Sri Lanka, officially the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, is an island country in South Asia near south-east India. Sri Lanka has maritime borders with India to the northwest and the Maldives to the southwest.
Sri Lanka’s documented history spans 3,000 years, with evidence of pre-historic human settlements dating back to at least 125,000 years. Its geographic location and deep harbours made it of great strategic importance from the time of the ancient Silk Road through to World War II. Sri Lanka was known from the beginning of British colonial rule until 1972 as Ceylon. Sri Lanka’s recent history has been marred by a thirty-year civil war which decisively ended when the Sri Lankan military defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009.
A diverse and multicultural country, Sri Lanka is home to many religions, ethnic groups, and languages. In addition to the majority Sinhalese, it is home to large groups of Sri Lankan and Indian Tamils, Moors, Burghers, Malays, Kaffirs and the aboriginal Vedda. Sri Lanka has a rich Buddhist heritage, and the first known Buddhist writings of Sri Lanka, the Pāli Canon, date back to the Fourth Buddhist council in 29 BC.
Sri Lanka is a republic and a unitary state governed by a semi-presidential system. The legislative capital, Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte, is a suburb of the commercial capital and largest city, Colombo.
Sri Lanka has had a long history of international engagement, as a founding member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), and a member of the United Nations, the Commonwealth of Nations, the G77, and the Non-Aligned Movement. Along with the Maldives, Sri Lanka is one of the two countries in South Asia that are currently rated among high human development on the Human Development Index.
In antiquity, Sri Lanka was known to travellers by a variety of names. According to the Mahavamsa, the legendary Prince Vijaya named the land Tambapanni, because his followers’ hands were reddened by the red soil of the area. In Hindu mythology, such as the Mahabharata, the island was referred to as Lankā. In Tamil, the island is referred to as Eelam.
Ancient Greek geographers called it Taprobanā or Taprobanē from the word Tambapanni. The Persians and Arabs referred to it as Sarandīb from the word Cerentivu. Ceilão, the name given to Sri Lanka by the Portuguese Empire when it arrived in 1505, was transliterated into English as Ceylon. As a British crown colony, the island was known as Ceylon; it achieved independence as the Dominion of Ceylon in 1948.
The country is known in Sinhalese as Śrī Laṃkā and in Tamil as Ilaṅkai. In 1972, its formal name was changed to “Free, Sovereign and Independent Republic of Sri Lanka”. Later in 1978 it was changed to the “Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka”. As the name Ceylon still appears in the names of a number of organisations, the Sri Lankan government announced in 2011 a plan to rename all those over which it has authority.