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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Traditional Sinhalese Marriage Laws and Customs

A fascinating account of the history of marriage on the island of Sri Lanka.
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.
[...] 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. [...] There were of course a number of [...] 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.
[...] 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. [...] [T]he 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."
[...] 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.
[...] 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."
[...] 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."
[...] 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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