The Sri Lankan Art Of Traditional Mat Weaving (Paduru Rataa)
Mat weaving has been in play for countless years in Sri Lanka. The padura (mat) was generally found for general use at every home in the bygone days. It’s an all-purpose movable item and its purposes were and are many; from a tuck-away bed, to a dining table, as a mat to listen to the preaching of the Dhamma, to a stage of musical evenings with the ever famous ‘paduru' parties etc. Today, although its general use in the households have diminished and the industry is in decline, it still reflects a rich cultural heritage of the country. One particular attribute of Sri Lankan traditional mat is the rich and intricate weaving pat- terns/motifs or Paduru Rataa.
The starting point..
“Our rich agricultural history em- bodies the connection between nature and human life, where our ancestors utilized natural resources from their immediate environment to meet the requirements of their day to day lives, be it hide for clothing, branches for roofing, rush & reed for production of mats to sleep on etc...” It is in the rivers and in the marshes of Sri Lanka that the raw material to weave mats fit for a king to sleep on are abundant. Reed (Pan) can be classified as a grass and is the sole raw material in the production of mats in Sri Lanka and is grown all around the Island; from Jaffna in the North to Hambanthota in the Deep South. In bygone days, paddy farmers would always have a plot of reed plants amidst their paddy field. Often it's the women who will search river banks and wade the marshes to find that special reed named pan to produce the per- fect mat. 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.There is a whole family of pan reeds to choose from. From the havan pan (Cyeres dehiscens), and the galleha pan (Cyperus corymbosus), gata pan (Scripus erectus), wetakeyya (Pandanus kaida), thunhiriya (Eleocharis plantaginea) and pothukola (Scleria oryzoides). All are ideal fabrics to weave a mat. In addi- tion to pan, there’s also thal (palmyrah) which is used for weaving especially in the Island's north and east. The reeds would be dried, cleaned and tied into bundles and boiled with dye and dried in the shade.The natural dye to give it colour comes from natural pigments. For the deep red patangi wood (Coesalpinia sappan) with korakaha leaves, gingerly oil and other herbs can be used; for yellow venivel (Coscinium fenestratum); for purple, katarolu and for black gall nuts (Cynips), aralu (Oroxylum indicum) and bulu (Terminalia belerica). Pan infused in medicinal herbs have added health benefits. After the reeds have undergone the boiling process, it's then left in the shade to dry. It is now that the weaving can start and only reeds of the same length were used. Pan paduru are woven by hand, often on the floor.
In contrast, pan padura's more sophisticated cousin, the colourful ornamental Dumbara padura, are woven 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 are 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 (the first monarch of the world according to Buddhist tradition). The health benefits of sleeping on a reed mat are many. Other than its cooling effect, reed mats placed on a flat surface offers critical support and comfort that is needed by the spine. The soft reed sheets were conveniently rolled up and tucked away after use in paduru aana (two circles of rope hung from the rafters).
The cutting of reeds and the start of the weaving a new mat are done at auspicious times. The pain of artistic labour begins when two reeds of the same length are vertically placed together, running parallel to each other in the manner of a rail track. A third is brought into the frame and placed horizontally to tie up the two. From this point, the weavers, who are mostly women keep on inter- lacing 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 artistry is often inspired and accompanied by recitation of Sinhala poetry (Kavi), called the paduru mala kavi.
Padura Rataa or motifs
It’s not only vibrant colours that has given added value to the padura. It’s also the design, the art work and the intricate motifs used. The uniqueness of the padura depends on the patterns made on it. The more intricate the design, the more valued was the mat. The motifs are called "Rata" in Sinhala and the mat woven with the motifs are called "Rata Pedura" (Decorated Mat). Among the tradi- tional motifs there are floral motifs, animal motifs, geometrical motifs and also several miscellaneous motifs. Some of these Traditional motifs are as follows:
Today, the pan paduru has evolved away from its humble beginnings to become a cottage industry in all parts of the Island. Pan is woven into more than mat- ting and is used 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 ageing (a weaver is an average 50+ years) and retiring, and since 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.
It will be a shame for our country to lose this heritage that is our craft industry. For with this loss, we will certainly lose our history, our culture and an opportunity for our generation to inspire our future.
The art of Sri Lankan mat weaving was documented with "The Shilpa Kathaa" series created by Selyn, which hopes to provide a platform on which the traditions of Sri Lanka’s rich craft culture can be showcased. More at https://exploresrilanka.lk/2019/12/shilpa-kathaa-from-selyn-unveils-the-beauty-of-the-humble-mat/