Sinhalese societies in Sri Lanka are constructed on several hierarchies which include the party-political, religious (Buddhist and deity worship), caste, bureaucratic-administrative, professional (educational, medical) and the military.
The most important social unit is the nuclear family which includes husband, wife, and unmarried children. Relatives of both wife and husband form an important social network that supports the nuclear family and encompasses the majority of its important social relations.
In Sri Lanka, individual households are identified by cooking practices, so that, even within a larger house, a wife will cook for her husband and children independently from others who may live within the structure, perhaps sharing the same kitchen.
Although women have a great deal of power within a family, ultimate authority belongs to the oldest male member of a household, whether that is the father, husband, brother, or son.
While overall there is a preference for sons, Sri Lankans express a preference that their first child be a girl, who they believe will help care for and be a disciplining influence on younger siblings.
Marriage: The institution
Marriages in Sri Lanka are monogamous although unions between one man and more than one woman (polygyny) are neither illegal nor unknown. On the other hand, unions involving one woman and more than one man (polyandry) are also legal and possible.
Although some castes their emphasis on in-group marriage e.g. Karava caste, some arranged marriages also take place between men and women from different castes.
Choosing a marriage partner is a very intricate affair and is often based on astrological readings of horoscopes, compatibility checks, wealth and status considerations, personalities of the two people involved, and parental control over dowry and other assets that may pass on to the children. Hence the decisions on children’s marriage are often determined by factors other than the love exhibited between the man and woman to each other.
- The groom and his relatives assemble on the right of the Poruwa and the bride’s family gathers at the left.
- The bride and groom enter the Poruwa leading with the right foot first.
- They greet each other with palms held together in the traditional manner.
- The ceremony officiant then presents betel leaves to the couple which they accept and hand back to him to be placed on the Poruwa.
- The bride’s father places the right hand of the bride on that of the groom as a symbolic gesture of handing over the bride to the groom.
- The groom’s brother hands over a tray with seven sheaves of betel leaves with a coin placed in each.
- The groom holds the tray while the bride takes one leaf at a time and drops it on the Poruwa. The groom then repeats this process.
- The groom’s brother hands a gold necklace to the groom who in turn places it on the bride’s neck.
- The maternal uncle enters the Poruwa and ties the small fingers of the bride and groom with a single gold thread (to symbolize unity) and then pours water over the fingers.
- Six girls will then bless the marriage with a traditional chant (Jayamangala Gatha).
- The groom presents to his bride a white cloth which in turn is presented to the bride’s mother. This is an expression of the groom’s gratitude to his mother-in-law.
- The bride’s mother will then present a plate of milk rice specially cooked for the occasion to the bride who feeds a piece to the groom The groom then feeds the bride.
- As the newly married couple steps down from the Poruwa, the groom’s family member breaks a fresh coconut in two.
The kinship systems of Sri Lanka indicates that the most acceptable person for a young man to marry is the daughter of his father’s sister. The most suitable partner for a young woman is the son of her mother’s brother and parallel cousins (the son of the father’s brother or the daughter of the mother’s sister) tend to be improper marriage partners.
There is a close and special relationship between children and their aunts or uncles, who may become their fathers- or mothers-in-law. Special kinship terminology exists in both Tamil and Sinhalese for relatives in preferred or prohibited marriage categories.
In many villages, people spend their entire childhood with a clear knowledge of their future marriage plans and in close proximity to their future spouses. The system of cross-cousin marriage is ideally suited to maintaining the closed ritual purity of an extended kinship group and retaining control over property within a small circle of relatives.
Kinship is acquired through two means i.e. birth and marriage. One is again born into a given sibling and extended kin group. Marriage allows new interconnections with hitherto unrelated families even though some marriages take place between already related families also.
The largest kin group is the “microcaste” (called “our caste people” in Tamil), a section of a larger caste category within which people recognize common descent and a shared status. The microcaste is often distributed among several hamlets or wards in adjoining villages.
In sharp contrast to south Indian Tamil culture, descent is fully bilateral, save in the eastern coastal regions, where matrilineal descent is common.