The population of Sri Lanka remained small until the early 20th century, as the result of a high rate of infant mortality (169 per 1000 in 1938) and endemic diseases. Within the last few decades, however, there has been a rapid increase from 3,578,000 in 1900; 5,470,000 in 1930; 9,100,000 in 1956; to 20,926,315 in 2007.
In 1956 the mean population density is 139 persons per sq km, while in 1981 census there are 230 persons per sq km but as of 2007 the population is yielding a density of 323 persons per sq km. These figures conceal considerable regional variations: much of the dry zone is uninhabited or only thinly settled, while average densities in the humid zone are of the order of 400 to the sq. km and over 700 to the sq. km in the area round Colombo.
Since 1946, as a result of the use of antibiotics, the fight against malaria, improved antenatal and maternity care, etc., there has been a real population explosion, with a rate of natural increase of more than 24 per 1000. In a little more than 25 years the population has doubled. In the last few years there has been a considerable effort to promote family planning, and the rate of natural method increase now appears to be slowing down.
The history of human settlement in Sri Lanka follows the same broad lines as in India. Here, as in the Indian peninsula, the earliest inhabitants known to us were a Mongoloid race, the Nagas, and Australoids or Proto-Australoids, who are referred to in the oldest Indian texts under the pejorative designation of demons, Yokshas or Yakkhas. (It is interesting to note that the Veddahs apply the name Yakkhas to the spirits or demons which they worship.) Descendants of the Australoid or Austric group still survive in the few thousand Veddahs (some of them of mixed blood) who live scattered about in the jungles of eastern Lanka beyond the Mahaweli. The Veddahs (archers) are now dying out, as a result of inter-breeding and of their poor conditions of life. In 1946 there were 6000 Veddahs and as of 2002, the population of Veddahs in Lanka is more or less 2,500. Some ethnologists have noted in them certain of the physical characteristics of early man small size, long arms and broad flat noses (a feature which they share with the Kurumbas and Banyars of southern India). To some extent they are the victims of their rejection by other ethnic groups and their failure to adapt to the conditions of modern Sri Lanka: they live by hunting, and hunting is now regulated by the government; they are nomads of the jungle, and their territory is being increasingly invaded by roads; they practise a slash-and-burn type of agriculture (chena), and the government is concerned to prevent this devastation of the forested regions. They were not always the outcastes of a rapidly developing world, for in 1783 Veddah occupied the responsible post of English interpreter at the court of Kandy. Their language, which has a considerable admixture of Sinhalese and Tamil words, appears to be a Proto-Dravidian dialect related to the dialects spoken by certain isolated tribes in the Indian peninsula (the Gonds of Orissa, the Banyars of Kerala).
In the 1st millennium B.C. the main element in the population of Sri Lanka consisted of dark-skinned Proto-Dravidians identical with those of the Dekkan. The lighter skin of the present-day Sri Lankan, however, points to an early inter-breeding with Indo-Aryans from the Ganges plain, who no doubt reached Sri Lanka in successive waves before the historical invasion of the 5th century B.C., in sufficiently large numbers to impose on the indigenous inhabitants an Indo-European language related to Pali and Sanskrit. This Old Sinhalese is attested on the island from the 3rd century B.C., and the present language has developed from it.
In historical times Sri Lanka suffered from numerous Tamil invasions. Each wave brought a further influx of Dravidians of Brahmanist faith, but the Tamils (referred to in early texts as the Damilas) remained alien and unwelcome intruders, confined mainly to the coastal regions of eastern and northern Lanka, where they live in closed linguistic and religious communities. The relation between the Sinhalese and the Tamils are often far from cordial: the Sinhalese regard the Tamils as austere, parsimonious, greedy and quarrelsome, while the Tamils think of the Sinhalese as irresponsible, extravagant, lazy and self-indulgent. For the great majority of Sinhalese their Buddhist faith has become a form of nationalism, and this inevitably holds dangers for the unity of Sri Lanka. During the 19th century the British planters brought over Indians to work on the plantations, which were not popular with the people of Sri Lanka, and these incomers from the Presidency of Madras reinforced the Dravidian element in the population, and sometimes brought Tamil blood into an area which had previously been purely Sinhalese. There are thus two different groups of Tamils in Sri Lanka, the descendants of the original invaders, who have been there for many centuries, and the newcomers of much more recent origin.
India and Sri Lanka have signed a number of agreements (1964, 1967 and 1974) for the repatriation of almost a million of these Tamils, who are expected to have returned to India by 1981. Between 1964 and 1974 rather more than 106,000 people had in fact gone back to India; but it may be questioned whether the complete programme of repatriations will be carried through, since these Indian workers are very useful on the plantations.
The Tamils, old and new, represent a considerable minority group which is concerned to maintain its ethnic identity, demanding that its rights should be safeguarded and calling for the establishment of a Tamil-language university. Since they account for some 15% of the total population, and are in a majority in many coastal districts, they are a political force to be reckoned with.
There are a number of other minority groups in Sri Lanka:
(a) Since the early centuries of the Christian era seamen from the Arabian Peninsula have been coming to Sri Lanka: readers of the Arabian Nights will remember that some of Sinbad the Sailor’s adventures took place along the coasts and in the ports of Selendib. These Moors now represent some 8% of the population of Sri Lanka.
(b) Portuguese and Goanese half-castes have retained a separate identity in terms of personal names and religion. Many a dark-skinned Sri Lankan Catholic bears a resounding Iberian name like da Silva, Fonseca, Perera, Miranda or Rosario, and some of them even know from which part of Spain or Portugal their ancestors originally came.
(c) There are also about 100,000 Dutch half-castes, the Burghers, mostly belonging to the urban middle class, who play an important economic and political role. They bear names like Keuneman, Beckmeyer and Van der Meer and many of them are of Calvinist persuasion.
(d) The long residence in Sri Lanka of British settlers, officials and soldiers has left its legacy in the form of the Anglo-Sri Lankan, belonging to the Anglican or Roman Catholic Church.
(e) Among the Muslims there is a small Malayan minority of some 40,000, the descendants of seamen who came to Sri Lanka in their sampans or of mercenaries recruited by the Dutch. They are to be found in southern Lanka, living in small communities and preserving their traditions and their language. The King of Kandy enlisted them in his bodyguard at the end of the 18th century, and they continued to be recruited into the British forces, playing a similar part to that of the Gurkhas in India.
It is often said that there are no castes in Sri Lanka, and that the caste problem found in India does not exist. This is not strictly true. It is true that in law there are no castes, and that Buddhism is an egalitarian ideology which originated in a revolt against the caste system. But it is not possible to abolish by a stroke of the legal pen a system of social structures dating back thousands of years which Buddhism has not succeeded in levelling out. In Sinhalese villages, although there is no priestly caste equivalent to the Brahmans, there are a number of endogamous social groups with an accepted hierarchical order. The highest degree of the social hierarchy consists of the owners of land, who belong to the relatively numerous Goyigama caste. In addition there are various endogamous castes like the Rodhe (the washers), Berava (the tom-tom beaters) and the fishers; there is even an inferior caste, the Rodiyas, corresponding to the lowest Indian castes. In Tamil territory there are the same castes as in India. But having said this, it should be added that the caste problem appears less serious in Sri Lanka than in India: the teachings of the Buddha have alleviated the rigidities of a hierarchical social system.
At the present time Sri Lanka is faced with more important divisions than this- racial and religious differences, social inequalities and antagonisms between town and country inherited from the past. The young republic has to build up its own national unity in new conditions. In the coastal towns there grew up during the colonial period a middle-class elite, of different origins and religious denominations, marked by their interest in Western ideas, a degree of Europeanization and the use of English as the language of culture. The inland town of Kandy, on the other hand, was the centre of the very different world of Sinhalese culture, which was more in tune with the inward-looking mentality of the villagers. The process of decolonization which is now under way has accordingly given rise to tensions between the towns and the country areas. Educated Sri Lankan from the country areas and from Kandy exalt a system of national values which is seen variously from a Buddhist or a Marxist standpoint, and promote their ideas in a wide spectrum of left-wing movements, ranging from a form of liberalism tinged with dirigisme to the extremer expressions of revolutionary thought. The moderate wing of this left, supported by the orthodox Marxist parties, came to power in the elections of 1956 and 1970 and brought in measures to limit the economic power of the old ruling class which was the direct heir of British rule.
During the last ten years the extreme left-wing movements have gained strength as a result of the country’s economic difficulties and the frustration of the numerous university graduates who are unemployed or underemployed for the universities (Colombo, Kandy-Peradeniya, Jaffna) of Sri Lanka, with its long cultural traditions and low proportion of illiterates, have turned out more graduates than are required to meet the present needs of the country’s economy. Some of these intellectuals, influenced by the ideas of Chairman Mao and Che Guevara, have returned to the country areas, urged the land hungry peasants into rebellion and organised guerrilla activity. This led to bloody clashes in April 1971.
The government has done its best to reduce the country’s social tensions, but there must be continuing concern about the effect of these antagonisms on the behaviour of people. The main objectives must be to remove the many grounds for frustration and build up the unity of the nation, threatened as it is by the centrifugal urges of its minorities.
In the past the generosity of nature and the ancient values of Buddhism moulded the demeanour of most Sri Lankan, with their equable disposition, their carefree gaiety and their ready friendliness, touched with just a hint of scepticism. It is very much to be hoped that the country’s present difficulties will not mean the loss of these amiable qualities.