About a year ago, I remember scrolling through my insta feed, and seeing a bride dressed in a white cotton saree with intricate lace work. Not only was it different to the glimmering stone worked sarees bride’s usually choose, this piece of work looked quite exquisite. After admiring it for a few more minutes I completely forgot about it until I paid Galle Fort a visit.
I checked in to this beautiful boutique hotel 42 Lighthouse Street by Taru Villas after a long day of visiting couple of other properties of the same group. As I was feeling quite tired I decided to retreat to my room until dinner time. However, I had asked a guy named Shanjei (a very interesting local personality)to show us around the Fort the next day.
Long story short, we walked the ramparts of the entire Fort, exploring every nook and cranny there is and it was most certainly one of the best city strolls I’ve done. During our tour, we stopped by a street vendor for a citrus drink (locally referred to as pani dhodam) and got to talking about history.
Then he asked us, ‘so how do you think lace making (locally known as beeralu weaving) came to Sri Lanka?’ I said what do you mean came to Sri Lanka, I thought it was learnt from our ancestors and passed down through generations.
So here is the story.
Some believe it was passed down by the Dutch and some say it was the Portuguese. The latter is most likely true because, beeralu was more evident in 15th and 16th century clothing culture of the southerners, which was during the time the Portuguese were here. It can be assumed that the elite of the society at the time, like the Kandy and Queens, the bride’s of the royal courts wore beeralu designs.
I fact, I recall this Sinhalese Tele drama I enjoyed watching when I was much younger, named Gajaman Nona, a famed Sri Lankan poetess who lived during this era and she(the actress) used to wear such attire and I always admired them. Beeralu designs give a flair of graceful feminity and was probably associated with the royals for this reason.
Having said that, there is also another legend that suggests, when the Indian King, Vijaya arrived at the shores of ancient Sri Lanka, Kuveni( a mythical tribal queen) was already engaging in beeralu lace weaving. But that was even before the origin if the Sinhalese race.
With the open economy in 1977 many left in search from better employment ( including women). Many households encouraged their children to take on paid jobs in factories or cities as opposed to learning and making a living out of the traditional skills they acquired from their previous generations. The downfall of the industry was the middlemen entering the industry and the lace makers themselves making less than average earnings. Eventually (unfortunately) beeralu lace making became a dying industry.
Sri Lankan lace is hand woven, like it was done many many years ago. Stitch by stitch they create the most delicate and tedious patterns whilst fighting the poor market conditions to keep the craft afloat.
I am no expert, but from what it seemed, the lacemaker first creates some sort of a stencil on cardboard which is then transfered to paper. This is the blueprint of the pattern she intends to create. After fixing the paper stencil on to the rotatable drum like structure with pins, the weaving begins by interlacing the bobbins(beeralu) to create a design. From what we learnt, even an expert could take up to a week to weave one meter of lace.
It is believed that the the quality of beeralu lace surpases that of the European but may be you could be the judge of that.
I don’t intend to promote a specific business but to give Sri Lankan lace making the exposure it truly deserves. As a Sri Lankan I feel a sense of pride at the existence of such skills and craftmanship, and also a sense of responsibility to save it from extinction.
My understanding of tourism is that, the present day traveler seek something beyond sandy beaches and misty mountains, he aspire to experience the real…the authentic… and be a part of the communities they visit. So if this traveler is you, and you are planning a trip to the beautiful island of Sri Lanka, ask your travel agent to incorporate a visit to a local lace centre or if you book z a Galle city stroll with someone like Shanjei, just let him know you are interested to see/meet a southern lace maker and he will certainly make that happen.
One last thing, if you intend to purchase these intricate and lovely lace worked items, such as table clothes, curtains, placemats etc. try doing so directly from the lace makers themselves. Buying through large shops in the city does not do much of a financial up-lifting for these women.