Sri Lanka shopping guide: what to buy and where

Planning a trip to Sri Lanka? Make sure you leave time on your itinerary to shop for traditional handicrafts, from masks and batik to lace and gems, as well as space in your suitcase. Read on for our guide to Sri Lanka shopping – what to buy and where to buy it.
Traditional wooden masks for sale in Sri Lanka. Photo: Eduard Kyslynskyy/Shutterstock
Traditional wooden masks for sale in Sri Lanka. Photo: Eduard Kyslynskyy/Shutterstock

Arts and crafts in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s rich artistic traditions rival those of pretty much anywhere in the world – as a visit to any one of its superbly sculpted and painted temples proves. The island’s artisans excel in crafting many different materials, from the wood, stone and ebony used in religious carvings through to more recent forms such as lace, lacquer and batik. A string of innovative modern designers have also added their own twists to the island’s traditional crafts.

Many souvenirs on sale are – as you might expect – stereotypical in design and not the best quality. If you’re prepared to shop around, however, there are excellent crafts to be found at reasonable prices. Be aware, however, that you’ll need a licence to export genuine antiques (defined as any object more than 50 years old): check with Sri Lanka Customs for details on securing the necessary paperwork. 


Where to buy crafts in Sri Lanka

The state-owned emporium Laksala has branches in Colombo and other cities around the island and makes a handy place to check out the full range of crafts available and get an idea of prices. In the capital, there are plenty of superior craft shops, including a clutch of excellent boutiques offering contemporary takes on traditional crafts. The other main places to buy are Kandy, which has a veritable deluge of shops selling the full range of Sri Lankan crafts; and Galle, traditionally famous for its gems, jewellery, lace and Dutch antiques, and now also home to a number of smart designer boutiques. 

On the West Coast, you’ll be regularly approached by the hawkers trawling up and down the beach offering clothes and tourist trinkets – a good opportunity to pick up a few bargains if you’re prepared to barter hard. Bargaining is also the order of the day in smaller shops, and in all but the smartest boutiques a request for a 'special price' can sometimes work, especially if you’re buying several items. 


Sri Lankan masks

The most obvious of Sri Lanka’s many crafts are the gruesome masks, traditionally used in performances of ritual kolam dances or in exorcism ceremonies (bali) to placate malevolent deities. Many of the masks depict wild-eyed demons, and when you see them at close range – with their fearsome gaze and tangle of hair – you will understand why locals believe in their efficacy in frightening off bad spirits.

The centre of Sri Lankan mask-making is the west coast town of Ambalangoda, which has a number of workshops open to visitors. The Ariyapala & Sons Mask Museum has a big workshop and shop selling reasonable quality masks. Alternatively, Southland Masks, close by at 353 Main Road, offers a fine and varied selection of quality creations.

Wonderful carved elephants are often seen in Sri Lanka. Photo: Saman527/ShutterstockWonderful carved elephants on sale Sri Lanka. Photo: Saman527/Shutterstock


Sri Lankan batik

The art of making batik was introduced to Sri Lanka from Indonesia by the Dutch and numerous factories and smaller workshops around the island produce batik items. At whichever end of the scale, all are made through the same time-consuming process of carefully applying wax to the areas not to be dyed. After each dyeing, the fabric must be fixed, the old wax washed out, and then more wax reapplied for the next dyeing. In this way, the pictures gradually develop in colour washes as the batik-maker works from light to dark.

For Picasso-inspired batik pieces that have been exhibited in European galleries, visit Dudley Silva at his home-workshop, 53 Elpitiya Road, Ambalangoda. There are also excellent batiks on offer at Jez-Look, located at 12, St Yehiya Road in Matara.

Local women in a batik workshop. Photo: paul prescott/ShutterstockBatik in a Sri Lankan workshop. Photo: Paul Prescott/Shutterstock


Sri Lankan lace

Lacemaking was introduced to Sri Lanka in the 16th century by the Portuguese. Hours of painstaking work are needed to produce just a few centimetres and, as in Europe, lacemakers are mainly women. Galle is the most famous centre of lacemaking in Sri Lanka – you may be approached by hawkers bearing samples of intricate handmade lace as you wander around the lighthouse area of the fort – while the nearby town of Weligama is another centre of production. 

A good place to shop for lace is the Shoba Display Gallery in Galle, which showcases the work of local lacemakers. Alternatively, visit the Dickwella Lace Centre, a women’s cooperative established to revive this venerable island craft, a short drive further along the coast at the village of Dickwella. 

Lacemaking in Galle. Photo: Goran Bogicevic/ShutterstockLacemaking in Galle. Photo: Goran Bogicevic/Shutterstock


Metalwork and lacquerware

Metalwork is also widely produced, especially around Kandy, the source of the ceremonial brass lamps which are used in temples, at weddings and on Sinhala New Year. Metalworkers also produce lavishly detailed trays and decorative items, laboriously indented to create delicate patterns, although these are generally too fussy for most Western tastes. Attractive metalwork statuettes can also sometimes be found.

Lacquer bowls, containers and other objects originate from Matale near Kandy but are now found everywhere. Many of these are just painted and coated with varnish but you can find work finished with lac. This is a resinous substance that is secreted by the lac insect when it punctures the bark of certain trees. The resin is removed, melted down and strained through muslin and worked while it is still soft with the pigment.

A hand-made souvenir. Photo: Saman527/ShutterstockA hand-made Sri Lankan souvenir. Photo: Saman527/Shutterstock


Gems in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s wealth of precious stones originates in the ancient rocks of the hill country, from where they are washed down from the mountains in the waters of fast-flowing rivers mixed up with tons of coarse water-borne gravel called illam. A variety of gems are often found together in river bed gem pits including spinels, corundums (sapphire and ruby) and star stones. Aquamarines, tourmalines, topaz, garnets, amethysts, cats’ eyes and zircons are also found. But most outstanding of all are the glistening rubies and sapphires for which Sri Lanka has been one of the oldest sources in the world.

Caution is required, however, if you want to buy gems yourself. Beware a friendly Sri Lankan with a handful of glinting 'gems' which may turn out to be pieces of cut glass. Choose a dealer or a shop belonging to the Sri Lanka Gem & Jewellery Association, and remember, you are the buyer – don’t be pressured into making a snap decision.


A craftsman shows off his moonstones. Photo: Jaromir Chalabala/ShutterstockA craftsman with moonstones. Photo: Jaromir Chalabala/Shutterstock


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Updated 21 February, 2019