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 Post subject: Handicrafts of Sri Lanka
 Post Posted: Sat Nov 26, 2005 12:21 am 
Handicrafts of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has an extensive variety of handicrafts which represent the richly craftsmanship tradition tracing back as long as the nation's existence. Tourists can find the excellent collection of Sri Lankan handicrafts in shops and stores throughout the country.

© 2005 Resource Asia Network (Private) Limited

Both workmanship and manual dexterity have been recognized and rewarded in Sri Lanka from early history. Indeed, her kings, the traditional patron of the arts, bestowed upon craftsmen grants of state land and other privileges. Although skills were associated with royal and religious art, they were, however, exhibited equally in the utilitarian crafts and cottage industries of the commoner. Many Sri Lankans still possess traditional skills and continue to turn out objects of utility and aesthetic delight using indigenous materials. A tropical climate as well as the communal nature of Sri Lankan society means that virtually all the handicrafts detailed here are fashioned in the public gaze, often in delightful surroundings, providing a comforting sense of tradition in an increasingly mechanized world.

Sri Lanka’s wide variety of very attractive handicrafts can be found throughout the island in shops, street stalls and government-run stores.

Ivory and tortoiseshell products, once popular handicrafts, are now rightly illegal. Also to be avoided if you are concerned about dwindling resources are items made of ebony and other hardwoods.


Woodcarving is one of the oldest crafts still practised in Sri Lanka. Artisans of old had a preference for low-relief woodcarving, which lent itself to decorative wooden panels, boxes, and tables. Today, many decorative panels are still carved using traditional designs. For instance, near the Lankatilaka Temple and Embekke Devale in the Kandy district, woodcarvers recreate some of the famous Embekke carvings, as well as produce their own designs. In order to satisfy the tourist trade, many woodcarvers have taken to producing three-dimensional carvings, such as of the ever-popular elephant, but, most importantly, images of the Buddha.


Sri Lanka has a long tradition in metals such as gold, silver, brass, tin, lead and iron, as well as their various alloys, in all sorts of work, from ornamental casting and pierced designs, to damascene- and filigree-work. Brass is the most common ornamental metal used outside of jewellery, and therefore the one most likely to be encountered and purchased by visitors. The alloy used in Sri Lanka is excellent for both castwork and cutwork. Castings in brass are usually created by the “lost wax” method, in which the model is sculpted in wax, covered with clay, and baked so that the wax melts and a mould is formed. Molten brass is then simply poured into the empty mould and allowed to harden. Popular castings include elephants, Buddha images, bowls, lamps and candlesticks.

Cutwork, on the other hand, involves cutting the pattern onto a flat sheet of metal and then embellishing the work by engraving, hatching, or repousse to produce items such as trays and plaques. Repousse is the most characteristic type of Sri Lankan metalwork, used on brass, copper, silver, or all three together to create a variety of traditional designs. In this method the artist hammers the desired pattern from the reverse side so that it is in relief on the front side. Repousse is often employed along with appliqué, in which thin sheets of copper or silver are carefully fitted into indentations on the front, after which the design is hammered from the reverse.


Lacquerwork involves the intricate decoration of wooden objects such as bowls and ashtrays with a resin secreted from the bark of certain trees that have been infested with the lac beetle. The resin, also called lac, is scraped from the bark, melted down and strained. While the lac is soft, pigment is beaten in to produce the desired colour. Then it is left to dry. Two different techniques are used to apply lac. One method, called beralu veda or spool-work, involves putting the object to be decorated on a lathe, spinning it, and applying a hardened stick of lac to it at an angle, rather like a woodcarving tool. The resulting friction melts the lac, which seeps into the grain yet gives a glossy coating.


The other technique involves drawing heated and softened lac into a fine thread and laying it in a pattern. This method is called niyapothu veda or nailwork, since the thumbnail is used to fashion the thread of lac. Today, lacquerwork is also produced by the inferior method of painting the object and covering it with layers of varnish. Visitors who wish to witness this craft should travel to the villages of Angalmaduwa near Tangalle, which is famous for beralu veda, and Palle Hapuvida near Matale, which is renowned for niyapothu veda. Laquerwork image

Mat weaving

Mat weaving used to be practiced by every female villager because the craft was considered a necessary domestic accomplishment. Mats, after all, were essential items, used as both floor coverings and beds. Today, mat weaving is still popular among villagers but it is a cottage industry with few established sales outlets. Instead, weavers generally peddle their mats at festivals, fairs, and pilgrimage sites. Visitors may see them during the Kandy perahera in July, when the pavements of the city are colourfully lined with rolled up mats for sale. The mats of the highest quality with the best designs are made in the villages of the Dumbara valley in the Kandy district. These mats are traditionally woven on a simple loom using fibres from the bowstring hemp, mostly of white or black colouration. Often they are decorated with stripes or bands, or animal or floral motifs.



Baskets have always been an important functional item for the villager, and the craft of basketry still thrives. Heavy baskets made of split bamboo or rattan are used for general use, mostly transporting everything from grain to chickens. There are specialized baskets, too, such as one to measure rice and another to separate the chaff from the rice grain. Visitors can see the remarkable variety of baskets and receptacles available in Sri Lanka at the shops along the Colombo-Kandy road near Weweldeniya. More delicate and artistic basketry for household use is also popular. The town of Kalutara on the southwest coast is the best-known centre for this type of basketry. It even has its own “Basket Hall” where the local weavers may be watched at work. Sedge, pandanus and several types of palm leaves are favourite materials.


Coir making is a traditional cottage industry practiced solely by women that is concentrated along the southwest coast and therefore highly visible to visitors. It is here that the raw material - the husk of the coconut - is found in abundance, for this is the coconut-growing belt. The coir fibre is obtained by beating coconut husks that have been immersed in brackish water for a period of six months. It is then spun into a loose rope using a machine that resembles an upturned bicycle wheel. These contraptions, lengths of rope, and the women and girls who handle them, can be seen in many roadside gardens. Spun coir is used to make mats, carpets and wall hangings as well as other useful items.


Pottery, like mat weaving, is a craft essential to village life in Sri Lanka. Robert Knox observed in An Historical Relation of Ceylon (1681) that the Sinhalese are adept at crafting “all sorts of earthenware to boil, stew, fry and fetch water in.” Today, as then, the potter can invariably be found demonstrating his or her skills in the verandah. Most of the pottery is thrown on small wheels turned by the potter himself. The output consists largely of simple undecorated pieces, but there is an increased demand for decorated pottery. Such decoration is usually done by incising patterns or stamping with a wooden die while the clay is still wet. Sometimes a glaze is painted prior to firing, which is done in a traditional kiln built of brick or stone and covered with a vaulted wattle-and-daub roof.

The primarily utilitarian character of Sri Lankan pottery remains to this day. It lends charm to its elegance of form and simplicity of ornamentation. Items include small clay lamps, elegant water-jugs and practical cooking vessels. Figurines and delightful animals with distinctly Sinhalese characteristics are also made. These can be seen in abundance just outside Weligama.


Lacemaking is not an indigenous art. Dutch ladies probably introduced it during Dutch colonial times, particularly in the Galle area. Sinhalese ladies caught on, and lacemaking soon became an established local craft. During the 19th century, when Galle was at its zenith as a port, it became popular with passengers. Today, many older village women in the Galle area still spend their spare time making pillow lace and crochet lace, but when that generation passes the craft may die.

Galle lace as it is known (although it is more correctly Brussels lace, for that was the Dutch style) is made on a hard pillow called beralu in Sinhalese. A wooden roller fixed to the centre of the pillow turns slowly as the lace lengthens. The pattern is pricked out with a pin on a thick strip of paper, which is fixed onto the roll with wooden bobbins of thread attached to the top. Pins are pricked into the holes and the thread woven round them to form the patterns, which are indigenous and resemble natural shapes, such as the mango fruit and jasmine flower. Lace dollies and tablemats, tea cloths and other items are made beside lace edging and insertion.

Handloom textiles

Although hand woven materials have lost their pre-eminence since the introduction of machine-made textiles, the craft of weaving high quality handloom textiles has experienced a remarkable resurgence in Sri Lanka over the past half century. This is due almost entirely to two remarkable women, Edith Ludowyk and Barbara Sansoni. It was Ludowyk who pioneered weaving at a centre near Kandy in 1950. A decade or so later, Sansoni was responsible for an upsurge in the craft at a centre near Colombo.

The old pit loom has been replaced by the flying shuttle type of handloom, which is capable of producing longer and wider bolts of cloth. These handlooms, still refreshingly non-industrial with their surprisingly agreeable sound and visual delight, are eloquently described by Sansoni: “There was a pleasant clacking rhythm of wood on wood and the magic of spread threads turning into soft coloured cloth which wound, bit by bit, in a roll, onto a loom beam. Here was the lovely atmosphere of something being made deftly with human skills and brains, and the happiness of people enjoying what they were doing was evident in their bright eyes and faces.”

Sri Lankan hand-woven and/or hand-dyed textiles are most distinctive, and usually feature striking colour combinations. They are excellent for making a variety of garments and furnishings.

© 2005 Resource Asia Network (Private) Limited

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