Sri Lanka’s rich mineral deposits, harking back, according to archaeological authorities, to the proto-historical period has been instrumental in the country having an established tradition of metal-work. Seruvilla, near Trincomalee on the eastern coast of Sri Lanka, was known for an abundance of iron and copper deposits. Blacksmiths or acari and the foundry workers or lokuru traditionally comprise the metal-work artisans who made products of everyday use, including utensils, images, and tools.
HISTORY & TRADITION
The practices of iron-smelting and steel-tempering have been recorded as being practised in ancient times in certain villages near Balangoda, along with the districts in the south, and at Kandy which is in the central region of the country. The quantity of the material processed was not very large; rather it was the quality of the product that was considered exceptional. The production of steel in Sri Lanka had reached such a high standard that it is believed to have been exported to Damascus for making swords.
Archaeological findings in Polonnaruwa, in the east-central region, have documented the use of metal products in the twelfth century. Steel and copper surgical instruments – including scissors, scalpels, pincers, and needles – are some of the artefacts found at the site. References to the occupational structure of society in the Kandyan period in the historical chronicle Mahavamsa, allude to metal-work in the period and also provide information about the degree to which the making of metal tools and artefacts, especially bronze-casting techniques, had developed. Allusions to the remarkable degree of development have been substantiated by the discovery of several Buddhist and Hindu bronze images belonging to various historical periods in Sri Lanka. In a later period, Sri Lankan metal-workers are believed to have been influenced by Indian practices and techniques and to have assimilated these in their methods of brass-casting and mixed-metal work.
In the Anuradhapura area, available evidence points to the existence of old furnaces and crucibles used for metal-casting. It is surmised that these were used in the making of the utensils, nails, hinges, and locks apparently used for the construction work of the Abhayagiriya Vihara there. Along with being skilled at creating tools and equipment of good quality, the craftspersons also supplied kings with weapons; the famous Kotmale ironsmiths are supposed to have fulfilled the requirements of Dutugemunu and his warriors. The Satmahal Lohapasadaya or seven-storied bronze palace is further proof of the advancement of metal technology in construction work.
Brass-carving developed further after the Second World War, spurred by the demand for brass souvenirs and gifts from tourists visiting Sri Lanka. Brass trays, wall-plaques, and ornamental animals and bowls were common souvenirs.
AN OVERVIEW OF THE METALS
Metal-work in brass (the prolifically used alloy of copper and zinc) falls into two groups – the wrought and the cast. Casting is done usually by the lokuru or foundry worker, who belongs to a lower strata of craftspersons, while the work of hammering and chasing is done by metal artisans.
A wide range of items involve brass-work: from locks, hinges, and key-plates, to trays, lanterns, areca nut slicers, lime-boxes in various shapes and patterns, intricately carved in copper and silver, snuff-boxes, tobacco-boxes (heppu) with engraved traditional designs, small artistically crafted betel-pounders, and mountings of all kinds including those used in jewellery products. Brass was used for damascene or inlay work on iron. Brass lamps made by metal-workers through various historical periods highlight the continuing technical expertise of a brass craftsperson.
Two brass lamps discovered at Dadigama have hydrostatically-controlled oil reservoirs! Most common, however, were brass-ware (and copper-ware) vessels, widely used for cooking and serving.
The products have traditionally been linked with the needs of Buddhist and Hindu temples as well as those of Christian churches. Spires for shrines as well as bells, some massive in proportion, were made for places of worship. Some experts assert that metal-work artisans were initially focused in the southern part of the country, from where they spread to other locations, thus diffusing metal-work traditions and skills. The metal-casting and metal-designing requirements of many places of Buddhist worship were instrumental in the choice of location.
Kandyan brassware made at the Kandyan Art Association is known to be better in quality than Indian brass items made for tourists. Kandy, therefore, is very well known for cast or wrought brassware ornamented with fine carving, silver or copper inlays and damascene, including boxes, trays, bowls, spittoons, plaques, lamp-shades, lamp-stands, candle-stands, ash-trays, hinges, mountings, vases, statuettes, figurines and oil-lamps.
Bronze is less commonly used than brass for casting. Some objects like elephant bells, cymbals, moulds for beating up brass, and tools for working gold or silver using the repousse technique are made of bronze.
Copper is more sparingly used than brass. Lime boxes or killota are the few items more often made in copper than in any other metal. The forms are unusual as are the designs. Examples are products done in copper filigree set with cabochon glass over foil. Inlay of silver wire on copper has a clear and good effect.
This is an alloy of five metals, also known as pas-lo; the metals are gold, silver, copper, lead, and iron. Bronze or bell-metal is sometimes used instead of lead.
THE RANGE OF CRAFT PRODUCTS
1. IMPLEMENTS: AGRICULTURAL & OTHERS
Implements comprised a significant part of the product range. The ordinary iron-work artisans made agricultural implements – mud-picks or mamoties or udalu, bill-hooks or keti, and sickles or de-keti. Ornate sickles with serrated edges, with designs punched on them, and/or with damascening on the surface, further embellished with ivory handle(s) have been found. Tools for carpenters and ivory workers were also made.
2. KNIVES, ARECA-NUT SLICERS, BETEL POUNDERS
Knives: Knives or pihiya are extremely common, especially in the Kandy region. The simplest ones are of plain steel, with wooden or horn handles, and are carried by villagers while making their way through jungle areas. Some elaborately made ornamental knives, with gold or silver inlay and overlay work, were supposedly worn by the chiefs as part of their costume. This crafting was done by the specialised artisans who were given the knives by the blacksmiths; the exquisite workmanship was complemented by superbly crafted mounting and sheaths. Folding knives were rarely seen.
3. PALANQUIN FITTINGS
Palanquin fittings, extremely elaborate, were made of damascened iron. Examples of this work can be seen at the Kandy Maha Devale or Main Temple at Kandy and the Vishnu Devale or Vishnu Temple at Hanguranketa. The palanquin-rests were made of plain iron, known as konteru; these were mounted or lacquered.
4. WRITING STYLUSES
Writing styluses were usually made of steel, and had a steel point and a cutting edge. The stylus was required to be heavy, long, and well-balanced to form rounded letters.
5. LOCKS, KEYS, BOLTS, HINGES & HANDLES
6. LIME BOXES
The killotaya or lime boxes were mainly made of copper or brass, rarely of iron or steel. The designs on several varieties of brass boxes display European influence. Kandy is well known for the flat oval Dutch tobacco boxes or heppu made of brass; betel-boxes have the same form, but are engraved with pure designs. The handles of small boxes like heppu were generally made of brass, and occasionally of silver.
7. VESSELS & UTENSILS
or the classic betel tray has a basin shape, different from regular ones with a flat surface.
To this day large elaborately-made brass trays are crafted at the kacceri or workshop of mastercraftsmen at the Kandy Art Association, an organisation begun to help the Kandyan artisans in the nineteenth century. In the earlier times these trays were used for royal offerings of flowers or food at the temples, as gifts or presentation to the kings or chieftains and also for handing around betel leaves at functions such as weddings. The trays made to this day are an ode to the richness of the traditional Sinhalese designs; however, occasionally, Japanese motifs like a large peacock with tail outspread are also sometimes used. Sri Lanka gained Independence from British rule in 1948 and after that many Japanese craft consultants and instructors came to Sri Lanka to give training in a wide variety of crafts. It was found there were a lot of similarities in the handicraft industries in the two countries; the association with Japan has continued ever since with respect to handicraft development with a lot of Japanese contributions and influences in Sri Lankan craft and artisans from Sri Lanka also went over to Japan for training in various craft-skills.
Lamps are made of brass and are rarely of bronze. The lamps are either the standing variety or the hanging type. The hanging lamps are commonly in the shapes of birds, barrel, and elephants. The mouth of the lamp is the head or serependiya of the bird or animal. The lamps that are made in cast brass are tall lamps, lamps with branches (branching lamps) and specially designed lamps made for institutions. The installation of a big brass lamp is considered auspicious as well as decorative.
Cressets or at-pandam are made of bronze and they are in the form of hafted cups attached to a lacquered wooden handle. The Dalada Maligava or the Temple of the Tooth Relic of Buddha at Kandy has a cresset of silver with an ivory handle. Bronze cressets have motifs like the lotus; the cressets are used at night to burn oily tow and resin and the bowl is held low to light the ground-level lamps. The other kind of cressets are double or triple shaped with long handles used to carry erect in processions.
Sannas or charters are generally engraved on copper and less often on silver or gold. Copper sannas are found with temple representatives and lay grantees of lands or villages.
MOTIFS & DESIGNS
1. BIRD & ANIMAL FORMS
2. LEAF & FLOWER MOTIFS
Nari Lata Vela: An exquisitely beautiful mythical creeper, this form is widely referred in the Buddhist Sinhalese literature. The motif consists of a climbing vine, and the flower has the form of a female figure. It is widely used in metalware.
3. HUMAN/COMBINATION FORMS
4. GEOMETRICAL MOTIFS
5. RELIGIOUS MOTIFS
Raw materials for all the metal-based crafts are purchased in the open market. Brass sheets are generally imported from India. Brass scrap for the cast work is obtained from Panchikawatta in Colombo and from the railway yard. Apex bodies like the National Crafts Council of Sri Lanka supply the brass to the artisans at cost prices. A lot of the metal is bought from the local markets in whichever part of the country the craft is found.
PROCESSES, TOOLS, & METHODS
As far as the blacksmith is concerned he mainly works with iron; his workplace has a wattle and a daub wall between the hearth and the bellows. This is of different types, one of which is the English type, which has two bullock hide-bags with a bamboo nozzle, and, at the other end, there is a wide slit with wooden lips. Air is admitted through these lips, which are then closed, and the bellows are compressed. The blower sits between the two bellows and works each in turn so that a continuous blast is kept up.
The tools of the blacksmith consists of hammers, tongs and pincers, files, punches, and also the gal-torapanaya, which is an instrument for boring holes. Blacksmiths from Kandy almost always colour their ironware (wrought type); the effect is to darken the surface and make it look like European ‘blued’ work. This process is adapted to show up the damascened work well against the dark surface and also to check rusting. The mixture with which the iron is coloured is made of alum and copper, along with two parts of the leaves of embul-embiliya (Oxalis Corniculata, L.) which are ground together and allowed to stand for three days. This is then mixed with the juice of one lime. The iron is coloured and is then carefully placed in the fire till the right colour is obtained. This process is known as yakada pata ganava or yakada kalu karanava (to colour or blacken iron).
Damascening is the art of decorating by laying one metal on another, using deep encrusting or superficial inlaying.
PRACTITIONERS & LOCATIONS
In Kandy district, brass casting has been practised over the ages and has grown into a flourishing craft. Many of the traditional craftsmen have descended from the families of the ancient royal mastercraftsmen and they practise their craft in mini-workshops. Some believe that skilled artisans from the southern regions of the country settled in this region, which they found to be suitable for their vocation. The presence of many places of Buddhist worship in this region also helped in the growth of the craft to fulfil the various needs of these religious centres. Nattarampota in the Kandy region has the Housing Estate for Craftsmen which is popularly known as Kkala Puraya or Craft City; here the descendants of traditional craftsmen of the past have set up their homes in the colony and make use of the facilities provided for the development of a multitude of skills.
Angulmaduwa – a region located between Hambantota and Matara in the southernmost tip of the island – is believed to be the original home of these metal artisans; till this day practising craftsmen of repute have preserved the skills of casting among the few surviving families. The government has recognised the value of this and has established a training centre for the young in brass craft at this place through the Department of Small Industries.
The whole process of casting must have started for making the figures of Buddha and the other gods; the traditional methods continue to this day and the artisans use the same skills passed down over generations to serve the contemporary needs. The craft of bell-making is limited to a group of traditional craftsmen from Kandy and Moratuwa and they provided bells of any size or proportion to the temples and churches. They are mainly cast in bronze and the real test of their quality is the special tone which each can be made to produce. Temple railings in brass lathed and polished are made for the temples by the craftsmen.
CONTEMPORARY MARKETS, PRODUCTS & INNOVATIONS
1. PRODUCTS & MARKETS
Sri Lankan craftsmen have shown a special ability for carving using all kinds of materials and their skills are evident in the making of jewellery; these skills have been successfully applied in brass carving, mixed metal (brass, copper and silver or BCS) carving in inlay, outlay, damascening, and engraving.
In contemporary metalware, interesting combinations, like bottle openers in the form of the figure of dance masks, paper weights in the form of a tortoise or shoes, ash-trays in the form of hooded cobras, letter openers in the form of traditional swords, and book-marks in the form of the human hand are being made, most often in brass and sometimes in silver.
Metalware of questionable quality has started proliferating in the Sri Lankan urban markets to cater to all the classes; however for the discerning there are government-run and private outlets where the genuine artisans are able to market their ware. Artisans also sell their products directly to the customers wherein the customer is able to get all the details about the product being purchased. Reputed and experienced brass craftsmen sell their products through the government-run outlets and others sell wholesale to agents who sell them at festivals and fairs all over the country. These agents are highly experienced and they are involved in the long-standing tradition of collection and distribution of handicraft products. This has led to the movement of craft practices from one area to another and has also helped in the growth of solidarity and feelings of brotherhood among the craftsmen community.
Artisans are also trying out new styles in metalware based on old techniques to bring out the product’s intrinsic value. New techniques like repousse work on copper sheets are being experimented with. Repousse or raised in relief by hammering from behind is an ancient art form practised in several Asian countries. The innovation is the use of this technique on previously untested metals like copper to produce reproductions of modern paintings; the details of the paintings are brought out by denting the copper sheets. As brassware tends to tarnish, the methods of oxidising or lacquering the products seems to have improved the quality and finish. Oxidised brassware is highly priced.
Whether made by using traditional motifs or the use of modern western designs, the degree of precision and skill involved in brass work in Sri Lanka is comparable to the best in the world. The technique of inlaying silver and copper on brass is a special feature; oxidised brass gives a rosy or smoky sheen which never fades. Articles made of copper and brass which are plated with silver or gold or anodised to prevent tarnishing, eliminate the need for regular polishing.