Visiting the Batik and Gem Factories, Sri Lanka

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Visiting the Batik and Gem Factories

Gem Mining the river

The next morning of our tour is magical. Our rooms on the top floor open out onto balconies overlooking the river. We hardly noticed it the day before – more of our attention being on the swimming pool. However at this time in the morning there is a light mist covering the whole river and a haunting chant rings out across the river from the jungle on the other side. We can’t see the source of the chanting but the strong impression is of a mystical Buddhist ritual, filled with spiritual meaning.

On the river itself are a couple of square rafts. Each raft has a single occupant with a long pole. However rather than using this pole to guide the craft along the river the people on the raft are patiently dipping it deep into the river bed, pulling up mud. Its an intriguing sight and one that I spend about 20 minutes just standing watching intently with the distant Buddhist voice gentle in my ears. These people are mining gems which are apparently if not common in Sri Lanka are also far from rare. The breakfast is fair but we’d rate the accommodation and setting of this hotel more than the food. As normal Chris is ready for us and we set out at around 9am. We’ve a long drive ahead of us, up into the hill country but before we get there Chris as a couple of stops for us.

Batik Factory, Kandy

Our first stop is a Batik factory. To reach this factory, high on a hill overlooking Lake Kandy we have to wind our way up a set of narrow bumpy roads (all roads in Sri Lanka are bumpy!). As we open the door we’re suddenly aware of street sellers all around. They were not their before but as if by magic they appear as soon as we emerge. They are selling t-shirts, jewellery, trinkets, beads – you name it they have it. Chris as always is our guide in these matters. He advises that there is no reason not to buy from them if we want but otherwise just to smile and nod and say “no thanks”. As always his advice is good – the people are insistent but friendly and when we say no they melt away almost as quickly as they arrived.

We come to a rickety looking white building which is clearly a shop but instead of entering by what appears to be the front door, Chris directs us down a side staircase to a side entrance. I should admit at this stage that while Lisa of course is knowledgeable in all things crafty I had no idea at all what Batik was let alone how it is made. But it is immediately apparent that this deficiency, far from being an impediment is just about to be corrected.

A short lady with long dark hair, pulled back in a pony tail greets us at the side door and explains in broken but perfectly understandable English that we are welcome to the batik factory and that she will show us how the batiks are made and then we can go into the shop. Chris beats a retreat back to the car and we walk into a functional if rather shabby workroom.

This is not a factory as we would understand it. There are about 3 or 4 young women (some could even be described as girls although none are so young that they are obviously of school age) all treating batiks in various stages of development.

Batik for the uninitiated is a cloth material painted with a pattern or picture which can be used for table cloths, table mats, sheets, clothes, wall decorations etc. However its manufacture is very unusual in that instead of being painted on plain cloth it is almost the reverse. The picture or pattern is painted onto the cloth with wax and then the cloth is dyed. The picture is therefore protected from the dye where the wax has been painted. By adding or removing wax different areas of the cloth are coloured until the final picture is revealed.

The girls who are finishing the batiks work quietly on their craft. It is difficult for us to explain to the children who are vaguely aware of the issues of child labour from school lessons and as with all children as pertinent and searching questions, thankfully quietly in this case. However I have to remind myself as well as the children that we must not impose my normality on the Sri Lankan culture. Child labour is clearly a problem in these countries and I cannot say for certain what the situation is for these girls. However they are not so young that they could be reasonably employed and providing a living for their families. Their working conditions as far as we can see are good and they don’t appear unhappy.

If I had heard the description above I would have assumed that only basic designs could be accomplished. However this is very far from the truth as we see when we leave the mini-factory area and walk into the shop. Every kind of cloth from clothing, tableware, bed linen and even wall hangings are on display. As well as intricate patterns, complicated pictures are portrayed, many of Sri Lanka landscapes, culture, animals or religion. At the end I feel lucky to come out with only 6 beautiful cloth table mats with elephants and two large wall hangings depicting some of the wall painting we saw at Sygiria Rock.

Gem Factory, Kandy

Chris drives us further up the road and we stop outside a gem factory. At this point I am half tempted to tell Chris to carry on as I am rather terrified at what we might spend. However semi-precious gems are a speciality in Sri Lanka and this is exactly why we wanted a guide – to show us the full breadth of Sri Lankan society.

The gem factory is well set up for tourists. There is a video area where you first spend around 20 minutes learning about what gems are found in Sri Lanka and how they are mined. The mining itself is very manual and probably pretty dangerous. A group of workers basically dig a very big, square hole, support if with wood around the sides and then climb down and excavate the muddy soil in the hope of finding gems.

Gems of all types are found in Sri Lanka and the next part of the tour has examples of the different gems and where in the country the are found. Finally we walk through a small workroom where several people (all adults this time!) are cutting and polishing the gems.

I can see Lisa and Kate both itching to see what is on offer here! We finally make our way up to the top floor where there are an incredible array of jewellery with gems of all shapes, sizes and types as well as individual gems. Here comes a very awkward moment – trying to negotiate between a wife, a daughter and a friendly gem salesman! In the end I send the girls away (having got a pretty good idea of what they're after) and enter into a pretty lightweight negotiation with the gem seller.

After some bartering I get the pair of sapphire earrings down to £40. I have no idea at all if this is a good price, only that I seem to have knocked off a good 50%. However when the salesman converts this to Sri Lankan Rupees I realise there is another “scam” (in the friendliest terms). The exchange rate he uses is around 20% more than that I got at the hotel only that morning! After querying it with him he assures me that it is the latest and we do the deal. However after leaving I could of kicked myself because I realise that I could have called his bluff and paid in sterling – oh well live and learn!

Street Sellers in Kandy

As we make our way back to the car, the magic street sellers materialise again from no where. It is difficult to explain exactly how clever this is – one minute the road is empty, next it seems to be filled with sellers! What happens next I can't blame on the street sellers but as I am getting to the car, I am distracted between my polite “no thank you” and considering a photo of Lake Kandy from the viewpoint that we find ourselves at and as a result I miss the rather large curb. The fall is sudden and painful but in my embarrassment I shrug off all concerns and get myself into the car – just thankful that the camera hasn’t broken! I hobble into the car and pull off my shoe to see a rapidly swelling foot. Chris offers to put some herbal cream on it but “like a man” I decide I’d rather be brave (courage obviously has the power to prevent bruising!). We therefore set off again, with my painful foot stretched out and slightly raised (as this is Lisa’s answer to all swellings). As we drive off I can’t help thinking that this was a rather extreme way to get rid of the street sellers!