September 2018


Sesatha – A Beautiful Symbol of Heritage
September 2018




A contrast of colour, beautifully harmonised into operatic perfection through coordinated design and distinctive motifs, with tradition woven in-between. The Sesatha is the embodiment of our history.


Words: Jennifer Paldano Gunewardena
Photography: Menaka Aravinda and Anuradha Perera


Scenes of perpetual mountains soared in the breathtaking freshness of the day. Fields of paddy and verdant vegetation glowed in flushes of green. It was a new day in Unaweruva. As dawn broke, the villagers arose with enormous life-force to immerse in artisanry that pleats a craft - an art, that represents culture and tradition; and has become an integral part of history. This is the story of Sri Lankan craftsmen who weave the Sesatha - a traditional sunshade or fan. The Sesatha is a magnificently beautiful symbol of prosperity and a vibrant relic of history, now merged with a flamboyance that is deeply rooted in heritage.


Unaweruva in Matale has impressed its identity for creating Sesath. Apart from wandering into the beaten tracks of country roads and being momentarily lost in the awe of uninterrupted natural bliss, by following the signposts, the village is not difficult to locate.


As we stepped into the workshop of S G Anura, rounds of grandiose palettes stood imposingly, visually spellbinding us in time. After Emperor Asoka commissioned his daughter, Theri Sangamitta to bear a sapling of the Sacred Bo Tree to the island, she stepped ashore with 18 artisans appointed to conduct rituals associated with the sacred sapling. As the sacred sapling was escorted by foot, it is claimed that Sesath provided shelter to the fledgling tree. Thus came the sesath maker to Sri Lanka.


With time the descendants of this trade declined, yet an artisan named Thena carried on the ancient craft; although he refused to share the secret and worked only at night. Determined to learn the trade, Loku Kiriya befriended Thena and earned his trust. One night, upon entering the abode of the unsuspecting craftsmen, Loku Kiriya pretended to fall asleep. As Thena worked, he secretly etched the craft in his mind. The result has been remarkable. Because Loku Kiriya was a visionary of sorts, he became the modern-day forbearer that caused the trade to multiply and become a source of income to many families in Unaweruva.


Making the Sesatha is no small feat. Made entirely by hand, it is time consuming and difficult. Two pieces come together to form the Sesatha - the wooden staff carved, polished and decorated; and the disk sculpted with a tapestry of designs. The conventional and easiest design of the Sesatha is the lotus. The complex designs feature seven, five and three rings, where each ring is decorated with an assortment of patterns.


The traditional art of painted woodwork known as ‘laaksha', covers the wooden pole that bears the Sesatha. Peletts of shellac are heated into a malleable form to add pigments, the common colours being red, black, yellow and white. The pigmented shellac is beaten to take away any roughness. Left to dry, they are cut into pieces and stored. Before being used, the coloured fragments are heated over glowing coal and as they become supple, they are applied on the wooden pole. The sparkling smoothness is a result of slow buffing with a piece of palmyrah palm. Conventional geometric Sinhala designs such as palapethi, gal binduwa, lanu getaya and muthu dela are crafted onto the surface of the pole with a thread made from pigmented shellac. The skill of gentle crafting adds value to the pole, which holds the larger circular fresco of art.

Making the Sesatha is no small feat. Made entirely by hand, it is time consuming and difficult. Two pieces come together to form the Sesatha – the wooden poll carved, polished and decorated; and the disk sculpted with a tapestry of designs.


To craft the Sesatha, most of the material is sourced from the area. The mature leaf of the tailpot palm dried out in the sun forms the base. The tender palm selected to decorate the interior rings, is boiled to erase acridity, dried, then dyed, immersed in searing pigment infused water and dried again. This work of art lasts for generations, if prepared meticulously.


Handmade tools such as the ‘path-thassa' is used to cut-off thin strips off dyed palm to make braids and interlace palm ekel. The ‘daeth patiya', a wooden stick with marked measurement points, is used to define spheres. Strengthening the palm base is a sheet of mica, often part of the adornment.


The work starts at the centre, from the smallest circle attached with a fibre drawn from the cocoa tree; today, due to the scarcity of the tree, it has been replaced with synthetic thread. The design gradually spreads out to form larger embroidered concentric circles. Cutting, sewing, attaching and edging are literally unending tasks as symmetry is crucial. Decorating the conventional 28 inches of circumference with delicate braids and geometric shapes, means the Sesatha will be complete only after two weeks. A minimum of two craftsmen have to work in coordination to complete a set of identical spherical bases, which are attached back-to-back and secured to the festooned pole.


Royal patronage was important to the Sesath artisans, and several Sesath were annually gifted to the palace. The palace-bound shades had five rings, the one made for the temple had seven rings. The laymen used ones that had three rings.


The use of the Sesatha has changed, from a symbol of prosperity, nobility and a repellent of the ‘evil eye' in ancient times, to a symbol of decoration. The medley of colour breathes life to the space it adorns and exudes an aura of dignity.

  • image01
    image01

    Adding the red pigment to the melted shellac

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    A lot of patience is required in obtaining the vibrantly coloured shellac

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    The pigmented shellac is ready to be smoothened

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    Deft hands create thin threads from the shellac

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    Vibrant laaksha designs festoon the poles

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    Poles that feature more complex designs add further value to the Sesath

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    The dried palm is immersed in pigment infused water

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    The design comes to life under expert hands

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    S G Anura meticulously works on a Sesath

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    A Sesath excudes a quiet dignity

    Prev Next