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 Post subject: Arts and Crafts History of Sri Lanka
 Post Posted: Sat Nov 18, 2006 10:10 pm 
Arts and Crafts History of Sri Lanka

Copyright © Craft Revival Trust
Shanthi Balasubramanian

Apparently 1,000 artisans from Madura accompanied the Pandyan princess to Sri Lanka. They included gold-smiths, black-smiths, brass-founders, carpenters, and stone-cutters. King Vijaya was of the Brahman faith and his descendants were of the same faith; however, in 307 B.C. Buddhism was brought to Sri Lanka by Mahinda, son of King Asoka of Kalinga in India. King Asoka's daughter, Sangamitta also came into the country later bringing along with her the Buddhist faith. When Sangamitta came into the country in the year 288 B.C., she brought along with her a branch of the sacred Bo tree or pipal tree under which Gautam Buddha had attained enlightenment. Sangamitta also brought along with her some members of the royal family, some members of the nobility, and artisans, including gold-smiths, potters, and weavers. Sinhalese art and tradition have always had a rich and long-lasting association with India; the majority religion of Buddhism, which influences much of the symbolism in motifs and designs in Sri Lankan handicrafts, has come to Sri Lanka from India through the emissaries of King Asoka.


King Duttha Gamani who ruled between 161 and 137 B.C. was a great patron of art and built many dagabas (residences of Buddhist priests) and temples. He built the nine-storied lohapasada, and the Ruvanveli and Mirisavetiya dagabas.

The lohapasada was a quadrilateral palace with nine stories and 100 rooms in each of the levels. The rooms were all finished with silver and the cornices set with gems. The main hall was gilded with golden pillars with motifs of animals, especially lions, and devatas or celestial beings. An ivory throne was placed in the middle of this hall with the emblem of the sun in gold on one side, and the emblem of the moon in silver on the other along with the designs of stars embellished with pearls. This throne had a delicately woven cloth placed on the top along with a beautiful ivory fan. This throne also had a footstool with a pair of chappals (or slippers) ornamented with beads placed on it. A white canopy or parasol of dominion overhung the throne mounted with a silver handle. There were eight auspicious objects or mangalika, including the lion, bull, elephant, water pot, fan, flag, trumpet or chank made of seven gems. There were also figures of four-footed beasts as embellishments and at the points of the canopy rows of silver bells were hung. The hall also had carpets of great value along with bowls, dippers which were made of gold.

As a part of the foundation preparations for the Ruvanveli dagaba, the king placed eight golden and eight silver vases in the centre of the area of construction and surrounded them with 1008 fresh vases and 108 pieces of cloth. A very beautiful bo or pipal tree - with a silver stem and leaves made of precious gems - was crafted in honour of the occasion. The faded leaves were made of gold and the fruit and tender leaves were made of coral. A gold throne was placed on the eastern side of the bo tree on which the King placed a gold statue of Buddha. This statue was embellished with gems. The other figures which were also placed at appropriate positions were Maha Brahma or the Lord of Creation with a silver parasol of dominion, sakka the inaugurator with his vijayuttara chank or trumpet, pancasikha with his harp, kalanaga with his band of singers and dancers, and the hundred-armed mara mounted on his elephant and surrounded by a host of his attendants. Events in the life of Buddha were depicted.

The King took ill towards the end of building the dagaba and his brother Tissa from Dighavapi took over. The construction of the spire and the plastering of the cetiya needed to be completed. To reassure the King that the building was complete Tissa gathered a group of men who were well-versed in tailoring (needle-work was mainly a man's craft) and ordered them to make a casing of white cloths to cover the cetiya. Painters were employed to paint the panelled basement; rows of filled vases and ornaments were represented on this. Parasol-frame weavers were employed to make the frame for a temporary spire for the building. A parapet was fashioned around the pinnacle with the sun and moon motifs represented on them. These figures were painted on with red stick lac and kunkuma. The King who was in his last stages saw the dagaba lying down in his palanquin and bowed his head in veneration believing all the work to have been completed. He was able to breathe his last peacefully due to the effort put in by his brother.

Wars with the Tamils started in 237 B.C.; Sinhalese rule was interrupted frequently by Tamil kings. In the year 113 A.D. King Gaja Bahu invaded south India and brought back about 1,200 captives to Sri Lanka. Among those captured were craftspeople who were settled in different places in the Sri Lankan kingdom. The annual Perahera or pageant of Kandy was held in the honour of goddess Pattini before the reign of King Kirti Siri. During the reign of Kirti Siri he introduced the tooth-relic (tooth of Shri Gautama Buddha) at the Perahera in Kandy, which then began to lead the procession. King Gaja Bahu brought back the Halamba or the golden anklet of Goddess Pattini from India and introduced her worship in Sri Lanka. There is a national game in Sri Lanka called Amkeliya, is in honour of Goddess Pattini which is played to this day in times of sickness.

King Jetthatissa came to power in Sri Lanka in 332 A.D. Jetthatissa was a skilful carver and taught the skills of painting and carving to many of his subjects. He carved a beautiful statue of Bodhisatta along with a throne, parasol, and a state-room with beautiful objects of ivory in it. Through royal example and patronage the craft of ivory carving spread far and near in Sri Lanka. This craft has always held a high status and more often than not has been associated with royalty - either in terms of making objects of ivory for the members of royalty or in terms of ivory-carvers being an important part of the group of artisans maintained by the palace.

King Parakrama Bahu the Great - who reigned between 1164 and 1197 - A.D. was a great patron of the arts. He built noble buildings for the Buddhist faith and priesthood. One of the buildings he built was the famous Lanka Tilaka or the 'Brow-gem of Ceylon'. This was a round-shaped temple of the tooth-relic built wholly of stone. It was adorned with beautifully carved pillars and staircases; the walls were ornamented with rows of figures of lions, kinnaras, and hamsas. This was a grand image-house of five storeys; skilled workmanship was on display everywhere.

King Vijaya Bahu, who came to the throne in 1275 A.D., had, as his capital, the city of Polonnaruwa, which had been destroyed by the previous Tamil rulers; the king took a vow to restore the city to its former glory. King Vijaya Bahu gathered together smelters, turners, basket-makers, blacksmiths, potters, goldsmiths, painters, porters, labourers, bricklayers, masons, carpenters, and stone-workers. Tools were made ready: bellows, sledges, pincers, anvils saws, adzes, axes, wood-cleavers, stone-cutters' chisels, knives, hammers, and spades. All these were supplied to the artisans who completed the glorious and fulfilling job of repairing the buildings of the ravaged city and did their best to make the city as good as new.

The Portuguese invaded Sri Lanka in 1506 A.D. and were there till the year 1658 A.D. when they were overthrown by the Dutch. A lot of the country's natural and artistic wealth was destroyed during the period of Portuguese rule. The populace of Sri Lanka got divided into Kandyan and Low Country. The Sinhalese who resided in the immediate vicinity of Colombo were compelled to associate with the Portuguese; several also converted to Christianity, even if often only in name. The process of division continued during Dutch rule.

Even amidst the entire process of the country itself unravelling, the Sinhalese from the hilly regions were able to preserve some ways of traditional life and retain some precious craft-skills; this has allowed Sinhalese art and craft to continue to this day.

King Sri Vira Parakrama Narendra Simha came to power in Kandy in the year 1701 A.D. He built the present two-storeyed structure of the Temple of the Tooth Relic or Dalida Maligawa at Kandy. The doors and the roof of the temple were ornamented with exquisite workmanship and the plaster work done shone as bright as silver. On the walls of the two enclosures were painted the 32 Jatakas. There are records of the delicate and elaborate nature of these paintings; they cannot be seen now.

Kirti Siri Raja Simha who reigned in Kandy between 1747 and 1780 A.D. was a great patron of art and learning. He was also a great builder. He built and repaired countless Buddhist buildings throughout the kingdom. On the eastern side of the city he built a vihara or Buddhist temple known as Gangarama. The temple was a finely built two-storeyed stone structure with a high statue of Buddha carved exquisitely in stone. Painters executed various paintings on the inner walls of the structure.

Sri Vikrama Raja Simha, the last king of Kandy, ruled between 1796 and 1815 A.D. He made a significant contribution to Kandyan architecture and erected buildings and structures, a few of which stand to this day. The famous Kandy lake and parapet was built during his time along with the Audience Hall and the Pattiripuva or octagonal tower of the Dalida Maligawa or the Temple of the Tooth Relic. In 1801 the Alut (new) Vihara or Buddhist place of worship was built at Asgiriya by Pilima Talava Adigar under the king's patronage. The king dedicated the villages of Kahawatta and Udasgiriya to the vihara. This decree was written out in an ola leaf at first; it was later carved on to a rock in the back-wall of the structure, an exercise for which the stone-cutter was amply rewarded from the Royal Treasury.

The Sinhalese surrendered to the British in the year 1815 A.D. The British were expressly requested by the last king Sri Vikrama Raja Simha to help him overthrow the Dutch. The British, however, ultimately overthrew the king. The results of the foreign rule in Sri Lanka along with the ensuing insurrection and subsequent suppression of the powers of the people were very damaging. The country took many years to recover some of its spirit and glory but the breach in the continuity of national tradition and culture has never been spanned. The advent of foreign rule in Sri Lanka signalled the end of almost uninterrupted royal rule of about 23 centuries.

During the British rule of Sri Lanka for over a century, institutions like the Kandyan Arts Association were set up; the intentions were honourable but with depleted resources even the presence of such an institution did not help in the preservation and continuity of Sri Lankan arts and crafts. The foreign government which inherited the great traditions of the royalty did nothing substantial to perpetuate the local arts and crafts. The precious hereditary skills and talent of the craftspeople could have been preserved for future generations if the government had extended at least some means of support and opportunity. Support could have been extended by employing Sinhalese craftspeople in building work, leaving the entire design and execution in their hands; this would also have ensured good quality work suitable to local conditions and requirements. Works of art could also have been commissioned by the British rulers.


The systems of classifying craftspeople according to caste sub-divisions was as follows:
    acari or blacksmiths
    badallu or silversmiths
    etdatketayankarayo or ivory carvers and cabinet makers
    galvaduvo or stone cutters
    ivaduvo or arrow makers (lac workers)
    lokuruvo or founders
    liyana vaduvo or turners
    ratne endra karayo or jewellers
    ridiketayankarayo or damascene workers
    sittaru or painters
    vaduvo or carpenters

The Janvamsa, an important treatise of ancient Sri Lanka recognised mainly two main divisions of caste among the craftspeople:

    The kamburo, navdanno, or acari, divided into lokuruvo or workers in copper, bronze, and brass; the sitarru or painters; and the svarnakarayo or goldsmiths; this category also included turners and blacksmiths

    The vaduvo, carpenters, blacksmiths, and masons, included house-builders, makers of agricultural implements and arrows, or ivaduvo, which also included all lac workers

There was some confusion between the two categories; this was perhaps inevitable as the work of the two classes overlapped to some extent. The kamburo were addressed as the kammara brahmans in the Janavamsa and they comprised of mainly the imported kammalar artisans from the coastal region. This category of artisans did fine work as goldsmiths and painters. The vaduvo comprised of the indigenous group of artisans who were mainly skilled in building and tool-making.

There were two main categories of weavers - the beravayo group that made country cloth or home-spun material, and the chalias or the salagamayo who were mainly from south India and wove fine gold cloths. Till the present day the caste divisions among the craftspeople of Sri Lanka are the same as that mentioned in the Janavamsa. However there is a lot of merging and overlap taking place today, whereby people of one caste are involved in a variety of crafts some of which are not even a part of their traditional craft-set. Perhaps with the exception of certain basic crafts, so a rigid system of caste-based craft involvement does not exist in contemporary times.

In the ancient days it was the practice that members of the higher division of the caste system - architects or designers of building-structures, painters, goldsmiths and silversmiths, brass repousse workers, ivory-carvers, and wood carvers, all called galladdo - did not eat or intermarry with members of the lower caste-division or the vaduvo. The group vaduvo comprised of ordinary carpenters, turners of wood and ivory, blacksmiths, damascene workers, stone carvers, and lac workers. The other inferior caste-group comprised of tailors and embroiderers or hannali, leather-workers or hommarayo, potters or badahelayo, weavers of country cloth or beravayo, mat-makers or kinnarayo, makers of whips and cords, and preparers of hides or rodiyo.

The royal household had divided workers into 14 divisions of the Department of Public Works for easy administration purposes. About three of them pertained to the craftspeople and artisans - the eighth division of craftsmen, ninth division of inferior carpenters, and the tenth division of potters.

In all the districts of the kingdom of Kandy there were certain craftspeople who were selected and organised into a department known as Kottal-badda which was supervised by two officers or the kottal-badde nilame; these officers were appointed by the king for the districts other then the Disavaniya. In the key district of Disavaniya the responsibilities of the kotal badde nilame were joined with that of the disava, the head of the Disavaniya. An appointed official known as the kottal badde vidane assisted the disava; the kottal bade vidane was usually a craftsperson.

The craftspeople were organised in the four korales (including the Disavaniya) as follows:

    CATEGORY 1: Seven members of the vaduvo caste who did the carpentry work for the king or disava; they were usually employed at the dandu maduva or the timber yard in Kandy

    CATEGORY 2: Five members of the liyana vaduvo group or turners

    CATEGORY 3: Five members of the sittaru group or painters

    CATEGORY 4: 14 members of ivaduvo group or arrow-makers who made bows, arrows, spears, and staves and covered them with lac; out of this group two members worked in the Royal Armoury

    CATEGORY 5: 14 members of attapattu karayo group who did Exquisite work and who were employed in ornamenting and inlaying locks, guns, knives, etc.; the metals used by them were gold, silver and brass. Two members of this group worked in the Royal Armoury.

    CATEGORY 6: Four members of the badallu group or silversmiths who worked with the metals - gold, silver, brass and copper; two of them worked in the Royal Armoury

    CATEGORY 7: One member of the gal-vaduvo group or group of masons

    CATEGORY 8: 20 mul-acari or blacksmiths; a certain number of members of this group of artisans were usually posted at the disava's residence in Kandy and performed work mainly for him; all the required metal were provided to them

    CATEGORY 9: Eight blacksmiths who did not have regular service lands; members of this group had to present themselves before the disava on every occasion of New Year and perform whatever work was expected of them

    CATEGORY 10: 10 acari or blacksmith members under the hangidiya who worked mainly for the disava.

The last three categories of blacksmiths were sometimes placed under the same hangidiya and atu-hangidiya. All the above categories of craftspeople except the blacksmiths in Category 9 performed specific work directed by the king or worked on public buildings allotted to the Disavaniya. Some members of Category 3 belonging to the muhandiram-vasama group guarded the dandu-maduva or royal timber-yard. The other members of this group had to fell and fetch timber, cut wall timber, shape it, and thatch public buildings or the disava's house. Some members of Category 9 had to make woven rattan couches, stools, and baskets for the royal household.

The best craftspeople belonging to the higher division like goldsmiths, silversmiths, painters, and ivory carvers working solely for the royal household formed a close-knit hereditary group known as the pattal-hatara or the 'Four Workshops'. These craftspeople worked exclusively for the king unless otherwise instructed. Members of the kottal badda group mentioned earlier worked mainly in the various districts of the Kandyan kingdom although they had to put in a mandatory two months of work in Kandy. In each of the districts the kottal badda members were under the supervision of a foreman or mul-acariya belonging to the pattal-hatara or the Four Workshops. They were four other foremen who were in constant attendance at the palace.

The four workshops attached to the royal palace were:

    Abharana Pattala or jewellery workshop;
    Otunna Pattala or crown workshop;
    Rankadu Pattala or golden sword workshop (armoury); and
    Simhasana or a Lion Throne workshop. (This last category of the workshops included painters and ivory carvers.)

According to the work given to them the craftspeople moved from one pattala to the other. A position in the pattal hatara or the Royal Workshops was hereditary and was held in very high prestige. The craftspeoples' families who were part of the Royal Workshops had a high socio-economic status and they owned land given by the king as part of the first settlement or as payment for subsequent services rendered.

When the artisan completed a big project like the building of a vihara or a Buddhist place of worship the gifts given by the king for services rendered were in the form of rice, cloth, cattle, gold, silver, lands, etc. The craftspeople working in the Royal Workshops were also liberally rewarded for their ecclesiastical work; special recognition was given to a spectacular display(s) of skills and craftsmanship. Sometimes various parts of the royal costume were given as gifts to the artisan. Some eminent artisans were decorated by the patabendi decoration in the form of the pata-tahaduva or a gold-frontlet tied onto the artisan by the king himself. They were never paid a daily wage nor required to work a given number of hours every day.

The artisans who worked under royal patronage also did some work for commoners, at a price; the price for the work done was that the person had to do some crop-related work on the lands belonging to the craftsperson. If a special piece of work was done, the beneficiary also had to give some special gifts along with performing agriculture-related duties. An interesting example is the Nilavala Muhandirams of Eldeniya and Mangalgama districts, an ancient prominent craftperson's family that was part of the Rankadu Pattala or the Royal Workshop for golden swords or the armoury. They first settled in Sri Lanka in the fourteenth or the fifteenth century. The pioneer of this family was a skilful master craftsperson who had landed in Sri Lanka from India. He was honoured with the title of Mandalavalli Nayide by the king of that period.

This craftsperson and other members of his family including the descendants were very skilled in making swords in gold. The descendants of this family are still involved in gold and silver craft to this day; the pride they take in their work is worth a particular mention. They still make items of armour and some other elaborate gift items for the present Kandy Chieftain.

The chief families of the artisans possessed material wealth mainly in the form of state endowments. The names of the craftspeople are not recorded in the items they make but are recorded by the descendants. The names of the various craftspeople are recorded in sannas (royal edicts/ charters) and in various other deeds but cannot be associated or matched with any particular piece of work.

All artisans belonging to the craftsmen's caste were not practising artisans. Out of this category only a small percentage belonged to the higher division of the caste-based craft classification. This higher division of craftspeople were a mixture of indigenous artisans and those who had come in from south India. This is the reason there is a lot of similarity in detailing between the Sinhalese craft items and the craft items from the southern part of India. Families of the artisans who had migrated into the country from India were for the main part Hindus: they worshipped Lord Shiva and performed other Hindu religious ceremonies.

Technically a lot of their work follow the tenets of Indian Silpasastra or tenets of craft work and many of the technical terms used by them resembled the Tamil language. Many of them also chant Hindu mantras or prayers and some of them are referred to as kammalars. All these are strong indications of the Indian connection in Sri Lankan craft. The indigenous craftspeople and the immigrant craftspeople worked side by side. Many of them easily adapted to the Sinhalese way of life and became Buddhists. Their style of work soon modified to local traditions. In fact the Sinhalese styles show very clear traces of early Indian - especially early Buddhist styles - much more distinctly than can often be found in India itself.

The group of indigenous craftspeople in Sri Lanka comprised of both the original Sinhalese artisans and the later immigrant artisans who later became incorporated into the local community. It is an impossible task to separate out the quantum of the original Sinhalese element found in the work of the artisans of the superior group. As stated earlier there was an influx of craftspeople from India along with the Buddhist missionaries and some craftspeople were also brought into the country during the reign of King Gaja Bahu. The inferior group of craftspeople, potters, weavers - except the salagamayo or superior category of immigrant weavers - and the mat-makers, represented a key segment of the artisans belonging to the Sinhalese population who were probably carrying on the ancient traditions of the pre-Sinhalese inhabitants of Sri Lanka.

Broadly speaking the indigenous group of craftspeople made the less elaborate and necessary utility articles required by the common agricultural people and the craftspeople who came in from big kingdoms and crafts-guilds in south India were involved in making the elaborate and expensive items required by the king and other members of royalty. As stated earlier, the beravayo group of indigenous weavers made country-cloth while the salagamayo or the weavers from outside exclusively made the gold-woven muslins worn by members of the royalty and nobility. The court-based superior artisans did exquisite dye-painting of cloth, elaborate gold embroidery, tailoring, and sandal-making. There was a great influence of Tamil style and fashion in the jewellery and dress of the eighteenth century.

Kammalar was the name given to the south Indian craftspeople who came into Sri Lanka either on their own or brought in as part of the conquest of Sinhalese kings. In south India kammalar were the master craftsmen who were the builders and sculptors of great Indian temples. They were known in ancient times as visva brahmans, deva brahmans, or deva kammalar; distinctly different from the modern-day Brahmans. They had priests of their own caste to perform rites similar to those performed by the Brahmans. When images were made and consecrated the kammalars perform the priestly rites. Their priests were well-versed in Silpasastra or the treatise on principles of craft. They trace their origin and ancestry to the five sons of Visvakarma of whom the first-born Manu worked in iron; the second son Maya worked in wood; the third son Tvastra worked with brass, copper, and alloys; the fourth son worked with stone; and the fifth Visvajna was a goldsmith, silversmith, and jeweller. These five crafts were never considered as mutually exclusive and a descendant of a goldsmith could practice any of the other five crafts. These five segments formed one unified community in India whereas in Sri Lanka these communities were divided and distinct. Due to the migration of the kammalar craftspeople out of south India into the neighbouring countries, the crafts of south India, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, and Indonesia have a marked resemblance.


The crafts practised in Sri Lanka were mainly hereditary: the sons took up the same craft as the father; and the daughters were married off into families practising the same craft. The sons were given easy or mechanical work at first and gradually picked up the craft through precept, example, and practice. The tradition was perpetuated and carried on undisturbed generation after generation.

The craftsman and his family lived and worked together, forming a strong joint-family system. The craftsperson also trained other suitable young men of the same caste in the craft along with his sons. This was the general practice in apprenticeship amongst craftsmen. Only craftsmen belonging to the higher caste-division or the galladdo from whom the pattal-hatara or Royal Workshop artisans were selected were taught the principles of drawing and design. The artisans belonging to the lower division were given some knowledge of the design but mainly relied on the others to set work for them.

An auspicious hour was set aside to begin the instructions of drawing for the apprentice; this was done by the master craftsperson. If the apprentice was an outsider he brought along with him gifts for the master craftsperson. The drawing practice was initially done on a yatiporuva or a wooden drawing-board covered with a preparation called vadi. The vadi was prepared by grinding together tamarind seed, coconut charcoal, iron-slag, and indigo, along with the juice of kikirindi (Eclipta Erecta) leaves. These ingredients were ground and mixed with finely-powdered quartz or tiruvanagala and then smoothly spread on the board and allowed to dry. The pupil learnt to draw on this board using the spine of the sea-urchin or ikiri katuva as a pencil. The spine was mounted on a bamboo-handle for convenience. Alternatively a pointed style or stick of kumbuk or Terminalia Gabara bark was used. In the present time slates with slate-pencils or note-books and pencils are used.

The first aspect to be taught was the vaka deka or the double curve. The pupil had to initially trace this drawing over and over again; after a lot of practice, the pupil had to draw this figure from memory with particular care being taken to show the right feeling in drawing the curve. As the next step, wedges or paturu and flowers or sina mala were added to the basic figure. The vaka deka was made into various design-forms - the katuru mala, mottak karuppuva, and tiringi tale - all of which are bird-like in appearance. All these design-forms were a great test of the pupil's skills. Earlier Dutch paper was used for these drawings. Sinhalese paper was very coarse and ill-adapted for fine-brush drawing. English paper was used much later.

Pupils were never taught to draw from nature. Symmetry in design was of great importance. A knowledge of traditional forms and designs were considered very essential in becoming a master in designing. Along with different types of conventional floral ornaments made use of in Sinhalese design, pupils were also taught to draw repeated patterns of a geometrical nature (tundan veda). These designs varied between families as these aspects were passed on from generation to generation.

In the next stage the pupil was taught to draw animal figures - the first was always a curious combination of a bull and an elephant which was called usamba-kunjara or bull-elephant. The other designs that were taught included the catur-nari-palakkiya or four-women palanquin, panca-nari-geta or five-women knot, sat-nari-torana or six-women-arch, sapta-nari-turanga or seven-women-horse, ashta-nari-ratha or eight-women-chariot, and nava-nari-kunjara or nine-women-elephant. The whole purpose of these instructions was not that the pupil should copy out a design placed before him but that he should reproduce from memory well-known designs and figure-objects and that he should make use of traditional elements of design to decorate various forms and surfaces.

The pupil was also made to read the Rupavaliya, the treatise that had all the information on instructions to draw the images of gods and mythical animals, the Sariputra, which had instructions for the making of images of Buddha, and the Vaijayantaya, which was a compendium of instructions in the arts, containing detailed descriptions of the 64 kinds of jewels suitable for gods, kings, and men. It also had specifications on designs and the quantity of gold to be used for each, along with information on measurements of swords, thrones, dagabas, and the like. By this stage the pupil was expected to have full mastery over the use of brush.

While the master was involved in the important and difficult parts of working on the decoration of the vihara, the pupil gained practical training by involving himself in executing the minor details. The pupil was allowed to practice several crafts but ultimately selected one to involve himself in. A galladda or artisan proficient in several crafts was called as silpacariya. These pupils who learnt the intricacies of craft and design from the masters were also given general and religious education. Reading, writing and arithmetic were taught.

The knowledge of arithmetic was very important to understand astrology and to calculate the auspicious times for the commencement of work. It was also essential for understanding the measurements given in the technical books. Figures were drawn and constructed with the use of scales. Pupils regarded their master with feelings of affectionate reverence. The pupil always gave the master-instructor whatever he earned which was also returned with affection unless it was a special occasion. The secrets of the crafts were transferred hereditarily though other pupils were also admitted into the instruction course. However the key-instructions or special secrets about a craft were given only to a son or to a faithful pupil on completion of a course.


If one were to actually list down the influences on Sri Lankan art and craft over time the listing would be as follows

    Art of the indigenous people of the country.
    Art influence of the pre-Vijaya period -Yakkas.
    Art aspects brought in by the immigrants who came along with Vijaya.
    Art inputs brought in with Buddhism and the Asokan culture from northern India.
    Art inputs of the Dravidians from southern India at various points in time.
    Influence of the Muhammadan art.
    Chinese and Malayan influences.
    Art inputs from the Portuguese, Dutch and English.

Ananda Coomaraswamy states in his book, Mediaeval Sinhalese Art that: 'Mediaeval and modern Sinhalese art is essentially Indian art, but it is not modern Hindu, rather it is such an art as might have survived in some yet Buddhist part of the mainland, if Buddhism had not there been entirely merged in Hinduism.'

When early Indian art is studied, it is best done by studying the Barahat sculptures (200-150 B.C.). There are many motifs and designs in Sinhalese art that are comparable to the Barahat sculptures. Lotus rosette is an example of a Sinhalese motif which is very similar to that found at Barahat. Some of the examples in craft where such motifs are found are the gara-yakshaya costume and the borders of the betel-bags of Sri Lanka.

Some designs and motifs prevalent in Sinhalese art and craft that have some Indo-European origin include chevron-shaped motifs, cross-hatched flower centres, and pineapple motifs; except for the last-mentioned one, the other motifs belong to the palmette and honey-suckle family. Some of the most striking representations of such motifs are found in the pottery made in the Kelaniya and Matara districts of Sri Lanka; the other works of craft associated with these motifs are lac-work and woven-belt designs.

Some forms and designs which are characteristic of 'barbaric' art which are primitive by nature are those that could be traced back to the pre-Sinhalese inhabitants of Sri Lanka or could have been brought in at a later period with more advanced forms and could be listed as - simple cross-hatchings, circles, diamonds, dots and lines. A decorative motif associated with Buddhism has been that of the Bo-leaf or leaf of the pipal tree from which a triangular form has been derived.

As far as the material used for construction went, initially there was a lot of use of stone - construction in the ancient cities of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruva, Yapahuva and elsewhere. However the material used for the indigenous style of construction has always been wood. Some of the other materials also used in making of images were clay and brick. Bali images used for worship were made out of mud and primitive colours. Such worship practices have survived very well along with the non-animistic philosophy of Buddhism.


In contemporary Sri Lanka handicrafts have been accepted as a significant source of contribution to the economy of Sri Lanka. The context of the craftsperson and of the creative heritage embodied in the craftsperson has also changed; several have, with help and interventions, found possibilities of adapting to changed situations and demands, while maintaining their craft traditions as well as a high standard of craftsmanship.

Of the challenges facing handicrafts is the competition from commercially mass produced items. Pottery and earthenware faced competition from aluminium and metal utensils; plastic baskets and mats threaten the reed and rushware crafts; and traditional jewellery has to compete with comparatively less expensive costume jewellery. These adverse prospects have led several in the younger generation of traditional craft families to discontinue practising the family-craft; since the practice of apprenticeship to master craftspersons also ceased, there was a distinct threat to the chain of continuity in craft-practice.

Government intervention in the craft sector has been critical in revival and regeneration of crafts as economically viable occupations. The Department of Rural Development and Cottage Industries gives institutional support to the artisans.

To aid the development of the production methods in small industries, the government set up a Small Industry Service Institute at Velona in Moratuwa district in 1962. This department was in charge of field surveys, planning of workshops, development of production processes, design development, training and guidance services in the areas of production, organization, and management. 'Small Industries' was added to the Department of Rural Development and became a new expanded department. The three aspects that came under its purview were,

Cottage industry: practised with family members as part-time or whole-time participants

Handicraft sector: consisting of products of artistic value requiring a high degree of skill and craftsmanship

Small scale industries: that used power with minimal investment in equipment and machinery

The Department of Small Industries of the government of Sri Lanka started off as a training and servicing institute but has now metamorphosed into a manufacturing and marketing agency of the government. This Department runs a wide network of training centres all over the country and the products made at these centres are sold at the sales points of the Department. Handicrafts requiring special attention are being looked after by the Department viz. coir, carpentry, ceramics, doll-making and papier mache.

As an indigenous craft with tremendous income-generating potential, handloom textile weaving also became popular due to the large number of training centres opened up by this Department. Due to a lot of technical inputs, these centres contributed a lot to the improvement in design and quality of the local handloom products. The creation of Design Development Centres helped in the creation of new designs and market testing of sample materials.

There have been structural changes in this system whereby the respective Provincial Councils manage the centres coming under their Provinces as independent units under the devolvement process introduced. Laksala the government-managed marketing outlet for handicrafts was first opened in Colombo in 1964. Laksala outlets all over the country are under the management of the Sri Lanka Handicrafts Board, which also has many training centres attached to it. These marketing outlets have served as a lifeline for the craftspeople of the country to sell their products and sustain a reasonable standard of living. Notwithstanding the presence of a lot of private craft outlets, Laksala is the largest marketing organisation for handicrafts in Sri Lanka. It also aids in the training of apprentices by selected master craftspeople in village areas associated with traditional crafts.

The Sri Lanka Handicrafts Board has taken many measures to ease the lot of craftspeople of Sri Lanka one of which is the Decentralised Purchasing Scheme where the craft-products produced by the artisans are purchased at their door-step for their convenience. Registered craftspeople also make presentations at the organisation headquarters at Colombo from where their products are purchased on the basis of merit. Sri Lanka Handicrafts Board suffered losses during lean tourist seasons when the country was going through a period of turmoil; however it has emerged stronger and more confident, and has adopted sound management and marketing techniques to better serve craftspeople and consumers.

A very significant landmark in the growth of crafts for Sri Lanka has been the promulgation of the National Crafts Council and Allied Institutions Act No. 35 in 1982, through which key institutions like National Crafts Council, Sri Lanka Handicrafts Board, and the National Design Centre have been established. All these institutions came under the purview of the Ministry of Rural Industrial Development.

The functions of the National Crafts Council were delineated as follows

Preservation of all forms of handicrafts
Organisation of craftspeople through the formation of Crafts Associations
Development of the skills and capabilities of the craftspeople
Enhancement of the social and economic status of the craftspeople
The Council has to face the challenge of organising reluctant craftspeople into associations by explaining the benefits to them; often, the more creative artisans prefer to stay out of associations. The Council also visits the craft villages to supply much-needed raw materials and tools. The Raw Material Bank, which functions as part of the Council, runs special programmes to grow materials like cane and rush in areas close to the craft-practitioners.

The National Crafts Council holds district-level and national level handicrafts exhibitions annually, thus giving an opportunity to craftspeople to participate and market their products. In the country-level exhibition, the craft products are judged and given cash awards in various categories, like traditional, innovative, and utilitarian. The most outstanding presentations are selected for the awards as well for categories according to the type and form of raw material used. The Council also presented the First Presidential Awards to the craftspeople in 1992 where several medals, cash prizes, and tour opportunities to foreign countries were offered to deserving craftspeople. The National Crafts Council not only offers services to craftspeople but also offers a platform for social recognition.

The National Design Centre was set up by the government with the aim of improving the design and quality of crafts products so that the market value and sales potential of the craft products are enhanced. This has mainly been done with the inputs of both local and foreign design experts in the form of work-shops from where craft organisations learnt about this. They in turn dispersed the information to other artisans linked up with them.

The Industrial Development Board or IDB was set up in 1969 to encourage and assist the development of small and medium scale industries. The services it provides to these sectors are

Management and Technical Training
Production and Marketing Assistance to target groups
Development of entrepreneurial and technological skills
The Government has also introduced a scheme for training of apprentices with the help of master craftsmen under the scheme called as Master Craftsmen Training Scheme, which is presently run by the National Crafts Council. This has helped in the preservation and perpetuation of traditional craft skills. Master craftsmen are chosen for their special skills and are paid a monthly allowance to impart training in their own workshops to local youth who are also paid a small stipend during their period of training.

The Rural Industrial Estates for landless craftspeople have also been set up to offer better facilities and improve the living conditions of the craftspeople. One example of such an estate is at Nattarampotta, near Kandy; this is called Kalapura (Crafts City). These craftspeople carry on their traditional craft activities in a village environment with a lot of services and facilities provided by the government organisations for the over-all enhancement of their quality of life and craft.

The other important project that the government has sanctioned includes the setting up of crafts complexes; this project has been implemented with the help of the Provincial Councils of Kurunegala, Colombo, and Bentara. The main functions of this complex is Marketing Development and co-ordination of all craft activities and production under one roof. These complexes house stalls for the display of products as well as mini-workshops in handicrafts and cottage industries. These programmes are for the benefit of the trainee-artisans and are part of a larger attempt by the government to develop the rural industrial base to afford avenues of employment for rural youth.

The model of these Crafts Complexes is the Crafts Village at Battaramulla, known as the Jana Kala Kendraya (Centre for People's Arts and Crafts); this is modelled on a handicraft organisation based in Thailand. Jana Kala Kendraya is a sprawling village-style craft estate where there are several handicraft workshops run by competent instructors who impart training and conduct classes for selected youth from the neighbouring areas. The main aim of this institution is to provide employment opportunities to the underprivileged to enhance the appreciation of traditional crafts by urban society.

The Mahaweli Authority of Sri Lanka has involved itself in schemes to rehabilitate the craftspeople who had to settle into new homes after losing their ancestral residences when the Mahaweli river was diverted. These craftspeople have resumed their traditional occupations with the help of the Authority. They have benefited from the training and workshop experience in the improvement of their technology and skills arranged by the various institutes of the Ministries for several years. Exhibitions are also conducted by the Authority for the craftspeople so that their products find suitable markets. Prizes and awards are also given for selected crafts pieces. The transfer of craftspeople to the Mahaweli areas is expected to create more avenues of rural employment and also strengthen rural industrial development leading to economic growth.

All the craft-related activities listed above by the various government departments are all coordinated and executed under the direction of the Ministry of Rural Industrial Development, which provides an effective institutional framework for the development of handicrafts. Some major non-governmental efforts have also contributed to the growth of the craftspeople over the years. For example, the Lanka Mahila Samithiya has promoted the growth of rural womenfolk for over 30 years by encouraging the rapid progress and development of handicrafts and cottage industries. The organisation runs centres that conduct courses in various subjects -including handicrafts - for young girls in several districts.

Professional and international organisations have also contributed an array of wide-ranging services, expertise and material assistance in enhancing craft-skills, building entrepreneurial awareness to improve the strength and status of the craftspeople.

The research for the documentation on Sri Lanka was done by Shanthi Balasubramanian of Craft Revival Trust, who travelled to Sri Lanka and also sourced a large range of secondary material. Several individuals and organisations extended valuable support to Shanthi during the course of her research. She would thus like to express her gratitude to the following persons, whose assistance was critical to the completion of her research in Sri Lanka:

The National Crafts Council of Sri Lanka, Colombo.

Mr Buddhi Keerthisena, the Chairman of the National Crafts Council, who offered all available assistance, including keeping the office premises open on a national holiday, the sacred Buddhist Poya day. He also offered me transport for the entire trip.

Ms Indrani Abeysinghe, Deputy Director of the National Crafts Council, especially for her help during my travels to craft villages.

Ms S. Wickramasinha, Chairperson of the Sri Lanka Handicrafts Board, for my visit to Laksala at Colombo, where I was able to collect a lot of information on craft products and also procure valuable product-photographs.

Mr. Rodrigo, Executive Director, Purchases, at Lakasla, who gave me a lot of information on the origin of the products and on craft-practitioners.

Ms Vinitha Senaviratna, Director in the Department of Textile Industry, who gave me a valuable insights into the handloom sector in the country and shared information on the weavers in Sri Lanka.

Ms Chitra Dissanayake, Manager of the Kandyan Art Association, who offered fascinating insights into the history and origin of handicrafts in Sri Lanka.

Mr Saman Amarasinghe, Chairman of the National NGO Council, who shared information about the voluntary agency sector of the country.

Dr K. D. G. Wimalaratne, Director of the Department of National Archives (Colombo) for allowing me access to the archives.

Ms Jacintha Seneviratne, Head of Reader Services in the National Library of Sri Lanka (Colombo) for allowing me access to the library.

Shri Gopalakrishna Gandhi, the Indian High Commissioner at Sri Lanka, who gave me valuable advice and guidance.

Ms Reenat Sandhu, First Secretary, Information and Culture at the High Commissioner's office.

Ms Kala Peiris, Siyath Foundation (Colombo), for taking care of my safety and comfort and for being a source of support and encouragement.

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