In this modern world, the meaning of ‘marriage’ has changed completely. What was once limited to a divine alliance between two individuals has now become an extravagant affair!
In India especially, rich customs and cultural heritage makes marriage a special occasion for friends and relatives. However, every different region and religion has different wedding rituals.
When it comes to elaborate weddings celebrated with much pomp, the traditional Sri Lankan culture of the wedding cannot be given a miss.
Just like India, Sri Lanka is a confluence of many religions including Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and Christians. During ancient times, Sinhalese marriage laws were similar to those prescribed in the Hindu laws. However, with the advent of Buddhism in the island in the 3rd century B.C, the marriage laws and customs, and the legal position of women underwent a significant change and improvement.
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During the British rule in Sri Lanka, ‘Kandyan’ was prevalent. The Kandyan Society was extremely unprincipled. Men and women were given complete freedom to cohabit with whomsoever he pleased. Sexual morality didn’t even matter. Polygamy and polyandry were famous. Group marriages and trial marriages were common too. Divorce laws were simpler too as either men or women could dissolve the marital tie at their will and pleasure.
The British did not favour Kandyan Sri Lankan culture of wedding and decided to abolish it in 1859.
Sri Lankan Buddhist Wedding Culture
In Sri Lanka, weddings are more than just social events. The solemn rituals and traditions play a prominent role in the ceremonies. Every Sinhalese-Buddhist wedding ceremony has many customs and traditions passed down from generation to generation. Though some of the ceremonies have changed over the decades, observing the nekath and Poruwa siritha is mandatory.
In this blog, we will take you through the customs, traditions, and culture of a Sri Lankan wedding.
Nekath – The Auspicious Time
The Nekath, also referred to as the auspicious time is a very important part of a Buddhist wedding. The date and nekatha of a wedding are usually decided by an astrologer after consulting the bride and the groom’s horoscopes. The time for the ceremonies is usually based on their dates and times of birth.
Once the time for the wedding has been finalised by the priest or astrologer, the Poruwa ceremony takes place. A traditional Sinhala-Buddhist marriage ceremony is known as Poruwa siritha.
Since the British formally created registered marriages in the 1870s, Poruwa siritha is considered a recognised marriage agreement in Sri Lanka. The ceremony borrows traditions from different Sri Lankan communities and blends together a beautiful wedding custom practiced by Tamils and Sinhala people.
The decorations for a Poruwa ceremony include an elegantly adorned altar that is elevated from the ground. It is generally made of four wooden pillars and an overhanging roof.
During the ceremony, the bride and the groom walk up together to the Poruwa, leading with their right feet and facing the guests. The guests are divided based on their relationship with the couple. The bride’s side is seated on the right side while the groom’s side on the left.
The groom is escorted with to the wedding location with drummers and typical Kandyan dancers. An elephant is decked up for the groom to sit on for the procession.
The bride and the groom greet each other with their palms held together in a traditional manner. The ceremony is initiated by giving betel leaves to the couple, which they hold and then return to be used in during the Poruwa.
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The seven betel leaf bundles are offered to God requesting them to protect the lives of seven generations originating from their marriage. Much like the Hindu customs, the bride’s father places the right hand of his daughter on that of the groom, as a symbolising gesture of handing over the bride to the bridegroom.
The Ceremony Begins
As mentioned earlier, the Sri Lankan culture of a wedding involves many people – the master of ceremony (the shilpadhipathi), the ashtaka or narrator (who recites religious chants) and the Jayamangala Gatha (a group of four young girls who bless the marriage with religious chants).
There are multiple rituals and traditions that are scared to Buddhism and each one is conducted due to a specific belief.
At the given auspicious time, the ceremony begins. It often starts with the auspicious seven betel leaves ceremony. The bride and groom take turns and repeat the process. Each one takes a betel leaf at a time and drops it into the Poruwa. Once this is ceremony is complete, the groom’s brother is supposed to stand with a tray containing a gold necklace. The groom, in turn, takes the necklace and places it on the bride’s neck.
The Tying Of the Pirith Nool
Back then, when registered marriages were not prevalent, the tying of the pirith nool (sacred thread), was considered a symbol of the union of marriage. The gold thread that symbolises unity is tied by the maternal uncle. Once the uncle ties the bride and groom’s fingers, he is required to pour pirith pan (holy water) on it. This is a prominent ritual in any Sinhalese-Buddhist wedding. The ritual is significant because water and earth are two sacred elements in Buddhism.
Gifting of white cloth
After the completion of the pirith nool ritual, the groom is required to present a white cloth that is about 16mm in length to his bride. After looking at it, the bride gives it to her mother to keep. A white cloth of this particular length is given to the bride’s mother as an expression of gratitude by the groom to his mother-in-law, for raising the bride since her birth.
This is the most beautiful and heart-warming part of Sri Lankan wedding culture. It is also the time when the groom promises the bride’s parents to take care of their daughter for the rest of his life.
Milk and Kiribath
No wedding is complete without a touch of sweetness. In the western wedding culture, the couple usually cut a wedding cake. Similarly, in a Sinhala-Buddhist wedding, it is the milk rice or kiribath which is the most special dish among the sweetmeats. The bride’s mother is required to feed the bride and groom, a mouth of milk rice and then the groom’s mother is required gives them each a sip of milk. The ceremony ends with the bride and groom feeding each other a little kiribath.
As the newly married couple steps down the traditional Poruwa, the groom’s family members break a fresh coconut symbolising new beginnings.
The moment the couple stepped off the elevated pavilion on to the ground amidst drummers and dancers, is the moment they have become husband and wife.
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- Bride: Whether the Sri Lankan bride is Sinhalese or Malay, her attire is a beautiful blend of eastern and western tradition. From distinctive western-style veils to timeless silk sarees, the Sri Lankan brides look is unique and eye-catching. On her wedding day, the bride usually wears a heavily embroidered silk saree with a peplum style ruffle around the waist and a long blouse. The saree is weighed down with beads, pearls, stones, and sequins. The bridal saree usually boasts of gold and silver thread work. Certain brides also choose blouses with puffy sleeves in order with the royal custom. Today, in the Poruwa ceremony, several modern-day customs have been absorbed in. Exchange of rings just like the western culture is a common practice. Brides who opt for a western wedding ceremony wear a white wedding dress similar to Christian weddings. To add to the look, they cover themselves from head to toe with jewels.
- Groom: The Sri Lankan groom’s wedding outfit is the most unique in South East Asia. The look resonates with the royalty of the 19th century. It includes a plush velvet hat and jacket and a rich fabric of the draped cloth. The mul and uma are made for the kings and is worn only on special occasions. The groom’s outfit comprises of four parts: hat, jacket, mul and uma, and shoes. From head to toe, the groom’s outfit is heavily embroidered with silver and gold thread. The jacket and shoes match the hat. The groomsmen also wear similar outfits but not as grand as the groom. It is often referred to as Nilame costume.
The homecoming of the bride marks the end of a Sri Lankan wedding. It takes place a few days after the wedding ceremony. At the Poruwa ceremony, a saree and jacket, usually made of red material is handed over to the bride by the groom’s mother. At the time of homecoming, the bride is required to wear this attire and enter her new home.
The Sri Lanka culture of wedding is an epitome of grace and heritage. Every ritual beautifully signifies the beginning of a new stage in life. Besides witnessing the union of two souls, friends and family must look at a Sinhala-Buddhist wedding as a time to witness the traditions and rituals that have been part of the country for a long period of time.
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