Liyelaa jehun (lacquer)

Country: Maldives
Man performing the art of Liyelaa Jehun in the Maldives

Lacquer work is locally known as liyelaa jehun or laa jehun. Maldives had trade connections with China even during ancient times, and it is believed that liyelaa jehun is a craft that Maldivians inherited from the Chinese. Although now Maldivian lacquer works appear to be solely produced for decorative purposes, lacquer was first used in the country for the simple purpose of increasing the durability of wooden products.

Wooden lacquer bowl from the Maldives

Liyelaa jehun used to be practiced all over the country. But now, Thulhaadhoo in Baa Atoll is the island keeping the art form alive, with a few families still practicing the craft and producing lacquered wooden souvenir items such as vases and jewellery boxes.

Maldivian lacquer artists use imported lacquer and colour. First the lacquer is heated, coloured, and hammered, so that it becomes soft. Then it is stretched to form strips. Wooden blocks from local trees such as Funa or the Alexander Laurel wood tree, are shaped to the desired form by using a lathe. When the desired shape has been achieved, the lacquer strips are applied to it. The lacquer layers are then polished using dried coconut palm leaves. When the layers are complete, the object is sawn off at the base to remove it from the unshaped portion of the wood. Then, designs are hand etched on them. Since the lacquer is applied in layers, one over the other, when the outer layer is etched, the inner colours become visible. Traditional Maldivian lacquer works feature three colours: red, yellow and black. But nowadays, a wide range of colours are used. The hand etched designs usually feature floral motifs. These designs are said to be passed on from generation to generation, and artists make these patterns from memory.

In addition to souvenir shops, visitors can find Maldives’ fine lacquer craftsmanship inside some old mosques such as the Hukuru Miskiy or Friday Mosque in Male’, the capital.