Morning bread delivery in Galle. Image: Flickr/MichelleBFlickr
Morning bread delivery in Galle. Image: Flickr/MichelleBFlickr

Between loaf and halal

Sri Lanka tries to shake off entrenched practices that nationalists see as a threat to local food culture

(This is an essay from our April 2013 print quarterly 'Farms, Feasts, Famines'. See more from the issue here.)

Keeping its identity and culture pure has always been something of a challenge for Sri Lanka. Legend has it that this island nation was colonised by a castaway Bengali prince and his entourage two-and-a-half millennia ago. These 'foreigners' ruled over its original inhabitants, establishing kingdoms in the dry north-central plains. Its history is filled with invasions from neighbouring South Indian kingdoms, and more recently, colonisation of its coastal areas by the Portuguese and the Dutch. Lastly, for almost a century and a half, the British ruled over the entire country, deposing its last king who was actually of sub-continental origin.

Keeping language, dress, food, music, dance and other cultural practices 'pure' under such frequently changing circumstances has been understandably difficult. Since Independence in 1948, nationalism has ebbed and flowed. In the 1950s, such sentiment took the form of a language barrier sanctioned by the government; declaring Sinhala as the national language and alienating 20 percent of Sri Lanka's population – who spoke either Tamil or English. In Sri Lanka, Tamils and Muslims as distinct ethnic groups find themselves linguistically united by their use of Tamil. The decision regarding the national language was reversed in the 1980s, but its effects still reverberate.

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Himal Southasian