Ethnic intolerance and militant readings of religious philosophy are largely responsible for the tragedy of Sri Lanka.
The Sinhalese are predominantly Buddhist, the Tamils mainly Hindus, and there are sizeable Muslim and Christian Burgher (descendants of Dutch colonists) minorities.
The Tamils in the hill country - recent low caste arrivals brought in by the British to work on the plantations - share little in common with the Tamils of the north who have been in Sri Lanka for over 1000 years.
Language: The Sinhalese speak Sinhalese, the Tamils and most Muslims speak Tamil and the Burghers often speak English. The Muslims, scattered all over the island, are thought to be descendants of early Arab or Indian traders. They have largely steered clear of the civil conflict, though there have been clashes between Muslims and Tamils in the east.
Dance: Sinhalese dancing is similar to Indian dance but relies on acrobatics, nimbleness and symbolism to unfold its narratives. Kandy is a good place to see `up-country dancing', but Colombo or Ambalangoda are the places to witness the ritualistic exorcism of `devil dancing'. Folk theatre combines dance, masked drama, drumming and exorcism rituals to vividly recreate Sri Lankan folklore. Woodcarving, weaving, pottery and metalwork are all highly developed crafts, and Sri Lanka is especially renowned for its gems. Ambalangoda is the best place to see Sri Lankan masks; Ratnapura is the centre of Sri Lanka's gem trade.
Art: Sri Lanka's classical architecture, sculpture and painting is predominantly Buddhist. Stupas dot countryside, and there are several extravagantly large Buddhas' sculptures, notably at Aukana and Buduruvagala. Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa have the most impressive archaelogical legacy, but Kandy is the most thriving cultural centre today. Colonial remnants include Dutch forts, canal and churches and British residences, clubs and courthouses. Galle is the finest colonial city on the island.
Food: Rice and curry - often fiery hot - dominate meal times and usually include small side dishes of vegetables, meat and fish. Indian curries such as vegetarian thali, delicately flavoured biriyani and kool, a boiled, fried and dried-in-the-sun vegetable combo, are also available. Hoppers are a unique Sri Lankan snack, similar to a pancake, served with egg or honey and yoghurt. Coastal towns have excellent fish and most travellers are happy to live on the delicious local tuna. There's plenty of tropical fruits to choose from, the tea is terrific and the beer
Events: Sri Lanka has an enormous range of Buddhist, Hindu, Christian and Muslim festivals. The Kandy Esala Perahera (July/August) is the country's most important and spectacular pageant, with 10 days of torch-bearers, whip-crackers, dancers, drummers and elephants lit up like giant birthday cakes. It climaxes in great procession honouring the Sacred Tooth Relic of Kandy. Second in importance is the Duruthu Perahera (January), held in Colombo, which celebrates a visit by Buddha to Sri Lanka.
Other celebrations include National Day (February), which is celebrated with parades, dances and national games; New Year (March/April), celebrated with elephant races, coconut games and pillow fights; Vesak (May), a sacred full moon festival commemorating the birth, death and enlightenment of Buddha; the Hindu Vel festival (July/August) in Colombo, where the ceremonial chariot of Skanda, the God of War, is hauled between two temples; and the predominantly Hindu Kataragama festival (July/August) in Kataragama, where devotees put themselves through the whole gamut of ritual masochism.