The majority ethnic group of Sri Lanka (70% of the population). Sinhalese is the official language of Sri Lanka; it belongs to the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European family, and is written in a script derived from the Indian Pali form. The Sinhalese are Buddhists. Since 1971 they have been involved in a violent struggle with the Tamil minority, who are seeking independence.
The Veddas of the central highlands are thought to be the descendants of the original inhabitants of Sri Lanka. Around 550 BC the island was invaded by Aryans from the mainland, though it seems likely that these people had already become mixed with the Dravidian inhabitants of southern India. The name Sinhalese is derived from the lion, sinha, symbol which occurs in the legends of origin.
Buddhism was flourishing by the 3rd century BC and during the 5th century AD the Sinhalese began to keep a Buddhist chronicle. Their script is based on the Indian Pali form. The Hīnayāna (Lesser Vehicle) Buddhists of Sri Lanka have had an impact on Southeast Asian religion, especially in Myanmar. During the 11th century there were Tamil incursions and by the time of the arrival of the Portuguese the Tamils were firmly established in the north. Today there is a large Tamil minority especially around Jaffna. There are also mixed populations, the descendants of islanders who married European seafarers, and small Arab communities along the coast. Trading and fishing remain important activities in coastal regions, while further inland rice is cultivated in irrigated fields.