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Petal Paints 1

Creative Encounters | Monita Roughsedge

Up-cycled Offerings

Janath Gamage and his Extraordinary Journey from Petals to Paint

Four hours drive north of Colombo, on a not so unusually hot and windy July morning, the Gamage family have finally reached their destination – Anuradhapura; one of the ancient capital cities of Sri Lanka and now a UNESCO world heritage site. It’s said that the city was established around a cutting from the ‘Tree of Enlightenment’, or Buddha’s fig tree, around the 3rd Century BC. It’s a popular spot for both practicing Buddhist and tourists alike.

The Gamage family are on their annual pilgrimage to one of Anuradhapura’s most notable stupas, Ruwanwelisaya.

Stupas are unique Buddhist structures designed as massive hemispherical domes, topped with a spire. These unusual buildings are frequently visited by devotees for prayer and meditation as it is said they contain either Buddhist relics or esteemed religious artefacts.

There are around 17 eminent stupas in Sri Lanka as well as an abundance of Buddhist temples and shrines. No wonder, as statistically, over 70% of Sri Lanka’s population are Buddhist – and with over 21.4million people, that’s a lot of enthusiasts!

Upon arrival at any Buddhist place of worship in Sri Lanka, you’ll usually find a makeshift laneway of flower-sellers, with brightly coloured, just-picked bunches of lotus flowers, marigolds, frangipanis and more – making for quite a dramatic entrance!

It’s customary to purchase fresh flowers to present as an offering to Buddha, as in Buddha’s teachings, flowers are said to represent gratitude and symbolise the impermanence of life.

So, Mr and Mrs Gamage and their son Janath, like thousands of others gathered at stupas, temples and shrines in Sri Lanka that day, purchased flowers to make their offering and headed towards the stupa to begin their prayers and meditation.

But on this day, Janath’s mind was elsewhere. Having recently completed his studies in Multimedia Design, he had just landed his dream job as a Junior Art Director in the Sri Lankan offices of one of the world’s leading advertising agencies, Leo Burnett. Janath was 24/7 focussed on his newly assigned task.

With an inquisitive mind and an energetic and passionate personality, Janath has always been up for a challenge. His team leader could see he was ready so Janath, along with a small select group of young, Leo Burnett recruits, was given a huge mission –  to come up with an innovative idea for a homegrown Sri Lankan brand that celebrates the local culture and wins kudos with the head honchos at Leo Burnett International. Currently, Leo Burnett Advertising has 96 offices in 85 countries so this was a pretty big ask!

Janath left his parents to their meditations and instead, decided to take a walk around the sacred Stupa. He was daydreaming a little and thinking on something one of his university lecturers once told him –

“When searching for inspiration in familiar places, look at the world through the eyes of a tourist and you’ll see so much more!” Wise words.

Around the back of the stupa, out of the public eye, Janath happened upon a gigantic mound of fresh flowers, swept aside in readiness for disposal. Janath was shocked! Why are they throwing away so many fresh flowers? The Caretaker said this was only the morning’s haul; the alter had to be cleared of flowers every 10 minutes to ensure the statue of Buddha didn’t get covered over. So far, the staff for this one stupa alone had swept up a tower of fresh flowers over 2 metres high….and it was just on midday! The average flower haul for the day was around 3 tonnes!

With 70% of Sri Lanka’s population practicing Buddhism – that’s around 147 million people – many of whom visit temples, stupas or Buddhist shrines on a regular basis, and almost all of them make an offering; that’s a monumental quantity of flowers being thrown away across the entire country every single day! So, Janath, using his natural curiosity and ‘tourist eyes’ started thinking, there must be some use for all these unwanted flowers….


A couple of weeks later and back in Colombo at the Leo Burnett offices, a creative workshop was called. The staff were teamed up and asked to brainstorm ideas for a number of local clients. Janath’s group was handed JAT Holdings, a major paint manufacturing company in Sri Lanka.

Okay…so, paint…..what can we do with paint??……uuummmm….hang on a minute, can you make paint out of flowers?!

After some dedicated research Janath discovered that in fact, yes, it was possible to create useable paint out of discarded flowers! Wow! But, hang on a minute, that’s only one part of the challenge. Great idea but how do we link the project with the original task set to connect with Sri Lanka’s culture?

Inside most Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka the walls and ceilings are festooned with elaborate murals. The cost to maintain these temple treasures, especially in remote regions, can be quite prohibitive so many are left to fade away. That’s it! So why not give the paint back to where it originated – the temples themselves – and help preserve the glorious temple murals throughout Sri Lanka. A truly up-cycling experience! The team at Leo Burnett were thrilled and naturally, so was their paint manufacturing client!

And then the real work began. How many colours were they going to produce? How many flowers were needed? The colour selection was ingenious.

In keeping with the temple connection, the creative crew decided to focus on the colours of the Buddhist flag – red, orange, yellow, white and blue – the 5 colours that are said to have emanated from Buddha’s halo.

Fabulous! But then they had to source the corresponding flowers that were offered at temples and, on a technical note, not all flowers produce pigment that are the same colour as their petals. But they finally hit on it – red lotus flowers, orange marigolds, yellow trumpet flowers, white frangipani and blue pigeonwing flowers – perfect!

And how many flowers does it take to make 1 litre of paint? Around 42 kilos! Luckily, they have a never-ending supply!

It took a lot of people power, a mountain of dedication and much trial and error, but one year later Janath’s simple idea, to take discarded flower offerings and upcycle them into useable organic paint, became a reality. PETAL PAINT had arrived!

PETAL PAINT is now in production and although sadly, not available for public purchase, it is, as planned, being donated to Buddhist temples throughout Sri Lanka and used to refurbish their spectacular murals. Oh, and the pulp waste that was generated from crushing the first few thousand kilos of flowers – the creative folk at Leo Burnett used it to make paper for their print ads!

And Janath? Not only did he receive high recognition from Leo Burnett worldwide, he’s gone on to win numerous international awards and much deserved industry praise. We can’t wait to hear what he’ll be up to next. Keep those tourist eyes open!