Special Six: National Museum Gallery Highlights

The national museum of Colombo is the largest in the country and its founder, Sir William Henry Gregory, who was the British governor at that time declared it open on January 1st, 1877. When I visited the museum a dozen or so years ago, I was not impressed with the quite dilapidated building and presentation of exhibits, especially the lack of information about exhibits. Having learnt that the national museum had reopened after major renovations, I decided that it was time for me to revisit the museum this week and hoped that this visit would be more interesting. I was not disappointed as the building itself seems to have undergone a face lift and looked beautiful.

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In this post, I would like to share the six galleries that interested me the most of the different galleries at the museum.

  • Prehistoric gallery

The earliest evidence of the pre-historic period in Sri Lanka is 250,000 years ago in Minihagalkanda, Hambantota and the latest around 2,800 BC in Manthai, Mannar.

This gallery’s focus was primarily on burial techniques. I came across two different burial methods. One was an urn burial that was excavated from Pomparippu from around 800 – 700 BC. The pot was used to place human ash and offerings and covered with the circular stone slab, similar to the stone enclosure on display, which had been found near Galewela.

The other form of burial on display was the earthen canoe burial, where a pit built with clay was used for burning the corpse together with offerings and then filled and covered with a layer of burnt clay lumps. The one on display had been found in Kegalle district and was dated to 360 BC.

  • Anuradhapura period gallery

The museum has missed out on the period between prehistoric and Anuradhapura period, where there was an influx of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent, which contributed to the decimation of the indigenous population and establishment of the Sinhalese and Tamil settlements in the country. The information plaque at the entrance of the gallery mentions that Anuradhagama was founded in 5 BC by Anuradha, a minister of the legendary ruler Vijaya. The city of Anuradhapura was then established in 4 BC by King Pandukabhaya, and became the first capital of Sri Lanka.

Two images under this period caught my attention. One was the 8th century image of Buddha found in Toluvila, which actually is displayed at the entrance of the museum and not within the Anuradhapura gallery. Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka in 3 BC, through the missionary activities of Emperor Asoka of India.

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The other image that fascinated me was that of Goddess Durga from 9 – 10th century, found in Mihintale. The image had no similarity to contemporary images of the Goddess in the country. The information board in the gallery mentions that “the presence of Tamil rulers in Sri Lanka from pre-Christian times indicates the practice of Brahminical or Hindu faith” and it mentions the 7th century poetry of Tirujnanasambandar, praising the Hindu shrine at Tiruketisvaram in Mantai.

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I was also intrigued by the surgical instruments found from this period. On display was a scalpel and a scissor from the 8th century, as well as a grinding stone for herbal medicine.

  • Polonnaruwa period gallery

During the heydays of Anuradhapura, Kandavurunuwara, which was considered to be the legendary ancient city of Pulastipura from Ravana’s time, became a strategic city midway between the Anuradhapura kingdom and the southern kingdom of Mahagama. It was this city that became the capital of the Chola empire of India when they re-conquered Anuradhapura in the 10th century. The city was renamed Janathamangalam and became the second capital of the country. It was when Vijayabahu I defeated the Cholas and took over the city that it was named Polonnaruwa. Irrigation tanks was a major contribution of the Polonnaruwa reign and the major ones are still in use.

In this section of the gallery, what attracted my attention immediately was the images of the Hindu gods, Siva  (12 – 13th century) and Ganesha (12th century). These images looked more like contemporary images, than the ones from the Anuradhapura period.

Of interest again was the medical instruments of the time, which was similar to the ones found in Anuradhapura.

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Another object that fascinated me was the time and day calculator. While the water ladle in the center of this glass display is beautiful, the time calculator was the polished coconut bowl with holes in it through which water seeped into another bowl. When the bowl was filled, it indicated that an hour had passed.

  • Transitional Period Gallery

With the decline of Polonnaruwa in early 13th century, there was a transitional period across the country where there were frequent struggles for power between kingdoms and one kingdom would emerge powerful within a region (s) for a few decades. This transition period was till the end of the 16th century, when Kandy emerged as the capital of the country. It was towards the end of this period that the Portuguese arrived in Sri Lanka and took over the coastal areas.

I would have liked to see more local artefacts from this period, especially details from the Kingdoms of Dambadeniya, Gampola, Jaffna and Kotte. From the exhibits in this gallery, the one that fascinated me most was the trilingual inscription, carved in Nanjing, and brought to the country by the Chinese navigator Zheng He in 14th century. The stone was installed in Galle. The Chinese writing on the stone invokes Buddha and offers alms to the Buddhist shrine at Samanalakanda, alternatively known as Sivanoli Pada malai and Adam’s peak, the Tamil writing invokes blessings of Hindu gods and particularly of God Vishnu, the Persian writing invokes the ‘light of Islam’. The placement of the inscription in the gallery was poorly done as it has been placed by a glass door, so the strong light at the back of the stone reduces the visibility of the inscription in addition to not allowing a good photograph to be taken.

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  • Kandyan Period Gallery

By the end of the 15th century, the Kandyan kingdom emerged as a powerful force, despite the turbulence experienced in the rest of the country due to the inter-Kingdom wars, the Portuguese colonization of the coastal areas followed by the Dutch colonization efforts. The capital finally fell to the British in 1815, due to internal power struggles between the King and his Prime Minister, which divided the people.

Occupying the pride of place in the Kandyan gallery was the throne, crown and scepter of the King of Kandy.

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The best display in this gallery was the writing instruments though. The stylus pens used to write on palm leaves or gold and brass plates.

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The ground floor of the museum was the most interesting part of the museum for me. I didn’t find the upper floor as fascinating, despite some interesting galleries focusing on art, woodwork and even agriculture.

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I was delighted to know that the cost of the museum ticket for residents and non-residents, while still different, was not too much as in other sights in Sri Lanka. I used to be embarrassed when accompanying visiting friends to places in the Cultural triangle, where they would be forking out a 1000 or 2000 for a entry ticket, while I only had to pay a 100. The national museum ticket on the other hand is LKR 35 for locals and LKR 300 for non-residents, and the photography permit of LKR 250 is the same for both.

The museum has been better organized and presented in the form of different galleries and now conforms to the trilingual policy, that was initiated in 2012. This enhanced the experience of my visit, as each exhibit now had information boards in English, Sinhala and Tamil. I also noticed there were tags on several of the exhibits and asked the museum staff, if there was an audio guide. It seemed most of the current staff in the galleries were newly recruited and were not aware of the guide. It was towards the end of my visit that I met a staff, who was able to explain to me that the audio guide was in the form of a downloadable mobile app and that once downloaded, I could scan the tag of an exhibit and listen to the corresponding audio recording.

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Hope you enjoyed the brief tour of the museum of Colombo! Would you include it in your list of places to visit in Sri Lanka?

[Linking this post to Wanderful Wednesday and Faraway Files #25]
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13 thoughts on “Special Six: National Museum Gallery Highlights

    • Van, I think it is currently much better presented than it used to be. With regard to the photography permit, most heritage sites here require a photography permit (irrespective of whether you are a local or a non-resident) to take photos of interiors, for personal and non-commercial use. So, I had to pay for a photography permit to take the photos of exhibits I have shared here. The permit fee at this museum is relatively lower than at most other sites.

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    • While there are still some missing pieces/ historical periods at the museum, it does provide a better introduction to Sri Lankan history than previously and sure is a great way to start a trip here.

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  1. It sounds as though they’ve done a great job renovating this museum, Ahila. I was fascinated to read about the water ladle and coconut bowl used for calculating time and I love the images of Siva and Ganesha – two of my favourites from my time in India – it’s a nataraja, isn’t it? That word really stuck with me for some reason! Thanks for sharing on #FarawayFiles

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    • Yes, Clare, it is the ‘Nataraja’ form (dancing form) of Siva. I am glad that they re-organized and renovated the museum, as the exhibits are now better presented.

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  2. It’s always wonderful to revisit a place and find things improved – the museum looks so fresh on the outside and good to see the exhibits better presented.
    #farawayfiles

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  3. It certainly looks like a lot of thought and care has gone into the refurbishment of the building and museum itself. I think it is quite ok for foreigners to be charged more, after all it is your heritage. I would definitely pay the museum a visit on my next visit to Sri Lanka #FarawayFiles

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    • I think the main reason why the local fee is quite low is that the government wants heritage sites to be accessible to all Sri Lankans, and that no-one should feel excluded due to the pricing. However, I feel it might be better to have a sliding fee, where Sri Lankans who wish to and can pay more could do so, as it is currently the non-resident ticket revenues that contribute more to the maintenance.

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