The Sinhalese Poruwa Ceremony of Sri Lanka.
by Sudha Chandrasekaran
(Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu)
The Sinhalese Poruwa (Wedding) Ceremony of Sri Lanka.
We had recently visited Sri Lanka in connection with the wedding of a good Sri Lankan Sinhalese friend of ours and I should say, enjoyed every moment of the wonderful occasion. We returned home happy after attending a wedding of another culture, a traditional one which upholds the values of Buddhism. The institution of marriage is of great importance to all religions. It is only the celebrations that differ according to the various cultural and social norms. The wedding ceremony of the Sinhalese, the natives of Sri Lanka, is the called Poruwa ceremony. Buddhist weddings give importance to Nekath, the auspicious timings, as they are influenced by the Hindu culture. “Nekatha” is calculated after studying the horoscopes of the bride and the groom. Several are the traditional events that fill a Buddhist wedding, but the most important one is the ‘Poruwa’ ceremony which is strictly guided by Nekath.
The traditional Poruwa ceremony, performed in accordance with Buddhist rituals was held at Kingsbury, a Five-star hotel in Colombo and it started at 7 pm. Usually this ceremony is held either in a big hotel, beach or a huge garden amidst friends and family members. We, being their friends for 30 long years had the opportunity to attend this Buddhist wedding. This Ceremony seems to have existed in Sri Lanka even before the introduction of Buddhism there which was as early as 3rd Century B.C. As the bride arrives at her high-society wedding, she is given a royal welcome and we witness the lively procession consisting of Kandyan traditional dancers and drummers merrily dancing away before the bride and her entire family. As the groom enters, the dancers perform somersault in the air and go about spinning around him. They are led to the ‘Poruwa’, with the blowing of the conch shell. So mesmerising is the performance that we tend to get the feeling that these performers from Kandy, Sri Lanka, have descended directly from the courts of the last kings of Ceylon! Yet at the heart of this glitzy ceremony, at the poolside of this luxury hotel is a simple platform that you will find in any ordinary Sinhalese village.
The Poruwa or the marriage altar is a beautifully decorated and elevated wooden platform with four pillars and an uduwiyana (roof). Fresh and beautiful flowers and traditional motifs decorate the venue. The assembling of the Poruwa is commenced at an auspicious time as blessings are bestowed on the couple by worshipping the noble triple gems and divine Gods here. It is believed that the Poruwa that we see today is constructed in the same tradition as the one built for the wedding of Prince Siddhartha and Princess Yashodhara by the Satharavaram Deviwaru (the four main deities). It is for this very reason that four punkalas (pots of prosperity) filled with coconut flowers are placed at the corners of the Poruwa with the coconut fronds signifying prosperity. Then again, betel leaves are placed at the four corners together with clay lamps and a few coin offerings. The clay lamps are lit to seek the blessings of the deities.
Likewise, fresh and good coconuts are kept to signify the four noble truths of Buddhism (suffering, the cause of suffering, ending suffering and the path taken to end suffering) as the new couple are supposed to have an understanding of the noble truths. Furthermore, nine sets of three betel leaves each are placed to seek the protection of the Navagrahas (nine planets). This platform is decorated with betel, mango, wood apple, margosa and banyan leaves that form a beautiful canopy and trail down to the altar.
At the auspicious time, the bride wearing the customary seven-piece Kandyan necklace enters from the left of the Poruwa while the groom comes in from the right. The entire family of the bride and the groom stand in line on either side during the ceremony where rituals that have deep meaning are performed to evoke blessings and strengthen this divine bond. The rituals and traditions pertaining to the Poruwa ceremony are carried out by the Ashtaka, a layman who is well versed in the customs. There are several steps in the ceremony that guide the young couple for leading a harmonious married life. Red rice and other grains are placed on the Poruwa in the shape of a square to signify that they are entering family life.
The ceremony involves a series of rituals performed by the bride and groom, and their families. The couple seeks the blessings of Goddess Pattini, a guardian deity of Sri Lanka, by offering seven sheaths of betel with coins.
Also performed is a sequence of exchanging betel leaves and then dropping the same on to the floor, as it is believed that negative energies, if any, are averted by doing this. Most intense is the moment when the bride’s father places her hand on groom’s right hand which is a gesture of his giving away his daughter to the groom.
The actual ceremony that signifies the union of the bride and groom is when the two little fingers of the couple are tied together with a pirith noola (blessed thread) or golden thread. Pirith pan, which translates to blessed water, is poured over this thread by either the bride’s father or the uncle to mark the moment of their marriage. The Ashtaka chants the verses of the Gatha (prayer) Bhavathu Subba Mangalam at this time. The tightening of the thread when water is poured signifies the strengthening of the bond between the couple.
Just as in Western Societies rings are exchanged between the bride and the groom. To make known that the groom will take care of his bride, a necklace is placed around the bride’s neck by the groom. The groom also presents a sari to his bride which in turn she passes on to her mother as a token of appreciation for raising her well , for which she remains always indebted to her mother. There is an exchange of gifts between the parents of the bride and the groom. This is performed with a sheath of betel, which denotes respect and gratitude towards their parents. Subsequently the bride’s mother or sister presents a specially cooked dish of rice and milk to the couple and the bride and the groom feed each other with this special dish.
The Jayamangala Gatha (the traditional chant) is sung by a group of young girls dressed in traditional sari, to bless the couple and are presented with gifts by the couple. Thereafter the couple offer betel leaves to their parents and close relatives and step down from the Poruwa, slowly guided by their uncle. At the same time a coconut atop betel leave with lit camphor is split into two to cast away the negative effects. The couple steps down from the elevated platform amidst the chanting and beating of the traditional drums at an auspicious time. This is when the couple is united in wedlock and is pronounced to be the legally wedded husband and wife. The couple then light a traditional oil lamp to symbolize, health, prosperity and success, before taking a ceremonial walk, symbolizing the starting of their journey of life together. Apart from this traditional ceremony, couples these days cut wedding cakes and host a reception as well. With one hand each on the bottle, the bride and the groom pour champagne into a pyramid of glasses, before greeting the guests, table by table. We find that no expense has been spared on the celebration of this grand event, what with food and drink flowing freely in the hall. We being vegetarians, a special table was arranged for us, which is a lovely gesture indeed!
While some Western customs are popular, best man Samaraweera says it is important to hang on to the typical Sri Lankan traditions."Though we have mixed weddings, it doesn't mean that we have just let go of our cultural values, I think it's a very good thing to have the poruwa ceremony and there's a lot of meaning in it."" continues Samaraweera. Travel opens your mind and exposes you to various customs and culture. We find that the present day generation realize the value of their heritage and are motivated to protect and preserve something of their past for posterity.
There are many traditions and rituals in the Poruwa ceremony, which are beautiful to watch. It is a ceremony that epitomises Sri Lankan culture and heritage, and the beauty of beginning a new stage in life…… ***