Busting the Age Old Myths about the Poruwa Ceremony

by Rochelle Palipane Gunaratne

The general belief that a wedding should have an all-pervasive air of vitality and joy prevails across the world but the myths and old wives tales that have been incorporated into traditional celebrations have been reasons for sadness, doubt, fear, murder and even suicide but does it have to be so? Let’s find out from the expert himself, Janaka Algama who specializes in the age-old tradition endemic to Sri Lanka - The Poruwa Ceremony. 

Q. Is the Poruwa ceremony mentioned in the historical artefacts of Sri Lanka? 

Yes, the earliest manuscripts mention the fact that during the rule of King Okkaka, there was a Brahman Subrahma and his wife Brahma Nalini; their daughter wed in a poruwa ceremony. It is also the manner in which Prince Siddhartha wed his queen consort Yashodara Devi according to folklore. Hence the ceremony is considered a traditional Sinhalese nuptial blessing bestowed on a couple’s special day.  

Q. Why do you refer to it as a Sinhalese custom instead of a Buddhist rite? 

If you observe it closely you will find that the Poruwa custom contains elements of most of the religions prevalent in our land. Yes it has a predominant interweaving of Buddhist and Hindu traditions and beliefs but it also has a sliver of other religious and cultural beliefs, which are intermingled due to the ethnic diversity of our land and the influences which have moulded and shaped the tradition accordingly. 

Q. Is the Poruwa ceremony legally binding? 

 Yes, since 1864 it is recognized within the matrimonial laws of our land although the registration of the marriage has to take place either prior to the ceremony or immediately after. 

 Q. What are some of the significant elements or standards of this unique ceremony? 

1. First and foremost it has to have a stage on which the couple that stand on it are the cynosure of all eyes as they partake of the ceremony. 

2. The chanting of blessings known as ‘Ashtaka’ by a dedicated individual who performs the rites. 

3. Jayamangala Gatha are sung.

4. The exchange of gifts, betel leaves, glass of water and uniting of the married couple with blessed string are among others. 

5. An intimate half circle of ‘Hatharawarige Neyo’ (this includes Bride’s mother’s relatives, Bride’s father’s relatives, Groom’s mother’s relatives and Groom’s father’s relatives) should be present in close proximity bearing them good will as witnesses. 

Q. What are some of the myths associated with the Poruwa ceremony? 

Myth : The ceremony has to be held in the morning. 

Truth : The reason for weddings to be held in the morning in the past was mainly due to convenience as means of transport were often bullock carts or by foot which made it safer for people to travel by daylight. Inevitably the ceremony would be followed by a meal for the guests and in days of yore the afternoon meal was always considered the main meal in which people would partake of more food. Since the meals were home cooked in most instances and made at dawn by relatives and neighbours bonding together, it was expected that the gathering would consists of a great feast, which was inevitably a daylight feast. As well, electricity was unheard of in ancient days and even after its introduction in the in the latter part of the 1920s, it was a scarcity in the rural areas and even in certain cities which made it easier to host any function for that matter during the day.  

In today’s context none of the above challenges take precedence as people have easy access to multiple modes of transport, electricity and most importantly a variety of options concerning meal plans for guests with buffets, actions stations and other knick knacks being included, which makes it more viable to have functions at any given time of the day. 

Q. Many couples have faced a dilemma when requesting for auspicious times especially for evening functions, what is your opinion concerning it? 

Auspicious times are plentiful in the twenty-four hour clock, 365 days a year and do not have to be restricted to the morning hours alone. The most appropriate examples are the auspicious times pertaining to the Sinhala and Tamil New Year. Every aspect of the New Year celebrations are conducted according to meticulously chosen times which takes place at even the oddest hours, therefore the most detrimental fact is that the couple and their loved ones approach the ceremony with piety and reverence, with the sole intention of being blessed as they radiate a blessing. So while there is a significance and importance surrounding the horoscopes in order to obtain a suitable time, it should not hamper the true meaning of their union. 

Q. Do Brides faint on the Poruwa if they are not virgins, when you recite Ashtaka?

Myth : Well, it is NOT exactly a myth!

Truth: Yes, it can happen – BUT it comes with many conditions that are impossible to meet now a days. Some of the most important of the many factors that matter are the Poruwa, Ashtaka Reciter and the wedding location. Back in the day, the Poruwa was made with wood of ‘Kiri Gas’ like mango, Jack wood, Rata Del, etc. These were brought without touching the ground and made at an auspicious time – it has to be made brand new. Today the Poruwa is quite often a rented one from a florist, which also has been used by many other couples.

Then the Ashtaka Reciter had certain criteria to meet too. He has to be holy, without any birth defects or hereditary ailments, among many others. He should also pronounce the Asktaka to the correct decibels and ‘Gana’. Poruwa Ashtaka consist of many parts – Ashtaka (Sanskrit/Paali/Sinhala) , Shloka (Sanskrit), Sahali (Sinhala), Seth kavi/Gayana (Sinhala). Most often we don’t recite the parts that affect the Bride, if we are made aware of the fact that she’s not a virgin.

Then the location of the wedding also plays a role. Back then the wedding took place at a Bride’s house in the living room, which was blessed with Pirith chanting before the wedding. Now we have weddings at hotel banquet halls – so they are definitely not pure holy grounds.

So these and some other criteria has to be ALL met, for the Bride to faint if she’s not a Virgin. But as I said, it’s extremely difficult to meet all these conditions and standards. 

Q. What is the purpose of cracking a coconut when the couple is stepping down? Has it any significance to child bearing? 

There is a supernatural element to the poruwa as it is similar to a safe enclosure or a mother’s womb. At the time of confinement we ensure that the child is birthed to a safe and secure environment. Similarly, when a couple is stepping down or out of the safety of the poruwa, there are certain rites, which are followed to break any evil intentions, foreboding and the power of dark forces. However, the manner in which the coconut is split has no significance to the couple’s fertility.  

Q. What about the person who holds the couples hands when they step onto the poruwa, tie the knot? What is the value placed in the person? 

Myth: The myths surrounding this tradition is often cause for contention. In the past a person was considered of less value if they were widowed or barren and not deemed fit to assist the bride and groom to step onto the poruwa. 

Truth: In this day and age such beliefs would be considered politically incorrect and demeaning. Sensitivity to another’s feelings plays a key role in choosing who will assist the bride and groom to step up etc. I am of the view that as long as the person is of sound mind and have a genuine love for the couple everything else pales in comparison. I was privy to a poruwa ceremony in which the father sat in his wheelchair and helped his child onto the poruwa with eyes brimming with tears of joy and his whole demeanor bursting with love that was almost tangible and ultimately that is the most valuable ingredient to these ceremonies – that the couple love and respect each other and are surrounded by their kith and kin who are willing to embrace them with love. 

If one recalls the obsolete tradition of ensuring the virginity of a bride by displaying of the blood clot on a white cloth and the indignity women had to undergo due to the tradition, many albeit all women would hail its exit from the wedding ceremony.  Moreover, traditions, cultural and religious beliefs tend to create an uniqueness but one needs to pause and reflect on the true purpose of the myths surrounding some age old practices and be more compassionate in the inclusion of them in your wedding ceremony – irrespective of caste or creed.