Ethnic Groups in Sri Lanka

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Despite the fact that its long civil war has recently ended, the demographics of Sri Lanka are still crucial to understanding the government and society of this island nation.

Long War Ended

One island, one country, two nationalities. If you asked some people, that's how they would describe Sri Lanka until recently. For decades, there was an ethnic-based civil war being waged across what was otherwise an Indian Ocean paradise. While the war between the ethnic groups of Sri Lanka may have ended, it's still important that we have an understanding of the major ethnic groups of that country if we hope to understand anything about it. In this lesson, we'll learn more about the majority Sinhalese, the Tamils, and the patchwork of other ethnic groups that make up the state of Sri Lanka.


The overwhelming majority of Sri Lankans are Sinhalese - more than 75% of the total population. They have lived in Sri Lanka for more than two thousand years. In fact, their initial movement to Sri Lanka from the Subcontinent to modern Sri Lanka is shrouded in in myth. Overwhelmingly, the Sinhalese are Buddhist, although a significant number of them are Christian. They speak an Indo-Aryan language, Sinhala, which is more similar to the language of the Maldives than it is other Indian languages.


More than 2 million Tamils live in Sri Lanka. They have close cultural ties to the much larger Tamil communities in India. However, within Sri Lanka the Tamils are largely confined to only a handful of areas in the north and east. For years, the Tamils campaigned, often violently, for more rights, and even independence. A terrorist organization, the Tamil Tigers, were at the front of much of this agitation. Typically, Tamils tend to be Hindu, adding another layer of tension between the two groups. However, in 2008 the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government agreed on a more federal approach and peace rather than creating circumstances for the Tamil Tigers to continue the fight for independence.

Tamils in Sri Lanka
Tamils in Sri Lanka

Other Groups

Other groups in Sri Lanka deserve special mention. Given the fact that Tamils already lived in Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as it was called back then, the British thought it would make sense to bring more over to work on plantations. Several hundred thousand of them remain on the island.

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