December 2010


Agasti
December 2010




The simplistic beauty of an agasti necklace

A flower, a bead, a flower, a chain...a twist here, a tweak there, and yet another flower, a bead, a flower, a chain...and the process goes on. In a tiny jewellery workshop in Central Sri Lanka, at Pilimathalawa to be exact, a traditional jewellery maker is putting his skill into practice. Between his thumb and forefinger he holds silver filigree flowers and agasti stones and strings them together to create an exquisite necklace that is very much part of traditional upcountry jewellery in Sri Lanka.

Words: Thilini Kahandawaarachchi | Photography: Prabhath Chathuranga

Since the times of kings and queens, "agasti" a derivative of agate both in terms of name and substance has been an integral part of Kandyan dressing in Sri Lanka. It holds a special place among traditional Kandyan jewellery, which are handmade to order for the royal families and aristocracy. The designs represent wealth, prosperity and all things attached to royalty and nobility, hence only women born to these families could adorn themselves with the elaborately designed jewellery. What is more, only people who belonged to a particular caste and who were entrusted with designing jewellery for these families could dress the Royal Princesses with their handmade jewellery.

Making traditional agasti jewellery is an arduous process that involves considerable time, effort and of course skill. A small chunk of silver is heated in a cove until it is liquefied. Then the molten silver is poured into a mould, flattened and pulled until it turns into a thin silver wire. These wires are then twisted and turned to create chains. For designing the flowers and other filigree, the same silver wires are cut into small pieces and interlaced into various shapes and made into the hollow beads that are used along with agasti stones. Pieces of chain are twisted in the shape of a petal and then merged together by heating them. Depending on the required colour, the designs are then plated in copper or gold. Once they are given the desired shape and colour, with his dexterous fingers the jewellery maker twists and tweaks at tiny pieces of silver, and beads them together with agasti stones.

Each and every single piece of these jewellery is handcrafted and though the agasti bead itself may not be of great value, it is the final creation designed using intricate designs,  which renders  these jewellery their value.

An orange stone that is cut out of agate, agasti comes in various shades of orange. A typical set of agasti jewellery includes a necklace, earrings and two bangles and they are usually carried down through generations from mother to daughter as a family heirloom. However, there are a number of other pieces of jewellery that are created using agasti stones such as pendants, earrings, sari pins, hair pins and even what is known as a "hawadi", a piece of jewellery similar to a hip chain with an agasti stone dangling at its end that is worn at the waist of a woman dressed in a Kandyan saree - the Osariya.

The special place given to upcountry jewellery comes into the forefront at Kandyan weddings where the bride is dressed up in her traditional jewellery, which includes seven necklaces. Among them is an agasti necklace called the "diga maalaya" meaning long necklace, which actually falls below the waist of the bride.

Since the times of the Kings, agasti jewellery had been more often than not made to order with agate stones imported from India since it is not found in large quantities in Sri Lanka. In the past agasti jewellery had been called "filigree jewellery" due to the intricate designs used in them. Even in the present day, families who have been involved in it through generations continue the tradition.

However, unlinke the olden days, at present, agasti is no longer limited to be worn by Kandyans or upcountry brides; it is commonly worn by many as costume jewellery along with modern clothing as well.

Similar to those who own these intricately designed pieces of jewellery, which are handed down through generations, the craft of creating these exquisite pieces is also a skill that is passed down the lineage. For these jewellery makers, creating these dainty trinkets is not just a livelihood, but also a legacy and traditional knowledge that should be carried on to the future.

 

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    Agasti beads

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    Agasti beads with intricate silver designs

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    Agasti beads joined with silver filigree beads to form a necklace

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    A closer look at a necklace design consisting of a motif of a flower with six petals

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    Agasti bangles and a chain

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    Liquified silver being poured into a mould from the cove

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    The process of shaping the silver flower into a bead

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    The making of the hollow silver beads

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    Stringing the stones and the silver flowers into a chain

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