The Grandmother & the “Kabakuruththuwa”

Sri Lankan grandmother 3244 #photography #SriLanka by Shahidul Alam

Sri Lankan grandmother  by Shahidul Alam

One burnt saucepan, 20 pages of editing, half a dozen lumosity exercises later am bored. This is life after retirement. I should probably jump on the treadmill but it is easier to turn to FB and there she was — a portrait of a Sri Lankan grandmother  by the Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam

The years fall back as I gazed at this poised and composed lady as she sits against a wattle and daub wall. The specks of white must be flecks of sunshine behind her but that doesn’t seem to bring a smile to her face. There is a grim acceptance in her lined face. I notice the long nose and the earrings. It’s not difficult to imagine that she would have been pretty and had seen better days in her life. Like the Afghan girl, she had no name. So why was I smitten about this image out of the stream of photos Alam had been posting?

Her stance, her jacket with long sleeves, the pleats of her cloth at the waist, the ease with which she sat,  flooded me with memories of my great grandmother, grandmothers and grand aunts. They all wore the same type of the traditional jacket, called the “Kabakuruththuwa.” This they wore with a long cloth, called a Kambaya.  which is not like a sarong or lungi and underneath the jacket, a cotton home made bra that my grandma called the “bosthorokkey.” Not sure if this is corruption of a Portuguese or Dutch word. Both jackets, and home made bosthorkkey’s are hardly seen now as most village grandmothers now wear dresses or skirts and blouses that one can buy off the peg.

The Kabakuruthtuwa is the traditional jacket worn mostly by women of the “Karava clan  of Sri Lanka.

Portrait of Lily Nona, probably the last lady to wear a "Kabakuruththu" in  Hikkaduwa. 27 Aug. 2013.Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Portrait of Lily Nona, probably the last lady to wear a “Kabakuruththu” in
Hikkaduwa. 27 Aug. 2013.Photograph©Chulie de Silva

It is a uniquely designed jacket, cropped just below the waist with  no shoulder seams. The V neckline is edged with lace and the sleeves are set off the shoulder with long fitting cuffs. In the old days this lace would be hand woven “beeralu”  lace, also called renda or pillow lace, which my grandmother weaved at home. Introduced by the Portuguese, the making of this lace has been revived now as a cottage industry and the lace is being sold on too. The more dressy versions of the Kabakuruththuwas often have pin tucks and  lace inserts. see: women making Beeralu lace and wearing jackets with the lace.

Lily’s and Alam’s grandmother’s jacket is held with safety pins like most everyday wear ones, but my great grandmother Annie Dissanayake, befitting the daughter-in-law of Mudaliyar Andris Perera Abhaya Karunaratne Dissanayake  wore garnet or ruby ones on her jackets. These were designed along the same lines as cuff links to hold the sides together. They used to call the gems “Rathu keta” meaning red stones.  In later life these fasteners of my great grand mother were turned into ear rings and gifted to her great-grand kids.

Dissanayake Waluwa family taken on my great grandmother Annie's 75th birthday. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

Dissanayake Waluwa family photo taken on my great grandmother Annie’s 75th birthday. She is in the middle with her 5 daughters, grandchildren and great grand children. The odd bod with the feet sticking out is yours truly! Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

My Mum never got into one, though I got a couple stitched — one in pink and one in white with lace and pin tucks and wore them with Malaysian batik sarongs when we lived in Penang. Now that I have reached the senior citizen’s position of being a grandma, I should get some Kabauruththu and a couple of kamabayas — after all they lend themselves beautifully to expanding waist lines. …

10 thoughts on “The Grandmother & the “Kabakuruththuwa”

  1. Pingback: The Grandmother & the “Kabakuruththuwa” | සතුටු වැස්ස බ්ලොග් කියවනය

  2. I enjoyed reading your account of the ‘kabakuruththawa’ – hope i got the name right! Reminded me of my grandmother (father’s mum) who wore the same kit. Thanks for sharing with us. Rohini

  3. Grandma Chulie, what a beautiful piece. Interesting that the bra is a bosthorokkey. I don’t know Dutch but in Afrikaans which is derived principally from Dutch “bors” is breast. I’m also fascinated that there is all this careful work on the garment with lace to embellish and then it’s fastened with a safety pin (if you’re not your elegant Dissanayake grandmother that is 🙂

  4. Hi Chuli, The lady in the first photo would have been really beautiful and she still carries herself so well. I think the blouse is from the Portuguese, normally worn without a bra. Nonchi Akka also wore one. Correct, coastal wear. There are women in Negombo who still wear the blouse. Not sure what it is called. Thank you Ashley

  5. Interesting to read your blog! I am currently doing research after Beralu lace made by Dutch Burgher women in Ceylon, who my grandmother was a descendant from. So this clarifies some things for me.
    I think the ‘bosthorokkey’ you are talking about must be derived from the Dutch word ‘borstrok’. This was a kind of knitted long shirt without sleeves, which Dutch women in Holland used to wear underneath their clothes during winter to stay warm. I suspect in Ceylon they adapted it to the climate but kept using the name.
    Thanks, all the best, greetings from the Netherlands.

    • Great to hear from you and a very welcome too, as I am nursing a fractured foot and getting bored. My South African friend Dale (see comments) say Bors means breasts!. Many thanks for the comments. My grandmas and grand aunts all could make beeralu lace! Never learned it though! Cheers and good luck with your research.

      • Indeed it does, the original Dutch word is Borst, with a ’t’. So it think it makes sense for the bra 🙂
        Take with the foot, hope you get well soon.

  6. Chilli, I really enjoy ed reading your posts.
    I came across them by chance just the other day.
    I like your writing style and contents
    I hope you continue to blog…

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