Saturday Magazine
A Kandyan wedding in highlife in the 19th century

by a special correspondent
Palanquins, caprisoned-elephants and horse-carriages in the "magul-perahera" are now part of history with high-powered automobile industry, replacing man and animal — powered modes of transport during ceremonial events.

A report which appeared in the prestigious English newspaper "The Ceylon Sunday Telegraph" of January 15, 1890 published by the British in Ceylon at the time however, opens a window into the past and unfolds a scenario of a marriage-celebration laced with traditions and practices that existed at the turn of the last century. The magul-perahera which conducted the groom’s retinue to the bride’s residence and resumed with the bride’s retinue had resembled a segment of the Kandy perahera with the two nuptial troupes arriving at the respective destinations in palanquins, on elephantback and in horse carriages, escorted by chieftains, flag-carriers of the respective provinces and gun carriers walking in an orderly fashion in the winding procession.

We are peering into a past when the British Raj ruled olde Ceylon but a feudal system continued to exist in spite of the fact that in 1832, "Rajakariya" (compulsory services) had been abolished by the British. And also of significance is that events such as weddings had been found worthwhile reporting and displayed prominently in English newspapers which may have catered mainly to the English population that lived here.

The very descriptive, on-the-spot report which appeared in January, 1890 titled "A Kandyan wedding in highlife at Matale" while reflecting the journalistic styles of the time, unfolds the opulence of wedding celebrations of Kandyan aristrocracy who lived in style at the turn of the nineteenth century together with the traditions, customs and practices that were alive at the time.

The account describes the marriage of Mr. Wilfred Ratwatte of far-off Matale up in the hills and of Miss Dullewa that had taken place on January 10th, 1890. The report however commences from January 9th with customs that were followed in the groom’s household with the arrival of the handpicked invitees (whose names are mentioned in the report) to hold a ceremony - the purpose of which was to congratulate the groom and make a collective presentation of a "handsome" purse.

The groom thereafter had retired to dress in the "mul aduma" (the Kandyan ceremonial costume) and with the groom’s party ready, the account unfolds the commencement of the groom’s ceremonial procession, winding its way from Nagolla Walawwa at 2 pm. to that of the bride’s at Dullewa.

The reporter obviously fascinated by the colourful traditions and practices enacted before him had proceeded to describe the procession in detail of the flag-carriers carrying 20-30 flags, headed by the "Matale white flag", about 60 "tom-tom beaters", Kandyan dancers and 75 people carrying guns...etc.

The perahera had besides included 6 caprisoned elephants, walking two in a row, followed by dancers of the 4 korales. About 40 headmen in costume had walked next, on foot.

The groom’s stepmother, come in a palanquin was escorted by over 30 female attendants, followed by Ratwatte Ratemahattaya - the groom’s uncle who had travelled in a horse-carriage. They were attended by troupes of dancers in varied costumes.

The highpoint in the perahera - the bridegroom - Ratwatte Bandara, had been carried in the procession in a palanquin, followed by horse-carriages, chieftains and dancers.

As the perahera with dancing to sounds of various musical instruments - the drum, the trumpet," the pantheru" (tambourines) drew closer to the bride’s residence, the bride’s party had walked forward to receive them from which point, all had alighted from the horse-carriages. The groom and the ladies carried in palanquines and those aloft the elepahnts had not alighted until the perahera reached the Maha Walawwa at Dullewa around 6 pm.

Receiving the groom’s party at the bride’s residence were Amunugama Basnayaka Nilame, the Adigar in Kandyan chieftain’s attire along with his kumarihamy. The feet of the visitors were washed on alighting from the palanquins with the breaking of coconuts taking place as the party entered the bride’s house.

The hosts had made provision for the feeding of about 500 guests who had walked in the perahera. The attendants, the report mentions were scattered all over, around the building, feasting on the goodies.

Partying and merry-making had continued until 11 pm. with dancing to music in the form of a moorish stick-dance, a dance no more heard of, at which point, the marriage ceremony had been performed according to traditional Kandyan customs. Music and dancing had continued with vigour till morning.

At day-break the following day, the visitors were fed and at 1 pm. after the marriage was registered at the auspicious hour, the bridal-party, numbering over 1000 and accompanied by Dullewa Adigar and his attendants, had left the bride’s residence.

And the number of flags, the elephants, gun-carriers, dancers had increased with the flag of Thammankaduwa at the centre, flanked by 2 white flags of the Matale Dissawa.

Those borne in palanquins from Ehelepola and Dullewa were seen substituting carriages for palanquins at Aluwihare.

The account also mentions another custom that had been practiced. While the procession wound its

way, well-wishers lining the road had sprinkled rose water and flowers on the newly-weds. The party had reached Matale at 4 pm. when the entire party was treated to cake (probably kevun, referred to as oil-cake at the time) and plantains at Nagolla walawwa after which the party accompanied the couple to Kandy, the residence of the Basnayake Nilame of the Vishnu Devale, the bridegroom’s father.

The celebrations had evidently concluded on January 16th as the account lastly mentions that the couple was expected to return to Matale on January 16th and pandals were being erected for further celebrations for their reception.