Know your… Sri Lanka
It’s 60 years of independence for the Teardrop Isle
With its timeless ruins, rolling tea plantations and tropical jungles, Sri Lanka is a land as breathtaking as its history is raw. Having changed hands between the Portuguese, Dutch and British empires across five centuries, Ceylon (renamed Sri Lanka in 1972) finally gained independence on 4 February 1948. Yet even then, a decadeslong civil war between the Sinhalese and the Tamils meant that, after 70 years of freedom, the country is only now starting to reap the benefits, as visiting travellers are discovering.
Is it still possible to see Sri Lanka’s colonial history?
Prior to the British occupation of 1803, the Dutch and Portuguese left their own marks on the Teardrop Isle. Galle Fort in the south is one of the country’s eight Unesco-listed sites and was first built by the Portuguese; and to the east, Batticaloa is where the Dutch fleet originally landed. Northern Jaffna is also home to a number of colonial-era churches and forts that recall their Portuguese roots.
But it’s the British who left Sri Lanka’s defining colonial legacy: the tea plantations and railways that carpet the hill country of the southern heartlands. The scenic rails between the temples of Kandy and the jungle-fringed Ella remains one of the most spectacular rail journeys on the planet.
Elsewhere, capital Colombo is home to Independence Square and the intricately decorated Memorial Hall, built to honour the events of 1948. The Cinnamon Gardens area that surrounds it is also known for its opulent colonial mansions and villas.
How will they celebrate?
No official events have been planned for the 70th anniversary, but if it’s like previous years, Colombo’s streets will be decked in parades and marches, as well as traditional dancers. And across the island, locals will, of course, be hoisting and waving their national flags.
What else should I see?
What better way to pay tribute to Sri Lanka than by visiting its treasures? Explore the cave temples of Dambulla, clamber up the rocky magnificence of the Sigiriya fortress, or spy elephants, leopards and spotted deer in Yala National Park. Though perhaps the most underrated lost-for-words moment is trekking the lush Horton Plains NP at World’s End, where a 800m escarpment plunges into the emerald valley below.