From 'magul kapuwa' to Internet matches
The days of the kapuwa are no more, but tradition still plays
an important role, reveals Nandana Karunanayake's book 'Changing Patterns
of Marriage in Sri Lanka'
A respectable and well-disciplined person aged
30, drawing a monthly salary of Rs. 100 seeks a girl of any caste, for
marriage. A poor family preferred. No dowry expected, but the girl should
well-behaved and have a reasonable knowledge of Sinhala.
This advertisement appeared 56 years ago in January 1945, in 'Sinhala
Balaya', a Sinhala newspaper edited and published by reputed journalist/novelist
Piyadasa Sirisena. It was the first matrimonial advertisement published
in a local newspaper. Replies had to be sent C/o Sinhala Balaya, Hulftsdorp
The newspaper also carried advertisements inserted by professional matchmakers
calling for proposals from prospective brides/bridegrooms. This one appeared
in February 1946: "I can introduce a suitable partner for you. Please send
in your particulars such as caste, dowry, and other details along with
a payment of Rs. 1 for postal charges. I shall arrange an introduction
for the eligible parties within two weeks. All letters are treated in strict
The name and address of the matchmaker were mentioned.
All this and more are included in an exhaustive study on how marriages
are arranged in our country, by Dr. Nandana Karunanayake, media researcher
in his publication titled 'Changing Patterns of Marriage in Sri Lanka'.
The role of newspapers in finding partners is the core of the writer's
study, and he details how the institution of marriage has undergone radical
changes during the last 50 years.
The role of the matchmaker, for instance, has declined due to the increasing
number of marriages through love affairs. Meanwhile, those who have delayed
getting married, now have the option of advertising for partners in the
"The ubiquitous influence of parents in arranging marriages has diminished,
paving the way for a more democratic and participatory process with the
active involvement of sons and daughters," the writer observes.
Dr. Karunanayake sums up the situation thus: "In mate selection, the
focus of attention has shifted from the family to the individual. The rigid
variables like caste, ethnicity, religion and family background have adapted
themselves to the pressures of a market economy. The dowry system too has
undergone dramatic changes. The place of the magul kapuwa (traditional
matchmaker) has been taken over by the medium of matrimonial advertisements
in newspapers and on the Internet."
Discussing the history of marriage patterns, he describes how as the
economy faced the transition from the feudal to the capitalist, marriage
practices such as polyandry and cross-cousin marriages lost their value
in society. The marriage alliance was considered to be the best strategy
to bolster wealth and elite status. Invariably, fathers opted to search
for marriage partners for their offspring outside their group. This goal
was achieved through the matchmaker.
Dr. Karunanayake profiles the matchmaker: "The matchmaker was, more
or less, a rustic salesman working in a group of 20 or more neighbouring
villages. He was a distinguished and popular character in the village.
His sarong, shirt and black coat and the black umbrella comprised his conventional
costume. He was jovial, garrulous and filled with good humour. His fees
generally came at the end of the deal. If the marriage took place, he was
usually paid by the boy's party or by both parties. The fee was normally
directly proportional to the dowry involved in the transaction. He gradually
became an institution and the accepted norm, particularly among the middle
Tracing the history of newspaper marriage advertisements, the writer
refers to the free reader service started by 'Rividina/Riviresa' of the
Sun Group in 1962. Since it became extremely popular, the newspaper made
it a fee-levying service. The newspaper also published, free of charge,
the photographs of couples who had married through their service. The sister
Sunday paper, 'Weekend Sun' gave the lead in publishing marriage advertisements
in English. Today, all weekend papers devote several columns to matrimonial
The study has revealed that advertisers are mainly from the middle class,
are economically stable and enjoy reasonable social status. Much importance
is placed on the economic and financial stability of the prospective mates.
A permanent income through a job, self-employment or otherwise is the primary
factor when selecting a partner. It is still wealth, health and beauty
that determine the matrimonial opportunities of women while 'professional
qualifications' seem to be the most sought after requirement for men. A
pleasing personality, excellent moral character and sound educational background
are added qualifications for females. Handsome, well-qualified, well-connected,
kind-hearted males with sober habits are sought after as ideal marriage
Dowry takes precedence over caste and religion. There are instances
where foreign employment and citizenship are guaranteed as part of the
Another significant aspect, which the writer says deserves attention,
is the obvious exaggeration employed by the parents to capture the attention
of the reader. 'Highly connected families', 'Brides with highly qualified
brothers and sisters' and 'Girls pretty enough to be film stars' being
a few illustrations.
Referring to marriage bureaus, the writer found more than ten major
agencies in operation. There are hundreds of one-man operations with or
without computers. The first computer-aided matchmaking agency commenced
in the early 1980s.
He also found a new genre of personal advertisements, confined to English
newspapers, inviting men and women for companionship and consensual union.
This may possibly be an influence from the west, he feels.
As to the impact of newspaper matrimonial advertisements, Dr. Karunanayake
adds that they have offered a more efficient and economical way of finding
partners for those who consider traditional as well as modern attributes
when contracting a marriage bond. They project the changing values of marriage
practices of middle class and upper middle class Sri Lankans.
"The study has vividly shown that despite the evolution of the institution
of marriage for centuries, people still doggedly stick to traditional characteristics
associated with it: caste, race, religion, horoscope, and transfer of property
from one generation to the other or its manifold forms of implicit and
explicit transactions when marriage contracts are entered into," he concludes.