The year was 1956. Asweda Naidelage Piyathilake was summoned by Thomas Silva of Kadugannawa for an urgent matter. Thomas Silva used to deliver to A.B. Hemachandra Shop in Colombo the ornamental silverware and brassware products crafted by artisans in Kandy and 24-year-old Piyathilake was a skilled silversmith-cum-goldsmith.
“When I visited the Hemachanrda Shop, the owner of it was also present. The Senate house had entrusted the Hemachandra Company with the crafting of a mace to the Senate and the company in turn wanted me to do it. The sketch of a 52-inch-long mace was shown to me and it was to be made of gold and silver.
Though it was drawn by a skilled artist, he seemed not to have any knowledge of metal crafting. On the very day I started work on it at an auspicious time. Mr. Hemachandra wanted me to finish it in a month but I said that I couldn’t finish it to that deadline because though they provided wherewithal I had to work alone and I wanted four to five months to finish it as it was a precision work,” Piyathilake narrated as he touched on the background behind the crafting of the mace for the Senate 63 years ago.
“I was asked to work at a small workplace that belonged to one Marikkar in Madarangoda between Kadugannawa and Kandy where an employee worked for Hemachandra and Company who daily attended the workplace. But I could not travel daily so I stayed at the workplace along with one Wimala Surendra who worked for Hemachanra. But I alone worked on the mace with material delivered to the door by the company. Those who worked in the workshop told me after seeing the sketch that I was not capable of doing such a complicated work of art and it should have been contracted to a foreign company. I was confident and not shaken by such skeptic comments,” Piyathilake added.
He mentally framed the plan of making the mace and he started work beginning from silver. “I used two elephant tusks to its stem which were five feet long and had to use a lathe machine to make them in straight form and used silver nails to join them together and hid the joints with decorations and gold rings”, said Piyathilake.
“I crowned the mace with a gem on an eight petal lotus. The globe in it was given the shape of a pot (Punkalasa) and below that embedded with red and blue gems. A Navaratne gem was studded at the lower end to symbolize the nine planets (Nava Graha).
“When the mace was finished it was made up of 350 parts but all of them were stuck together by a single nail. Afterwards I made a golden case for the silver mace and decorated it with engravings and encased the silver mace. Through the golden engravings, silver and ivory decorative parts were elegantly visible on the surface of the top-most globe. “Santhrindriyocha Nipakocha” was engraved on a golden plate and welded on it. But I suggested to them to inscribe my name too as the craftsman who created it but that was declined and ‘Made by Hemachandra Brothers’ was engraved on it,” Piyathilake disappointedly said.
According to Piyathilake, 45 gold sovereigns and three and a half pounds of silver were used to finish the mace which weighs four and a half pounds. It took four and a half months to craft.
“Though I crafted the mace single-handed, Hemachandra and Company provided a worker named Charlie to set gems on the mace. I worked day and night on this assignment. Furthermore, I was scared to leave it alone because of its precious nature. I lied to the neighborhood that I was doing brass work to hide its priceless value.
“As this ornament was made up of gold, silver, pearls, gems and ivory, I was so scared that someone might rob it by killing me. I was so vigilant that I spent sleepless nights during that four and a half months and visited home only twice leaving the mace in the custody of Thomas Silva”, said Piyathilaka.
Though Piyathileka demanded from Thomas Silva Rs.5000 for his workmanship as labour charges, he (Thomas Silva) offered him only Rs.2500 that was also received in several instalments.
“In 1972, a new Constitution was introduced abolishing the Senate in the old Constitution. Now the mace of the Senate is no longer in use and relegated as an antique in the Parliamentary Museum”, said Piyathilaka.
“In the original sketch nothing is mentioned of 350 parts but I made it in 350 parts in order to make it in proper shape faithful to the sketch drawn. The advantage of this method of fixing all 350 parts by one nail is that no one could steal any piece of the mace since even a single part is very valuable. No one knows where that single nail lies, so no one can dismantle it. Even today it is a secret that I only know of. If someone steals it they have to do it in whole hog but it is a difficult task.
“When I delivered the mace to Hemachandra and Company at about 7.30 pm Mr. Hemachandra was highly taken up by the workmanship and promised me to give a certificate for my excellent workmanship but it is yet to be given.
“The Bandaranaike government took delivery of the mace and some dignitaries seeing it commended my product as highly superior to the British made Ceylon Parliamentary mace,” Piyathileka asserted.
Hemachandra and Company gave further assignments to Piyathileka in trusting his excellent workmanship displayed in mace-making.
“The ‘Punkalasa’ (pot) made of silver gifted by M.G. Sugathadasa to Prince Misaka of Japan during his royal visit to Ceylon was made by me. I was paid only a paltry sum of Rs. 80. I have crafted many ornamental gifts to world renowned dignitaries such as famous heavy weight boxing champ Mohamed Ali, Indian Prime Minister Sri Jawaharlal Nehru, former US President Jimmy Carter and others.
“When my father fell sick I abandoned my profession and took to agriculture. For the past 15 years I have no longer engaged in my pet profession. Now I am 88 years old,” Piyathileka admitted.
Piyathileka is married to P.H. Himasinghe and he is the father five sons and a daughter. One son died in action during the civil war between the government and the Tamil Tigers.
“I was very keen to see and touch the mace I made by my own hands. I revealed that in the media too. Recently, the Speaker Karu Jayasuriya consented to it. It was made known that I would receive a donation too,” Piyathileka said.
Piyathileka was felicitated with Kalabooshana and Swarnathilaka awards. This famous and talented artist should not only be rewarded with titles but supported to stand on his own in his autumn years according to observers.
Courtesy the Sunday Rivira
Pics by Chathura S. Kodikara
(Translated by Ananda Elkaduwa)