Men have traditionally regarded long straight hair as beautiful. Women traditionally used tortoise-shell combs to keep their hair in place. Hats and headdresses are generally not worn. Women sometimes drape part of their sari over their head. Up until around beginning of the 20th century, low caste women were required to go topless.

People often bathe three times a day because of the heat. Many people bath in their own private wells. Rural Sri Lankans are very good at bathing in streams and rivers without removing their clothes. When Sinhalese women take a bath they pour a certain number of buckets over their head for luck and a certain number for health.

Bathing is an element of many Sri Lanka rituals and holidays. Those who attend a funeral are expected a bath to rid themselves of the pollution of death. During Dival (Deepavali), the Hindu festival of lights, Hindus purify themselves with an oil bath.

Water is the most essential thing in a village. Each household has a well dug in the garden. Sometimes there would be a common well used for both bathing and taking water for drinking purpose. Usually the womenfolk bathe in the well while men prefer to take a dip in a nearby stream. The well became the meeting place for women where village gossip is discussed. [Source: Sunday Times, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

Saturday is deemed to be the most suitable day for bathing and is said to bring happiness. Bathing on Sundays is said to spoil the bather’s appearance; bathing on Monday improves it; Tuesday - brings on disease, and Wednesday riches; Thursday - creates quarrels and if one bathes on Fridays his children will die. [Source: M. B. Dassanayake]

New Year Bath in Sri Lanka

Sybil Wettasinghe wrote: “The first bath for the New Year had to be taken at an auspicious time as well. For this a special herbal oil was brought from the temple. An elderly man anointed this oil on the heads of other with blessings for long life. Then they took the first bath in the New Year, usually two days after the dawn of the New Year. [Source: Sybil Wettasinghe, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

Dr. Upali Pilapitiya wrote: “The customary bathing for the passing year is equally important facet. Herbal bath gives physical purification. When one takes a herbal bath over the entire body, anointed with gingelly oil or mustard oil that provides a soothing effect for the body. Herbal baths are prescribed in Vedas too. [Source: Dr. Upali Pilapitiya, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

“For this year, water mixed with the Juice of Bo leves is recommended. Body massage and herbal bath promotes blood circulation, and it is considered the best method of maintaining positive health. Herbal baths are prescribed as a method of treatment in many nervous disorders and diseases of the muscles and joints.

“Anointing of the head with Nanu (medicated shampoo) and oil is described in Ayurveda as a way of promoting health, specially massaging the scalp with oil and cleaning the head with medicated decoction known as Nanu. It promotes the growth of hair. It improves a sound sleep and balances the body humours. These rituals and New Year custom are healthy. Therefore they should be incorporated in our daily life for greater progress and prosperity. [Source: Dr. Upali Pilapitiya, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

Diyareddha — the Sri Lankan “Water Cloth – Sexier Than a Bikini?

Diyareddha literally means "Water Cloth " or cloth used for bathing. According to The Island: The Diyareddha still remains the sexiest bathing costume for women because when it gets really soaked in water, it becomes a second skin on the wearer and clings to her body. Thus it very clearly outlines the curvaceous contours of the female torso while not displaying a completely exposed vision to the eyes of the beholder. [Source: Satyn]

The Diyareddha is the most widely used bathing costume by women of Asian countries including Sri Lanka. It is a piece of cloth similar to a sarong. The sarong has its two ends sewn together and men generally wear it. While the women wear it without its two ends been sewn together. The majority of the women in Asia when bathing outdoors at a river, a hillside water sprout, a well or at the community tap convert the cloth they wear waist downwards (a jacket is worn on the upper portion of their body), into a Diyareddha. This is easily done by simply hosting the cloth from round their waist to a level just above their breasts and tying it at that position. Diyareddha literally means "Water Cloth " or cloth used for bathing.

It is an accepted fact by both men and women that the Diyareddha is sexier than any other bathing costume designed in the West, including the briefest of bikinis. When the female form is completely exposed it could be beautiful but not sexy. When it is partially covered it becomes both beautiful and sexy. The reason for this phenomenon is obvious. The unexposed areas introduce an element of mystery and leave it to the imagination of the observer to complete the picture. In the West bathing costumes for females were first designed in the 19th century both in America and Great Britain during the Victorian Era. These costumes covered the wearer from her neck to her ankles. Then gradually the hemlines began to grow shorter while the necklines began to plunge lower and lower, culminating in today’s itsy bitsy tiny weenie bikini. This left hardly anything to the imagination.

The Diyareddha on the other hand did not undergo any changes in centuries. Women of today who wear the Diyareddha wear it exactly in the same manner their ancestors did centuries ago. They tie it just above the swell of their breasts and the cloth reaches down their knees. The Diyareddha still remains the sexiest bathing costume for women because when it gets really soaked in water, it becomes a second skin on the wearer and clings to her body. Thus it very clearly outlines the curvaceous contours of the female torso while not displaying a completely exposed vision to the eyes of the beholder. Instead it tantalises the imagination of the observer by giving him revealing glimpses of the female form through the translucent wet cloth as different sections of it keeps clinging and unclinging to the body of the bather.

Hollywood and the Diyareddha

According to The Island: In the late thirties and early forties Hollywood discovered the above secret and introduced to the screen — the Sarong Girl. The first actress to wear a sarong like a Diyareddha in a motion picture was Dorothy Lamour. She was a twenty two-years-old American girl with the exotic looks of an a oriental female. [Source: Satyn]

She had dark lanky hair, which reached, down to her waist. Her face was beautifully oval with a pair of dewy doe eyes and full lips. In addition she was tall and had a shapely lissome figure. Her first film in a sarong was released in 1936 titled, "The Jungle Princess" by Paramount Studios with one of their leading male stars Ray Milland. It was a low budget movie but it grossed a high figure at the box office. The reason for this movie’s success was purely due to Miss Lamour in a sarong. At that period in Hollywood, the Hays office imposed a strict censorship on Hollywood films. There was a complete ban on the exposure of female breasts in films although film producers had done so without any hindrance in their films from the very inception of the motion picture industry.

Miss Lamour wore her sarong just above her breasts and it ended way up her thighs where the accepted bathing costumes ended at that time. In the film she wore the sarong Diyareddha style throughout and invariably got it wet. The producers were thus able to satisfy the dreaded Hays office code of decency while not reducing the sexy image of the heroine. Actually the sarong enhanced the sexy image. This movie was followed by another sarong one titled "Hurricane" in 1937. It starred Miss Lamour with a handsome new beefcake star named Jon Hall. This film unlike the first film was a major production with a budget. It was based on a novel by Charles Nordhof and James Norman Hall the authors of the famous story "Mutiny on the Bounty." The film was directed by one of Hollywood’s veteran directors John Ford.

The next year Miss Lamour’s studio teamed her once more with Ray Milland the male lead in her first sarong film. The new film was called "Her Jungle Love" and in it, as before she wore her sarong and got it wet. Meantime Ms. Dorothy Lamour had become a favourite with the forces engaged in World War 11 and also a major Hollywood star. She made many films other than her sarong ones but could never shake off the Sarong Girl image, which she had made famous. She got into sarong again in, "Road to Singapore" with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, "Typhon" with Robert Preston and "Moon over Burma" also with Robert Preston in 1940. In 1941 she made yet another picture in sarong, "Aloma of the South Seas" once again with Jon Hall. The next year it was "Beyond the Blue Horizon" with Richard Denning and finally her studio Paramount allowed her to end their sarong fettish with a film called "Rainbow Island" with comedian Eddie Bracken.

Sri Lanka Deports Tourist with Buddha Tattoo and Seizes Buddha Aprons

In 2014, a 37-year-old British tourist detained for four days was deported from Sri Lanka for having a tattoo of Buddha on her arm. Legally, there is no ban on a Buddha tattoo in Sri Lanka, but the nation is very sensitive about its religion. A court said the tattoo was an insult to Buddhism, the island's main religion. Al Jazeera reported: Naomi Coleman, 37, a nurse left on a London-bound flight after being detained since her arrival from neighbouring India. [Source: Al Jazeera, 25 April 2014]

“I just want to get out of this place. I have come twice to Sri Lanka, but I have never faced this with my tattoo," Coleman told Reuters.“If there is a rule like this, Sri Lankan authorities should clearly say that Buddha tattoos are banned. I am a practicing Buddhist and Buddhism is all about compassion and kindness."

Authorities spotted Coleman's tattoo upon her arrival in Sri Lanka. Senior immigration official Chulananda Perera said the court had decided to deport Coleman partly because she could have been "vulnerable" if allowed to stay. “Some Sri Lankans could get offended," Perera said. It was not the first time a tourist with such a tattoo has run into trouble in Sri Lanka. In 2013, authorities denied entry to a British man for his tattoo of Buddha.

Later Coleman was awarded $6000 in compensation. The Sun reported: The mental health nurse took legal action against the Sri Lankan authorities after her unceremonious return to Britain. The Sun reports a court has now ruled there was “no legal basis” for her arrest and admitted she had been subject to “degrading treatment” by some officers and a prison guard. One jail guard “made several lewd, obscene and disparaging remarks of a sexually-explicit nature” towards Ms Coleman. Police officers had also forced her to give them money during her tattoo ordeal. Granting her compensation of 800,000 Sri Lankan rupees — about $6800 — the country’s Supreme Court said her treatment was “scandalous and horrifying”. Officers involved in her arrest were also ordered to pay her compensation. Her lawyer JC Weliamuna said her deportation had been against immigration laws. Ms Coleman, who was arrested at Bandaranaike International Airport in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo, said previously the detention had left her “really frightened”. [Source: Jon Lockett, The SunNovember 16, 2017]

In 2016, Sri Lankan customs officers seized a kitchen aprons and oven gloves with images of Buddha that were from India and heading to Slovenia . Customs spokesman Dharmasena Kahandawa told The Hindu that the products, with images of the Buddha printed on them, were “offensive to religious sentiments” of Buddhists and had to be impounded. “Selling such products with the picture of Lord Buddha, or of any other god for that matter, would hurt sentiments of people practising that religion,” Mr. Kahandawa said. In 2004, Sri Lanka reportedly got international lingerie manufacturer Victoria’s Secret to withdraw Buddha-print lingerie. [Source: Meera Srinivasan, The Hindu, December 23, 2016]

Clothes in Sri Lanka

Men often wear cotton sarongs, often with a white shirt. Checks are popular on sarongs. Bright colors are unusual. Kurtas, loose collarless shirts, are sometimes worn but are more popular elsewhere in South Asia. Most women wear a cotton wrap-around sari or a sarong. The sarongs is toes around the waist and reaches the ankles and is usually worn with a tight-fitting, short-sleeve blouse. Pinks, blues and pastel shades are common. Women often wear contrasting colors or one color with a white blouse or white sarong. Women use hot wax to dye their fabrics.

Up until a few decades most people in Sri Lanka wore traditional white clothes, but these people now wear mostly saris. Many people wear flip flops or sandals or go barefoot. According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”: The traditional dress of the Sinhalese is the sarama, a type of sarong. Men may wear a shirt or, when they go bare-chested, throw a scarf around their shoulders. Women wear a tight-fitting, short-sleeved jacket with the sarama. Urban Sinhalese have adopted Western-style clothes. Women wear skirts and blouses, although they prefer the Indian sari for formal and ceremonial occasions. [Source: D. O. Lodric, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009 *]

Traditionally women have worn saris that exposed their midriff. This was regarded as a symbol of fertility not sexuality. The average middle-class woman owns dozens of saris. There are stores that specialize in selling saris. A sari is generally made of a single piece of cloth 4.5 to nine meters (15 to 30 feet) in length and 105 centimeters (42 inches) wide. One end of the sari is tucked into a petticoat waistband and then wrapped around the hips with soft pleats in front. The other end of the cloth is tossed over the shoulder or over the head or tucked into the left side of the waist to form a drape.

The Sri Lanka sari is gathered into the waist, with one end draped over the shoulder. A tight-fitting, half-sleeved or sleeveless bodice may be worn underneath along with a long petticoat which reaches the ankles and is tied around the waist with a drawstring. When working the sari is pulled through the legs to form a kind of trousers. Saris are difficult for the uninitiated to put on. They consist of a two-meter-long piece of material, tucked into a slip, pleated, and worn over a short blouse. "The sari tends to pull out of the slip, and the shawl part tends to fall out.

Clothing of the Ancient Sinhalese

The Mahavansa, the ancient chronicle of Sinhalese royalty (5th century ) 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. [Source: Explore Sri Lanka, culled from the Mahavansa and other literary and history sources]

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.

As for women s attire, Martin Wickremasinghe (Purana Sinhala Stringe Enduma) basing his contentions on the Pali work Dhammapadatthakatha (5th century ) 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 ) depict the contemporary aristocratic women as being bare-breasted, though heavily bejewelled, while their lower-class female attendants are depicted with a breast-band. [Source: Explore Sri Lanka, culled from the Mahavansa and other literary and history sources]

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.

Men’s Clothes in Medieval Sri Lanka

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. [Source: Explore Sri Lanka, culled from the Mahavansa and other literary and history sources]

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 color 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 color, either white or blue: if of inferior quality, then the cap and the flaps on each side be of different colors, whereof the flaps are always red.

Women’s Clothes in Medieval Sri Lanka

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. [Source: Explore Sri Lanka, culled from the Mahavansa and other literary and history sources]

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 colors 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.

Clothes in Colonial-Era Sri Lanka

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. [Source: Explore Sri Lanka, culled from the Mahavansa and other literary and history sources]

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.

Jewelry and Ornaments in Medieval Sri Lanka

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 Ashoka (3rd century B.C.) to his Sinhalese friend King Devanampiyatissa were chains (pamanga) and ear-ornaments (vatansa). [Source: Explore Sri Lanka, culled from the Mahavansa and other literary and history sources]

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 center of the forehe), 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 earrings (kanna-kundala). The Sigiri damsels who are representative of 5th century aristocratic women are shown adorned with elaborate head-dresses, large earrings, arm-bracelets and a plethora of necklaces and bangles.

Chastity Belts in Medieval Sri Lanka

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. [Source: Explore Sri Lanka, culled from the Mahavansa and other literary and history sources]

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.

Early History of Toplessness in Sri Lanka

"Some Comments On Dress In Sri Lanka", an article in “The Thatched Patio,” published by the International Centre for Ethnic Studies by Dr. Mrs. Nira Wickremasinghe, a graduate of Sorbonne and Oxford, and history professor at the Colombo University and the University of Leiden, details the topless tradition of Sri Lankan women according to evidence presented by historical sources. [Source: Romesh Fernando, The Island, November 15, 1992]

Among the most famous works of art in Sri Lanka are the famous Maidens of Sigiriya, beautiful life-size frescoes of voluptuous thin-waisted, bare-breasted women scratched in a granite overhang underneath the fortress of Sigiriya in the A.D. 6th century about half way up the granite cliff. The breasts are large, firm and shapely. The famous Maidens of Sigiriya are said to be the only non-religious paintings found in Sri Lanka. The frescoes are among the earliest ever painted, predating Michelangelo by around 1,000 years. They resemble women painted at the caves in Ajanta, India.

On the sixth Century Sigiriya frescos, Nira wrote: "The royal ladies in the frescoes wear pleated robes from the waist upwards, save for necklace, armlets, wristlets, ear and hair ornaments and displayed their breasts. The ladies in waiting wear waist clothes, few ornaments and a firm 'breast bandage' or thanapatiya. The Sigiriya style of clothing — Sigiriya frescoes depict women wearing the cloth gracefully draped like a dhoti tied in a knot at the front and pulled down to expose the navel — must have survived a few centuries in Ceylon".

"The Sigiriya frescoes illustrate the initial absence of social taboo relating to upper class women exhibiting their breasts. Mazuri has analyzed the theme of dress and nakedness in the history of thought. In Judeo-Christian cultures nudity is closely associated with sin. Nudity began to acquire all the connotations of bodily temptation with the coming of lust and the fall from innocence. The very concept of 'flesh' came to imply sensuousness."

"In a Hindu-Buddhist society it is difficult to assess with precision at what point semi-nudity became taboo. The Dhammapadatha Katha relates an incident which took place in the Tenth Century when a lay devotee, Rohini, wore a blouse before Anuruddha Thera only to cover marks left by a skin disease. This indicates that it was still unusual for women to cover their body. Women's dress was then a cloth round the hip leaving the body bare from waist upwards."

On his visit to Jaffna in the late 13th century, Marco Polo wrote: "It is governed by a King whose name is Sendeznax. The people worship idols, and are independent of every other state. Both men and women go nearly in a state of nudity (the writer has cause to envy this climatic adaptation) only wrapping a cloth round the middle part of their bodies."

Influence of Islam and the West on Sri Lanka Toplessness

Romesh Fernando wrote in The Island: “By the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries it was acceptable to remain uncovered at home but when going out to wear an upper garment. At this stage the cloth was worn with a separate garment covering the breasts thrown over the shoulders, which evolved into the shawl and breastband. How was it that the Hindu-Buddhist culture in ancient Lanka underwent such changes by the 14th Century so that an upper garment for women became a feature when leaving the house? As noted earlier there was no place for prudery and Puritanism in the authentic tradition of Hinduism and Buddhism. One may speculate that it was the rise of Islam in India and the Muslim conquest of south India by the mid14th Century that was responsible for these changes in women's attire.

A. L. Bhasham, in his monumental work The Wonder That Was India, notes that for many centuries Indian women did not wear upper garments except during winter in certain parts of northern India. He quotes the example of the Nayar tribal women of south India, who until the mid-20th Century went about topless. Bhasham implies that the Muslim invasions were what altered the dress codes of Indian women. In Sri Lanka one may note that there was a great deal of Muslim influence in the Kurunegala kingdom in the first half of the 14th Century, with even a Muslim monarch ascending the throne as Prince Vaththimi in about 1320 A.D. and ruling for nine years, according to the Kumnegala Vistharaya. [Source: Romesh Fernando, The Island, November 15, 1992]

Nira writes of the impact of Western influences from the 16th Century onwards which had the effect of making Sri Lankan women more conservative in their attire. "The costume of the Sinhalese women before the arrival of the Portuguese was abandoned in the Low Country as a result of the widespread adoption of Christianity and the free social intercourse which existed between the Portuguese and Sinhalese of the upper classes. The great majority of women in the coastal belt took to the Portuguese long-sleeved jacket rounded at the back and in front with V neckline".

Other witnesses seem to imply, however, that the common folk did not so readily adapt the Portuguese style of dress. One of them is Dr. Fernando De Queyroz who wrote "The Temporal and Spiritual Conquest of Ceylon" in the 17th Century. Queyroz writes: "Such is the dress of the Lord and Nobles, for the soldiers, farmers and other common folk, have no other clothing save a cloth which they wrap on their head and a small bit of cord round the loins from which hangs a piece of cloth, one palm broad and a cubit in length, the end of which is tied to the same cord covering their natural nakedness".

"Those who are able, wear a sheet wrapped around that waist which at night serves them for a coverlet... The dress of the women is not dissimilar... Unless they are Widows, they wear what jewels they can on their breasts... The girls, more even than the boys, wear the garb of innocence up to the ninth or tenth year. Thenceforth the common women folk wear a piece of cloth white, red or striped, twelve cubits of the hand in length and two in breath, half of which they gird round the waist and the other half above the shoulders when they go to work".

Nira gives an explanation about the puritanical influences that came with Western colonial rule and the imposition of Judeo-Christian culture on the liberal tradition of Hindu-Buddhist culture that prevailed in ancient Lanka. "In the mid-Seventeenth Century under the influence of the puritanical Dutch, lace collars, frills, cuffs and hemlines began to be freely used. Lace-making was introduced as a cottage industry. The influence of the later Tamil dynasty on the Kandyan throne led to a consequent modification in dress in the Kandyan provinces".

While in the Maritime Provinces or Low Country the men and women became more conservative, this did not necessarily follow in the Kandyan Kingdom or Up Country. Until the late 19th Century many women of the so-called low castes did not cover their breasts, whether at home or when going outside. Nira quotes the 1841 lithograph by Prince Alexei D. Soltykoff: "Offering of a Kandyan chief in a temple of the Buddha near the environs of Kandy", which shows women wearing their saree in the Kandyan fashion and in the foreground two women of a lower caste who are unclothed above the waist. Numerous paintings by British artists of the 19th Century in Ceylon, some of which illustrate this article, are evidence of this reality.

By the late 19th Century and the early 20th Century came the so-called Hindu and Buddhist reformers, Arumuga Navalar among the Tamils and Anagarika Dharmapala among the Sinhalese, who imposed the puritanical Victorian morality of 19th Century Britain on Sri Lankan society. Even since then the average Sri Lankan is thoroughly confused, believing that the traditional mode of attire is to hide the bodily features as much as possible, when in fact the sensible and liberal tradition of Hindu-Buddhist culture in ancient Lanka, that prevailed from the 5th Century B.C. to the 19th Century A.D., was quite the opposite.

Rings and Earrings in Medieval Sri Lanka

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. [Source: Explore Sri Lanka, culled from the Mahavansa and other literary and history sources]

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 earrings are gradually going out of vogue.

Earrings 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 earrings.

As stated earlier, earrings 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 earrings for men appear to have been in vogue only at certain times and would have been influenced by the prevailing royal style.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Sri Lanka Tourism (, Government of Sri Lanka (, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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