Sri Lanka’s best souvenirs tell the story of a rich, revitalised local culture and enhance your understanding of South Asia’s history.
The coastal town of Ambalangoda is known for its wooden masks, which depict demons, gods and animals. Raksha masks, which portray 24 demons including the cobra and fire devil, are worn at festivals, while Sanni masks are used in exorcisms and Kolam masks for comic dances. A typical story sees the god of craftsmen provide masks and lyrics so servants can satisfy a pregnant queen’s cravings for dance.
Watch artisans chiselling wood and painting facial expressions onto masks at Ariyapala & Sons Mask Museum in Ambalangoda. The lightweight masks are made from kaduru trees, which grow around rice paddies. Local travel irm Pepper organises mask-making classes in Galle ($83).
The Dutch introduced the Indonesian technique of batik to Sri Lanka in the late 1600s. Dots and lines are etched on to fabric in wax before the fabric is dipped in dye. Common designs include peacocks, tea pickers, processions and rock art seen on the ancient fortress of Sigiriya.
Spend hours admiring fabric in Jez-Looks Batiks, a showroom in Jezima Mohomed’s front room in Matara. You can also watch women melting wax and making bespoke designs in the garden. Enquire about batik courses.
Once a dying art, this labour intensive skill is now being revitalized, particularly around Kandy in the Highlands. Lacquer is made of resin secreted by lac insects, which is melted, mixed with natural dyes and poured on to wood. Artisans use their fingernails to carve detail before the product – often a vase or trinket box – is polished with ola leaves.
Founded in 1882, the Kandyan Art Association (KAA) is set within the Kandyan Cultural Centre by Kandy Lake. Watch locals at work on the veranda then browse lacquer products inside at a ixed price. Enquire about classes.
KAA is on Facebook.
The Malays are credited with introducing beeralu (bobbin) lace to Sri Lanka in the eighth century AD, although the Portuguese made it popular in the 1600s. Today you can watch women weaving bobbins to form complex designs in Galle, Weligama and Matara. The lace is used to embellish dresses, bedding and tablecloths.
The women’s cooperative Shoba Display Gallery in Galle exhibits lace products. You can also make a lace and bead bracelet in a workshop.
Elaborate carvings can be seen across the country, although the best example is at the 14th century Embekka Temple in Kandy. While you can’t pack a temple in your suitcase, you can ship home furniture, boardgames or sculptures. Most depict elephants, Buddha, traditional dancers and men fishing on stilts in Mirissa.
Watch artisans sketching, chiselling and dyeing wood with lime and honey on a tour of Rajanima Craft’s workshop, which was established in 1988 in Kandy. You can also take a one-hour class (£18).