August 2017


Heartland of Beautiful Brass
August 2017




Pouring the brass into the mould

Lying close to the centre of the old Kandyan Kingdom in central Sri Lanka is a little town renowned for her beautiful brass.


Words: Yomal Senerath-Yapa | Photography: Menaka Aravinda


Pilimathalawa is made distinct from other towns by the Kandy Road with the amorphous glow of brass. In the core of the town was a gleaming colony full of brass shops playing off the glare of the ten o'clock sun.


But before looking through them, we decided to witness their making. Smithies are found in many homes lying outside the town. In the village of Pamunuwa, we met a ‘gaantara' maker. These are the huge temple bells, housed in belfries and rung in evenings, and during emergencies. While this brass smith specialises in ‘gaantara', he also does caskets, spires and ‘ran-weta' or the gilded fences that protect sacred Bo treesin temples.


Adjoining most homes here is a dark, earthy shed where brass is cast, and this is where you find brass work done in the old way. Casting is one of the two ways to work on brass. The other method is called the ‘wrought technique', which involves the brass being hammered and engraved with intricate designs borrowed from the highly robust tradition of Sinhalese mythology. During the latter phase of the British colonial period, English ladies cherished these objets d'art, which would give an exotic, ethnic and tropical edge to their cold living rooms back home.

Once the metal has become liquid, the master smith inserts a long handled cup into the furnace, pulls up a ladle-full of deep, spluttering orange lava, and pours it into the waiting moulds.


The old casting method, which we did not witness, seems to have something satisfyingly lacking in the much easier new way. First of all, a wax model of the item to be casted has to be made. This is then covered with clay, and is baked so that wax gets melted out, leaving out the clay cover as the mould. Molten brass is then poured into this mould. The final decorations are then added with small hand tools, and can be anything from little squiggles to the intricate stylised, large birds and beasts like the ‘Hansa poottu' or ‘the two swans', birds with breast to breast and beak to beak with elegant necks entwined, made up of detailed scrollwork that curve, flourish and unfurl with life of their own.

Interesting Fact:

The ‘brass town’ is also the home of the aristocratic Pilimatalawwe family, so intricately entwined with the dramatic story of the Kandyan court (1593-1815). Though no relic commemorates them today, they were just as important in their time as the royal family itself.


The modern foundry, which we next visited, was a bustling place- with many people and a busy air of industry. At the heart of this modern foundry is the furnace, smoking with a green-yellow glow. Once the metal has become liquid, the master smith himself inserts one long handled cup into the furnace, pulls up a ladle-full of deep spluttering orange lava, and pours it, with a quick and expert flip, into the waiting moulds. In this large smithy there are separate rooms for decorating and finishing.


A cornucopia of brass products whirls out of these large and small smithies of Pilimathalawa. They can be whimsical and decorative, secular or religious, and you can find a good cross selection in the ‘pittala kadeys' that make up the biggest section of the town. These include spires for the stupas, Buddha statues big and small, Bo-tree bowls, smaller stupas festooned with bejewelled necklaces, and gods and goddesses such as Tara, Ganesh, Pattini and Luxshmi. There are also brass ‘elephant' tusks, huge keys like those for the ancient temple doors, mythical beasts and serpents, ships, cannons, cavaliers, scenes from the Arabian Nights, spindly legged tall storks, tortoises, the sun and moon depicted on circular plaques, lanterns, ‘pun kalas' or pots of plenty, friezes depicting long scenes and even the Father Christmas being drawn by his reindeers.

Final decorations can be anything from little squiggles to intricate, stylised large birds and beasts like the ’Hansa pootu‘ or ’the two swans‘...


These brass artefacts have a classic appeal. On an aristocratic mantelpiece or a shrine, they hold on their own. Their coppery tan is a timeless dull glow that will never wane or go out of style.

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    Adding finishing touches to a temple bell

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    Bulath heppu or betel leaf carriers

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    Ladling out the molten lava from the furnace

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    Giving character to a plain brass tray

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    The fiery furnace

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    The traditional oil lamp, crowned with a rooster

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