Wednesday, August 3, 2016

[Multiculturalism in Action Project 2016-17] Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan Culture Workshop

On 16 July, 2016, the Multiculturalism in Action (MIA) Project presented a seminar on Sri Lankan Culture and the Sri Lankan Community in Hong Kong. This is the first seminar of the fourth South Asian culture workshop in the MIA series, the Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan Culture Workshop. Dr. Thilina Weerasinghe, an engineering consultant working in Hong Kong, was invited to host the seminar.

Social Development

Dr. Weerasinghe started with “Ayubowan!”, a greeting in Sri Lanka, which means “May you live long”.

“Ayubowan” in English, Sinhalese (middle), and Tamil (right)
Photo credit: Venuka Glagoda (Google+)

Introducing Sri Lanka, he said that though it is a small country in terms of size (65610 km2) and population (21 million), it ranked 8th in the World Giving Index in 2015. It was also one of two countries (another one was the Maldives) which had the highest Human Development Index (HDI) among South Asian countries in 2015. After the civil war (1983-2009), Sri Lanka has been rapidly developed. It is most well-known for its natural scenic spots and beaches. Tourism has become an important industry.

In terms of gender, Dr. Weerasinghe said Sri Lanka is a male-dominated country, yet the family is based on mothers who usually make decisions at home. There have been many outstanding women in Sri Lankan history. For instance, Queen Anula (reigned 47BC – 42BC) was the first female head of state in Asia, Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike was Prime Minister of Sri Lanka for three times (1960-65, 1970-77, 1994-2000) and was the first female Prime Minister in the world. At the moment, there are 13 women members of Parliament, making up 5.7% of members of the House and Senate.

Sri Lanka is a multicultural society. The Sinhalese form the largest portion of the population (more than 70%), followed by the Tamils, Muslims, Malays, and Burghers. The Burghers are descendants of marriages between the natives and Europeans (mainly Portuguese, Dutch, and British).

Religion and Culture

Religions practiced in Sri Lanka include Buddhism (70.1% of population), Hinduism (12.6%), Islam (9.7%), and Christianity (7.6%).  Most cultural practices, social values, and traditions in Sri Lanka have found their roots in Buddhism, which was introduced to Sri Lanka by Arahat Mihindu Thero in 300 BC. For instance, the Presidents and Prime Ministers of Sri Lanka were usually Buddhists; Ministry of Buddhasasana is established to enhance Buddhist beliefs in Sri Lanka. Besides, Buddhist festivals and rituals are practiced nationwide, such as the Katina ceremonies and the Bodhi-Puja.

The Sinhala Hindu new year, Aluth Avurudda, is celebrated on 13th or 14th of April. Dr. Weerasinghe explained that the whole nation will carry out the most important rituals at the same time according to the astrologist’s calculations. For instance, the whole nation eat the first meal of the new year at the same time. Interesting games such as kabaddi are played during the holidays.

Family gathering during Aluth Avurudda
Photo credit: The British Council

Another interesting feature in Sri Lanka is the use of astrology in daily life. It is believed that people’s time of birth defines their destiny and a Full Life Reading is made by an astrologist at birth. This Reading is commonly used in identifying a potential spouse. Parents believe that it is necessary that their children’s horoscopes be matched to guarantee a good marriage.

Dr. Weerasinghe said Sri Lanka had the spiciest of food and sweetest of tea. His favourite food was koththu, a mixture of godhamba roti (a flat bread made from wheat flour), vegetables, eggs, and spices. It was a common street food 20-30 years ago, but now it has become a delicacy in restaurants. He also shared with us how the Sri Lankans loved sweets. His family, for instance, used to add four spoons of sugar into a cup of tea.

Photo credit: Amila Tennakoon (Flickr)

Sri Lankans in Hong Kong

According to Dr. Weerasinghe, there are about 2,000 Sri Lankans living in Hong Kong. They work in many different occupations, some are professors in universities, some are business people in trading and transport, and there are others who work as domestic workers and solicitors. Many of them feel that Sri Lanka’s traditions and festivals are important and they organize communal celebrations such as the new year Aluth Avurudda, and the Poson Festival celebrating the arrival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.


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