September 2018


Mati Gewal
September 2018




Mati gewal reflect a simple yet peaceful lifestyle with the basic needs

A simple world away from the cities; embracing the art of earthen living.


Words: Venuri De Silva and Swetha Rathnajothijee
Photography: Vishwathan Tharmakulasingham


Travelling past Puttalam into the small town of Eluvankulam; the route became less busy and a rural ambience set in, with mud roads and lakes amidst the greenery. Traversing further along we discovered a community living in dwellings known as katu/mati gewal (houses made of wattle and daub). The houses are given this name due to their unique and simple construction, of a wood frame (wattle) supporting an earthen surface (daub).


Most of the houses we came across were completed, however there were some that remained in their initial frame. These were either yet to be finished, or were new extensions to the existing homes. The structures portrayed a wooden weave of branches; held together by rope or strong reeds. The villagers constructed this frame for the mud to be placed within, in order to prevent the collapsing of the houses. The wood chosen to construct the frames came from the tammenna tree (mischodon zeylanicus). These are small trees, growing freely within the area; the name used by the locals changing according to the region of Sri Lanka in which they are found. The preference of the tammenna tree is because it is sturdy, durable and does not decay easily. Nevertheless, when the villagers find it difficult to find tammenna branches, other types of wood from trees growing nearby can also be used.

The houses are given this name due to their unique and simple construction, of a wood frame (wattle) supporting an earthen surface (daub).


The mati used for the body of the houses is found within the garden area. As a traditional building material found in abundance, mud is greatly valued by the villagers for its cooling properties.


The building of mati gewal is usually carried out by the men of the family, with the women helping out after the household chores are finished. A pit is dug cutting deep into the ground, to get the best source of earth. As the mud in its natural form is dry, water collected from nearby lakes is poured into the soil; salt water is not used due to the formation of cracks. This is mixed together using only the feet to form a smooth, mouldable mixture. A handful of the mud is then formed into a ball and placed within the gaps of the frame. A layer takes around two days to dry; built too fast the form of the house may collapse. The gaps between each mud ball needs to be filled. The art of filling is that the mud is thrown with a slight force enough to push straight through, filling the entire gap. After this has all dried, a further finishing coat of the mud mixed with dry sand, is used for plastering a flat surface. The roofs are generally woven palm fronds in order to gain natural insulation and cooling. However, for stronger protection and durability many of the villagers now use roofing sheets. Traditionally, the floors of mati gewal have three coats of plaster; a mixture of plain mud, mud and clay as well as cow dung and water. Today, most houses have a cement or sand mixed finish.The houses are generally a single-storey structure with a maximum of one or two rooms. Some families choose to have their kitchen hearth inside, while some prefer to locate it outside to maintain cooler temperatures.

Each house reflects the personality and preferences of the families.


Each house reflects the personality and preferences of the families. The exterior walls are painted in bright colours while flower pots fringe the outside of the houses. The adaptation to the naturalistic surroundings is interesting; this can be seen by a wall area marked using insecticide chalk, and a stick pushing through for hanging bags being used as a makeshift food storage amenity. Another enhancement we saw was the hammock-styled cradle hanging from the roof. These all reflect the makings of a family home rather than merely temporary housing.

Each wattle and daub home tells a story; a story of dedication, unity and the essence of family.


The inhabitants of Eluvankulam live in unity and although life is simple, for generations they have gradually been developing and adapting better to enhance their lifestyles. The general livelihood of the families is farming and working in the paddy fields. Fishing is carried out along the coastal line close to Wilpattu National Park; but during the rainy seasons the men occupy themselves with other work such as cutting wood, working in coconut fields and harvesting cashew. Other means of making a living comes from also selling the fruits, such as wood apple, grown in their gardens.


Building a mati house is simple, but the task requires hard-work and great skill. The process is much more than one of just mere construction; it is embraced as a time for bonding and is sometimes even considered to be a community event where everyone lends a helping hand. Each wattle and daub home tells a story; a story of dedication, unity and the essence of family.

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    A wooden framed window for ventilation

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    A mati house with two sections and a larger garden

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    A makeshift cloth baby cradle hanging from the roof

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    A traditional kitchen hearth

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    Woven palm fronds are used for the roof to provide a cooling effect

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    The wood frame of the mati house – firmly positioned in place using ropes

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    After adding sufficient water, the mud is mixed

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    The smooth mixture is quickly taken to the building area

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    Forming the mud layers of the wall

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