Mat Weaving and Other Rush-ware, Fibre-ware and Leaf Crafts of Sri Lanka


Mat Weaving and Other Rush-ware, Fibre-ware and Leaf Crafts of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has abundant rush-ware and foliage plants, concentrated in the marshy lands of hinterland areas around villages on the southern coast of the country. Fibrous plants are found in the hilly regions. Mat-weaving is thus abundant. The craft is practised chiefly by women, often informally, while the men are away in the fields or in work-shops. Especially in rural areas, mat-weaving has been considered a skill that it is essential for girls to learn.

Various varieties of rush-ware that are found include gatapan (Scirpus Erectus), pothukola (Scelria Oryzoides), galaha (Cyperus Corymbosus), tunhiriya, borupang (Eleocharis Plantaginea), hewan (Cyperus Dehiscens), and elupan. In Batticaloa and adjoining districts, a variety of rush known locally as kat-pan, probably the same as galaha, grows in abundance in the marshy areas and is widely used for mat-weaving. Galaha, used to make carpets, grows in Gampaha district in Ambalammulla.

When mats were used only in the rural areas, the dyes were made of juices of leaves, fruits, and flowers from various trees. The red dye yielded by the patangi (Caesalpinia Sappan), is used prolifically and is the most important dye. To create black, the grasses are buried in the mud of rice-fields. The lower oxide of iron in the mud combines with tannin in the grass to form an inky black colour. Yellow dye is obtained from the young fruits of the kaha (Bixa Orellana) or from saffron, which is pounded in a mortar, and the extract boiled with water, for an hour, with the leaves to be dyed. Owing to an increase in the volume of mats being made, imported synthetic dyes are being used.

1. Pang rushes/grasses
2. Galaha rushes/grasses
3. Wetakeya leaves of the foliage plant
4. Indikola leaves of the palm
5. Palmyrah pulp, sap, leaf, fibre, & timber of the palm
6. Talipot leaves of the palm
7. Ekel undried leaf fronds of the coconut tree
8. Savandara roots of the plant
9. Hana fibre
10. Navapatta bark of the tree
11. Banana fibre
12. Ornamental Coir fibre obtained from the coconut husk

A variety of rush-ware grows in the southern belt of the country, in marshy lands that adjoin paddy fields, streams, and rivers in almost all parts of the island-country. Mat-weaving with pang is extremely common, and believed, by some authorities, to be the most commonly practised handicraft in Sri Lanka. Pang rushes are harvested from the marshes by hand, after which they are cleaned and dried. They are then dyed with indigenous materials like juices of leaves, fruits, and flowers of selected trees, boiled, and re-dried before being used in weaving. Mats made from the pang are called pang peduru or rush mats. This differentiates it from dumbara mats, which are made of fibre and known as kalala.

Pang is harvested by hand or by using the traditional pan-ketta which is a combined sickle and pointed instrument. The pang is spread out in the sun and dried thoroughly; once dry, it is pressed and cleaned with a wooden blade about 8 to 10 inches in length. Then the pang is tied into small bundles and placed in a dye-bath and boiled. This material is cooled in the bath itself and then taken out; it is then loosened from the bundles and hung up on a line in the shade to dry. This material is now ready for weaving.

The first step is to place the two rushes vertically parallel to each other; the third is placed horizontally interlacing the other two. The weavers interlace rest of the rushes within this main framework, holding the ends with the toes to prevent it from moving. Locally, the commencement of weaving is called pireema and the termination of weaving is called moitalama. A half-woven mat is called adawiyamana. When the mat is completed the ends of the rushes are turned carefully into a form called the ehewatiya. The protruding ends of the ehewatiya are cut off with a knife – this is known as kadawath kepeema. When the edge forms a decorative pattern it is known as kanapath godanageema. The mats are given various names like kanapath, depath kanapath, and thunpath kanapath, depending on the manner in which the edges are turned out.

Galaha mats are very popular with the tourists; galaha is extracted and processed in the same way as pang. It is thoroughly dried before use. It is then twisted into a rope and laid according to a pre-decided design and stitched firmly with a nylon thread. The designs used are non-traditional. The equipment needed for galaha is similar to that used in pang mats, with the exception that in galaha an additional device is needed to stitch the twisted rope to keep it in place.

In weaving the mats, the design or ratava is considered very important. The intricacy and complexity of the design determine the aesthetic appeal and also the price at which the mat is marked: the more intricate the design, usually, the higher the price of the mat. The designs range from geometrical to floral; animal forms are also used.

Some of the common designs are the nelumal ratava (lotus flower design), the samadaramala ratava and the namal ratava (both floral designs), the hansaputtuwa (interlocked swans), the wangagiriya (road maze), and the lanugetaya (coir knot). Numerals and letters are also sometimes woven into mats, with interesting effects. Variations of the geometrical motif lanuwa (plait motif) or thanthirikaya (another name for lanuwa), specifically the thanipota lanuwa (variation of the plait motif), and depota lanuwa (chequer-work or grass-matting motif) are common. The wel iruwa, similar to the thanipota lanuwa is also used. Gal piyuma, a geometrical design depicting a series of rectangles within two parallel lines, is a common border design in mats. Kundirakkan, composed of diamond-shaped forms known as del-ehe, aluwa, or alli, in various symmetrical combinations, is also a geometrical border design. Kiribathketiya or pahadamune, as Ananda Coomaraswamy calls the motif which resembles a piece of milk-rice, is frequently found in mats.

Kolamba ratava, also referred to as sevvandi and samudramala by Ananda Coomaraswamy is widely found in Kandyan mats and in the athulpath. Tharaka piyum or the star-shaped motif is also common. Another geometrical motif frequently found in Kandyan mats and in the athulpath is the mal petta and its variations. The ata peti mala is a geometrical design depicting an eight-petalled flower; it is found traditionally in mediaeval Kandyan mats.

This craft is practised by a selected social group composed mainly of women who belong to the disadvantaged section of the society. This helps keep these women gainfully occupied and provides a supplementary source of income for the household. The establishment of co-operative societies of craftspeople has ensured a good market for the products through wholesale and retail sales.


  • Ampara district: The pang craft is also found in the villages of Uhana, Adalachchena, Kalmunai, and Akkaraipattu.
  • Anuradhapura district (about 270 kilometres from Colombo): Pang and galaha crafts are practised in all parts of the district.
  • Galle district (about 150 kilometres from Colombo): The pang craft is found in the villages of Induruwa and Kaikawala; the galaha craft is found in the villages of Kaikawala and Athuruwella.
  • Hambantota district (southernmost tip of the island): The pang craft is found in the villages of Mahahella, Ambala, Ranna, Walgameliya, Nalagama, Getamanna, Wagegoda, and Palankada.
  • Kalutara district (south-western coast): The pang and galaha crafts are found in the villages of Paiyagala, Molligoda, Ittapana, Malamulla, Kalapugama, Maggona, Ihala Wadugoda, Kalamulla, Pothupitiya, Pohaddaramulla, Talpitiya, Walana, Nidelpitiya, Pinidiyamulla, and also in the town of Kalutara.
  • Kurunegala district (about 130 kilometres from Colombo): The pang craft is found in the villages of Wewsirigama, Maweela, Kalahugama, Humbuluwa, and Alawwa.
  • Matara district (southern coast): The pang craft is found in Kekanadure, Karaputugala, Kottegoda, Hittetiya, Deyagaha, Mee-ella, Galboda, and Walana.
  • Polonnaruwa district: The pang craft is found in the villages of Palugasdamana, B.O.P. 314 and all the new settlements.
  • Puttalam district (on the western cost): The pang craft is practised in the villages of Anamaduwa, Kammala North, Karavita, Divulwewa, Thattewa, Lunuwila, Kirimetiyana. Mahakumbukkadawala, Gurugodella, and Nattandiya.
  • Ratnapura district: The galaha craft is found in the village of Kuruvita.

The key government bodies helping this craft are the Sri Lanka Handicrafts Board and the Department of Small Industries, which have been conducting training programmes for the artisans with the aim of improving design and quality. One of the main obstacles in the development of this craft has been the scarcity of the raw material – the pang grass – which has not been cultivated systematically. As all varieties of rush grow in marshy or water-logged marginal lands bordering rivers, streams, and stretches of cultivable low lying lands, there is a strong possibility that these areas may be used for cultivation of food-crops which could be the result of the various irrigation-programmes launched by the government. This would result in a drastic reduction of the land-area supporting the growth of rush. This has greatly increased the costs of transport and labour for the raw material.

The Southern Provincial Council has in the recent past disbursed funds to the craftspeople to set up pang plant nurseries in the marshy areas of Bentota, along the western coast of the country. The Sri Lanka National Design Centre runs programmes for the artisans to improve their design inputs in mat-weaving. The perceived threat of imported plastic mats has been met by changing styles and designs in the pang mats, leading to sustained local interest in them. Beach mats and small mats that can be folded and packed in are being made; pang is also being converted into elegant-looking floor carpets.


This is the name given to a type of foliage plant which is grown in home-gardens and is used a lot to make handicraft-products. The leaves are thorny and so they are cut, slit, and processed before use. Wetakeya is found in abundance in Kurunegala district. It is also found in abundance along the western coast. Gradually as more and more of it is being used up for craft activities the resources are getting depleted; however, there are no schemes in existence for regeneration of this.

In processing, the leaves are cut at the base and the thorny edges are removed with a sharp knife. They are then slit into the required widths. These are then boiled for about two hours after which they are kept in fresh water for two days in order to remove the tanning agent which is present. At the end of the second day, this material is thoroughly washed and then hung up in the sun to dry. The material is dyed by boiling in a dye solution and drying in the sun. Normal weaving methods are used for making craft products out of this foliage; however since the leaves are very pliable, techniques such as coiling and twining can be used. The leaves are twined to make ropes and a coil pattern is used to make articles out of this.

The wetakeya strip is twined into a thin rope and encloses within it dried grass or refuse or waste material from the wetakeya itself. This rope is then coiled into the article to be made. As the coiling progresses, the rope is extended gradually till the article is completed. This technique is adopted to make circular and cylindrical objects that are listed below. The tools and equipment that are used in this craft are soaking tank, vessel for boiling and dyeing material, cooker, knife and metal rod.

Common products made from this include cylindrical-shaped linen baskets, waste-paper baskets, and marketing bags. These are woven using the above methods with coloured designs and they compare favourably with any other kind of basket-ware. Tea-containers are also made out of this material.


  • Galle district (on the southern coast): The craft is practised in the villages of Kaikawala, Koggala, Induruwa, Kataluwa, Tirinagama, Habaraduwa, Narigama, and Welhengoda.
  • Gampaha district (adjoining Colombo): The craft is practised in the villages of Pepaliyawala, Utwan Bogahawatta, Dompe, Weke, Waturugama, Mirigama, Pasyala, Keenadeniya, Ambepussa, Delwala, Mottunna, and Walarambe.
  • Kalutara district (on the western coast, quite close to Colombo): The craft is practised in the villages of Pariyagala, Molligoda, Ittapana, Malamulla, Kalapugama, Maggona, Ihala Wadugoda, Kalamulla, Pothupitiya, Pohaddaramulla, Talpitiya, Walana, Nidelpitiya, and Pinidiyamulla.
  • Kegalle district (close to Colombo; along the Colombo-Kandy route): The craft is practised in the villages of Ragalkanda and Mangedera.
  • Kurunegala district (130 kilometres from Colombo): The craft is widely practised in the in the villages of Kolombagama, Udawela, Ambahera, Pannare, Alawwa, Pilessa, Weerapokuna, Wettewa, Narangoda, Nabirittawewa, Thorana, Hammalawagama, Wewala, Nugawela, Ratnegama, Vijayaudagama, Udakekulawala, Galature, Hettipola, and Siyambalagastenna.
  • Moneragala district: The craft is practised in the village of Hingurukaduwa.
  • Puttalam district (on the western coast): The craft is practised in the village of Botalegama.
  • Ratnapura district: The craft is practised in the village of Kuragahawatta.


Indikola or Indi palm is a variety of leafy plant. The tender leaf of the Indi palm is cut from the front while it is still on the tree using a knife attached to a long stick. These leaves are boiled thoroughly for softening. They are then dried in the hot sun after which they are bleached. These leaves are then dyed by boiling in a dye bath. After they are dry, they are split into strips of the required sizes, which can sometimes be even less than a millimetre.

Some of the very popular products made out of Indikola are the traditional hambiliya or coin purse; cigar purses and betel purses, commonly used by the village people, and carried on their person are also made. The hambiliya is woven in two sections – an inner sleeve and an outer cover, thus making three compartments. The inner sleeve is made of undyed broad strips while the outer cover is made with a smart design and attractive colours. Sometimes the strips used for weaving the delicate designs are too thin to be handled by hand and a bodkin called the hambili katuwa is used for the purpose.

Products made for the urban market include summer-hats, hand-bags, boxes and table-mats. Indikola products are attractively coloured, so they are used to make containers to hold souvenirs and also as packing material. Indikola items have delicate patterns of colour in the weave and also display skilled handiwork on the part of the craftspeople.

The tools and equipment used for this craft are vessels for boiling and dyeing the leaf, sharp knives for slitting the leaf and Hambili Katuwa which is of course the bodkin for incorporating delicate designs and a mould for making hats.


This craft is practised mainly by women – it is a common sight in the villages of the south to see old women spending their time weaving various products out of Indikola. The Kalutara Basket Society has been one of the pioneering institutions in promoting the training of girls in rural areas in Indikola craft.

  • Galle district: in Habaraduwa, Tirnagama, Hapugoda, and Narigama.
  • Hambantota district (adjoining Matara district): in Netolpitiya village.
  • Kalutara district (on the western coast): in the villages of Welipenna, Ihala Wadugoda, Padagoda, Ambepitiya, Horawala, Paiyagala, Walatara, and Sarikkamulla.
  • Matara district (southern tip of the country): in the villages of Kirinda-magin-pahala and Udupeellegoda.
  • Puttalam district: Wadigamanagawa.


This is a palm tree that grows abundantly in the northern and eastern Provinces of Sri Lanka and in the districts of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, and Hambantota. This is where the craft is also practised widely as the tender leaf used for the craft work is found throughout the year. The pulp, sap, leaf, fibre, and timber of the palm are used. In ancient mythology this tree is known as ‘katpaham‘ or a wish-giving tree that provides 800 products; palm products have a lot of nutritional and medicinal significance. This tree is a source of food and also provides the raw material for handicrafts.

The palm leaves are boiled, dried, dyed, and slit into strips; they are then woven into products like table mats, file covers, bags, baskets, wall hangings, hats, trays, containers, fans and similar items. The tender leaves are dried in the shade for about two to three days. At this stage the ekels (central stick-like portion of a leaf) are separated from the leaves and then the leaves are cut to the required sizes. The leaves are then dyed in the colours needed for the articles to be made. The dyestuff is first dissolved in a vessel of cold water to which a quantity of acetic acid is added and the leaves are then immersed in this. This mixture is then boiled up to 100 degrees celsius. After an hour, the leaves are removed from the dye-bath and dried in the shade.

The fibrous portion of the tree known as naar is extracted from the stalk of the palm fronds and this is used for weaving cots, seats, chairs and is seen as an alternative to cane.

An additional lustre is brought to the leaves by steaming them for about 2 to 3 minutes; this also prevents the leaves from being brittle. As the leaves are a little pale, they are bleached with a solution of 1% hydrogen peroxide in Lisapol N; it has been found that there is no uniformity in this process. Palmyrah leaves are inclined to mould, mainly in humid climates. Brittleness of the leaves arises due to loss in moisture. Studies are still being conducted to find solutions to these problems.

The equipment required for palmyrah leaf processing include vessels for dyeing leaves and knives for slitting the leaves to the required sizes.

The Palmyrah Development Board runs several programmes that look after the overall development of the palmyrah palm sector. A lot of women are trained under these schemes in various crafts using palmyrah as the base material. Marketing opportunities are also being provided to the craftspeople in the form of an exclusive emporium selling palmyrah-based products in Colombo.

This craft is widely practised in the northern and eastern parts of the country as mentioned previously.

  • Ampara district (southeastern coast): in the villages of Kalmunai, Tirukkovil, Adalachchena, and Akaraipattu.
  • Batticaloa district (eastern coast): in the villages of Puthukudiyirrupu, Koduwamadu, Kathiraveli, Eruvil, and Panichankeny.
  • Hambantota district (southernmost tip of the island): in the villages of Labuhengoda and Chitragala.
  • Jaffna district (northernmost tip of the island-country): in the villages of Thikkam, Puttur, Karaveddy, Chavakachcheri, Messalai, Kaithadi, Elavalai, Mandativu, Delft, Eluvativu, Velanai, Puloly West, and Alavai South.
  • Kandy district (central part of the country): in the village of Madawala.
  • Kegalle district (next to Colombo district): in the village of Mangadera.
  • Kilinochchi district (in the northern part of the island): in the villages of Pooneriyan and Pallai.
  • Mannar district (on the northwestern coast): in the villages of Erukkulampiddi, Pesalai, and Talaimannar.
  • Mullaitivu district: in the villages of Puthukkudiyiruppu, Mathan, Thaniruttu, and Almit.
  • Puttalam district (south of Mannar): in the villages of Kanaketiya, Illippadeniya, Wanathavillu, Serukele, Peramakkutuwa, Kirikattiya, and Sangattikulam.

The talipot palm (Corypha Umbraculifera) grows widely in the districts of Kurunegala, Kegalle, Kandy, and Moneragala. The processed talipot palm leaf was the early writing material used in Sri Lanka. Buddhist scriptures were committed to writing as far back as the first century A.D., and the seasoned tender leaf of the talipot palm was used for writing on. The words were inscribed with a stylus, the text being made visible by the application of a black paste, which was cleaned with sifted rice bran, leaving the inscribed lettering in deep black.

These ola books as they are called can last for several centuries when looked after carefully. Several specimens of the kadupul or parasatu or sina-mala, an ancient flower motif with a sword-like projection from the centre, are found on ola book covers; this has been recorded by Manjusri in his treatise Design Elements in Sri Lankan Temple Paintings. The liyawela motif, a composition of leaves, branches, flowers, buds, and tendrils, are also found gracing the ola book covers of old, mainly as a border motif. The execution of these motifs is characterised by delicacy and precision. The katuru mala or katiri mala, a flower motif characterised by the crossing of petals resembling a pair of scissors – along with the variation of the vaka deka motif – is found abundantly in the ola book covers, as is a geometrical design called havadiya or weldangaraya or Havadidangaraya, a chain motif. The tradition of committing Buddhist scriptures to writing is still maintained in the Buddhist temples of Sri Lanka.

In Kurunegala this leaf is used to make baskets in which tea is packed for export. In the last 50 years several government schemes have been introduced whereby this leaf is used as the raw material for making products like table-mats, purses, file covers, market bags, and wall hangings. A special marketing bag called geta-malla is made with talipot ekels wrapped with strips of talipot leaf. These bags are of different sizes and are very popular with the tourists.

The preparation of the material for weaving is very similar to that used for wetakiya and Indikola. The leaf is boiled for three hours and is then dried in the sun for three days. The leaf still has a brownish colour, so it is exposed in the night for two days which helps bleach the leaves. When the leaves have to be dyed, they are boiled in the dye bath just like other materials.

Weaving is the technique used in making items using this material. When the weaving has to be done, the leaves are slit into strips of the required width depending on the article to be made. A mat is first woven and then it is cut to the required dimensions and sewn. The motifs used are geometrical and cross-stitch patterns are incorporated in the process of weaving.

The equipment used in this craft are vessels for boiling and dyeing the leaf, sharp knives for slitting the leaves and a pair of scissors for cutting the mats to required sizes and equipment for the sewing.

This craft is practised locally throughout the country wherever this palm grows. There is a government-sponsored project in Kurunegala district to plant a huge parcel of land with talipot palms. As the talipot leaf is used for a lot of purposes there is a need for an accelerated programme of planting of the same.

The raw material used for this is the ekel obtained from the undried leaf fronds of the coconut tree. There is hardly any processing to be done except the removal of the green leaf. These ekels are then woven into various types of baskets, trays, table-mats, and flower vases.


  • Gampaha district (next to Colombo): in the villages of Gampaha, Rideegala, Mirigama, and Kirindiwela,
  • Kandy district (about 225 kilometres form Colombo): Ekel brooms are made in the villages of Kuragala and Kuragandeniya.
  • Kegalle district (close to Colombo, on the route to Kandy): in the village of Galpatha.
  • Kalutara district (south-western cost): in the villages of Pohaddaramulla, Waskaduwa, Talpitiya, Pothpitiya, and Kaluwamodara.
  • Matara district (southern tip of the island): in the villages of Thamiliyaoula, Pelkiripitiya, Kotavila, Dandeniya, Muruthamure, Henegama, Palalla, and Alkgoda.

These are the roots of the savandra plant; they are cleaned and dried in the sun and are used by the craftspeople to make fans. This plant has medicinal and aromatic value.

The fan frame is made of wire and it is covered with strips of palm leaves over which the savandara roots are woven. The tools required for this craft are wire for frame and strips of talipot leaf for wrapping around the wire frame.

The market for these products is small and it can be expanded only when more innovative designs and products are introduced. This is still a local craft practised mainly in the areas where rush and palm are found all over the country.

The highly traditional dumbara mats and tapestries, along with other products, are made from hana, which is a fibre. In the early part of this century, the kinnara tribals – traditional weavers of dumbara mats – used the fibre from the xerophytic niyanda leaf (Sansivieria Zeylanica) which is much softer than the fibre from hana (Agave Sisalana); however, in contemporary times, as the supplies of the niyanda are not available in the requisite quantities, the xerophytic hana is used. Hana itself is not available within easy reach: the craftspeople have to walk long distances into remote areas in the Nuwara-Eliya district to collect them. The name of the dumbara mats is derived from the Dumbara Valley where the kinnaras have been practising this craft for ages, weaving on a loom very similar to the textile loom.

The first step is the extraction of the fibre from the leaf: this is done manually. The thorny point and the edges of the leaf are cut off and placed on a log called the niyanda poruwa. It is then rubbed hard with a sharp-edged instrument of wood called gavilla whereby the green fleshy part of the leaf blade is removed exposing the white fibre. This is a very tedious process and is done mostly by women who work half a day to remove about 50 leaves per head. This fibre is then washed clean and dried in the sun. After this the fibre is combed with a comb of kitul fibre called niyanda kossa and is then bundled into skeins called valladuwa.

The warp threads are spun on a spindle called nul idda; the spinning is done with the right hand and the strands of fibre being drawn with the left from the skein are thrown on the left shoulder of the spinner. This process is done by both men and women while sitting, standing, walking, or talking. The fibre is then dyed in a pot of boiling water; the dye is added to this. The fibre is immersed in this for 15 minutes. In some cases the fibre is boiled in the dye mixture to which some salt has been added for the process to be much more successful.

The traditional colours used as dyes are black, yellow, and red; dyeing is done before the weaving process.

  • Red is obtained by boiling the fibre with patangi (Caesalpinia Sappan) wood, korakaha (Memycylon Umbellatum) leaves, and gingelly oil and seeds.
  • Yellow is obtained from a decoction of veni-vel (Coscinium Fenestratum).
  • Black is obtained with the help of gall nuts, aralu, and bulu (Terminalia Chebula and T erminalia Beleria).

These vegetable dyes fade considerably in a year or two. In today’s times foreign dyes are used for the dyeing process.

4. Weaving & the Loom
The process of weaving is known as dig-ghanawa or heda-lanawa. The yarn spun on the spindle is used as the warp thread and the weft elements are not spun at all but consist of parallel fibres of the width of the mat. The loom is a low horizontal structure – something like the loom used for cotton weaving but much more primitive. There is no alvala or pit for the weaver’s feet. The loom operator squats on the mat itself supported by a few flat logs between it and the ground. The pattern for the mat is picked up by the weaver’s lath or vema. This lath has an eye at one end and serves as a bodkin with which the weft threads are drawn through the warp. A sleay or alu karala – similar to the cotton weaver’s, but not suspended – is used to drive the weft home.

The raising and separation of alternate warp threads to form a shed is brought about by very primitive type of heddles known as vela kadduva. The loops of the heddles through which warp threads pass do not move. Every alternate warp thread passes through a loop. The separation of alternate threads to form the shed is effected by the movement of two wooden rods placed on the far side of the tripod. One of the rods (uttara pata or kontaliya) rests on the warp and the other (pannam-bate) passes between alternate threads of it. The relative movement of these rods raises and separates alternate threads on the near side of the heddles. The warp is carried on two rods – kotta kura and andina kanda. The kotta kura is tied to a stouter rod (heda kanda), which is fastened to sticks which are firmly driven into the ground. At the other end the andina kanda is tightly strained by two cords (kadu-pa-lanu) attached to two posts (kalal-kanu) in the ground. The heddles are supported by a tripod arrangement of sticks (tun-pa kolle) which is shifted along as the work progresses.

The warp is laid in two operations. The spun thread or nul is unwound from the spindle and broken and then passed through the heddles and through the teeth of the sley or reed. The short ends left projecting through the teeth are tied temporarily to prevent them from slipping out. The remainder of the warp is then laid to the required length and the threads are broken off to be joined to the short ends projecting through the heddles.

When the weaving is finished the projecting ends of the fibre at each end of the mat are turned up over a thread drawn tight along the edge (like a piping cord). Each one of the threads is knotted to it by another thread, which catches up each projecting end in a slip knot, thus forming a neat binding.

For hana products other than the dumbara mats, the yarn is prepared initially in the same way. Three strands of the yarn are spun together to form the basic material. A rope is made which is arranged to the required shape or design; this is then stitched together firmly using the same fibre for the stitching.

The tools and equipment required for this craft include tools to decorticate the leaf by which the fibre is extracted, the niyanda poruwa or log used to scrape the leaf, a sharp-edged strip of wood called gavilla, a comb of kitul fibre known as niyanda kossa, the spindle or nul idda, and a hand-loom for the weaving.


Traditional Sinhalese Motifs: Some of the motifs found in mat-weaving are rarely found in modern work – they are the traditional Sinhalese motifs. These include the lanu-getaya (variations of the plait motif), vangagiriya (a motif of small squares representing small cells occupied by Prince Vessantra and Madri Devi from the Vessantara Jataka one of the 550 of the Jataka tales called as Pansiyapanas Jata Pota), bhayankara (geo metrical pattern of a Chinese-chequer game board design), taraka-piyum (geometrical pattern of alternate squares in the same colour), haras-ratawa (vertical line pattern), idda-mal-piyum (concentric design of diamonds), ata-peti-mala (eight petal flower design in a square ), mal-petta (flower petal motif in a square), gal-piyum (vertical pattern of diamonds set within two parallel lines), sevvandi-mala (eight petal floral motif formed by a combination of small triangles and a square), also known as kolamba-ratawa, and kiribath-ratawa (this is a vertical pattern motif of triangles arranged symmetrically in two parallel lines set between two horizontal lines with a single triangle alternating with a double triangle). Some other examples are tarava, taraka-petta (star-flower pattern), tumpola-lanuwa, del-geta lanuwa (lanuwa-motifs are variations of plait or chequer designs), and mal-gaha (flower-tree motif which was usually found on a Kandyan king’s hat also called as the tree of life springing from a low triangular mound representing earth or rock). Motifs of a divine and mythical nature include vajrasana (motif of a throne), mihikatha (motif of Earth Goddess), sataravaran devi-varu, and mara-yudda (representation of Mara, Chief of demons and a great enemy of Buddha shown as attacking Buddha with innumerable hosts of demons, immediately previous to his attainment of Buddhahood). The motifs are communicated to the pupils through the mastercraftsmen after years of training. This process is described as hereditary transmission of craft from father to son and in the absence of a son the skill is taught to a very close blood relative.

Motifs from cultural and historical sources form an important category in handicraft-work; some examples are vamana or dwarf, the brass lamp, and the devil dance mask, found in dumbara hanaware.

The main book of instruction has always been the Sanskrit text, Rupavaliya which deals with instructions on the drawing of the images of gods and mythical animals; another treatise – Sariputra – deals with instructions on making the images of Buddha.

Animal & Bird Motifs: The mythical fish motif or matsya is an incarnation of Lord Vishnu and is found as a decorative motif in mat weaving. This is symbolically used to represent water. Specific birds – parrots, ducks, doves, grackles, and even peacocks – are mentioned in popular ballads like the ‘Peduru Malaya’, along with other nondescript birds as being widely depicted in the dumbara mats. Animal motifs like hare, deer, elephant, horse, bull, and the open-hooded cobra are also mentioned in popular ballads as being widely depicted in kalala mats or the dumbara mats.

Geometrical Motifs: The thanivel iruwa is a geometrical motif widely found in dumbara mats, as is the toran petta, which is found only in dumbara mats. A floral geometric motif called mal petta has as its variations heen mal petta and thun pehena mal petta, which are found in dumbara mats. The swastika is one of the 108 magul lakunu and has been recently adopted as a motif for the dumbara mats. One ply plait or the chequer motif called lanugetaya and its variations – such as the lanu dangaya, heen delgeta lanuwa, and walalu lanuwa – are found in grass mats and in dumbara mats.


  • Batticaloa district (on the eastern coast): in the villages of Kattankudi, Palamunai, Ollikulam, Kankeyan Oddai, Keechanpalam, and Paruthimunai.
  • Kandy district (central part of the country): in the villages of Taldeniya and Udawala.
  • Kegalle district (near Colombo, on the route to Kandy): in the villages of Badulupitiya and Devanagala.
  • Kurunegala district (north of Colombo): in the villages of Kitalagama, Rambewa and Nikaweratiya.
  • Matale district: in the village of Malhewa.
  • Mullaitivu district (north of Vavuniya): in the villages of Vaddurakkal, Mulivakkal, Kanuvankum, and Kokuthoduvai.
  • Nuwara eliya district (next to Kandy): in the village of Palle, Madanwala, Kotmale, Bowala, and Galauda.
  • Puttalam district (on the western coast): in the village of Lunuwila.
  • Ratnapura district (about 215 kilometres form Colombo): in the villages of Wikiliya and Belihuloya.
  • Trincomalee district (on the north-eastern coast): in the village of Ralkuli.
  • Vavuniya district (northern part of the country): in the villages of Annikulam, Madhukulam, Chalanpankulam, Nedukulam, and Kalmadhukulam.

Dumbara mat weaving is an ancient craft from the days of the royalty and so the craftspeople are held in high prestige and given a higher social status in comparison to the artisans weaving grass mats or pang pedura. There is a ready local market for the dumbara products like mats, wall hangings, ladies’ purses, cushion covers, letter racks, table-mats, fly whisks, fans, screens, and cushion covers. The most popular product is the typical mat, which is generally used as a wall-hanging.

This craft has problems such as the passing away of master weavers without passing on the skills to disinterested youngsters and waning design quality. Some of the other problems are that the plants are available at a great distance from the areas in which the craftspersons reside and the price they have to pay leaves them with very little margins.

There is a concerted effort from the artisans to adapt the styles and designs to suit the contemporary needs. As a result of inputs from foreign consultants, there has been progress in using newer designs and colours. The product range now include more attractively designed ware that fetch better prices. There have been inputs from Sri Lankan design experts too in terms of newer colour combinations, pattern variations, and other changes in order to give a contemporary fresh look to the products.

This material is from the bark of the navapatta (Sterculia Bhalangas) tree. There was an abundance of these trees growing in the Nawala village in Colombo district but it has become very scarce nowadays.

The material from the bark is stripped off and soaked in water for about 2.5 weeks for retting. This is then thoroughly washed, dried in the sun, cut into strips, and dyed. The dyeing process is done by boiling the fibre in a dye-bath. When the fibres are dry, they are woven into mats, table-mats, and purses. The weaving is done by hand using the toes to hold the base of the object while the hand interlaces the other fibres; the weaver is seated while this process is done. In making table-mats, purses, file covers and similar articles the mat is first woven and then bound or stitched together to form the required article. The strips are plaited into a long chain, which is coiled around the mould, and the edges are stitched together to make the hats. Finishing is done by lining the inside of the article with appropriate material and incorporating any other embellishments on the outside. The products made from the navapatta are soft and smooth.

The tools and equipment required for this craft include a retting tank for scaling the bark, earthen or aluminium vessels for the dyeing process, and moulds for making the hats.


  • Colombo district: in the villages of Nawala and Kaduwala.
  • Kurunegala district: this craft is practised in the villages of Kitalagama, Rambewa, and Nikaweratiya.

There have been efforts from institutions like the Industrial Development Board of Sri Lanka to introduce banana fibre as a viable raw material for handicrafts. In several other Asian countries mainly Philippines, this has been used very successfully to make products like various grades of twine from which utility articles like bags, rugs, shoe soles, table- mats, trays, and hats are made.

This craft was first introduced in the Rambukkana area of Sri Lanka which is an area where banana grows widely. It was introduced chiefly as a craft for women and gradually extended to areas all around the country. The advantages which this craft enjoys are a vast supply of raw material resources, low capital investment, high employment potential, and the opportunity to promote an indigenous industry at the rural level.

A lot of attention has to be given at the processing stage so that there are few flaws in methods of extraction, purification, plaiting, and cording the fibre so that the final form of the created item appears as finished and elegant as any other. The market opportunities for the artisans are provided through exhibitions and fairs held all over the country. This raw material could be the viable alternative for the artisans involved in hana craft as hana is becoming very scarce all over the country.


This craft is found to a great extent along the western coast of the country as the raw material supplies for the same are abundant here. The raw material is available at very reasonable prices. This craft has been in existence for a while but some of the products made out of this are new; the pre-crafting processes are however very traditional.

The basic material that is used in this craft is fibre that is obtained from the coconut husk; the traditional method of obtaining the fibre is by soaking the green husks in water for a period of six to nine months. This process is called as retting. Husks that are retted in brackish water yield a whiter fibre than what is retted in fresh water in the inlands. The husks are then taken out and are pounded with a mallet on a log of wood to separate the fibre from the decayed cellular tissues of the husk. The fibre that is extracted is washed, cleaned of impurities, and dried in the shade.

This fibre is then spun into a yarn. In the age-old method, the spinning was done by hand by arranging the coir into a loose roving (rolling coir in a loose fashion) and by twisting between the palms of the hand. In contemporary times, a portable twisting machine has been introduced which is much faster and less tedious. The final product is not comparable to that obtained by hand-twisted yarn, which is superior to that obtained from the machine. The yarn obtained by spinning is boiled with dyes and dried again. Many strands of this yarn are twisted to form a rope of sufficient length to assemble an ornamental mat.

The design of the mat is drawn on a board with the proportions 5’x5′. The weaver sits on the board and then lays the rope winding it from the perimeter inwards to cover the entire area of the design. As the rope is wound it is nailed to the board to keep it in place. Once the rope has been fully laid it is sewn together firmly using coir yarn; after this the nails are removed and the finished article is taken off the board.

Some of the designs found in ornamental coir mats include leaf forms like gotukola; the rabbit is a popular animal motif as is the butterfly.

The tools and equipment required in this craft include a retting tank, a decorticating mallet, and a log of wood to place the husks. A portable machine is required for spinning the yarn, a vessel is required for dyeing the yarn, a design board of 5’x5′ is required, as are nails and a hammer, and a large needle and coir-strands for stitching the rope together.


  • Kandy district: in the villages of Kuragala and Kuragandeniya.
  • Galle district (southern part of the island-country): in the villages of Kalupe and Wataraka West.
  • Gampaha district: Coir craft is also found in the villages of Eluwapitiya, Tarala, Getamaana, Uruwela, Batepola, Katunayake, Maduwegedera, Kitulawala, Attikehelgalla, and Galpotugoda.
  • Kalutara district: in the villages of Pohaddaramulla, Waskaduwa, Narampitiyawa, Pothupitiya, and Panadura.
  • Matara district (southernmost tip of the island): in the villages of Kamburugamuwa, Dikwella, Kolavenigama, Murutamure, Pahala Atureliya, Kottegoda, Waralla, Neelwella, Udupeellegoda, and Polwatumodera.

Craft products made out of untreated leaves, by their very nature, last only for a few hours or days, at the most. The tender leaf from the coconut tree – gok-kola is the basis for the folk craft of gok leaf decoration. This is practised in the villages of Sri Lanka as an intrinsic part of the décor in folk rituals. This is not a handicraft in the strict sense of the word but it has to be mentioned as it is indigenous to the country and is highly artistic in character. This centuries-old rural skill has been transmitted from master to pupil through practical training.

The leaves are cut, shaped, and carved according to the final design visualised. The tools used are simple like knife and mallet. These are made from the delicate ivory coloured leaves of the coconut and resemble the coconut leaf decorations of the Balinese (Indonesian), which they use in small temples or Tjandis for worship.

Gok-kola creations last for a day or two. Gok-gediya is in the shape of a pot made from the leaves and is used on festive occasions as a symbol of blessing and prosperity. To signify benedictory intentions, the auspicious design of the gok-gediya is placed at the four corners of the palm leaf structure made for the occasion of Buddhist Pirit chanting. In the village wedding houses, table decorations of gok are made in the shapes of fruits and flowers.

For a lot of village functions altars, platforms, and tables are made out of banana leaves, ekels, and tender coconut leaves to make the designs nature-friendly. The art or craft of gok decorations continues to exist as a useful skill practised by villagers endowed with the abilities of designing and carving mainly for the fulfilment of decorative needs connected with the performance of rituals and ceremonies highlighting their innate capacity for creativity and the natural urge to live in harmony with nature.

The leaves of the habarala tree used mainly for wrapping purposes are also artistically cut into pieces and various shapes and fitted into the design of archways made with banana pith. The colour contrast is effectively created between the yellow plantain pith and the dark green leaves of the habarala. The cover of the coconut frond – matulla – is excellent for making utility items like bags and purses. All of the above are based on the ideology of ‘Wealth from Waste’, which holds the key for the growth of nature-friendly crafts.


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