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The Colombo National Museum gets.... 

A new breath of life

by Rikaza Hassan - SO Feb 6 2005

A visit to the museum is not an idea that most people would find endearing. Taking a walk through the Colombo National Museum will probably send shivers down the spine of even an ardent history buff; it entails staring through dust lined, grimy glass to admire dirty artefacts and squinting to read incoherent labels, that is, if there is one.

Pix by Kavindra Perera

Not to mention the confusion that obviously ensues in taking in the inconsistently arranged artefacts, and the hazard of tripping over the larger stone pillars, carvings and guard stones lying about haphazardly on the floor causing both physical and monetary harm and of course the requisite bath once the visit is over to get all the dust off oneself.

Now for the first time since the inception of the museum in January 1877, a private organisation has come forward to lend a hand to help preserve these monuments that are testimony to the glory of our collective past.

The Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) took the initiative in one of its Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) drives on education to undertaking a Rs. 6 million collaboration with the Colombo National Museum to revamp and fully refurbish the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruva galleries at the museum.

The first time any part of the museum is being refurbished in 25 years, since renovation was stopped in 1980, it definitely marks a milestone in the annals of the museum's history.

A team of experts under the direction of Prof. Leelananda Prematilleke and including among many others among them Prof. Chandra Wickremagamage, Prof. A. B. Dissanayake, Raj Somadeva, Ven. Habarakanda Vajira and Chitra Dambadeniarachchi have worked very hard towards the completion of this immense task, since late last year.

Prof. Leelananda Prematilleke who worked the hardest of all, despite his declining health and set a moving example for the rest of the crew as he silently pushed them on, requires special mention.


After postponement due to the tragedy caused by the tsunami, the revamped and completely refurbished Anuradhapura gallery was opened to the public on Thursday, January 27 under the auspices of Vijitha Herath, Minister of Cultural Affairs and National Heritage.

Mark Humble, CEO, HSBC unveiled a plaque signifying the opening and was presented a memento from the staff of the Colombo National Museum in appreciation of the magnanimous contribution by the organisation.

From the white washed walls to the recently sand stoned Buddha statue at the entrance to the booklet of information (to be purchased), the first impression garnered by the fresh visitor is impressive indeed.

Visitors can start off with a thirty minute presentation on the golden period of Anuradhapura, a never before seen facility in any museum in the island in an air conditioned auditorium that could seat nearly 40 at one go.

They also have the option of a guide to enhance their experience with little historical anecdotes, not found on the labels and to patiently answer the many queries that will no doubt pop up in their head.

Large, glossy information panels in all three languages cover the walls, describing maps of Anuradhapura including old trade routes, sites of historical significance and also carrying punctilious information on agriculture and irrigation, trade, coinage, religion, language and literature, health and sanitation, arts and crafts, paintings, sculpture and architecture prevalent in the Anuradhapura period, all arranged in an orderly manner.

Artefacts are displayed on red velvet in clear glass boxes, to prevent air from further deteriorating their condition, the larger gilt statues are shined to perfection and all artefacts are labelled together with a brief write up on them.

The installation of a state-of-the-art lighting system ensures that the dark, gloomy atmosphere hitherto prevailing in the museum is no more and the lack of adequate sunlight even in the morning is more than compensated for.

An intriguing addition is the mural paintings restored by skilled artists to its pristine condition; the museum did not showcase any paintings or pictures in the Anuradhapura gallery before.

From fresco style wet paintings of the Sigiriya Apsaras, or ladies of the court of Kasyapa (also considered to be personifications of rain clouds and lightning) to relic chamber paintings and others, these paintings are a colourful addition that brightens up the place and catches the eye of the discerning visitor. Another exciting appendage to the gallery is of course the more recently discovered artefacts on display from newer archaeological digs in Anuradhapura.


Prominence is given to the evolution of Buddhism with concise information and statues of Lord Buddha in various postures and other related artefacts from the times of both early and late Buddhism. This also includes precise information on the various types of dagobas, the different positions in which Lord Buddha is portrayed and meditative positions.

The advent and dissemination of Hinduism is portrayed by Hindu bronzes discovered from diverse places, including the undated Ardhanarisvara, a composite figure of the male god Siva and the female goddess Parvati.

The large bronze Bodhisatva sandals and the heavy gold chain and exquisite ear ornament (kundala) are testament to the much larger stature of ancient Lankans in comparison to modern man.

The large coinage collection including kushna, elephant and svastika, maneless lion, gold and coin moulds prove just how developed Sri Lanka was in early history. Roman clay pots both complete and fragmented, foreign beads and Roman coins are evidence of ancient Lanka's repute as an important centre for trade in the world.

The original Buddha image found at Vallipuram, Jaffna (8-10th century A.D.), the Mahayana manuscripts (inscribed gold sheets from the 9th century), the Vallipuram manuscript (2nd century A.D.), stupa relinquaries in crystal, bronze and gold and the first gold inscription discovered in Sri Lanka from the time of King Vasabha are some of the more priceless artefacts from the Anuradhapura era on display at the gallery.

The infamous 'Sandakadhapahana'(an ancient entrance with moonstone, guard stones, balustrade and stairs from the 7-8th century) and other guard stones, stone pillars with Sinhala inscriptions, moonstones have been relocated from their disrespectful placement on the floor to being placed on stands with adequate support more befitting their value and importance.

Basic amenities

Basic amenities such as fans and clean lavatories have been put up to take care of visitors' comforts. The gallery however was not without a few glitches; the labels could have been made larger and not all labels were found in all three languages to accomodate the multi-lingual citizens of Sri Lanka.

The information booklet too is printed only in English, however the HSBC CEO Mark Humble assured the Sunday Observer that booklets in all the three languages would be available for public purchase in the near future.

A revision of the price of the booklet which currently costs Rs. 50 should perhaps be taken into consideration especially in comparison with the Rs. 6 that an adult entrance ticket costs. Humble also said that HSBC will continue to play a major role in the maintenance of these galleries, putting to rest fears that they would soon return to their former shocking state.

Furthermore, the HSBC staff will also be involved in the clean up process at the Polonnaruwa gallery.

The glorious Anuradhapura kingdom is the longest ruling capital on earth. This splendid city possessed the tallest brick structure in the world (the Jetavanaramaya), the oldest existing man-made reservoir (the Basavakkulama) and the first sanctuary declared by a ruler (the Royal pleasure gardens).

The revamped Anuradhapura gallery at the Colombo National Museum is a sanctuary where a part of this rich cultural and historical heritage has been preserved. With its novel and creative presentation, this is history made interesting.

So why not make a quick trip down to the museum in Colombo 7; you'll probably come out bursting with pride at being a Sri Lankan and with a new breath of life to your patriotism.

As we eagerly await the completion of the Polonnaruva gallery, let us hope that this will encourage other sources of private funding to come forth to help restore the museum to its former glory. As the minister of culture said, it is through the study of our past with its highly advanced technologies that we can create innovatively for the future.

SO Feb 6 2005