Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Paintings at a Temple

The next day we packed our bags and bade farewell to the Galle Face Hotel, relaxing for a few last moments in its shimmering foyer that blends seamlessly through glass doors into the sea beyond.

In the bus we headed to Beach Road that runs along this seafront, the railway line separating us from the sand. Travelling to Dehiwela to view temple paintings proved to be a bit more confusing than I anticipated, as there are many temples within this relatively small area. Eventually we found the right one, to meet up with Ninel Fernando, a textile designer and teacher, who had organised the visit for us.

The bus was manoeuvred up a narrow, ascending path off the Galle Road that opened out into a large compound where the traditional assortment of temple buildings assembled themselves in a spacious composition. Most temple complexes are comprised of several components, necessary for their functions of worship and dwelling. The three essentials are an image house, a dagoba and bo tree enclosure. Larger temple sites may have subsidiary shrines and those attached to monasteries have prayer halls, called poyages, dormitories and refectories for resident monks.

The bo tree enclosure is a uniquely Sri Lankan feature and provides a living link to the tree under which the Buddha meditated and attained enlightenment. Cuttings taken from the original tree made their way to the first capital of Sri Lanka, Anuradhapura (about 300 B.  C.) and from this tree were dispersed throughout the island over the centuries. Wherever it grows it is regarded as a sacred symbol of Buddhism.

Looking towards the bo tree enclosure

Dagobas, or stupas originally developed in shape from Indian burial mounds and were built to enshrine relics of the Buddha. They have a "bell" or "bubble" shape and are generally solid structures that peak in a central spire that symbolises the axis mundi, or cosmic spire that connects earth to heaven. They vary in size and importance from temple to temple.

The Dagoba

The image house contains vast statues of the Buddha, usually in reclining, sitting and standing poses, highly decorated and quite florid in colour. It is the place of intimate worship, where offerings are placed and prayers given by suppliants.

 A typical image house

Ninel explained that this complex is named Subodaramaya, Karagampitiya. Suba means virtuous,  aramaya, temple.  Karagam means salt, and pitiya, village. A village by the sea. It was originally built  in the reign of king Parakramabahu IV in the early 15thC., high on a promontory to watch out for intruders approaching the coast by boat. The original temple was destroyed by the Portuguese who used the stones to build a church, but the temple was rebuilt later during the Dutch period.

Leaving our shoes on the stone verandah of the rectangular building that contains the image house, we walked along its exterior walls to look at the wonderfully intricate paintings inscribed on their surface.

The present paintings date from 1820 in the British period and are of a very high standard in comparison to other temples of the time and are also comparatively well preserved. They interestingly show a lot of detail in modes of dress, ornament and customs of the Colonial period although they are supposed to relate the life of the Buddha or the stories of some of his 550 prior births. Sailing vessels and muskets are incorporated into the parables illustrating good deeds for the laity to follow in search of a virtuous  life! They are delightful in their incongruity, and the paintings themselves are beautifully rendered. Unfortunately the caretaker, a disgruntled man in a dirty banyan (singlet) would not let us take photographs. Eventually he grudgingly opened the locked door of the image house, but once again, photography was prohibited.

The curiosity that we were allowed to photograph comprised extensive mosaics that decorated the floor of the image house and walls of another external building. Composed of broken crockery, they yielded a crazy patchwork of delicate images in a juxtaposition of cultures and craftsmanship.


Ninel also showed us a processional frieze that runs along the low central enclosure of the prayer hall. The British rulers are relegated to the rear of the proceedings in an interesting illustration of anti colonial social commentary.

The prayer hall

Bell tower

Thursday, 23 May 2013

An afternoon of artists

After a delicious rice and curry buffet on the verandah of the Capri Club, once again as guests of Andrea’s husband Rudi, we boarded the bus to sit in interminable Colombo traffic for visits to artists across town. 

Marie Gnanaraj 

Marie lives in a cleverly designed townhouse that incorporates her studio on a mezzanine level.  After training with Barbara Sansoni, she became Barefoot’s principal designer in handlooms and one of the country’s most experienced textile artists.  She has evolved an art practice in her home studio that demonstrates an engagement with the intrinsic properties of fibres like coir rope (manufactured from the coconut husk) to create textured works. Her experimental work incorporates found objects like bobbins and shuttles to create visual interest.

Her elegant, rectilinear designs glow in earth tones. She had mounted a display of beautiful work, subtle gradations of colour and texture that appeared as painted washes. Indeed, Marie states that she develops her weavings as though they are paintings, the delicacy of the tonal shifts made concrete by the twisted properties of the yarn. In her studio her assistant works diligently, skillfully carrying out Marie’s latest experimental ideas.

Marie and her display of work

Marie's assistant working on one of her designs

After the viewing we were treated to a wonderful afternoon tea prepared by Marie’s daughter, a clothes designer, and her architect friend Christine. A table was spread with ‘short eats’ comprising dainty sandwiches, savouries and cake and a delicious pot of lemon flavoured tea. We met her husband, Manel, and all settled in for a lovely chat before I had to move everyone on to our next visit.

Tilak Samarawickrama

We travelled a short distance away to Ascot Avenue where the esteemed artist, architect and designer recognised by his first name, Tilak, lives. The small house and studio that he designed is immaculately arranged with an eye to economy of space and function, clearly inspired by his training.

The walls are decorated with several of his trademark wall hangings and spectacular floor to ceiling wire sculptures of characters derived from his sensitive line drawings of stilt walkers. Based on the Sinhala script, his graphics are sensuously curvaceous and brought him early recognition in Europe for his unique style.

Tilak in front of his wire sculpture

He had set up a film for us in his dining room that elucidated his work over the last four decades, and warming to his eager audience, he took us through many of his career highlights in a powerpoint projection. Originally trained as an architect and designer in Milan, where he lived and worked for 12 years, Tilak returned to Sri Lanka in the mid 1980s to contribute his knowledge to the produce of local artisans. Heading a team of young designers as consultant to the National Design Centre, he utilised existing craft forms to translate his innovative designs in wood, metal and textiles, and in the process transformed the aesthetics of handcrafted items in Sri Lanka. His recent publication entitled A Voyage in Sri Lankan Design is testament to this contribution.

Tapestry design featured on the cover of latest publication

Exploring the extra – weft structure and weaving skills of traditional weavers he initiated the weaving of “tapestry” interpretations, collaborating with weavers from Talagune in Uda Dumbara. These stunning hangings have been exhibited and marketed in Europe and also in America, particularly in the design shop of the Museum of Modern Art. 

Also a maker of animations, his recent celebration of World Cup Cricket for a biscuit company makes entertaining viewing. 

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

A morning at the National Museum

The next day we had an appointment to meet Chandramani Thenuwara, the doyen of textile technology in Sri Lanka, to see aspects of her work and to view the new Textiles Gallery at the Museum. 

The Neo Classical, Italianate building was created specifically for its purpose by the British Governor, Sir William Gregory, in 1877. It sits in expansive grounds, the impressive fa├žade fronting a wide lawn with curved driveway leading to a porticoed entrance. At its perimeter sits a shining white Buddha statue and superb banyan tree, its trailing branches and parasitic inclusions adding dimension to its enormous girth.

Colombo Museum
Banyan tree

The museum is a vast storehouse of ancient artefacts ranging from reproductions of significant wall paintings in the pantheon of Mediaeval Sri Lankan art and immense religious stone and metal statues, to humble household tools in clay, metal and ivory. The magnificence of the throne and regalia of the Kandyan kings is one of the highlights of the collection. Seized by the British after their defeat of the last King of Kandy in 1815, these exhibits were shipped to Windsor Castle and remained there until they were returned by George V in 1934. As a child I spent much time in these rooms, dazzled by the encrustations of coloured jewels on crowns, swords and the throne itself.

We made our way to an anteroom off the front entrance to hear Chandramani speak about her work. A University lecturer for over 30 years, she is the first woman Chartered Textile Technologist and Fellow of the Textile Institute in the UK. Originally a painter whose interests turned to textile science, on her return from the UK she imparted her knowledge to women weavers at home.

She creates fine woven pieces using non traditional weavers to create complex, large scale designs that reflect her immense knowledge of colour and technique based on Itten’s colour theory. A beautiful range of cloth, now donated to the museum collection, explores the spectrum in combination with black and white outlines that cause reactions in colour intensity. Her designs have been incorporated into the clothing collections of renowned local fashion designers, and despite a somewhat recalcitrant PPT presentation we were able to view a cross section of her work.

Chandramani with her colour spectrum textiles

Her other passion has been a deep study of the traditional woven garment, the diyakacchi cloth, a garment that dates from Mediaeval times and was worn by men as a bathing garment and a loose fitting modesty cloth that allowed freedom of movement whilst running. The elaborate nature of this traditional design - woven in black and red on a white ground – honours the covering of the body from early times. Several of them are in the Museum’s textile collection, and we were able to view a contemporary reproduction, the result of Chandramani’s meticulous unpicking of its woven technique.

The diyakacchi garment

Detail of diyakacchi in museum collection utilising Sinhala script

A viewing of the new Textile Gallery followed. Situated on the upper level, it has been carefully planned to show the diverse range of historical textiles in this country, from printed kerchiefs to embroidered betel bags, delicate chintz somanas to painted temple cloths measuring in excess of 60 feet. The beautiful chintzes, known as somana tuppotiya were imported from the Coromandel Coast.

A 19th C. kerchief printed with British pound notes

A glass cabinet displays an array of betel bags of various sizes, an accessory indigenous to Sri Lanka. Designed in the shape of an oval betel leaf with a shoulder strap, they were used to carry the makings of the powerful chewing drug composed of betel leaf, areca nut and chunam (lime) which when combined in the mouth produces violently red spittle.

A corner is devoted to the costumes of the differing communities resident over the centuries – Malay, Muslim, Dutch Burgher and British outfits – a melting pot of East and West by virtue of Sri Lanka’s position at the centre of the spice and silk routes. Unfortunately they are contemporary reproductions of these garments rather than original preservations. 

Sunday, 12 May 2013

A textile factory

We had a pleasant lunch at the Paradise Road outlet in Colombo and explored their enormous range of custom designed and locally made home ware housed in an old colonial residence that has been converted to its purpose. There are two stories of rooms, small and large, stacked with china, metalware, wooden items and, of course, textiles.

The bus then took us to the Kandygs textile factory a little out of Colombo at Maharagama. The city seems to be more and more choked with traffic, and progress was frustratingly slow at times. Our destination proved to be quite a surprise in its location - instead of the industrial area that I expected to see we turned into a small suburban street with pretty houses and lush gardens. The high gates opened to a treed compound with low buildings set on three sides.

Factory building

We were introduced to a gracious older woman who is the owner of the family run business that comprises four retail outlets and a large factory of two hundred hand looms and thirty power looms. They also have a hundred weavers working in a home situation, mostly in the town of Gampaha. The business manager, a bright young man named Chathuranga Wickramarathne was assigned to show us around the complex. He apologised that the workers were on a tea break, and soon a bell sounded and they cheerfully trooped back to their work. Drinking tea at particular times is sacred to the culture of Sri Lanka and mandatory in the working day.

We started in the finishing area, where the bright bolts of cloth fresh from the weavers are checked meticulously for variations of colour or snags in the weaving. It is then distributed to the makers and the room hummed with the sound of sewing machines as men and women deftly shaped the fabric into various items of clothing. Chathuranga explained that nothing is wasted, the offcuts are turned into patchwork toys and yoga mats. Much of the work is commissioned as Kandygs exports to Japan, Germany, Greece, the UK, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Mexico and the Maldives. An employee of thirty years who is not very well sits quietly making cushion covers in the ornate "cathedral window" design, her task slowed to accommodate her state of health.

The finishing room
Chathuranga speaks to the group
"Cathedral window" patchwork

The cotton used is imported from India, a fin"e strand of 2/20 that is dyed on the premises with "safe" chemical dyes. The large weaving room is set up with a hundred wooden two shaft looms that are thirty or forty years old, although only about fifty are in use. On one side there is a winding area where bicycle wheels have been imaginatively co opted into the process. The whole rooms resounds to the vigorous throwing of the shuttle as the women weavers work fast to produce fabrics of varying types. Some are fine enough to drape as saris, some almost transparent and others bulky and double sided for table mats and runners. In some designs, small, separate strands of plied cotton are inserted by hand into the body of the the weave to form distinctive patterns.

 Factory floor
 Winding area
 Weaving table runners.

Walking around you are struck by the intense heat and the low light. Neon tubes are suspended above each loom. The workers appear cheerful and industrious, unfazed by conditions under which we would be hard pressed to produce anything. Chatharunga says that the women have flexible working hours and are fed and accommodated by the factory. They also provide insurance and attend to their medical needs. Some workers will work week on and week off to return to their villages to spend time with their families.  Others will start early in the morning and take a couple of hours off in the middle of the day when the heat is intense, then return to their looms until later in the evening.

As we sat perspiring on a low concrete wall admiring the garden, the head of the weaving area appeared with tall glasses of pineapple juice, a hospitable gesture that is intrinsic to every visit made in this country.

Our day ended with a wild tuk tuk ride through the night to the Colombo Rowing Club as guests of Andrea's husband Rudi. Set on the shores of the Beira Lake it is a monument to the civilisation of times past, with wood panelling and honour boards decorating the walls. We sat on an elevated open deck facing the calm waters of the lake, coloured lights penetrating its surface in shimmering rainbows. A lovely end to a busy day.

Temple visit

The nineteenth century Gangaramaya temple sits on the edge of the Beira lake, a waterway that snakes and pools in two halves in central Colombo. Sri Lanka, although officially Buddhist, has always tolerated all religions and embraced their practice. Mosques sit alongside the many temples and shrines, and churches of all denominations are to be found amongst them. The branch of Buddhism practised in the island is Theraveda, and derives from Thailand rather than India.

We entered the compound and removed our shoes to stroll through the large complex of buildings, a somewhat eccentric collection that encompasses artefacts from China and South East Asia. Grouped around a magnificent Bo tree and open flagged courtyard, a serenity pervades the enclosure as monks and workers go about their daily business.

Entering the image house was breathtaking experience, the size, scale and colour of the decorated Buddha sculptures more Hollywood than holy. The pantheon of immense figures, so intensely coloured, is hard to take in and is awesome in the true sense of the word.

The image house
Moving out into the sun of the courtyard we were excited to see two elephants, one eating his breakfast and the other partly submerged in a shallow pool being scrubbed by two young men with a coconut husk loofah. This bath went on for the entire time of our visit, so thorough were they in cleaning the whole area of the large beast.

Breakfast and bath time
A set of stairs led to an old wooden building that houses the library, where glass cases hold ola leaf manuscripts inscribed with religious texts, and an odd collection of china and bric a brac that seemed to have been accumulated with no specific purpose. The central stupa, blindingly white in the sunshine  is flanked by Boddhisatva figures, their arms raised in blessing. Beyond is a vast two storey building that accommodates the monks and provides an open space for prayers and eating.

There is also a temple museum filled with an amazing assortment of exhibits including precious stones, coins, painted banners, Buddha statues, clocks and porcelain. An enormous glass cabinet at its centre holds a collection of exquisitely carved ivory objects ranging in size from tiny combs to huge tusks. It is apparently the collection of the head monk whose eclecticism stretches to two vintage Rolls Royces parked outside.

We encountered a young monk who gave us a blessing, placing a brass bell shape over our heads and then tying a bracelet of fine white cotton around our wrists. He chatted easily about visiting Melbourne and his religious training, obviously quite urbane and charmingly down to earth. We left the compound to the sonorous tolling of a bell, calling the monks to prayer.

Catching up on the news

Friday, 10 May 2013

A morning of contrasts

Our first official day of the tour dawned damp but with a few patches of blue in the sky to inspire hope for a fine day. And so it was.

A fine outlook

Piling onto a minibus, our first destination was to the "Pettah" the other old shopping area  - busy, dirty, smelly but full of life - to see Wolvendaal, the oldest Dutch church in Colombo. It is one of the oldest Protestant churches still in use in Sri Lanka, and conducts services in English, Sinhalese and Tamil. Wolvendaal literally means "dale of wolves" as the swampy marshland that was reclaimed for the site was a hunting ground for jackals. It was built on the highest point of ground so that when ships' crews approached the harbour they cold see it looming, and take refuge in the fact that religion was alive and a protective force in the colony. With Independence and the declaration of Buddhism as the official religion of Sri Lanka, a stupa was constructed to block out the view of the church from the harbour.

Front of the church

Dating from 1749, its interior is in the shape of a cross, and it has a humble rather than grand atmosphere, with simple whitewashed walls and high windows that were originally made with louvred shutters. The only decorative features are the carved font and pulpit, made from calamander, a precious wood indigenous to Sri Lanka. A row of ornate chairs elevated above the pews faces the pulpit and was reserved for government officials and dignitaries. Interestingly when the British took the church over under their own rule they replaced the hard wooden pews with more comfortable rattan seats that still line the interior in serried rows today. They also replaced the window shutters with stained glass in a restrained geometric pattern.
Chairs for dignitaries 
The font
The floor of the church is flagged with many stone markers elaborately carved to honour the ministers of the church and their families. Coded symbols reveal the nature of their demise, a skull and crossbones for an infectious disease (usually yellow fever), a broken column for an untimely accident.

The surrounding small garden is also a memorial ground with headstones lining the walls of the church and its perimeter. They have a touching quality of resilience in the face of the passage of time.

Headstones in the grounds

We drove back through the Pettah, a riot of sounds and scents not altogether pleasing. Its name is derived from the Tamil word 'pettai' that means village, and the district remains strongly Tamil and Muslim. Through the thronging streets there are glimpses of mosques and colourful Hindu temples covered in grotesqueries. The tiny shops overflow with an amazing array of goods - handbags, every type of clothing, fabrics, hardware and spare car parts - in a jumble of chaotic commerce.

Leaving our bus in a car park we walked through the food market that overflowed with an abundance of produce, mostly displayed on mats on the ground. 

Vegetables and a stall of dried fish

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

A damp arrival

We touched down at Bandaranaike airport at 12.15 am in a steady drizzle that increased as we cleared the airport and made our way to the waiting minibus. I travelled with five of our participants from Melbourne - Sue, Glennis, Jenny, Rosemary and Alan, and the flights were smooth and uneventful. At the airport we picked up the two other participants, Amanda and Lynne from Canberra.

The bus made its jolting way down to Colombo through intermittent bursts of heavy rain, the smell of Sri Lanka more potent than the sights in the blackness of night, sleep claiming our weary bodies. We alighted to the bright welcome of the Galle Face Hotel, a beacon perched on a thrashing ocean that eventually yielded us the comfort we needed.

Decorative panels at the front entrance

In the early hours a thunderstorm of tropical proportions shook the night and the rain became torrential. We woke to a grey, steamy day, mist rising from the hot, saturated ground. The buffet breakfast at the hotel is the epitome of elegance, taken on a wide verandah that looks out over manicured lawns to the sea. The food choices are endless, served from silver domed salvers. The sweetness of pineapple and papaya, every cereal you can imagine, multiple variations of eggs and bacon, a tableau of patisserie and the great Sri Lankan traditional breakfast of hoppers or egg hoppers made freshly and served with sambals and curries.

The Verandah

We delighted in the lazy meal, adjusting to the climate and anticipating the day. The hotel was originally a built by British entrepreneurs in 1864, facing a kilometer long stretch of green that borders the Indian Ocean. As children we spent time walking, flying kites and playing with balloons on this open park that has a fairground atmosphere on the weekends.

 A stormy outlook

At one o’clock we met with Christine Pearson, our travel agent and Andrea Boekel, our Sri Lankan guide and ‘girl on the ground’ who has assisted with putting visits in place here. She gave us an informed rundown of the history and culture of the country that she loves dearly although she has spent many years living overseas in France, the Middle East and Australia.

Colombo Port

The drizzle returned as we made our way in tuk tuks to have afternoon tea at the Grand Oriental Hotel that overlooks the port and harbor. The view proved to be the most interesting aspect of being there as the food was very ordinary and took a long time to arrive. We then walked through the “Fort” once a sophisticated shopping area that is now run down, the relics of establishments like “Cargills” that supplied the very best of English clothing standing like hulking ghosts amongst grubby, makeshift excuses for modern buildings. Our destination was the old Dutch Hospital, built in the 1700s when Ceylon was in their colonial possession. The long, low construction with tiled verandahs is set in a quadrangle around a cobbled courtyard and has been renovated into a dining and shopping complex that opened in 2011. Our visit was marred by the persistent rain, but we managed to enjoy some of the shops.

The Dutch Hospital

During dinner at the hotel it teemed – every gutter became a waterspout in the constant downpour and a fierce electrical storm lashed the sky. The cracks of thunder were palpable as the rain sheeted down far into the night.