Owing to the abundance of small and large varieties of shells all along the Sri Lankan coast, this craft is being practised all over the country, especially in recent times. The shells are used to make a variety of products, ranging from attractively designed elephants to human figures depicting ethnic costumes of various sizes. The level of skill displayed in the craft determines the price at which it is marketed.
HISTORY & TRADITION
Historical records indicate the presence of exquisite conch shell items in ancient Sri Lanka. A beautiful shell trumpet (hak-gediya) is documented as having been given – in the earlier part of the eighteenth century – by the king Narendra Simha to a temple at Uda Nuvara. This shell trumpet is said to be one of the finest examples of Sinhalese craftsmanship. The shell is engraved and the incisions are filled with red lac; it is mounted in brass and damascened with silver. The metal mounting ends as a complete Serapendiya with clasped legs and an extension of the tail which passes round the mouth of the shell and ends in a large scroll.
Another conch shell masterpiece of the ancient times is the trumpet known as jaya saka or ‘chank of victory’ – this is supposed to have been dedicated by the King Rajadhi Raja Simha, on account of the King’s victory over the Dutch at Gurubebile – to the Maha Devale at Kandy, where it can be found even today. The piece is mounted in gold and the mounting covers the mouth piece, apparently to ensure that none but royal lips ever be placed over it.
THE CONTEMPORARY PRODUCT RANGE
In the beach resorts of this island-country, there is a great demand for necklaces fashioned from shells of various types; coral is another material used to fashion products attractive to the tourists. When bracelets are made of conch shells then the pieces of shell are ornamented with incised lines and circles, filled with lac, and the whole bracelet is mounted in brass. Chanks, the large conch shells treasured by both the Sinhalese and the Tamil communities, continue to be considered as auspicious symbols and are kept in the houses and in places of worship, to be used on festive occasions. Engraving on conch shells is considered to be a highly specialised skill and the prices are fixed according to the rarity of the type of shell as well as the quality of workmanship.