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Traditions and Customs
Sri Lanka: Traditions and Customs
Customs and traditions are deeply ingrained in Sri Lankan society and have been safeguarded, from one generation to the next, over its rich 2,500 year old history. These traditions are intertwined with day to day life of the island’s four ethnic groups – the Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, and Burghers – and its religions – Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity.
Traditional greeting
In our island home, you will be greeted with clasped palms, as if in prayer, and a head nodded in welcome; the words “Ayubowan” – “May You Live Long” – forming on each islander’s lips. The equivalent greeting in Tamil is “Vanakkam”, whilst the Muslims will say “Assalamu Alaikum”.
01.Traditions: From Birth and Beyond
The traditions found below are an intrinsic part of the lives of primarily the island’s Sinhalese and Tamils. From birth, important rituals are conducted around culturally significant milestones such as the Naming Ceremony and a child’s first feeding of solid food.
Naming Ceremony
The ‘Nam Tebima’ or Naming Ceremony is an important ritual in traditional Sinhalese society. An Astrologer, based on the time of birth, provides a selection of letters with which to name the child (usually, a selection of letters with which both the first and middle name should start with is given).
Sri Lankan law requires a newborn to be registered within 90 days of birth.
First Meal of Solids
Traditional Sinhalese families celebrate a child’s maiden feeding of a meal of rice in this ‘Idul Kata Gema’ ceremony.
First Trip Outdoors
Dorata Veduma’ where a child is first exposed to the rising morning sun outdoors is another important ritual in traditional Sinhalese society. The practice bears a striking resemblance to the ancient Hindu custom ‘Aditya Darshana’, the ceremony of taking a child out to see the sun in the fourth month of life.
Introduction to the Letters of the Alphabet
Education is a vital element in the life and culture of Sri Lankans. The ‘Akuru Kiyaweema’ ceremony takes place as a child reaches three years of age, when, on a pre-determined day (an auspicious day according to the child’s horoscope) parents, a learned person or a priest will teach the child his first letters, in the company of family and well-wishers.
02. Sri Lankan Music, Theatre and Dancing
Dances of Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has three schools of traditional dance forms – Kandyan dance, Low Country dance and Sabaragamuwa dance. These are performed at rituals held in temples, villages and homes. Folk dance is another popular form of dance, held during harvest time and other lay occasions. Sri Lanka’s historical record, the ‘Mahavamsa’, reveals that the Aryan Prince Vijeya heard music the day he landed on the shores of Sri Lanka. According to Pali scriptures, (“Pali” is a Middle Indo-Aryan language, best known as the language of the earliest Buddhist scriptures) the ‘Yakas’ (an ancient tribe) were fond of song and dance.
2.1 Kandyan Dance (Uda Rata Netum)
The Kandyan dance form flourished under the Kandyan Kingdom, Sri Lanka’s last kingdom. There are four types of Kandyan dance – Pantheru, Ves, Naiyadi, and Udekki. In addition, there are 18 Vannamas (representation in dance of animals and birds), which include the Gajaga Vannama (Elephant) and the Mayura Vannama (Peacock). Under the Kandyan kings, this dance form became an integral part of the Kandy Esala Perahera, the 10-day long magnificent festival held to honour the tooth relic of the Lord Buddha and invoke blessings from the gods for abundant rainfall.
Pantheru Dance
The Pantheruwa is an instrument dedicated to the goddess Pattini, and resembles a tambourine (without the skin). It has small cymbals attached at intervals around its circumference. The Pantheru dance is said to have originated in the days of Prince Siddhartha, who went on to gain enlightenment and became Lord Buddha. Sinhalese kings employed Pantheru dancers to celebrate victories in the battlefield. The Pantheru dancer wears a silk handkerchief at the waist.
Ves Dance
‘Ves’ dance, the most popular, originated from an ancient purification ritual, the ‘Kohomba Kankariya’ or ‘Kohomba Yakuma’. The dance was propitiatory, never secular, and performed only by males. The elaborate Ves costume, particularly the headgear, is sacred and belongs to the deity, Kohomba. During the end of the 19th century, Ves dancers were invited to perform outside the precincts of the Kankariya Temple at the annual Kandy Perahera. Today, the richly costumed Ves dancer characterises Kandyan dance.
Naiyandi Dance
Dancers in Naiyandi costume perform during the initial preparations of the Kohomba Kankariya festival, during the lighting of the lamps and the preparation of foods for the demons. The dancer wears a white cloth and white turban with beadwork decorations on his chest, a waistband, rows of beads around his neck, silver chains, brass shoulder plates, anklets, and jingles. This is a graceful dance performed in the Maha Vishnu and Kataragama Devales (temples) on ceremonial occasions.
Uddekki Dance
Uddekki is a very prestigious dance. Its name comes from the Uddekki, a small lacquered hand drum in the shape of an hourglass, about seven and a half inches (18 centimetres) high, believed to have been gifted by the gods. The two drum skins are said to have been given by Lord Iswara, and the sound, by Lord Vishnu. The instrument is said to have been constructed according to the instructions of Sakra, the king of gods, and played in the heavenly abode of the gods. The dancer sings as he plays, tightening the strings to obtain variations of pitch.
The word ‘Vannama’ comes from the Sinhala word ‘Varnana’ (descriptive praise). Ancient Sinhala texts refer to a large number of ‘Vannams’ that were only sung, although, later, they were adapted to solo dances, each expressing a dominant idea. It is said that the Kavi (poetry sung to music) for the 18 principal Vannams were composed by an old sage named Ganithalankara, with the help of a Buddhist priest from the Kandy Temple. These Vannams were inspired by nature, history, legend, folk religion, folk art, and sacred lore. Each Vannama is composed and interpreted in a certain mood (Rasaya) or expression of sentiment.

The 18 classical Vannams are as follows: Gajaga (Elephant), Thuranga (Horse) , Mayura (Peacock), Gahaka (Conch Shell), Uranga (Crawling Animals), Mussaladi (Hare), Ukkussa (Eagle), Vyrodi (Precious Stone), Hanuma (Monkey), Savula (Cock), Sinharaja (Lion), Naga (Cobra), Kirala (Red-Wattled Lapwing), Eeradi (Arrow), Surapathi (in praise of the goddess Surapathi), Ganapathi (in praise of the god Ganapathi), Uduhara (expressing the pomp and majesty of the king), and Assadhrusa (extolling the merit of Lord Buddha). To these were added Samanala (Butterfly), Bo (the sacred Bo tree at Anuradhapura, a sapling of the original Bo tree under which Lord Buddha attained enlightenment), and Hansa (Swan). The Vannama dance tradition has seven components.
2.2 Low Country Dance (Pahatharata Dance)
Low country dances are highly ritualistic and are performed to appease evil spirits which cause sickness. Dancers wear masks depicting characters in the form of birds, demons, reptiles, etc.

If the mnemonics of the drum govern the form of the dance, this is illustrated well in the low country dances of Sri Lanka where the ‘Yak Bera’ (or the ‘Demon Drum’) plays an important role. The rather free and easy movement and basic rhythm of the ‘Devol Dancer’ (dance to appease the deity, Devol) combined with a very elementary mime danced to the ‘Yak Bera’ typifies low country dancing. The ‘Devol Madu’ (or occasions for the propitiation of the gods) for the dance of appeasement of the gods is the low country parallel of the Kohomba Kankariya.
Devil Dances
"Devil Dances" are responses to the common belief that certain ailments are caused by unseen hands, and should, therefore, be exorcised in order for the patient to be cured. A 'Thovil' ceremony is organised when an individual or a family is unwell and the village folk believe that it is due to that person or family being harassed by unseen hands.

The Thovil can be a simple ritualistic ceremony at home, restricted to family and immediate neighbours, or involve the whole village like the ‘Gam Maduva’ or the ‘Devol Maduva’ which are closely linked to the worship of gods. Masked dancers take part in at least two of the well-known Thovil ceremonies – the 'Maha Sohon Samayama' and the 'Gara Yakuma'. The 'Maha Sohona' frightens people as he is believed to be the demon of the graveyards. The performer disguises himself as a bear, wearing a mask and dress. Often, the Thovil involves 'Sanni' dances where dancers wear masks. The 'Daha Ata Sanniya' refers to 18 ailments, each one attributed to a demon.
2.3 Sabaragamuwa Dances
Sabaragamuwa dances are a mix of both low country and Kandyan dance forms. The ‘Pang Madu’ (Ritual of Light) had, at inception, more of the Yak in it than the Kandyan, with the more popular drum being the ‘Yak Bera’. Over the years, however, the dances have reverted to using the ‘Dowla’, a type of drum that makes Sabaragamuwa dances unique. Even the apparel worn by the dancers and drummers are unique, although the elaborate Kandyan and colourful low country influence does seep through.
2.4 Carnatic Music and Dance
Carnatic music is popular amongst the Tamil community. Heavily influenced by Southern India, its basic form is a monophonic song with improvised variations. There are 72 basic scales on the octave, and a rich variety of melodic motion. Both melodic and rhythmic structures are varied and compelling. It is one of the world's oldest and richest musical traditions, practised by many Tamil girls.
2.5 Baila (Kaffirhina) Music and Dance
Baila is a form of dance music which originated among the “Kaffir” or Afro-Sinhalese communities (mixed communities consisting of Portuguese, African and native Sinhalese people). Baila music was introduced to Sri Lanka's mainstream during the early years of the 1960s when artists started adapting the ‘6/8 Kaffirhina’ rhythms to accommodate Sinhala lyrics. By the 1970s, Baila was a recognised (and respected) style of Sri Lankan popular music.
2.6 Folk Drama of Sri Lanka Kolam
Kolam is a dance drama of rural Sri Lanka. Actors wear masks and costumes and perform with mime, dance and dialogue. The characters are divided according to humans (princes, drummers, women, the Europeans), animals and demons. The performances range from the depiction of village scenes to stories involving spirits and creatures from Hindu mythology.
Sokari is performed as a votive offering to the goddess Pattini. Sokari has one story (like the ritual theatres) and revolves around a man (‘Guru Hami’), his wife, the eponymous heroine, and their rascally servant ‘Paraya’ (or ‘Pachamira’) who travel to Sri Lanka from India, with the intention of settling down and raising a family. In the course of attempting to set down roots, the trio go through a series of (largely comical) adventures.

Sokari is among the most theatrically accomplished folk performances. Its mimetic content is truly impressive in its range and economy of use. The principal stages of the sea journey – the procuring of the timber, the building of the ship, the actual crossing of the ocean – and other happenings in Sri Lanka are presented though highly inventive physical actions that often match – and even outdo – the sophisticated experiments of the modern stage.
Nadagama represents a creative departure from earlier theatrical enactments such as processional displays, group dances performed by an ensemble of dancing girls, and ritual performances which included dramatic interludes and group singing.

The forerunner of Sinhala Nadagama was a dramatic form constructed out of several South Indian folk theatres by Catholic missionaries. The earliest Sinhala practitioners of the Nadagama were Catholics who employed it to dramatise liturgical subject matter. Musically, the roots of the Nadagama were in the South Indian Carnatic tradition, whose idiom differs substantially from that of indigenous Sinhala music. Nadagama songs have a greater melodic range and offer more scope for dramatic expression. The Nadagama lends a central role to music and is similar to Western musicals.
2.7 Drums of Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has many types of drums and references to the use of drums are found in certain classical literature. Historically, drums were used on special occasions throughout people’s lives, spanning births to deaths, and subsequently, came to be used in Buddhist temples at ceremonies. At a later stage, drums were also used as a means of communication. The ‘Davula’, ‘Thammattama’ and bench ‘Rabana’ hold an important place in communication.Although, historically, there were about 33 types of drums, today we find only about 10 in use.
3.0 Traditional Dress
A sarong is a garment consisting of a length of printed/plain cloth wrapped about the waist. Sarongs are the standard garment for most men in rural and even some urban communities. In cities, you will see a mix of Western clothes and the traditional sarong.
A sari usually consists of six yards of often brightly coloured cloth wrapped around the body. In cities, you will see a mix of Western clothing as well as the traditional sari.
The Diyareddha is a widely used bathing costume by women. It is a piece of cloth similar to a sarong, and is tied just above the swell of the breasts, reaching down to the knees.
4.0 Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals
Poya Days
Before the birth of Buddhism, Asian ascetics would cease worldly pursuits and engage in religious activities on full moon (Poya) days. Today, practising Buddhists observe Poya day by visiting a temple for the rituals of worship and adhering to the Eight Precepts. Every full moon day is a holiday in Sri Lanka and liquor is not for sale anywhere in the country. Many religious festivals are held on full moon days.

Pirith Ceremony
The chanting of Pirith, a Buddhist religious ritual, deals with the chanting of select ‘Sutras’. Sutras are a religious precept, sung in rhythm. The selected Sutras contain precepts that relate to the needs and day-to-day affairs of both laymen and priests.

The Pirith Ceremony is held mainly to evoke blessings. It is an age old belief that the chanting of Pirith will soothe both body and mind.

The selected place where the Pirith chanting is held must be clean and tidy. A low stage is erected and an octagon shaped enclosure built. The enclosure is decorated with natural leaves or paper cuttings which follow traditional artworks. In the middle of the enclosure are four doors and windows. A ceiling is fixed above the enclosure with white cloth and is decorated with flowers, leaves and young coconut leaves. In the middle is a table with chairs placed for the monks.
Katina Ceremony
The Katina ceremony comes at the end of the ‘Vas’ period or the ‘Rain Retreat’ which begins on the ‘Esala’ full moon day. The ceremony observes the retreat of Lord Buddha’s disciples to monasteries (instead of travelling extensively, spreading the teachings of the Buddha) due to the torrential rains. At the end of the ceremony, Buddhist devotees offer a special robe known as the ‘Katina’ to the monks of each monastery which observed the Vas period. This offering is considered meritorious.
5.0 Village Life: Traditions and Ceremonies
Harvesting time
Harvesting of paddy is a major event in the village, and takes the form of a celebration. A good harvest is always welcomed by the villagers who will then be assured of a staple diet till the next harvest.
Gam Maduwa
The ‘Gam Maduwa’ is a village affair of special interest to farmers. It is believed to evoke the blessings of the gods for success in agricultural activities.
Superstitions and Omens
The best omen for a person setting out on a journey is for him to meet anyone carrying a pot of water, milk or white flowers. It is thought to be unlucky to meet those with shaven heads or with their hair (‘Konde’) loose (a sign of mourning), or those with great physical defects. It is also considered unlucky for a person to stumble against something or to be interrogated as to his destination at the outset of the journey.
Customs and Rituals of the New Year (Aluth Avurudda)
A majority of the rituals to celebrate the New Year are based on times calculated according to astrology. ‘Aluth Sahal Mangalya’, ‘Esala Keliya’ and ‘Karthikeiya Mangalya’ are essentially indigenous ceremonies based on beliefs woven around agriculture.
The origin of Ayurveda is 'Vedas', the oldest available classics of the world. Sri Lanka has its own Ayurvedic system based on a series of prescriptions handed down from generation to generation over a period of 3,000 years. Ancient kings, who were also prominent physicians as recorded by historical texts, sustained its survival and longevity. King Buddhadasa (398 AD), the most prominent physician of the time, wrote the ‘Sarartha Sangrahaya’, which is being viewed by physicians to date.
Traditional Medicine
From ancient times, Sri Lanka had a reasonably developed healthcare system to cater to the needs of her people. The ancient chronicle of the country tells of a hospital that was established in the capital city in the 4th century B.C. Ancient ruins of hospitals have been discovered in the then capital cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. Ancient surgical instruments have been recovered, which indicates the system of surgery that existed.
Herbal Medicines
Almost every herb, vegetable and fruit has a wide variety of medicinal properties.
6.0 Other Ceremonies and Rituals
Funeral Rites in Sri Lanka
Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Muslims observe different funeral rites. After a funeral is over, Buddhists offer 'Dana' (alms) to priests on the seventh day as well as on the third month and twelfth month anniversary. The merits gained through these offerings are hoped will help bring about a good re-birth and deliverance from any woeful states to which the deceased may be born.
Snake Charmers
A snake charmer begins his performance by removing the lid of the snake basket and playing a few notes on his flute. As if in response to the summoning of the strange and melancholy tune, the cobra slithers out of the basket and gazes around at the growing circle of onlookers.
© Lankaeuro Group 2009