Covering the Female Body: Transition seen in Buddhist murals from the 18th to 20th centuries

Asoka De Zoysa from his presentation at the National Trust Lecture Series in Lanka No. 38

What is the function of dress in society? Theoreticians on costume believe that human beings in most cultures wear clothes for one or more of the following reasons: Comfort and protection. This can be physical and psychological protection. Demonstrate economic and social status. Using branded apparel, designer wear for example. I may also add the Spiritual Status – Dress codes imposed on people visiting places of worship. Display cultural diversity: That is to demonstrate belonging to an ethnic group for example or a religious institution or groups of people of a “sub culture” upholding same values like the “Hippies” and “Punks”. Dress can also display the role played by the person wearing the costume in society in a given place: attire at Law Courts is a good example. Why should School prefects wear a blazer in the hot sun at the “Big Match”?

Unfortunately, in earlier times “Dress Codes” were imposed on society, that one was not free to wear a costume of one’s choice. Dress codes are written and, more often, unwritten rules what one must wear. Even today, Dress Codes put us into uniforms at school, work place or dictate what to wear in categories such as “Smart Casual” or “Lounge” even if we are not on duty.

Notions governing costume: Today many people uphold the notion that covering up certain parts of the body mirror the modesty of the female. “Modesty”, has become very much the buzz word of today in the context of costume.

Also gender roles too have become important in the 20th century. Women wearing trousers and cutting their hair short, men having long hair and piercing ear lobes, men using cosmetics, tattooed women and cross dressing have been seen with disapproval and as offensive behavior.

Initially this was a personal choice to go against the “Main Stream”. A form of personal expression and preference.

Colonial interventions of “Decency”. Statements can be found in missionary reports and other texts. In modern times, what one should wear is drifting towards a personal choice.

Costume historians, like me, observe how items of dress and accessories have been used to cover parts of the body or highlight the exposed parts of the body and embellish the figure using jewelry. Based on sculptures, paintings, drawings, posters, advertisements, photographs and films, it has been possible to reconstruct how fashion has changed over the past four centuries in many countries.

For this lecture, I choose the source material which are examples extracted from narratives seen in the Buddhist murals from 18th to 20th century. You will see a selection of images from the Kandyan Region and some from the Southern and Western Region, which I will use to demonstrate a transition in clothing. I limit myself to some 60 images this evening.

Revolutions in the west, the wars and changes in political ideologies from liberal to traditionalist, in the wake of “reform movements” or authoritarian religious regimes have a large impact on imposing written and unwritten rules, what is permitted to be worn in public and how (especially women) should be dressed in public space. In modern times there has been an urge to introduce the “Lama Sariya” at the university. The Kandyan Sari is seen as the most appropriate to reflect the identity of the “Sinhala Woman”.

In the next few minutes, we shall observe how the Female Body was covered and uncovered.

The Sigiriya Apsaras are the best examples to study the ideals of female beauty from the late 5th century. The evidence from Polonnaruwa, to conjecture how women were dressed , is scant. The few examples from the Tivanka Image House show women mostly without an upper garment – very much keeping with the classical Indian tradition.

We are then faced with the “Hiatus” of not having examples of paintings for about of 500 years. Prof. Bandaranayake demonstrates the evolution of Sri Lankan “Schools of Paintings” in his monumental monograph “The Rock and Wall paintings of Sri lanka” (1986). Here the transition from “Late Classical School” to the “Central Kandyan School” is bridged by the dotted line. It is the time between the “last manifestations of the late classic style in the 13th century and the revival of painting in the Kandyan Kingdom in the 18th century and in the Southern and western maritime provinces at the beginning of the 19th century”. (Bandaranayake 2009 p. 301). In this time capital of the island shifts from Yapahuwa to Dambadeniya, Sitawaka, Gampola, Kotte to the hill region of Kandy. A much unstable time when the rulers were battling with the Portuguese and the Dutch and were engaged in territorial wars with rivaling princes. Missionaries too are entertained in court in addition to Brahmins from South India, who performed court rituals. Some members of royal families embraced the Christian faith. By the mid 18th century the Kandyan court had a fair percentage of nobility, descendants of Tamil and Andra dynasties from South India. The same period marks a peak in the production of cloth in South India. Calico from Calicut, Muslin from Musalipatham and Pashmina from Kashmir are very much valued in Europe. Textiles printed in Malaysia and Indonesia are traded in Sri Lanka, not forgetting Silk from China. Most donor inscriptions of this period mention of high value fabrics being gifted to temples, kings or to members of the court. It is not surprising that the women’s fashion change in this multicultural background of the 18th century.

We shall begin our observations at the Mädawela Tämpita Raja Maha Viharaya known to most of you. It is dated into the time of KSR most likely about 1760 and is regarded as one of the earliest examples of the “Central Kandyan School”.

asoka image 1

asoka image 2

The murals are seen in this single room on the left and right side walls and ceilings. On the left wall we see the “Uraga Jātakaya”, a story of the Brahmin and his family, who did not lament the sudden death of the son.

asoka image 3

The narration begins with the messenger informing the Brahmin’s wife that she is to bring the midday meal, but come with all members of the family to the plot of land. The lady receiving the message is seated inside the house. Those engaged in conversation are holding up the second finger. All three women have no upper garment. Please note the colour of the body of the woman standing. All three women have their tied up, where as the messenger’s hair is loose falling well below the shoulders.

asoka image 4

The next scene shows the three women on their way to the plot of land, the wife and the daughter- in law of the Brahmin now wear jackets. The servant carrying the noontime meal is not wearing un upper garment.

asoka image 5

It seems the messenger is leading them. In the next scene we see the Brahmin ploughing the field. The fatal incident of the son is shown very small, where he is struck by a snake and dies.

asoka image 6

The next scene shows that the Brahmin continues to work, chopping wood, not at all disturbed by the sudden death of his son, while the dead body is burning in the pyre in front of him. The scene that follows shows the mother of the dead son, grieving and the wife and the servant looking very composed.

asoka image 7

asoka image 8

The stranger passing by, inquires why the family is not lamenting the death. He is told that they have always meditated on the impermanence of life. This questioning stranger turns out to be Sakka, the King of Gods.

asoka image 9

The upper garment of the two women is interesting: The white jacket has a “Manthaya” , a short frill. The sleeves are wrist length, or stretch below the elbow.

On the adjacent right wall we see a large male figure holding a flower/ bud. He too wears the same type of jacket with long sleeves and a “Manthaya” around the neck. He has a beard and his long hair is loose under the white cap. Art historians have identified him as a donor of the shrine room.

asoka image 10

asoka image 11

asoka image 12

In a horizontal register, the concluding nine or ten scenes of the Vessantara Jātakaya are shown on this wall.

asoka image 13

The final scene shows the father and mother of king Vessantara in the palace. Queen Pusati is seated on a throne in the royal pose. She is wearing very much the same upper garment worn by the Brahmin’s wife of the Uraga Jatakaya or the doner.

asoka image 14

asoka image 15

I build my first hypothesis based on these images:

1. In private space (at home) women did not wear an upper garment. The upper garment worn by women and men did not differ. The “Manthya” a kind of large collar is characteristic for both males and females. Servants and women of “lower birth” did not wear upper garments even if they were in public space.

The first figure on the panel of the Vessantara Jātakaya shows the queen Mandri in the forest.

asoka image 16

The maze like design above her symbolically shows that she is in “Vangagiriya”. Strangely here the wife of King Vessantara, now living in the Himalayan forest, does not wear an upper garment. Her spotted yellow lower garment, may denote her status as a “Tapasvin” or ascetic, who has renounced the worldly life. Her hair is tied up well above the head. We see her in the next scene seated with the two children, dressed in the same manner.

asoka image 17

It seems the Kandyan artist of the mid 18th century had no problem to show the wife of the future Buddha in her last birth without an upper garment. Before leaving this Viharaya, a quick glance at “Mara’s Three daughters” dancing around the Buddha in the “Fifth week after Enlightenment”.

asoka image 18

With their alluring dancing and sweet smelling garlands they wish to disturb the meditating Buddha. The jewellery on the chest accent their round breasts. Their hair style is very much in keeping with the slanting hair knot of the time. Please note the round ear ornament. The three seductresses in Dambulla follow very much the same Kandyan fashion. No upper garment and a dhoti worn as a lower garment.

asoka image 19

asoka image 20

Was the image of Mandri Devi at Mädawela without an upper garment something unique? I have checked out the image of the Mandri Devi after leaving the royal palace in Degaldoruwa.

asoka image 21

Here too she does nor wear an upper garment. Also as in the cloth painting in Arattana, called “Pätikada” ,she is very much shown in the same way.

Also the blind parents of the future Buddha in the “Sama Jatakaya” do not wear upper garments. They too live in the forest as “Tapasvin”.

asoka image 22

asoka image 23

asoka image 24

asoka image 25

2. We may now add another hypothesis, that women living in the forest as hermits are shown without an upper garment. They are “Aranyakas” living in seclusion and the hermitage “aranya” being very much a “private space”. Harking back 7th or 8th Centuries, we also note that the Tara images of the too have no upper garments and no jewelleary.

asoka image 26

This is a unique feature because later images of Tara are usually highly embellished with Jewelry.

asoka image27

Next we move onto another stereotype female figure in Buddhist Art. This I would call “the women of high birth travelling”. She is in public space, but enjoys the privacy within the screened palanquin. Let us look at Queen Mahamaya travelling to her parents just before she gave birth to the future Buddha, Prince Siddhartha. In the Sooriyagoda RMV of the Kandy Region, we see her observing the roadside seated in a palanquin.

asoka image 28

She wears a wrist length upper garment with no “Manthaya”, the frilled collar. The opening of the garment is marked.

asoka image 29

Already we see a change within the Kandyan region, if we compare her costume with that seen in Mädawala.

asoka image 30

If we search for the same image in the Subhodharama Viharaya. Karagampitiya (Dehiwala), that is in the Western Region, we notice that the upper garment has a floral design and she has draped a shawl over her head, in spite of the crown.

asoka image 31

The shawl covers her shoulders. On the right hand side you may notice her once more holding the trunk of a Sal-Tree. Art historians date the Subhodharama Viharaya in Karagampitiya to much later times : close to the end of the 19th century. Can we assume a simple shift, from white upper garment in the Kandy Region, that is in the mid 18th century, to vibrant jacket and cloth over a period of about 120 years? I believe the change is not linear.

We now go back the key scenes of the Vessantara Jatakaya. It is the story of King Vessantara, who donates his wealth and the rain bringing elephant to mendicants and is banished from the palace for this unwonted acts of charity. I select the scene showing King Vessantara and Queen Mandri leaving the palace with the two children for Vangagiriya in the Himalyan Region. We shall follow the developmentsfrom the Kandyan Region to the Southern and Western Region. The scene from the Degaldoruwa Raja Maha Viharaya shows the king gifting the two horses.

asoka image 32

The queen wears a white jacket with Manthaya. It is very much the same costume we know from the Mädawala RMV. Moving into the Southern Region in the Kumarakanda Viharaya, Dodanduwa, close to Galle, we see the same banished family in a horse drawn carriage. The horses have been gifted and the King is about to gift the carriage.

asoka image 33

Queen Mandri does not wear an upper garment but drapes her shawl over the head and shoulders. Moving left, we see her once more walking next to the king.

Her lower garment is a cloth with a floral design. Please note how the shawl falls over her hand as she holds the little daughter. The Kandyan White Jacket is missing and we have the shawl covering head and shoulders. If we select the same scene in the Kelaniya Raja Maha Viharaya, (the older murals in the vestibule) we see her dressed very much in the same manner as in Dodanduwa close to Galle.
asoka image 34
The shawl is not used to cover her breasts. The modes of transport change. I have added an interesting scene from the Vessantara Jatakaya, where Pusati Devi is leaving to visit her parents.

asoka image 35

This is from the Walagoda Raja Maha Viharaya. The King Sanjaya, Vesantara’s father is leading on a horse and Pusathi Devi is carried on a palanquin. She is peeping out, not wearing an upper garment, maybe wearing a shawl that cannot be seen. I cannot come to terms with that popular theory that “wearing an upper garment was a privilege of women of high birth” applied at all times. It may need some rethinking. You may have noticed that it was the royal male who was constantly wearing an upper garment and not the women.

We have been comparing the same scene from the “Central Kandyan School” and “Southern School” taking some examples from the western region into consideration. The subject matter, what is being painted, too seems to shift when leaving the hill country. Some new Jatakas emerge, and the sources for narratives are taken from the Banapoth Tradition. Among the texts that may have been read/ recited in public, the Saddama Ratnavailiya, seems to become a formidable source of inspiration.

One of the most popular narrations is the Telepatta Jatakaya. The most popular scenes are the “Houses of Pleasure” in which beautiful women welcome the some travelling men to give them the utmost in sensual pleasures. In taste, perfume, music, beauty and body pleasure. You all may be familiar with this scene from the Mulgirigala Raja Maha Viharaya.

asoka image 36

The left half may seem like the epitome of Sri Lankan hospitality. The man is seated in a “European Way” enjoying a drink. The a beautiful women allures the men outside to the “House of Taste”. Please admire the designs on her cloth and the shawl. These women are Rakshasis, kind of ogresses or witches in disguise. The night scene shows one of them in her real nature eating up a man, who has fallen into their trap. Please note her lower garment, which is striped. The wise Bodhisattva, the future Buddha has saved one friend from this danger. He is being led away.

I then bring you to the Raja Maha Viharaya in Kotte, which shows a kitchen, where women in less elaborate dress prepare food.

asoka image 37

Maybe due to the heat of the kitchen they have taken off their upper garments. Please note the checkered design of the lower garment of the women bending over a pot. The woman serving the seated men, you may say “ is dressed in a more modest way”. We are apparently observing the same scene as in Mulgirigala, but feeding the men is less elaborate here. Please note the man outside on the left hand side. Is he carrying a heavy pot of Toddy on his shoulder?

Let us now look at this scene of the “King with a woman disguised as a queen” from Mulgirigala Raja Maha Viharaya, just to remind ourselves of the typical style of dressing of the women in the Southern School.

asoka image 38

The king is wearing an “Uttariya” , what we today call an “Uturu saluwa” over one shoulder and the Queen wears a larger shawl over her head and shoulders. The only figure wearing an upper garment is the male dancer on the left.

The best example to compare male and female costumes is when the male changes his biological gender. This we can see at the Purvaramaya in Kataluwa showing the Merchant Soreyya travelling with a friend for a bath to the Ganges.

asoka image 39

He falls in love with a good looking Buddhist monk and becomes a woman. The story is from the “Saddharma Ratnavaliya”. The merchant before the sex change is in conversation with this friend in the horse drawn carriage. After he becomes a women, he leaves the friend. The female figure on the road, is of the same status. She too wears the shawl over the head and shoulders. The design of her lower garment is typical for the period. It may reflect the fabric design in vogue at the time, confirming the costume worn by women of higher birth seen in the Southern Region.

We have to scan to see the women in the next scene also from the same temple in Kathaluwa.

asoka image 40

The King is on a pleasure tour. He discovers a woman cutting fire wood and falls in love with this women of “lower birth”. She is seen on the right hand side once again. This is the key scene in the Katthahari Jatakaya. The costume of the king is different, but the woman, he falls in love is dressed in a similar manner like in the Merchant Soreyya after the sex change.

In the final comparison selected for this evening, a further development is taking place. We are now in the Subhodharama Viharaya, Karagampitiya Dehiwala close to the end of the 19th century. In the fifth Week following enlightenment, the Buddha is being tempted by the three beautiful daughtes of Mara.

asoka image 41

The upper garment seems to have reappeared, but uses a printed design. The shawl is worn very much in the manner of earlier paintings. The fabric design arranged in vertical lines is interesting. Please compare the seductresses changing costume from the “Central Kandyan School” to the “Modern Transitional School”: From Dambulla to Dehiwala.

asoka image 42

I have not shown any women wearing saris, which emerge in the next phase. As informed by costume historians, the Sari is a very late invention.

Summarizing the observations this evening, I go back to the initial question: What is the function of dress in society?

1. Comfort and protection. We may have to take these costumes of women from Degaldoruwa and Sangharaja Viharaya, Randombe seriously. The fabric designs are not just fantasy of the artist. The manner, in which they cover the full body is interesting. Even a queen is covering her body in a portrait seen on a fan like object in the Kandy Museum.

asoka image 43

2. Demonstrate economic and social status. The social status of cooking and serving women can be observed in the Raja Maha Viharaya Kotte. Please note the fabric design. The chequered lower garment is appearing, known for men in the “Sarang” of today.

asoka image 44

Compare the costumes of King Vessantara and the begging mendicant. Compare the Fabric design and length of lower garment of the king and the mendicant.

asoka image 45

3. Display cultural diversity: Male dancers in skimpy jackets are seen here at the Sunandaramaya in Ambalangoda. They reflect the jackets worn by males and females of the late 19th century.

asoka image 46

Note the Devol Dancer in the next scene from the Purvarama Viharaya in Kathaluwa.

asoka image 47

Here mostly males wear upper garments. The upper garment of the King on the elephant has a collar and each dancer wears a specific jacket. Please note the colours of the garments and the fabric design. We can also see a Devol Dancer in red in the middle. Although he is shown very small, his costume has been painted with utmost detail. Even today the jackets worn by males performing ritual dances end little below the breasts. He is the only dancer wearing trousers. We are observing costumes of males here: We are observing how the male body was covered now. This too will have to be considered, comparison made from the same location. When we observe “How the Merchant Soreyya became a woman” at the Purvaramaya ,we can easily fix the standard costume for the female.

asoka image 48

The shawl is used not to cover the breasts but head and shoulders.

4. The role played by a person in a given situation: In the Dana Scene of the Patachara Story, please note that the woman serving dana is very much dressed in the style of the “Southern School”.

asoka image 49

asoka image 50

This can be seen at the Purvarama Viharaya in Kataluwa. Are the men disrespectful, because they did not take off their head gear when serving the monks? Did women really not cover their breasts when entertaining monks? What was the dress code when entering temples at this time? The Rohini story from the “Saddharmaratnavaliya” gives us valuable information from the Dambadeniya period.

My two final statements for this evening: In Mädawela, Suriyagoda, Gangaramaya, Degaldoruwa and Dambulla women very much wear the same upper garment as the males: A “Sättaya” with the frill called “Manthaya”.

asoka image 51

Note the diversity in lower garment, knotted hair, length of sleeve. This is from a scene showing the visit of Buddha to Kapilavastu from the Gangarama RMV. Did the “Lama Sariya” prescribed for Buddhist Girls about the middle of the 20th century evolve from the male or female costume? In the Lankatilaka Temple of the Kandyan Period we see a more elaborate costume for the King.

asoka image 52

He wears a white upper garment with a “double Manthaya” over the white jacket. A vest is worn over the white jacket. Also please note the lower garment: The black and red striped pant. About a half a century later, murals of the “Southern School” reveal that the males very much follow the fashion of the Kandyan Period.

asoka image 53

The “Manthaya” of the Jacket becomes less important. It becomes more like a collar for males. Females seem to give it up. My next hypothesis:

3. The white jacket with the frill called “Manthaya” was very much a male costume at the 18th century. It did not cover the breasts of neither the males nor females. Today is has been adopted for girls, as a “Half Saree”.

In the Southern Region and later period, the shawl becomes an inevitable accessory for both men and women.

asoka image 54

In the case of women it was used to cover head and shoulders. This is the from the Kotte RMV. Some women in Sigiriya wore an upper garment. They were called servants, but the beauty of their body was not in any way covered by the garment.

Anagarika Dharmapala in the “Sinhala Baudhaya” gives directives how Sinhala women should be dressed in 1923. Please refer his argumentations published in the “Dharmapala Lipi”. Martin Wickramasingha in 1935 voices a more liberal opinion the his article “Purana Sinhala Stringe Ändum”.

At this quick run through, I do not aspire to build theories on costume. Dating the murals at the temples too will have to be done before formulating a chronology for female costumes. Also different styles seen in each temple and to what extent artist have painted over the old murals with new details brining in new fabric designs too will have to be considered. We cannot make final statements on costume before the “Cross Cultural Fertilization” in the Portuguese and the Dutch period has been established: To what extent costumes were appropriated from South India and Malaysia and Indonesia? The costumes seen at Mädawela from about 1760 have undergone much change in the years of the Dambadeniya and Gampola and Kotte periods. I do not think that the Attire of the Moghul Emperors have influenced the costumes of Sri lanka in the 18th and 19th centuries, as suggested by Mr. Ismeth Rahim at the lecture. We may have to look for examples from South India. If fragments of paintings from the Dambadeniya and Gampola period have now been discovered, they too will have to be taken into consideration. That the Mädawala Murals do reflect contemporary dress, cannot be ignored. The advent of the Sari in the murals and what class of women wear the sari will have to be observed in the early 20th c century.

I have shown you a basic structure, how the female costume may have changed using evidences from the Murals, beginning with the mid 18th century and ending at the turn of the 19th century. Martin Wickramasingha and M. D. Ariyapala have attempted hypothesis based on the literary evidences from the time of the “Hiatus” before the period discussed this evening. It seems that the late medieval society did not measure the “Modesty” of the female from the percentage of the exposure of the body.

asoka image 55

asoka image 56

asoka image 57

asoka image 58

asoka image 59

asoka image 60

asoka image 61


Religion, Dress and the Body. Contributors: Linda B. Arthur – author. Publisher: Berg. Place of Publication: New York. Publication Year: 1999. Page Number: *.

Anagarika Dharmapala: Dharmapala Lipi (Sinhala Text). Ananda W P Guruge. Colombo Government Press. 1964. p. 77-85.

Society In Mediaeval Ceylon Ariyapala M.B. Sri Lanka BOOK Department Of Cultural Affairs 1997

Purāṇa Siṃhala strīṅgē ăndum. Martin Wickramasinghe (Sinhala Text). Sīmāsahita Tisara Prakāśakayō.1993

The Rock and Wall Paintings of Sri Lanka. Senake Bandaranayake. Stamford Lake.1986.

Sri Lankan Buddhist Art Series – Vol.II – Post Classical Revival. Gamini Jayasinghe. Sarvodaya Visva Lekha Publishers. Colombo 2006.

Sri Lankan Buddhist Art Series – Vol.III – Southern tradition. Gamini Jayasinghe. Sarasavi Publishers. Colombo 2011.

Costume, Textiles and India. Traditions in Rajasthan. Vandana Bhandari. Prakash Books. 2004. 11

The extile manufacturers and Costumes of the People of India. Watson, J. Forbes. India Office Publisher. London 1886.


Prof de Zoysa (Professor in German Studies, Department of Modern Languages, University of Kelaniya) presented this paper on the  29th March 2012 at 6.30 p.m. at the HNB AUDITORIUM, 22nd Floor HNB Towers 479, TB Jayah Mawatha, Colombo 10, as part of  THE NATIONAL TRUST – SRI LANKA MONTHLY LECTURE SERIES – NO 38.


Filed under British colonialism, cultural transmission, female empowerment, politIcal discourse, sri lankan society, the imaginary and the real

6 responses to “Covering the Female Body: Transition seen in Buddhist murals from the 18th to 20th centuries

  1. Thanks for finally talking about >Covering the Female Body:
    Transition seen in Buddhist murals from the 18th to
    20th centuries | Thuppahi’s Blog <Loved it!

  2. Pingback: Undermining the Burqa: The Fish Net Garment | Thuppahi's Blog

  3. Pingback: Primordialist Strands in Contemporary Sinhalese Nationalism: Urumaya as Ur | Thuppahi's Blog

  4. Pingback: Sinhalaness in the Middle Period and in Wars Against Colonial Intrusions | Thuppahi's Blog

  5. Pingback: A Medley of Races by T.W. Roberts | Thuppahi's Blog

  6. MYM. Aroos

    The learned Dr. has more understanding about civilization, culture and decency.
    We have to decide whether to move towards the open liberal culture where adultery promoted by the exposure of the body of women in public is nothing and family life is discouraged.
    New trend is anything for money. No daughter no sister no.nothing.

Leave a Reply