The Beginner’s Guide to Sri Lankan Literature

As Sri Lanka continues to skyrocket to the top of every traveler’s bucket list, it is worth noting that there is a more inexpensive and time-efficient way to catch a glimpse into one of the world’s most beautiful islands: the time-honored ritual of reading.

With a literacy rate among the highest in the world (92%), it is no surprise that Sri Lankans are producing incredible literary works at such a fast pace. For years, Sri Lanka has been under the global spotlight for human rights abuses, tragic natural disasters, and a devastating war – now, as the country looks to move forward, authors (both old favorites and a growing list of up-and-comers) are helping the process along by creating literary works to educate, inform, and inspire Sri Lankans and visitors alike.

Below you’ll find a list of SSIL’s top five favorite Sri Lankan books. Some you may recognize, while others may be new to you. Read on to see how this list compares to your own!

Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje

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With a literary career spanning six decades and counting, Michael Ondaatje is one of the most prolific authors of Sri Lankan heritage. Born in Sri Lanka but raised in Canada, he has published several award-winning prose novels and books of poetry. Running in the Family is Ondaatje’s (somewhat) autobiographical account of his return to the island and interactions with his eccentric, complex, and lovable family. The book is comprised of multiple short chapters, some prose and others poems. Despite the memoir’s non-linear structure, Ondaatje’s writing flows in his distinctly dreamy style as he fills in the gaps – parts of his stories that were forgotten or never experienced – with fictionalized descriptions.

Ondaatje’s father remained and later died in Sri Lanka while his son and wife were in Canada, and it becomes clear that much of Ondaatje’s interest in his family revolves around his father. Their connection stands out amidst the stunning imagery and personal ruminations that comprise most of the story. While Running in the Family is a book about Sri Lanka, it is also about family, relationships, and how those two elements transcend boundaries set by time, geography, and more.

Part memoir, part autobiography, part fiction, and part travel literature, Running in the Family refuses to conform or limit itself to one category – not unlike Ondaatje and the quirky cast of characters he assembles. Many readers cite Running in the Family as their first exposure to Sri Lanka, literary or otherwise, and is also a popular pick among high school teachers for their students. At just under 200 pages, it is the perfect introductory novel to Sri Lankan literature, both for those who are familiar with the country and those who are not.

On Sal Mal Lane by Ru Freeman

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On Sal Mal Lane tells the story of its titular (and fictional) Sri Lankan street – a quiet, dead-end road – that plays host to a slow-rolling wave of change: a new family moves in, neighborhood children grow up, and the imminent threat of civil war looms. Set between 1979 and 1983, the novel chronicles the lives of Sinhalese, Tamil, and Burgher families: a diverse group whose relations serve as a microcosm for what rippled through the country on a larger scale, all culminating in the explosion of a 26-year civil war. Ru Freeman’s writing is lucid and poetic – the narrator is almost a character itself, whose opinions sometimes slide into the prose.

That said, the children on Sal Mal Lane are the true stars of the story, each one with a unique personality that drives the plot forward. The familiar and charming quirks of island life are offset by intense heartbreak and pockets of emotional and physical violence, a true-to-form glimpse into the world of pre-war Sri Lanka. Freeman also includes several interactive features in the novel, including a character list divided by family, a simple map of Sri Lanka, and a labeled sketch of Sal Mal Lane. There is also a glossary at the back of the book, which may prove helpful as the nearly 400 pages contain ample references to foods, slang terms, and expressions in Sinhala and Tamil.

Wave: A Memoir by Sonali Deraniyagala

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Like Running in the Family, Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave is a memoir, but about a much more current and singular topic: the 2004 Asian Tsunami. The December 26, 2004 tsunami, prompted by an earthquake in the Indian Ocean, was the deadliest in recorded history, and is still regarded as one of the most devastating natural disasters in recent years. Deraniyagala lost her husband and two young children to the storm while the family vacationed at a Sri Lankan beach resort; all three were swept away with thousands of others, while she clung to a tree branch that would save her life.

The memoir ties together her life before and after the disaster – the latter of which sees the author expectedly struggling to cope. Some background knowledge on the 2004 disaster may be beneficial before reading the novel in order to fully understand the context of Deraniyagala’s ordeal. Sri Lanka is still recovering and rebuilding from the tsunami, a reality for which Deraniyagala’s memoir is almost a metaphor: she, too, must re-construct her life from the shambles of her past one.

While the writing is beautiful and the grief is palpable, the most striking aspect of this story is that it is true. Readers will feel a heavy sadness upon finishing this book, but also a deep appreciation for the author’s candid honesty that will keep many rooting for her even through her darkest times. Deraniyagala holds nothing back in her recounting of the disaster and its aftermath on her personal life. This is not an easy read, but an important one: a reminder of the tragedy that struck the country, the many lives affected, and the power of love & loss.

Advance warning: this novel contains heavy drinking, self-medication, and suicidal thoughts and attempts.

Cinnamon Gardens by Shyam Selvadurai

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This book is set in 1920s Ceylon, about 20 years before Sri Lankan independence and about 60 years before the subsequent civil war. Instead of focusing on the two events that have unfortunately defined Sri Lanka’s image for the past few decades – the war and the tsunami – like many modern Sri Lankan novels, Selvadurai’s characters wrestle with the divergence in their own interests and those of the rule-laden societal spheres in which they exist. Annalukshmi is a vibrant young woman who places her professional interests above romantic pursuits (a Sri Lankan Lizzy Bennett, if you will), much to the chagrin of her upper-class family, while her uncle Balendran is forced to confront his own sexuality upon the return of a former flame.

The topic of LGBTQ+ rights is still quite taboo in Sri Lanka today, and to read a novel that discusses it so openly as Cinnamon Gardens was a welcome reprieve from the topic’s typical treatment in the country. The novel feels more relevant today than ever before, as conversations around gender, sexuality, class, and the intersections of those three aspects of one’s identity are becoming more widespread. Feminism, self-discovery, and growth are themes in Cinnamon Gardens, whose main characters are ahead of their time but still allow the reader an intriguing glimpse into the past.

The Road from Elephant Pass by Nihal de Silva

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The Road from Elephant Pass could be considered by some to be a modern Sri Lankan classic. It won the 2003 Gratiaen Prize for English creative writing, and has also been used as a text in the Sri Lankan Advanced Level Literature examinations. The story follows a Sinhalese army officer on assignment to pick up a Tamil woman informant near Jaffna – the northernmost part of Sri Lanka with a majority Tamil population – a routine assignment, until the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) attacks the area.

Captain Wasantha Ratnayake and Kamala Velaithan must trust and depend on one another in order to survive, and thus begins a romance of the most controversial degree: one between a Sinhalese man and a Tamil woman, both fighting for their causes in the thick of a war that destroyed and defined the island they call home. However, the reader should not be fooled; the plot is not that simple, and the characters are dynamic and multifaceted. Without giving too much away, nothing in de Silva’s novel is as it seems, even the ending.

While the focus of the plot is clear, de Silva makes sure to include plenty of rich descriptions of Sri Lanka’s natural landscape, as the Wilpattu Forest serves as the novel’s primary setting. Despite the death and destruction brought by the war, the island is teeming with life – human and otherwise – which de Silva acutely portrays in his writing. Some independent research on Sri Lanka’s civil war prior to reading this novel may be of help – both for context and in providing a more well-informed opinion on the book’s central conflict.


These are just five of the many wonderful novels written by Sri Lankan authors or using Sri Lanka as the setting. Here are a few more:

Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje

A Little Dust on the Eyes by Minoli Salgado

The Tea Planter’s Wife by Dinah Jeffries

Homesick by Roshi Fernando

Ruins by Rasith Savanadasa

Mosquito by Roma Tearne

Did this list include any of your favorites? Any books it missed? Comment them below!

Happy reading!


Author bio: This guide is written by contributing writer Isa Spoerry; a junior studying Social & Cultural Analysis at New York University. Born to a Sri Lankan mother and raised by her parents in the States, she is always looking for new ways to engage with her Sri Lankan heritage and culture.  

10 Reasons Why Sri Lanka is the Perfect Foodie Destination

While Sri Lanka’s reputation as a tropical paradise attracts plenty of surfers and beachgoers alike, travelers – especially the particularly culinary-conscious – would be remiss not to indulge in the island’s diverse and delicious cuisine.

Drawing from its multi-ethnic makeup, rich history, and abundance of fresh, flavorful ingredients, Sri Lanka’s food is as colourful and fascinating as the island itself. Read on to see SISL’s top 10 reasons why Sri Lanka is every foodie’s dream!

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16 Things to Do and See in Jaffna

For those who follow Style in Sri Lanka on Instagram, you will more than likely know I have a soft spot for Jaffna. Following a 2 week solo trip where I visited as many sights as possible, I decided to write a guide to help and inspire others on their travels too. 

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The furthest sight I’ve included is about 45 minutes from the centre- Point Pedro. I hope you find this guide full of inspiring places to add to your list for a wonderful cultural trip to the kaliedoscopic province of Jaffna!

If you’ve been to Jaffna you may notice I haven’t included everything such as the Architectural Museum and Nilavarai Bottomless Well. I visited both but to be honest, they were a bit of an anticlimax compared to the other sites.

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From fascinating historic sights sprinkled across the town, humbling locals, majestic Hindu Kovils and Catholic Churches to mouthwatering Tamil cuisine; the North is a safe, culturally rich destination for the discerning traveler. 

Travelling to Jaffna from Colombo is also incredibly easy- and I’m speaking from the perspective as a solo female traveller. I tend to favour the night train from Colombo Fort, leaving around 8:30pm and arriving about 6am but understand that may be a little too adventurous for some.

I book a seat on 1st class with AC which needs to be organised at least a couple of days in advance. As much as I love a local train experience on 2nd or 3rd class, I tend to keep those to shorter distances e.g from Colombo to Galle which are a little less cross country.

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A huge thank you to Jetwing for sponsoring this guide. They have a beautiful hotel in the heart of Jaffna which is modern, comfortable and convinient, with a second property called Jetwing Northgate a stone’s throw from the railway station.

The rooms at Jetwing Jaffna are vibrant and spacious, with a modern infusion of an authentic Northern vibe.

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If travelling solo, do take a little time to read my Ultimate Solo Female Travellers Guide to Sri Lanka. In fact if it’s your first visit to the country, you will probably find some useful tips in there as a family, couple or group too.


What to do in Jaffna Town

Set out bright and early, bring a large umbrella or plenty of sun protection and bottles of cold water. I tend to travel by tuk tuk around town but a bike or scooter can be rented should you wish. In comparison to the South Coast of Sri Lanka, the roads are generally calmer and safer- with bikes/motorbikes outnumbering cars.

1. Jaffna Library 10-15 minutes 

Rebuilt after a fire in 1981 during the civil war, Jaffna Library is a bold tribute to it’s former 1933 glory. Visiting hours for non members is between 4:30-6pm (in restricted zones) although to be honest, peeking through reception and admiring the exterior is the main attraction.

2. Jaffna Fort 30-40 minutes 

Towards the entrance of the Pannai causeway (in the direction of Nagadeepa and Delft island) is Jaffna Fort. It’s free to visit (as are many sites in Jaffna) with a small archaeological museum should you wish to learn more about the local history.

It’s just as popular with locals as it is with foreign visitors, with ice cream vans parked up at the entrance tempting eager-eyed children.

3. Jaffna Market 30 minutes

Jaffna Market by ©Alice Luker

Jaffna’s central market is a haven for curious foodies. There are three sections- a row of impeccably displayed fresh fruit & veg , a narrow alleyway specializing in homemade palmyrah products (a species of palm) and a cluster of larger independent stalls with snacks, sweets, drinks, jars/pickles and more.

It’s not unknown for people to venture from all parts of Sri Lanka to stock up on local eats from this market alone!

4. Sinnakadai Market 30 minutes

Sinnakadai market by ©Alice Luker

Approximately 10 minutes out of town is Sinnakadai market, a rustic boxed building splashed with vibrant panels of colour. Here you will mainly find fish, fruit & vegetable, meat and spice vendors. I bought a couple of packets of Jaffna curry powder and turmeric. It can be a little chaotic but with an open mind and sense of adventure you will no doubt be mesmerized by the local buzz.

I enjoyed it as much as the central market because the crowd (both sellers and the general public) are so charismatic- just be sure to watch your step, especially in the fish section!

5. Nallur Kovil 30 minutes 

No doubt the most iconic sight in Jaffna, Nallur Kovil is a short tuk tuk ride (or a scenic 30 minute walk if you can take the heat!) from the town centre. The surrounding shops are also very interesting- fresh local eats, fabrics/saris and religious offerings.

Don’t forget to respect the dress code– women are expected to cover knees & shoulders whilst men must cover knees and (upon entering the building) remove shirts. As Jaffna is a very modest part of Sri Lanka, I tend to dress suitably for Kovils at all times as a personal preference.

6. Mantri Manai (ruins of King Sangiliyan’s Minister’s Residence) 20 minutes

A rustic old building, also known as the ruins of Jaffna Kingdom. There used to be goats bleating about in the garden but I couldn’t spot any on my second visit.

Imagining what it looked like in it’s glory days as you amble from room to room is all part of it’s charm despite being a little unkempt today. It’s not managed per se so you can wander around at your own leisure.

7. St Mary’s Cathedral & St John Baptist’s Church 20 minutes

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There are a cluster of Catholic Churches in and around Jaffna which I love to visit as much as exploring Hindu Kovils.

St Mary’s Cathedral is in a small, residential part of town (pictured) whilst St John Baptist’s Church is also close- opposite the US hotel (where I had a tasty biriyani one day). Take a seat in the pews, absorb the peace & calm and admire the architecture.

8. Maruthanamadam Anjaneyar Kovil 15 mins

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10 minutes out of town, this slightly trippy new age Hindu Kovil with flashing green Tamil letters at the entrance has a 72 foot statue of Lord Hanuman. Be prepared to be wowed as it towers above you in a remarkable neon shade of jade green.

There are a handful of stalls lining the entrance selling buffalo curd, peanuts/nuts, fruit and coconuts amongst other local eats.

What to do out of town 

Keerimalai- Springs, Naguleswaram Kovil and Dambakola Patuna Temple- 1/2 Day

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A beautiful scenic drive North and slightly East of Jaffna, Keerimali is a calm, spiritual haven and still incredibly untouristy- in fact, the only people I met the two hours I was exploring were locals.

With a natural water spring, historic Hindu Kovil and Buddhist Temple alongside the crystal clear waters of the Indian Ocean, it’s without a doubt one of the most underated gems of Sri Lanka. 

9. Keerimali Springs 10-15 minutes (or longer to swim).

I would never have considered bathing in the water at Keerimalai (especially travelling solo) however had I brought a change of clothes, definitely would have. There were a few kids splashing around but it was incredibly relaxed and unintrusive.

If you look closely in the water there are tiny schools of fish swimming around- hence the strict no soap policy. The entrance fee is about 20 rupees which I’m sure you will agree won’t break the bank!

10. Naguleswaram Kovil 20 minutes

Very close to Keerimali Springs (walking distance) is Naguleswaram Kovil. There are two sections, the older part dating back to pre 6th century BCE (pictured above) and the newer section currently under renovation.

From what I was told, there’s an enormous bull in the garden but it was tucked around the side (I should have guessed there was something there as it attracted quite a crowd) and missed it.

11. Dambakola Patuna 10-15 minutes

A significant site for Buddhists, believed to be home to the first sacred boa tree brought from India when it was a port during ancient times. The story is beautifully illustrated on the walls inside so it’s worth visiting with someone who understands Sinhala and can translate, otherwise I recommend reading up on it’s history beforehand.

There are no historic monuments still standing from this era but it very tranquil -in fact one of the most tranquil places I have ever been in Sri Lanka- with a mesmerising view of the ocean.

12. Kadurugoda Raja Maha Viharaya 10 minutes

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On route to Keerimalai, this ancient site is concealed in the depths of a local village- only easily accessible via private transport as there are no buses (to my knowledge) which go directly there. Visit Kadurugoda Raja Maha Viharaya on route to Keerimalai as it’s about half way.

13. Nagadeepa Island 3/4 Day

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Just 35 miles from India, Nagadeepa is a popular pilgrimage site for Hindus and Buddhists across Sri Lanka. From the journey along the panoramic causeways, the boat trip to the island (not for the claustrophobic!) to exploring the sites, a trip to Nagadeepa is a real adventure. I’m not including boat departure times here in case they change- the best way to find out is by asking your hotel or guesthouse directly the day before.

There’s one section of the Buddhist Temple ‘Nagadeepa Viharaya’ which requests foreigners to pay Rs.500. I wouldn’t recommend doing this as there’s nothing additional to see beyond. I will always give a donation when visiting temples but I believe the amount should be up to the individual. You can either take a tuk tuk or walk from the Buddhist Temple to the Hindu Kovil.

14. Delft (Neduntheevu) Island 3/4 Day

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Accessible from the same harbour as Nagadeepa, Delft (locally known as Neduntheevu) is a fascinating island, with a real neighbourly community atmosphere as you venture along the coral-lined tracks. I recommend hiring a tuk on the island (the going rate is Rs.1,500) for a couple of hours to see the main sites as it’s far (and hot!) to cover by foot.

There’s a very specific time when the boat heads back to the harbour so make sure not to miss it- the journey takes about 40 minutes each way.

If you wish to dine in the main restaurant on Delft, place your order when you arrive before heading off to explore- it to be ready when you return. I had some short eats and tea with the locals at the small tea shop which is on the left as you walk up from the harbour before the archway.

15. KKS Beach

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At the very end of the railway line from Colombo Fort, Kankesanthurai (or KKS) is one of the most underrated beach havens in Sri Lanka. With clean golden sands and azure blue waters, it’s almost tempting to leave this out of the blog post to keep it a secret!

Sandwiched between the beach and the railway station, there’s a hotel owned by the army called Thalsevana should you wish to stay a couple of nights. 

There’s also another beach called Casuarina which is very popular with locals but I personally prefer KKS as it’s cleaner, a little more spacious and I didn’t feel so self-conscious.

If you do choose to go to Casuarina there’s a Hindu Kovil close by which has a very spiritual, if somewhat eerie atmosphere which I felt made it worth the trip.

16. Point Pedro

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The northernmost tip of Sri Lanka, Point Pedro is a charismatic local town, beaming with rustic authenticity. The ‘Point’ itself is understated, with a cluster of local fishing boats often surrounding the harbour.

Driving through Point Pedro is a nice experience and although I didn’t have a lot of time, there are some quaint Churches and Kovils in the area to explore too.


So there you have it- my ultimate guide of what to see and do in Jaffna. Do share your experiences, thoughts etc in the comments below and most importantly, I hope you have a wonderful time- it’s a beautiful, charming place which is very close to my heart.

The Ultimate Guide to Solo Female Travel in Sri Lanka

Let me start by saying that I’ve quite literally travelled all across Sri Lanka solo in every way you could possibly imagine. From cars, trains, bicycles, tuk tuks, boats, vans and buses to a hot air balloon and an army jeep, I have a lot of first hand experience as both a tourist and a resident. From my first solo trip 2 years ago (I travelled with family prior to this) to the guesthouse where I’m writing this in Jaffna, I have learnt so much between then and now by these many experiences.

I honestly do believe Sri Lanka is one of the safest countries in Asia to travel solo but as much as I love living here, unwanted attention, even harassment can be an issue for women. The question is, how to avoid it and stay safe throughout your travels?

Continue reading The Ultimate Guide to Solo Female Travel in Sri Lanka

10 Ayurvedic Sri Lankan Supermarket Hacks

by Alice Luker


Ayurveda, translating in Sanskrit as ‘life-knowledge’ travelled across the seas from India to Sri Lanka thousands of years ago. Within local communities of the island today it’s considered an essential daily lifestyle practise- from the body via food to the mind and spirit through meditation.

As well as an alternate form of plant based (herbal) medicine, following an Ayurvedic lifestyle is believed to prevent future inbalances of the body which are considered equally as important in discouraging disease.

I’m no expert in the practise but over the past few years I’ve familiarised myself with the essential Ayurvedic household items as well as what would be considered luxury products inspired or influenced by the ancient practise.

The ideas below are all bought from local supermarkets found across the country from Cargills Food City, Keehls Super to Arpico. The most generously stocked branches (with a wider selection) can be found in major cities and towns.

Continue reading 10 Ayurvedic Sri Lankan Supermarket Hacks

5 Reasons to Travel by Train in Sri Lanka

Spectacular sunsets, golden sand powder, delectable sea-food platter and a crystal blue Indian Ocean are some of the words that come to mind, when you think of Sri Lanka.

However, once you have scratched the surface of this island country, take a train ride from Colombo, the state capital to the lesser known regions of Sri Lanka and be ready to be blown away by the surprises thrown at you.

So go now, and take my list of the indulgent yet immersive list of 5 reasons to add a train journey to your Sri Lanka itinerary…


Continue reading 5 Reasons to Travel by Train in Sri Lanka