A woman making a pot, signifying the pottery industry in Sri Lanka
Pottery Industry in Sri Lanka!

People have been using natural resources to create various essentials for ages. Clay is one such natural and eco-friendly material that is used to create various products. The pottery industry gives shape and life to clay. However, it is not just an industry but an artistic craft. There are many people in Sri Lanka who engage in the pottery industry as their livelihood. On the other hand, some people love to engage in pottery as a hobby as it is very therapeutic and satisfying.

Anyhow, in Sri Lanka, pottery is the main industry related to traditional arts and crafts that prevailed for centuries. Besides, there is a high demand for pottery as many Sri Lankans love using clay-based products for cooking, interior decorating, and gardening. However, there’s an interesting process behind the creation of clay-based products. But first, let’s get to know how history reveals the pottery industry in Sri Lanka.

History of the Pottery Industry in Sri Lanka

From domestic utensils to huge buildings, clay was the material for all sorts of things in ancient Sri Lanka. Hence, the pottery industry in Sri Lanka has a long history. In fact, it dates back so far to the years 900 BC and 1120 BC. Accordingly, the first pot in Sri Lanka was from Anuradhapura and Ranchamadam, Embilipitiya. Besides, in areas like Ibbankatuwa and Pomparippu, evidence for a well-established pottery industry has been found. And yes, during that time, pottery was an essential industry as people used earthenware for many of their daily purposes.

However, according to history, the pottery industry became prominent in Sri Lanka after the introduction of Buddhism. Buddhists built stupas and statues with clay to commemorate Lord Buddha. This was a highlight for the pottery industry in Sri Lanka.

Besides, Bhikkuni Sangamitta, daughter of Emperor Asoka brought a branch of the sacred Bo tree from India to Sri Lanka in 288 BC. There were artisans from 18 trades including the pottery industry in her entourage. As such, several sources have different claims on the beginning of the pottery industry on this island.

Anyhow, earthenware was in high demand throughout the centuries mainly because of the ease of access to raw materials. In ancient Sri Lanka, at least one potter lived in every rural village. Even whole villages were dedicated to the pottery industry. Also, until recent days, many of the domestic utensils like containers were clay products. Most of the villages in rural areas built their houses entirely out of clay. Accordingly, the pottery industry was a valued industry for the longest time in Sri Lanka.

Main Materials Used for Pottery in Sri Lanka

Obviously, the main material used in the pottery industry is clay. However, potters mix it with other substances to make it easy to work with.

Besides, did you know that there are different types of clay that potters use for different types of clay products? Well, yes! Mainly there are three types of clay that the potters use for the pottery industry in Sri Lanka. They are red clay, white clay, and ball clay.

Red clay or earthenware clay is the most common type of clay material in Sri Lanka and it is useful for making tiles, bricks, and pottery. During the process, the potters mix red clay with sand and grit. White clay is the most appropriate material to create porcelain and ceramics. It is available as large deposits in Sri Lanka. Ball clay is also a material that is useful in manufacturing porcelain and ceramics and the main component of ball clay is kaolin.

Of course, it is true that clay is an abundant natural resource that is available in Sri Lanka on a large scale. Still, due to its heavy usage, clay has become a scarce resource. Hence, finding suitable clay for the pottery industry has become a challenge. However, there are several locations that are famous for good clay for the pottery industry. Such places are Nattandiya, Dediyawala, Boralesgamuwa and Meetiyagoda.

Nattandiya area is well-known for earthenware clay or the common red clay. Further, areas like Boralesgamuwa and Meetiyagoda, are the best to find ball clay on large scales. However, due to the availability of resources, the main pottery villages of the country are located around these areas. Still, it is a must mention that clay is available on a small scale in other areas of the country as well.

Process of Making Clay Based Products

Pottery can seem easy, but in reality, one needs a lot of practice and talent to create pottery. Besides, the process of making clay products in Sri Lanka is a little bit different.

In fact, clay is harvested on a large scale and stored for a longer period of use. Before starting to make the product, clay should be put into a refining process. Hence, the potters mix the clay well with sand and water and keep it aside for 2-3 days for it to season well. Afterward, they remove all the dirt and roots from the prepared mixture and smooth it with machines or hands. Meanwhile, the potter can make sure that there are no air holes left in the mixture and it is ready for molding. Potters use a machine called ‘sakaporuwa’ to mold the product. It is a manual machine that helps potters create symmetrical pottery.

The potter can mold the product on the sakaporuwa until he gets the desired shape and thickness. However, some potters just use their hands to mold the product. Then, they use some small tools to further smooth the surface of the pot. Afterward, they dry the final product under the sunlight for a day or more. This will ensure the strength of the clay-based product. After it reaches the correct amount of dryness, the potters put the product into a large oven which works with firewood or coconut husks. This will ensure that the product is long-lasting. There won’t be any pores or cracks in a good clay product made in this way. And yes, this is the traditional way of making pottery in Sri Lanka which has been passed down for generations.

Techniques of the Pottery Industry in Sri Lanka

In the traditional way of pottery, Sri Lankan potters use various techniques to create the perfect product. From harvesting the clay to starting the final product, there are several such steps that help them in the process.

Accordingly, they collect clay during the dry season and store them as balls to use for a whole year. After mixing different types of clay with water and other substances like sand, the potter kneads it well by hand to create the correct mixture. Usually, a potter needs an artistic hand and a lot of practice to create a symmetrical pot on a constantly rotating board. After burning the pot, the potters smoke it for around 2 days. Even though there are several new mechanisms introduced to the pottery industry with modern technology, many Sri Lankans follow the traditional way with unique and interesting tips and tricks.

Sri Lankan Clay Products

The Sri Lankan pottery industry is well known for its creation of unique clay-based products that serve various purposes. However, clay pots and pans used for cooking are their best-selling product up to date. In fact, there is at least one clay pot in every Sri Lankan kitchen. Many Sri Lankans believe that the food tastes better when they are prepared on clay pots. On special occasions like the new year and housewarming, Sri Lankans boil milk in a clay pot in the hope of gaining prosperity. Therefore, kitchen utensils will always always be the number one product in the Sri Lankan pottery industry.

Furthermore, clay vessels are also used in Sri Lankan households to store water. While storing water is its main purpose, it is believed that the clay can even purify the water. As such clay-based products have much reputation, especially in the Sri Lankan kitchen.

In the present, clay-based products are used in gardening and for decorative purposes as well. Many love using clay-based products like flower pots, vases, and statues mainly because they are eco-friendly and they can add a beautiful earthing vibe to the house and garden. Apart from that, Sri Lankan potters also make floor tiles and roof tiles with clay. They are making a comeback to modern architecture mainly due to the health benefits. 

After all, if you love customized stuff, then pottery will be the best option for you. Basically, the options are endless with the Sri Lankan pottery industry.

Present Status of the Pottery Industry in Sri Lanka

It is true that the pottery industry is well-established and has a high demand in Sri Lanka. Still, it faces many challenges due to many reasons. First, it is an industry that is based on natural resources. Due to the high usage, there’s a scarcity of quality clay in Sri Lanka. Whereas, there are more strict rules and regulations in mining lands for clay which limits the access to the material. Hence, material scarcity is the main challenge to the pottery industry. Then, that causes an increase in the production cost which in return makes the prices of the final product also go up. As a result, clay products are quite expensive in the local market these days. This resulted in decreasing the demand for the pottery industry.

Furthermore, plastic replaced many of the clay-based products in recent times. Many Sri Lankans shifted to plastic as they are more durable and easy to handle. However, in the present, people are becoming more conscious about the environment than ever. So, clay products are still held in high regard as they are environmentally friendly. In addition, there’s a good market for creative and innovative clay-based products.

Besides, the pottery industry can develop more in this situation if they have proper guidance and more access to the materials. The Sri Lankan government established the State Ministry of Rattan, Brass, Pottery, Furniture, and Rural Industrial Promotion aiming at this purpose. Hence, we can keep hope that the pottery industry has a successful way ahead.

Pottery Villages in Sri Lanka

In ancient Sri Lanka, some rural villages entirely depended on the pottery industry as their livelihood. While there aren’t such villages today, still there are villages in Sri Lanka that are popular for the pottery industry. Some of them are, 

  • Walahapitiya in Nattandiya
  • Molagoda in Kegalle
  • Katupotha in Wariyapola
  • Kirimetiyana in Dankotuwa
  • Biyagama in Kelaniya

In these villages, the pottery industry is basically a family-owned business. So, the talent has been passed down for generations for these families. Besides, the pottery villages are close to the locations where the potters can easily find clay on a large scale. Also, don’t forget! Whenever you are in Sri Lanka, you can also visit a pottery village to see how Sri Lankan crafters engage in the pottery industry. That is surely going to be a wonderful experience!

Future of the Pottery Industry in Sri Lanka

The Sri Lankan pottery industry has great potential in the local and international markets. Since many try to reduce their plastic usage, clay products are obviously a great alternative. So, with the proper support and guidance, the Sri Lankan pottery industry can thrive into a successful business. But it is doubtful whether the relevant authorities are extending any support to the needed parties. Due to the lack of resources and the high production cost, people cannot get a good income from the pottery industry. With the current economic condition, it has become almost impossible to engage in the pottery industry with such a low income. So, the industry can shrink even in the local market in the future.  

On the other hand, younger generations of the pottery families are not willing to engage in the family businesses as they have other options with better incomes. Due to these issues, the pottery industry can be jeopardized in Sri Lanka in the future. However, if Sri Lankan potters can identify new career paths within the pottery industry such as pottery classes and making creative ornaments, etc., it will be a great future investment. As a whole, the pottery industry can prosper in the future if it received the correct supervision and contributions.

The Bottom Line

Sri Lanka is a country with many traditional art and craft industries. Among them, the pottery industry takes a special place due to its popularity in the present as well. The process behind making pottery is fascinating and creative. While this is a common industry in many parts of the world, as mentioned above, there are various elements that make the Sri Lankan pottery industry more unique and authentic. So, now you know about yet another sophisticated industry of this paradise island. Thus, never forget to pay a visit to a pottery village to observe how crafters of Sri Lanka engage in the pottery industry. And why not? You can buy yourself some eco-friendly clay-based products as a souvenir and support small business owners. Happy and safe traveling!