Staycations and souvenirs on your doorstep | Daily News

Staycations and souvenirs on your doorstep

Makers continue to make beautiful things in lockdown from their homes
Makers continue to make beautiful things in lockdown from their homes

Sri Lanka is one of the world’s most beautiful travel destinations. Explore your own backyard this year and enjoy a relaxing staycation instead of expensive quarantine and exhausting long haul travel. Plus being an island of artists you can actually carry out the philosophy of not only buying local, but also supporting Sri Lanka’s amazing handicraft makers that are the most authentic travel souvenirs of a location. After all the whole island celebrates the artistic wonders that in many cases have their traditions and skills rooted in ancient times. You can also feel good supporting local small businesses that have been so badly hit by the pandemic and financial down turn.

After all the islands master craftsman tell a thousands stories about the evolution of the islands artists, which are passed from one generation to the next. After all artisan creations can be found all over the island as centrepieces in peoples’ homes, bringing the vibrancy of natural colours to a villa, boutique bedrooms and, perhaps most importantly, as part of temple rituals. However, picking a piece is always a challenge, as everything handmade are masterpiece, made with love, that shines through the ancient techniques such as using lacquer work, which uses bark resin from Laksha insects, that is applied once the different wood-carved household objects.

These beautiful pieces can be fully appreciated in the moonlight, such as my coffee and tea container bought in Handy that sparkles, bringing to life the etched copper and brass Perehera scene of Kandy temple elephants processing through the streets with the sacred Temple of The Tooth Relic of Buddha. I learn, first hand, from the Laka artist, about the origins of this stunning handcrafted container. It’s a beautiful piece based on the style of the Royal almsgiving bowls of the ancient Kings’ palaces, which are still to this day made by hand, by the descendants of these humble village guild craftspeople, that have dedicated themselves to one particular art form, a bit like the old Guilds of England, in the past.

Sarath, who loves working with wood, uses a method called spool-work which is practiced by applying a stick of lacquer to the object fixed onto a spindle of a lathe machine, which is spun over several days, to make the shape of the object first before putting lacquer on it to bring out the golden or black colours. The lacquer liquid is made of shellac dissolved in alcohol, that dries to form a hard beautiful shiny protective coating for wood, metal, etc. The secret to Sarath’s beautiful product range that glows in the tropical sunlight, is that they are all made out of love one he wishes to see carry on with the next generation.

Laksha almsgiving bowls, so called owing to coating of lacquer that makes them shine, were originally made during the reign of Dutugamunu, a Sinhalese king, who reigned from 161 BC to 137 BC and beautified the city of Anuradhapura, the first Kingdom, by employing the islands’ greatest artists. These ancient bowls were used for offerings to the temple monks, and even in the darkness they have a special kind of glow. Lac resin, I discover, is made from small tree branches that have been infested with Laksha bug eggs, which, over a six month period, leave lumps of thick resin, sometimes the size of a coconut, which is scraped from the bark of the tree, melted and then strained until the lac, a soft pigment, is created. This is beaten to produce the desired shiny colour on the almsgiving bowl and then left to dry in the sun.

Sarath, as one of the descendants of the Kings creative pool of workers, feels strongly that these great traditions must be kept alive and protected for future generations, as they are part of the island’s living hand made treasures. When Sarath was a child, there were over a hundred families producing these beautiful products in Matale, where the Laksha beetle can be found, and now there are less than fifty families, with many more young people looking for other, seemingly more exciting and well paid careers in the cities, which causes further decline to this uniquely creative industry. Sarath learnt, from the age of fifteen, how to make jewellery boxes, alms bowls and other items from his father, who started to teach him in their home workshop. He explains, “This is an industry where the skills and knowledge is passed down from one generation to the next. My grandfather was also in this industry, and I learnt everything from him and my father over many years, including the finest details that make each piece even better than the next. I also followed government programs, which improved my range of opportunities to work with overseas visitors and have a much loved product people could buy, like a souvenir from their visit to the island to remind all of the greatness of our ancient kingdoms. Over the years of studying, day by day, he improved his skills and varied the range of products he produced, so they could be totally unique for the different clients he worked for.

He explains “I am today in the Laksha creative arts field due to my love of this fascinating livelihood. The tourism industry has greatly supported me and developed a deeper interest in the Laksha master craftsmanship worldwide, as pieces of great historic value, and we have also received assistance from the government to maintain what we do, and hope we will receive continuous assistance to teach this art form to future generations as once lost it will never return.”

Sarath sits on the ground to demonstrate how the resulting friction caused by the revolving objects melts the Laksha, making it seep into the grain of the wood, which makes this beautiful glossy coating on the object. Ornaments, walking sticks, bowls, book-ends, letter-openers, handles of dresser draws , alms bowls etc are just some of the decorated Lacquer work he does from his shaded workshop in Matale. Always happy to meet people and tell them his life story, Sarath Mahinda Kumara can be found in Palle Hapuwida, 22, Rathwatta, B Janapadaya, Leli Ambe Matale. He is just one of thousands of different artists dotted around the island working in every type of material from copper to battered gold on paintings in the Galle Fort Gallery. So think local this year and discover not only the many magical places on your doorstep, but also the wealth of talent that makes Sri Lanka such a unique artistic hub.


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