Mirror Magazine

07th, September 1997

Silver Sensations

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti

Creating jewellery is an intricate craft requiring extreme skill and patience. It is a trade that has been practised for several centuries in Sri Lanka. Our kings and particularly the queens reportedly wore exotic and exquisite jewellery. In fact, jewellery making was such a recognized craft when the kings introduced the division of labour, they considered the jewellery craftsmen{gold smiths} as a distinct and skilled caste.

Jewellery making has from time to time borne the influence of the sweeping socio- cultural changes. People first wore little ornaments made with clay and wood, later graduating to metal jewellery. Much later, the craftsmen concentrated on making sophisticated jewellery with silver and gold, as the creations had more finesse.

Traditional Sri Lankan jewellery was made of silver. The reason for this was the natural look silver represented as against the somewhat showy allure of gold. As times changed ushering in new trends, the heavy chunky stuff were replaced by the more intricate and simple designs.

Despite the changing tides, the appeal of traditional jewellery has not dulled. Old lotus and leafy designs, barrel bangles and the drop earrings bearing heavy South Indian influence are once again in vogue.

Of all the types of jewellery available in Sri Lanka, there is a bigger market for authentic traditional Kandyan jewellery. For foreigners, these pieces of jewellery are actually collector's items. For the locals, it is mostly to recapture the glory of the past that these creations represented.

The Kandyan Art Association, situated against the backdrop of the Kandy lake was founded 1882. Despite the revolutionary changes that followed the British conquering this isle which led to the natural lack of state patronage, the Association survived.

With the gaining of independence, the Association gained a degree of freedom. It became a place which housed all traditional arts and crafts practised in Kandy. Todate, it has retained this unique quality, and for a person who would like to have a glimpse of the traditional arts and crafts practised during the Kandyan Period, the Kandyan Art Association provides it all.

The Manageress of the Association Mrs. Chitra Dissanayake explained the history of Kandyan jewellery, and how it has still retained its appeal despite the obsessive modern jewellery trends of today.

Of course, the consumer demands are so much in variation that no longer can they survive by selling traditional jewellery alone. Therefore they create other attractive gift items, hand woven things, lacquer works etc.; mainly with the tourists in mind.

But, the concentration as well as emphasis falls on the reproduction of traditional Kandyan jewellery, in its original form.

In ancient times it was a royal privilege to wear gold. There was a distinction in the types of jewellery people of different strata wore. A person's jewellery revealed the social and financial status of the wearer. For example, barrel -shaped bangles {Bandi walalu} were worn by commoners and the heavily patterned bangles by the aristocracy. There also was a distinction between the normal waist chain{Hawadiya} and the heavier version worn by the upper class.

Mrs. Dissanayake claims that the Sinhalese were a race used to wearing a lot of jewellery. Females were practically draped in jewellery. At home, they wore simple silver jewellery, and for public occasions they wore heavy , chunky gold jewellery. It was believed that jewellery could effectively ward off evil, and it was unlucky especially for a woman not to wear any. Both men and women wore anklets and armlets.

Kandyan creations are unique not because these designs have been perpetuated but because of their richness in concept. A Kandyan bride wears seven necklaces, the longest chain being 104 inches worn to invoke the blessings of Goddess Pattini, for prosperity and fertility. Entwined swans is a design always carried in some piece of jewellery worn by a Kandyan bride symbolizing unity and togetherness of the wedded couple.

"Kandyans did not believe in fancy jewellery, but solid works. These jewellery could be worn by several generations. Jewellery succession was the privilege of the male children , as this provided a way of preventing the family jewellery from going elsewhere. For this very purpose, no frail thin pieces of jewellery were made.

Red and green stones were the two colours commonly used for Kandyan designs.A few white stones were also used .

Earlier, jewellery making was a time and energy consuming craft. Massive bars of silver were kept on a kiln, and heated. Thereafter, the bars were manually beaten to thinness in order to achieve a level of flexibility. This was the preferred metal as gold was expensive.

This difficult process has been replaced by the new machines which effectively beat silver into thin sheets.

Even today, jewellery making in the Kandyan provinces is a traditional occupation with the father tutoring his young sons how to design and creates jewellery. The older craftsmen have preserved the original designs that were popular during the Kandy Period.

The new generation however seems to be experimenting and introducing new features to the ancient patterns. Due to the cost factor, they also use semi precious stones like tourmalines, zircons and garnets in place of the red and pink rubies, various sapphires and emeralds used liberally before. However, they only use Sri Lankan stones.

In Nattaranpotha, there is a small village for traditional craftsmen, and there is a scheme to purchase their works by several places. The Association has several suppliers from various parts of Kandy. Some of them could be seen at the Association premises educating the people by holding daily demonstrations.

Apart from the jewellery, these craftsmen also create other items for sale. Mahogany elephants decorated with silver and semi precious stones, silver trinket boxes and handicrafts are among the most popular items.

The prices of jewellery range according to the weight, shape and workmanship. The cheapest items are the rings, and the most expensive being the heavily patterned traditional bangles and the seven bridal chains known as the 'mala hatha'.

Today, jewellery making is a thriving industry. In an era when traditional arts and crafts are being replaced by modern trends, the Kandyan Art Association concentrates on the authenticity of the original Kandyan designs thus preserving their original form for future generations.

Continue to Mirror Magazine page 4 * The birds of paradise

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