Ethnographic studies of the (local) state in Sri Lanka are rare. This article contributes to closing this gap by analysing the social organisation of politics and public administration from a lifeworld perspective of citizens, public servants and politicians, based on fieldwork in the south of Sri Lanka. Our findings reveal particular structural patterns of state-society relations that are based on the specific historical development of the Sri Lankan state. From the analysis of interactions and perceptions of the respective actors, codes and analytical concepts are developed for describing and better understanding the particular practices and meanings of politics in the country. The conclusion is that the omnipresence of politics and the autonomy that politicians have established in Sri Lanka are unlikely to lead to rights-based and democratic relations between 'state' and 'society' in the near future.