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Traditional Sinhalese Marriage Laws and Customs

(Culled from medieval Sinhalese, Kandyan and early British era literary sources by Asiff Hussein)

During ancient times, pre-Buddhistic Sinhalese marriage laws and customs would have been similar to those prescribed in the laws of Manu (Manava - Dharma - Sastra) written in North India sometime between the 3rd century B.C."1st century A.C.

The work, which is a compilation of the traditions of the ancient Indo-Aryan Hindus reflects a rigid patriarchal society with extended family households.

The laws are particularly odious due to its repressive attitude towards the fairer sex.

The marriage of a maiden for example comprised of a gift (Kanya - danam) by her father to a suitable suitor, although it was agreed that if a girl was not given in marriage by her guardian (father or brother) within three years of her attaining puberty, she would be free from his control and may validly enter into a marriage of her own accord.

Marriage was however an indissoluble sacrament and not a secular contract, so that divorce was impossible.

With the advent of Buddhism to the island during the 3rd century B.C., we may presume that the legal position of women underwent a significant improvement.

The Mahavansa (5th century A.C.), the ancient chronicle of Sinhalese royalty and its sequel, the Chulavansa, do not give us any idea as to the position of women with regard to marriage during the ancient and early medieval periods.

However, a late medieval work, the Saddharma - lankaraya (13th century), a collection of stories intended for the edification of Buddhists, refers to a lady of Anuradhapura named Sumana who gave herself in marriage to a man from Ruhuna, so that we may suppose that both men and women were free to contract their marriages sans any third party sanction.

This however is in sharp contrast to later Kandyan times, when both men and women were required to obtain the consent of their parents when contracting a marriage.

According to an early English compilation of Kandyan law, namely John Armour"s "Grammar of Kandyan Law" (early 19th century), the consent of both parents is necessary for a valid marriage.

There were of course a number of other conditions that had to be fulfilled, before a marriage could be contracted.

Besides parental consent the parties to the marriage had to (1) belong to the same caste, (2) they were not to be related within the prohibited degrees of relationship and (3) they had to have the intention of forming a definite alliance.

As in India marriages within the caste were the accepted norm.

Robert Knox, an English exile who spent nearly 20 years in the Kandyan Kingdom (1660 - 1679) states in his work "Historical Relation of Ceylon" (1681):

"It is not accounted any shame or fault for a man of the highest sort to lay with a woman far inferior to himself, nay of the very lowest degree, provided he neither eats nor drinks with her, nor takes her home to his house as his wife."

Knox"s statement shows that marriage, unlike mere cohabitation, had a ritual value.

Indeed other statements of his show that Kandyan society was an extremely licentious one where both men and women had full freedom to cohabit with whomsoever they pleased save that in the case of women, they could not do so with one inferior in caste to themselves, such an act entailing severe punishment. Says Knox, "If any of the females should be so deluded, as to commit folly with one beneath herself, if ever she should appear to the sight of her friends, they would certainly kill her, there being no other way to wipe off the dishonour she hath done the family but by her own blood."

Kandyan law also prohibited marriages between close relatives. This included a man"s daughter (duva), sister (sahodari; this included the daughter of one"s father"s brother or one"s mother"s sister) and nenda (paternal aunt), though he could marry his niece (leli) and maternal aunts (loku-amma, kudamma).

For a marriage to be valid, the parties also had to have the intention of forming a marital union.

This was due to the fact that in Kandyan society, sexual morality hardly ever mattered and polygyny (a man taking more than one wife), polyandry (a woman taking more than one husband) and concubinage were all recognised as legal.

Group marriages and trial marriages were also commonplace.

Furthermore, Buddhism saw to it that marriage in Sinhalese society became a secular contract and not a rigid sacrament as in Hindu law, so that marriage itself had "little force or validity" as noted by Knox.

Says Knox, "In this country, even the greatest hath but one wife, but a woman often has two husbands."

The polyandry practiced in Kandyan times was usually of the fraternal type and was known by the euphemism eka-ge-kama (lit. eating in one house).

Joao Riberio (1685) says of the Sinhalese during the time of Portugues rule (17th century):

"A girl makes a contract to marry a man of her own caste (for she cannot marry outside it), and if the relatives are agreeable they give a banquet and unite the betrothed couple. The next day a brother of the husband takes his place, and if there are seven brothers she is the wife of all of them, distributing the nights by turns, without the husband having a greater right than any of his brothers. If during the day, any of them finds the chamber unoccupied, he can retire with the woman if he thinks fit... she can refuse herself to none of them; whichever brother it may be that contracts the marriage, the woman is the wife of all."

He adds: "the woman who is married to a husband with a large number of brothers is considered very fortunate, for all toil and cultivate for her and bring whatever they earn to the house, and she lives much honoured and well supported and for this reason the children call all the brothers their fathers."

Phillip Baldaeus, a Dutch cleric notes in his book "Ceylon" (1672) that in his time the Kandyans recommended, "the conjugal duty to be performed by their own brothers" - and cites the instance of a woman resident of Galle who "had confidence enough to complain of the want of duty in her husband"s brother on that account."

There also existed group marriages, where the brothers of one family jointly entered into matrimony with the sisters of another.

Polygyny and polyandry however did not find favour with the British who saw to its abolition by means of the Kandyan marriage ordinance of 1859.

Trial marriages were also common among the Kandyans.

Davy (Account of the interior of Ceylon 1821) says that the first fortnight of the bride"s cohabitation with her husband was a period of trial at the end of which the marriage was either annulled or confirmed.

As for concubinage, although it was permitted, in later times, it appears to have been frowned upon, especially amongst the nobility.

John D"oyly (Sketch of the constitution of the Kandyan Kingdom 1835) has stated that the last Kandyan king reprimanded Migastenne Adigar for keeping a concubine of the "Berava" (drummer) caste. The woman was flogged and sent across the river, and thus banished from Kandy.

Divorce, as might be expected of such a promiscuous society, was very easy. Kandyan law recognised that either men or women may dissolve the marriage tie at their will and pleasure.

Says Knox, "Both women and men do commonly wed four or five times before they can settle themselves to their contentation."

Widow remarriage was also very commonplace and did not carry any stigma as was the case in India.

Says Knox, "These women are of a very strong courageous spirit, taking nothing very much to heart... when their husbands are dead, all their care is where to get others, which they cannot long be without".

Kandyan law recognised two forms of marriage, namely, diga marriage and binna marriage.

In diga marriage, the woman went to live in her husband"s house and gave up her claims to the parental estate. This was the usual mode of marriage among the Kandyans.

Binna marriage was a marriage where the husband contracted to go and live in the wife"s house.

Such a marriage necessarily entailed the husband being subject to a "petticoat government", for the wife was the head of the house, a virtual matriarch.

It is said to have been a marriage "contracted with a wink and ended by a kick".

According to Knox, there existed certain lands in Kandy known as bini " pangu that were hereditary through the female line.

He says "Younger sons of other families, when grown up, the elder brothers having all the land, they marry these women that have lands. A man in this case only differs from a servant in laying with his mistress for she will bear rule and he no longer then willing to obey can continue but she will turn him away at her pleasure."

John D"oyly (1835) has narrated a saying of the Kandyans that "the binna husband should take care to have constantly ready at the door of his wife"s room, a walking stick, a talpot (a palm leaf used as an umbrella) and a torch, so that he may be prepared at any hour of the day or night, and whatever may be the state of the weather or of his own health, to quit her house on being ordered."

Binna marriage would have been a convenient arrangement by which means readily available male labour could be obtained for running a girl"s parents" estate in case they had no male offspring.

Such an arrangement would have also served to help a woman look after her aged parents in the comfort of their home.

Binna marriages are still recognised in the Kandyan districts.


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