Ceylon, as it then was, became part of the British Empire in 1815, and regained its independence in 1948.
Two decades of civil war destroyed many buildings, roads, schools and other important facilities in the north and east of the country, but these have mostly been rebuilt since the ceasefire in 2002.
The country also suffers regular natural disasters - floods and landslides in 2003, droughts in 2002 and 2004, and the tsunami in December 2004 which destroyed much of the coastal region.
Sri Lanka has one of the best educated populations among developing nations, with a youth literacy rate of 98% and computer literacy at 35%. A free education system was set up in 1945 and every child has nine years of compulsory schooling. It is one of the few countries in the world that provides free education from primary school to university.
The official national sport is volleyball, but the most popular is cricket. The national team has achieved increasing success since the 1990s and won the 1996 Cricket World Cup, as well as being runners-up in 2007 and 2011. Rugby union, swimming, athletics and football are also popular.