October 2014


Shades of Tradition
October 2014




Closeup of a mal thune (three-ringed) sesath, traditionally made for general use

The craft of sesath remained a closely guarded secret of an artisan clan for millennia, until a small revolution occurred in the quiet village of Unaveruwa.


Words Daleena Samara Photography Rasika Surasena


The village of Unaveruwa is tucked away in the verdant hills west of Matale, near the hill capital of Kandy. It's a small village of about 70 families, for whom paddy cultivation is the primary source of income.


Many such farming villages exist in the same area. What makes Unaveruwa extraordinary is its claim to fame as the keepers of the craft of sesath, a circular intricately decorated sunshade made from the huge fan-shaped leaves of the talipot palm.


The villagers of Unaveruwa will tell you that if not for them, sesath making would have died with the group of artisans of Indian descent whose ancestors imported the craft to the Island millennia ago. It survived for long, but as a closely guarded secret of the artisan clan. The villagers smile and recount how, in the 1960s, one of their own stole a march on the weavers by pretending to be inebriated and asleep.


The story goes that a sesath weaver named Dinamuthu Valliya settled down in Divilla, near Kandy. His descendants moved to Unaveruwa, where over time the lineage shrunk to a single family, that of Komala Durayalegedera Mutingia. To safeguard his craft, Komala, who the villagers also call Thena, crafted beautiful ornamental sunshades at night, working in secrecy in lamplight, while the village slept.


But the order was changed by the legendary Kira Durayalegedara Loku Kiriya, a local hero of sorts who came up with a wily scheme to crack the sesath code: he befriended Thena who began to invite him home. An overnight stay gradually became habitual. Pretending to be intoxicated, Loku Kiriya would feign sleep with one eye open, sneakily observing the weaver at work through the night.

Historical records on the origins of the sesath link the foreign weavers to the retinue of Indian Princess Arahat Theri Sangamitta, sister of Arahat Mahinda of India who introduced Buddhism to the Island
Loku Kiriya began to experiment with various techniques. Soon he too was weaving sesath. By 1968, he sought the help of a government official, to set up a training centre in Unaveruwa to train village youth in sesath making. The sesath monopoly thus crushed, the villagers of Unaveruwa developed an important secondary source of income, sesatha weaving, which continues to this day. Back then, a single sesatha could be sold for just seven rupees. Today one would cost about 4,000 to 5,000 rupees.


Historical records on the origins of the sesath link the foreign weavers in the retinue of Indian Princess Arahat Theri Sangamitta, sister of Arahat Mahinda Thero of India who introduced Buddhism to the Island. The Theri arrived in Sri Lanka in 3rd Century BC, bringing with her a sapling from the sacred bo tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. She was accompanied by a retinue of 500 bhikkunis and 18 members of various trades required to conduct rituals associated with the precious sapling. Included was a member of the Brahmin caste of sesatha weavers. Sesath they say were required to shade the tender leaves of the young bo tree from the hot sun of Sri Lanka and for various related rituals.


The sesath maker, it appears, put down roots in Sri Lanka. Presumably, it was his descendants who moved to Unaveruwa. The long passage of time had transformed them into native sons of Sri Lanka.


Sesath, which by then had won the favour of members of the elite, was much in demand. In use, it was borne by an attendant to shade those of importance from the sun. Sesath were also used in temples and other religious rituals such as peraheras and dance performances and in important government buildings and at important official functions. Unaveruwa's new breed of sesath makers were kept very busy, especially in periods of low income and work during the Maha and Yala paddy crop cycles.


Sesath making is particularly suitable for the Matale District where talipot palm (Corypha umbraculifera) proliferates. Other raw materials like the fibre of the cocoa tree used to sew the various components together are also readily available in the area. Mica, natural sheet silicate used to strengthen the base, is available in nearby Madavala. In the past, organic dyes such as boiled kos (jak) wood, maditiya (red sandalwood) leaves and patinga (surinam cherry) were used to produce vivid colours. This practice has now given way to synthetic dyes, which are easier to source and use.


The process of making a sesath takes from a week to a fortnight.The first step involves sourcing perfect mature talipot leaves. The leaves are then boiled, sometimes twice, to eliminate any acridity. Some parts of the leaves are dyed in various colours. The wet leaves are sun dried for at least two days. The whole leaves form the base of the sesatha disc, while coloured parts are cut into strips of varied length and width and made into individual decorative components like beautiful plaits, strips twisted on talipot ekels, and individual shapes, which are then sewn into a pattern of concentric circles starting from the centre outwards.


Thin sheets of mica are attached to the palm base for greater stability. A completed sesatha comprises two completed sesath sewn together back to back. The finished sesatha is affixed to a beautifully decorated lacquer painted pole of about six to seven feet in length. While the most common pattern is the stylised nelum (lotus), used especially for religious purposes, the villagers are creative and make other patterns.


Sesath were once a symbol of respect, status and authority. The number of rings on a sesatha was indicative of the hierarchical order of the owner. A 'mal hathe' (seven-ringed) sesath was exclusively for temple or religious use, indicating that Buddhist monasteries and monks occupy the first tier of the social order. A mal pahe (five-ringed) sesath was reserved for the elite laity. A mal thune (three-ringed) sesatha was for the rest. The completed sesatha come in three sizes: 13 inches, 18 inches, and 28 inches in diameter.


Today, as sesath have become a popular decorative for events ranging from weddings to funerals, and as an interior décor feature, these social demarcations have disappeared.


The biggest demand is for mal hathe sesath. Unfortunately, the craft is said to be on the decline due to dearth of raw materials like mica, and of manpower.


A well-made sesath will last over a century. There are sesath makers elsewhere on the Island, but none with the mystery and intrigue of the village where an ancient craft was hijacked at the nick of time to shelter future generations. If you pass that way some day, look out for an artisan named K D G Ariyasena, Loku Kiriya's nephew. He will be happy to narrate the tale of how his uncle learned the sesath secret.

 

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    Traditionally, the mal pahe (five-ringed) sesath was made exclusively for the elite laity

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    Sesath bearers at a perahera. Sesath is always used in religious processions

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    The origins of the sesath are linked to the foreign weavers to the retinue of Arahat Theri Sangamitta. This mural from the Kelaniya Raja Maha Viharaya illustrates the moment of the princess’s arrival on the shores of the Island

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    Strips of talipot palm leaves are boiled and left to dry in the sun for a few days

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    A woman stretches out a strip of dyed palm. This step is called kola madeema (ironing out the leaves)

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    The thin strips are then woven into various decorative elements that will be sewn onto the mica and palm base

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    Mica and palm form the foundation of a sesath

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    The final step is to fix the beautifully lacquered pole to the sesatha

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    K D G Ariyasena, Loku Kiriya’s nephew shows off Unaveruwa’s prized sesath

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    Unaveruwa sesath displayed at a stall at the recent Shilpa 2014 handicrafts exhibition

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