Sri Lankan Sojourns: Building with Clay.
The importance of clay in domestic life in Sri Lanka is obvious, even to those not actively seeking out the evidence. Evidence there was though, in plenty, from the stacks of cooking pots featured in overcrowded stores in every town we passed through……………….to the adobe ovens upon which they sat to cook in that were the main feature of a number of kitchens Brunyfire was privileged to have been invited into – like Gheeta’s kitchen in Polonnaruwa, in the North Central Province……….…….and the super efficient clay oven at the curd maker’s house just outside the town of Tissamaharama for the outsized aluminium caldron of boiling milk……..………and the kitchen of the Tamil potter whose workshop we stopped at to watch her son make pots……….……….and to purchase ware for Brunyfire’s growing international collection back in The Boathouse on Bruny.Brunyfire had also noted its use in building. Our first encounter with a clay domestic structure was our driver’s place, where his new home, using the materials favoured for the contemporary home (that of brick and concrete) was in the early stages of building in his thriving garden. But Jaga’s first building on the property, he built by himself with the help of friends, and this is a typical traditional wattle and daub style house that is still very much in evidence throughout Sri Lanka.The basic design of these structures comprises a single room with a colonnaded verandah, the walls of this verandah (pilla) area are usually built to form outdoor seats or beds. The single room at the back is reserved for sleeping and thus has no windows – all other activities occur in the pilla – the kitchen is usually outside.
The traditional rural home is made of clay walls and thatched roof and called a mati geya (clay house) in Sinhala and is built using the wattle and daub method. A stop at a local street side curd seller on our way from Tissa to Galle, illustrated this building technique really well.
In this style of building, a framework of poles is sunk into the ground, with horizontal poles lashed with coir rope between the vertical poles to make an open grid, or wattle (warichchi in Sinhala). The spaces between these are then filled with mud mixed with rice husks or straw. In a more refined version than the curd seller’s hut, both sides of these walls are then plastered (daubed) with a wet mud mixture.The use of natural clay and thatched roofs of woven palm………..……..is ideally suited to the hot tropical climate of Sri Lanka. When the weather is cool and humid, especially at night, the porosity of the clay absorbs moisture and during the day, when it is warm, the moisture is expelled – acting like an earthenware pot in keeping water cool through evaporation. So the walls of these houses literary breathe, and act as natural ‘air conditioners’.
Building a mati geya is usually a community effort with the men working on the timber and thatching and the women gathering the clay……..………..which they would source from nearby quarries. The clay would be allowed to slake a while in water, then it is trampled till it forms a homogenous mass, often mixed with chopped straw to act as an important binder and prevent excessive shrinkage. The clay mixture is left in the open for a few days, to mature and plastise before being used.
We also saw a number of interesting conically shaped structures, also made of clay, that Brunyfire later discovered were the traditional units for storing rice and are called vee bissas.Like all good recyclers, Sri Lankans re-use their curd pots in ingenious architectural additions to their properties, adding walls……………..or garden paths!There’s a nice, natural cycle of sustainability here – the curd maker’s depend upon the curd pots that the potters provide. The pots are only used once, presumably for health reasons, and then are used again in a new guise – as walls, garden paths, cook pots, storage, etc thus ensuring the ongoing necessity for the potter to keep making pots.