Arugam Bay, Sri Lanka is well known for being a surfer’s paradise. But that wasn’t our reason for being there.
Travel off the beaten path in the Ampara District and you will reach Kalmunai, a charming city in the Eastern Province and the one and only Muslim-majority municipality in the country.
The drive was picturesque. Patches of green paddy fields, sparkles of ocean which burst forth from the mess of other colors flashing by, and my black Nikon hanging its tongue out the window like a dog, greedily lapping up all of the beautiful still images it could get in their perfectly untampered state. When we pulled up alongside a small shop in town, our guide jumped in the car and we began making our way to the village where we would meet them: the weavers.
Handloom cloth is a hallmark of Sri Lankan culture, the rich, beautiful textured fabric coming together thread by thread like the workmanship, skill, and devotion that goes into its creation. When we walked into the first small brown house–a warmly dilapidated structure–we were struck by the sight of two women at work at the loom, peddling furiously with their feet while their mouths engaged in chatter and their eyes glanced at the foreigners who made no attempt to hide the wonderment on their faces. This was true craftsmanship. This–at once a livelihood and an art–struck me as one of the most beautiful ways that I had seen man and machine work together, almost as if the rough, weathered feet of the women had someone extended into the creased brown legs of the loom, whirring in one consistent, inseparable rhythm.
The handloom industry is one that is, sadly, in decline in Sri Lanka. Handlooms have given way to factories and products manufactured at a speed which with those weathered, rough feet can’t compete. But I would argue that while the quality remains high, the craftsmanship is just not the same–the consequence being that an art and a livelihood are squandered at once by the single emotionless whir of a stainless steel machine. And yet, there is a reason to have hope for the future of the handloom.
Sri Lanka has seen the incipient growth of companies and individual entrepreneurs who are helping these handloom weavers sustain a treasured part of Sri Lanka’s culture by buying their cloth and making new products. This enables them to both support their families and invest in the future growth of their communities. It is yet another lesson in the way that purchasing power can be used for good.
I left the homes of the weavers we met in that small community in Kalmunai feeling like I had heard so many stories. Using languages far deeper than those that bounce on the human tongue, the flow of newly sewn cloth emerged like a triumphant river from the women’s efforts–the child of her strength and a loom which conferred life to the threads it cradled, one artful step at a time.
Ultimately, whether you are a weaver or a student or an aspiring careerwoman or man to be, you must believe in your craft–and the pursuit of that belief, while aided by mentors, friends and family, is at its heart, an individual one.
Even though we as humans converge in large religious groups such as the millions of Hindus who attended the Kumbh Mela festival this past month in India, or as citizens of a nation who believe in one constitution and a set of inalienable rights–ultimately, truly believing in that cause that brings unity is something that each individual member of a group must realize for himself. That day in Kalmunai, I could feel myself believing in what these women were doing, no matter what economists or marketers or consumers in the big city might say.
Maybe the prospect of seeing these incredible women at work weaving cloth at a handloom doesn’t seem especially remarkable to the casual visitor (or reader, as the case may be). But even in my short time standing in the weavers’ presence, I felt that I could appreciate the rarity of their craft in a way that is hard to convey with words–though I have ventured an attempt :)
As we left those small, warmly dilapidated houses and the city of Kulmanai behind, I couldn’t help but ponder a thought that had stayed with me throughout the day:
seeing can often mean believing, but it is far less commonly the equivalent of appreciating.
To do that, it helps to tell a story.