Jaffna, in many ways very different from the rest of the country, has fostered and encouraged certain crafts and industries quite special to itself, for these are determined to a great extent by the region’s natural resources and environment. Some of Jaffna’s artisans were known for the mastery of tools and techniques coupled with an understanding of the raw materials at hand.
Jaffna is a land of palmyrahs. This karpaka (celestial) tree has shaped the simple life of its people for hundreds of years. Its stout timber, whose grain is longitudinal and could easily split into beams and rafts, possesses the quality of durability, and hence it has become an export product.
Out of palmyrah juice called toddy, kallakaram, a medicinal molasses-like sugar candy, is made.
Mats, four-cornered caps well suited to protect the heads from the hot sun, large-sized baskets for drawing water from the wells, hats and betel pouches are made out of palmyrah leaves. Hats made out of the wiry and strong rib of the leaves are weather- proof and were used exclusively by the working classes. These articles, however, were of “too coarse a texture to command a market outside Jaffna”.’ Ropes and brushes are made out of the strong fiber supplied by the stems of the palmyrahs.
Weaving has remained a productive industry since ancient times.
In fact, Point Pedro, one of the northern ports of the Peninsula, bears the Tamil name Paruttiturai, which means the “Cotton Port” Clothes made in ancient times have been likened in the Tamil Classics to “slough of serpents” and “vapour of milk”; they were so exquisitely manufactured that the threads and cross-threads of the fabric could not be discerned. It could be that the Tamils of Jaffna, too, acquired such mastery in this field.
The Dutch who took special interest in this industry brought a group of weavers called Chenia Chetties from Andhra Pradesh, South India and settled them in Jaffna. They produced sarees and other clothes. A class of weavers who pride themselves as belonging to the caste of the Tamil sage and poet Tiruvalluvar is still engaged in this industry in homes or cottages. These weavers use handlooms and, in earlier days, produced “coarse chelais (sarees) and towels and canvas for sails”.
An observer describes how these skilled people worked under primitive condition: “The weaver takes his station under a shed where he stretches his warp thread (nesavupa) between two wooden rollers which are fastened to the floor with wooden pins. He digs a pit in the ground large enough to put his legs when in a sitting posture; and then suspending to a rafter of the roof the cords which are intended to cause the raising and depressing of the warp threads, he fixes underneath two loops for his toes by which he produces a substitute for treadles. His shuttle acts also as a batten or lay and completes his simple arrangements.
The first operation called warping consists in laying the requisite number of threads together to form the width of the cloth. In the language of the weavers the warp threads are the long threads and the wefts (udu) are the cross threads. The yam wound in the bobbins as it leaves the hand of the spinner is stretched at full length in an open space. Supposing there are to be 500 threads in the width of a piece of cloth, the threads unwound and laid out are arranged into 500 parallel lengths constituting the warp of the intended cloth.