Living Heritage of Sri Lanka

The Garb of Innocence: A Time of Toplessness

traditional topless dress in 19th century Sri Lanka
Traditional topless dress in 19th century Sri Lanka
Traditional topless dress in 19th century Sri Lanka
7th Century Sigiriya: "The royal ladies in the frescoes...displayed their breasts. The ladies in waiting wear...a firm 'breast bandage' or thanapatiya."

"How was it that the Hindu-Buddhist culture in ancient Lanka underwent such changes by the 14th Century so that an upper garment for women became a feature when leaving the house?"

Not long ago an incident was reported from Peradeniya University in which a fiery feminist fresher from Colombo stood up to a typical campus male senior who tried to rag her, and sent him away with his tail between his legs.

The senior male had asked the fresher why she was clad in a tight pair of denim jeans, and advised her to come next day "wearing a gauma (frock) in the traditional Sinhala manner".

The reply was swift and sarcastic:

"What d'you mean gauma? Gauma is not Sinhalese; it's Portuguese. Then I should wear the osariya (Kandyan saree) or perhaps redda-haetta (cloth and jacket). How come you are wearing trouser and shirt? Perhaps, you should wear a sarong or maybe an amude (span cloth) if you want to dress in the true Sinhala manner. Amidst sounds of muted laughter the senior male beat a hasty retreat".

National Dress

The above incident took place about a year ago and is symptomatic of the utter confusion that many people have about what constitutes the authentic national costume or true Sinhala/Tamil dress; despite the fact that it is doubtful whether such a singular mode of dress ever existed at any time in our island's history. In retrospect, this ignorance might seem natural, especially considering the clothes worn by stewardesses on cheap flights and others who are supposed to represent our national dress.

An article in the most recent edition of The Thatched Patio, published by the International Centre for Ethnic Studies attempts to throw some light on this controversial subject. The writer is Dr. Mrs. Nira Wickremasinghe, a graduate of Sorbonne and Oxford, who is now a staff member of the History and Political Science Department at the Colombo University.

Entitled "Some Comments On Dress In Sri Lanka", the article reveals some surprising facts, especially on women's attire in ancient Lanka.

Nira details the topless tradition of Sri Lankan women according to evidence presented by historical sources.

The saree and jacket combination that is today worn by women of all classes throughout the island underwent various changes. Apart from some indirect references made to dress in the Mahawamsa, there is hardly any authentic record of the manner in which women are clad in Sri Lanka before the sixth Century Sigiriya frescos. What is certain is that the rule of changelessness did not apply to women's clothing."

Royal Ladies

"The royal ladies in the frescoes wear pleated robes from the waist upwards, save for necklace, armlets, wristlets, ear and hair ornaments and displayed their breasts. The ladies in waiting wear waist clothes, few ornaments and a firm 'breast bandage' or thanapatiya. The Sigiriya style of clothing — Sigiriya frescoes depict women wearing the cloth gracefully draped like a dhoti tied in a knot at the front and pulled down to expose the navel — must have survived a few centuries in Ceylon".

"The Sigiriya frescoes illustrate the initial absence of social taboo relating to upper class women exhibiting their breasts. Mazuri has analyzed the theme of dress and nakedness in the history of thought. In Judeo-Christian cultures nudity is closely associated with sin. Nudity began to acquire all the connotations of bodily temptation with the coming of lust and the fall from innocence. The very concept of 'flesh' came to imply sensuousness."

Hindu-Buddhist society

"In a Hindu-Buddhist society it is difficult to assess with precision at what point semi-nudity became taboo. The Dhammapadatha Katha relates an incident which took place in the Tenth Century when a lay devotee, Rohini, wore a blouse before Anuruddha Thera only to cover marks left by a skin disease. This indicates that it was still unusual for women to cover their body. Women's dress was then a cloth round the hip leaving the body bare from waist upwards."

According to other scholars like W. T. Keble in his book Ceylon Beaten Track the Jaffna kingdom in 13th Century Ceylon was no exception to this tradition of liberal and sensible attire for men and women. Keble quotes Marco Polo, the Italian merchant, who visited the island in the late 13th Century when King Chandrabhanu, (Sendez-nax) the Javanese warrior, was ruling Jaffna.

"It is governed by a King whose name is Sendeznax. The people worship idols, and are independent of every other state. Both men and women go nearly in a state of nudity (the writer has cause to envy this climatic adaptation) only wrapping a cloth round the middle part of their bodies."

Nira writes that by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries it was acceptable to remain uncovered at home but when going out to wear an upper garment. At this stage the cloth was worn with a separate garment covering the breasts thrown over the shoulders, which evolved into the shawl and breastband.

How was it that the Hindu-Buddhist culture in ancient Lanka underwent such changes by the 14th Century so that an upper garment for women became a feature when leaving the house? As noted earlier there was no place for prudery and Puritanism in the authentic tradition of Hinduism and Buddhism. One may speculate that it was the rise of Islam in India and the Muslim conquest of south India by the mid14th Century that was responsible for these changes in women's attire.

A. L. Bhasham, in his monumental work The Wonder That Was India, notes that for many centuries Indian women did not wear upper garments except during winter in certain parts of northern India. He quotes the example of the Nayar tribal women of south India, who until the mid-20th Century went about topless. Bhasham implies that the Muslim invasions were what altered the dress codes of Indian women.

In Sri Lanka one may note that there was a great deal of Muslim influence in the Kurunegala kingdom in the first half of the 14th Century, with even a Muslim monarch ascending the throne as Prince Vaththimi in about 1320 A.D. and ruling for nine years, according to the Kumnegala Vistharaya.

Nira writes of the impact of Western influences from the 16th Century onwards which had the effect of making Sri Lankan women more conservative in their attire.


"The costume of the Sinhalese women before the arrival of the Portuguese was abandoned in the Low Country as a result of the widespread adoption of Christianity and the free social intercourse which existed between the Portuguese  and Sinhalese of the upper classes. The great majority of women in the coastal belt took to the Portuguese long-sleeved jacket rounded at the back and in front with V neckline".

Other witnesses seem to imply, however, that the common folk did not so readily adapt the Portuguese style of dress. One of them is Dr. Fernando De Queyroz who wrote "The Temporal and Spiritual Conquest of Ceylon" in the 17th Century. Queyroz writes:

"Such is the dress of the Lord and Nobles, for the soldiers, farmers and other common folk, have no other clothing save a cloth which they wrap on their head and a small bit of cord round the loins from which hangs a piece of cloth, one palm broad and a cubit in length, the end of which is tied to the same cord covering their natural nakedness".

Innocent Garb

"Those who are able, wear a sheet wrapped around that waist which at night serves them for a coverlet... The dress of the women is not dissimilar... Unless they are Widows, they wear what jewels they can on their breasts... The girls, more even than the boys, wear the garb of innocence up to the ninth or tenth year. Thenceforth the common women folk wear a piece of cloth white, red or striped, twelve cubits of the hand in length and two in breath, half of which they gird round the waist and the other half above the shoulders when they go to work".


Nira gives an explanation about the puritanical influences that came with Western colonial rule and the imposition of Judeo-Christian culture on the liberal tradition of Hindu-Buddhist culture that prevailed in ancient Lanka.

"In the mid-Seventeenth Century under the influence of the puritanical Dutch, lace collars, frills, cuffs and hemlines began to be freely used. Lace-making was introduced as a cottage industry. The influence of the later Tamil dynasty on the Kandyan throne led to a consequent modification in dress in the Kandyan provinces".


While in the Maritime Provinces or Low Country the men and women became more conservative, this did not necessarily follow in the Kandyan Kingdom or Up Country. Until the late 19th Century many women of the so-called low castes did not cover their breasts, whether at home or when going outside. Nira quotes the 1841 lithograph by Prince Alexei D. Soltykoff:

"Offering of a Kandyan chief in a temple of the Buddha near the environs of Kandy", which shows women wearing their saree in the Kandyan fashion and in the foreground two women of a lower caste who are unclothed above the waist. Numerous paintings by British artists of the 19th Century in Ceylon, some of which illustrate this article, are evidence of this reality.


By the late 19th Century and the early 20th Century came the so-called Hindu and Buddhist reformers, Arumuga Navalar among the Tamils and Anagarika Dharmapala among the Sinhalese, who imposed the puritanical Victorian morality of 19th Century Britain on Sri Lankan society.

Even since then the average Sri Lankan is thoroughly confused, believing that the traditional mode of attire is to hide the bodily features as much as possible, when in fact the sensible and liberal tradition of Hindu-Buddhist culture in ancient Lanka, that prevailed from the 5th Century B.C. to the 19th Century A.D., was quite the opposite.

Article by Romesh Fernando published in The Island of 15 November 1992