May 2018


The Romance of Royalty
May 2018




The union of Prince Vijaya and Kuweni forged the beginning of a nation

Royal marriages, be it for political unions or love, have for millennia coloured the annals of Sri Lanka's history. Though there is little detail on the ceremonies, the aura of these unions can be gleaned through notes in historical chronicles as well as details in ancient sculptures, paintings and folklore.


Words: Keshini de Silva
Paintings: Prasanna Weerakkody


Royals in Sri Lanka were once akin to deities, and every milestone in their lives, be it from a birth to battle victories, have been of celebrated with a grandeur unique to that particular era.


As was the practice of the time, most royal unions in ancient Sri Lanka are deemed to have taken place to strengthen the political position of a monarch; or to strengthen the ties between two kingdoms. These marriages were also used to fortify a lineage's claim to the island's throne. The rarer marriages of romance have become legends, such as the union of Princess Unmada Chitra and Deegagamini and Prince Saliya and Ashokamala. No matter the story, one can assume that the significance of a royal wedding called for great celebration in the island.

One of the earliest and famous royal couples, mentioned in the Mahavamsa chronicle is Prince Vijaya and Kuweni.


One of the earliest and famous royal couples, mentioned in the Mahavamsa chronicle is Prince Vijaya and Kuweni. According to ancient text, their meeting may not have been a romantic one, however their union was formed when Kuweni promised to give the nomadic prince a kingdom to rule over. Towards the end of the narrative, there is a note of a Yaksha tribal tradition to hold a high festival lasting seven days in celebration of the marriage of a member of the tribal chieftain's family. Although no such feast is mentioned for Vijaya and Kuweni, it is said that Kuweni offered the prince and his men, food taken from shipwrecks. During the meal, Kuweni is described as a young maiden adorned with ornaments. Their union is said to have been consummated on a bed she made at the foot of a tree, covered in a canopy; while the prince's entourage camped around. There is no account of Prince Vijaya's attire, although being a prince from India it can be assumed that he wore the clothing of Indian royalty of that time.


During the Anuradhapura Era, from the written texts to sculptures indicate that the royals wrapped a simple cloth, probably made of the finest fabric of the period, around their waist. Their chests were unclothed, signifying their high status in society, while heavily ornamented necklaces and chains ran across their necks and chests. At times the jewellery completely covered their chests. Monarchs such as King Dutugemunu are said to have had rich earrings dangle from their lobes, bangles on their wrists and anklets on their feet. They knotted their long hair in a bun, while their female partners tied their hair in an elaborate bun on top of their heads with gilt, gem-encrusted accessories.

The union of King Kavantissa and the brave Princess Viharamahadevi is almost a romantic epic.


A royal marriage custom in Sri Lanka that is spoken about in texts is where princesses were provided a gift to suit their status on their matrimonial day. In many royal families, the princess was placed on gems; a gift for her wedded life. It was not just a custom carried out by the parents of the princess as in the case of Prince Saliya's wedding to Asokamala, King Dutugemunu had gifted the maiden gems. While for the wedding of King Kavantissa and Princess Viharamahadevi, the gems for the custom were presented by King Kavantissa himself.


The union of King Kavantissa and the brave Princess Viharamahadevi is almost a romantic epic. The princess was sacrificed to the seas, to save her father's Kingdom of Kelani, when her ship washed ashore in the Kingdom of Ruhuna, ruled by King Kavantissa. Legend has it that the princess was taken from the coast to the Magul Maha Viharaya, where the wedding ceremony took place, in a grand procession. According to two statues at the Muhudu Maha Viharaya, believed to be of the royal couple, the King and Princess wore attire similar to other royals of the era, with bare chests heavy with jewellery, high hairdos and a cloth around the waist; here Princess Devi is seen wearing a frill above the cloth. The attire of the royals indeed transformed through the ages, as Queen Samudra Devi of the Kotte Kingdom is imagined to have worn an elaborate cloth and headdress with fine details. It is an interpretation drawn from a 16th century ivory statue of the queen.

The dress of the queens in Kandy had also changed with foreign influences.


At the dawn of the Kandyan Kingdom, royal custom changed, possibly with foreign influence. King Vimaladharmasuriya, the first king of Kandy, cemented his claim to the throne with his marriage to Dona Cathirina (Kusumasana Devi) of royal lineage. While the wedding took place in haste, the Devi, brought up in European style, is believed to have worn the attire of European ladies at the time. This signalled the transformation of royal dress with the king's outfit including a loose jacket consisting a Manthe, while the cloth made from the somana fabric was draped around the waist in a unique manner. Later, kings wore bejewelled crowns, elaborate anklets, armlets, heavy earrings and several rings along with a sword at special functions. Written accounts indicate that fine fabrics such as brocades were popular, especially during the reign of the last four kings of Lanka, who were of the Nayakkar dynasty.


The dress of the queens in Kandy had also changed with foreign influences. The portrait of Queen Rengammal, the last queen of Kandy, by William Daniell shows the queen draped in finery. Her neck is covered with exotic jewels, large pendants, representing the origins of the elaborate Kandyan bridal jewellery worn by brides today. Instead of jewels, as was the custom in Anuradhapura, her hair was adorned with flowers. Although details of the wedding ceremonies are unknown, it may be assumed that elaborate costumes similar to this were worn by the Kandyan royals.

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    An illustration of the romantic meeting between Prince Saliya and the maiden Asokamala

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    The royal marraige of King Kavantissa and Princess Devi was celebrated with great pageantry and custom

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    Queen Samudra Devi provides a glimpse of the finery royals of Kotte wore

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    Dona Cathirina and King Vimaladharmasuriya's marraige started a change in royal attire

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    Original portrait of King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe
    National Archives

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    Portrait of Queen Rangammal by William Daniell from the 1800s can be see at the Colombo National Museum

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    The court of King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe wore elaborate clothing and accessories

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