In Homagama, a rock that has been mined previously is being smoothed by a set of eight men. The artisans are the employees of KS Wijekumara of Elpitiya, Pitigala.
Until the end of the war, Wijekumara was in the thick of it. “I worked 23 years as a driver in the army. During the final battle I transported ammunition to the frontline,” says Wijekumara. During the final battle he was in Sampur. He has always been fearless in war. “The LTTE used mortar on us if they realized we were transporting ammunition to the frontline. The risk was great, but I did my duty. I was in Alimankada during the attack of 2001. I used to transport the wounded from Alimankada to Palali camp. Sometimes I went to and fro about five times. I must have transported about 30 percent of the wounded,” recalls Wijekumara.
He started the rock sculpting business while he was still in the army. “I saw my brother-in-law and cousin working in the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy. They re-sculpted the statue of King Dutugamunu, which was destroyed by LTTE bombing. I felt that I should get together with them and start this as a business. We started small and we are progressing bit by bit. These artisans can carve anybody’s statue out of rock. They only need side and front pictures,” he proudly informs.
Different artisans are involved in the making of different stone work. For example, one would specialize in sculpting Buddha statues, while another sculpts elephants. “My wife, PG Priyani is also adept at rock carving. I can do a bit of carving myself,” he says.
Wijekumara says that the rock carving is a dying art. “Very few can carve rocks these days. I teach anybody who is willing to learn for free. In addition, they would receive the same amount as fully-fledged sculptors for whatever work they do during training.
In the beginning they can’t carve elephants. They have to start small and gradually improve,” he elaborates.
Financing is difficulty when it comes to these small scale businesses. “We are still in financial difficulty. We only have one trishaw to transport the goods crafted by us. Wives of my employees have taken loans to support their husbands. These loans have to be paid on weekly basis. Sometimes people who hire me don’t pay on time. Then I face difficulties since I can’t pay my employees,” he says.
Retiring from the army has given Wijekumara the freedom to do what he loves. “When I was in the army, sometimes I didn’t have time to deliver finished goods,” he says. “Now even the people from camp come visit me sometimes.” Speaking of the post war situation, he says that the hospital and police do not treat the army personnel the same way they used to during the war. “It’s said that people remember only for seven days, which is the case. But all the other facilities we still have access to. The government makes necessary provisions for us as usual,” he admits.
Wijekumara’s team could shape the rocks into almost anything. It can be sculpting, carving or delicate stone work. Some of their works include moonstones, guard stones, frogs, rabbits, tortoises, paving stones and statues. All are examples of fine craftsmanship, molded with sweat of these people and reinforced with the strength of their heart and hand and unfailing courage.