Sinhalese lacquer workers were called ī-vaḍuvō, literally "arrow-makers" who were involved in both the turning of wooden objects and lacquering them.
At any time, two of them would be working in the armory of the king's "Four Workshops". They would produce mainly bows and polearm shafts.1
Sinhalese lacquerwork on a fine Sinhalese patisthānaya from the King's Four Workshops.
Sold by Mandarin Mansion in 2019.
Lacquer and pigments
The Sri Lankan lacquer would be made from the secretions of two types of insects, Tachardia albizzie and the Tachardia conchiferata. The latter is rarer and produced a brighter, clearer lacquer. Small quantities of Indian lacquer were also imported.2
As for pigments, four colors were used:
- Vermillion red (sādiliṅgham).
- Orpiment yellow (hiriyal).
- Green (pacca) made using the yellow mixed with Indigo blue (pūnil). Blue was expensive and rare.
- Black (kalu-pāta) which was made using juice from the fruit of Artocarpus integrifolia, oil of the Canarium zeylanicum, and rosin from the Vateria acuminata. These would be ground together, mixed with shreds of cotton, and set over a small fire with a pot inverted on top of it. The soot would be collected from the upper pot. It was oily in nature, and hard to mix with water. 3
Styles of lacquer work
By the time of writing, Coomaraswamy identifies the following centers of lacquer work. In Kandy: Hapuvida (South Mātale), Pallēkanḍa (near Balaṅgoḍa), Hūrikaḍuva (in Pāṭa Duṃbara). In the Low-Countries: Aṅgalmaḍuva (near Taṅgalla).
Contrary to lacquer work in most cultures, the Sinhalese methods of applying decorative lacquer did not involve a brush.
Pallēkanḍa and Aṅgalmaḍuva work
In this type of lacquer work, the solid lac is pressed to the wooden artifact while spinning on a lathe. The friction heats and softens the lacquer, applying it to the object. This type of work is confined to only items that can be turned on a lathe, and produced concentric colored bands.
The work from Hapuvida, also known as Mātale work, is the most distinctive. It is referred to as niyapoten vẹḍa or "finger-nail work".
The object to be decorated would first be covered with a base color, usually vermillion red. In the case of a staff, it would be turned fast and the lacquer applied with a talipot leaf, the friction heating the lacquer and applying it.
The elaborate decorative work would be done by warming a lump of lacquer and drawing it out. The craftsman would typically wind the string around his knee a couple of times for it to cool. The staff would now be warmed gently, continuously turned by an assistant, usually a small boy. The narrow band of lacquer would then be applied to the staff by pressure, and the pattern created as the staff revolved. The end would be nipped off with the nail of thumb or finger. As a consequence, lines have straight ends and all "dots" in this kind of work are angular in shape. After completion of the motif, the staff is then warmed again and smoothed with the leaf.4
For Sinhalese craftsmen of the Kingdom of Kandy, their art was not so much about coming up with new designs as a way to express themselves. Instead, they aimed to execute known designs in order to express their shared culture. As a result, Sinhalese art presents us with a fairly limited number of decorative designs and motifs. The delight of the appreciation of Sinhalese art lies in the technical excellence of execution of time-tested motifs.
"The lac-work is usually limited to a small number of good, conventional patterns admirably adapted to the nature of the material; when, as occasionally happens, these are departed from, and an endeavour is made to represent some more ambitious subject, such as an elephant or lion (as occasionally on book covers), the result is necessarily not quite so satisfactory. Most of the work, however, is from a decorative point of view thoroughly sound, and the colors pleasing."
-Ananda Coomaraswamy, 1908
Here follows an overview of some common motifs seen in Sinhalese Mātale lacquer work, as described by Coomaraswamy.5
I used photos of antique artifacts I've studied where possible.
Tani binduva (තැනි බින්දුව)
Gal-bindu (ගල් බින්දු)
(Right: On a patisthānaya sold here in 2019. Left: From a lacquered spear shaft in the Colombo museum.)
(From colored drawings by Ethel M. Coomaraswamy.)
Pāhaḍe or palā peti
(From colored drawings by Ethel M. Coomaraswamy.)
Elongated isosceles triangles, a staple of Sinhalese lacquerwork.
Sometimes the tips have bō-koḷa.
Whirling vine work.
Vẹlpota or pāhaḍe vẹlpota
A series of connected, repetitive floral elements.
Sinhalese lacquerwork on a fine Sinhalese bow from the King's Four Workshops.
Sold at Mandarin Mansion in 2020.
1. For an explanation of the method of Sinhalese lacquer work, see Ananda Coomaraswamy; Mediæval Sinhalese art, Broad Campden Essex House Press, 1908. Pages 215 - 217.
2. Ibid. Page 215. The account comes from Mr. E. E. Green's article on Lac, Annals R.B.G., Pērādeṇiya, Vol. I., Part V., Supplement, 1903.
3. Ibid. Page 164.
4. For the entire process, see: Ibid. Page 216.
5. Ibid. Pages 215 - 217, page 330 and plate XXIV.