Lacquer work, or liyelaa jehun as locally known, is one of the most distinctive forms of handicraft. In simple terms, a piece of wood is sculpted into the desired shape and then coated with layers of different colors of lacquer. Once the lacquer coating is finished, it is polished with dry leaves. And intricate patterns are engraved on the item with simple tools, without any premade drawings. They can be seen on many wooden objects and in Coral Stone Mosques of the Maldives; six of which on the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List are also adorned with lacquered works that contribute to their outstanding universal value.
Lacquer work can be seen in almost all types of handicraft in the Maldives. Since ancient times, it has been used to decorate building interiors and showcase the artistic abilities of Maldivian craftsmen. It is mostly practiced on wood as it acts as a coating to prevent the wood from weathering and maintain the quality of wood.
Records show that the Chinese were the first to manufacture and trade lacquer. Lacquer work may have been brought to Maldives during the period when trade between China, Japan, and the rest of South Asia flourished. This helped to establish one of the most important cultural traditions of artistry in the Maldives.
The craftsmen stick a piece of lacquer on a stick and heat over a fire to melt it. It is then separated into the size required before it cools down. Coloring pigments are added when the lacquer cools down enough so that it can be pulled into thread like pieces. Traditionally, the craftsmen used three different pigments to color the artifacts in yellow, red, or black. A Maldivian herbal medicine called fashurisseyo was used for yellow and a substance called uguli was used to make red color. The lightness or darkness of the colors depends on the ratio of lacquer to coloring pigment. Black pigments are created by heating a piece of ceramic tile with an oil lantern and collecting the black tar off the tile. Gold and silver dust were also used to add a more exquisite look to the design. Recently, some craftsmen have opted to use oil colors as there is more variety of colors, and they are readily available. When the color has been added, the lacquer is cut into to the shape and size that is best for application.
A stand called dhigu haru or bomakan’dhu haru is used to spin the sculpted piece of wood. The colored strips of lacquer that were prepared earlier are slowly applied on the wood as it spins. This helps to evenly apply lacquer around the object. Layers of lacquer are applied on top of each other depending on the type of design the craftsmen want to create. After the lacquer is applied, the artist carves intricate floral designs into the lacquer work. Since the design is engraved on the topmost layer, it reveals the layer beneath creating an aesthetically pleasing look. Maldivian craftsmen have applied lacquer onto objects of varying shapes and sizes. After the lacquer is added it is buffed with either dried banana leaves or coconut palm leaves to give it a more polished look.
Another form of lacquer work known as laa fenkurun is the traditional process of applying heated lacquer over a surface, dyeing it in natural colors, and giving it a protective layer of glossy shine, a delicate art practiced on the ornamental wooden beams and columns in Maldivian mosques. Lacquer is cooked in water along with another substance called rankaru. This broth is left to boil until all the water evaporates, and the remaining mixture is left in the sun for three days, and then this water mixture is poured onto the piece of design work.
Lacquer crafts used to be a thriving industry. However, there are very few craftsmen, and even fewer who can do it with equipment that was used traditionally. With the blooming tourism industry, there is added demand for lacquered products. Some craftsmen prefer using modern equipment as it is easier and requires less work. The country has also faced the issue of bootleg products being imported from abroad by souvenir shops, but overall, the tourism industry has helped to keep this art alive in the communities most known for it. The people on the island of Thulhaadhoo in Baa atoll are renowned for their skills in working with lacquer.