Sri Lanka is a pear-shaped island in the Indian Ocean, off the southern coast of India.
Though only about the size of West Virginia, Sri Lanka is really two lands in one, it boasts two peoples, two languages, two religions, two kinds of climate, and two kinds of terrain.
The northern half of Sri Lanka is a low plain, and most of the southern half is mountainous. The climate in the south is rainy, and this region receives some 200 inches of rain a year, the northern half receives just 50 inches in an average year.
The Sinhalese people from northern India settled on the island of Sri Lanka in the sixth century B.C. Three centuries later, Buddhists reached the island. Gradually, the Sinhalese moved from the northern part of Sri Lanka to the southern part, and Tamil people from southern India settled in the northern part of the island.
Today, the Sinhalese people, who practice Buddhism and speak Sinhalese, make up about 72 percent of Sri Lanka’s population of 14 million. The Tamils, who practice Hinduism and speak Tamil, make up about 20 percent.
The “Ceylon Tamils” are descendants of the Tamil people who settled on the island centuries ago. The “Indian Tamils” are descendants of Tamil people who came to Sri Lanka to work on plantations in the 19th century. These “Indian Tamils” still cannot vote in Sri Lankan elections.
The Tamils want to set up their own state in the northern part of the island, and conflicts between Tamils and Sinhalese are frequent in Sri Lanka today.