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.

IMG_3160.JPG

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.

IMG_2835.JPG

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.

IMG_2851.JPG

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.

img_2924

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.

IMG_2961.JPG

  • 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.

IMG_2984.JPG

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.

IMG_2992.JPG

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.

IMG_3121.JPG

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.

IMG_3167.JPG

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 WednesdayFaraway Files #25 and Cultured Kids]
Wanderful Wednesday

Suitcases and Sandcastles
CulturedKids
Advertisements

Helga’s Folly

Dusk was setting in. The hundreds of candles that had once burned bright had melted upon each other and the candelabra with these candle relics cast a ghostly pall on their surroundings. With only a few lamps illuminating the rooms, it was easy to imagine ghosts lurking in the corner. The effect was enhanced by a face staring at you from the wall, an old writing desk with an old ledger left as if the person working on that decades ago had just stepped out and would return any time.

IMG_0163.JPG

When I saw the old vanity table with a framed photograph placed on it, the thought that had crossed my mind earlier and became stronger was that I might very well be in the ruined house of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, had she been inclined towards murals. It seemed like a living memorial to the ghosts of the past by the owner, who lives on the top floor of the (guest) house.

As we moved across the room, we suddenly heard a thud behind the seemingly black walls off one corner that led to the dark stairs. We peeped down the unlit stairway and saw a black door at the end of it. There was another thud. With the haunted atmosphere hanging in the air, my friend and I scrambled back to the lounge area, which was playing music from the 30s and finished our tamarind juice drinks before leaving Helga’s Folly.

I was intrigued however by this first dusk visit to Helga’s Folly, a home turned into an art museum/ guesthouse in Kandy. So, when a couple of friends visiting me in Sri Lanka this month wanted to go to Kandy for the weekend, I decided to explore more of Helga’s Folly with them. Visitors who are not staying overnight at the guesthouse, where the rooms start at USD 100 and go up to USD 500 per night, or dining at their restaurant can walk around the house after paying a tour fee of USD 3 per person. I think it is wonderful that they allow visitors to tour the house and at such a reasonable price because the artwork in the house is truly worth seeing.

This time though I chose to visit during daylight, when I could see the murals better and the house had a slightly less haunted atmosphere. What greeted us first as our vehicle climbed up the steep road leading up from the Kandy Lake was the bright red buildings covered with colourful artwork. The house was originally designed in the 30s by Helga’s mother, Esme de Silva. A house that has welcomed famous dignitaries like Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru and Indira Gandhi during its political heydays, given that Helga’s paternal grandfather was Sri Lanka’s first Minister of Industries and Fisheries and her father was the Mayor of Kandy, a parliamentarian and Ambassador of Sri Lanka to France and Switzerland in the 60s.

Helga’s parents turned their house into Chalet hotel. However, it is after Helga took over the house a few decades ago, renamed it Helga’s folly and covered it with artwork that I feel it has become a legacy for future generations. It has certainly attracted many movie celebrities, such as Vivien Leigh and Sir Laurence Olivier, and the Folly brochure boasts of its Hollywood heydays as well as the Stereophonics song, Madame Helga, inspired by a stay here.

HF1.JPG

HF_Nancy1.JPG

Photo credit: Nancy Yang

HF_Nancy2.JPG

Photo credit: Nancy Yang

HF_Nancy4.JPG

Photo credit: Nancy Yang

The front office manager handed us a sheet of information on Helga’s Folly before suggesting we start our tour of its interior from the Jane Lillian Vance grotto. So we walked into the front room where the artwork of American artist Jane Lillian Vance covers its walls.

HF6.JPG

HF_Nancy9

Photo credit: Nancy Yang

HF4.JPG

HF10.JPG

Jane Lillian Vance grotto is an amazing art room combining Vance’s beautiful artwork, Helga’s family history as well as a bit of Jane Vance’s personal traumatic story.

We retraced our steps past the reception where framed news clippings of Helga’s family line the walls and passed the former office of Helga’s father, Frederick Lorenz de Silva. The office is currently used by the front office manager as her office. We were not able to see the room that Mahatma Gandhi stayed at during his visit, but the friendly manager mentioned that she had been lucky to stay in that room when she first arrived at the Folly.

Both times that I visited the lounge area, it had some lovely old French music playing in the background. This time though, I was not able to explore the artwork in this area much as there were other guests seated on all the available couches that I did not feel comfortable walking around them looking at the walls. Anyway, I knew I would need to revisit a few times in order to leisurely appreciate the artwork in each room.

HF16.JPG

HF19.JPG

HF20.JPG

A little corridor leading away from the lounge towards the gardens had this little nook, which we decided was a great spot for a group photo.

HF25.JPG

Taking the stairway up to the restaurant area, we came across several dining areas which were set up as private dining spaces. Each seemed to have a different theme and the dining room with the octagonal Taprobane table seemed extra special and perhaps reserved for special occasions.

HF31.JPG

HF32.JPG

HF30.JPG

The corridor leading away from the dining rooms and to the guestrooms was covered with black walls. One of the walls had a white tree and red hearts and writing that asked you to add a heart for each beloved soul you have lost. I really don’t think I could comfortably stay overnight in a room in a corridor that was decorated like this. I felt that the house was not haunted, as I initially felt during my first visit but rather had dark vibes of a place that had absorbed the grief, depression and angst of its residents, the owners and its guests.

HF41.JPG

There was a colourful, whimsical corner under the staircase, along the sombre corridor, which lightened its dark overtones.

HF44.JPG

HF_Nancy24.JPG

HF52.JPG

What’s interesting about the place is that the artwork is diverse and at first seems the result of a psychedelic mind. However, you begin to see individual stories emerging and the hand of different artists at work, whether it is in the whimsical or spiritual overtones of the murals. I was informed that Helga’s Folly welcomes artists, writers and senior citizens for longer stays at special rates and the house is certainly a place that seems to inspire the creative. From artists who have been inspired to contribute to the murals to musicians who have been inspired to write a song about the place, it is certainly a place that invokes your emotional and creative response to the visual extravaganza.

I left Helga’s Folly with a sense that here was a house that needed preserving for future generations and some maintenance in the present, as it seems to be acquiring a certain dilapidated air about it. I hope Helga and her family consider establishing a trust that will manage it well in the future and continue to allow visitors to tour the place. And, for travellers visiting Kandy city and interested in amazing murals, I highly recommend that you visit Helga’s Folly at 70,Rajapihilla Mawatha, Kandy.

Following my visit, I interviewed Helga Perera, the person responsible for creating Helga’s Folly. You can read her interview here.

Have you visited a (guest)house that has amazed you with its beautiful murals? 

[I am linking this post to City Tripping #38Wanderful WednesdayThe Weekly Postcard.

I am also linking the post to #TravelLinkUp, hosted by Adventures of a London Kiwi, Silverspoon and Fresh and Fearless , under the October theme of ‘most interesting item you have discovered or seen in a hotel room/ accommodation‘ as the murals in the Jane Lillian Vance grotto at Helga’s Folly is the most interesting and amazing item that I have seen in a guesthouse room]
Wander MumWanderful Wednesday

Travel Notes & Beyond