Although the civil war in the north and east of the island has thwarted subsequent census plans, it was estimated that the population in 2000 stood near nineteen million. There are three official languages in Sri Lanka: Sinhala, Tamil, and English.
Sinhala, the language of the majority, and Tamil, spoken by Muslims as well as ethnic Tamils, are the primary languages of the island.
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The players and events that are part of the wildly popular national cricket team serve as symbolic foci of national culture.
Further, the performance of certain islandwide customs, such as bowing in respect, serve as symbolic enactments of a national cultural identity.
Besides the majority Sinhala Buddhists, the nation also includes Sri Lankan Tamils, Tamils of recent Indian origin, Muslims, semitribal Väddas, and Burghers, descendants of intermarriages between Sri Lankans and Europeans.
Although the members of these groups share many cultural practices, beliefs, and values, ethnic differences have become especially marked since the nation's independence in 1948.
This contrast in rainfall combined with topographical differences has fostered the development of regional variation in economy and culture.
The north-central plains are dotted by the ruins of ancient kingdoms built around man-made lakes.
This population was concentrated in the wet zone and around the principal cities, although barely three million people were considered to live in urban areas.
At that time, there were approximately eleven million Sinhalas, two million Sri Lankan Tamils, one million Tamils of recent Indian origin, 1.5 million Muslims, and less than seventy thousand people of other ethnicities.
English was introduced during British rule and continues to be the language of commerce and the higher levels of both public and private sector administration.
Language has been a volatile issue in Sri Lanka, particularly following independence when the "Sinhala Only" campaign came to the political fore, provoking resistance from the Sri Lankan Tamils in particular, and thus paving the way toward the civil war. The official symbols of Sri Lanka are largely drawn from those representing the Sinhala Buddhist majority.
Other symbols central to Sri Lankan Buddhism and Sinhala mythology have also become icons of national identity, such as the Tooth Relic of the Buddha, the possession of which has provided legitimacy to Sinhala rulers for thousands of years.