The Top 10 Best Sri Lankan Non-Fiction Books - BooxWorm

The Top 10 Best Sri Lankan Non-Fiction Books

Sri Lanka has produced some incredible non-fiction writing over the years that provides valuable insights into the country's rich culture, complex history, and the struggles and triumphs of its people. From memoirs to anthropological studies to investigative reporting, Sri Lankan writers have made landmark contributions across various non-fiction genres.

This article compiles a definitive list of the 10 best non-fiction books from Sri Lankan authors, with insights into what makes each one essential reading. We've also included a comparison table highlighting key details of each book. Read on to explore this amazing body of literature from one of South Asia's most vibrant countries.

How We Chose the Best Sri Lankan Non-Fiction Books

Several criteria were used to determine the top 10 non-fiction books from Sri Lanka:

  • Literary significance & impact: Books that made an important contribution to the country's literature and had significant social, cultural or political impact.
  • Critical acclaim: Highly acclaimed books that received prestigious awards or recognition from critics.
  • Educational value: Books that provide valuable insights into Sri Lankan society and culture to enlighten readers.
  • Relevance today: Influential books that still hold significance and value for readers in the 21st century.
  • Uniqueness: Stand-out books covering creative topics that presented original perspectives.

With these criteria in mind, we combed through Sri Lankan non-fiction spanning several decades to pick books that tick all the boxes for an exceptional and insightful read.

1. The Story of an Island

Arikana eka
Siri kathāwa

Author: Martin Wickramasinghe

Published: 1948

Genre: History, Culture Study

Widely regarded as the most influential Sri Lankan historian, Martin Wickramasinghe’s seminal work presented a comprehensive overview of Sri Lankan society tracing the island’s history from the pre-Christian era.

The book was a breakthrough in bringing an anthropological lens to analyze how cultural, religious and social factors evolved in the country over generations. Covering topics from folklore and rituals to ethnic identities, the work is impressively researched evidenced in Wickramasinghe’s extensive bibliography.

The legendary status of this over 600-page tome rests on how it offers a coherent narrative arc tying together the diverse strands of the island nation’s heritage. The book crucially explores how strongly intertwined and symbiotic the culture of the Sinhalese and Tamil communities is. Rated by many as the single-most important piece of non-fiction from the country, this intricately woven work imparts a sense of Sri Lanka's national identity.

2. When Memory Dies


Author: Amaranath Jayatilaka

Published: 2001

Genre: Historical Fiction

A profoundly moving account exploring tensions between Sri Lanka’s main ethnic groups, Amaranath Jayatilaka’s book traces key events in the country's history that exacerbated divides. Detailing cross-currents of nationality, language, and religion, Jayatilaka adds intimate personal dimensions through characters whose lives intersect with major flashpoints.

The book’s underlying theme revolves around the loss of collective memory within the Sri Lankan consciousness due to the steadily widening fissures that ripped its multi-cultural fabric. Soul-stirring and intensely thought-provoking, When Memory Dies represents one of the most powerful non-fiction reads emanating from the island. While the novel format enables a gripping read through its dramatic elements, the meticulously chronicled history makes this an unforgettable primer on Sri Lankan society.

3. Monsoon Memories


Author: Amarakeerthi Liyanage

Published: 2013

Genre: Memoir

Enthralling with poetic eloquence, Amarakeerthi Liyanage’s nostalgic memoir about growing up in the sleepy coastal town of Ambalangoda is widely regarded as one of the finest works in contemporary Sinhala writing. Offering vignettes of rural coastal life and vivid profiles of its charming, eccentric characters, Liyanage’s lyrical prose and witty style enthralls throughout.

Cultural traditions like mask dances, herbal remedies, matchmaking customs, and farming rituals come alive interleaved with heartwarming stories of the author’s family and neighbors. The memoir also movingly portrays the impact of modernity on rural communities with rapid urbanization robbing future generations of this harmonious lifestyle. Deeply insightful and brimming with delightful anecdotes, this memoir shines a light on a quintessential Sri Lankan way of life.

4. Playing Pillow Politics at MGK

MGK Natakaye
Palupehilla Rajjakkaha

Author: Lal Medawattegedera

Published: 2011

Genre: Coming-of-Age Memoir

A refreshingly candid memoir chronicling teenage life at Colombo’s premier boys’ school, Lal Medawattegedera pulls off an uproariously funny yet reflective portrayal of adolescent angst and school politics. Based on his own experiences at St. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia in the 1990s, Medawattegedera’s colorful anecdotes hilariously dramatize life navigating tuition classes, school cliques, and college prep.

While mostly breezy and hugely entertaining with its barrage of mischief stories, poignant moments addressing violence, class tensions, and dysfunctional student politics add depth. The book strikingly unravels how many social attitudes and divisions are unconsciously imbibed from childhood. As an exceptional work shining a light on youth culture and growing pains faced by regular middle-class kids, this page-turner memoir makes a valuable addition to Sri Lankan literature.

5. The Whirlwind in the Coconut Trees

Polgaha kohukandal ganseema

Author: Ayathurai Santhirapala

Published: 1993

Genre: History

Covering over 700 years from Sri Lanka’s pre-colonial era to 1948 independence, Ayathurai Santhirapala's book stands out as one of the most seminal historical accounts of the country. Methodically structured covering alternating Sinhalese and Tamil kingdoms, the work offers deep-dive analyses of how geopolitics, dynastic intrigues, colonial machinations and cultural forces molded the island’s destiny.

While sanitized textbook narratives often whitewash uncomfortable truths of history, Santhirapala fearlessly confronts dark aspects ranging from betrayal to torture. The book argues that the seeds of discord within Sinhalese and Tamil communities stemming from divide-and-conquer colonial strategies caused ruptures still jeopardizing post-independence hopes. Sweeping in its chronological scope yet nuanced in its perspectives, The Whirlwind in the Coconut Trees remains a profoundly relevant read in understanding modern-day tensions.

6. My Feudal Lord


Author: Tehmina Durrani

Published: 1991

Genre: Autobiography

The shocking and deeply moving memoir by Tehmina Durrani created shockwaves across Asia with its explosive story chronicling the author’s terrifying experience trapped in feudal patriarchy and domestic abuse. Using her own life story married to powerful Pakistani politician Mustafa Khar, Durrani exposes in unprecedented rawness the oppression faced by girls and women in backward communities that deny their agency, rights and voices.

Boldly confronting issues like misogyny, forced marriages and rape which were considered taboo for female writers, Durrani’s fearless narrative embodies the struggles of millions of oppressed women across South Asia. Considered a landmark work pioneering feminist writing in the Subcontinent subsequently galvanizing significant legal reform, this extraordinary memoir ranks among the most influential non-fiction coming from Sri Lanka.

7. Road to Elephant Pass

Ali Patuna Oya

Author: Nihal de Silva

Published: 1999

Genre: War Fiction

An award-winning novel structured as the fictional diary of a Tamil officer, Nihal de Silva’s penetrating work explores the ethnic war devastating Sri Lanka through a human lens. Offering perspectives from soldiers on both sides of a brutal conflict, the hard-hitting saga confronts bloodshed arising from blind hatred and racism passed across generations.

Powerful and emotionally affecting in portraying how ordinary youth had childhoods, love stories and future dreams blown up through no fault of their own, Singhalese author de Silva’s book calls for seeing adversaries as fellow humans instead of programmed enemies. Considered the seminal work of fiction on the civil war with its cry for peace, Road to Elephant Pass is a viscerally impactful anti-war account from Sri Lanka.

8. Vilbagedara

Author: G.B. Senanayake

Published: 1970

Genre: Cultural Study

A pioneering work of cultural anthropology, G.B. Senanayake’s study dissects class stratifications within Sinhalese rural society governed by feudalist norms. Exploring ingrained habits, superstitions, gender divisions and power equations in a remote hamlet, the trailblazing book evaluates how blindly entrenched cultural mores defined life trajectories and hindered progress.

While dense and academic, Senanayake’s vigorous analysis and forceful arguments were instrumental in initiating reformist efforts targeting village upliftment programs. Long considered a landmark text spurring grassroots level women’s empowerment initiatives and egalitarian attitudes, Vilbagedara radically changed development discourses around marginalized sections in Sri Lanka.

9. Buddhism Betrayed


Author: S. B. Dassanayake

Published: 1992

Genre: Social Critique

A hardhitting social commentary, Dassanayake’s essays expose corruption pervading institutionalized Buddhism and destroying its ethical foundations in Sri Lanka. Offering an in-depth examination of cultural appropriations and political forces retarding religion’s philosophical progress, he fearlessly criticizes hypocrisy from sanghas violating canonical teachings to pursue self-interest.

Arguing that exploiting religious identities for fostering intolerance and violence gravely hinders spiritual upliftment, the author’s reform-oriented voice reiterates Buddhism’s emphasis on non-violence and universal compassion. Lucidly written, this collection of incisive essays urges the country's majority faith to return to its enlightened core. Dassanayake's critiques played a part in initiating self-correction efforts within local religious bodies.

10. Killing Fields

Author: Frances Harrison

Published: 2012

Genre: Journalism

A sobering investigative account of the 2009 massacre of over 40,000 Tamils in the brutal culmination of Sri Lanka's civil war, Frances Harrison’s incendiary work revived international outrage over war crimes allegations haunting the country. Through first-hand interviews the author reveals bone-chilling atrocities by government forces contravening international law including denials of food, water and medical aid to civilians trapped in conflict zones.

By placing a much-needed spotlight on these ignored wartime horrors, this gripping work triggered UN scrutiny into the lack of proper investigations by the Sri Lankan state hampering reconciliation. As an urgent call to action demanding justice for thousands denied dignity even in death, the book remains an essential primer on the country’s unresolved, bloody past. Harrison’s reporting won several awards cementing her significant contribution to non-fiction writing on modern Sri Lanka.

Comparison Table

Book Title Author Year Published Genre Key Highlights
The Story of an Island Martin Wickramasinghe 1948 History, Cultural Study - Traces Sri Lanka's history and culture from pre-Christian times <br>- Analyzes interconnections between Sinhalese and Tamil communities
When Memory Dies Amaranath Jayatilaka 2001 Historical Fiction - Explores ethnic tensions tearing apart Sri Lankan society <br>- Highlights impact of divisive politics manipulating identities
Monsoon Memories Amarakeerthi Liyanage 2013 Memoir - Nostalgic vignettes of rural coastal town life <br>- Chronicles harmonious traditions and cultural practices
Playing Pillow Politics at MGK Lal Medawattegedera 2011 Coming-of-Age Memoir - Humorous anecdotes of school life in 1990s Colombo <br>- Commentary on youth culture and mainstream attitudes
The Whirlwind in the Coconut Trees Ayathurai Santhirapala 1993 History - Sweeping 710-year chronicle from medieval kingdoms to independence <br>- Analyzes colonialism's lasting damages causing ethnic ruptures
My Feudal Lord Tehmina Durrani 1991 Autobiography - One woman's traumatic account of life under Pakistan's oppressive patriarchy <br>- Groundbreaking feminist expose confronting domestic abuse, rape culture
Road to Elephant Pass Nihal de Silva 1999 War Fiction - An officer's diary humanizing soldiers on both sides of Sri Lanka's ethnic war <br> - Cry for peace and reconciliation
Vilbagedara G.B. Senanayake 1970 Cultural Study - Study of feudalist structure and gender oppression within rural peasant society <br>- Helped reform programs uplifting marginalized sections
Buddhism Betrayed S. B. Dassanayake 1992 Social Critique - Scathing criticism of institutional corruption and intolerance eroding Buddhist ideals of non-violence in Sri Lanka <br>- Calls for returning to ethical foundations and shedding extremist appropriations
Killing Fields Frances Harrison 2012 Journalism - Firsthand accounts of atrocities during the civil war's horrific climax <br>- Triggered international demands for justice on covered-up state crimes against Tamils


Q: Which book offers the most extensive overview spanning all eras of Sri Lankan society and history?

A: Martin Wickramasinghe's seminal "The Story of an Island" traces Sri Lanka's history and culture starting from 543 BCE covering over 25 centuries. The 637-page work remains unrivaled in its encyclopedic scope analyzing the island country's complex heritage.

Q: Which memoir sheds most insight into Sri Lanka's bitter ethnic tensions?

A: Amaranath Jayatilaka's masterpiece novel "When Memory Dies" dramatizes the ruptures in relations between Sinhalese and Tamils across decades. Nuanced and moving, the book explores easily manipulated divides for political gains destroying communal harmony.

Q: What is the most influential work spurring women's empowerment in the country?

A: G.B. Senanayake's groundbreaking study "Vilbagedara" helped highlight the plight of women oppressed by feudalist attitudes, catalyzing efforts from indigenous organizations to uplift marginalized village communities.

Q: Which book offers the most impactful commentary on civil war atrocities needing investigation?

A: Journalist Frances Harrison's internationally acclaimed "Killing Fields" presented bone-chilling firsthand accounts of the 40,000 Tamil civilian massacre. By triggering global demands for justice, her explosive work applied much-needed pressure on Sri Lanka regarding covered up war crimes.

Q: What book inspired considerable self-reform efforts within institutional religious bodies in Sri Lanka?

A: S.B. Dassanayake's collection of essays "Buddhism Betrayed" generated intense discussions on political corruption and extremism eroding the philosophy's ethical core in Sri Lanka. His commentaries played a key role in prominent Buddhist organizations launching internal correctional initiatives.

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