New Economic History Museum of Sri Lanka in Colombo Fort relates a fascinating story


by Randima Attygalle

Since Ptolemy’s time, Sri Lanka or then Taprobana had been an attractive trade destination globally. The geographical significance of the island as a transit point for trade and an epicenter of the silk route connecting the Far East, Asia and Europe cannot be under-rated. The trade factor was not ignored by three invading nations further endorsing the reality. The country’s economic legacy is as old as her illustrious national history. Coins and epigraphs occupy a special place as a primary source of information when studying the commercial history of the country. Sri Lanka’s currency usage can be broadly classified into the Anuradhapura era, Kingdoms of Polonnaruwa and Kotte and the Kandy and colonial eras. Be it kahawanu, cetu, panam, gini massa, thuttu, pagodi, rupee, cent or any coin from ancient days to the present, they all tell a most interesting story.

Regal splendor

This history offers insights not only to economist and policy makers but also to the ordinary people of the country. From the latest 500 rupee commemorative note released to mark the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting which concluded last week, a visitor is taken back to kahapana, the oldest coin known to have been locally used now on display at the recently inaugurated Economic History Museum of Sri Lanka which is located at the Central Point Building in Chatham Street near the Fort clock tower. The building itself, boasting Corinthian columns, circular glass dome and large glass windows brings ample light and offers a fabulous view of the Colombo Fort with its colonial memories. It was acquired by the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) in 2011 and was restored to its present splendor preserving its original architecture and archeological value.

Previously known as the National Mutual Building, its foundation stone was laid in 1911 and the building became the head office of a global insurance company, National Mutual Life Association of Australasia Limited. It was opened to the public in 1914 and was the tallest building in Colombo at that time. The ownership of this landmark building in Colombo had changed many times since and various business enterprises were housed there from time to time.

"When the Central Bank acquired the building in 2011, it was in a dilapidated state, partly damaged by the LTTE’s 1996 bomb attack on the Central Bank. The project to renovate and refurbish it to house the museum commenced in the same year," K.D.R. Piyatilleke, Deputy Director, Communications Department of Central Bank of Sri Lanka, said.

Re-named as the ‘Central Point Building’ by CBSL, the new name relates to its close proximity to the Fort clock tower as well as being the core of the network of roads radiating from Colombo.

An ambitious venture

The museum was opened on Nov. 11 by the President in the presence of many eminent guests including Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa leading the urban development effort.. The event also marked the presenting of a Commemorative 500 rupee note celebrating the CHOGM to the President, by Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal.

Finesse in presentation

"The museum is the brainchild of the governor and setting it up was supervised by the bank’s Communications Department,’’ said Piyatillake. ``It will be expanded in several stages with phase 1 now complete. The expansion holds potential for innovation- fuelled technology.’’

The old currency museum of CBSL in Rajagiriya has been integrated into the new facility offering an additional wealth of knowledge related to the country’s financial and commercial legacy through a range of ancient artifacts including pictorial presentations and sculptures previously on display at Rajagiriya. The sculpture indicating the barter system and an assortment of other displays depicts the birth of the country’s banking system including the founding of the Central Bank.

Any visitor browsing through the displays in an attractive setting is assured of an interesting visit and access to a fount of knowledge. A female figure adorned the coins of Anuradhapura era, angutu massa or hooked coins of Kandy era resembling curtain hooks and Kayman’s Gate copper coin minted by the Dutch are among the exhibits. The globally knows currency printer and minter of coins, De La Rue helped provide some of the displays.

From Purana to the Rupee

An assortment of leaflets provided at the museum and the publication ‘From Purana to the Rupee’ compiled parallel to its inauguration are on sale there. These offer a student, researcher, economist, banker or any other valuable information on the commercial and financial legacy of the country. It’s a well-researched publication available in Sinhala, Tamil and English and reasonably priced at Rs. 800.

Admission to the museum is free of charge and it is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. throughout the week except on public holidays. There’s a nice café there offering lunch and a variety of snacks and beverages, all reasonably priced, adding to what is on offer and enhancing the museum’s value as a destination for a family outing.

Even a cursory visit will demonstrate that a marvelous job has been done by the Central Bank in creating a fine museum depicting the country’s economic history at a location in the heart of the city’s financial hub.

(Pix by Sujatha Jayaratne)

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