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Pictorial Impressions of Early Colonial Sri Lanka


People and their Dress: Rajpal de Silva Peoples’ Customs and Occupations: Rajpal de Silva and Kumari Jayawardena


Author Rajpal de Silva has many stories to tell us of his quest to find the pictorial impressions that adorn these two elegant publications on dress, customs and occupations of early colonial


Sri Lanka. His stories are legion. Some are near unbelievable; a few serendipitous, as on a visit to the Peradeniya University library, he chanced upon four volumes containing over a hundred watercolours of dress by Major and Mrs. Darby Griffith, while searching for quite a different album!


Then again, there was the occasion at the University of Visual and Performing Arts in Colombo, when it was possible to trace the 1836 album of superb watercolour drawings of dresses painted by a Tamil artist (unsigned) for Rev John C George.


Rajpal de Silva’s continuing research into Sri Lankan history and antiquarian art, especially of prints, engravings and watercolour drawings has resulted in several publications during the last two decades. These offer a unique and comprehensive record of printed art in the country up to the end of the 19th century. Illustrations published in travel folios, newspapers and magazines are all pre-camera images providing insights into aspects of Sri Lankan life, the country’s physical features, its people, dress, customs, monuments, fauna and flora and historical events.


The author’s ‘mission’ (his term, not mine) in the past four decades has been to document pictorial impressions of early Sri Lanka from various sources, usually from far afield, and from his own country as well. This quest has resulted in a complete illustrated collection of all aquatints, lithographs and coloured prints in his 1985 volume Early Prints of Ceylon 1800 -1900. In 1988 it was Illustrations and Views of Dutch Ceylon 1656 – 1796, a collection of all the pictorial material of the Dutch Period. 19th Century Newspaper Engravings was another complete work, in 1998, encompassing illustrations in newspapers, both foreign and local.


The current two publications are a natural continuation of what appears to be a life’s interest for this talented author.


In both these volumes it is mostly the pictures that tell us the stories of dress, customs and occupations of our people in those colonial times. Here is an instance of a picture saying more than a hundred words, cliché though it may be! All the pictorial impressions are by artists whose works have been in numerous institutions the world over in state museums, libraries, archives, galleries as well as in private collections, reprinted here.


As the author acknowledges..


‘…. in putting these ‘visuals’ together I have obtained permission from these widely dispersed state museums, libraries, archives and private collectors for their publication.’


Introducing the artists, the author has added a pen portrait of each artist in a separate section.


Research into women’s dress in the early years of colonial rule in the country provides some unusual and interesting information. In pre 13th century women wore a draped lower garment called the antariya worn below the navel and held up by a mani mekala, an ornamental jewelled belt as seen in the ‘Early Drawings of Sinhalese men and women by the Dutch artist Esaias Boursse (1667) .What is of particular interest here is that men and women both wore the same style of dress. This is again illustrated in the two paintings by James Cordiner in 1807 titled ‘Cingalese Dresses’.


Clothing then was mostly caste and occupation related. Women of the Rodiya caste were not allowed to cover their breasts nor wear clothes below the knees. There were dresses which were occupation related as those worn by administrators, especially in the Kandy region.


M Beresford’s 1848 portrait of a Kandyan chief is an apt illustration. The veddahs, however do not seem to have changed their mode of dress through the centuries as seen in ‘Wild Archer’ –


Ms M Bunker’s 1848 image of a veddah in the customary span cloth which is their ‘dress’ even today.


Dresses of the various nationalities – Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Borah - of various occupations, barber, coolie, tea picker, dhoby are identified by their dress. A Portuguese Burgher (Griffith Album) is in contrast to the everyday attire of the others, with his ‘tail’ coat and long trousers.


Of particular interest is the snake charmer, dressed in what seems to be the loin cloth, chanting while the snake ‘dances’ – from Mrs M Brunker’s illustration of ‘Snake Charmers’. An unknown artist’s impression of the Afghan is worth commenting on with his majestic looking costume complete with cane: the Afghans were money lenders, prominent in society in the 19th and early 20th centuries when banks collapsed – they are not seen today.


For the most part, studies have revealed that there was a substantial uniformity between male and female attire. In 15th century, artists’ impressions show both men and wearing long cloths up to mid-thigh with these ‘skirts’ becoming longer to cover the lower body (predecessor to today’s


Redda?). By the 17th century, women had begun wearing the fashionable skirt and jacket with men wearing trousers and a jacket, much like today’s male attire.


In the hill country areas, the dress of the Kandyan had begun to show a marked resistance to colonialism in their dress, it seems. This was the emergence of the ethnic form of dress among Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim peoples. Dressing according to caste was quite apparent – it could elevate or socially denigrate a man or woman by their dress. Lower caste women were not allowed to wear jewellery and soon the ‘pottu’ worn by Tamil women became a strong mark of ethnic identity


Occupations, custom and tradition are closely interwoven especially in agricultural communities. In paddy cultivation from the moment the land is ploughed tradition takes over. Women usually have only a minor role where their ‘delicate’ fingers are considered the best for transplanting the seedlings and later to reap the harvest. The threshing and gathering the harvest are strictly for the men. Women are out of bounds and the tea and refreshments they bring to the threshers have to be kept outside the fence which encircles the threshing ‘floor’. Custom and tradition are observed so strictly that no word is exchanged within the hallowed premise even if the work goes on through the night!


Custom and rituals abound in a woman’s life. The auspicious moment is of particular importance, especially when a girl attains puberty and during the whole period she is confined to a room till the cleansing bath takes place at an auspicious moment. The ‘poruwa’ ceremony is of even greater significance in a woman’s life and is replete with auspicious moments and rituals, forerunners (so it is believed) of a happy and fruitful married life.


Most of the drawings referring to custom and tradition are by Esaias Boursse, a Dutch painter who visited Sri Lanka in 1662. According to the authors of this volume, Boursse’s album of


110 drawings consists of sketches and are now in the Rijkmuseum in Amsterdam.


Fishing as an occupation is almost as important as farming. Other occupations were petty trading with women carrying garden produce on their heads illustrated in ‘Woman with Basket of Plantains’, women washing clothes superbly illustrated by Boursse, of a woman with a clay pot on her head and another woman seated spreading washed clothes to dry.


Custom prevailed in practically every occupation, in gemming, coconut and cinnamon production, and in the entertainment field of drumming, dancing, singing and processions usually connected with religious festivities.


There were the ‘minor’ occupations as domestic service, where the ‘ayah’ had an important role in the family, the ‘dhoby’ or the washerman an indispensable part of family life. These and other occupations by both men and women have been sensitively illustrated in this volume ,with detailed descriptions of each providing the reader with interesting insights into life and living in Sri Lanka all those years ago.


These two publications are the first in a series of six books beginning with People and Their Dress and Peoples’ Customs and Occupations. To follow are: Religions and Rituals; Travel and Transportation; Antiquities, Cities and Environs, and, Flora and Fauna.

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