Sri Lanka is a country with a great history and culture. As a result, this country is blessed with rich literature. While the majority of the Sri Lankan literary works are in Sinhala, there is a considerable amount of literary works in Tamil and English as well. However, there are so many books in all these three languages that reveal a lot about this splendid island of Sri Lanka.
As you already know, Sri Lanka is a very popular country in the world as a tourist hotspot. Besides, this paradise island was a point of attraction during the colonial era. Owing to these reasons, even many foreign authors knew about this country and included it in their books. Hence, if you like to read about Sri Lanka, there is a huge range for you to choose from historic books to contemporary literature. Besides, if you are planning to visit Sri Lanka, it will be a fun experience to read about Sri Lanka and stories related to Sri Lanka.
What are the Best Books Written about Sri Lanka?
So, here’s a list of some best books written about Sri Lanka for you avid readers to try.
- History of Ceylon – Ms. Marie Musaeus Higgins
- Running in the Family – Michael Ondaatje
- The Ramayana – Valmiki
- Island of a Thousand Mirrors – Nayomi Munaweera
- Serendipity – Ashok Ferry
- Cinnamon Gardens – Shyam Selvadurai
- The Jam Fruit Tree – Carl Muller
- Village in the Jungle – Leonard Woolf
- Woolf in Ceylon – Christopher Ondaatje
- Cinnamon and Elephant – Lodewijk J. Wagenaar
- This Divided Island: Life, Death and the Sri Lankan Civil War – Samanth Subramanian
- Elephant Complex: Travels in Sri Lanka – John Gimlette
- The Seasons of Trouble: Life amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Civil War – Romini Mohan
- The Teardrop Island: Following Victorian Footsteps Across Sri Lanka – Cherry Briggs
- Wave – Sonali Deraniyagala
- Anil’s Ghost – Michael Ondaatje
- Noontide Toll – Romesh Gunesekera
- Swimming in the Monsoon Sea – Shyam Selvadurai
- A Passage North – Anuk Arudpragasam
- The Road From Elephant Pass – Nihal De Silva
Scroll down to get to know more about these books!
1. History of Ceylon by Ms. Marie Musaeus Higgins
Marie Musaeus Higgins is a German Author who has written several books on Sri Lanka. She is a German educationist who is well-known as the founding principal of the Musaeus College in Colombo.
Higgins was born on the 18th of May 1855 in Wismar in Germany. She moved to Ceylon to join Sir Henry Steel Olcott to support him with his service to the country. She also contributed immensely to the benefit of the country. Therefore, Ms. Higgins is one of the most influential figures in the history of Sri Lanka in accordance with the revival of Buddhism before the independence and being a pioneer of female education.
Marie Musaeus Higgins has authored several publications on subject matters related to Buddhism and Sinhala Buddhist culture. She was always interested in the philosophy of Buddhism and Sri Lanka as a Buddhist country. So as an educationist, she did elaborate studies on those subject matters to create very informative publications. The History of Ceylon is also one such book.
This book is actually a collection of historical stories for children. Even though this is a children’s book, it is very important even for adults as the stories are based on actual Sri Lankan history. There are two volumes of this book and both volumes have 47 illustrations. Hence, this is indeed one of the greatest books that reveal a lot about Sri Lanka’s past.
2. Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje
Philip Michael Ondaatje is a renowned Sri Lankan-Canadian poet. He is also a fiction writer, essayist, novelist, editor, and filmmaker. He has won several awards during his literary career such as the Governor General’s award, the Giller prize, the Booker prize, and the Prix Médicis étranger. Michael Ondaatje was born in Sri Lanka in 1943.
He received his primary education from St. Thomas College, Mt. Lavinia, and then moved to England. His literary work includes poetry, fiction, autobiography, and film. The novel Running in the Family is among his most notable works. This novel is a semi-fictional memoir that is based on Ondaatje’s childhood memories in Sri Lanka. Particularly, the historical context of the book makes it very interesting.
To be specific, the story of this novel is set in Sri Lanka in the mid-20th century. It explores how the second world war and the 1971 insurgency had an impact on the country.
Michael Ondaatje had first-hand experience with the events. While the general context of the story is accurate history, the plot of the story is fictional. The author handles the themes of memory, history and story, alcoholism, ancestry, homeland and identity, irresponsibility in the 1920s, and colonialism. It is an impressive concise biography where you can learn a lot about this historical period of Sri Lanka.
3. The Ramayana by Valmiki
Ramayana is a popular Indian epic. It is written in the Sanskrit language. And yes, it is one of the most important works in the world of literature as it is one of the largest ancient epics with over 24000 verses.
There is a belief that Maharishi Valmiki wrote this book. Ramayana belongs to the Itihasa genre as it is written mostly on historical events. The story is about the legendary prince of Rama of Ayodhya and his war with Ravana, the King of Lanka. This is probably the oldest book that has a considerable description of Sri Lanka. This epic had a great impact on the literature and the culture of the whole Indian sub-continent.
According to Valmiki’s Ramayana, modern-day Sri Lanka is King Ravana’s Lanka. Ravana is the villain in Ramayana. In the ancient epic, Rama builds a stone bridge to Lanka with the help of an army of monkeys in order to rescue his wife Sita who was abducted by Ravana.
The presence of Sri Lanka in this great epic shows the important connections that Sri Lanka has had with India from ages ago. While there are several criticisms on whether present Sri Lanka is really the Lanka mentioned in Ramayana, there is evidence such as landmarks to prove that Ramayana took place in present-day Sri Lanka.
So, Ramayana is one of the interesting books to read about Sri Lanka and it will be a remarkable experience to visit the places related to Ramayana in Sri Lanka.
4. Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera
Nayomi Munaweera is a well-known Sri Lankan-American author. She is an internationally acclaimed and award-winning writer. She has brought much acclaim to Sri Lanka by presenting at literary festivals such as Jaipur literary festival, Mumbai literary festival, Galle literary festival, Bay Area book festival, LitQuake, and AWP. Besides, Nayomi is appreciated for her constant engagement with avid readers and she also holds workshops for writers along with the popular Sri Lankan writer, Shyam Selvadurai.
Island of a Thousand Mirrors is Nayomi Munaweera’s debut novel. She was long-listed for the Man Asia literary prize and the Dublin IMPAC prize. The novel was also shortlisted for the DSC prize for South Asian Literature and the Northern California book prize. As such it has won several local and international awards.
The novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors is a fiction that is woven around the 26-year-long civil war which prevailed in Sri Lanka. Basically, the story revolves around two Sri Lankan girls from a Sinhalese family and a Tamil family and the different impacts that the civil war had on these two girls. The plot consists of a heartwarming story written around the themes of cultural heritage, heartbreaking conflict, and deep family bonds. The novel also carries a great explanation of how the civilians of different ethnicities suffered during the civil war. So, this is one of the best books to study about the three-decade-long war in Sri Lanka.
5. Serendipity by Ashok Ferry
Ashok Ferry is a famous Sri Lankan author who is also working as a personal trainer. He was born in Colombo but brought up in East Africa.
During his literary career, he has written five books, and all of them were nominated for Sri Lanka’s Gratiaen Prize or the state literary award. His books explore the typical lives of modern Sri Lankans with a characteristic acuity. One specific feature of Ferry’s writings is how he takes care to view the different narratives of the story. Furthermore, he often cooperates humor, sarcasm, hilarity, and levity into his stories. On the other hand, he often takes influences from his other interests such as bodybuilding and mathematics for his stories.
The novel, Serendipity, carries a wonderful plot that revolves around a half-Tamil and half-Sinhalese girl living in London who moves to Sri Lanka to take care of her ancestral home. Accordingly, she has to take care of the servants’ quarters of a house called Serendipity in Colombo’s colonial quarters, Cinnamon gardens.
This story takes us back to the very beginning of Sri Lanka’s civil war. The novel is an all-in-one combination of satire, thriller, and comedy of manners. This is an interesting story to read if you would like to get an insight into Sri Lankan culture. In fact, you will get to know some interesting facts about the history of Sri Lanka, and politics through this story.
6. Cinnamon Gardens by Shyam Selvadurai
Shyam Selvadurai is an important figure in Sri Lankan English literature. He is a Sri Lankan-Canadian novelist. He was born in Colombo to a Sinhalese mother and a Tamil father. As he is coming from a family of conflicting ethnic groups and as he has lived through a period of ethnic riots in Sri Lanka, he has often used ethnicity and struggles faced by minority communities in Sri Lanka as subject matters in his literary work.
The most notable work of his literary career is his debut novel, Funny Boy. He has won several local and international awards for his writings. After Funny Boy, Shyam Selvadurai wrote his second novel, Cinnamon Gardens which was also well received by local and foreign audiences.
The novel, Cinnamon Gardens, carries a story that revolves around colonial Sri Lanka in the 1920s. Cinnamon Gardens is a wealthy neighborhood in Colombo and the story’s plot is woven around a young Tamil teacher named Annalukshmi. Many consider the time period of this story significant for the Tamil community of Sri Lanka as they were flourishing as a community during colonial times. On the other hand, there are only a few books that reveal this particular time period in Sri Lanka.
Furthermore, the gay fiction of the story is also a special component as there are only a few stories written on that subject matter as well. So, this novel by Selvadurai shows a less explored time period in Sri Lankan history, and thus, is highly interesting to read.
7. The Jam Fruit Tree by Carl Muller
Kala Keerthi Carl Muller is a Sri Lankan author. He is an award-winning writer, poet, and journalist. Besides, he is widely acclaimed as the first Sri Lankan author to publish a book internationally. He is a versatile figure in the Sri Lankan literary field who was able to create many exceptional writings.
The most notable literary work of his career is the trilogy about burghers in Sri Lanka. This trilogy is the Jam Fruit Tree, Yakada Yaka, and Once upon a Tender Time. Muller had often voiced for the Burgher community of Sri Lanka as a member of the same community himself. He has won several awards during his careers such as the Gratiaen awards and the State Literary award.
The novel, The Jam Fruit Tree is considered an important landmark for Sri Lankan English literature as it in a way changed the landscape of Sri Lankan writing in English. The plot of the story revolves around the Von Bloss family who is a Burgher family living in Colombo during colonial times. Because of his concern toward the Burgher community, this novel about a Burgher family is often referred to as a quasi-fictional and not a completely fictional story.
Muller has created an impressive and realistic story covered with humor. So, this is one of the best books to read if you are interested in the lifestyles of minority communities in Sri Lanka.
8. Village in the Jungle by Leonard Woolf
This is one of the other famous books about Sri Lanka. Leonard Woolf, a colonial civil servant in British-controlled Sri Lanka during the early 20th century, wrote the book, Village in the Jungle. Thus, this novel is mostly based on the author’s real-life experiences in Sri Lanka while working as a civil servant.
Many consider the book, Village in the Jungle as an influential literary work in Sri Lankan literature. That is because it is western fiction written from a native point of view. While in Sri Lanka, Leonard Woolf managed judicial and administrative issues as the assistant government agent of the Hambantota district. He has often talked about how his experiences in the country have inspired him in life and convinced him to follow liberal political views.
Village in the Jungle is the author’s first novel which he wrote after returning to England from Sri Lanka. ‘Baddegama’ is the Sinhala translation of this novel. The plot of the story revolves around a poor family who lives in a small village called Baddegama situated in the Hambantota district. The story is mainly about the troubling life of this poor family along with the poverty, diseases, superstitions, the colonial system, and the uncertain nature of the jungle.
Later, a Sinhala movie came out based on this novel as well. So, this is a great story to read to have a general idea about the rural lifestyle in colonial Sri Lanka.
9. Woolf in Ceylon by Christopher Ondaatje
Christopher Ondaatje is a Sri Lankan-born Canadian-English author. He is also a businessman, philanthropist, adventurer, and an olympian. The popular Sri Lankan author, Michael Ondaatje is his younger brother.
The book, Woolf in Ceylon carries an important overview of the life of Leonard Woolf. In fact, it covers a considerable amount of Leonard Woolf’s life and works. Christopher Ondaatje has done excellent research on Woolf’s life to come up with this book. Furthermore, Ondaatje has backed up his story with an impressive collection of photographs. He has also done research on the places mentioned in Leonard Woolf’s book, The Village in the Jungle. This book belongs to the genre of travel literature.
Sri Lanka was known as Ceylon during the colonial times and this book is great to explore that time period before Ceylon became Sri Lanka in 1972. The significance of this writing in that case is its multifaceted approach. Ondaatje has created a biography and also a criticism of Woolf’s life and his work in Sri Lanka. Two friends from Sri Lanka helped Ondaatje to complete his research on the island.
What inspired the author to write this book is reading Leonard Woolf’s autobiography. Afterward, he decided to explore his life and come up with a more descriptive report on the 100th anniversary of Woolf’s arrival to Sri Lanka. Particularly, Ondaatje’s brilliant photography showcases the exotic beauty of Sri Lanka while the content provides a great picture of colonial Sri Lanka.
10. Cinnamon and Elephant by Lodewijk J. Wagenaar
This is one of the great books to study about colonial Sri Lanka.
As you may already know, the Dutch conquered coastal Sri Lanka in 1640 and held power for more than 150 years. Accordingly, the VOC (the Dutch East India Company) was the colonial ruler of Sri Lanka back then. Before the arrival of the Dutch, the Portuguese were the colonial rulers of the country. Then, the Dutch arrived in Sri Lanka upon the request of the King of the Kandyan Kingdom. The alley between the Kandyan King and the Dutch broke down shortly after and the Dutch took over the coastal areas of the country. However, the rule of the Dutch is an important time period in Sri Lankan history.
The book, Cinnamon and Elephant is basically about the Dutch colonial rule in Sri Lanka. It explains the relationship between the VOC and Kandy with reference to the objects of the Rijksmuseum collection and illustrations from other institutions. VOC was a very powerful company that exported Cinnamon and elephants from Sri Lanka without sharing the profit with the country. That is how the book got its title.
This book was published by the Museum’s History Department and it is a part of the Rijksmuseum series. This book provides an interesting overview of the shared history between the Netherlands and Sri Lanka.
11. This Divided Island: Life, Death and the Sri Lankan Civil War by Samanth Subramanian
Samanth Subramaniam is an Indian author and journalist. His book, This Divided Island: Life, Death and the Sri Lankan Civil War is a non-fictional account of the Sri Lankan Civil War. It was written in English and was published in 2015.
The civil war which prevailed in Sri Lanka for almost 3 decades is an important part of Sri Lankan history. This book gives a detailed account of that time period and the impact it had on the lives of Sri Lankan people. This book met with much appreciation as it clearly depicted the roots of the conflict between the Sri Lankan state and the Sri Lankan Tamils and what situations led to the civil war.
Each and every corner of the island had some sort of impact from the civil war which was happening on the northern and eastern sides of the country. Subramaniam has given a portrayal of this impact through his book. Furthermore, the author clearly shows how all these war situations led to present Sri Lanka. He has written the book with the research he has conducted through traveling and conversations. Unlike the other books about the civil war, this book is more of a humane investigation of those harrowing three decades.
12. Elephant Complex: Travels in Sri Lanka by John Gimlette
Even though Sri Lanka holds a proud history, there are several troubling time periods within the past. The three-decades-long civil war is one such era. There are many books that discuss that time period and Elephant Complex: Travels in Sri Lanka is also one such book.
John Gimlette is an English author who is well-known for the genre of travel literature. So, in this book, the author provides a well-organized and detailed insight into Sri Lankan history. John Gimlette traveled to Sri Lanka just after the civil war and gave birth to a vivid travelogue out of his experiences.
John Gimlette had made sure to travel around the country to get a deep idea about the nation. In fact, he has explored ancient ruins, modern ruins, and also the unpopular hidden locations of this island. His intention was to get to know Sri Lanka simultaneously, at its best and worst. Furthermore, he has highlighted in his books the different experiences that he had by associating with Sri Lankans. In fact, Sri Lankans are well-known for their hospitality and the author also talks about how he felt in the country.
Likewise, this book provides an interesting picture of Sri Lanka as an exotic island with friendly people but with an uncertain future. So, this is a good book to read before visiting Sri Lanka to get an idea about the types of experiences that you can get in the country as a tourist.
13. The Seasons of Trouble: Life amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Civil War by Romini Mohan
Romini Mohan is a reputed Indian journalist whose main concerns are politics, the environment, and human rights in the South Asian region. One of her books, The Seasons of Trouble: Life amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Civil War tells about the civil war which prevailed in Sri Lanka.
The author has not portrayed heroism in the war and rather has focused on the traumatizing impact it had on innocent civilians. The plot of the novel revolves around three lives, caught up in the midst of war. They come from different types of backgrounds and Romini Mohan explores how the civil war has different kinds of impacts on them.
Unlike much other fiction and nonfiction writing on the civil war in Sri Lanka, the author has also focused on the aftermath of the civil war. For instance, she has taken influence from the struggles and injustices faced by the minority communities of Sri Lanka after the civil war into her account in the creation of her story. After all, this is a beautiful novel that brings out about one of the most violent time periods in Sri Lanka. So, if you like to get to know about the civil war in Sri Lanka, you shouldn’t miss this book.
14. The Teardrop Island: Following Victorian Footsteps Across Sri Lanka by Cherry Briggs
Cherry Briggs is a researcher and a Ph.D. student who has worked in Sri Lanka. She got an interest in the country inspired by the Irishman, James Emerson Tennent. He is an eccentric traveler and a Victorian writer. So, Briggs decided to take the chance to travel to the paradise island just like the Irish explorer. Accordingly, she had a wonderful journey around the country exploring Sri Lanka to its roots.
She wanted to try something different than the typical tourists and only used public transport for her journey. In this manner, she could get a clear view of the lifestyle of Sri Lankans and gained so many experiences that she later used for her book.
Especially, if you are planning to visit Sri Lanka, you should really give this book a try. That is simply because you will be able to know about her experiences as a tourist in Sri Lanka while getting to know the lesser-known locations on this island.
Cherry Briggs instantly fell in love with Sri Lanka and her love for the country is evident on each page of the book. It is natural for a tourist to get a culture shock while visiting countries like Sri Lanka. Therefore, reading this travelogue beforehand will really come in handy during your visit.
15. Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala
Sonali Deraniyagala is a Sri Lankan educator. She received much recognition locally and internationally for her novel, Wave.
It is a heartbreaking story of how she lost her family owing to the tragedy of the tsunami which struck Sri Lanka in 2004. It is one of the worst natural disasters to ever hit a country. Thousands of innocent people lost their lives within a matter of hours. There are several literary works that discuss this tragedy. What makes Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave special is that she has written the story from her first-hand experience of the disaster. A reader can literally feel the raw emotions while going through the pages of this novel, so it is definitely not for the weak-hearted.
The novel, Wave flows as a memoir of Sonali’s life before and after the tsunami. The story is in the first person narrative. You won’t be able to read through this novel with a dry eye. It gives a great insight into how thousands of lives dramatically changed forever within a few minutes. It is important to get to know these stories to feel with the victims of the tsunami.
However, Sonali met with much appreciation for her bravery in converting her sorrow into words. She has won several local and international awards for her novel. This is one of the books that tactfully highlights that the 2004 tsunami will forever be a dark page in Sri Lankan history.
16. Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje
As you already know, Michael Ondaatje is a well-known Sri Lankan-born Canadian poet who has even won the Booker prize. Anil’s Ghost is his fourth novel.
It is a critically acclaimed book both locally and internationally. The plot of this story revolves around the Sri Lankan civil war. This novel carries a very interesting story about a young Sri Lankan woman who is working as a forensic pathologist. After working in the United States, she returned to Sri Lanka for a human rights investigation missioned by the United Nations during the civil war. This story reveals the mysterious experiences that she faces in the country during a war.
This war novel stresses the ravages of the civil war in the late twentieth century. However, the plot also deals with themes such as love, family, identity, unknown enemy and hidden past. Yet, what the readers love the most is the riveting mystery of the plot.
So, if you like to get to know about the Sri Lankan civil war, this book is a great choice! It will help you to understand the struggles that civilians go through in their everyday life when living in a warring nation.
17. Noontide Toll by Romesh Gunesekera
Romesh Gunasekara is a Sri Lankan-born British author who gained much reputation as an elected fellow of the Royal society of literature. His literary career is appreciated with many local and international awards.
His book Noontide Toll talks about post-war Sri Lanka and how the country faces the tensions that come after years of violence. Unlike other war literature, this book explores the deep problems of the past. Many have praised the originality of this literary work, especially in comparison with other war literature. On the other hand, the story takes a different structure as it flows as a series of road stories.
The protagonist of the story, ‘Vasantha the Van man’ transports various kinds of individuals such as tourists, soldiers, entrepreneurs, aid workers, etc. to the North from the South. Vasantha’s character is discovering his own problems while discovering the problems of the country. Accordingly, through this character, the author examines how Sri Lanka addresses its past issues.
There is almost a poetic tone to how this book reveals Vasantha’s thoughts. It is impressive how the author has used many symbols and imagery to bring out his themes. So, owing to all these reasons, this is undoubtedly one of the best books about Sri Lanka.
18. Swimming in the Monsoon Sea by Shyam Selvadurai
Swimming in the Monsoon Sea is another famous novel by the Sri Lankan author Shyam Selvadurai. Similar to several Selvadurai books, this novel also talks about Sri Lanka.
The time period of the story is 1980 and it is the season of monsoons. The story is about how a 14-year-old boy falls in love with a Canadian boy who is a relative of his. Selvadurai was inspired by the popular drama, Othello and its dominating theme of disastrous jealousy in the creation of the novel.
Selvadurai is well-known for his brilliant use of language and that quality is evident in this novel as well. Shyam Selvadurai often brings awareness to the LGBTQ community. While it is still a quite controversial topic in Sri Lanka, he has brought light to the situation in such a subtle manner. In fact, the author is talking about such a deep theme in accordance with the ordinary circumstances of the characters. Therefore, this book is suitable for teens as well.
The author’s brilliant talent has often given him international acclaim. After all, if you are looking for books about Sri Lanka you shouldn’t miss Shyam Selvadurai’s books.
19. A Passage North by Anuk Arudpragasam
Anuk Arudpragasm is a very popular name in contemporary Sri Lankan literature. He is also an award-winning author. The author’s latest novel, A Passage North also deals with the aftermath of the civil war. Specifically, it is created as a memorial for the lost and the alive who are still suffering.
Many identify the main themes of this novel as loss, longing, and the legacy of war. The story builds up with a long journey taken by the character called Krishan from Colombo to the war-torn Northern province by train. This journey is the central storyline and Arudpragasm shows the legacy of the three-decade-long civil war.
This book belongs to the genre of military fiction. Simply, it is one of the best books written about the civil war in Sri Lanka, and it was even shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas prize.
20. The Road From Elephant Pass by Nihal De Silva
This is probably one of the most popular books about the Sri Lankan civil war. Nihal De Silva gained much acclaim with this novel as his debut.
This novel is also a military fiction that talks about a different aspect of the civil war. The plot of this novel is about an army captain who is on an escorting mission of a female terrorist of the LTTE. The story builds up with the tensions between these two individuals and how they eventually fall in love setting aside their differences. Nihal De Silva explores the complicated relationship between these two individuals, especially amidst a violent war. Thus, the main themes of this novel are war and survival.
It is a very creative literary work. Further, it belongs to the genres of action, adventure, and thriller. Besides, the descriptive nature of the book provides an amazing picture of the Wilpattu forest reserve. So, the author’s love for nature and birds is evident throughout this story as well.
Moreover, Nihal De Silva could win the prestigious Gratiaen award for this novel as well. At present, this book is included in the Advanced Level English Literature school syllabus as well. Besides, a popular Sinhala movie came out based on this story.
The Bottom Line
Simply, Sri Lanka is one of the most exciting countries in the world. It is in fact one of the countries that you should visit at least once in your lifetime. There are many interesting aspects of this paradise island. And what better way is there to know about a country other than reading? So, here’s your chance to read all these brilliant literary works to get to know more about Sri Lanka. Read these books, and thank us later!