November 2016

Woven in Vanni
November 2016

Biodegradable kitchen utensils

The ancient craft of Palmyrah weaving has given meaning and value to the lives of rural ladies

Words: Yomal Senerath-Yapa | Photography: Vishwathan Tharmakulasingham

We drove through the empty landscapes of the Vanni, where everything is baked clean by the sun. A mirage scintillated ahead of us; scrubby land was on our sides; all the other space was claimed by the blue sky.

The Vanni, has the fascination that comes from being a mysterious, land. For a long time, its history was a secret, just mere hints of its past are mentioned in ancient chronicles. Nonetheless, its promising present is overt. Today, Vanni is a land blossoming with opportunity.

In Mankulam a girl with a pottu, a Frangipani blossom tucked behind her ear, beckoned us coyly - an emblem in the middle of a green signboard. Behind her pretty face was sketched the silhouette of a Palmyrah tree. This seemed to us the very distillation of Vanni: its ingenuous charm symbolised by the girl and its hardiness by the Palmyrah tree. We decided to stop here to investigate.

The little enterprise behind the sign board has been set up by a group of ladies: a brave attempt to fend for themselves in this often treacherous land. Food sat very few and far between in their glass shelves, and we discovered that culinary arts have been deserted recently for another line of work, which now keeps them busy.

Palmyrah Leaves Are Supple Yet Robust And Are Ideal For Making Strong Baskets And Trays.

In Palmyrah weaving they have discovered a creative pastime that keeps traditions alive and a source of income. A bevy of handsome, chiselled Tamil ladies, adorned in sarees and heavy golden jewellery from mukkuttis to toe rings, gathered to initiate us patiently to their craft.

The process begins when broad strips of Palmyrah leaves are spread out to dry in the sun. Once they had been exposed to enough heat (which doesn't take long here) they will be split into thinner strips. They are then trimmed to the same size.

Red, yellow, blue; with a handful of dyes the ladies create an entire palette. These are used to add colour to the various patterns that they have learnt to weave.

Next the strips are dyed. Water is set to boil in a saucepan and dye is added. Then a plump matron among the ladies would stuff a bundle of strips into the saucepan. Drowned in the bubbling hot water, the strips acquire some neon shade which is pretty to behold. But the real magic is how the colour sticks on adamantly when the strips are soaked in cold water soon after. As you would know if ever you owned a Palmyrah tote bag, the colour almost never scrubs off.

Then the weaving commences. Not only have you got to be an artist, but you should have marvellous patience. Many items materialise out of strips as the ladies gossip with one eye trained on their swift fingers. Hats, baskets, bags, garlands, fans, wall hangings, boxes; between themselves they manage to produce a good number of woven wonders each day.

The base of bags and baskets are weaved with thicker strips using the 'knot technique'.

As a traditional art Palmyrah weaving holds immense potential. The stylised designs that unfurl in their midst are charming and original, especially to the touristic eye. They are handy ethnic beauties of timeless appeal that will sit easy amidst any standard of elegance. They are also biodegradable, a definite edge in an age of grave environmental concerns.

The ladies of Vanni seemed to be weaving a bridge to connect their isolated land with the rest of the world.