CRAFTS IN SRI LANKA
Sinhalese crafts include stone work, wood and ivory carving, and brass, gold, and silver metal work. Pottery and basketry are traditional cottage industries. Sri Lanka is particularly known for its brasswork and silverware. A wide variety of things are made from these metals, including boxes, trays, lanterns, vases, statuettes, jewelry, tea-sets, candle stands, cutlery and ashtrays. Among the other interesting items you can find are mats, purses, bags, baskets, lampshades, table-mats and chairs; mats and rugs made from coconut fibre, reed, bamboo and rattan. Dumbara mats are from the Dumbara valley of Kandy. Lacquerware walking sticks, book-ends, ash trays, letter openers and wooden handles are sought after. Masks like those used in folk dances and theater are considered works of art.
Sri Lanka’s handicrafts tradition is as old as it’s nation itself. According to the great 5th century historical chronicle the Mahavansa when the prince Vijaya from India landed in Sri Lanka in the 6th century B.C. he met Kuveni spinning cotton. Our ancient kings looked after the craftsmen and encouraged them and it was the main reason for it's development. These traditions are kept alive today with batik textiles with Sri Lankan designs; handloomed sarongs and saris; "pillow lace" table-linen; drums and other musical instruments; terra-cotta vases, ornaments and toys; carved wood elephants, trays tables and stands; and horn figures, papier-mache costume dolls and embroidered garments and linen.
Sri Lanka is richly endowed with skilled craftsmen and many goods are still made by members of castes whose descendants have been making the same crafts for generations. Most traditional crafts are characterized by vigorous and bold designs and vibrant colors. Traditional designs such as makara (a mythical animal), sinha (lion), hansa (swan), elephants and lotus are widely used. Typical colors are red, yellow, green and black. A marked degree of regional specialization exists, based on availability of raw materials as well as other factors such as patronage in the past and demand for products.
In the colonial era, artisans produced fine ivory carvings, metal work and jewelry. According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: Skill in these crafts has declined in the last century. Religious topics and institutions heavily influence Sri Lanka's statuary and pictorial art. Local handicrafts, encouraged during the socialist days, have been challenged by less expensive imports since 1977. Some of these traditional handicrafts, such as pottery and basket weaving, are caste-based activities and tend to be more utilitarian than decorative. Others, such as wood carving, are highly ornate and well respected in international as well as local markets. [Source: Bambi L. Chapin and Kalinga Tudor Silva, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]
Popular Crafts in Sri Lanka
Pottery is one of the oldest crafts in Sri Lanka and has traditionally been made by a particular caste.. By one estimate 75 percent of Sri Lankans still use clay pots and for cooking. In addition to pots, potters also make terracotta figures, vases and other items. Some of the best product can be found at Molagoda off Kegalle on the Kandy road. The majority of pottery artisans live in the western and central provinces. Sri Lanka’s long unbroken pottery tradition goes back many centuries and predates recorded history. Terracotta artisans in contemporary Sri Lanka create a large and varied range of decorative pieces as well traditional religious pieces and utilitarian pottery. [Source: My Sri Lanka mysrilanka.com ]
Ebony Elephants are made from hard kernel of the famous black wood. The elephants are fine example of Sri Lankan handicrafts. For centuries Galle district has been famous for these crafts. The expert craftsmen can turn a log of wood to a figure of an elephant using only a chisel and mallet.
Coconut shell-ware is an ancient craft that holds an exalted position among all the crafts in Sri Lanka. Many early ‘water dippers’ are now collectors items, some with fine quality, silver-mounted carvings. The artisans specializing in the craft are found in the western coastal region.
Dumbara Mats are a unique Sri Lankan handicraft that make great wall hangings. They are mainly produced in a village called Henawala in the Dumbara valley of Kandy. They are made by members the Kinnara caste using the extracted fiber of a plant somewhat similar to Jute and weave it on a horizontal loom.
Lac refers to lacquerware made with a substance obtained from a species of insect in the past. The substance is mixed with colors and applied to wooden objects shaped with hand driven lathes. These days imported shellac is often used instead of lac obtained from insects. Powder bowls, vases, walking sticks and jewelery boxes are greatly prized. The village call Pallehapuwita of Matale District is famous for Lac work.
Indikola refers to the tender leaves of a wild date palm that is boiled and used to produced coin purses, summerhats and stuff like that. Talkola refers to the leaves of Talipot palm which are used to produce Ola books, mats, tot bags and hand bags. Caneworks are made with cane that is naturally grown in Sri Lanka. This craft has been around since ancient times. Radawadunna near Pasyala on Kandy road is famous for these crafts.
Gems and Jewelry in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has been known for centuries for gemstones, namely sapphires and cat’s eyes, but also rubies, zicrons, garnets, amethysts, alexandrites, tournmalines, moonstones, aquamarines, garnets, spinels and topaz. Jewelry making and the cutting of sapphires, rubies, and semi-precious stones remains an important industry but is not as big as it was in the past.
Sri Lanka produces some the finest cat eye sapphires and rubies in the world as well as diamonds and pink, orange, yellow, white and honey-colored sapphires, alexandrines, aquamarines, tourmalines, spinel, topaz, and garnets. No red rubies are found in Sri Lanka but pink ones are. They are also called pinks sapphires.
Sri Lanka's mines are believed to have been the source of the jewels that Solomon gave the Queen of Sheba. In Arabian Nights , Sinbad said he visited the King of Ceylon "on the battlements of whose palace are a thousand jewels." Chinese traders described Sri Lankan gems the crystallized tears of the first men. And Marco Polo wrote of "a flawless ruby the size of man arm” and "sapphires, topazes, amethysts, garnets" after his visit to Ceylon in 1292. The famous but misnamed "Star of India" sapphire on display at the New York Museum of Natural History was unearthed in Sri Lanka. The 400-carat blue sapphire called the “Blue Belle” which adorns the British crown is also from Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka produced excellent costume jewelry as well as the real thing. With jewelry, there are two main craft traditions: 1) the Galle low country tradition and 2) the Kandyan tradition. The Galle low country tradition is also called Western traditional. Stones are more conspicuous than the metal in the low country tradition. The metal is only binding the Stones. In traditional Kandyan jewelry the metal work is more prominently featured. European tourists prefer the low country tradition. Filigree work is found in silver jewelry. It has a grainy finish. These telescopic grains are made of “hairy” silver wire and welded to the surface. This technique is very difficult and therefore is expensive. Kandy is famous for filigree. A good place to shop for jewelry is them at Minuwangoda close to Colombo
Jewelry and Ornaments in Medieval Sri Lanka
As for ornamentation, literary sources indicate that the ancient and medieval Sinhalese were extremely fond of jewellery. The Mahavansa states that amongst the presents sent by the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka (3rd century B.C.) to his Sinhalese friend King Devanampiyatissa were chains (pamanga) and ear-ornaments (vatansa). [Source: Explore Sri Lanka, culled from the Mahavansa and other literary and history sources]
The royal ornaments are traditionally described in 13th century literary sources as being sixty-four in number. The ornaments included avulhara (an elaborate jacket-like ornament made of beads and worn on the chest), hinaseda (armour worn round the waist), hasta-mudrika (signet-ring), ruvan-vela (golden girdle), gala-mutu-mala (pearl necklace), nagavadam (armlet in the shape of a coiled-up cobra with outspread hood), gigiri-valalu (tinkling bangles) and jangha-valalu (bangles worn on the calves).
Some of the ornaments queens wore are described in 13th century literary sources as aga-tilaka (an ornament worn in the center of the forehe), ora-vasun (breast-plate), menik-mala (jewelled necklaces), bahumutu (a pearl ornament worn on the arms), kandasa (an ear ornament worn on the edge of the ears), padagam (anklets) and padanguli (toe ornaments). The ornamentation of the aristocratic classes would have been somewhat similar to those of royalty.
The Chulavansa mentions that amongst the presents sent by King Parakrama Bahu 1 (12th century) to his generals upon hearing of their successful campaign in South India, were golden bracelets (valaya), pearl necklaces (hara) and earrings (kanna-kundala). The Sigiri damsels who are representative of 5th century aristocratic women are shown adorned with elaborate head-dresses, large earrings, arm-bracelets and a plethora of necklaces and bangles.
Textiles in Sri Lanka
Handloom Weaving historically has had its roots in the Kandyan region, principally in the production of robes for the Buddhist monks. Today, the craft is practiced mainly in the central province and with the encouragement of the Government, modern accessories like curtains, furnishing materials, linens and dress fabrics are produced to the highest international standards.
Lace was introduced by Portuguese and now has become an craft associated with Sri Lanka, which is often called pillow lace because of a pillow-like bed is used to make it. Women who are engaged in lace working and are mainly found in Galle and Matara District.
Lace work was introduced to Sri Lanka by the Portuguese in the middle of the 16th Century and further developed by the Dutch. The growing demand for lace work internationally has seen the establishment of four National Craft Council training centers in the south of the country where lace work is famous. Artisans in the Galle Fort, weave snow-white reams of intricate lace using the dying technique of Beeralu.
Batik in Sri Lanka is adapted from the Indonesian classic art. Batik gained status in medieval Sri Lanka and was featured prominently in the Kandyan Court in the form of banners, wall hangings and the ceremonial dress of the nobility. Today most batiks artists are located in the Western province, Colombo in particular. Some young and enterprising designers have taken the art-form to high fashion featuring their exclusive creations in the global fashion ramps. [Source: My Sri Lanka mysrilanka.com ]
"Titik" or "Tik" means a bit or a drop in Indonesian language. The melted wax covers the area of the cloth that dose not get a particular color. This is a tedious process, depending on the color scheme the already prepared cloth has to go into the color bath several times. The patterns are generally drawn on the white cloth with the help of a template, but an Artist who is talented has the ability comes from china not only cotton but pure silk as well used in this from of art. The lime drawing is the initial step. Then waxing begins and depending on the pattern and the zise of the Artwork several waxing and boiling sessions take place between the dyeing session. The "Tie and Dye" method was popular sometime ago with this method the drawing is not necessary but there is only a uniform round patterns with multi colors available.
When making batik the cloth should be washed thoroughly to remove the starch. Then the cloth is pinned to a Frame. A drawing pen with a heap with molten wax is used to trace the pattern with wax and all areas that do not take the first dye is waxed. The temperature of wax 17°C (63°f). When the wax is cooled the cloth is submerged in a bowl of cold water and then placed in the dye bath with soda and salt, for 30 to 60 minutes. Then the cloth is removed and allowed to drip. Then the wax is removed and the cloth is boiled in a container for 5 minutes with detergents. Then the cloth is rinsed and dried. This is the process for each color until the final design is completed.
Clothes in Sri Lanka
Men often wear cotton sarongs, often with a white shirt. Checks are popular on sarongs. Bright colors are unusual. Kurtas, loose collarless shirts, are sometimes worn but are more popular elsewhere in South Asia. Most women wear a cotton wrap-around sari or a sarong. The sarongs is toes around the waist and reaches the ankles and is usually worn with a tight-fitting, short-sleeve blouse. Pinks, blues and pastel shades are common. Women often wear contrasting colors or one color with a white blouse or white sarong. Women use hot wax to dye their fabrics.
Up until a few decades most people in Sri Lanka wore traditional white clothes, but these people now wear mostly saris. Many people wear flip flops or sandals or go barefoot. According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”: The traditional dress of the Sinhalese is the sarama, a type of sarong. Men may wear a shirt or, when they go bare-chested, throw a scarf around their shoulders. Women wear a tight-fitting, short-sleeved jacket with the sarama. Urban Sinhalese have adopted Western-style clothes. Women wear skirts and blouses, although they prefer the Indian sari for formal and ceremonial occasions. [Source: D. O. Lodric, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009 *]
Traditionally women have worn saris that exposed their midriff. This was regarded as a symbol of fertility not sexuality. The average middle-class woman owns dozens of saris. There are stores that specialize in selling saris. A sari is generally made of a single piece of cloth 4.5 to nine meters (15 to 30 feet) in length and 105 centimeters (42 inches) wide. One end of the sari is tucked into a petticoat waistband and then wrapped around the hips with soft pleats in front. The other end of the cloth is tossed over the shoulder or over the head or tucked into the left side of the waist to form a drape.
The Sri Lanka sari is gathered into the waist, with one end draped over the shoulder. A tight-fitting, half-sleeved or sleeveless bodice may be worn underneath along with a long petticoat which reaches the ankles and is tied around the waist with a drawstring. When working the sari is pulled through the legs to form a kind of trousers. Saris are difficult for the uninitiated to put on. They consist of a two-meter-long piece of material, tucked into a slip, pleated, and worn over a short blouse. "The sari tends to pull out of the slip, and the shawl part tends to fall out.
Clothing of the Ancient Sinhalese
The Mahavansa, the ancient chronicle of Sinhalese royalty (5th century ) and its sequel, the Chulavansa give us some idea of the dress and ornaments worn by the Sinhalese in ancient and medieval times. The Mahavansa states that the Yakkhini woman Kuveni, who later espoused the Aryan prince Vijaya from Bengal, was first seen seated under a tree, spinning. [Source: Explore Sri Lanka, culled from the Mahavansa and other literary and history sources]
This event is believed to have taken place sometime during the 6th-5th century B.C., so that it is possible that the civilized segment of the country s aboriginal populace (The ancestors of the Veddhas, described in the Mahavansa as Yakkas , lit. spirits ) had acquired some knowledge and skills in cloth-making.
It is only natural to suppose that the ancients, whether Aryans or aboriginals, clad themselves in some form of raiment. The only exception to this would have been the Jain community (Niganthas) residing in the ancient capital of Anuradhapura in the 4th century B.C, who were obliged to go naked according to the dictates of their religion. Garments for the upper body do not seem to have been worn in the case of men, save for royalty and the warriors, who wore protective clothing or armour about their persons. As attested by literary evidence, the lower garment of the menfolk of all classes from ancient times to roughly about the 16th century when Portuguese dress caught on, would have been similar to the modern-day North Indian dhoti worn from the waist to below the knees.
As for women s attire, Martin Wickremasinghe (Purana Sinhala Stringe Enduma) basing his contentions on the Pali work Dhammapadatthakatha (5th century ) has shown that ancient Sinhalese women did not cover the upper part of their bodies. Wickremasinghe states that middle-class women only wore a cloth round their hips when at home and also used another to cover their shoulders whenever they went outdoors. As for the upper classes, the Sigiri Frescos (5th century ) depict the contemporary aristocratic women as being bare-breasted, though heavily bejewelled, while their lower-class female attendants are depicted with a breast-band. [Source: Explore Sri Lanka, culled from the Mahavansa and other literary and history sources]
It is a curious fact that in ancient times, women of the untouchable Chandala caste covered their upper bodies, even if those of noble birth did not do so, as noted by Wickremasinghe. It appears that whereas in ancient times, exposing the breasts on the part of women was considered a mark of respect and high birth and that of covering them a sign of inferiority and low birth, in later times the very opposite was true.
Masks in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has a long tradition of mask- making, with most masks featuring carved images of demons, divine beings, legendary characters and animals. In early times they were used as part of “devil dancing” rituals to exorcise spirits and illness, a traditional ritual that is still prevalent amongst communities in rural Sri Lanka. Masks also feature prominently in traditional Sri Lankan theater. About 15,000 museums around the world house Sri Lankan masks in their collections, among them the British Museum. The majority of the mask-making artisans are found in the southern and western provinces. [Source: My Sri Lanka mysrilanka.com ]
Masks are ornamental facial decorative wear used in entertainment, dancing, rituals, dramas, and curing the sick. It is believed that mask provide curative benefits for physiological problems. The use of masks in Sri Lanka is as old the Sinhala nation. The wood used to make Sri Lankan masks is called “Diya Kanduru” (nux vomica or Blazar), which is valued for it’s lightness and durability and because it doesn’t crack, deters insects and is easy to carve.
There are three main 1) Sanni mask; 2) Kolam mask; and 3) Raksha mask. Sanni means sickness and there are 18 sicknesses hence there are 18 sanni masks. Kolam masks are commonly used in dramas and often seen in southern parts of Sri Lanka. Aatha Kolama, Arachchi Kolama, Police Kolama, Jasaya and Lenchina are some of them. Raksha masks are Used in many functions. Among the most used are the Gurula mask (Gurula is a mythical bird), Cobra mask and Peacock mask.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Sri Lanka Tourism (srilanka.travel), Government of Sri Lanka (www.gov.lk), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated February 2022