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Dress and Ornamentation of the ancient Sinhalese

Culled from the Mahavansa and other literary and epigraphic sources.

The Mahavansa, the ancient chronicle of Sinhalese royalty (5th century A.C.) and its sequel, the Chulavansa give us some idea of the dress and ornaments worn by the Sinhalese in ancient and medieval times. The Mahavansa states that the Yakkhini woman Kuveni, who later espoused the Aryan prince Vijaya from Bengal, was first seen seated under a tree, spinning.

This event is believed to have taken place sometime during the 6th-5th century B.C., so that it is possible that the civilized segment of the country s aboriginal populace (The ancestors of the Veddhas, described in the Mahavansa as Yakkas , lit. spirits ) had acquired some knowledge and skills in cloth-making.

 It is only natural to suppose that the ancients, whether Aryans or aboriginals, clad themselves in some form of raiment. The only exception to this would have been the Jain community (Niganthas) residing in the ancient capital of Anuradhapura in the 4th century B.C, who were obliged to go naked according to the dictates of their religion. Garments for the upper body do not seem to have been worn in the case of men, save for royalty and the warriors, who wore protective clothing or armour about their persons.

 As attested by literary evidence, the lower garment of the menfolk of all classes from ancient times to roughly about the 16th century when Portuguese dress caught on, would have been similar to the modern-day North Indian dhoti worn from the waist to below the knees.

 However, unlike the dhoti the ancient Sinhalese garments, especially of the upper classes, appear to have been bifurcated and neatly arranged in folds horizontally. The 13th century Sinhala work Pujavaliya indicates that robes were also worn by men, especially those of the higher classes. Another 13th century work Saddharmalankaraya, describes the king as wearing a costly silken robe.

 In colder climes, higher up in the hill country, or in very cold weather, people were in the habit of wearing a mantle over the usual dress. According to the Chulavansa, King Parakrama Bahu 1(12th century) donned a red mantle (kambala) when he reached the hilly districts on his way to the ancient capital of Polonnaruwa. He is said to have even worn it in combat. Although caps were in currency and apparently very popular amongst the Kandyan Sinhalese during the 17th century, we have no evidence to show whether it was so in ancient and medieval times.

 Garments for the upper body had also become popular amongst the Sinhalese nobility by the 17th century, as noted by Robert Knox, in his monumental work Historical Relation of Ceylon (1681) Says Knox of the attire worn by the Kandyan aristocracy: The nobles wear doublets of white or blue calico, and about their middle a cloth, a white one next their skin, and a blue one or of some other colour or painted, over the white: a blue or red sash girt about their loins, and a knife with a carved handle wrought or inlaid with silver sticking in their bosom. It appears from Knox s statements that all Hondrews (The Govi caste, the Farmer Aristocracy that dominated the affairs of the Kandyan kingdom in its heyday) except for the nobles among them, wore a dhoti-like garment extending to the knees.

 Upper garments were however not unknown even amongst the lower classes as Knox refers to Barber men and women being permitted to wear doublets. As for caps, Knox says: If they be Hondrews, their caps are all of one colour, either white or blue: if of inferior quality, then the cap and the flaps on each side be of different colours, whereof the flaps are always red.

As for women s attire, Martin Wickremasinghe (Purana Sinhala Stringe Enduma) basing his contentions on the Pali work Dhammapadatthakatha (5th century A.C.) has shown that ancient Sinhalese women did not cover the upper part of their bodies.

 Wickremasinghe states that middle-class women only wore a cloth round their hips when at home and also used another to cover their shoulders whenever they went outdoors. As for the upper classes, the Sigiri Frescos (5th century A.C.) depict the contemporary aristocratic women as being bare-breasted, though heavily bejewelled, while their lower-class female attendants are depicted with a breast-band.

 It is a curious fact that in ancient times, women of the untouchable Chandala caste covered their upper bodies, even if those of noble birth did not do so, as noted by Wickremasinghe. It appears that whereas in ancient times, exposing the breasts on the part of women was considered a mark of respect and high birth and that of covering them a sign of inferiority and low birth, in later times the very opposite was true.

 By Kandyan times (16th-19th centuries) it was the practice amongst respectable women to cover their upper bodies while women of the low castes and the untouchables (Rodi) were prohibited from doing so. The lower garment of women, like that of their menfolk, would have been similar to a dhoti, except that in the case of higher class women, it would have extended to the ankles.

 Upper class women also wore more elaborate lower garments as evident in the Sigiri Frescos where the women are depicted wearing a dhoti-like bifurcated candy-striped garment in various colours below their navels. However, as evident in the Pujavaliya (13th century) upper robes for women were not unknown.

 A 10th century inscription found in Kataragama refers to the Chief Queen (agmehesna) as being attired in a blue robe. In later times, during the Kandyan period, the osariya (also known as the Kandyan sari) gained popularity. However, it appears that this dress was restricted to women of the Govi caste.

 Robert Knox (17th century) states that Govi women were distinguished by the wearing of their cloth which they wore to their heels, one end of which cloth the women fling over their shoulders, and with the very end carelessly cover their breasts.

As for the lower classes of women, he says that they must go naked from the waist upwards and their cloths not hang down much below their knees. Knox also states that when going outdoors, Kandyan women wore a short frock with sleeves to cover their bodies of fine white calico wrought with blue and red thread in flowers and branches.

With the advent of the Portuguese Conquistadors in the early 16th century, Sinhalese costume underwent a dramatic change and not only influenced the dress of the folk of the low-country littoral where the Portuguese held sway, but also that of the Kandyan highlanders. Portuguese attire for men such as the shirt (the Sinhala term kamisa shirt derives from the Portuguese word camis) and trousers (Sinh. kalisam from Port. calicao) caught on fast. Footwear, hitherto worn only by the upper classes gained wide currency among local folk. The Sinhala term for shoes, sapattu, derives from the Portuguese sapato, while the Sinhala term for socks, mes, is a corruption of the Portuguese meias.

 It should be borne in mind, that during the olden days, shoes were a royal privilege; at least it had acquired that status by the 17th century though we have no evidence of it having been so in earlier times. Robert Knox notes that neither men nor women wore shoes or stockings, that being a royal dress, and only for the king himself. The dress of Portuguese women would have no doubt captured the fancy of their Sinhalese sisters.

 The skirt (Sinh. saya fr. Port. saia) caught on fast. Lace and such upper garments as arichchi and borichchi, comprising of puff-sleeved bodices or blouses, mainly worn in the low-country areas, are other vestiges of Portuguese influence on local feminine attire. As for ornamentation, literary sources indicate that the ancient and medieval Sinhalese were extremely fond of jewellery. The Mahavansa states that amongst the presents sent by the Mauryan Emperor Asoka (3rd century B.C.) to his Sinhalese friend King Devanampiyatissa were chains (pamanga) and ear-ornaments (vatansa).

 The royal ornaments are traditionally described in 13th century literary sources as being sixty-four in number. The ornaments included avulhara (an elaborate jacket-like ornament made of beads and worn on the chest), hinaseda (armour worn round the waist), hasta-mudrika (signet-ring), ruvan-vela (golden girdle), gala-mutu-mala (pearl necklace), nagavadam (armlet in the shape of a coiled-up cobra with outspread hood), gigiri-valalu (tinkling bangles) and jangha-valalu (bangles worn on the calves).

 Some of the ornaments queens wore are described in 13th century literary sources as aga-tilaka (an ornament worn in the centre of the forehead), ora-vasun (breast-plate), menik-mala (jewelled necklaces), bahumutu (a pearl ornament worn on the arms), kandasa (an ear ornament worn on the edge of the ears), padagam (anklets) and padanguli (toe ornaments). The ornamentation of the aristocratic classes would have been somewhat similar to those of royalty.

 The Chulavansa mentions that amongst the presents sent by King Parakrama Bahu 1 (12th century) to his generals upon hearing of their successful campaign in South India, were golden bracelets (valaya), pearl necklaces (hara) and ear-rings (kanna-kundala). The Sigiri damsels who are representative of 5th century aristocratic women are shown adorned with elaborate head-dresses, large ear-rings, arm-bracelets and a plethora of necklaces and bangles. Another important ornament worn by upper-class women was the mini-mevula, a gem-studded belt-like covering for the female genital organs, which was worn suspended from the waist.

 This ornament which figures prominently in classical Sinhala poetry appears to have been symbolic of chastity and its removal is said to have taken place only at the time of sexual congress. It is said to have not even been removed while bathing. The Hansa Sandeshaya (15th century) alludes to a woman getting frightened as a fish got hold of the glittering gems in her mini-mevula. This ornament however cannot be compared to the medieval chastity belts forced on European women by their jealous husbands. Sinhalese women decked themselves with the mini-mevula solely at their will and pleasure as well as for adornment.

 Martin Wickremasinghe believes that until about the 15th century it was the fashion for women to wear chains of pearls on their breasts. Such chains are said to have been connected to pearl necklaces and circled the breasts. According to the Saddharama-lankaraya (13th century) women wore a variety of ear ornaments (kundalabharana), as well as anklets (pa-salamba) and toe-rings (pa-mudu).

 The Chulavansa states that the women of the lower classes wore rings and bangles made of glass (kach-anguliya-valaya). In later times, it appears that ornamentation for men declined significantly and by the time of Knox (17th century) only rings seem to have found currency amongst men.

 Says Knox of the ornaments worn by Kandyan women: On their arms silver bracelets, and their fingers and toes full of silver rings, about their necks, necklaces of beads or silver, curiously wrought and engraven, gilded with gold, hanging down so low as their breasts. In their ears hang ornaments made of silver set with stones, neatly engraven and gilded. Their ears they bore when they are young, and roll up coconut leaves and put into the holes to stretch them out, by which means they grow so wide that they stand like round circles on each side of their faces, which they account a great ornament, but in my judgement a great deformity, they being well featured women.

The peculiar ear-widening practice mentioned by Knox is thankfully no longer practiced amongst Sinhalese women. As required by tradition, the ears of girls are pierced very early in infancy (usually around the 6th month, but nowadays often shortly after birth). Ear-studs are extremely popular, while ear-rings are gradually going out of vogue.

 Ear-rings for men are today rightly looked upon with disdain and contempt. However, this was not so in the olden days. The Mahavansa alludes to King Dutugemunu (2nd century) wearing ear-rings.

 As stated earlier, ear-rings were amongst the presents sent by King Parakrama Bahu to his generals to reward them for a successful military expedition. However, unlike in the case of women, where ear ornaments have been popular throughout ear-rings for men appear to have been in vogue only at certain times and would have been influenced by the prevailing royal style. @Explore Sri Lanka


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