Women behing he weave
Although the income is threadbare, families struggle to keep
alive the traditional craft of beeralu weaving reports Kumudini Hettiarachchi
It is now a way of life in the south rather than
just a job, judging by the number of 'shops' dotting the Galle Road between
Galle and Weligama. The only controversy is when and how the threads of
this delicate craft came to be interwoven with the lives of the southern
Records indicate that intricate and time-consuming beeralu weaving came
with the Portuguese to these Maritime areas of then Ceylon. But the humble
folk engaging in this traditional work think otherwise.
"Did you see the lace rock?" asks M.M. Gilbert and then goes on to relate
the legend behind beeralu. Even though it is recorded that the Portuguese
introduced beeralu to Sri Lanka after 1505, the story goes that in ancient
times a Yaakshaniya used to sit on a rocky, island, full of snakes, just
off the coast of Weligama, weaving beeralu. "A rock with another smaller
one precariously balancing on it is believed to be the beeralu kotte(pillow)
that she used," says Gilbert. With stories of Kuveni sitting at a spinning
wheel when first sighted by Prince Vijaya, one cannot scoff at these legends
about the beginnings of beeralu.
Gilbert who has recently retired from his job at the CTB should know
the legends and myths because he has a special interest in this craft.
For, his wife had made a fine art of beeralu and even trained more than
a thousand girls from fishing families in the area so that they could earn
But his wife is no more. L.H. Laini or Maddu Akka as she was known in
the area had died suddenly of a heart attack. Guilbert does not want the
family business to go to rack and ruin. So he has mobilised the help of
his sister-in-law and her two daughters to carry on the craft.
Maddu had played with the beeralu kotte when she was a little girl because
her grandmother was engaged in this craft. "My wife was the driving force
behind the family business which has been handed down from generation to
generation. She was famous and busloads of tourists used to come and watch
her at the beeralu kotte. I'm continuing it in her memory," sighs Gilbert
looking at the many photographs of her hung on the wall of their home on
Galle Road in Weligama.
In the front garden of Gilbert's home is the small stall where Maddu
engaged in her work. Now six girls are seated at beeralu kottes, overseen
by Gilbert's sister-in-law Dulcie Ratnaweera. Explaining this complicated
craft, Dulcie says the patterns are drawn on strips of paper and tiny holes
indicating the pattern pricked by a needle. The paper strips with the 'punctured
pattern' is fixed on to the kotte with pins. Pairs of beeralu are then
used to weave the pattern. Dulcie's two daughters, one of whom draws the
patterns for the designs, started off as young as 12 to sit at the beeralu
The girls employed by Gilbert work between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. after an
initial training of six months. E.J.P. Kamani (24) has been at her kotte
for five years and her fingers move briskly, with the beeralu making a
clicking sound as she concentrates on the pattern.
Middle-aged Ranjanie from Humbalgama is the sole breadwinner for her
two children. Her husband has taken another woman so she weaves beeralu
to feed her family. "There's nothing else you can do in this area. The
men go out to fish. The womenfolk have to do some odd job," she says. But
trade is slow these days.
"Sri Lankans don't use beeralu that much because it is very delicate
and fragile. It is not for everyday use. We sell our products mainly to
foreigners. The season should have started, but the airport bombing has
affected us badly," laments Gilbert pulling off a thick white sheet covering
a bulge on his large dinner table. We see a heap of unsold beeralu.
His lament is echoed by Yasawathie Manawadu, 52, in Magalla, who has
been in this traditional business for 15 years. No longer is it lucrative.
"The tourists don't come. Those days I earned around Rs. 10,000 to 15,000
a month during the season. Not any more."
Her woes are many. She became a widow having to feed four children when
her husband, a CTB employee, was electrocuted one Vesak when he touched
a wire accidentally. "I don't get a pension. All my children have passed
their ALs but have no jobs. We live on the money sent by my youngest son
who is working as a mechanic in Saudi Arabia."
She is worried now that her earnings from beeralu are petering out.
She remembers her grandmother wearing the special kaba kuruththuwa hetti
with touches of the beeralu rende, sitting at the beeralu kotte for hours
on end. Her mother too did the same. Those days there was no sales outlet
like now at their home on the Galle Road. Her mother and even her grandmother
took the beeralu laces to the Galle Fort and haggled with foreigners over
the price, on the ramparts.
"Magallema urama wechchi deyak" (It is a legacy from the area), she
says, wondering whether she will have to give up the family tradition of
beeralu and find another source of income.