January 2017

The Traditional Rituals of Building a House
January 2017

A lamp is lit with a prayer for protection in the pahan pala

Time-honoured traditions and customs are adhered to by Sri Lankans when building a house that reflect their culture and beliefs.

Words: Kulanthi Silva | Photography: Rasika Surasena

In Sri Lanka, the traditions and rituals performed when building a house are treated with the utmost importance. Customs passed down the centuries are linked to spiritual elements or even practicality. Each practice is performed for a purpose; either to bestow blessings on its inhabitants or to dispel negativity.

Today, the main rituals continue to be time-honoured traditions in Sri Lanka that surpass religious denomination.

Once the land has been purchased, the first act of construction is the laying of the foundation stone. The foundation stone is a special concrete stone with a cavity that is filled with precious metals and grains. Speckles of copper, bronze, gold, silver, precious stones, grains and sacred objects are included to bring positive energy to the new house. To ensure there are no gaps the cavity is then filled with paddy.

An auspicious date and time for the ceremony is obtained by an astrologer, the times being calculated to coincide with the horoscope of a head of the household or a family member. In total three propitious times are provided, one for the placement of the first peg and the demarcation of the house; the time for the first excavation and leveling if required; and an auspicious time to lay the foundation stone.


Larger trees should not be grown near the house as their roots may damage the compound wall and foundation overtime. Trees that bless and evoke vitality with energy and exotic bearings are coconut, sandalwood, lemon, lime, jakfruit, pomegranate and mango. However, trees should not grow tall enough to bar sunlight from entering the house.

On the morning of the foundation laying ceremony, the pahan pala or temporary structures are assembled on the four corners of the land for protection. The pahan pala are weaved with gokkola or tender coconut leaves as the coconut tree, also called the "Kapruka", is considered a tree of abundance and prosperity. Within the pala a sheath of betel is placed atop which a lamp and incense sticks are lit with a prayer for protection. Also for protection, homeowners obtain yanthara thahadu (protective copper charms) from the temple. After the pegs are struck to the ground and the land is demarcated during the first auspicious time, the yanthara thahadu are buried in the four corners of where the house will be.


The roof of the house should slant towards the northeast, which allows the rainwater to flow to the north, east or northeast. Balconies, verandahs or rooftop terraces should be built on the north, northeast or east of the house.

The foundation stone is then laid during the third auspicious time while facing an auspicious direction. It is customary for those gathered to wear white, and for the person placing the foundation stone to be someone who has good intentions. Usually, the owner's mother or head of the family places the foundation stone. After the ceremony the family, well-wishers and builders partake in a meal of milk rice and sweetmeats. Subsequently, construction commences.

Placing the main beam of the roof is imbued with many rituals. At times a yanthara thahaduwa is placed here too. Amidst it all, the homeowners are also respectful towards the carpenter who must drive the nail in straight at the joint of the main beam.

The family then move in, usually bringing with them milk rice, a pot of water, rice and thunapaha (curry powder). The first act once the family steps in is to boil a pot of milk.

Good Fortune

To dispel the evil or envious eye (as waha) a scarecrow is displayed prominently. Its comical form is believed to attract the attention of onlookers ensuring the house is not of prominence. An ash pumpkin (puhul) too, one that is not damaged or squashed is hung in front of the house for this same purpose.

Ash pumpkin is also placed once the house is completed. If after a few days it has dried and shriveled up, it is assumed that positive energies are at work within the house.

The main door is considered the eye of the house, which connects or disconnects residents from the world outside. Therefore, placing of the main doorframe is a step that is closely knit with custom. In Sinhalese this is called "Uluwahu Paneema". As the ancients believed bad luck would befall the first person to pass under the new frame, family members will not be the first to cross. A builder would volunteer for the ritual and he will in turn be provided a hen and white cloth. At times the ritual begins with a hymn to God Vishnu or God Alutnuwara, a regional avatar of God Vishnu and other guardians. First the hen is sent under the doorframe. It is followed by the builder clad in white.

The direction of the main door is also crucial. Although it differs based on the house and family, the main entrance is not built to face the west. To ensure prosperity, traditionally only jak or teak timber were used in Sri Lankan houses for doors and windows. The jak tree, called the ‘Kiri Amma' in Sri Lankan culture, is especially considered prosperous. Today, mahogany and Malaysian timber are also used, however wood from thorny trees are not used.

Vastu Shastra, which translates to the ‘Art of Dwelling', is an important aspect in the construction of residential properties in Sri Lanka. Vastu Shastra rituals are ancient practices performed to ensure the home will have positive energy, which in turn will enable a good life for the family. Vastu is a Sanskrit word that means "Bhu" or "Earth". Thus, it concentrates on fortifying the positive energy and removing negative energy in the cosmos. Accordingly, the three elements, light, air and water, are given priority.

Rituals are observed on the day the family moves into the house too. It is customary to have pirith the night before followed by an almsgiving to the temple. In other faiths, clergy are invited for a blessing. The family move in, usually bringing with them milk rice, a pot of water, rice and thunapaha (curry powder). The first act in the house is to boil a pot of milk. The milk is sprinkled in the house for good fortune.

In Sri Lanka, many rituals and religious practices are performed during construction and before occupying a house. Customs considered vital for building a bond between owner and house, each practice breathing life and prosperity to the home.