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 Post subject: Home and family in ancient and medieval Sri Lanka
 Post Posted: Sun Dec 21, 2008 2:21 am 
Home and family in ancient and medieval Sri Lanka

The domestic life in ancient and medieval Sri Lanka was, in some respects, similar to domestic life today. Inscriptions show that in the ancient period the family consisted of husband, wife, sons and daughters. This unit expanded when necessary to include married sons and daughters and their children. A cave inscription speaks of husband, wife, son, daughter in law, father in law and grandson. Another inscription included a great-grand-son.

by Kamalika Pieris
@ LL - Dec 2008


Some idea of the social life of ancient and medieval Sri Lanka could be gleaned from the literature and inscriptions of the period. The domestic life in ancient and medieval Sri Lanka was, in some respects, similar to domestic life today.

The institution of family was well established. Inscriptions show that in the ancient period the family consisted of husband, wife, sons and daughters. This unit expanded when necessary to include married sons and daughters and their children. A cave inscription speaks of husband, wife, son, daughter in law, father in law and grandson. Another inscription included a great-grand-son. Badulla pillar inscription said that the head of the house could be arrested for an offence but the wife and children were not to be touched. The working unit of an agricultural holding in medieval times was husband, wife and unmarried children. It also included married children who remained at home with their spouses. Certain titles and positions were hereditary. Property too was inherited.

Cave inscriptions indicated that marriage took place among social equals. Caste, wealth, status and education were the chief factors that controlled the choice of a husband, in the medieval period. Rasavahini (13 century) says parents did not approve an alliance until they had checked on the family and lineage. Employment was also looked into. In the case of the wife, the ability to attend to household work was considered a necessity. Looks also mattered. Women enjoyed the freedom of choosing their husbands within the social limits. There were cross-cousin marriages and marriages based on love.

A girl was considered fit for marriage at sixteen and she was given in marriage as soon as possible after she attained this age. Till then girls were kept in seclusion. According to the Saddharmaratnavaliya (13 century) girls of well to do families were carefully guarded and only emerged from the house to take part in festivals. Dowry was given with the daughter. The gifts included sahal naliyak, mol gasa, vangediya, kalaya with piyana, and plate to eat rice on. Sadhatissa gave Chandra, a girl who had impressed him, in marriage to a soldier in his army. Since she was not rich, he gave her great wealth and lands.

Weddings took place on auspicious days, and in a grand manner. Kiribath was prepared. The wedding party arrived in procession and after the wedding the couple went off in an open vehicle so that onlookers could see them. A list of gifts received was read out at the wedding. After marriage the couple lived separately and managed their affairs on their own. According to the Pujavali (13 century) husbands were expected to avoid attachments to other women, speak kindly to their wives, supply them with ornaments and garments and give entire responsibility of food matters to them. There is a fleeting mention of dowry. Unpleasant relations with mothers in law are mentioned in Saddharmaratnavali.

Pregnancy was given due recognition. Precautions were taken and ceremonies held to protect mother and child. A pregnant daughter went home to her parents for the confinement. She was expected to avoid very salty, cold or heaty foods. Angulimala pirita was chanted for a safe delivery. According to Saddharmaratnavali pregnancy cravings were known. There were ceremonies for naming, feeding, piercing the ears, and cutting the hair of the new baby. There were rituals for these, with feasting afterwards. The child’s education was started at an auspicious time, with ceremony, usually at the age of five.

Medieval literature indicates that the relation between parents and children was a loving one. Children were treated with affection. Parents often brought home to their children a portion of any sweets they had been given. The forms of address in the medieval period are similar to the terms used today. The terms appa and amma appear in the Butsarana. The word puta has been used as a term of endearment to children, even strangers. There is also mutta, mama, nanda, malli, bana, leli, massina daruva, sahodaraya, sahodari, sondura, and pinvata. Elders were held in great honour and respect. Children worshipped parents before leaving home. Cave donations show that grown up children donated caves in the names of their parents to convey merit.

Children were sometimes treated as a commodity. Poverty among the poorer classes was such that sometimes parents were compelled to sell or mortgage their children for slavery for a few kahapana. One woman suggested to her husband, ‘are those who have children poor? This is your daughter, put her in a house, get 12 kahapana and buy a milch cow.’ Another married his daughter to a rich family for 12 kahapana and yet another mortgaged his son for 8 kahapana.

Society was patriarchal. Cave inscriptions of 3rd to 1st century BC emphasise the father’s status. .However, there is evidence to show that from the ancient period onwards, women had considerable status, legal rights and freedom. They could inherit property. They attended public functions. They were allowed to go about freely without being accompanied by a male member of their family. Kavsilumina shows women enjoying themselves, drinking, singing and dancing. Kings had a plurality of wives apart from the official consorts. There is no indication however, that the common man had more than one wife. Several sources such as the Visuddimagga sanniya indicate that from royalty to commoner, a widow could re marry.

The available information on dress indicates that there were dress regulations for temple employees. Dalada sirita said that those who served at the Temple of the Tooth should be dressed in tunic and headdresses. Employees at Chetiyagiri wore an upper garment, a lower garment and a headdress. Some of them received an allowance for clothing. Cleanliness in dress was considered important. Chetiyagiri also set apart three kiri of land to be assigned to washermen for laundering the garments of its employees.

The information available on daily wear indicates that the upper part of the body was not covered. Men wore a cloth below the waist and another piece of cloth was thrown over the shoulders. Women’s dress covered only the lower part of the body. They covered their shoulders when going out, but the rest of the upper body was kept exposed. Clothes were of silk and cotton. There was also a cloth made out of goat’s hair and a material woven from the fibres of a tree. Footwear was used. There were slippers made of grass. Women dressed simply to go to temple. Headgear and footwear were removed when entering the temple. There were parasols, umbrellas, purses, keys and walking sticks. Kankavitarani lists a collyrium holder for eye lotions, nasal drop sprinklers, ear pricks, needles, scissors and thorn removers.

Women painted their eyes and applied sandalwood paste to the hands. They placed the tilaka mark on their forehand. Women used powder, perfumes, flowers, and camphor for adornment. The west Asian perfumes, saffron, sandalwood, frankincense, and fragrant oil were much sought after in the 13th century. The domestic arts included garland making and preparation of perfume. Garlands of flowers were worn round the head.

Hair was washed regularly, dried, searched for lice, oiled, scented and adorned with flowers. There were ointments for cleaning the hair. Hair was plaited or tied in a knot. Flowers were added to the knot. . There were hair stylists. It is possible, said M.B.Ariyapala, that hair, moustaches and beards were cut in various styles. The hairstyles worn by the upper class differed from those of the servants. Hair should be dyed when it went grey, said the Saddharmaratnavali.

Both men and women went in heavily for ornaments. There were separate ornaments for men and women. Male ornaments included ‘otunu’ and earrings. Kankavitarani refers to signet rings. The women wore toe rings, anklets, bangles, chains, ear rings, neck ornaments, and waist chains. They were expected to wear all of these. The jewellery was made of pearls, sapphires, emerald, topaz, agate, lapis lazuli, diamonds, and corals. Other precious materials mentioned are gold, silver, rubies, cat’s eye, diamond, coral, ruby, blue sapphire. There is reference to eight kinds of pearls.

The smallest living unit was the gama, or a group of houses or settlements. In medieval times, those well off had large houses built of stone, mortar and lime, with tiled roofs and whitewashed walls. The houses had compounds or courtyards, and balconies. There were rooms and apartments with doors and windows. The windows had fanlights. The doors in ancient houses were sometimes massive and when they were opened or closed the walls used to vibrate and the plaster would fall off. Doorways were not fixed with hinges, but with pins, and the door swivelled on these pins. The wooden doors were based on stone ones. Sikhavalanda vinisa indicates that in 10th century there were revolving doorways. There were door keys.

There was an air cooling method in the ancient period. A dried buffalo skin was fixed above the roof of the building. Water dripped on to it from several pipes, creating the effect of rain and sending in a cooling breeze. Pictures on walls were changed according to the season. There were cooling pictures for the hot season and warming pictures for the cool season.

The houses had seats (asana), yahana (beds) and kuru yahana (low beds). The chairs, bed and seats were covered with kurusam (soft leather), atiliri (coverlets) and cushions. There were gedi pahana (hanging lamps), standing panas and gongs. .The rooms had almirahs, mirrors, mattresses, pillows, blankets, curtains and carpets. Pillows were stuffed with kapok and flowers such as saman said Sikhavalanda vinisa Mihintale tablet speaks of a multicoloured pillow and also mentions needles.

All houses however small had kitchens. Kankavitarani lists many household items of wood, metal and clay. There were plates, mugs, and receptacles for oil. There were heavy and light utensils made of metals, such as metal pot and metal cauldron. Also water jar, water receptacle, gruel spoon, ladle, rice ladle, soup bowls (porringer), drinking cup, basket or cinder pot and smoke ladle.

There were separate rooms for pounding paddy, a storeroom or atuva for storing paddy and sheds for keeping chariots. Latrines are also mentioned. Floors were dressed with a mixture of cowdung and clay obtained from termite mounds. Termite clay had a purity and fine texture and gave a smooth finish to the floor. Uragoda noted recently, that though cowdung was considered a medium for the transmission of tetanus, it had been used in India and Sri Lanka without any discernible unhealthy effect on the inmates. Kankavitarani mentions tools such as barrel, adze, axe, knives, rope, mammoty, spade, a ladder and things made of creepers, bamboo rods, soft grass and thin reed.

Women were expected to manage the household with thrift and care. Pujavaliya refers to spilling oil as waste. Women were assigned certain tasks. They spun cotton and wove cloth in their homes. Weaving was carried out as a domestic industry from 6th century BC to 14th century AD. Milking cows was another task assigned to women. Even the queen of Saddhatissa knew how to milk cows.

Cooking was considered an essential accomplishment for a woman. All women, including the daughters of eminent men learnt the art of cooking (supa sattha). It was one of the sixty-eight arts. Rasavahini refers to the daughter of the chief minister of Kakavanna Tissa of Rohana who was given special training in the theory and practice of cookery. There is a cookery recipe in the Thupavamsa. It said, grind talapath or minchi leaves, add spices like chilli, onion, cumin and mustard, flavour with salt and lime, and make a curry. Then temper with oil to which is added chillie, onions, and curry leaves. However, the text laments, when it is taken in a pingo and delivered, it is ‘received without a word of encouragement or a portion of the food’.

Well to do people ate three times a day. Meals consisted of rice, curries, curd, honey, sweets, butter, green herbs, and even lotus roots and stalks. Various kinds of meat such as peacock flesh, venison, and pork, hare, and chicken seem to have been considered favourite and delicious dishes. Monks were often served with these dishes. Hunters had also eaten monkey flesh. Alms were given to beggars, not only monks. Animals and birds were also fed. Betel chewing was a common habit and usually people carried betel bags with them. Even kings appear to have carried betel bags. Betel chewing was so popular that at Hopitigama market there was a special stall for the sale of betel and areca nut.

Liquor was popular among some people. The ability to drink a great quantity of liquor was considered a sign of physical strength. Rasavahini said that Dutugumunu got Suranimala to drink 16 nalis of toddy. Govt officials are known to accept liquor when they visited villages on official business. they drank in the company of villagers. Badulla Pillar inscription shows that they sometimes demanded liquor from villagers and even took by force the liquor that was brought to the village. The intoxicants abin and kansa were known in Sri Lanka during the 15 century.

Poya day was a public holiday. Fa Hsien (5th century) stated that the eighth, fourteenth and fifteenth days were also treated as holidays. This means that full moon, new moon and the two quarter moon days were all public holidays. Sermons were delivered in the monasteries on these days. Trading on poya days was prohibited by law. Inscription dated to Udaya III stated that whoever traded on poya day had to pay a fine. Aggabodhi VIII (804-815) forbade bringing in fish, meat or intoxicating drinks to the city centre on uposatha days.

The medieval literature refers to various sports, games and other recreational activities. Horse racing and wrestling are mentioned. Cock fighting was known. The kings enjoyed jala and udyana kreeda. Rasavahini refers to a drinking party for Dutugemunu. Nissanka Malla went hunting.

There was ‘uyan keli’. This included ‘playing with tops,’ and ‘swinging’ (probably onchilla padeema). There was also a game which used three balls made of thread. It was played by two or more persons, for a stake. Dice was involved. Some games were for women. The children played ‘veli keli’. There was ‘keli valam’, a small vessel made especially for children to play with. Water sports (diya keli) are mentioned in all literary works, but there are no details. One activity apparently was to splash water at one another.

Harvesting time was a festive season, a time for recreation and enjoyment. The king celebrated the harvest festival. Saddharmaratnavali gives a description of this festival; people were decked in splendour, and feasted. There was festivity during the time of sowing as well. The festival called nakat keliya was also an occasion for great fun and perhaps even for licentiousness. It was a time of feasting, drinking, dancing, music and making merry.

Some aspects of social life resemble the modern period. The ancient Sinhalese kept pets. King Voharika Tissa’s younger brother had a pet dog. House-warming ceremonies included not only feasting but also alms giving. Water was served when inviting guests to a meal. Guests did not arrive empty handed. They coughed to let people know that they had come. They knocked before entering. Headgear and footwear were removed before entering a house. When they went away from home, the owners handed over the keys of the house to a neighbour, and left one servant to look after the house.

When they abused each other, the ancient Sinhalese used terms of abuse that referred to the mother. Nicknames were popular. In Saddharmaratnavaliya, a man called Tissa had been nicknamed Nikamma Tissa, as he did no work. Mahavamsa provides a collection of nicknames. King Mahadathika Mahanaga was’ big moustached Naga". King Vasabha’s son was called ‘hook nosed Tissa’. In Dutugemunu’s reign there was a monk known as ‘iguana Tissa’, because he had a skin complaint. In Vattagamani’s time, there was a monk was known as ‘thick bearded Tissa’ and a minister known as ‘monkey head". There were funeral processions for the dead, including elaborate ones for monks. However, coffins were not used. The bodies were carried on beds. Cremation was favoured over burial. There were separate cemeteries for the sangha, royal family, and the chandalas.


The writings of M.B.Ariyapala, C.M. Austin de Silva, H. Ellawala, C.E.Godakumbura, R.A.L.H. Gunawardana, L.K.Karunaratne, P.V.B Karunatilaka, S Kiribamune, I. Munasinghe, S. Paranavitana, S. Seneviratne, W.I. Siriweera Walpola Rahula, C. Wickremagamage, C.G.Uragoda and V. Vitharana were used for this essay.


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