Sri Lanka is an island nation, a former British Colony (Ceylon) located close to the southern tip of India. The sea separating Sri Lanka from India is extremely shallow and legends abound suggesting that at one time it was possible to wade across the Palk Strait by following the line of a chain of islands known as Adam’s Bridge. This proximity accounts for the similarities between the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu and the culturally and liguistically Tamil northern province of Sri Lanka.
Further to the south of Sri Lanka both the culture and language are distinctly different - Sinhalese. Between 1983 and 2009 these factions fought a civil war, the effects of which remain evident today.
The only religious motivations for circumcision occur amongst the Islamic minority, estimated to be 8% of the total population and concentrated on the east coast. Nationally, the majority religion is Buddhism.
Sri Lanka is also known as the pearl of the Indian Ocean. The country has 9 Provinces and 25 administrative Districts. The population of the country is a little over 20 million, made up of 69% Buddhist, 8% Muslims and 7% Hindus, the remainder being Christians or other minority religious communities.
Circumcision in Sri Lanka goes back centuries to the time when Muslims first came to Sri Lanka. Presently the percentage of circumcised males is just above 7% which includes Muslims and others who are circumcised for medical reasons. Circumcision is considered a must by almost all the Muslims. The highest proportion of circumcised males in Sri Lanka are from the Eastern Province whilst the lowest incidence of circumcision is in the Southern and Uva Provinces.
A century or so ago, in the early 1900s, Muslims carried out only ritual circumcision, done when the boy was between the ages of 13 and 16. Usually a mass circumcision was carried out once a year or once every two years. All the boys in the local area underwent circumcision together, which some people considered as a shift from childhood to adulthood.
This pattern continued in the Eastern Province, whilst from the 1950s a shift in the pattern in Central Province saw boys being circumcised between the ages of 11 and 15. In the rest of Sri Lanka the age dropped further, to between 10 and 14. However all the circumcision continued to be done in the ritual manner. At the same time the number of ceremonies per year showed a significant increase from 1 to around 4.
The 1980 era showed another change in circumcision. The age where a boy underwent circumcision continued to decline all around the country. In Eastern Province the norm became 8 to 12, in Central Province 6 to 10 and elsewhere around 5 to 10. There was a small but definite shift from the ritual circumcision to circumcision in hospital during this decade. Nevertheless most parents continued to opt for ritual circumcision since that’s how they underwent circumcision and they had severe resistance to change.
The 1990s saw few major changes relating to the development of healthcare facilities or communication. Nevertheless, a major shift away from ritual circumcision towards circumcision in hospital started at this time. Since 2000 very few boys undergo ritual circumcision although the traditional approach has not disappeared completely. A significant number of people are circumcising their children within 2 months of birth but circumcision at the later age is still in practice. A few people from the Eastern Province say that they prefer to carry out circumcision just before puberty thus allowing time for the penis to grow and the foreskin to grow completely so that the glans would be completely exposed after the circumcision.
"Ceylonese Boys", painting by Donald Friend (1915-1989).Circumcisers
Even though we have reached 2010, ritual circumcision is still practiced in Sri Lanka. “Oostha Mama” is the term describing the ritual circumciser in the colloquial language. Ritual circumcision can be seen in the Eastern Province, the district of Mannar, Puttalam and some places around Kandy. The tradition of being the Oostha Mama or ritual circumciser used to be handed down from generation to generation and considered to be an honour, but the new generation males did not show much interest and so the art of being an Oostha Mama is fading away.
The doctors do circumcisions every day. Mostly there is no need to get prior appointment for circumcision; it is simple as walking in and getting it done with a local anesthesia. Most of the doctors are males but there are a reasonable number of female doctors who only carry out circumcisions for infants.
Style of circumcision varies a lot in Sri Lanka. Basically both doctors and the Oostha Mamas are unaware that there are many styles of circumcision available. Most of the modern-day circumcision carried out by medical practitioners are Loose (or moderately tight) and High circumcisions whereas the circumcisions that were carried out in late 1980s and early 1990s by medical practitioners tended to be Loose and Low circumcisions. A medical practitioner rarely removes the frenulum. They are aware of partial circumcision but perform them only rarely.
Present day doctors use Gomco Clamp, Plastibell or Forceps Guided method to carry out the surgery. By contrast, during the late 1980s only the Forceps Guided method was used by doctors. Oostha Mamas carry out the circumcisions basically in two forms. The main method is to insert a stick inside the foreskin until it touches the glans. Then he would push the foreskin forward and slice the foreskin through the estimate from the stick which would provide the place where the glans begin. The second method is to push the foreskin forward and then have a barrier between the foreskin and the glans then slice off the foreskin at that place. The circumcisions by the Oostha Mama always results in High and Tight style.Associated Social Gatherings
A circumcision in the Muslim community is seen as an opportunity for a family get-together. Sri Lanka is a country where the people live and always associate with the extended family. Until the 1980s Muslims celebrated a circumcision with a feast where all the extended family members would come to the boy’s home and wish him good luck. After the circumcision the people who attended the circumcision would give gifts. Since the decline in the ritual circumcision, boys undergoing circumcisions at hospitals don’t get gifts. Circumcision is no longer a big party and it is done in private and at a very young age such that the boy is not capable of understanding what is happening around him.
In contrast, during the time of mass circumcisions everybody knew who the boys were that werere undergoing circumcision. People would wish them well and men attend the hall or the grounds to see the circumcision proceedings. If the ritual circumcisions are carried out at home the people attend the home, but then only on an invitational basis. The extended family will automatically be there since it is considered that they are anyway invited. In the case of home circumcisions, sometimes females will also witness the circumcision.Forgotten Circumcision
Many Muslims who were from the Northern Province couldn’t arrange circumcisions for their children due to the war in the region. This basically created a lot of non-circumcised Muslims in one particular region in Sri Lanka. Few welfare organizations have funded doctors to carry out circumcisions for uncircumcised children in these regions.
Sri Lanka is also the host for the considerable amount of Muslims of Malay origin and most do circumcise according to the Muslim's norm. However some Malay Muslims don’t opt for circumcision of their children for various reasons and one main reason is due to inter-cultural marriages where one partner may be from the community in which they don’t circumcise.Circumcision in non-Muslim Sri Lankan society
>Even today people from the villages rarely know much about circumcision, whilst the urban population has a fair idea about the basics of circumcision including the procedure. Most of the people do think that circumcision is cutting of the penis at the corner or by half. This idea has led to a few nicknames for people who are circumcised, widely used in Sri Lanka. Examples are “Konakapala”, which derives from “Kona-kapala” meaning “The edge is cut” and “Thunkala” which means “Three Quarter” (inferring that the penis is not whole but only three quarters available).
Circumcision amongst the Non-Muslim population has shown an increasing trend due to various reasons. It is said that Sri Lankans along with men from other South Asian countries have longer foreskins compared to the rest of the world. In comparison to other countries penile cleanliness is low due to lack of knowledge and access to adequate bathing resources amongst the people. Men in Sri Lanka tend to have an above-average incidence of phimosis.
Infant and child circumcision is not popular but it is done when needed to treat problems in urinating. Some lady doctors pursue their spouses to get circumcised and circumcision is considered amongst the educated crowd who are aware of the problems an uncircumcised penis might cause in later life.
[Submitted January 2010]
Personal testimony of members of the CIRCLIST discussion group.
Maps courtesy of the US State Department and Geology.com.