A few of the unique traditional customs of the Karava community are listed below. It is by no means a comprehensive list . Also, customs have regional variations, as such if there are any other customs practiced by your family please send them in for inclusion here.
A gold coin or piece of gold jewelry is rubbed against a hard surface to get some gold dust. The gold dust is mixed with a few drops of breast milk and given to the new born baby as its first feed. It is called Rankiri.
Astrologers are consulted with the horoscopes of the parents and the birth time of the baby and suitable letters for a name are obtained. Based on these letters a learned family member of a religious personality will suggest a suitable personal name for the baby. In addition to the personal name the child would also have a clan name &/or Ge name preceding the personal name and a surname after the personal name
The child is adorned with a gold pendant embellished with five weapons (Panchaudha or Pancha aayudha the weapons of Lord Vishnu) as a symbol of it's warrior heritage. The practice still survives in rural Sri Lanka and has been now adopted by other communities as well. The connections of Karavas of the past with the worship of Lord Vishnu is noteworthy. His Vehicle the garuda is found on ancient Karava flags and the Vishnu temple in the south is in the ancient Karava port city of Thenuwar. See Religious
Right: The battle flag of Sri Lanka, captured by the British from Vaduga king Sri Wikrama Rajasinghe’s army. It displays the kettle drum which was beaten before battles and the five weapons (panchaudha). In the past, a medallion with panchaudha symbols used to be tied on Karava infants for protection. The practice still survives in rural Sri Lanka and has been now adopted by other communities as well.
Alms are given to poor women (Kiri Ammas) in the early hours of the morning
Cutting the first lock of hair is done at an auspicious time.
A Learned member of the family will give the first lesson on reading/writing at an auspicious time .
The coming of age of a young girl is celebrated soon after her first menstrual has ceased. From the commencement of her first menstrual she is not allowed to sight any males until the ceremony. On the day of the ceremony, she is bathed, dressed in special clothes and brought out for the function in her honour.
Right: The ancestral royal insignia of the Karava community from a illustration from 1890. Illustrated are: clockwise from top centre Mutukuda (pearl umbrella). Alavattam (ceremonial Sun and moon ornaments), sword, Makara flag, Davul, Hornae (a type of trumpet) Tammattam, Sun and Moon flag and Trident.
Above: An ancient flag of the Karava community, displaying the Mutukuda(royal pearl umbrellas) along with the other royal symbols of the Karavas: Sun & Moon symbols, Sword, White shield, Lamps (torches -pandam), ceremonial shades (alavattam), Yak tail whisks (valviduna) etc. together with Indra, the god of the Kshatriyas.
When girls and boys are of marriageable age the parents seek out suitable partners. The traditional requirements to be matched are caste, religion, social status, ancestry, the compatibility of the intended in-laws , age, occupation, wealth etc.
If all or most of the above are compatible then the horoscopes of the girl and boy are matched; and if they are compatible a date is fixed for the groom to visit the bride's home. He arrives with gifts and the pair gets an opportunity to see whether they like each other. If the pair, their parents and relatives are happy with the selection the astrologers are consulted again and dates and times for the marriage are fixed.
Traditionally the Karava's had their own service caste of Barbers called Amabtta caste. The Ambattaya caste served only the Karavas. They were attached by bonds of service and their ancestors had arrived from India with the retinue of the Karavas. The Ambattayas were the village Barbers and Physicians. Their wives were the midwives. At Karava weddings the Ambattaya ceremonially trimmed a few hairs of the groom's beard. At Karava funerals he followed the procession to the cemetery and sprinkled holy water on the grave. (M. D. Raghavan Professor Emeritus in Times of Ceylon 27/07/1953) In his Pictorial Survey of Ceylon, Professor Raghavan says that the Ambattaya family that served the Karava caste in Vaikal had the family name Chakrawarthige. The ancient Sri Lankan chronicle, Chulavamsa has a reference to this Kshatriya custom of first dressing of hair (CV 63:5)
The mother of the groom comes in front of him with a glass of milk as he leaves his home and the Groom sips the milk and gets blessed by the Mother.
Right: In continuation of the Karava warrior tradition, a younger brother, or male cousin of the bride greets the groom at the entrance to the bride's house and symbolically washes his feet . The groom drops a gold ring into the water basin as a gift to the brother and the groom walks over white cloth laid out for him by the family washerman. In the past Karava villages had their own service caste of washermen who washed only for the Karavas and lived in adjacent villages.
The wedding ceremony is in the Bride's home. On the day of the wedding, a younger brother/male cousin of the bride greets the groom at the entrance to the bride's house and symbolically washes the groom's feet . The groom drops a gold ring into the water basin. That's a gift to the brother. And the groom walks over white cloth laid out for him by the family washerman. In the past Karava villages had their own service caste of washermen who washed only for the Karavas and lived in adjacent villages.
Above and below: Wedding of Loius Pieris and Cecilia de Fonseka of the Karawe community, with family and Lascorin guards. circa 1870
The bride is brought out shortly before the appointed auspicious time and amid chanting, singing and beating of drums the couple mounts the wedding dais. A maternal uncle of the bride dons a head cloth as a turban and symbolically unites the couple by tying their right thumbs together with a gold thread. The union is consecrated by pouring water from a decorative spouted vessel or chank onto the fingers. This symbolizes the kshatriya tradition of pouring holy water from the Ganges
Whilst still on the bridal dais the couple exchange gold rings and the groom adorns the bride with a gold necklace. He also symbolically drapes her with the wedding Saree brought by him and a white cloth. The white cloth is to be laid on the bridal bed and is examined by the groom's relatives the next morning for evidence of virginity.
Gifts are given by the couple to both sets of parents and grandparents. The Bride's mother is traditionally given a full roll of white cloth together with other gifts. Betel leaves, paddy and a gold coin is dropped onto the floor of the dais. These are for the family washerman.
Karava weddings with traditional royal insignia. Above from the early 20th century and below from the late 20th century.
At the appointed auspicious time the bride's maternal uncle leads the couple down from the dais to light a lamp which is a custom distantly related to the ancient holy fire ceremony. As the couple is stepping off the dais to the sound of conches, drumming, chanting and singing the washerman brings down a traditional axe onto a coconut placed on the floor and expertly splits it into two halves. If both halves fall face up and with water in them it is considered a good omen for a successful marriage.
The bride wears a Siri-bo -male ( a gold necklace with seven strands worn only by the Karava brides and former queens of Sri Lanka) possibly signifying the connection to the Siri Sangabo royal line of Sri Lanka. See timeline of Karava kings
Two examples of gold "Siri bo Maala" worn only by Karava brides and former queens of Sri Lanka
Karava royal insignia, jewelry and other valuables that are being given as dowry to the bride are displayed at the ceremony.
The Portuguese historian Father Manuel Barrados writes as follows about a Karava weeding he witnessed in 1613 in Moratuwa.
"The wedded pair come walking on white cloths, with which the ground is successively carpeted, and are covered above with others of the same kind, which the nearest relatives hold in their extended hands after the fashion of a canopy. The symbols that they carry are white discs, and candles lighted in the day-time, and certain shells which they keep playing on in place of bag-pipes. All these are Royal Symbols which the former kings conceded to this race of people, that being strangers they should inhabit the coasts of Ceilao, and none but they or those to whom they give leave can use them. …, what causes wonder in this and in other people of this kind, is, that although so wretched, miserable, and poor, they have so many points of honour, that they would rather die than go contrary to it." (Monthly Literary Register 4, 1896 page 134
A southern Karava wedding as seen by a western artist in 1885. Note white canopy and foot cloth of royalty. Click image to zoom
Until recent times the 'Kabakuruttu' , a tight fitting white blouse with long sleeves, lace trimmings and a V neck-line, was worn only by Karava women. Women of other castes wore 'Hette' (blouses).
Left: A southern Karava woman from a previous century , wearing the traditional 'Kabakuruttu' , a tight fitting white blouse with long sleeves, lace trimmings and a V neck-line. These blouses were worn only by Karava women. Women of other castes wore 'Hette' (blouses). White blouses were another symbol of royalty when commoner women of Govi and other castes went bare breasted. These white blouses from the Portuguese period have preserved the pre-portuguese royal status of the Karavas through 5 centuries of colonization when women from other castes, led by the wives of colonial Mudaliyars started wearing white blouses - albeit with a round neckline and not with the distinctive V neck of the Karava Kabakuruttu blouse.
The jewelry now worn by kandyan brides are in imitation of the ornaments worn by the Karava Vaduga queens of the Kandyan kingdom. Although such ornaments are now worn by Kandyans who claim high status. Radalas and other non-royal women could not wear such ornaments during the period of Kandyan kings. Of these ornaments, the sun and moon hair decorations signified the descent of the Vaduga queens from the Solar and Lunar royal dynasties (the Karava Suyavansa and Chandravansa); the forehead bands signify the forehead plates of kings ( See nalal pata bendeema). The ear ornaments in the shape of overturned cups signified their Lunar dynasty descent; the seven necklaces represented the royal Siribomala signifying the Karava Bo-tree (Sirisangabo) dynasty the legitimate claimants of the Sri Lankan throne.
Left: A Karava lady from the past, Mrs. M. J. Puvirajasinghe is in her ancestral ornaments. (see Karava Singhe Dynasty of Jaffna) Each chain around her neck has its own symbolism. In addition she wears five items of jewelry each on her wrists, forearms, nose and hair. Wearing jewelry was a symbol of royalty. Commoners weren't allowed, and couldn't afford, to wear jewelry. Mudaliyar Rasanayagam says that such jewelry had Makara head ornamentation called Makarakkulai (Ancient Jaffna pg. 170)
Be they rich or poor, the Karavas are the only community in Sri Lanka to use royal insignia (Pearl umbrella known as the Mutu kuda, sword, trident, alawattam emblazoned with the sun and moon, sun & moon flag, makara flag and lighted candles or traditional flame torches) at their funerals. In the past, these symbols were also used at Karáva weddings and other family functions, but these customs are almost lost now. Many traditional Kaurava families previously had their own set of insignia for use at family gatherings. They were stored in a box called ábharana pettiya or sésath pettiya and usually the box contained a list giving the order in which they should be carried and the kin-relationships of the persons designated to carry them
. The funeral procession below shows the contemporary adaptation of the Karawa royal insignia in rural Sri Lanka.
The white umbrella (the Mutukuda pearl umbrella ) was a symbol of royal rank and a vital component of the pancha kakudha bhanda or the five exclusive insignia of royalty . The white umbrella was used by Kings and other royalty including royal army commanders and also used in wars and royal ceremonies. It is usually referred to as Sveta-chatra and sometimes also as Dhavala chatra. The white pearl umbrella ( Mutukuda) has been used by the Kauravas from time immemorial. The Mahabharata relates that they were even taken on to the battle field by the Kauravas. The Kauravas of Sri Lanka use the pearl umbrella to date at funerals, along with other royal insignia such as swords, trident, Sun & Moon flag, Makara flag, whisks, white foot cloths and lamps.
The funeral procession below shows the contemporary adaptation of the Karawa white pearl umbrella (Mutukuda) in rural Sri Lanka.
The Karavas are also the only caste to traditionally have drummers in their funeral processions. Drumming was performed by a designated service caste in the past. Until recent times and even now in villages, except for the Karava caste , other castes send off the drummers with the clergy to the cemetery and the funeral procession proceeds silently sans the drummers. The few castes who now have drummers in their funeral processions have the drums covered with cloth so as to muffle the beat. Funeral drummers arrive at a Karava residence a few hours before the cortege departs and plays funeral drum beats with regular intervals, the intervals getting shorter as the departure time nears. If the body is cremated the drummers stay all night at the funeral pyre beating a traditional funeral beat.
Whilst other castes do not cook at home until the funeral is over, the Karavs cook and feed the friends who keep dropping in for the funeral. However no fried food is prepared. After the burial or cremation the friends and relatives return to the funeral house for a communal meal. Alms are given to priest on the 7th day following the death and 3 months and annually thereafter.
An old etching of King Rajasinghe and his court.
Note the similarity of the royal symbols carried by the courtiers with those on the flag above. Of particular interest are the two pearl umbrellas, the sun and moon symbols, Aalavattam ceremonial sun shades and the white (conch) shield.
Below: an old painting from Sri Lanka showing similar symbols of royalty carried in honour of the king.
Kshatriya Maha Sabha, Sri Lanka