February 2012


Weave of life
February 2012




The rough fingers of a craftsman weave a delicate pattern from memory. Traditional designs like this will soon disappear with the passing of the older generation of crafts people. (Photography - Madhawa Nagahawatta)

In rural Sri Lanka, the traditional pan padura or reed mat is the very fabric of communal life. It is on this mat that individuals and families sleep, meals are shared, social events are celebrated, and even religious activities are conducted. The padura can serve as bed, table, sofa, picnic mat and more.

Words Daleena Samara & Madhawa Nagahawatta | Photography Rasika Surasena

An old poetic verse or kavi describes even royal appreciation of this humble furnishing. The Pannan Kathura tells us that Maha Sammatha Raja, the first mythological king of the world, appreciated the beautiful padura that was substituted for a mattress on his bed. This is how it starts:

Once, in the distant past, for King Sammatha
There was no mattress for his bed
The minister was informed
The minister said
Living in many places in these villages
Are skilled women
Skilled in the craft of paduru weaving
I will go fetch them quickly ...

The kavi goes on to narrate how the minister tasked two women, a mother and her daughter-in-law, to weave a mat for the king. The mat they wove was so beautiful, the king was pleased and rewarded them with treasure the weight of an elephant. However, the mother-in-law took it all, leaving nothing for her son's wife. The two women warred through weaving, each trying to outdo the other by weaving mats with more and more intricate designs. Eventually they made peace. Perhaps, the very act of weaving had calmed them down.

Whether or not King Sammatha existed, the poem rightly alludes to weaving being a feminine occupation. In the distant past, pan paduru weaving was an essential skill that even women of high birth were proud to have mastered. The matting was of such importance that a woman who did not know how to weave one would be considered unaccomplished. The skills of the master women weavers were highly sought after and respected. In fact, elderly women today still speak of legendary weaver grandmothers who wove the pan strands so tightly and neatly that the mats were watertight. In the past, life in rural Sri Lanka was simple and the villagers used materials from their immediate environment to make their household equipment. The slender reeds of the Havan Pan (Cyeres dehiscens), Gal Laha Pan (Cyperus corymbosus), Thun-hiriya (Eleocharis plantaginea), Gatapan (Scripus erectus), and Pothukola (Scleria oryzoides) abundant on wetland river banks and in the marshes were harvested to make matting to be used as floor coverings on which people sat or slept. Indi and Thunhiriya are said to make the most durable matting. The soft reed sheets were conveniently rolled up and tucked away after use in paduru aana (two circles of rope hung from the rafters).

Over time, the padura evolved and took on more elaborate interwoven patterns and flower, tree and bird motifs. The more intricate the design, the more valued was the mat. Some of the most common designs include nelum (lotus), namal (Na flowers), hansaputtuwa (intertwined swans), wankagiriya (mountains), lanugetaya (rope), lanuwa (plait), the swastika, 
and the mal gaha (flowering plant).

In contrast, pan padura's more sophisticated cousin, the colourful ornamental Dumbara padura, is woven by males and females on simple looms. The craft is practiced in the Dumbara Valley in the suburbs of Kandy, especially in the village of Henawela. The yarn used in these mats is made from the leaves of Niyada (sansivera zeylanica) and more recently Hana (hemp).  Some of these weaver families even claim to be descendants of Maha Sammatta Raja.

While the simplest pan padura was self-coloured, beautiful elaborate multi-coloured mats were woven using pan dyed with natural pigments. Only a limited number of colours were available; a deep red by boiling patangi wood (Coesalpinia sappan) with korakaha leaves, gingelly oil and other herbs, black by boiling gall nuts (Cynips), aralu (Oroxylum indicum) and bulu (Terminalia belerica), and yellow, by boiling veni-vel (Coscinium fenestratum). The pan infused in medicinal herbs has health-giving benefits.

over time, the padura evolved and took on more elaborate interwoven patterns and flower, tree and bird motifs.

Traditionally, groups of women would go to the fields, river banks 
and marshes to harvest the reeds. They would cut the reeds with a pan kattha, a small sickle-shaped knife, and walk home, swaying gracefully under the weight of the neat sheaves balanced on their heads. The reeds would be dried, cleaned and tied into bundles and boiled with dye and dried in the shade. Only reeds of the same length were used. Unlike Dumbara mats, which are woven on a loom, pan paduru are woven by hand, often on the floor.

Cutting reeds and starting a new mat were done at auspicious times. 
A mat begins to take shape when two rushes are placed vertically parallel to each other on the ground, and a third is placed horizontally, interlacing the two. From this point, the women keep on interlacing the rest of the pan, holding the ends of the fibres in place with their toes. It takes more than a month to complete one intricate mat.

Paduru weaving can be almost meditative, requiring intricate mental calculations. The pan is slightly dampened to keep it pliant. While working, the weavers sing paduru mala kavi, long poetic verses made of chains of four-line stanzas about their craft. The particularly interesting paduru kavi, written in the latter part of the Kandyan period (1590s-1815), has 79 stanzas. It starts with a description of young women going down to the lake to collect pan, then switches to a conversation between daughter-in-law and mother-in-law about who can weave the better mat, and ends with the women trying to outdo each other with designs. When the young woman weaves a hare motif, the older woman weaves a leopard motif that will eat the hare. And so it goes on, describing the paduru and the motifs.

Today, pan paduru has evolved away from its humble beginnings to become a cottage industry practised by males and females. Pan is woven into more than matting, in items such as sandals, handbags, wall hangings and letter holders. However, pan weaving is a dying craft. The steady encroachment of development into marshlands, the change in the rhythm of village life disrupting its connection with the environment, the use of beds, and the lack of interest that younger generations have in the craft of their forefathers, is marking its slow death. The most talented workers are retiring, and since the young people aren't drawn to this field, there is no one to take up the reigns. The traditional pan patterns are not documented, but handed down from elder to novice, and when that chain is broken, 
that knowledge will be lost.

Perhaps technology will be harnessed to preserve the craft. In the meantime, it would be good to roll out a pan padura, lie on its sweet cooling surface and contemplate the deeper weave of life that this simple piece of furnishing represents.

 

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    Pothu kola reeds, which are used to weave hardy mattresses are named as such because the reed has a rough finish like a tree bark.

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    Mats woven with traditional geometric designs handed down from generation to generation through instructions from elders and paduru kavi.

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    Rice stalks, a symbol of prosperity, are interwoven with pan reeds to make this quaint wall hanging.

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    Mats woven with traditional geomatric designs.

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    Mats woven with traditional geomatric designs.

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    Slim cylindrical reeds such as these are used to make mats, which are woven in a loom. (Photography: Madhawa Nagahawatta)

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    A modern loom used for weaving mats, an improvement on the traditional loom that has been used from the Middle Ages. (
Photography - Madhawa Nagahawatta)

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    The pan kattha or the reed sickle used for cutting the pan reeds and a clump of dried gallaha reeds. After the reeds are cut, they are slowly dried in the shade.

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    A bundle of dyed pan reeds ready to be woven into a mat. In the past, natural dyes made from patangi plants were used to get such a vibrant red.

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    Reeds are sorted and stored: If kept dry and safe from rodents, they have a shelf life of up to one year.

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    A ray of evening sunlight illuminates the face of an elderly craftsman working on a pan mat. Dried bundles of pan reeds are in the background.

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