Ethnic, religious, and linguistic distinctions in Sri Lanka are essentially the same. Three ethnic groups — Sinhalese, Tamil, and Muslim—make up more than 99 percent of the country's population, with the Sinhalese alone accounting for nearly three-fourths of the people.
The Sinhalese constitute the majority in the southern, western, central, and north-central parts of the country. In the rural areas of the Wet Zone lowlands, they account for more than 95 percent of the population. The majority of the Singhalese people are of Buddhist faith, their name going back to Sinha Bahu, lion son and hero of the Mahavams.
Among the principal ethnic groups, language and religion determine identity. While the mother tongue of the Sinhalese is Sinhala—an Indo-Aryan language—the Tamils speak the Dravidian language of Tamil. Again, while more than 90 percent of the Sinhalese are Buddhists, both Sri Lankan and Indian Tamils are overwhelmingly Hindu. The Muslims—adherents of Islām—usually speak Tamil.
The Veddas were the island's aboriginal inhabitants prior to the 6th century BC. They adopted Sinhala and now no longer speak their own language. Physically they are allied to the Dravidian jungle peoples of southern India and to early populations in Southeast Asia.
With 3,5 million people or 18% of Sri Lanka's population, the Tamils are the second largest group.
They speak their own language (Tamil) and are predominantly Hindu.
They are divided in "Ceylon-Tamils" who started coming from South-India over 1000 years ago and the "Plantation-Tamils" whose ancestors were brought by the British to work on their tea plantations in the 19th century.
The foremost concentration of the Sri Lankan Tamils lies in the Jaffna Peninsula and in the adjacent districts of the northern lowlands. Smaller agglomerations of this group are also found along the eastern littoral where their settlements are juxtaposed with those of the Muslims.
The Sri Lankan Muslims trace their origin back to Arab traders of the 8th century and account for about 7.5 percent of the population.
The main Muslim concentrations occur in the eastern lowlands. In other areas, such as Colombo, Kandy, Puttalam, and Gampaha, Muslims form a small but important segment of the urban and suburban population.
About 7% of Sri Lanka's population are Moors. They are descendants from Arab traders who visited the island around the 15th century.
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