Colombo National Museum Sri Lanka

Fiancee (who doesn’t like museums) dropped me off at the gate on a Sunday morning. Parking is a problem because there isn’t any. The museum is in a part of Colombo 7 that is a forest of no parking signs & uni-flow streets. The closest street parking is on Horton Place/ Ananda Coomaraswamy Mawatha that runs along Viharamahadevi park. Still a bit of a walk to the main entrance. Overall it might be better to use 3 wheels or take a bus.

Colombo museum

I lumbered up to the ticket office and got a nasty sticker shock. Rs500/- for an adult! Panic. Actually its Rs25 for a local (relief) – I was looking at the “foreign” (US$) rates. That’s about under US$5 but quite steep for a majority of Sri Lankans.

At the entrance portico I checked in my mobile. You can’t take those in or cameras (of course you could sneak it all in but humble self is rather law abiding). It seemed fairly safe to leave it. They sign it in with your ID card number & give you token. Mine is a battered cheapo Motorola with a monochrome screen. Doubt it if it is ever a theft item. You have to switch it off before you hand it in.

The upper floor of the museum was closed for repairs/renovation. There was hardly a crowd. Overall the place seemed clinging on quite well for a third world country at war. The lawns well kept, outer walls gleaming white in the burning mid morning light. Possibly through a combination of competent management, love and a sprinkling of corporate sponsorship/aid grants.

Inside the exhibits are essentially old school. Wood frame glass cases. Note cards in three sometimes two language.

Its easy to list the deficiencies of the place compared to a place like the Smithsonian of the British museum. There is plenty for a certain type to whine about. However, Cerno (who tries to put on cynical airs) was very impressed.

Despite the rotting humidity of the tropics, the exhibits seemed to be lovingly cared for. I took a very close look at those well preserved Ola leaf books & liquid Chola bronzes. Didn’t spot any dust. There were spot lights (perhaps its the money pumped by the HSBC) on most of the exhibits so very little was hidden by the gloom of the shuttered windows.

What touched me the most were the small things – the accoutrement’s of daily life.

From the classical period it was a beautiful elephant lamp. Hidden in its whimsical metal work was the ingenious mechanism to regulate the oil flow. The lamp was clearly was the property at one point of someone well off. The subject matter too risqué for a monastery? Wonder what its even flame illuminated? An aristocratic dinner table where good conversation was part of the cuisine? A merchant who wrote anxious letters about the exchange rate on those Roman coins?

I admit that I lose my objectivity in museums.

Equally stunning were the writing styluses for ola leaf books. Quite a few were apparently gifted by kings as rewards for good service. Perhaps they were handy writing tools as well. For such thin objects they seemed elegantly well proportioned. Perhaps well balanced for easier writing.

There were more personal items from later times – mainly Kandyan. Beetle nut holders. Delicate medicine scales. Beauty (not just form) following function. Intricate without being gaudy. Our ancestors (at least the aristocratic ones) had taste, with a refinement for even utilitarian things that is quite alien today. The Bawa/Barefoot look is the closest we get to that feeling these days though both these styles are obviously less formal.

The “feature” exhibit of course is the throne of the last king on Kandy. Impressive even with its worn looking velvet. What interested me more was an ebony chair used by Sri Vikrama Raja Singha in the course of his everyday life. It was short and inconspicuous. Would be easily lost in an antique shop. Wonder if it was comfortable. Who did he meet while sitting on it? What plots did that wood hear. Its just a chair now. No point in mutating it to a spring board of idle speculation.

Eventually it it time to go. Slithered out of the building and towards the library section. It was closed.

On the adjacent lawn between the museum and the performing arts department are ancient cannons, a propeller from a ship and the skeleton of some sort of light artillery piece. No inscriptions. Bones of the long dead things just dumped there. It is a quiet spot, cooled by the rustle of a wise big tree that has probably seen it all but kept its secrets. Not private enough to make out though.

When I picked up my mobile, the guy at the front desk suggested I check out the Natural History Museum at the back. Didn’t realise there was one. Eventually sauntered over through the heat.

But that’s another post.

Update 2017

Check out David Blacker’s stunning photos of the museum and some of it’s artefacts.

13 thoughts on “Colombo National Museum Sri Lanka

  1. I have memories of my siblings and I being dropped off there as a child decades ago while parents went off to visit relatives living close by. From your words, time appears to be frozen in there. Have vivid memories of the place. Looks as though my memories are still in tact. They match your description.

    I also have distinct memories of the Kandyan exhibits, throne etc.

    Can’t remember going to the natural history section though. Looking forward to reading about it.


  2. Now that you mentioned it I do have a few memory fragments of visiting the museum as part of a school trip. There used to be the casing of an old German WW1 or WW2 sea mine in the front porch.

    It wasn’t there this time but the place is more or less a time capsule in more ways than one 😉

    The same applies for the natural history museum – hopefully I’ll get the time to peck that out sooner than later 😐


  3. Oooh…I miss the museums. I used to love the Natural History Museum especially. You know the (in)famous Man Eater of Punanai is one of the stuffed leopards on display? I also used to love the bookstore there, good to find reprints of those fascinating books by Deraniyagala on elephants, snakes, etc…bah I’m babbling…I hope they manage the upkeep of the place well!


  4. N:
    You mean the kitty that was THE Man Eater of Punanai ? The Natural History Museum is a real late 1970s 1980s time capsule. Scurrying to get meandering cat herd of thoughts on it into something coherent. Its not easy. 😉
    You can a photo permit which is RS160/ right now. Anyway place could always do with a few bucks – specially since the rain broke through and damaged a few artefacts.


  5. Hi Cerno,
    just wanted to tell you that my blog has been hacked into and would appreciate it if you could pass on the word. Someone is posting sick comments about me and even changing the things I have posted. I have no way of contacting wordpress to shut the blog down because even my e-maill addresses have been hacked.


  6. Very sorry I didn’t respond earlier. 😦

    Just got off work and logged in and saw your post/comment & blacklullaby’s post on kottu. Seems wordpress has now jumped in when I just checked. Hopefully it will get sorted out.

    Don’t hesitate to contact me if I can be of help.


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