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Polygamy and polyandry in Ceylon

Just as Robert Knox read his Bible unfailingly during the time he was a captive here, I never fail to dip into the book he wrote about Zeilone whenever I have the time. He is, as we know, a cute observer using a cuter language - English, based, according to Robert Boyle (Knox’s Words), on the style of the Bible, the source that taught him, says Boyle, how to write the English language. His cute observations were generally right, but sometimes, of course, he went wrong and this article is about a few such places.

Robert Knox

But first let me quote the opinions of two Englishmen with contrasting views about the people whom they came to associate with as their rulers. This is from Paul E Pieris, our late, great historian whom no university in his country of birth has, as far as I am aware, honoured him even posthumously.

In his book Sinhale and the Patriots he quotes the following paragraphs. “The principal features of the Kandyans were merely human imitations of their own indigenous leopard-treachery and ferocity, as circumstances might give them an opportunity of profiting by the one or gratifying their vengeance by the other.”

And this is the other. To the question, “Are they a docile or warlike people?” this was the answer. “They are not warlike by any means.

They are an extremely timid race of people, very easily kept in order by a very small party of military; particularly by the Malays.” A little later he said, “I have seen a great deal of the world, and I have no hesitation in saying they are the happiest race in the world.” “These,” Pieris says, “are from the proceedings before the Special Committee of Parliament in June 1850.”

The witness giving evidence in the first quote “with no personal experience of Sinhale,” says Pieris and the second “Samuel Braybrooke, who took part in the expedition and afterwards served in the Uva.” But let’s turn to the more entertaining comments of Knox both right and wrong.

He may have noticed that our women are more friendly, friendlier perhaps than the women of neighbouring India, but being the Puritan that he was he came to the conclusion that they were living in ‘whoredom.’ He got close enough to them to ask even personal questions, like this, for instance:

“To satisfy my owne curiosity I have often enquired of many women, whether when they are with Child, they have the like infirmity or desease as women here in England say they have, as to longe with such an unsatiable desire after such things they have a mind to eate, that, if they have it not, it will certainly produce some ill effect either one themselves or the child they get with.”

And what do you think, the women whom he thought lived in ‘whoredom’ would have rushed to tell him that, that was so with them too? No, there was no such haste to answer.

They neatly turned the question around and told him “...they knew nothing of such matters and neither were they any more inclined to eate any sort of thing when with child then not with child and lauht at me for asking such a foolish question, saying it was more the fondness of the husband that caused it then any necessity the woman had to longe.”.

I am inclined to think that the women were pulling Knox’s leg than speaking the truth, for dola duka is such a common expression in the idiom of Sinhala that we ask jokingly of even males, What is this dola duka you have to be the President of this country? Paulusz the editor of the second edition of Knox adds a footnote here and says that the women seemed to have forgotten the dola duka Vihara Maha Devi had when she was expecting Gamini.

It surely couldn’t be that the women had forgotten, for there is also the Jataka story of the ploy a queen used her dola duka to trap a Bodhisatva when he was born as the Vidura Panditha.

Then there is the other mix up Knox had about using the kotale - the pot from which water is poured over some hands instead of the visitor being allowed to handle the pot. Knox thought this was some special honour reserved for the foreigner. But let him make the clarification: “It is the Custom here always before and after they have eaten to wash their mouths and Right hand with which they take up and put the rice into their mouths, and to hold the water pot in their left hand and pore the water out of a pipe which is Made in the pot themselves. But we being beef eaters and lately come from eat(ing) there of, they would not give us the pot into our owne hande boath befoe and after eating.”

This, he thought at first was a special favour being conferred on the foreigners. That such was the custom in honouring them, was something that he carried in his mind for a long time. But the longer he stayed in Zeilone the wiser he grew. Had he left the country in a shorter period he would have narrated in his book how the Chingulays conferred the singular honour on the English people because they were English.

As he stayed on he realised what had happened, “...they poured the water one our hands boath before and after eating, which we took as a token of their servitude and respect they shewed, that some of the saylours would say they never were so much Gentlemen in their lives to have men to poure waters one their hands.”

When Knox discovered the truth he found it was not out of respect but out of ‘disdain’ they were doing this, but once they had stopped eating beef they ceased to be outcastes and they could now make use of the kothale themselves.

Another instance where Knox gave the wrong message like he did about the ‘whoredom’ of the women is in his writings about polyandry and polygamy in Ceylon.

A man who eagerly read him was the Marquis de Sade who buttressed his arguments for a ‘sexual Shangrila’ with instances of fathers sleeping with daughters, or ‘treating their friends with their wives and daughters’ and women having several husbands by referring to An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon. It is a difficult task to talk to a world still dominated by Victorian morality and puritanism that that was not a kind of ‘sexual liberation’ that prevailed in Ceylon.

As Paulusz points out in a footnote by quoting a comment by Ribeiro who says, “...the woman who is married to a husband with a large number of brothers is considered very fortunate, for all toil and cultivate for her...and the children call all of the brothers their fathers.”And Paulusz himself points out, “...under the land tenure system, the husband could be called for active military service and fail to return soon enough to tend his fields and crops.”

Among the other less controversial and more interesting observations that Knox makes are on our foods and styles of cooking. He talks about kavun which he spells as caown and tells us how it is made. But actually what he is describing is the preparation of athiraha.

He doesn’t say whether it is tasty or not but relates how the Dutch reacted to it and leaves it to the European reader to come to any conclusion. “When the Dutch first came to Columba,” he begins, “the King orders these caowns to be made and sent to them as a royal Treat. And they say, the Dutch did so admire them and ask if they grew not on Trees, supposing it past the Art of man to make such dainties.”

Knowing the Dutch and their very diplomatic ways only too well, one doesn’t know how to react to this very flattering comment. But I must say this for athiraha and mung kavun they are the tastier Sinhala sweetmeats I enjoy if they are made with good kitul paeni and kitul jaggery.

Robert Knox’s An Historical Relation of Ceilon is not a book that can be taken in one gulp as it were. It has to be taken sip by sip and that means a lifetime of reading, but reading always between its lines.

As an after thought here’s some more thinking about polyandry. While reading Ian Goonetileke’s interesting collection of impressions made on Americans visiting this country, I came across what Townsend Harris observed when he was on his way to take up the position of being the first Consul General to Japan.

When he touched down at Galle, he found he had to take a coach ride to get to Colombo. When the coach stopped for breakfast at a rest house on the way he describes what happened. The rest house was run, he says, “...by three Cingalese brothers, who have one wife. On stopping there the second time, I asked the woman which she would like the best; to be one of many wives to one man, the sole wife of one man, or her present situation.

She spat at the idea of polygamy, shook her head at a single union, and was emphatic in praise of polyandry. After some pressing she said the youngest of her husbands was her favourite, but that all were kind to her.”

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