundreds. The Long-Armed Sheath-Tailed Bat (Taphozous Longimanus) is the most familiar of the three, as happy in cities as in countryside.

Image of Taphozous melanopogon, courtsey of P Kumarasamy.

Bear, Sri Lankan Sloth

The Sri Lankan Sloth Bear is a unique endemic sub species of the very same Sloth bear that inhabits the Indian sub-continent in ever declining numbers from India to Bhutan, Nepal, and, until recently Bangladesh. It is a little smaller in size than its Indian cousin, with shorter fur and, sadly, sometimes without the cuddly-looking white tummy fur of its northern relative. Even so, it is no midget, typically measuring six feet in length and weighing in at up to 300 pounds for a male or 200 for a female. Once found in plentiful numbers across the dry zone forests of the island, they are now in serious and significant retreat, with an estimated 500-1000 bears in the wild today. The destruction of their habitats has been instrumental in their decline, but the fear they engender amongst village populations has also played it part. They are often hunted and killed, with a reputation for damaging property and killing or maiming domestic animals humans running like a wave of terror before them. The “sloth” part of their name is rather misleading for the bears are quite capable of reaching speeds of thirty miles an hour – faster than the fastest human yet recorded. Although willing to eat almost anything, their preferred diet are termites for which their highly mobile snouts are especially well designed. With nostrils closed, the snouts become vacuums, sucking out the termites from their nest. Long curved claws enable them to dig the nest ever deeper till the last juicy termite has been consumed. The claws are also handy for rapidly scaling up trees to suck out honey from bee nests. Evolution has cast the sloth bear towards the Grumpy Old Man side of the mammalian spectrum. Its poor sight and hearing leaves it very dependent on its sense of smell, so it can all too often be surprised by what seems like the abrupt appearance of something threating – like a human – which it will attack with warrior like ferocity before asking any questions. It is very solitary, living alone in the forest except for those rare moments when it seeks a mate. Reproduction is not its strongest skill, and most females produce a single cub that stays with them for two to three years, the first months of which are endearing spent living or travelling on its mothers back. D.J.G Hennessy, a policeman who had a couple of bears on his land in Horowapotana in 1939, noted the emotive articulateness of their paw suckling: “The significance of the notes on which the bear sucks his paw is interesting; a high whine and rapid sucking denotes impatience and anger, a deep note like the humming of a hive full of bees on a summer’s day indicates that he is contented and pleased with life, a barely audible note shows great happiness while a silent suck in which he usually indulges in just before going to sleep on a full stomach denotes the acme of bliss”.

Image courtsey of Tourism Sri Lanka.

Buffalo, Indian Water

Constructed by loving gods with luxuriant, solid, confident proportions, the Water Buffalo (Bubalus Bubalis Bubalis) makes its many other bovine relatives come across as whispery ragamuffins. Their literary pedigree dates back at least to the Akkadian kingdom of 2,500 BCE. They are fine sturdy creatures, fit to grace any field or lawn. Black to slate grey with generously curved horns and reassuringly stocky bodies, they typically weigh 1,200 pounds, though double that weight has been recorded in some instances. They work hard – often up to forty years with little holiday, living tractors for threshing and transportation. The unlucky ones are raised for meat; the lucky ones produce milk is richer in fat and protein than that of dairy cattle; and all produce the dung that fertilizes fields or is used to light cooking fires.

Image Public Domain.

C, c

Cat, Ceylon Rusty-Spotted

The Rusty-Spotted Cat (Prionailurus Rubiginosus) is the world’s smallest wild cat, smaller even than most domestic cats and one of the least studied and understood of the wild cat species. Covered in reddish fur, it is found in dry forests and grasslands and is largely nocturnal. Found only in Sri Lanka and India, its conservation status is threatened, with unending encroachments on its habitats fragmenting its home range.

Picture courtsey of UrLunkwill.

Cat, Indian Fishing

Double the size of a domestic cat, and weighing up to almost forty pounds, the Indian Fishing Cat (Prionailurus Viverrinus), though increasing vulnerable due to habitat loss, is found in Sri Lanka and across South and South East Asia. It has slightly webbed paws and, given its proclivity for fish, prefers to live around the island’s wetlands, rivers, lake and stream banks, swamps, and mangroves. Its striking yellow grey fur displays confident black strips along the head and upper back that fray into dots and stipples further down the body. The fur is specially layered to give it an extra barrier to water. Its lives up to ten years, with pregnancies lasting two months, after which two or three kittens are born.

Image courtsey of Pessac.

Cat, Jungle Cat

The Jungle Cat (Felis Chaus) appears to be thriving right across it distribution range – from Sri Lanka to China, the Middle East, to the Caucasus. Wholly sandy in colour, and roughly twice the size of the house cat, it lives its very solitary life feasting off birds and small animals. It has a variety of sub species, including one in Sri Lanka (Felis Chaus Kelaarti) but none so distinct as to excite cries for endemic status. It sticks to warmer locations within Sri Lanka, but abounds in grassland and forest - whatever offers the greatest cover and food.

Image courtsey of

Cat’s Eye

A semi-precious stone known to science as chrysoberyl, the colour of Cat’s Eye differ from semi-transparent golden-yellow to slightly greenish or brownish yellow. They exhibit a distinct, ever changing light band that glides across the surface, resembling the eye of a cat. They are found widely across Sri Lanka including Rakwana, Bulutota, Deniyaya, Morawaka, Elahera, Avissawella, Pelawatte, Horana, Matugama, Panadura, Rathnapura, Aluthgama, Ambalantota, Agalawaththa, Bulathsinghala, Kalapugama and Mestiya. Given their price range of $3 to $1700, there’s an affordable eye for almost everyone. The nation’s most notable cat’s eye was fished out of a paddy field in the late 1880s in Pelmadulla. The paddy was part of a 20,000 acre estate belong to Iddamalgoda Kumarihamy, the daughter of Iddamalgoda Basnayake Nilame. For decades the 700 carat stone lay unpolished, bequeathed eventually to the grand old lady’s grandson, a notable collector of cacti, who arranged for the gem to be cut and polished in 1930. The result was a stunning 465 carat cat’s eye, the largest cut example in the world, earning it the moniker "The Eye of the Lion". Other notable, if more modest, Sri Lankan cat’s eye can be found at Buckingham Palace (a 105-carat cat's eye passed down from Edward VII to Charles III); the 105 carat Ray of Treasure (now in the possession of the National Gem and Jewellery Authority in Sri Lanka); and the 58.19 carat Maharani Cat's Eye in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.

Image courtesy of Sri Lanka Export Development Board.


Proper caviar is almost impossible to find in Sri Lanka, though the odd tiny tin cylinder of the delicacy has occasionally shown up at the small food concession within Colombo’s House of Wine on Flower Road, next to the Prime Minister’s Office. However, the Faculty of Animal Science and Export Agriculture, at Uva Wellassa University, has busied itself investigating the most suitable methodology for producing simulated caviar using roe from Mrigal, a rare white Asian carp. The blinis are waiting, though the research, once so promising, appears to have stalled. Caviar’s absence – from even the fleshpots of Colombo and Galle, is the subtlest of reminders of how delicious are the foodstuffs more easily obtainable, the mangos, milk rice, tuna, spices, cashew, to name but a few.


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

Cheetah, Ceylon Asiatic Cheetah

The extinction in Sri Lanka of the Ceylon Asiatic Cheetah (Acionyx Jubatus Venaticus) offers a clear warning to the existence of the island’s other great cat, the Leopard, whose numbers are plummeting. A distinctly different version of the Africa Cheetah, the Asiatic Cheetah once roamed the world from Arabia and the Caspian to South Asia - and Sri Lanka, until around ten thousand years ago. Today their numbers are so few that all but the most myopically optimistic enthusiasts, anticipate that it will soon cease to live in the wild at all.

Image Public Domain.

China Clay

Kaolin - or China clay has been mined almost to exhaustion in Sri Lanka, especially as Boralesgamuwa. The main component in porcelain, it is also used in medicine, cosmetics, and toothpaste.

Image courtsey of Sri Lanka Export Development Board.


A 19th century lithograph of the True Cinnamon Tree. Public Domain.

Cinnamon Peeling

A chromolitography illustration by an unknown artist of the late 19th centuary of a cinnamon peeler. Public Domain.


Named from the Old French word for lemon, Citrine is a relatively rare semi-precious quartz gem mined in Sri Lanka in colours that vary from transparent and pale yellow to brownish orange. Selling for $10 to $50 per carat, it lives very happily at the affordable end of the bling world.

Image courtsey of

Civet, Asian Palm Civet

The Asian Palm Civet (Paradoxurus Hermaphroditus), more happily known as the Toddy Cat, lives in generous numbers across Sri Lanka, South and South East Asia. It is a small beast, little more than five kilos in weight, its stocky body painted with gorgeous markings: grey fur with a white forehead, white dots under its eyes and beside its nostrils – a sort of Panda in the making. Although primarily forest dwelling, it has acclimatised to urban life with alacrity, making its home in attics and unused civic spaces – and of course, palm plantations. And indeed wherever it can best find the fruit it most prefers. Like the golden palm civet, it is also famous in some countries for producing Civet Coffee, made from defecated and partially digested fermented coffee berries.

Picture courtesy of A-Z Animals.

Civet, Palm

When life was simple, long ago, and beige, like black or white, came in just one colour choice, it was thought that the island was home to just one endemic civet. But scientists, zookeepers, and wildlife photographs like Dhammika Malsinghe, Dr. Wolfgang Dittus, Dr Devka Weerakoon, and Channa Rajapaksha have in the past fifteen years worked hard to evaluate this assumption. By careful observation, the checking of paw prints, the measurement of bodies and assessment of markings, they have instead come to the conclusion – now widely accepted in the scientific community - that the country actually plays host to three endemic civets:

1. Wet Zone Golden Palm Civet (P. Aureus)
2. Montane Golden Palm Civet (P. montanus)
3. Dry-Zone Palm Civet (P. stenocephalus)

In fact, the debate about numbers on-going, with some scientists now claiming that a fourth civet also merits separate recognition: the Sri Lankan Mountain Palm Civet (Paradoxurus supp), found only in Dickoya, a refinement that makes Darwin's Galápagos finches look almost modest. But although each civet is zone specific and different enough to be so classified, it would take much effort on behalf of armchair naturalists to ever tell them apart. All three are golden beasts - more golden brown on their backs and lighter gold on their stomachs, though the Montane Golden Palm Civet is, the trained eye, a little darker all round. From nose to bottom they measure 40 to 70 centimetres – like large cats; and weigh in from 3 to 10 pounds. They are mild, secretive, forest loving creatures, living their life on trees and in high hollows, solitary and very nocturnal, munching their way through fruits and small animals. Occasionally they can be a more sociable: for four long months one lived very comfortably in the space between my bedroom ceiling and the roof, a home from home where it raised its many excitable and noisy offspring. Most curiously – and unexpectedly – their farts are widely known on the island to be so pleasant as to smell of the flower of the joy perfume tree – the Magnolia champaca, a scent immortalized in Jean Patou’s famous perfume, 'Joy', an odour that outsold all others, excepting Chanel No. 5. Civet Coffee, which can sell for $1300 per kilo, has thankfully yet to make any appearance on the island, associated as it has become with cruel farmed civet practices. The custom, in the past, was kinder, with partially digested and fermented coffee berries being collected from civet poo in the jungle and sold onto ridiculously wealthy Coffee Bubbas.

Image: Public Domain.


Clay deposits are found throughout Sri Lanka and mined especially in Nattandiya, Dediyawela, Boralasgamuwa, and Meetiyagoda. It is used widely in its ceramics industries, so much so that it is increasingly becoming a scarce resource.

Image courtsey of Olanka Travels.


Illustration showing a painting of coconuts by Edward Lear from 1874. Public Domain.


Illustration by S Shepherd C Bourne of Cleaning and Sorting Coffee in Colombo in 1870. Public Domain.


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

D, d


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.


Deer abound across Sri Lanka, some – like the Ceylon Spotted Deer – increasingly vulnerable, prey to poachers and habitat loss; others – like the Barking Deer – flourishing and presenting little concern to the scientists who maintain the Red List of Threatened Species. Two species are considered endemic to the island – the Ceylon Spotted Deer, the Sri Lankan Spotted Chevrotain, with Sri Lankan Sambar Deer the subject of mild debate among patriotic environmentalists trying to assess if it is so significantly more evolved as to present nature with what amounts to a new sub species unique to the island. The remaining three species found in Sri Lanka are also found across Southand South East India – the Hog Deer, the Mouse Deer, and the Barkling Deer.

Image courtsey of FabFunky.

Deer, Ceylon Spotted Deer

Troubled by the sheer lack of scientific information about the behaviour of the Ceylon Spotted Deer (Axis Axis Ceylonensis), the Department of Zoology, at Sri Lanka’s Eastern University, conducted a detailed study of a particular population in Trincomalee. After months of observation, they concluded, reassuringly, that “their main activities were feeding and play.” Scientists are much divided on the subject of animal play, and tortured monographs have been written attempting to pin down the very concept of animal play. To some it is merely an evolutionary by product; others claim it ensures animals teach one another about fairness and consequences. That the Sri Lankan Axis Deer should be minded to play at all is encouraging for it an increasing vulnerable species, its preferred habitats - lowland forests, and shrub lands –shrinking, and with it the grasses, leaves, and fruit it lives on. Their numbers are now counted in just several thousands. They live in herds of up to one hundred, and are seen by leopards, bears, crocodile, jackals, and hungry villagers, as living supermarkets of fresh meat. Standing up to a hundred centimetres high, their delicately white spotted fawn coats present them as everything a perfect deer ought to be, as is appropriate for an animal that is part of the island’s select few endemic mammals.

Image courtsey of Ahamed Mohideen Riyas Ahamed.

Deer, Hog Deer

Seventy centimetres tall, with short legs, a predilection to whistle, fine antlers and dark brown fur, the Indian Hog Deer (Axis Porcinus) looks nothing like a pig, but gains that interspecies appellation for its tendency to rush through the forest, head down like one of the racing pigs at Bob Hale Racing Stables in far-off Michigan. Stretching right across the grass lands of Sri Lanka and South and South East Asia, it is now classified as extremely vulnerable, its small herds shrinking in the face of habitat loss.

Image courtsey of Jared Matthews.

Deer, Indian Muntjak Or Barking Deer

Carefree, with a propensity to eat almost anything, the Muntjac or Barking Deer (Muntiacus Muntjak Malabaricus), is a cuddly irritant in jungle and on low hilled estates around the country, its numbers flourishing both here and across South and South East Asia. It grows to around sixty centimetres in height and is covered in reddish brown fur and, for males, throws in a modest set of antlers. Shy, solidity, rarely seen in numbers more than two, it gets its name for the dog-barking sound it makes when alarmed. It is a modest, if reliable breeder, with pregnancies lasting six months after which one or, occasionally, two pups are born.

Illustration by the celebrated artist Samuel Daniell of a Landscape in Ceylon with Barking Deer and Fawn c1808-11. Public Domain.

Deer, Mouse Deer or Sri Lankan Spotted Chevrotain Deer

Barely twelve inches high, the Mouse Deer, or Chevrotain (Tragulus Meminna), lives scattered in the forests of Sri Lanka, South and South East Asia. It is tiny, gorgeous, even-toed and, unless you are a plant, entirely harmless – although popular superstition adds the terrible caveat that a man who gets scratched by the hind foot of a mouse deer will develop leprosy. This has yet to be fully verified by scientists, and in the meantime, the miniscule creature has happily got on with its life, flourishing in numbers. In Sri Lanka, the species has become so evolved as to present scientists with the opportunity to award it with full endemic status as the Sri Lankan Spotted Chevrotain (Moschiola Meminna).

Image Public Domain.

Deer, Sambar Deer

Across Sri Lanka and India, the Sambar Deer (Cervus Unicolor Unicolor) claims gold as the largest and most impressive of the several deer species with which shares its genes. Within Sri Lanka, the species has evolved still further and teeters on the edge of being declared endemic – as the Sri Lankan Sambar (Rusa unicolor unicolor). Much mistaken for an elk by early British colonists eager to shoot it, it can be seen in herds in places like Horton Plains – but it is classified as extremely venerable all the same. It is a tempting target for poachers stocking up on game meat to sell, and the pressures on its grassland habitats are not getting any easier. Typically one and half metres high (sometimes more), their herds consist of females with their fawns, which they usually produce yearly. The males, like men with sheds who have taken the designation to extremes, prefer to live alone - except when the mating urge overcomes them. Fossil records from tens of thousands of years earlier, show the existence of a now extinct ancestor, the Muva Sinhaleya. A species of Sambur smaller in size than the one alive today.

Image courtsey of Charles J. Sharp.


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 property that is granted to individuals employed by the state or its monasteries.


An industrial mineral found in Sri Lanka, dolomite is widely mined and used in the island’s ceramic, glass, paint, rubber, and fertilizer industries and in local lime manufacturing plants. It is scattered across the island in such areas as Anuradhapura, Habarana, Matale, Kandy, Ratnapura, Balangoda, Badulla, Bibile, Welimada, Ambilipitiya, and Hambantota. Calcite, a related mineral, is often found in the same deposits, and is used in construction.

Image courtsey of Hayleys.

Dolphin, Common

Widely distributed and happily plentiful in number, the Common Dolphin (Delphinus Delphis) is a most sociable creature, living in packs of a dozen or so – but ones that have been known to come together with others to number 10,000 for short periods of time. Interestingly, unlike many other dolphins, their social order is not matriarchal - indeed, male dolphins probably push the aqua pram more often than do females. Within the pods are to be found sub pods – mixed gender nursery pods, all male pods, and mixed gender pods of adults and wanna-be adults. Measuring up to eight feet in length they display a beautiful two tone coloration: slate grey upper sides, and white undersides. They can be seen off up and down the Sri Lankan coastline from Trincomalee to Point Dondra, and Kalpitiya around to Mirissa.

Image courtsey of Espaço Talassa.

Dolphin, Common Bottlenose

The Common Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops Truncatus) is practically a citizen of the world so widespread is its distribution – which happily includes the oceans off Sri Lanka’s coasts. Gunboat grey, with a single blowhole, a dorsal fin, and a length of anything up to thirteen feet, they have a brain larger than that of humans, a good enough argument for replacing all the politicians of the world with aquariums of Common Bottlenose Dolphin. They are also very sociable, usually living in pods of around 15 animals – though when the party mood takes them, the pod can dramatically expand to around 1000. They talk to one another with signature whistles. Males are famous for their life long bromances, displaying the sort of impressive emotional intelligence that might have shocked John Wayne. Females breed every 3 years or so, keeping their young with them till they are up to eight years old. They enviably healthy fish diet helps promote a life expectancy that has been recorded as between 40-60 years. They can be seen off beaches as far apart as Trincomalee, Kalpitiya and Mirissa.

Image courtsey of National Geographic.

Dolphin, Fraser's

Fraser's Dolphin (Lagenodelphis Hosei) is most typically found in the Americans but is so frequent a resident of Asian oceans, including Sri Lanka’s, as to be a strong contender to spot off such places as Trincomalee , Kalpitiya and Mirissa. Like an old fashioned Skoda, they are tiny (about 3 feet in length) and stocky, with the uncertain accolade of having the smallest genitalia of any dolphin. Even so, they species is plentiful and highly social, living in pods of around 100 animals.

Image courtsey of NOAA Fisheries.

Dolphin, Indian Ocean Humpback

The Indian Ocean Humpback Dolphin (Sotalia Plumbea) has a much more restricted range than many of its relatives and can only really be found along off the eastern African seaboard, around the Arabian peninsula, and the coast line of India and Sri Lanka. They are an endangered species - so spotting one is unusual and special. Infant mortality rates are especially high as they are unduly sensitive to environmental pollution, habitat changes and noise. They grow to around eight feet in length and live in pods of around a dozen or so family members, enjoying a life expectancy of well over forty years.

Image courtsey of The Gremlin.

Dolphin, Pantropical Spotted

Slender, elegant, playful, acrobatic, the Pantropical Spotted Dolphin (Stenella Attenuata) is exactly the kind of dolphin you might most want erupting around the prow of your gin palace as you steam out to sea for a hard day’s sun bathing. Although happily plentiful in quantity, their numbers have been falling dramatically over the past decade or so. Found in tropical and sub-tropical waters, they can be seen off many of the beaches of Sri Lanka. Thie fondness for tuna has the depressing side result of ensuring that many are killed by fishermen, tragic by products of the race to keep the sushi bars of the world running smoothly.

Image courtsey of Carey Akin.

Dolphin, Risso's

Risso's Dolphin (Grampus Griseus) hugs the coast line of most of the continents of the world, and of course, the island of Sri Lanka. Measuring around thirteen feet in length, connoisseurs of squid and seaweed, they are usually found in pods of a dozen or more. As with many other dolphin species, bromances are common, and the species enjoys a life expectancy of around forty years.

Image courtsey of Greg Boreham.

Dolphin, Spinner

The Spinner Dolphin (Stenella Longirostris) comes in at the smaller end of the dolphin spectrum – around seven feet in length, and can be found in gladdening numbers wherever there is tropical or subtropical water. They gain their name (“spinner”) for the considerable athletic, ariel and acrobatic feats they are fond of performing - which may help account for their (compared to other dolphin species) relative short life expectancy of twenty five years. Although highly sociable and found in pods, they are not as trenchantly tied to one another as some other dolphin species. They are especially plentiful to see in Kalpitiya – but are also commonly sighted in such other locations as the beaches off Trincomalee and Mirissa.

Image courtsey of The Inertia.


Even accepting their preference for tropical and sub-tropical waters, it is invidious to write of endemic dolphins in Sri Lanka, given the creature’s ability to swim where it pleases, be it the Caribbean, Atlantic, Pacific, or any ocean in between. But the island is especially blessed in being able to attract quite so many species to so many parts of its off shore waters. Although all the common species are backed by plentiful numbers, their long term prospects are worrying and their (often long) life expectancy is threatened by fishing, pollution, noise, and climate change. Dolphin watchers can curse their bad fortune if they fail to see at least two or three of the most common species to swim with accustomed acrobatic ease around Sri Lanka – including:

1. Common Bottlenose Dolphin
2. Common Dolphin
3. Spinner Dolphin
4. Indian Ocean Humpback Dolphin
5. Pantropical Spotted Dolphin
6. Risso's Dolphin
7. Fraser's Dolphin

Image Public Domain.


Sri Lanka’s diminishing herds of feral donkeys (Eques Caballos) are found mostly in Mannar, Talaimannar and Puttalam, descendants of equine immigrants that entered the great port of Maathottam near Mannar - once the shipping gateway to the ancient Anuradhapura Kingdom. Arab traders were probably most responsible for importing the beasts to carry their cargos inland. The species that lives here is said to be a direct decadent of the Nubian African Wild Ass, now extinct in its native Ethiopia and Sudan. Extinction also faces it in Sri Lanka, its habitat every diminishing; and hungry villagers occasionally helping themselves to what will become tomorrow’s stew. Ther are said to be under 3,000 still alive, through a wonderful charity, Bridging Lanka, has stepped in to try and nurse them back to happier times.

Image courtsey of

Dugong, Common

"On the previous day [8 Jan 1493],” read the Voyages of Columbus, “when the Admiral went to the Rio del Oro, he said he quite distinctly saw three mermaids, which rose well out of the sea; but they are not so beautiful as they are said to be, for their faces had some masculine traits." In fact, what Columbus say that day in early January off the coast of Haiti was a dugong, a remarkable creature whose DNA happily proves that real mermaids do not possess any of the plastic Barbie-and-Kens DNA that mermaids are more typically imaged with in films, cartoons, and illustrations. Also known as the sea cow, it lives with bovine contentment, grazing on sea grass meadows in shallow bays, mangroves, the waters of inshore islands and inter-reef waters. Growing to around eleven feet in length, with poor eyesight but a good sense of smell, they propel themselves forward by flippers and tail, and although they can live to up to seventy years, they are so vulnerable as to be close to extension. Widespread legal protection has not stopped them being hunted, whilst habitat pollution and degradation has also decimated their numbers. In Sri Lanka, their meat was highly sought and considered to have medicinal and aphrodisiac properties; and diaries note that as recently as the 1950s over one hundred and fifty slaughtered animals were offered for sale annually in Mannar alone. Their cautious reproductive habits do not much help them either, with males taking sometimes as many as eighteen years to reach sexual maturity. The impressive Dugong and Seagrass Conservation Project reports depressingly that “large herds of dugongs were reported to have occurred in the Palk Strait between India and Sri Lanka in the early 1900s; however, none were sighted during aerial surveys conducted of Palk Bay and the waters off western Sri Lanka in the 1980s, and their current status and distribution are unknown.” Even so, they have been uncorroborated reports of more recent sightings – including one in 2017 in Puttalam Lagoon.

Image courtsey of Australian Geographic.

Durava Elu

A Sinhala term for the Singhalese caste of toddy tapper.

E, e

Elephant, Ceylon

Numbers of the Sri Lankan elephant, which goes by the beautiful Latin name of Elephas maximus maximus, are falling fast. The WWF put their total at between two and a half to four thousand, and although killing one carries the death penalty, habitat erosion and human-elephant conflict has pushed this largest of beasts into ever smaller areas. Smart, sociable, gregarious, and emotionally intelligent, it is unconscionable how widespread is the cruelty they face – heavily chained and marshalled to be more accessible for visitors. Even the leading elephant of the renowned Kandy Perehera was found to be suffering from such severe malnourishment, that it later died. Veterinarians International, a global charity, has built the country’s first bespoke elephant hospital and, like others, is doing much to reverse the institutionalized abuse they suffer. Just under one hundred people die in elephant attacks each year – compared to over three hundred elephants. One such death is remembered in Ruanwella from long ago - the 27th of September 1838. “Having heard of a tusker, Mr. Wallett, attended by two native boys, went in pursuit, and met it in a herd of 3. He fired one barrel and is said to have hit the animal; but the 2nd barrel of his gun missed fire, and the elephant rushed upon him before he could get another gun from his terrified attendants. It immediately crushed him to death, and went off for a few minutes; but, returning, thrust his tusks through the body, and tore all the clothes off it.“ Back then elephants were widespread across the island; today they are mostly to be found in the dry parts of the north, east and south east – especially in such wildlife parks as Udawalawe, Yala, Lunugamvehera, Wilpattu and Minneriya but also live outside protected areas. Although Sri Lanka has the highest density of elephants in Asia, as roads, villages, farms, plantations, and towns grow, they come into ever closer contact with humans, usually to their extreme disadvantage. Over a twelve year period to 2022, elephant fatalities have more than doubled to four hundred and thirty nine. Owning an elephant brings with it immense prestige and the more ambitious temples are as eager as tourist sites to host their own animal. Laws – and more importantly – the enforcement of laws protecting elephants remains often frontier territory.

Image Public Domain.

Elephant, Ceylon Marsh Elephant

A noted sub species of Sri Lanka’s endemic elephant, Elephas Maximus Maximus, the Ceylon Marsh (Elephas Maximus Vil-Aliya) is a still rarer beast, barely seen outside the flood plains of the Mahaweli Basin. It is a vast animal, its size and habitat preference marking it out more than anything else from its cousin.

Image courtsey of The Partying Traveler.

Elephant, Pygmy

Almost as rare as the dodo, the Sri Lankan pygmy elephant was first recorded in 2012 in the Uda Walawe National Park. Standing barely two metres tall, it was the first confirmed case of disproportionate dwarfism in a fully-grown wild Asian elephant. When filmed he was busy attacking (and winning) a duel with a rival twice his size.

Image courtsey of Brad Abbott.

Elephants, Extinct

The current and endangered Sri Lankan Elephant is considered to be a subspecies of Elephas Maximus Sinhaleyus, an elephant now extinct in Sri Lanka, Its treasured fossils, unearthed in Kuruwita, indicates that it last lived 100,000 years ago. Its similarity to the present-day elephant is likely to have made it all but impossible to tell them apart, the difference lying in such things as smaller molars and a wider spout. A scant dusting of other fossils reveal the existence of two futher elephant sub species that may have called Sri Lanka home before becoming extinct: Hypselephus Hysundricus Sinhaleyus and Palaeoloxodon Namadicus Sinhaleyus.

Image courtsey of Deraniyagala.

F, f


A silicate mineral, feldspar is used in many industries including glass and ceramics, and as fillers in paints, plastics, and rubber. Deposits of it, and accompanying mines, occur in many areas of Sri Lanka - including Rattota, Namaloya, Koslanda, and Balangoda.

Image courtsey of Dave Dyet.


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


There are many so-called garnet species, the reddish shades being the most popular, and the blues the rarest. The greater their ability to transmit light, the greater their value as a semi previous stone. They range in price from $500 to $7000 per carat. From the Pharaohs to Jackie Onassis Kennedy, the gemstone has long been a favourite of jewellers worldwide. Sri Lankan garnets span a wide spectrum of colours, from deep reds to vibrant oranges, gentle pinks, and even green.

Image courtesy of Sri Lanka Export Development Board.

Garnet Sand

A mineral sand increasingly in demand, garnet sand is used widely across many industries as an abrasive. Although commercially relevant deposits of it exist in such areas in the south as Dondra and Hambantota, it remains little exploited in Sri Lanka.

Image courtsey of Sri Lanka Export Development Board.

Gaur, Indian Bison

Once common throughout South and South East Asia, the Gaur, or Indian bison, is moving inexorably towards extinction, with a just 21,000 mature specimens still living. Related to yaks and water buffalo, they are the largest of all wild cattle and out ranked in size by other land mammals only by elephants, rhinoceros, and hippopotamus. The Ceylon Gaur (Bibos Sinhaleyus Deraniyagala) is a distinct sub species that used to be found in Sri Lanka but was last spotted by British adventurers in 1681 in the menagerie of King Rajasinghe II of Kandy. Proving its ability to juggle many varied priorities (political reform, economic stability, improved educational standards etc etc.), the Sri Lakan government recently proposed to its Indian counterpart that they send half a dozen gaur to the island as part of a reintroduction programme.

Image Public Domain.


Thanks to the extreme old age of its rocks (90% are between 500 to 2.5 million years old), Sri Lanka’s gems are so numerous as to often just wash out onto flood plains, and into rivers and streams. Indeed, the mining of alluvial deposits by simple water-winnowing river mining was for long the classic technique used to find gemstones, separating them out from the river sand and clay by simple sluicing in wicker baskets. Tunnel mining represents a more scalable technique. Typically, pits of 5 to 500 feet in depth are dug, with tunnels excavated horizontally from then. The clay, sand and gravel is then sluiced with water in conical baskets to separate out the heaver stones that then settle at the basket base. At a much more industrial level, backhoe earthmover machines, ablaze in their environmentally challenging acid yellow or orange livery, are used to excavate the top soil. Twenty five percent of the country’s total land area is potentially gem-bearing, but the greatest concentration of mining is around the town of Ratnapura which accounts for 65% of mined gems, the balance mostly coming from Elahera, a district in the North Central Province.

In the precise lexicon of intentional jewellers, there are just 4 precious stones: diamonds, sapphires, rubies, and emeralds. All others – and these number some 200 – are judged semi-precious. Sri Lanka is home to 75 semi or precious gems – including two precious stones - rubies and sapphires, the latter being the gem that is unmistakably twinned with in popular imagination. Amongst its better known semi-precious stones are Spinels, Amethysts, Sapphires, Garnets, Rose Quartz, Aquamarines, Tourmalines, Agates, Cymophanes, Topazes, Citrines, Alexandrites, Zircons,and Moonstones. All are valued according to a strict criteria: Cut, Colour, Clarity, and Carat (weight). What marks out the precious stones is their hardness, as measured on the so-called Mohs scale. This ranks minerals on a scale of 1 to 10. Diamonds score 10; Rubies and Sapphires 9 and Emeralds 7.5-8. Only a diamond can scratch another diamond, but a Ruby, for example, can scratch an Emerald.

Sri Lankan Sapphires, the country’s principal precious stone, are usually blue but also come in a variety of other colours that depend on the chemical composition of the stone: variants of red, orange, yellow, green, purple; pink, gold sapphires, and lavender. Its green sapphires are its most distinctive, exhibiting a colour that is not found among the sapphires mined in other gem-producing countries. Rubies, classically distinguished by red tones, actually go through a gradient from pink to purple, to slightly brown. Sri Lakan Rubies are noted for their lighter red and pink colour.

The country’s gem mining recorded history reaches back to at least the 2nd century BCE, with the mention of a gem mine in The Mahavamsa. However, if biblical rumours of King Solomon’s wooing of the Queen of Sheba with gifts of priceless Sri Lankan gems, are to be believed, the country’s gem mines can be back dated at least another 700 years. In 550 CE a Greek trader, Cosmas, wrote that "the temples are numerous, and in one in particular, situated on an eminence, is the great hyacinth [amethyst or ruby], as large as a pine cone, the colour of fire, and flashing from a great distance, especially when catching the beams of the sun - a matchless sight". A later traveller to the island, Marco Polo, wrote in the 13th century CE that "the king of Ceylon is reputed to have the grandest ruby that was ever seen, a span in length, the thickness of a man's arm; brilliant beyond description, and without a single flaw. It has the appearance of glowing fire, and its worth cannot be estimated in money”. Hard on his heals was Ibn Batuta who noted that "in the Island of Ceylon rubies are found in all parts. The land is private property, and a man buys a parcel of it and digs for rubies. He finds white stones, deeply cracked, and it is inside these that the rubies are formed. He gives them to the lapidaries who scrape them down until they split away from the ruby stones. Some of them are red, some yellow, and some blue, which they call nailam (saffires)".

Today, the country’s gem industry is high regulated and its exports are one of the country’s main foreign revenue earners, with sales escalating from around $40 million in 1980 to over $473 million in 2022. This places it in 4th position, below that of Garments ($4.7 billion); Coffee, Tea & Spices ($1.6 billion); and Rubber ($1.06 billion). This phenomenal acceleration dates in part to two bouts of government intervention: the establishment of the State Gem Corporation in 1971 and the 1993 Gem and Jewellery Authority Act. By these moves, the government centralised and professionalised the issuing of gem-mining licenses and the leasing government land for mining. They extended control over sales and exporting and made it mandatory that gems discovered within mines could be sold arbitrarily; but must instead be presented at public auctions, with the government receiving a share of sales amounting to 2.5%. The industry’s value chain is a long one. Gem miners sell their stones to dealers, who sell the rough stones to cutter-polishers. Historically, these have usually been Ceylon Moors descendants of Arabians traders. The glittering stones are then sold to wholesalers and onto retailers, where the greatest profits are to be made. The Sri Lankan Export Development Board claims that right across this chain some 650,000 people are employed – through the figure is difficult to verify.

An illustration of a photograph by Alfred William Amandus Plate of gem mining around 1890. Public Domain.

Gerbil, Ceylon Gerbil Or Antilope-Rat

Happily widespread, the Ceylon Gerbil (Tatera Indica Ceylonica) is a distinct variant of the Indian Gerbil. Well distributed across the island, it lives in small colonies inside nests lined with dry grasses at the end of deep labyrinthine burrows. It is notably unneighbourly, aggressive and territorial with gerbils from other colonies. Like most gerbils it is exhaustively fertile, with pregnancies lasting under a month that produce up to nine young - who will themselves reach sexual maturity within four months. It is tiny – little more than 4 centimetres head to tail and clothed in brownish grey fur, all the better to pass unnoticed.

Image courtsey of


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


Graphite, also known as Plumbago, has long been a major mineral export for Sri Lanka, thanks largely to its exceptional purity. It is a key ingredient in lubricants, and lithium batteries and with the explosion of electric cars and electronics has seen demand growing exponentially. It is, of course, also used in pencils - as Sarvesh Murthi observed: “It is always better to write your feeling in GRAPHITE than in INK, as it’s much easier to erase them and start fresh.”

Image courtsey of Sri Lanka Export Development Board.

H, h

Hakgalla Botanical Gardens

An illustration of a photograph by Alfred William Amandus Plate of Hakgalla Gardens from the Lotus Pond, Nuwara Eliya in 1890s. Public Domain.


Nestling in the heart of the hill country south of Ella, Haputale is a craggy cool world of lush tea plantations, and misty cloud-festooned mountains. The town is largely Tamil - yet also houses a miniature Anglican church, St. Andrew's, circa 1869; and, in an adjacent valley, an almost abandoned 1st BCE Buddhist cave temple, reached through the remains of an ancient Ambalama, its tiny stupa protected by overhanging rocks. From its famous pass the southern plains of the country open out, a luxuriant panorama of tea, tea, and tea. This was a view much enjoyed by Sir Thomas Lipton, the once penniless, probably gay, Glaswegian tea baron, who did so much to put the island’s tea into the living rooms of homes the world over. His Seat, literally a seat to sit down on, in order to enjoy the view, is now probably one of the most visited outdoor armchairs in the world, with tea-loving tourists flocking to perch on its planks. And just outside the little town is Adisham Hall, the faux Tudor country house folly built by a much later tea baron, Sir Thomas Villers.

Hare, Ceylon Black-Naped

Curiously Sri Lanka lacks rabbits – though it does have a hare. Just the one. And an endemic one too, a distinct variant of the Indian Hare. The Ceylon Black-Naped Hare (Lepus Nigricollis Singhala) is a mere fifty centimetres head to body, and distinguished by having a black patch on the back on its neck. It is notable also for its dozy daytime habit – being more of a night creature, leaving the day for sleeping alone in the grassland that is its preferred habitat. Blessed with excellent sight, hearing, and smell, it can usually outrun any would-be enemy; and remains happily widespread across the island.

Image courtsey of David Hosking.

Hippopotamus, Sri Lankan

Dating back between 800,00 to 100,000 years ago, the fossilised remains of a hippopotamus’s jawbone, showing the presence of a couple more teeth than exist in the current living hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius), are all that is left to prove the once lively presence on Sri Lanka’s rivers of this great land mammal, the largest after the elephant. Hexaprotodon Sinhaleyus, a distinct sub species, probably fell afoul of early climate change when rainfall become significantly less heavy, so putting pressure on their preferred habitat.

Image courtsey of Kemonofriends.

I, i


Ilmenite, extracted from ‘black gold’ mineral sand is a major industrial mineral produced in Sri Lanka for export. Its deposits also contain relevant amounts of Rutile and Zircon – all ingredients used to make Titanium Dioxide, a raw material required for the productions of paints, plastic, and paper industries; and titanium metal. It is extracted from beach sand mined at Pulmoddai.

Image courtsey of Rob Lavinsky.

J, j

Jackal, Ceylon

“It is far better,” wrote Tipu Sultan, shortly before being killed by the future Duke of Wellington in Srirangapatna in 1799, “to live like a lion for a day then to live like a jackal for hundred years”. The Sultan, who, of course, saw himself as the lion, was mere passing on the relentlessly poor press releases the beasts had endured since creation - in Arabic holy writ, the Bible; even in Buddhist Pali literature which depicts them as inferior, greedy, cunning creatures. Small wonder then that their numbers face increasing pressure. The future of the Sri Lankan Jackel (Canis Aureus Lanka) generates little of the media alarm that surrounds other, more politically correct species. Much threatened by habitat loss and infected by dog borne rabies, the Sri Lankan Jackel is second only to the Leopard in the pecking order of island predators. A skilled hunter, slightly smaller than a wolf, it is, like them, a pack animal and scavenger, and will eat anything from rodents, birds, and mice to young gazelles, reptiles, and even fruit.

Image courtsey of Chandika Jayaratne.

Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi

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

K, k


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.

Kelani Ganga

An Illustration by W & S Ltd of a view of the Kelani River from Kurunegala, taken in 1895. Public Domain.

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 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


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

Leopard, Ceylon

Shrewd, secretive, elusive, the Ceylon Leopard (Panthera Pardus Lankae) is without doubt of the greatest endemic jewels in Sri Lanka’s mammalian crown. It is the largest of the country's four cat species – the others being the Jungle Cat, the Fishing Cat, and the Rusty-Spotted Cat. Averaging six feet in length, head to tail, and weighing anything up to two hundred and twenty pounds, they are mostly solitary beasts, largely but not always nocturnal and with a typical life expectancy of fifteen years. It is beautifully attuned to hunting, an observer noting that “if the lion is the king of the jungle, then the leopard is the king of stealth,” able to run seventy kilometres an hour and leap as far as six metres. Despite habitats that stretch right across the island, numbers of the Sri Lankan Leopard are falling fast and are currently estimated to be around just eight hundred. Contrary to popular belief, they are not just found at the Yala National park but right across the country’s arid, dry, and wet zones, its hills, forests, and plantations. An errant gene in the leopard population provides the rarest of leopards, the Black Leopard, of whom there have been only a few firm sightings. One in every three hundred leopards born has the propensity to be black. Conservation methods have failed to have any meaningful impact on the leopard population in general and there is little sense of urgency in government circles about the pressing need to do more to protect the future of this apex predator. Habitat loss as much a disastrous history of human-animal interaction is largely to blame for this decline but if nothing is done soon about it the Sri Lanka Tourist Board may have to turn to promoting seagulls.

Image courtsey of Gerard Mendis.

Lion, The Ceylon

Adoring the national flag, the Sri Lankan lion is thought to have become extinct in 37,000 BCE – about the same time as the famous Stone Age Balangoda Man walked his last steps. Panthera Leo Sinhaleyus, as the sub species is known, only came to light in 1936 when the archaeologist, P.E.P. Deraniyagala, uncovered two fossilized teeth in Kuruwita, near Ratnapura. With the passion of a forensic detection, the archaeologist studied his modest clutch of teeth. One was so damaged as to be of little use in identifying the animal, but the other, a left molar, presented so distinctive a structure as to not just twin it with lions, but set it apart from all known species too. From this single tooth, a lost sub species was uncovered, its size indicating that the beast was a lion much larger than the present Indian lion. Back in 37,000 BCE, Sri Lanka was a very different place to what it would became, an island of open grasslands – a habitat perfect for lions. But over time, as the monsoon rainforest fuelled the proliferation of trees, its habitat become ever more restricted and at some point the creature just died out. The National Flag aside, the lion lives on still in many a temple and ancient fortress, in statues and and new.

Image courtsey of Adrift Couple.


Of all the many jewels in the mammalian crown, one that glitters most brightly is the loris. Even so, due to its diminutive size, extreme shyness, nocturnal schedule, rapidly diminishing numbers, and preference for making its home high on trees, it remains one of the least known and appreciated creatures. There are eleven firmly agreed upon and recoded sub species – all based in South and South East Asia, with Sri Lanka being home to four, all of them rare endemic beasts that you would celebrate to ever see:

1. Ceylon Mountain Slender Loris
2. Northern Ceylon Slender Loris
3. Sri Lankan Red Slender Loris
4. Highland Ceylon Slender Loris

Image Public Domain.

Loris, Ceylon Mountain Slender

Known in Latin as “Loris Tardigradus Nycticeboides,” it is this loris’ Tamil name that is most appealing - kada papa or "baby of the forest". The Ceylon Mountain Slender Loris is now thought to be a distinct and different species of loris to its cousins, with shorter limbs and longer, thicker fur as might be required to keep warm on cool mountain tops. It is considered to be endemic to Sri Lanka’s mountain rain and mist forests – those above 1,500 metres but it is so rare that it has only ever been reliably found on Horton Plains. There, in 1937, a certain Mr. A. C. Tutein-Nolthenius, who had spent twenty years looking for the species, discovered a mother with two offspring. They were to die in captivity. The last recorded sighting was in 2002, also on Horton Plains when a researcher got but a glimpse of a secretive pair.

Image courtsey of C. Mahanayakage.

Loris, Highland Ceylon Slender

As its Latin names (Loris Tardigradus Grandis) implies, this loris sub species is larger than most other lorises, its limbs more heavily furred and, according to it its less charitable observers, presenting a less delicate appearance than that of its cousins. It can weigh up to 227 grams and has been known to extend 256 mm from head to body. Like most lorises, it has grey and white fur, but its frosting is more striking. It favours wet mountain dwellings below 1500 metres. Its closest cousin the sub species ,Loris Llydekkerianus Uva, sports a fur that is more redder in colour.

Image: Public Domain.

Loris, Northern Ceylon Slender

In 1932 a new sub species of the slender loris was discovered – the Loris Tardigradus Nordicus – in the Gammaduwa region of the Knuckles Range, though it has subsequently been said to also frequent such different areas as Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Kurunegala, Puttalam, Vouniya, Trincomale and Matale. This loris species sports a very distinctive facial stripe, a greyish coat of thin fur and can weigh in at 293 grams. What little is really known about it comes largely from a captive breeding program run in 1980 that focused on wild-caught specimens from Polonnaruwa.

Image courtsey of Klaus Rudloff.

Loris, Sri Lankan Red Slender

A tiny, tree-living creature with heart-stoppingly adorable panda eyes, the Loris tardigradus (and its close cousin the Loris Tardigradus Tardigradus or Western Ceylon Slender Loris), is the country’s most celebrated loris species, not least because it is just one of 24 (the number can vary depending on the latest science) endemic mammals on the island. Like all lorises, it is a creature of the night, so unless you are a lucky insomniac you are unlikely to see them. Mothers have the intriguing habit of coating their offspring in allergenic saliva, a toxin that repels most predators. This sub species weighs in at up to 172 grams and a body that extends to little more than 17 centimetres. It has dense reddish brown fur and the classic slender hands and legs of all its species, an evolutionary peculiarity that enables it to climb easily through tree tops to gather the fruits, berries, leaves on which it feasts. By day they sleep in leaf covered tree holes, a habit that must help account for their relatively long life span (15-18 years). In island folklore the loris has a cry that can call devils to a house, so it is often regarded with a certain amount of dread. To wake up and find one staring at you is considered to be one of the worst possible omens; should it then reach out and touch you, your body will respond by becoming skin and bones.

Image courtsey of Sri Lankan Safari.


Country houses with large, attached, specially landscaped gardens are two a penny in the West; but in Sri Lanka they are a rarity. One example is Lunuganga, an ex-rubber estate bought by the architect Geoffrey Bawa. The purchase was a form of alternative compensation, for not having settled on the shores of Lake Garda in Italy when faced with his mother’s illness and the choice of returning to Sri Lanka or not.

Walkways and copses of large ancient trees lead to carefully designed outdoor spaces. A Pavilion overlooks a heart-shaped pond, providing the architect with a place of shelter for his morning read. A Blue Pavilion looks out over jars and a pond; a hen house provides an impossibly luxurious space for pampered poultry. A riverside bench is shaded by trees and hung with bells - each sound linked to a different need (cup of tea, gin, and tonic) that the architect and his friends would sound as required.

“He made no attempt, wrote Michael Ondaatje, “to turn it into a pompous estate. Each vista, each location feels like another elegy or another voice—the first person, then the third person, the vernacular, then the classical. You discover you wish to be at one location at noon, another at twilight, some when you are young, others later in life.” The estate stretches across a peninsula, the lagoon water of Dedduwa Lake on both sides; and views of water dominating the gardens as much as the many statues do - classical and animal, urns, pots, and follies. The house itself – one of several that Bawa built there with unrivalled easy elegance, gazes out through the branches of a massive frangipani tree onto its sequestered landscape. It is not surprising that, of his many homes, this is where Bawa chose to lay his own ashes. And as the house now takes in guests, you can book in to enjoy a little bit of the lingering magic for yourself.

M, m

Mada Idam

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

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

Mammals, Extinct in Sri Lanka

Ever more scientists are putting forward the prospect of the earth facing its sixth greatest extinction event, a party to which no-one desires an invitation. The first of these events, the Late Devonian extinction (383-359 million years ago) killed off about 75 percent of all living species . One hundred million years later came the plant’s worst extinction – the Permian-Triassic extinction, or Great Dying. This despatched 96% of all marine animals and 3 out of every 4 land animals that had managed to evolve and flourishing since the previous extinction. After fifty-one million years of later exhaustive recovery, the Triassic-Jurassic extinction swept down, exterminating 80% of all living species. The last, and most famous mass extinction, the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction, 66 million years ago, was the one that claimed the life of the dinosaurs – and with them 76% of all earth’s species. The next one, argue many, will be the first due to human activities. Already one million species of plants and animals are classified as being in danger of extinction, a process that has, of course, already started right, not least in Sri Lanka, where records, including rare fossil records, seem to illustrate the ghostly presence of some a number of mammals that once roamed the island. These most notable fourteen include:

1. Ceylon Lion.
2. Tiger.
3. Elephant, Elephas Maximus Sinhaleyus.
4. Elephant, Hypselephus Hysundricus Sinhaleyus
5. Elephant, Palaeoloxodon Namadicus Sinhaleyus.
6. Hippopotamus, Hexaprotodon Sinhaleyus.
7. Rhinocerus Sinhaleyus.
8. Rhinocerus Kagavena.
9. Sambur, Muva Sinhaleya.
10. Porcupine, Hystrix Sivalensis Sinhaleyus.
11. Wild Boar, Sus Sinhaleyus.
12. Rat, Tatera Sinhaleya.
13. Gaur, Bibos Sinhaleyus Deraniyagala.
14. The Ceylon Asiatic Cheetah.

Image courtsey of Daily Update.

Mammals, Sri Lanka

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, of the 118 mammals, endemic or otherwise, founds across Sri Lanka, one, the Gaur or Indian Bison, is already extinct. The number (118) is itself something of a red rag among the tens of thousands of scientists who took up the passion for taxology and classifying the animal kingdom first started back in the 1700s by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus. Some argue for more, others for less.

The conservation status of each of Sri Lanka’s mammals can be sourced from a variety of authorities, each one in greater or lesser disagreement with the others. The list of mammals published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature is among the more optimistic of such lists. Even so, many scientists who have conducted on the ground research into specific species numbers, would, and do, vehemently disagree with the organization’s sanguine classification. The Red List, for example, takes a more negative stance. Even so, these most optimistic of figures are little less than distressing and depressing. Over a third of the total mammals on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s list face such threats to their existence that they are more than likely to follow the Gaur and become extinct. Twenty one species face such an existential threat to their future existence that they are judged to be Endangered. These include such iconic mammals as the Sri Lankan Elephant, the Leopard and two of its most celebrated monkeys,. Nine others are teetering of the edge of becoming extinct in the wild - including the famous Sloth Bear and Golden Palm Civer. Six more, including the Ottar and the Tufted Gray Langur, are likely to face the prospect of being so vulnerable as to join these nine. Just over half the balance are judged to be of Least Concern – include thirteen shrews, mice, and rats, thirty bats, and seven whales and dolphins, leaving a little over ten percent of what is left to own up to so little data as to be unclassifiable.

1. Gaur

An extremely high risk of extinction in the wild:
2. Sri Lankan Elephant
3. Dugongs
4. Red Slender Loris
5. Toque Macaque
6. Purple-Faced Langur
7. Ceylon Spiny Mouse
8. Nillu Rat
9. Sinharaja Shrew
10. Sri Lankan Long-Tailed Shrew
11. Pearson's Long-Clawed Shrew
12. Kelaart's Long-Clawed Shrew
13. Jungle Shrew
14. Sri Lanka Shrew
15. Indian Pangolin
16. Blue Whale
17. Fin Whale
18. Humpback Whale
19. Leopard
20. Wild Water Buffalo
21. Indian Hog Deer
22. Leopard

A high risk of extinction in the wild:
23. Layard's Palm Squirrel
24. Mayor's Mouse
25. Sri Lanka Highland Shrew
26. Finless Porpoise
27. Sperm Whale
28. Sloth Bear
29. Golden Palm Civet
30. Fishing Cat
31. Sambar Deer

Likely to be facing the risk of extinction in the wild in the future:
32. Tufted Gray Langur
33. Travancore Flying Squirrel
34. Grizzled Giant Squirrel
35. Indo-Pacific Humpbacked Dolphin
36. Eurasian Otter
37. Rusty-Spotted Cat

Of minimal risk in the future:
1. Lesser Bandicoot Rat
2. Greater Bandicoot Rat
3. Indian Bush Rat
4. Blanford's Rat
5. Soft-Furred Rat
6. Little Indian Field Mouse
7. House Mouse
8. Brown Rat
9. Indian Gerbil
10. Asiatic Long-Tailed Climbing Mouse
11. Indian Hare
12. Etruscan Shrew
13. Asian House Shrew
14. Indian Porcupine
15. Gray Slender Loris
16. Indian Giant Flying Squirrel
17. Indian Palm Squirrel
18. Lesser Short-Nosed Fruit Bat
19. Greater Short-Nosed Fruit Bat
20. Indian Flying Fox
21. Leschenault's Rousette
22. Hardwicke's Woolly Bat
23. Painted Bat
24. Lesser Large-Footed Bat
25. Chocolate Pipistrelle
26. Tickell's Bat
27. Kelaart's Pipistrelle
28. Indian Pipistrelle
29. Greater Asiatic Yellow Bat
30. Lesser Asiatic Yellow Bat
31. Round-Eared Tube-Nosed Bat
32. Eastern Bent-Wing Bat
33. Wrinkle-Lipped Free-Tailed Bat
34. Egyptian Free-Tailed Bat
35. Naked-Rumped Pouched Bat
36. Long-Winged Tomb Bat
37. Black-Bearded Tomb Bat
38. Greater False Vampire Bat
39. Lesser False Vampire Bat
40. Lesser Woolly Horseshoe Bat
41. Woolly Horseshoe Bat
42. Rufous Horseshoe Bat
43. Dusky Leaf-Nosed Bat
44. Fulvus Roundleaf Bat
45. Cantor's Roundleaf Bat
46. Indian Roundleaf Bat
47. Schneider's Leaf-Nosed Bat
48. Minke Whale
49. Risso's Dolphin
50. Fraser's Dolphin
51. Pantropical Spotted Dolphin
52. Striped Dolphin
53. Bottlenose Dolphin
54. Melon-Headed Whale
55. Golden Jackal
56. Jungle Cat
57. Indian Grey Mongoose
58. Indian Brown Mongoose
59. Ruddy Mongoose
60. Stripe-Necked Mongoose
61. Asian Palm Civet
62. Small Indian Civet
63. Sri Lankan Yellow-Striped Chevrotain
64. Sri Lankan Spotted Chevrotain
65. Indian Muntjac
66. Wild Boar
67. Chital

There is just insufficient data to assess risk to these species:
1. Horsefield's shrew
2. Bryde's Whale
3. Pygmy Sperm Whale
4. Dwarf Sperm Whale
5. Cuvier's Beaked Whale
6. Blainville's Beaked Whale
7. Ginkgo-Toothed Beaked Whale
8. Deraniyagala's Beaked Whale
9. Spinner Dolphin
10. Rough-Toothed Dolphin
11. Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphin
12. Pygmy Killer Whale
13. False Killer Whale
14. Killer Whale
15. Short-Finned Pilot Whale

Picture courtsey of W.A.Piyathilaka.

Mammals, Sri Lankan Endemic

Counting Sri Lanka’s endemic mammals is like painting the Forth Bridge: just when you get to the end you have to start all over again. Somewhere, with deft hands and glowing fervour, there is always to be found a scientist who has craftily and credibly reclassified the endemic civet into three distinct sub species; or added in a shrew recently discovered to have one toe longer than the rest, or a bat readmitted to the hallowed list after a much disputed and injurious explosion. Any number of endemic mammals from 19 to 30 is likely to be correct or totally wrong, depending on what the latest research papers have to say. The list of 25 beasts presented below is, therefore, more of a vox pop video of endemic mammals than a static photograph. Broad in front and broad in mind (like a Wykehamist), its errs optimistically on the side of generosity. Certainty about anything, this included, is only given to God, and he is playing his cards very close to his chest. But whatever your viewpoint, this small country excels in mammals, being a home to well over 100, meaning that some 20% - an astonishing high proportion – are endemic. These include:

1. Wet Zone Golden Palm Civet
2. Montane Golden Palm Civet
3. Dry-Zone Palm Civet
4. Sri Lankan Woolly Bat
5. Red Slender Loris
6. Langur, Hanuman
7. Langur, Purple-Faced
8. Toque Macaque
9. Layard's Palm Squirrel
10. Dusky-Striped Squirrel
11. Ceylon Spiny Mouse
12. Sri Lankan Long-Tailed Climbing Mouse
13. Mayor's Mouse
14. Ohiya Rat
15. Sri Lankan Mountain Rat
16. Sinharaja White-Toothed Shrew
17. Sri Lankan Highland Shrew
18. Sri Lankan Shrew
19. Jungle Shrew
20. Pearson's Long-Clawed Shrew
21. Sri Lankan White-Toothed Shrew
22. Sri Lankan Long-Tailed Shrew
23. Yellow-Striped Chevrotain Or Mouse Deer
24. White-Spotted Chevrotain Or Mouse Deer
25. Ceylon Spotted Axis Deer

Image courtsey of Medium.


A Sinhala term for death duties.


A few kilometres north of Hikkaduwa on Sri Lanka’s south western seaboard lie the moonstone mines of Meetiyagoda. Beneath the tiny village stretches one of the largest pegmatite rock veins of moonstones known on earth. Since 1906 the stones have been carefully mined and treasured, for many of them carry the exceptional dark blue reflections that mark out Sri Lankan moonstone as amongst the most prized. Fondly fashioned by the Romans into pieces of artful jewellery, they were much later taken up in the Art Nouveau period by Rene Lalique whose own moonstone creations still sell for tens of thousands of dollars.


Mica mineral deposits are mined in such areas as Matale, Talatu Oya, Badulla, Maskeliya, Haldummulla, Kebithigollewa, and Balangoda. Its ability to withstand high temperatures makes it a favourite raw material in electrical and electronic industries; as a lubricant; and for heat and electrical insulating purposes.

Image courtsery of Sri Lanka Export Development Board.


Sri Lanka is home to a very respectable range of mouse species, three of which are endemic to the island - Mayor’s Spiny Mouse (which actually comes into two distinct but impossible to tell apart variants); the very rare Sri Lankan Spiny Mouse; and the almost equally rare Ceylon Highland Long-Tailed Tree Mouse. These tiny patriotic native creatures are joined by a range of others mice typically found in other parts of South and South East Asia including the fetching Indian Field Mouse, the almost-domesticated Indian House Mouse, the Indian Long-Tailed Tree Mouse (host to an especially undesirable tick), and the rather clumsily named Ceylon Field Mouse, whose home actually stretches from Sri Lanka to Cambodia.

Image of Beatrix Potter's Mother Mouse, Public Domain.

Mining, Industrial

Sri Lanka’s gem mining industry is world regarded, but lesser known is its many faceted industrial mining operations. These occurs throughout the country and are focused largely on the extraction of:

1. Apatite Rock Phosphate.
2. Ball Clay.
3. Brick Clay.
4. Calcite.
5. Dolomite.
6. Feldspar.
7. Garnet Sand.
8. Graphite.
9. Ilmanite.
10. Kaolinite.
11. Mica.
12. Monazite.
13. Pulmoddai Beach Sand Titanium.
14. Quartz.
15. Salt.
16. Silica.
17. Rutile.
18. Zircon.

As a whole, the entire mining sector generates around $100 million per year, with exports largely going to China, India, Japan, USA, Germany, UK, South Korea, Italy, Austria and Israel

Image courtsey of Lanka Truth.

Mongoose, Brown Mongoose

Thankfully widespread across Sri Lanka and the Indian sub-continent, the Brown Mongoose comes in a several iterations, each so marginally different as to be as impossible to tell apart as Herge’s Thomson and Thompson. The Highland Ceylon Brown Mongoose (Herpestes Fuscus Flavidents), the Western Ceylon Brown Mongoose (Herpestes Fuscus Rubidior) and the Ceylon Brown Mongoose (Herpestes Fuscus Maccarthiae) are, to all but the most scrutinizing scientistic eye, practically alike. Collectively, and commonly, they are called the Indian Brown Mongoose. Over eighty centimetres nose to tail with dark brown fur and black legs, and a long black enviably tufted tail, it is a sight of simple, breathtaking beauty. But seeing all this is something a challenge for it is a introverted beast, with a marked preference for deeper cover, dark forests; and, like Greta Garbo, a preference for being left alone.

Image courtsey of NR1&GLAFan2004.

Mongoose, Ceylon Ruddy Mongoose

Measuring thirty-two inches nose to tail the Ceylon Ruddy Mongoose (Herpestes Smithi Zeylanicus) is found widely across Sri Lanka and India. A retiring forest dweller, it has grizzled ruddy brown hair, a sleek body and a tail that ends in a flourish of black tufts. Although it rarely lives more than seven or eight years, a Mr W. W. Phillips from Namunukula in Sri Lanka wrote to inform the Bombay Natural History Society (in those halcyon, fallible days when science was a passion shared equally with amateurs) that “the mongoose in question died on the September 8, 1955, aged approximately 17 years and it months. It ate quite well right up to the last day and died peacefully during the night, apparently of old age and /or heart failure.” For although the Ruddy Mongoose is among the more aggressive of the species, it seems that with the right kind of parenting it the beast can be a beloved and longish term part of an inter-species family.

Image Public Domain.

Mongoose, Common Ceylon Grey Mongoose

“Rikki-tikki,” wrote Rudyard Kipling in 1894, “had a right to be proud of himself. But he did not grow too proud, and he kept that garden as a mongoose should keep it, with tooth and jump and spring and bite, till never a cobra dared show its head inside the walls.” Kipling’s immortal mongoose was in fact the Indian Grey Mongoose, sometimes called the Common Ceylon Grey Mongoose (Herpestes Edwardsi). It is the smallest of the four main species found in Sri Lanka. Shy around people it is fearless with snakes, its kill strategy focused on tiring the snake by tempting it to make bites it easily avoids. Its thick grizzled iron-grey fur and neuro transmitting receptors leave it immune to snake venom; and for anyone living up-country, it is a fine companion to have around. Around thirty inches nose to tail, it lives right across the country, often in pairs, eating fruit, roots, and small animals. It lives for around seven years, breading twice yearly and producing up to four cubs.

Image courtsey of J.M.Garg.

Mongoose, Striped-Necked Mongoose

The Versace of the mongoose world, the Striped-Necked Mongoose (Herpestes Vitticollis) has been given an outfit by its Maker that marks it out as one of the island’s most striking and fetching mammals. A dark grey head morphs to reddish brown and grey on its neck- before blooming into a heady grizzled covering of bouffant fur that gets redder and longer the further down the body it goes. A pink nose, black legs and a reddish tail that ends in a curved tuft of black hair make up the rest of this most alluring of beasts. Widespread across Sri Lanka and southern India, it has sturdy frame and – measuring at often over eighty-five centimetres nose to tail – is the largest mongoose on the island. Its proclivity for calling forests its home can make sighting it a challenge, but it is a sight well worth the effort.

Image courtsey of Shreeram M V.

Monkey, Hanuman Langur

The Hanuman langur, Semnopithecus priam thersites or Tufted Gray langur, is one of three Semnopithecus priam variants, the other two being found in India. Like all langurs, it is a monkey in all but name. The Sri Lankan variant – thersites – is named rather eccentrically for an anti-hero in Homer, who was later promoted by Plato as a man best fit for the afterlife. It is a doubtful honour to bestow on this, one of Sri Lanka’s elite endemic mammals. Up to sixty inches long head to tail, with a weight that can hit close to fifteen kilos, its black face is framed in a wispy white beard that runs from forehead to chin. It is a light grey in colour, and lives as readily in dry zone forests as urban areas – showing a strong preference for antique cultural sites if their dwellings in such places as Polonnaruwa, Dambulla, Anuradhapura, and Sigiriya are anything to go by. Once settled, they tend to stay put, having little of the gypsy tendency within them. Eagerly vegetarian, they live in troops of up to 50 members, the larger ones being curiously non sexist with leadership shared between a male female pair.

Image courtsey of Senthi Aathavan Senthilverl.

Monkey, Purple-Faced Langur

Quite how many monkey species belong to the Langur family is a modestly debated subject amongst mammalian Taxonomists, but at the last count there were eight. Or seven, depending. Stretching from the Himalayas to Sri Lanka, they live in groups that rarely seem to do anything but fight one another. Within the groups however strict social hierarchies are observed. The Purple-Faced Leaf Langur (Trachypithecus vetulus) is the rarer of the two langur species found on the island, and one of the country’s cherished endemic mammals. It lives largely in dense forest but is now threatened by habitat loss that has noticeably and recently eroded its numbers. Vegetarian, with a tendency to opt for leaves ahead of other foods, it is shy and slightly smaller than its close cousin, the Tufted Gray Langur but easy to tell apart for its darker colouring, the black brown fur of its body contrasting with the mop of wispy white fur that surrounds its face and sit atop its head.

Image courtsey of Charles J. Sharp.

Monkey, Toque Macaque

A fully paid up member of Sri Lanka’s exclusive group of endemic mammals, Toque Macaques (Macana sinica) – monkeys in all but name – come in three apparently distinct island variants. The Pale-Fronted or Dusky Toque Macaques (Macaca sinica Aurifrons) stick to the wet zones in the south west. The Common Toque Macaques (Macaca sinica sinica) favour the dry zone areas of the north and east. The Highland Toque Macaque (Macaca sinica opisthomelas), favour the hilly centre of the island. Telling them apart however is a pastime best left to scientists with lots of patience and sturdy magnifying glasses. For the purposes of the Companion it makes best sense to treat them En famille. They can weigh up to twelve pounds with a head to tail length of almost a metre. Whilst they have been known to live for thirty five years, most die within five, victims to infant mortality or fights within troops for dominance. With white undersides, golden brown fur on their backs and a car crash of an almost orange coiffure, they look as if they have got lost in a cheap tanning salon or a Trump rally. Pink faces peer out below recherché hairstyles, giving substance to their name - “toque,” the brimless cap that is their bob. They are accomplished scavengers, their vegetarian fancies best saited on fruit. Their capacious cheek pouches are specially adapted to allow them to store food for consuming later, a technical refinement that helps them steal, store, and run with their pilfered bounty. As dexterous leaping through trees as capering across the ground, or even swimming, they move in self-protective groups and sleep huddled together, every night in a different place like chastened celebrities or terrorists. They are easy to spot for they are active during daylight hours, appearing in groups of 20 members led by an alpha male, with half the group comprised of infants or juveniles. Young adult males wisely leave the group on attaining maturity, for fear or otherwise being chased out. But they also have a reputation for being very matey with other species – the family dog, for example. And they talk to one another. Naturalists have recorded over thirty different sounds, each conveying a very specific meaning.

Image courtsey of Carlos Delgado.


Sri Lanka’s moonstones – sometimes known as Ceylon Opals - come in shades of white, blue, and grey. A semi-precious stone, it gets its name for its texture - and the artful way in which its colour resembles moonlight shining through clouds. With a quality typically higher than almost any other mined in the world, moonstones are broadly subdivided into blue, semi- blue, and white. They are most usually found in alluvial streams; and in particular in Meetiyagoda, near Ambalangoda in the south of the island. Smaller mines exist in places like Matale; amongst gravels in such rivers as the Mahaweli and Walawe; and in smaller quantities in Elipitiya, Pitigala, Horton Plains and Weligama. They are promoted as the stone of emotions, an essential accessory for the improvement of mental clarity and emotional equilibrium. They are also much favoured by travellers as a form of other-worldly protection. Long used by jewellers, they gained a particular boost during the Art Nouveau period (1890-1910), not least through the creations of the French goldsmith Rene Lalique. Fake moonstones abound – but there is a tried and trusted method to distinguish the real McCoy: if you roll the stone between your fingers and it becomes translucent, it is probably a fake. Genuine stones – like the colour of a rainbow - never change colour.

Image courtsey of

Mouse, Ceylon Field

As widely distributed as only the most successful mammals are, the Ceylon Field Mouse is to be found well outside the island’s shores from India to Cambodia - as well as within them. It happily populates almost all kinds of habitats. It is often called the Fawn Colour Mouse for its light fur, and grows to little more than 15 centimetres in length, nose to tail.

Image courtsey of Finn Mouse's Site.

Mouse, Ceylon Highland Long-Tailed Tree

Discovered in 1929 by the Dutch tea planter, Adriaan Constant Tutein-Nolthenius, the Ceylon Highland Long-Tailed Tree Mouse (Vendeleuria Oleracea Nolthenii) is an increasingly rare creature, little more than 21 centimetres in length, nose to tail. It is found in Sri Lanka’s hill country where it lives in trees, venturing out only by night. Like most mice, it has reddish brown fur, that occasionally grows darker but, compared to its many cousins, presents somewhat disappointingly small ears.

Image courtsey of ANIMALIA.

Mouse, Indian Field

The tiny (13 centimetres in length, nose to tail) Indian Field Mouse is one of those mammals of the Indian sub-continent that has long term residency rights in Sri Lanka where it is found almost everywhere. It is all a mouse aims to be, with a small rounded hunched body, lovely rounded smooth ears, and light brown to white fur.

Image Public Domain.

Mouse, Indian House

Beloved of mouse pet owners, science and regularly used in laboratories, the Indian House Mouse (Mus Musculus Castaneus) is what most commonly comes to mind when something thinks of a mouse. It is widely distributed across Asia and elsewhere and in urban areas it has become an almost tame companion to the humans its lives around. Rarely more than 20 centimetres in length, nose to tail, it is one of the most studied and understood mammals in the world, its typical behavioural characteristics itemized even down to the differences exhibited if it lives in sandy dunes as opposed to apartment buildings.

Image coutrsey of

Mouse, Indian Long-Tailed Tree

Common throughout South and South East Asia, the Asiatic or Indian Long-Tailed Climbing Mouse (Vandeleuria Oleracea) grows to little more than twenty centimetres in length, nose to tail, and sports reddish brown fur that fades to white on its underparts. It is widely distributed – but not a creature to go out of your way to befriend for it is notorious for spreading the tick-borne viral Kyasanur Forest Disease that causes headaches, chills, muscle pain, and vomiting and can take months to recover from.

Image courtsey of Sudhir Bhandarkar.

Mouse, Mayor’s Spiny

Mayor’s Spiny Mouse (Mus Mayori) inhabits the smaller end of the mouse spectrum, and comes in two (still quite widespread) variants – Mus Mayori Mayori, which inhabit the hill country; and Mus Mayori Pococki which prefers the low wetlands. Telling them apart is almost impossible, and both are covered with reddish grey fur and exhibit rather unsatisfactorily small ears. Seeing them is also a challenge for they are both nocturnal cerates. One of their more interesting (albeit worrying) points of difference to other mice is their capacity to carry quite so many other creatures on them – including mites, ticks, sucking louses and small scorpions.

Image courtsey of Pearl of the Earth.

Mouse, Sri Lankan Spiny

A mere maximum of 18 centimetres length, from nose to tail, the Ceylon Spiny Mouse (Mus Fernandoni) is found only in Sri Lanka, one of its prized endemic species. It is now so endangered that it can be seen in a few locations, becoming sadly ever more rare than nightclubs on Neptune. Its reddish grey back and sides morph into white underparts, with huge gorgeous smooth scooped out ears that stand like parasols above large dark eyes. It is a mouse to fall in love with.

Image courtsey of iNaturalist.


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

Nuwara Eliya Lake

An illustration of a photograph of a corner of Nuwara Eliya's Lake taken in 1890. Public Domain.

O, o

Otter, Ceylon

“What is this life, if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare,” wrote Henry Williamson, the man who put ottars firmly on the literary map with “Tarka the Otter.” But care is what ottars now so badly need. Right around the world they face the very real threat of extinction; their potential demise a possible calamity still only being faced up to with modest corrective steps. The Ceylon Ottar (Lutra [Ceylonica] Nair) faces just the same, if not greater levels, of existential threat, though this does not appear to erode their abiding alacrity for play. Famously family-orientated (so much so that there is even a recorded case of an otter puppy being given by its mother to another mother who had given birth to a still born pup), they live in family groups and play and play – when not eating or sleeping. They are also scrupulously hygienic, with specific areas designed as ottar loos – this despite the fact that their poo is said to give off a scent not unlike that of jasmine tea. A distinctive sub species of the Eurasian Otter, the Ceylon Ottar is shy to the point of near invisibility. Covered in dark brown fur and about a metre long, weighing in at eight kilos, it lives off fish but is more than partial to any other smaller creature incautious enough to stray close to it in the rivers it inhabits.

Image courtsey of


Arguments rage over quite how many birds are endemic to Sri Lanka. Of the almost 500 bird species that have been documented on the island, experts argue that only somewhere between 34 and 23 are truly endemic – a mere 5 or 6 per cent of the avian population. To put this in context, the authoritative International Ornithologists' Union classes 255 birds worldwide as owls of one kind or another. Looked at from this perspective Sri Lanka is something of a high achiever - a country that has 0.01% of the world’s land mass hosts 0.8% of its endemic owl species - the Sri Lanka Serendib Scops-Owl and Sri Lanka Chestnut-Backed Owlet.

Both species, by virtue of being endangered or nocturnal in preference are often hard to spot. You are more likely to see the some of the non-endemic species that have passed the challenging citizenship tests to become firmly resident in the country.

The Brown Fish Owl, more fondly known as the Brown Boobook, is some 13 inches in length. It is one of the most commonly seen owls, despite being nocturnal, having taken to roost in urban areas around Colombo and suburban zones with an easy going alacrity. As it dives for one of the tasty little reptiles or mammals that make up its diet, it can often be seen being mobbed by other, more suspicious birds. Its range stretches from India and Sri Lanka into the nearer parts of China and Indonesia.

Similar in range though larger in length (at 17 inches) is the Brown Wood Owl. Harder to find despite its loud, reverberating hoots, the Brown Wood Owl’s appearance offers you everything you might hope for in an owl: large serious black eyes set off within a frame of white feathers on darker ones.

The 10 inch Collared Scops Owl sticks to a similar Asian beat. It sport the same serious dark eyes but – like other scop owls, has those delightful tell-tale ears or head tufts - like Yoda in Star Wars - that give it the appearing of being able to listen to your every problem.

In all these attributes, it is very similar to the Indian Scops Owl that has also made its home among the trees and hollows of the Sri Lankan forests. Compared to its cousins, the Sri Lankan Serendib Scops Owl, is more muted in appearance, lacking the little ear tufts that so endear its relatives. It is a species new to science since just 2004, and, as a rainforest night roamer, is almost impossible to see.

The country’s only other endemic owl is the Chestnut-backed Owlet , a small stocky fellow barely 8 inches long; but one that is at least more visible for it can be seen often during the day and into the early evening.

Modest taxological arguments range over the status and endemic-ness of the Sri Lanka Bay Owl which calls both Kerela and Sri Lanka home. Coming in at around 10 inches in length, with a white feathered body and gorgeous white disc of a face, its eye area is picked out in darker feathers as if it has visited a Beauty Salon specialising in Baroque eye brows and eye lashes. It is happily well distributed - albeit a night creature. The Barn Owl, though not endemic, is nevertheless, a common sight across the island, happy, as its name suggests, roosting around humans in old buildings. Some 13 inches in length with a unmistakable white body and white disced face, it has acute hearing that it uses as it primary hunting sense – and it is one you might also need to harness for it has an ear-shattering shriek that it enjoys drawing out to its fullest extent.

All of these owls are most firmly pushed to the side lines by the Spot-bellied Eagle Owl, also known as the Devil Bird. This massive raptor, some 3 feet in length is the world’s sixth largest owl; and well distributed in Sri Lanka’s forests. Its grey and white markings make it easy to spot and the ledge-shaped tufts that lie horizontally over its eyes gives it a learned and quizzical look. But it is its savage, human-sounding shrieks that has granted it the greatest notoriety, for on the island it is also known as the Devil Bird and its cry is said to portend death.

Owl, Sri Lanka Bay

Arguments range with quiet modesty about whether or not the Sri Lanka Bay Owl can be called endemic, since it also calls Kerala home. Certainly obtaining citizenship for man or beast in Sri Lanka is a task often likened to putting a man on Jupiter; but as the bird is here and so beautiful to boot, it would be churlish not to give it space in this Companion as one of the country’s few (2 or 3 depending on the argument) endemic owls. Small (10 inches maximum), with huge dark eyes, a stunning set of eye brows and an odd squeaky whistle, it is strictly nocturnal and rarely seen in the wet forests it most prefers to inhabit.

Owl, Sri Lanka Serendib Scops

Something of a glamorous newcomer to the owl scene, the Sri Lanka Serendib Scops-Owl, one of the country only two endemic owls, was only scientifically discovered in 2004. Its detection was a long drawn out process for Deepal Warakagoda, the Sri Lankan ornithologist, and a pioneer in in natural history sound recordings. He first noted its sounds in 1995 - for it emitted the most distinctive quivering notes. It was not until 2001 that he actually saw the creature.

“It was just after dawn that the first-ever observations of the species were made, in a flashlight beam, at the Sinharaja rainforest. Not three weeks later a dash of luck and the skill of wildlife photographer Chandima Kahandawala produced an acclaimed set of photographs of the bird. With our inexperience in tracking it, success came only after a pursuit of several hours in the dark on difficult terrain inside another tract of rainforest, the one in which it had first been heard.”

It took until 2004 before sufficient further research had been done to justify naming the discovery as a totally new species of bird – the first since 1868, when the Sri Lanka Whistling-Thrush was described. Estimated to number no more than 700 specimens, its highly restricted range and nocturnal habits make it one of the most unlikely sights anyone will ever be so lucky as to witness.

Owlet, Sri Lanka Chestnut-Backed

Barely 8 inches in length, the Sri Lanka Chestnut-Backed Owlet, is one of two endemic owls that call Sri Lanka home. From Colombo to the hill country, and across the wet land zones, it is a shy and beautiful bird whose its range has shrunk alarmingly. Unlike most owls, it lives out its life both day and night so it more present than most other owls. Its call, variously described as “kurr-kurr-kurr, ” “kraw-kraw” or “kao-kao”, is low pitched; and its chestnut colour body and lack of ear tufts make it relatively easy to identify.

P, p

Pangolin, Indian Pangolin or Scaly Anteater

Clothed in dexterous overlapping and generously rounded scales, the Indian Pangolin or Scaly Anteater (Manis Crassicaidata) is a unique cross between an architectural marvel, a desert tank, and a Viking warrior clad in chain mail. Measuring some fix feet nose to tail, it makes its home in rainforest and grassland and even colonizes modest hill country - right across the Indian sub-continent and all across Sri Lanka. It lives in burrows, some designed for sleeping, others for eating, its diet consisting of ants and termites, or, at a push beetles. Its long sticky tongue is specially evolved to dig deeply and productively into insect nests. Pregnancies last around two months and the cub (for there is usually only one) gets carried on its mother’s tail until it is able to move around confidently. Yet the Pangolin is teetering on the very edge of being critically endangered, not helped by increasing deforestation, but more especially because it is poached for its meat and its scales which are internationally traded as aphrodisiacs, rings, charm or crafted in grisly leather goods, like boots and shoes that surely shame their wearers more than they might be if caught dancing naked down Galle Face Green on the top of big red bus.

Image courtsey of


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


A 1920s English drawing in Sri Lanka of peacocks. Artist unknown. Puiblic Domain.

Pearl Fishing

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


An illustration by Unbekannt of pepper harvesting in the early 20th century. Public Domain.

Pig, Indian Wild Pig or Boar

The Indian Boar or Pig (Sus Scrofa Cristatus) is widespread across Sri Lanka and the Indian sub-continent. It is most magnificently differentiated from its European cousin by a crested mane that runs from head to back, sharp features, and a gratifyingly athletic build. It looks nothing like the naked pink pigs of popular imagining. They can weigh up to three hundred pounds and measure some five feet in length, with male boars being especially formidable in busting these averages. They are beautiful looking creatures, well able to cheer up the most fashionable of cat walks, should they ever be called to do so. They are social too, travelling in bands, often at night and much given to wrestling one another. Living in forest and scrubby grasslands, habitat loss has brought them ever closer into contact with humans, to the benefit of neither party. Fossil records from thousands of years ago who that they were preceded on the island by an endemic species some third smaller than the one that lives today - Sus Sinhaleyus.

Image courtsey of Bernard Dupont.


West of Kandy is the little town of Pilimathalawa, home to three of the island’s most remarkable medieval temples - Gadaladeniya, Lankathilaka, and Embekka. For those in search of traditional brassware, it is also a retail magnet for oil lamps, elephants, statues and icons.


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.

Point Pedro

Shallow seas, coral reefs, rangy sand dunes and golden beaches, dotted with little fishing hamlets - all marks the area around the little town of Point Pedro, the island’s northmost settlement. Tourism in almost any form, has yet to declare itself here.

Pony, Mannar

Strung out to the west of Jaffna in the Palk Strait is the tiny coral island of Delft, bared fifty square mile and home to less than five thousand people. And five hundred wild ponies - the Mannar Pony (Eques Eques) to be exact. Dotted with Baobab trees, archaeological marvels from ancient to colonial times, and abundant wildlife, Delft has become the last refuge for the Sri Lankan Wild Pony, the direct descendant of the ponies exported to the island by the Portuguese and Dutch from Europe and their colonies in the East, to provide basic transportation. Left behind at Independence, and superseded by cars and lorries, they have carved out a fringe existence on the hot dry island, fighting off as best they can dehydration and occasional starvation. The Wildlife Department has since offered them a much greater degree of protection but if there are any deep-pocketed millionaires out there dissatisfied by the sight of the likely heirs, the wild ponies of Delft offer a much more attractive option for legacies and reputational garnishing.

Image courtsey of

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.

Porcupine, Indian

Happily widespread, and at home in most habitats, the Indian Crested Porcupine (Hystrix Indica) is found right across Sri Lanka and India. Nikita Khrushchev, the bombastic Russian leader, was unexpectedly wise to the beast, stating to his enemies that “if you start throwing hedgehogs at me, I shall throw a couple of porcupines under you.” Up to three feet long and sixteen kilos in weight, they are, like Khrushchev, highly territorial. When their feel threated or their territory unacceptably encroached upon, their sharp quills will spring up, their teeth will clack loudly and, emitting a most unpleasant smell, they will go on the attack. Nocturnal, and usually hidden in the burrows that are their homes, they are eager consumers of bark, fruit, berries, vegetables and almost most plants in gardens and plantations. Gratifiyingly monogonmous, their pregneicies last eight months and the two to four cubs that are born live on with the parents until they are two or three years old. . Fossilised records from thousands of years ago show that the present procupine once had an ancestor similar though smaller to its form today, the Hystrix Sivalensis Sinhaleyus.

Image courtsey of

Porpoise, Little Indian

It would take a good defence witness to convince a jury of the differences between a dolphin and a porpoise. Close scrutiny revels that porpoises have shorter snouts, smaller mouths, less curved dorsal fins, and shorter tubbier bodies than dolphins. And whilst Sri Lanka delights in making space in its oceans for seven types of dolphins, only one porpoise is seen here (and that very rarely) – the Little Indian Porpoise (Neophocoena Phocaenoides). Also known as the finless porpoise, its distribution stretches from Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Bangladesh, the Persian Gulf, the Taiwan Strait – and Sri Lanka. Shy, and most certainly not the boat leaping show-offs that characterise dolphins, they grow to around seven feet in length, talk to each other and, when not caught up in fishing nets or polluted out of existence, can live to around 30 years. They are, of course, sadly at the Threatened/Vulnerable end of the Conservation Table.

Image courtsey of r/Awwducational.


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

Queen Of The Night

The Kadupul Flower – known locally as the flower from heaven, or by its detractors as the Dutchman’s Pipe - is a once-a-year-only blossoming cactus whose Cinderella blooms die at dawn, and whose intoxicating fragrance command a price tag of $5,000/stem. Though not local to the island, it is much favoured by secretive wealthy Buddhists here as it is said that the offering of its petals will turbo charge any request or prayer made to Lord Buddha.

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.

Rare Earth Elements

The group of 15 rare earth elements – known in the periodic table as the Lanthanide series – have become ever more in demand as they are used in high technology devices: smart phones, digital cameras, computer hard disks, LED lights, and flat screen televisions. Of the very few found in Sri Lanka, Thorianite and Thorite are also increasingly in demand to provide environmentally safe and lasting energy. Deposits of them exist in Bambarabotuwa, Balangoda; Monazite in Matara, Nuwara Eliya, and Balangoda.

Image courtsey of

Rat, Blanford's

Blanford's Rat (Madromys Blanfordi), known also as White-Tailed Wood Rat, is found in impressive numbers throughout India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. Measuring thirty five centimetres in length nose to tail, it has the classic grey fur of the kind of rat that scares most people.

Image courtsey of Mayuresh Kulkarni.

Rat, European Brown

The Brown Rat (Rattus Norvegicus) has almost as many alternative names as the Devil himself (Lucifer, Satan, Abaddon, Beelzebub, etc) for it is also known - rather unkindly - as the common, street, sewer, or wharf rat; and, rather unexpectedly as the Hanover or Norway rat. Immortalized by Charles Dickens, it has been studied and domesticated more than most other mammals and inhabits almost every continent of the world – not least the island of Sri Lanka. It is a large creature – over fifty centimetres in length nose to tail. It is happy to consume almost anything, is highly social, produces up to five litters a year and - according to the more informed scientists, is capable of positive emotional feelings.

Image courtsey of Aiken Pest Control.

Rat, Greater Bandicoot

Measuring almost sixty centimetres in length nose to tail, the Greater Bandicoot Rat (Bandicota Indica) lives right across South and South East Asia and for obvious reasons in known in Sri Lanka as the Pig Rat. Aggressive, highly fertile, widespread, happy to eat practically anything and an enthusiastic carrier of many diseases, it is not the sort of creature to closely befriend.

Image Public Domain.