It’s A Sri Lankan Thing

When talking of Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans, the one thing that stands out the most is our long standing love affair with the quirky, the odd, the sometimes cute and maybe even the baffling. What we’ve listed out below, all in the name of a bit of fun and giggles, is no exception: you know you’re in Sri Lanka if you encounter any one (or on a good day, maybe all) of these:

1. The English

Shringlish anyone?

Or rather, the Shringlish.  A unique blend of the good old Queen’s language incorporated with Sinhala and Tamil expressions, a few English terms taken completely out of context (like “What men!”Or “I say, meheta wareng!”), along with words that don’t really mean anything in any language (like aney and aiyyo, two words which the average Sri Lankan probably uses up to twenty times a day). Every English speaker on this island is guilty of it, from the posh socialites of Colombo 7 with their breathy accents, to the people who speak English as a second language. So if you hear someone wail exasperatedly, “Aney, what men, just come will you!” (the will you delivered Sri Lankan style, like willyoo) or “Aiyyo that was bad, no?” ‒ don’t be alarmed; it is not some strange, alien lingo. It’s just our very own English. Ahem. I mean, Shringlish.

2. The Pick-up Lines

Ever walked down a busy road only to have some guy sporting a weird hair-do leer at you with an “Ahhhh, nangi!”? Or received a random text/Facebook message/email from a male that goes “I want to put friendship with you”? No, the first guy is not being brotherly (nangi essentially means little sister), and second one has not escaped from a mental asylum. You have just been subject to a typical Sri Lankan pick-up line.

Other pick-up lines include wolf-whistles, muttered asides, lecherous stares, kissy faces or sounds, and on a more brazen note, simply writing down one’s phone number and tossing it at the girl in question; there is just no getting away from them. Ultimately, the best way to deal with these desperados is to ignore them… unless they managed to get you interested. In which case, God save you.

3. The Three-Wheelers

Waiting for customers; a tuk tuk stand. Image Credit:

Fondly known as tuk tuks, these little noise-makers are a part and parcel of the Sri Lankan road scene. Found in an array of colours, they often display a variety of slogans (some pseudo-philosophical, some actually philosophical) coupled with pictures (the Bob Marley ones take the cake). The best way to survive our chaotic traffic is in one of these nimble, easy-to-maneuver, three-wheeled mini-taxis. If you’re out walking in Colombo, don’t be alarmed if you are approached by a tuk tuk driver every ten metres or so. It’s a Sri Lankan thing.

4. The “Aunties” and “Uncles”

There are “nangis” and “mallis”, and “akkis” and “aiyyas”, but it is the “Aunties” and “Uncles” that stand out the most. They can be anyone from your actual uncles and aunties ‒ that is, parents’ siblings ‒ to your distant relative, the neighbour, the lady at the canteen, the van driver, the bun-man, or the pot-bellied mudalali at the corner-shop where you re-load your phone. No, the whole island is not related.  Over here, every person who is older than you by  fifteen years or so is either an “Aunty”, or “Uncle”. We cannot be certain how the whole habit evolved (it’s most probably just a gesture of respect), but we’re pretty sure it’s here to stay. We suggest you get used to it.

5. The Remedies

Panadol and Vicks Vaporub: Two of our all-time favourite remedies to all ailments, and every Sri Lankan’s best friend

Not feeling too good? No need to worry. Just take two Panadols, rub some Vicks on your chest and it will all go away. Really.

Sri Lankans have adopted some very strange ideas of cure. In fact, their whole list of effective remedies is confined to a few well-chosen and slightly rustic medicines and procedures, believed to be universal cures for just about every ailment on the face of earth. Most of us have grown up with grandparents (and sometimes parents) who pooh-pooh at fancy medical terms, eye every doctor’s prescription suspiciously (“What is all this rubbish? That doctor doesn’t know anything. Just inhale some steam and you’re good”), and treat pills and medicine bottles with a mistrust that borders on paranoia. In their mindsets, why on earth would you want to down all these little pills off the pharmacy shelves when Panadol, Siddhalepe balm, and a cup of hot koththamalli (coriander) will do the trick?

Other local remedies include Gripe water (which has the ability to cure practically any sort of stomach ache, while tasting good too), applying Vicks on your chest (which helps you get a good night’s sleep during a bad bout of flu), and inhaling steam (a failsafe method of booting out the worst chest infections).

Yes,  most of us cringe away from the cup of Samahan, and roll our eyes at having to inhale steam, but the fact remains that in spite of our outward skepticism, we  have more faith in our elders’ traditional medicines than we could ever have in the most qualified of doctors. And what is more, they work. Every single time.

6. The School Vans

If you see a van roar past you with a frazzled looking driver at the wheel and a mob of screaming, laughing, white-clad beings at the back, don’t worry. It is not a vehicle full of escaped lunatics. It is a school van, part of our ever-growing school van culture, and the poor guy driving is the van-uncle (yes, another uncle).

According to the Colombo vehicle statistics for the year 2015, there are 4,107 school vans operating in Colombo, contributing largely to the prevailing traffic congestion problems our roads suffer, especially during rush hour. Complaints have been made in the past about the school van system, namely overcrowding, verbally abusive drivers, and the bad condition of the vehicles. However, most of us look back on our school van days with a certain fondness.

On a warning note: if you are a female, it’s best if you watch out for the boys’ vans. There is every chance that you can be cat-called, jeered, hooted or whistled at, or even used for target practice with eggs, paint, or water squirted out of a squeezy bottle.

7. The Baila

Sunil Perera of the Gypsies, one of our most beloved baila singers. Image Credit:

Who the heck is Surangani, and why does anyone care a fig about the fact that she got fish? And what in heaven’s name is so appealing about the situation so as to inspire a song about it?

The world can keep their samba and hip-hop and classy dance music; here in Sri Lanka, nothing gets our blood stirring and feet tapping more than an ear-splitting blast of good old baila. You might wonder where the attraction lies; after all, it is a little exuberant and flashy, and capable of sending a stranger to our shores fleeing for his life with his hands over his head; but to be quite honest, we are not too certain of that ourselves. Perhaps it is the great beat, the catchy music, or the hilarious lyrics… or just the fact that you can belt it out with reckless abandon and immediately feel uplifted.

Baila is a genre of dance music that is believed to have originated centuries ago from the Sri Lankan Kaffirs. It gradually evolved over the years, but the music truly began to fuse into our culture in the 1960s, largely due to the legendary baila singer Wally Bastian. Nowadays, it is has become so incorporated into our lives that we seriously doubt there is a Sri Lankan in the world who hasn’t, at some point in his life, danced to a rendition of Kandy lamissi. Long live Surangani!

8. The Cricket Fans

A papare band keeping the party going in the stands Image Credit:

It is the first match of the season and things aren’t looking too good for our team. This is probably the part where any Sri Lankan supporter should start sinking into a mire of gloomy despair, but wait… what’s that? Trumpet music? Drums? Cymbals? There seems to be a certain group of spectators who obviously think they are in the middle of a gala party. Are they rooting for the other side? No, they are all in the Sri Lankan cricket colours, and besides, you can see the lion flag being sported on every available surface. Are they mad, then? They must be, or they wouldn’t be wearing those ridiculous wigs. You try to figure them out but eventually give them up as a bunch of harmless, merry-making lunatics.

A Sri Lankan cricket fan can be recognised by several distinguishing features. These include the rainbow wigs, papare music (a particularly uplifting version of baila music primarily involving trumpets and drums ‒ refer previous point), blue and yellow cricket colours, and the ability to keep a party-like atmosphere going right until the last ball is bowled, no matter how badly the game is going. It must be a little difficult to comprehend ‒ how could anyone be so cheerful and celebratory whilst their team is being beaten to a pulp on the pitch? ‒ but to coin a phrase, nava gilunath baan choon (even if the ship sinks, the party goes on). That is the motto of the Sri Lankan cricket fan. Besides, isn’t that the very nature of us Sri Lankans? To keep smiling right through our dilemmas?

Make no mistake, we are a cricket crazy nation, but we are crazy about it in the healthiest way possible. If a player messes up, we don’t stone their house or burn effigies of them in the street. If we suffer a loss, we grumble, gripe and moan for a while, but we don’t set ourselves on fire or jump off buildings. We simply put away our disappointment along with the rainbow wigs and papare music… and wait for the next match.

9. The Politics

In this case, we Sri Lankans really haven’t got a clue either. In fact, it is debatable if the politicians themselves have the foggiest idea if they are standing on their head or feet; there is just so much pole-vaulting, leap-frogging, juggling and party hopping going on out there. Even the Gods are dragged into the popcorn-worthy drama, with the joint opposition recently dashing coconuts ‒ allegedly stolen at that ‒ in the Seenigama Devala, to heap the wrath of the deities upon the heads of their hapless enemies.

To be honest, there are a few good facets to our political scene too, but the crazy antics performed by eighty percent of the people running our country simply drown the righteous into oblivion.

10. The Superstitions 

If you hear this little critter before setting out on a journey or starting a new venture, stop right there! He foresees doom. Image Credit:

Even though we are a predominantly Buddhist country, Sri Lankans are a pretty superstitious bunch. Superstitious beliefs can affect everything, from politics, family life, business and travel, to government issues and marriage; and everyone, from the humble villager and Colombo socialite, to the President of Sri Lanka himself, is subject to it. Auspicious times are pivotal in deciding both important matters (like marriages, taking oaths and holding elections) and trivial ones (like having meals and taking baths).  Evil eyes (as waha), black magic (hooniyan), and voodoo thrive, exorcisms abound in plenty, and devils lurk everywhere, particularly in cemeteries, tamarind trees, and three-way junctions.

It may not seem like it, but while most superstitions are relatively harmless, there is a darker side to it too. Now and then, these beliefs have been known to have appalling, and sometimes tragic results.  Exorcism rituals in particular have reputations of going disastrously wrong, and have even been known to result in mutilation and death.

All that said, many of us Sri Lankans have pretty much reconciled ourselves to a lifetime of avoiding black cats and the evil eye.  Was that an owl hooting outside your house? Well then, you had better watch out for some great calamity. Cats caterwauling in your neighbourhood? That can’t be good, folks. And always, always make sure you listen to the little gecko that lives behind your sofa ‒ he sees what you see not! 

There must be a thousand other quirks that would have an outsider puzzled, alarmed, or confused as hell, but these are the ones you are most likely to come across if you’re a foreigner visiting our hallowed shores. Some of them are funny, some rustic, and some simply bizarre, but they are all blissfully, wonderfully Sri Lankan. This wouldn’t be home without them.

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