Sri Lanka is the 57th most populated nation in the world, with 20,277,597 people, and an annual population growth rate of 0.73%. Sri Lanka has a birth rate of 17.6 births per 1,000 people and a death rate of 6.2 deaths per 1,000 people. Population density is highest in western Sri Lanka, especially in and around the capital. Sinhalese constitute the largest ethnic group in the country, with 74.88% of the total population. Sri Lankan Tamils are the second major ethnic group in the island, with a percentage of 11.2. Sri Lankan Moors comprise 9.2%. Tamils of Indian origin were brought into the country as indentured laborers by British colonists to work on estate plantations. Nearly 50% of them were repatriated following independence in 1948. They are distinguished from the native Tamil population that has resided in Sri Lanka since ancient times. There are also small ethnic groups such as the Burghers (of mixed European descent) and Malays from Southeast Asia. Moreover, there is a small population of Vedda people who are believed to be the original indigenous group to inhabit the island.
The Temple of the Tooth, built during the 16th century, is the focal point of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.
Sinhalese and Tamil are the two official languages of Sri Lanka. The Constitution defines English as the link language. English is widely used for education, scientific and commercial purposes. Members of the Burgher community speak variant forms of Portuguese Creole and Dutch with varying proficiency, while members of the Malay community speak a form of Creole Malay that is unique to the island.
Sri Lanka is also a multi-religious country. 70% are Buddhists, most of whom follow the Theravada school of Buddhism. Most of the Buddhist are from majority Sinhalese ethnic group. Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka in the 2nd century BC by Venerable Mahinda. A sampling of the Bodhi Tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment was brought to Sri Lanka during the same time. The Pali Canon (Thripitakaya), having previously been preserved as an oral tradition, was first committed to writing in Sri Lanka around 30 BC. Sri Lanka has the longest continuous history of Buddhism of any predominately Buddhist nation, with the Sangha having existed in a largely unbroken lineage since its introduction in the 2nd century BC. During periods of decline, the Sri Lankan monastic lineage was revived through contact with Thailand and Burma. Buddhism is given special recognition in the Constitution which requires Sri Lankan to “protect and foster the Buddha Sasana”.
Hinduism is the second most prevalent religion in Sri Lanka and predates Buddhism. Today, Hinduism is dominant in Northern, Eastern and Central Sri Lanka. Hindus are mainly Tamils.
Islam is the third most dominant religion in the country, having first been brought to the island by Arab traders over the course of many centuries, starting around the 7th century AD. Most Muslims are Sunni who follow the Shafi’i school. Most followers of Islam in Sri Lanka today are believed to be descendants of these Arab traders and the local women they married.
Christianity reached the country through Western colonists in the early 16th century. Around 7.4% of the Sri Lankan population are Christians, of which 82% are Roman Catholics who trace their religious heritage directly to the Portuguese. The remaining Christians are evenly split between the Anglican Church of Ceylon and other Protestant denominations.
There is also a small population of Zoroastrian immigrants from India (Parsis) who settled in Ceylon during the period of British rule, but this community has steadily dwindled in recent years. Religion plays a prominent role in the life and culture of Sri Lankans. The Buddhist majority observes Poya Days each month according to the Lunar calendar, and Hindus and Muslims also observe their own holidays. In a 2008 Gallup poll, Sri Lanka was ranked the third most religious country in the world, with 99% of Sri Lankans saying religion was an important part of their daily life.