Sri Lanka’s cultural heritage appropriately displayed in the Colombo National Museum


We boast of a cultural heritage of 2,500 years; justifiably so. Even before Buddhism was introduced to the country, we were a civilized nation. One testimony, stated in the Mahavamsa, maybe legendary but believable, is that when Prince Vijaya arrived as a deported ne’er-do-well by his father Sinhabahu (543-505 BC) from the east coast of India, Kuveni was met spinning cloth. This was indication of an advanced civilization.

Fortuitously, this vast cultural heritage is to be seen, and thus believed in, in the Colombo National Museum and other museums. The country’s heritage may be encapsulated; minisculed; telescoped, only a comparatively few artifacts displayed of the different historic eras and their cultures, but it is there for us to see, study and marvel at. The eras traced in the Colombo museum are from the pre and proto-historic periods through the Anuradhapura Classical Era, onto the Polonnaruwa Period, the Transitional Period and then the last kingdom of Kandy.

I spent a half day at the Colombo Museum very recently and marvelled at how excellent it was. Refurbishment with new methods of display in extended spaces was almost all complete. The result is a showpiece to be proud of, standing up to being compared to the British Museum, I dare say. For this great achievement many are thanked from the founder – Governor Sir William Henry Gregory (1872–1877), to its previous directors including Dr Arthur Willey, Dr Joseph Pearson, Dr P C P Deraniyagala, Dr P H de Silva, Sirimal Lakdusinghe and onto the present administrators. Major thanks and gratitude is due to HSBC that funded much of the improvement achieved, and this improvement is vast. I have visited the museum several times previously and used its archaic library. The present museum and even library are vastly different to what they were a decade ago and before.

The origin of the Colombo Museum dates back to the 1870s when the Royal Asiatic Society advised Governor Gregory to build a repository for ancient artifacts already collected. Advice was taken, much to our benefit. Architect J C Smither, arriving from England, designed the museum in Italian style and thus the imposing iconic building that is beside a busy junction of roads in Colombo 7. Building started in 1876 and was completed a year later. The imposing museum was declared open by the founder – Governor Gregory. It sure would have been smaller than it is now. From 1877 to 1999, it was named the Colombo Museum. In 1942 Act no 37 was passed and the Department of National Museums instituted. In 1999, the Colombo Museum was renamed the Colombo National Museum.

Here I am compelled to digress and mention an opinion I strongly hold. Outright blame is placed on the three colonial powers who came in to our land to trade but stayed on to conquer. True, that is blameworthy. The Portuguese introduced Roman Catholicism to the island at the point of the sword and bayonet. However we obtained advantages from the other two European colonizers, more especially the British. True again their interest in the island was for king and country – Great Britain then. But we benefitted too. The Colombo National Museum is testimony to a better side of the British who governed the land – their recognition of the treasures we possessed and their magnanimity.

Spaces and exotic displays

You may remember the huge skeleton of a whale, I think, which greeted you at the entrance verandah of the National Museum of long ago. Within were glass cases of coins and ancient clothes and even Veddah figures, with a veneer of just keeping them, often dust covered and even dingy and ill lit. No longer.

As you enter you are faced with a huge, serene limestone statue of the Buddha in Samadhi posture. It is from Toluvila, dated 800 AD. A thematic arrangement is followed, with artifacts of the different eras of Lankan history housed in vast spaces in different areas. Upstairs are display of textiles, agricultural systems followed, paintings from Sigiriya, Tivanka temple Polonnaruwa and other places. The display of coins is also upstairs. The Natural History Museum is at the back of the main building and entrance ticket of Rs 100 covers that too. Foreigners pay Rs 1,000 and an extra 200 if they wish to see what’s on display of our fauna and flora.

In the pre and proto historic period display, the Veddahs are now housed in a simulated rock cave with stone implements etc. around.

Everything grabs attention but what made me stand and stare were some outstanding exhibits from the various periods. In the Anuradhapura Period space was a huge rock slab laid horizontally with symbols or letters on it. It is a second century artifact from the Ruwanveliseya Dagoba precincts with first style of writing. Simply stunning is the golden hued Avalokitesvara statue that we are so familiar with having seen pictures of it. With height 49.8 cm this seated statue of a Mahayana Bodhisatva is from the 9th century, discovered in Veheragla, Anuradhapura District. This statue is world famed. Close by is a larger statue of the goddess Tara, again gold hued and of the 9th century. From the Polonnaruwa Period displays, I pick out the 90 cm high Siva Nataraja from 12th century AD.

Naturally one gravitates to the period of the Kandyan Kingdom since it was the last of our independence as a nation, until 1948. The throne here is the cynosure of all eyes. Called the Royal Seat, it was donated to King Wimaladharmasuriya II (1687–1707) by Dutch Governor Thomas Vaneere and used by six kings until the last one – Sri Wickremarajasinghe. When the Kandyan Kingdom was won over by the British (1815) the throne, footstool, scepter, king’s state belt and sword were taken to London. The throne was sent back to Lanka by George V through the Duke of Gloucester in 1934. The other artifacts were returned by King Edward VIII in 1936.

I missed it on my recent walking around the museum, but a very valuable and historically significant artifact is Ceylon’s equivalent to the Rosetta Stone discovered in 1799 – a decree by King Ptolemy V Epiphanes in 196 BC. Our stele was discovered in Galle in 1911 and is a trilingual tablet executed by Chinese traveler Zheng dated 15 February 1409, brought here on his third voyage, sailing from China. The writing is in Chinese, Tamil and Persian and goes to show China’s influence across the entire Indian Ocean and our island’s strategic importance in sea trade routes.

The premises of the National Museum are well kept and officers all alert and very polite. Wishing to meet the Director, I was graciously received by her, in between meetings and directed to the Superintendant in the museum. He was busy all morning lecturing. Questions I had were adequately answered by my walk-around.

We fault people who mindlessly boast of our cultural heritage of more than 2,500 years, but here in the Colombo National Museum it was laid out with careful planning, enhanced with large photographs, friezes and art work.

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