Through a tree-lined road one cool misty morning, we made our way to a tiny village that is still the heart and soul of one of Sri Lanka’s most unique cultural traditions. The village of Kooragala, in the Udunuwara Divisional Secretariat of the Kandy District, is nestled upon a small mountain range.
The little village is renowned for producing upcountry, low country and Sabaragamuwa drums and other traditional musical instruments. Old tales are told about the village and its dwellers. Kooragala village which spans about eight acres and not very far from the Embekke temple was once considered part of the temple lands. “Back in those days, it was the job of the villagers to make the ropes to tie up elephants that came to the Embekke temple. Over time, the village was released from its temple duties. It was after this that the village began to produce drums,” explained Premaratne, an elderly Kooragala resident and President of the Kooragala Musical Instrument Production Association.
In the research published by M.D. Raghavan, who wrote extensively about the “Rodie” caste in Sri Lanka, Kooragala is named as a “Rodie Village” in the Central Province. “It was members of this caste who first lived in this village. Under the feudal system, they were assigned the tasks of sweeping and cleaning the Royal Residence. In the past they were referred to as “Roddas” and shunned in society. As a result they had to start begging for food. With time they began to do other kinds of work,” Premaratne related.
According to elderly Kooragala residents, the village used to be so isolated that barely anyone would come even for a funeral in the area. “This might have been because of the strong caste sensibilities that existed at the time,” they explain.
The primary school in the village was initially a little hut. Gemunu Primary School is now one little hall. The school started off with 30 pupils but today, only 11 children attend the school and all five classes, Year 1 to Year 5 take place in the same hall. With four teachers and a Principal, the school carries on, with little children all dressed in white attending classes. The school has no library or sports facilities. Once the students pass out of Year 5 they must go to a secondary school further away from the village.
Residents of Kooragala admit that it is only the children whose parents have no other alternatives that attend the little village school now. Once these children complete Year 5 classes, they tend to abandon their school careers altogether. Most children attend bigger schools outside the village. “If the kids remain here in this village school, they don’t really interact with society. When they go to the bigger schools outside after Year 5 they are shunned. If you want your children to go into society, they have to school outside the village. This is why most of our children attend school outside the village, in bigger towns,” said one parent who resides in Kooragala.
Ranvilliyaya is Kooragala’s oldest inhabitant and he is ill these days. He was unable to meet visitors to the village since he had left to seek medical attention. “About six generations ago, Ranvilliya’s wife’s father used a bicycle rim to twist a rope together. Later on, it occurred to him that he could use a wheel like that to make wooden drums. Initially, the drums were made using trunks of the albesia tree. Over time, generations of people took over the task,” related Anulawathi who lives in a village some distance away, but is also involved in drum-making in Kooragala. Anulawathi explained that her husband had learned drum-making when he was very young. She married him and came to Kooragala in 1977. “From that day onwards, I got involved in the drum-making industry. My eldest son is also a drum-maker now. This industry is quite developed now compared to what it used to be. But if it is to become a real traditional industry, the craftsmen need Government assistance and focus,” she said.
About 85 families live in the drum-making village of Kooragala whose eight acres extend to the top of a mountain on the range. Only about 16 of those families are involved in the drum-making trade. Since the cost of raw material is so high, a single individual often cannot afford to build a drum from start to finish. In storage, the drum-makers have about Rs 400,000 worth of raw material – wood, leather and other products. The store of finished products is valued around Rs 500,000, the village craftsmen said.
Even though the most suitable types of wood for drum production was ehela, margosa, gansuriya and waraka, these trees are so rare now that drum-makers have resorted to using wood from jak, coconut and kitul trees, instead. However, according to the drum-makers, the difficulty to find jak wood is a huge challenge. Once the wood and raw materials are acquired, the processing of making a drum goes through several arduous stages, until the final product is painted and is ready. All over the village of Kooragala, men and women are engaged in various aspects and stages of crafting drums.
Each person is a cog in the wheel with the parts eventually coming together in a single instrument. The leather that goes into each drum arrives as raw skin to the village from butcher shops nearby, transported in big sacks in three wheelers. These skins are chemically treated and hung to dry in the harsh sunlight that beats down on exposed areas of the mountainous village.
“Back in the day, every step of the process was determined astrologically. Even when they chose the wood which would go into making the drum, drum makers would choose trees that stand near flowing streams and rivers. The early drum makers believed the tree would imbibe the rhythm of the flowing water throughout its life and it would give life and rhythm to the drum that is crafted from its wood,” traditional drum-maker Premaratne explained.
According to Premaratne, trees had to be cut at a particular time of the day, based on astrology. “If the tree is cut on a Poya day, the sound of the drum is different,” he asserted. Back then, when they were making only one or two drums, all these traditions were properly adhered to, the drum-maker explained.
Things are different now, he says. Music and dancing are subjects taught in school. The Cultural Affairs Ministry has requirements for drums and so modern techniques are used to produce a larger volume of products. “Obviously, the standard of the products is also different in modern times,” he said.
The upcountry ‘Geta bere’ for instance, is produced in all sorts of different ways now, says Premaratne, who explains that much of this is a result of ignorance about the old ways. “Those days my father would hold classes on drum making and about 12 new apprentices would be born in a year,” he recalls. “There were secrets that the old folk knew about the crafting of a good drum.
They would trust those trade secrets only to a chosen few,” Premaratne chuckled. But this also means that those who were not privy to those trade secrets, never go on to make high standard drums. “Creating the mouth of the drum is the very first facet of the production process. Certain steps need to be taken in that process – and that is not something we tell everyone,” the drum-maker, seemingly a guardian of his own share of secrets says. There are differences between the sounds and echoes of a drum played during the poojas at the Dalada Maligawa and those played in a Hewisi band or in a dancing class, Premaratne told us. “Not everyone understands these subtle differences.”
Amidst a sea of tree trunks, K. Weeraratne shapes a piece of wood using a machine. Like a potter at his wheel, in minutes the craftsman obtains the shape of a drum as the machine cuts away at the wood furiously. Back in the day, he said, ancestral craftsmen used the wheel of a cart to shape the drum. “This was not an easy task,” he explained. Weeraratne himself inherited the trade from his mother’s side of the family. He has the skill to craft a drum from scratch, right up to the finished product, Weeraratne said. He helps those who do not have the skill to strip their wood and shape it using his machine. The village now has about five such machines. “We all work together,” he said.
The future of the industry however looks bleak, the drum-makers of Kooragala say. Their children may not decide to pursue a livelihood that involves this much hard work. “The craft will eventually die out,” Wimalasiri said. To this day, when you say a drum is from the village of Kooragala, a certain standard is expected from the product, the drum-maker explained. “People have confidence in our skills. But when middle-men get involved, we lose out on income and that ultimately affects the quality of our work,” he added. The village rarely gets an order directly, he says, with regret.
Kooragala drum-makers often get orders to make instruments for army bands and schools but never directly from the source. Contracts are awarded to middle men and they bring the orders to the village craftsmen, paying them pittance in comparison to what they make from the original source of the order, Wimalasiri complains.
Blinking at the village of Kooragala from across the range of mountains is the Thelambugala Viharaya. Once upon a time the village of Kooragala was a remote and isolated place, but over time, that is being altered and the hamlet is being assimilated into wider society. With time, as the younger generation looks beyond the craft to new livelihood opportunities, an ancient industry, rooted in tradition and culture, may also die out.