Physical Features of Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is an island nation situated in the Indian Ocean southeast of India. It was known as Ceylon before 1972, when it changed its name to Sri Lanka -the island's ancient Sinhalese name, meaning "the resplendent land."
The 24th-largest island in the world, Sri Lanka is shaped like a pearl or teardrop -or, less romantically, like a mango or pear. Lying only a few degrees north of the equator, it has a tropical climate, warm and humid at sea level but cooler and more pleasant in the south central highlands.
The island was well known as Serendib or Taprobane to ancient navigators and was important as a source of gems and spices. It is one of the world's most beautiful countries, famed for its fine tea, its gemstones, its colorful landscapes, the underwater flora and fauna off its reef-protected beaches, and the pageantry of its religious festivals.
Sri Lanka's mixed population, variety of religions, language problems, economic difficulties, and shifting political balance between left and right make it resemble Asia in miniature, illustrating both the charms and the troubles of that continent.
Sri Lanka, structurally an extension of the south Indian plateau, is separated from India by the Palk Strait (20 miles, or 32 km, wide at its narrowest part) and by the Gulf of Mannar. Mannar Island, off Sri Lanka's northwest coast, and the nearby shallows known as Adam's Bridge virtually connect Sri Lanka with the mainland. The island's greatest length is 270 miles (435 km), from Point Pedro in the north to Dondra Head in the south. Its greatest width is 140 miles (225 km), from Colombo in the west to Sangamankanda in the east.
There are three main topographic regions in Sri Lanka. The mountains, in the south central section, rise to jagged peaks 7,000 to 8,000 feet (2,100–2,400 meters) or more above sea level. Highest is Pidurutalagala, or Mount Pedro, 8,281 feet (2,524 meters). Best known of the high peaks is Sri Pada, or Adam's Peak (7,359 feet, or 2,243 meters), a familiar landmark to ancient navigators.
In the impressive but rather forbidding mountains are beautiful, fertile valleys, rushing streams, and many waterfalls. The mountains fall away to a region of partially wooded plateaus or foothills where, on cleared plantations, much of the island's tea is grown. A coastal plain in the island's southern section broadens out into an extensive flat, dry region north of the mountains.
Down from Sri Lanka's mountains flow 16 rivers that are each over 60 miles (96 km) long. The longest, the Mahaweli Ganga (206 miles, or 332 km), rises in the Hatton Plateau and flows northeastward past the ancient capital of Polonnaruwa to empty into Koddiyar Bay. Next longest is the Aruvi Aru, 104 miles (167 km), flowing northwestward from near Anuradhapura, the oldest capital.
Sri Lanka's coasts are rimmed by sandy beaches washed by the Indian Ocean surf, whose force is broken by coral reefs, sandbanks, and shoals. The only great natural harbor is that of Trincomalee, on Koddiyar Bay.
The rocks forming the island are among the oldest in the world. The decomposition of these rocks has formed the easily worked but rather poor red-loam soils, known as laterites, that are common in the humid southwest. The dry-zone soils are better in quality, but the cultivation of the paddy rice on which Sri Lankans depend is more restricted in that area because water for irrigation is not so readily available.
Sri Lanka is poor in minerals except for graphite and a great variety of precious and semiprecious gemstones. Iron-ore reserves of good quality do not lend themselves to easy exploitation. The island lacks both coal and petroleum but has abundant river water for hydroelectric development. Moreover, the waters impounded by power dams can also be used for irrigation in the dry zone.