Phenomenal work on handicrafts of Sri Lanka | Sunday Observer
Book review:

Phenomenal work on handicrafts of Sri Lanka

12 August, 2018

Somapala Arandara’s Sri Lankave Hastha Karmantha is the authentic Sinhala translation of Prof. Jayadeva Thilakasiri’s authoritative work Handicrafts of Sri Lanka. I feel that this work is second only to A.K. Coomaraswamy’s Medieval Sinhala Art.

Sri Lankave Hastha Karmantha is an informative and knowledgeable work useful to the general reader, novices and veterans in the field of handicrafts as well as would-be entrepreneurs.

The author examines and explores almost all aspects of the industry of handicrafts in Sri Lanka. Introducing the historical background, he goes on to give an idea of hill country arts and low country crafts. He elaborates the whole gamut of handicrafts of Sri Lanka under 10 subheads.

With regard to metal work, he describes how kings and queens and other members of the royal family showed off their majesty by wearing gold jewellery. Consequently, goldsmiths were held in high esteem and villages were given to them by the kings. In the highest echelons, royal privileges were granted to the four guilds of smiths who made jewellery for ornamental purposes, exclusively for kings, secondly making kings’ crowns, thirdly producing the regal sword of gold and fourthly creating the throne. The families in the hill country were associated with their production. This was well established in medieval feudal society.


Apart from royal paraphernalia, there is no occasion in a woman’s life from birth to death which is not touched by an ornament of jewellery. At birth, piercing of the earlobes, inaugural tasting of food, attaining puberty and marriage, jewellery was held high with pomp and priority. Jewellery studded with various kinds of gems added a ritualistic value. The author recounts how he inaugurated a Fine Arts Course of Handicrafts at the Peradeniya University in 1970. Later on, it was scrapped by the University Grants Commission. As the chairman of the National Handicrafts Council, he had a wider scope of the handicrafts in the island except the North and the East.

In that capacity, he organised various training centres promoting specialised employment for rural folk, providing facilities for purchasing material and opening up sales outlets for their products.

Prof. Thilakasiri had been instrumental in setting up a Small Industries Service Institute at Velona, Moratuwa in 1962. Its objective was to carry out field explorations, planning of factories, developing designs, production, organisation and supply of services for the improvement of small industries, training and advisory services for management.

In the ancient times, Seruwila was famous for mines of iron and copper ore. High quality swords were produced with a sharp tempering. Kiriwawula, Gadaladeniya and Pamunuwa (in the Kandy District) were villages where big brass lamps were made to meet the orders of various institutions. For a long time, moulded brassware had become a prosperous industry.

Most of the traditional craftsmen had produced items in small workshops of their own. A strong sense of piety prompted the brassfounders to manufacture large bells and images of the Buddha. Most of them turned out their innovative products in Kandy and Matale with superb skills.


Woodwork and wood carvings display the talented creations of architects. The facility of procuring suitable wood encouraged the development of arts and crafts in the building sector. Some masterpieces of the medieval age of woodwork stand to this day at Ambakke Devale, Kandy, Royal Court, travellers’ rest-inns (Ambalamas) at Panavitiya and Mangalagama. There the combined efforts of Sri Lankan and Indian traditional craftsmanship prevailed.

The production of masks and puppets for popular entertainment is a lucrative business. Images of the Buddha, Hindu gods, and angels are made from special types of wood. These handicrafts manufactured in the South have a great appeal for tourists.

The lacquer industry was yet another popular attraction during the Kandyan era. The glory of that era still exists in the Palace of the Sacred Tooth Relic and old fashioned mansions. Lacquer coated balustrades, chairs, jewellery boxes and dust covers of books are a pleasant sight. Nowadays, young craftsmen have revived the industry by making tall lamp stands and large tables decorated in resplendent lacquer work.

Dating from prehistoric times, pottery has played a dynamic role in our lives. Pottery and terracotta have been utility items in our households. Out of 17 pottery centres spread out over the island, the Molagoda centre in Kegalle is the most developed.

The next stage of pottery is the ceramic industry. The first ever ceramic factory was set up in Negombo in 1940 which was replaced by a modern factory with sophisticated technological devices and facilities.

The sculpture of clay images at exorcist activities like thovil is tied up with our culture. It is said that it helps cure diseases.

The reader’s interest catches fire on reading the industry based on animals, and carving of elephant tusks. They have both utility and artistic value. Products made of turtle shells and tortoise shells are of immense importance, particularly, the curved combs worn on the heads of respectable men. For these products, there was a demand and they gained international recognition in the days of yore. They were exported from the Galle harbour.

The fanciful industry of sea shells and porcupine quills flourished in the past. It has, however, faced a bleak future for want of raw material.

The Leather Corporation of Sri Lanka is engaged in tanning hides and exporting them and manufacturing various goods such as, shoes and bags.

Bamboo and rattan ware form an important industry maintained by the rural folk. However, they face the scarcity of raw materials to carry on their trade.

Dumbara mats

Rushware, coir work and leaf decorations form an important way of life for the rural people. The well-known Dumbara mats are woven with rush. Coir is used to turn out brooms, rugs, and brushes. On auspicious occasions, young coconut fronds are utilised for Gokkola decorations in fanciful patterns.

The handloom textile industry has been a thriving business, particularly, among women in villages. Thalagune and Dumbara are areas where handloom weaving is practised.

There are expert weavers of lace and embroidery in the distant villages and we find several centres where girls’ work are managed by Mothers and Sisters of Christian convents. The concept of ‘Barefoot’ established in 1958 was to show the primary bond of earth, people, fauna and flora.

Among other small industries we find the making of drums, soft toys with Japanese aid and inspiration, coconut shell products and musical instruments.

There is a separate chapter dealing with industries and industrialists engaged in the sale and export development. Therefore, the book serves as a guideline for would-be entrepreneurs and exporters.

Somapala Arandara has striven to bring out the essence of Prof. Jayadeva Thilakasiri’s phenomenal work Handicrafts of Sri Lanka. The translator’s diversified knowledge of technical terms has helped him to produce a readable book for anyone interested in the subject.


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