January 2018


An Attire With a History
January 2018




A hand-coloured engraving (1808) from the Dutch era depicts the two Sri Lankans behind the lady wearing the Cambay, from Illustration and Views of Dutch Ceylon (1988) by R K de Silva & W G M Beumer

Centuries ago, Sri Lankans both men and women, wore what is referred to as the Cambay or Comboy. lt is a traditional attire with a long history, and has transformed through the ages.


Words and illustrations provided by: Richard Boyle


Sri Lanka's varied dress is due to the influence of regional cultures and trade with lands of the Orient. Take, for instance, the familiar sarong and the lesser-known kambaya, both similar in appearance, yet quite different in detail. To begin with, the former reached the southern shores of the island via Malay settlers, the latter from India.


References to the kambaya abound in British accounts of Ceylon during the 19th century. The earliest, by J W Bennett in Ceylon and its Capabilities (1843), reveals several other crucial differences: the sarong is tubular and uniform, whereas the kambaya is seamless, with a crimped cloth. "The female dress consists of a deep folded cloth or Cambay worn like a petticoat," and, "The cloth...is of the same length as the Sarong, and is put on in a similar manner, without strings of any kind".


Although referred to as a low-country (maritime provinces) garment, Henry Charles Sirr claims in Ceylon and the Cingalese (1850): "The middle classes in Kandy wear a comboy, bound tightly round the person, which reaches either to, or below the knee, according to their caste."


In addition to the kambaya, low-country women of the era wore a loose cotton jacket that hardly reached the waist, introduced by the prudish Portuguese colonists, because under Sri Lankan monarchs, all women, except those of the aristocracy, were required to be topless, wearing just a comboy, exactly the same as that worn by the males. The length was determined in an arbitrary manner, according to the woman's status in society; some women could wear her comboy down to her heels, while others were shorter.

The length was determined in an arbitrary manner, according to the woman's status in society; some women could wear her comboy down to her heels, while others were shorter.


Regarding the male use of the garment, James Emerson Tennent reiterates in Ceylon (1859) of a false impression typical of Western observers: "With their delicate features and slender limbs, their frequent want of beards, their use of earrings and their practice of wearing a cloth round the waist called a comboy, which has all the appearance of a petticoat, the men have an air of effeminacy very striking to the eye of a stranger."


The British, adept at anglicising words from languages of the colonies, persisted in using "comboy", but also the more acceptable "cambay", although the Government List of Native Words (1869) states, "the form used in the island is actually kambaya".


A high-end kambaya was worn by local officials as Constance Gordon-Cumming comments in Two Happy Years in Ceylon (1892): "The costumes of these gorgeous Ratemahatmayas [chief headmen] is dress adopted in the colleges - the comboy, or waist-cloth, the konde or knot of long back-hair, and the tortoiseshell comb being the distinctive features."


Also mentioned are the Mudaliyars, or headmen, who wore a mixed official dress consisting of a jacket introduced by the Dutch, but retained the long comboy worn to the feet.

The kambaya is an enigmatic garment with a long history, a cloth transformed through time, reflecting the cultural identity of Sri Lanka.


However, Sinhalese gentlemen of lesser social stature, who had only partially adopted Western-style clothing, still clung to ancient local habits: often they would still wear a comboy over their trousers.


The earliest and finest definition is contained in the British colonists' essential Glossary of Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases, Hobson-Jobson (1903), compiled by Henry Yule and A C Burnell. "Comboy. A sort of skirt or kilt of white calico, worn by Singhalese of both sexes, much in the same way as the Malay sarong. The word, however, is not real Singhalese; and we can have no doubt that it is the proper name Cambay." This was the port in Gujarat, a state in Western India, from where the garment was exported to the island.


The transformation from "comboy" to "kambaya" began with Caroline Corner's Ceylon: the Paradise of Adam (1908), in which she writes evocatively: "Gathering their kambayas around them to keep free of the briars, and exposing a length of limb in a charmingly natural manner, on they came, picking their way through the jungle."


References to the kambaya provide a literary history of the word, but what of the present status of the garment itself? The answer is that its usage is limited to the older generation of women in the southern and south-eastern maritime region, especially Galle, where it is also worn with a jacket known as the kabakuruththu.


The kambaya is an enigmatic garment with a long history, a cloth transformed through time, reflecting the cultural identity of Sri Lanka. The kambaya may not be as widely seen as before, yet with its unique style and design, it is making a statement on the catwalk in the present day.

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    “The Cambay as worn by a Mudaliyar and his wife” illustrated by A Fairfield, from James Emerson Tennent’s Ceylon (1859)

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    Dutch impression of a typical Cambay and jacket of the period (1688), from Illustration and Views of Dutch Ceylon (1988) by R K de Silva & W G M Beumer

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    A hand-coloured wood engraving shows the islanders wearing the Cambay in “The Cingalese at Galle”, Illustrated London News (1872).

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    Mary Brunker's “Dias the Cutchery Modliar at Galle” shows a Mudaliyar wearing the Cambay as illustrated in James Emerson Tennent’s Notes and Drawings of Ceylon (1838-1855)

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