Wooden sculptures and carved furniture

Country: Sri Lanka
Wood carver Diyes Weerasinghe carving a Buddha image. Photo and image credits: Asitha Amarakoon

Decorative wood carving has been an essential part of Sri Lankan architecture as evident in sixteenth to eighteenth century historic buildings around Kandy. Carving of wooden masks used in healing-rituals and dance, and wooden figurines for string puppets are two popular traditional crafts in the southern coastal area, where also the Portuguese and Dutch craftsmen introduced designs and techniques of making European-styled furniture and decorative objects. Present day sculptors carve the images of the Buddha, Hindu deities, human figures, ornamental wall-plaques, elephants, and abstract images. Other wood-based crafts practiced today include handcrafted furniture, root-figurines (ruk-kala), root-furniture, and toys that have become popular in local and international markets.

Carpenters and carvers use tools such as saws, planers, chisels, mallets, hammers, dividers, hand-drills and knives of different shapes. European tools and techniques were introduced by the Portuguese and the Dutch. Some craftsmen also use power tools.

Teak, jak, colon, mahogany, tamarind, ebony, calamander, nadun, suriyamara, halmilla, kumbuk, mara, kohomba are used for furniture and sculpture. A nineteenth century source says that carpenters used a homemade casein glue instead of iron nails for joining. Light-weight woods—velkaduru, rukkattana and erabadu—are used to carve masks and puppets. They are painted in bright red, yellow, white, and black colourants made of minerals, plant dyes, and carbon black.

A resin from a lac insect, mixed with the colorants mentioned above, are used to coat wooden poles, window poles, railings, handles, walking-sticks, lamp-stands, vases, jewelry boxes, ashtrays etc. Today, shellac resin and synthetic dye-stuffs are imported from India, due to unavailability of natural materials locally. Sri Lankan work is different from East Asian. Noteworthy regional variations are absent, perhaps due to the small size of the country.

However, certain crafts are concentrated in particular areas due to historical or cultural reasons. Moratuwa and Gall are well-known for furniture; Ambalangoda is reputed for mask and puppet making, while Matale is famous for lac-work. There is a good local and international market for all wood-based products to sustain the craft.