Tortoise and Turtle Shell Craft

Bone, Horn, Shell, Ivory

Tortoise and Turtle Shell Craft

The artisans of Galle are experts in converting the scaly turtle shells into craft items of high artistic and commercial value. Curved combs -traditionally worn by elderly Sinhalese women as a symbol of social and economic standing in society – were one of the most popular items made from this shell. In contemporary times, as the privileged aristocracy of Sri Lanka has all but disappeared, this curved comb has become an antique item.

The growth and evolution of the turtle-shell craft in Sri Lanka is linked quite substantially with the development of the tourism industry. The products being made include a wide range spanning combs, brooches, bracelets, ear-rings, necklaces, hair brushes, mirrors, tobacco boxes, cigarette cases, spectacle frames, jewellery boxes, handbags, and trays. Most of these are made by the local artisans for tourists.

The raw material used for tortoise-shell work is the thin outer crustacean covering which is the carapace of the hawksbill turtle, the Chelonia Imbricata. This shell has 13 imbricated horny plates, out of which 12 are used in shell craft. The outer shell is extracted from the carapace by the application of heat. The plates that are taken out are irregular in form and keeled or curved.

The process of curing and cleaning the turtle shell is detailed and time-consuming, and requires a great deal of skill and expertise. The shells are boiled in water for about two hours to soften them. When they are sufficiently pliable, they are flattened with the application of pressure. Turtle shell is more brittle and harder than horn and so care is required in moulding these shells into the different forms of the articles to be made. The plates obtained from the shell have limited dimensions – the largest being about 8″x13″ – making it becomes essential to join two or more pieces to obtain the required size. The shells are cut to shape – either in the form of a bangle, powder box or brooch – and the cut pieces are fastened together with the help of the heated prongs of a large steel pincer which acts as a press.

Wooden moulds are used sometimes to obtain the required shape. Before fastening the pieces together the surfaces are carefully cleaned and rasped. The heat treatment softens and liquefies a superficial film of the horny material and, with the application of pressure, the surfaces are joined together perfectly. The prongs are heated to a fairly high temperature over a charcoal fire; the temperature of the tongs has to be maintained carefully as the heat-pasting of the shell pieces has to be accurate. Excess heat also tends to darken and obscure the material. This heat treatment is repeated whenever adjustments or alterations are required.

When smaller objects are made the plates are sawn or cut with great precision with a hack-saw, care being taken to prevent any waste because of the high value of the shell. Then, the necessary inlay work in gold or silver is delicately executed. Some of the motifs or designs found in turtle-shell products are figures of animals, sigiri maidens (depictions from the Sigiriya cave-paintings), Kandyan dancers, and zodiac signs. Womenfolk help out in the tasks of scraping, smoothening and polishing. After the products have been detailed as desired/ required, these articles are polished by using the spathe of the breadfruit tree (Artocarpus Nobilis). The coarse outer skin of the spathe helps bring out the brightness and transparent quality of the article. Some powdered chalk is also applied when the article is being polished. The final appearance of the product is a fine honey-grained colour, glowing and transclucent.

This craft is indigenous and very sustainable at the village-level: in all stages of the craft, the materials used are traditional ones that seem to have been used since the craft began. The tools and equipment that are made for it by the blacksmiths suit local requirements. However, the raw material for the craft has become increasingly scarce. The prices of these shells have risen steeply and the craft in general has been affected adversely; however, the limited availability has encouraged some traditional artisans to restrict themselves to creating only exquisite specimens of the craft.

The once flourishing craft does not seem to have too much of a future; it is only the tourist interest in the products that is keeping the remaining few artisans enthused. Some other materials are acting as substitutes for these craftsmen to carry on with their craft. Buffallo horn and bull horn items are now acquiring popularity among buyers.


Your views