HISTORY & TRADITION
Sri Lanka has always been a predominantly Buddhist nation, and among the practices associated with religion and religious leaders, is that of kathina robes worn by Buddhist priests. A particularly sacred and meritorious act was the presentation to the sangha or the order of the Buddhist priests a set of kathina robes spun, woven, and made up in a single day on the occasion of the close of vas or the Buddhist Lent. Kings and other members of royalty also performed this ceremony, 'employing hundreds of thousands of persons in jobs like picking cotton, weighing it, converting it into balls, spinning, weaving, washing, cutting into pieces, stitching, dyeing (from the treatise Rupavaliya, trans., p.48).
It has been recorded that King Parakrama Bahu II offered no less than 80 such robes to the priesthood, in memory of the 80 chief disciples of the Buddha. 'The learned king gathered together the inhabitants of Lanka - a great multitude of men and women - and set them all to work to prepare the cotton and other essentials and speedily finished the work of the robes. And he caused the eighty kathina robes to be given in the course of a single day.' (From the treatise Mahavamsa, Ch. LXXXV.) The king continued this practice on many other occasions. He was not alone in this - several other members in society obtained merit in the same way. On many such occasions, the ladies of the household lent a hand in the spinning of the yarn; the women were, however, not involved in weaving.
The cloth makers have been famed for making elaborate canopies to cover relic caskets and to provide shade for royalty during processions. Some of them were about 45 feet x 20 feet in size. All these are being preserved in the Buddhist temples, which have become repositories of documents and gifts of valuable collections of textiles over time.
THE BERAVAYO & THE SALAGAMAYO
Traditionally, weavers in Sri Lanka have been divided into two groups: the beravayo, indigenous weavers who were also musicians and astrologers; and the salagamayo who migrated from the south of India and were famed for their fine gold-woven cloths. It is narrated that during the rule of Vijaya Bahu III of Dambedeniya, an emissary sent to south India by him brought back eight master weavers; these eight weavers laid the foundation for the salagamayo in Sri Lanka. Owing to their falling into disfavour with Kandyan kings at a later date, the salagamayo were compelled to move from the interiors of the country and settle down along the south-western coast.
While the beravayo weavers have, from time immemorial, made plain hand-spun cottons characteristic of the Kandyan region, remaining unaffected by changes in fashion or the influence of Indian weavers, the salagamayo wove fabrics of a better quality and were engaged mainly in clothing royalty and others of high rank with their fine gold-woven material. Some form of social distinction thus evolved, wherein the salagamayo were considered to be superior to the indigenous weavers engaged in creating garments for the community at large.
Weaving was never the primary profession of indigenous weavers, who were chiefly musicians who played according to feudal customs on state occasions and during the Kandyan Pageant in honour of the Temple of the Tooth Relic or Perahera. They engaged themselves in weaving only in their leisure time to meet personal needs. They bartered some of their woven creations to obtain other items; their most elaborate woven creations were offered to temples.
RAW MATERIALS, PROCESS & TECHNIQUES
Cotton is mainly grown in the Hen or Chenas or the dry fields of the Kandyan region. The yarn is of two types - the large long-lasting variety and the dwarf annual variety called bala kapu. Cotton from the Kapok tree is used unbleached in the textile-production process. The cotton so picked is not spun in the field; it is taken home and dried and cleaned in large quantities. It is freed from the seeds by passing it through the rollers of the kapu kapana yantraya, a small machine that resembles a mangle. It is then carded by hipping with a pulun talanava or bow and then lightly rolled into tufts ready for spinning.
Spinning is done mainly by women, while weaving is done by both men and women. A tuft of cotton is held in the left hand and thread is spun from it on to a long weighted spindle or idda. The ends rest on a pod or coconut shell on the ground. This spindle is turned by the motion of the right hand against the thigh or by the fingers. The thread winds itself round the big end. A group of women gather around for the spinning process and it is done with a lot of joy and friendly spirit amidst songs sung by all of them.
The thread is then unwound on to a conical reel (hulu deva) made of split bamboo, after which it is wound on to a madava or a larger reel made of bamboo and string. Then it is wound onto a bobbin or harassala, ready to be laid onto the shuttles. The winding onto the bobbins is accomplished with the aid of a harassal ambarana yantraya, a winding machine consisting of a wheel with a string connecting it to a small rod that carries the bobbin; when the wheel is turned, the bobbin revolves rapidly and the reel is discharged onto it.
The thread that is required for the warp is wound off the bamboo and string reel directly to form a skein. This skein is laid on a temporary frame of sticks in a process known as dig-gahanava; this gives the required length of the warp. The weaver walks up and down along this framework disposing of the thread upon it with the help of a little forked stick or padu kule. When this process is completed the skeins are lifted off and rods are passed through the ends; this is laid horizontally a couple of feet above the ground and is kept on the stretch by strings attaching the rods to the posts at each end. Strung bows or het-li are passed through the warp to prevent tangling and to preserve the lease or angle on which it lies.
The warp is accurately sized on both sides with a starchy decoction in a process described as nal velanava, after which the threads are brushed, carefully separated, and arranged through the palal lanava process. The number of threads depends on the width of the cloth required. Ordinarily about 120 threads are taken as a span; when it is finally dry the warp is lifted up and readjusted on the loom itself. The cloth-beam of the loom has a groove into which the rod carrying the warp is laid which is held tightly when a turn is given to the beam. For the process of threading through the heddles and reed, the threads are broken one by one and rejoined after the process is completed. The length of the warp is usually made sufficient for two cloths in order to prevent this process from being repeated too often.
In Sri Lanka, the looms are known as aluva. The process of weaving is quite similar to that prevalent in India. It is set up in an open shed or al-ge on a platform or al-pila, attached to the outer verandah or porch or pila of the weaver's house; one of the rooms in the house is used as a storage room for materials, tools, and accessories.
For weaving plain cloth the shuttle or nadava is thrown to and fro while alternate threads of the warp or nul-heda are separated by the heddles or alu-vela (aluva); these are moved by pedals or pa-meduma made of coconut-shell (pol-katuva): these hang down into a space or al-vala beneath the loom in which the weaver's feet move up and down.
The heddles are attached to alu-kampaha, narrow pieces of wood that resemble the beam of a scale and are suspended by the middle to the beam above. In Sinhalese looms, two heddles are commonly used to separate the alternate warp threads. The weft is pressed home by a sleay or reed-frame, which is suspended from a beam above just like the heddles. The sleay (also rodu lella) has three parts: the poruvata or upper piece held by the weaver; the yattinan gal lella or lower piece below the web; and the alu-karala or teeth which are thin slips of cane through which warp threads are passed. Several pieces of equipment, like the pit-looms, shuttles, pirns, and heddles, are often made by the weavers.
When geometrical patterns are woven, the necessary warp threads are picked up with a narrow lathe or a weaver's sword (sema lella). A wider lathe is then inserted and turned up sideways to form a 'shed' for the passage of the shuttle. Before the sword is pulled out again, slips of cane are passed between the separated warp threads behind the heddles. Here they accumulate and preserve the pattern to aid in the weaving-process.
As the work progresses, it is wound by quarter turns on a square cloth-beam or on-kanda that is next to the weaver. The tension of the warp is regulated by a cod, which passes round a post (man-kanuva) at the remote end of it and then to the weaver's right hand near which it is fastened. This rope then passes through a bird-shaped block or 'kurulla' between the post and the web. This wooden bird bobs up and down as the work goes on. There is no thread-beam, but only a rod on which the warp threads are strung so that the warp is stretched out at full length while the work goes on. The web is kept tightly stretched at the near end by an arrangement of two crossed canes or katumal-heda of which the two ends next to the weaver are connected by a tight thread and the other two have pin-points which pass into the web and keep it stretched. Moveable thread-loops regulate the tension. The warp is supported at a point not far behind the heddles by a horizontal bar called alkanuve lella.
A freshly woven piece of loom-woven cloth is called alvala redda. The colours of the cloth vary, depending on the colour of the yarn, which is usually dyed red, blue, or black using traditional mineral and vegetable dyes.
MOTIFS AND DESIGNS
The designs used in traditional weaving were distinctive, and hence informative, sociologically and culturally. During the Kandyan period, the costumes and dresses of officials were critical in identifying them in service.
Along with geometrical patterns, a range of designs and motifs were woven into the cloth. Some of the common designs at Talagune included the mal petta, heen mal petta, maha mal petta, ata peti mala, para mala, deti mala, katuru mala, pehena mal petta, hali dangaya, hin negi dangaya, depota lanuwa, valalu lanuwa, diyarella, bo kola, iri kondu, pannan kura, hin ratava, maha ratava, gal-piyuma, domba mala, bota pata (two triangles, situated apex to apex), and the atapota lanuwa. Irregular patterns like birds, cobras, bo-leaves or large flowers were usually inserted by hand-work (ate veda) or in a tapestry format. The design pattern is, thus, often a combination of weaving and tapestry-work.
Bo leaf: The leaf of the Ficus Religiosa - held sacred by all the Buddhists - is prolifically used in all forms of Sinhalese arts and crafts as a motif. Variations of this motif are seen as tapestry designs in textiles.
Katuru mala: Also known as katiri mala, this derives its name from crossing petals in a design that resembles a pair of scissors. The flower motif does not resemble any natural flower; it appears to be the creation of the craftsperson. This motif is found mainly in vaka deka (double curved form) and its variations.
Lanuwa: This is a geometrical design, with two forms: the eka-pota lanuwa (one-ply plait design) and the depota lanuwa (chequered work or grass matting design), also known as thanthirikaya. The atatpota lanuwa has eight strands in its design and is found in Sinhalese weaving, though it is not very common.
Para mala: This is an eight-petalled floral design, which is found frequently in the textiles woven at Talagune and is categorised as a geometrical design.
Mal petta: This is a geometrical motif whose origin is not known. The variations of this motif are heen mal petta, maha mal petta, and thun pehena mal petta, which are widely found in textiles. This motif does not resemble any known flower in its appearance.
Ata peti mala: This is a flower motif with eight petals; it does not resemble any naturally occurring flower. It is created as a geometrical design, widely found in woven Kandyan textiles.
Lanugetaya: This is a plait motif, several variations of which are found in weaving. Common variations are the one ply plait and chequer work. Variations of this motif include the lanu dangaya, heen dangaya lanuwa, and valalu lanuwa.
Bota pata: This is a geometrical motif in which two triangles are situated apex to apex.
Gal piyuma: This is a geometrical motif, which consists of rectangles placed between two parallel lines, and is used chiefly in border designs.
Diyarella: This is a design representation of a series of waves rising and falling in a gentle breeze. Several variations, with different degrees of elaboration, are found. Ananda Coomaraswamy calls it as the chevron or the zig-zag pattern and gives several examples of its angular forms. This design is very widely found in textile-weaving.
Adara kondu: This is the name given to the motif where straight lines are found in the product; when this motif is found as part of textiles it is known as iri kondu.
Bhayankaraya: This is a motif found in a lot of textiles; its origin and meaning are not known widely.
THE PRODUCT RANGE
Sri Lankan clothing comprises several items that are not stitched garments but instead consist of whole pieces of cloth woven on the loom. This entails the need to make cloths of different shapes and sizes. The range of woven items includes cloth pieces that serve as garments for men (tuppoti) and women (pada, hela); aprons or bathing drawers for men (diya kacci), kerchiefs or shawls (lensu, ura mala), belts or pati; mats and quilts; sheets or etirili; carpets or paramadana, covers for chatties or floor spreads, pillow cases or kotta ura; and napkins or towels (indul kada). Other than these, common woven products include plain white, blue (kalu kangan), or red material that can be cut up for robes, jackets, caps, pillow-cases and betel leaf/nut bags. A variety of narrow braids are also made on the narrow looms, which are measured in width by the span or lakaya, and length by the carpenter's cubit or vadu riyana. Napkins were both plain and coarse, usually with embroidery on them, while handkerchieves were usually covered with pattern-work and were worn as turbans by men or they were used as a ceremonial covering for offerings.
Somana: A particular kind of garment worn by men, somanas, are of several types, with different ones worn on different occasions. The social-status of the wearer was indicated by the type and design of the somana. The raja somana was worn by the king. Other kinds of somanas included the mudali somana and the vidane somana.
Tuppotiya: A tuppotiya consists of a white cloth eight or nine cubits long, which comprises two pieces joined in the middle. Single widths were called padaya, and measured approximately six or seven cubits in length and four to six spans in width: these varied according to the caste of the owner. People from lower castes were allowed to wear only narrow cloths.
Ohoriya: This was the skirt and bodice set, worn by women belonging to the higher castes. Women of lower castes wore two short cloths, one of which was wrapped around the loins, while the other was thrown over the shoulder.
Etirilla: The etirilla is the equivalent of the Indian dhurrie, only much thinner. It is almost entirely made up of cloth covered with pattern work, with only a few pieces that have plain centres and worked borders. The usual size is about 6 feet x 3.5 feet or less, though some pieces can be as large as 11 feet x 5 feet.
Diya kacci: This was the name given to undergarments made in one piece with a large apron in the front, a narrower flap with less ornamentation behind it, and a woven tape to tie around the waist. These also served as bathing and running costumes and are said to have originated from Kandy. Some of these garments were plain while others were very elaborately ornamented. These garments were made from special looms with double heddles or alu-vel. The looms were known as ata-vel_aluva. Special small looms were also used to make braids. The belt or pattiya of a diya kacci was sometimes made in one piece with the rest. Diya kacci were about five to six feet in length and the apron, on average, was about 1.5 X 2 feet.
Gahoni: This was the name given to bell-shaped or skirt-shaped pieces of cloth used to cover baskets or pots of food or other offerings carried on a yoke for the king or for a temple. The appearance was that of a three-flounced skirt with each flounce having a pattern border. The 'skirt' was made up of a single, straight piece of cloth joined up with one seam and left open at both ends. One end was turned over and gathered in upon a string, thus forming the waist and two of the flounces; the third flounce was a separate piece of cloth sewn on between the two others. Belts worn over the dress were often Indian in origin.
Ura Malaya: These are shawls, draped around the shoulder like in India.
Welitara bedspreads: These were made of coarse yarn from Welitara and were attractively done up with traditional designs of iddamala and depota lanuva, indicative of the regional identity/ies.
A wide range of products that includes curtains, furnishing materials, dress fabrics, and linens, are being woven, in tune with international standards. The textile sector has become attuned to seasonal changes in styles, designs, and modes of dress. Along with the unstitched or nominally stitched pieces of clothing that are common, ready-to-wear clothes, soft furniture, bags, and rag toys are also being made.
In addition to local handloom products, which continue to be part of national and international handicraft and textile exhibitions, and of the weaving tradition, innovations in technology and in products have been introduced to combat economic constraints. International collaboration in the form of new designs and technology is being used to make yarn of superior quality. Under the guidance of some missions, a weaving centre in Weliweriya is making furnishing fabric and twill; a second training centre at Nayakakanda has produced a team of highly trained skilled weavers. Hand-woven cloth of good quality is also produced at both these centres.