Official name: Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka
Area: 65,610 square kilometers (25,332 square miles)
Highest point on mainland: Pidurutalagala (2,524 meters/8,281 feet)
Lowest point on land: Sea level
Hemispheres: Northern and Eastern
Time zone: 6 P.M. = noon GMT
Longest distances: 435 kilometers (270 miles) from north to south; 225 kilometers (140 miles) from east to west
Land boundaries: None
Coastline: 1,340 kilometers (833 miles)
Territorial sea limits: 22 kilometers (12 nautical miles)
Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) is an island in the Indian Ocean south of India. It is slightly larger than the state of West Virginia.
Sri Lanka has no territories or dependencies.
Sri Lanka has neither summer nor winter but instead has rainy and dry seasons. Sri Lanka receives the northeast monsoon from December through March and the southwest monsoon from June through October. Seventy-five percent of Sri Lanka is a dry zone, primarily in the northern and eastern regions. These areas receive an average annual rainfall of 127 to 190 centimeters (50 to 75 inches), most of which comes from the northeast monsoon. The wet zone, in the southwest region, receives 254 to 508 centimeters (100 to 200 inches) of rain each year, mostly from the southwest monsoon. In any one location on the island, the temperature remains fairly constant year-round. For example, the temperature in Colombo varies only from 25°C to 28°C (77°F to 83°F). The island's lowland areas have hot weather, with annual temperatures averaging from 23°C to 31°C (73°F to 88°F), while the central mountains are cooler, averaging 14°C to 24°C (57°F to 75°F). Sri Lanka's humidity averages between 70 percent and 90 percent.
Situated on the Indian Tectonic Plate, the island is a teardrop-shaped mass separated from India by 29 kilometers (18 miles) of shallow sea. The south-central section of Sri Lanka is a rough plateau cut by a range of mountains. Narrow coastal plains surround the mountainous region to the east, south, and west. In the north, the coastal plain extends from the eastern to the western shores of the island. Rivers and streams flow towards the sea in all directions from the central mountain area.
Sri Lanka lies in the northern Indian Ocean, with the Bay of Bengal to its east. The waters surrounding the island are so deep that Sri Lanka is almost unaffected by tidal variations. To the south of Adam's Bridge, the Gulf of Mannar comes between Sri Lanka's northwest coast and India. Coral reefs extend around the Gulf of Mannar and sections of the southern and eastern coasts. Much of the coral is dying, however, from pollution, dynamite fishing, and changes in sea temperatures due to global warming. The Laccadive Sea borders Sri Lanka on the southwest.
The Palk Strait and Palk Bay separate Sri Lanka's Jaffna Peninsula from India. Koddiyar Bay indents the eastern coast, forming a superb natural harbor for the port of Trincomalee. A little further north, Kokkilai Lagoon cuts into the coast near the point at which the Yan River empties into the sea.
A few small islands extend from the north of Sri Lanka to the Indian mainland. Delft, covering 50 square kilometers (19 square miles), and Velanai, with an area of 68 square kilometers (26 square miles), are both situated in Palk Bay. Southwest of the Jaffna Peninsula, an elevated portion of the continental shelf forms the chain of rocky islands known as Adam's Bridge, nearly connecting Sri Lanka's northwest coast to India. Mannar Island is part of Adam's Bridge.
The Jaffna Peninsula, a dry limestone extension, is Sri Lanka's northernmost region, with Point Pedro at its tip and Jaffna Lagoon to its south. Further south on the western coast, the Kalpitya Peninsula extends in a hook enclosing Puttalam Lagoon. The southern and southwestern coastline of Sri Lanka is famous for its many beautiful beaches, which are shared by tourist resorts and fishing communities. The southernmost point of the island is Dondra Head, marked with a lighthouse built in 1899.
Although Sri Lanka has few natural lakes, there are twelve thousand bodies of water ranging from tiny ponds to huge artificial reservoirs. The oldest of the traditional reservoirs, known as tanks, is believed to be Basawakkulam, built about 300 B.C. and covering more than 30 square kilometers (11 square miles). There are as many as ten thousand tanks of various sizes. There are also flood plain lakes, called villus, which are generally near river bends.
The rivers of Sri Lanka rise in the high mountains and flow over the plateaus down to the plains in a ring of waterfalls. A survey found 272 waterfalls on the island. There are sixteen principal rivers. The Mahaweli, which flows northeast from the central highlands for 341 kilometers (206 miles), is the longest. With the exception of the 167-kilometer (104-mile) Aruvi Aru in the northwest, the other chief rivers range from 100 to 156 kilometers (62 to 97 miles) in length. The Yan flows from the center of the island northeast to the Bay of Bengal. In the southeast, the relatively short Gal runs eastward from Gal Oya National Park to the ocean, and just north of it the Maduru runs to the coast near Batticaloa. The southern end of the island has the Gin River, and the northwestern region has rivers at nearly even intervals running westward from the center to the coast. From north to south, they are the Aruvi Aru, Kala, Mi, Deduru, and Maha Rivers.
There are no notable desert regions in Sri Lanka.
Grasslands occur in the central highlands, the arid north, and along the eastern hills. The Uva Basin has distinctive wet grasslands called patanas . Gal Oya, in the southeast, is a national park, with tall grasses and monsoon forest. It has medicinal plants and is an elephant habitat. The Horton Plains are grasslands mixed with temperate forest, though the forests are dying off. About 25 percent of Sri Lanka is covered by forest, and 20 percent of that is tropical rainforest. Sinharaja, in the southern lowlands, is Sri Lanka's last significant primary rainforest, and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve. Dry zone forests include thorn forests in the northwest and southeast, dry evergreen forests, and deciduous monsoon forests. The eastern slopes of the central highlands contain savannah forests that are very susceptible to burning and droughts. Tropical evergreen rainforests are found at low and high elevations of the wet zone. Mangrove forests are declining along the coasts. Remaining forest cover exists mostly in disconnected patches of protected land.
The island's southeastern plain is interspersed with rounded hills that are the bare tops of eroded mountains. Gentler, grass-covered hills occur in the Uva Basin of the central highlands.
The island's southwest is a series of ridges and valleys. Close to the sea, the ridges are low and parallel to the coast, but inland they become mountain chains alternating with long, narrow depressions. The Sabaragamuwa Ridges cover nearly the entire southern region of the country.
High mountain walls distinguish the central highlands (also known as the hill country). Elevations of more than 1,524 meters (5,000 feet) are the rule; Adam's Peak, a pilgrimage destination, rises to 2,243 meters (7,360 feet). The Piduru Ridges comprise the central mass of the hill country. This nearly inaccessible mountain fortress includes Sri Lanka's highest mountain, Pidurutalagala, with a summit of 2,524 meters (8,281 feet).
The northernmost sections of the central highlands are the Knuckles (Dumbara) group of mountains, including Knuckles Peak that rises to a height of 1,863 meters (6,112 feet). The Mahaweli River valley separates the Dolosbage mountain range from the rest of the central highlands.
In the Dolosbage area of the central highlands, deep, narrow valleys lie between the ridges creating a rock maze. The Kandy Plateau is also cut by ridges and valleys and by the Mahaweli River gorge.
The Hatton Plateau is one of a series of high plains of the central highlands. Its elevation ranges from 914 to 1,219 meters (3,000 and 4,000 feet). The rivers that flow between its ridges ultimately form the Mahaweli. Nearly all of the Hatton Plateau is used for tea cultivation. The ancient town of Kandy, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is situated on the Kandy Plateau in the northwest central highlands. Horton Plains, a 32-square-kilometer (12-square-mile) national park in the southern central highlands, is Sri Lanka's highest plateau at 2,130 miles (6,988 feet).
Sri Lanka's largest lake, Maduru Oya (63 square kilometers/24 square miles), is a modern reservoir in the central highlands. Other large reservoirs include Randenigala (27 square kilometers/10 square miles), Victoria Falls (23 square kilometers/9 square miles), and Kotmale (10 square kilometers/ 4 square miles). These huge highlands reservoirs were formed by the damming of the Mahaweli River for irrigation, hydro-electricity, and water supply projects completed between 1977 and 1983. Sri Lanka has forty-six large dams and many smaller hydropower projects. Nature sanctuaries have been established around the reservoirs to protect the watersheds, but tens of thousands of people were displaced as a result of the construction, and valuable agricultural land was submerged. The reservoirs are becoming choked with silt and the water levels are dropping.
Bradnock, Robert, and Rona Bradnock. Sri Lanka Handbook. Emeryville, CA: Avalon Travel Publishing, 2001.
Devendra, Tissa. Sri Lanka, the Emerald Island. Torrance, CA: Heian International, 2000.
Niven, Christine. Sri Lanka . London: Lonely Planet, 2001.