Asia, Museum, Travel

Creators and Destroyers in Colombo’s National Museum

 

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After visiting the National Museum, I had a dream in which a mass murderer walked into a supermarket with an arsenal of antique Sri Lankan weapons. This is not surprising because the museum has a large display of guns and knives in the last room we visited. Also, the daggers are of a shape and design that leaves no doubt as to their eviscerating function. With swords and cutlasses and the like you can always pretend you are just looking at oversized kitchenware. With the wiggly-bladed kriss or the thing with one sharpened horn facing one way, another horn facing the other, or a dagger with a skeleton on its hilt, there is no room for doubt. Even the ceremonial swords are a bit terrifying, with their grimacing red-eyed lions on the hilts.

 

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But most of the museum is not about murder but about god/s and the pursuit of pleasure, peace and painlessness-in-oblivion.

The museum is a huge two-storied white building sitting on a huge manicured lawn, with a couple of banyan trees off to the side. The first thing you see as you walk in the entrance is this granite Buddha from Anurādhapura (800 AD), in Samadhi pose–Samadhi is a word indicating single-pointedness of mind. This statue, called the Toluvila Buddha after the name of the village where a team led by the British archeologist Harry Charles Purvis Bell uncovered it during a 1900 dig, is one of the island’s best-preserved ancient statues.

 

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Today about 70% of Sri Lanka’s population are Theravada Buddhists. The religion was introduced to Sri Lanka around the third century BCE, and Sri Lanka has the longest continuous history of Buddhism of any country on earth. Anurādhapura, one of the island’s ancient capitals and a city that has been continuously inhabited since the 10th century BCE, was the center of Theravada Buddhism for many centuries and is a rich source of beautiful objects partly because royals and nobles commissioned fine sculptures and works of art in order to adorn the temples and monasteries. The museum had several rooms devoted to statues depicting the Buddha in various poses, as well as Bodhisattvas (embodiments of compassion). My favorite Buddha pose was the reclining one, since it seemed to lend a kind of spiritual aspect to my love of naps.

 

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Ganesha’s vehicle, a mouse.

 

Next came the Hindu gods—about 12.6% of the population is Hindu, almost all of them Tamil – an ethnic group native to Sri Lanka and genetically closely related to the Sinhalese. Hinduism was the first religion to be practiced here. Today, most Hindus on the island are Shaivist, which means they worship Shiva, the god who danced the world into being, as their primary creator. The island’s greatest period of Hindu activity was between 985 and 1014 CE under the Chola Dynasty, when wealthy Tamil nobles built their own temples and statues. My favorite Hindu statues were of Ganesh, the son of Shiva and Parvati. He is known as the Remover of Obstacles, and as the god of domestic harmony and success. In the form of Ganesh Gajanana he has as his ‘vehicle’ a mouse named Krauncha.

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Beyond relics and treasures of the island’s two major religions, there are reminders of other influences that have visited the island for centuries: Arabic inscriptions, Chinese pottery, Roman coins, Portuguese drawings, Dutch pipes and British photographs.

Upstairs is the most amazing thing in the whole museum: reproductions of gorgeous frescos from the giant rock fortress of Sigiriya, ‘Lion rock.’ The story of Sigiriya is blood-chilling. According to the Cūḷavaṃsa, a chronicle that covers the 4th to the 19th century (that is partly available in English here), Kashyapa I was not in line for the throne but acquired it through the expedient of staging a coup and having his father Dhatusena imprisoned. The real heir fled because he believed, probably with good reason, that he would be assassinated. Meanwhile, newly ascended to the throne, Kashyapa believed his dad had hidden some treasure and let him out of prison to show him where he put it. Dhatusena led him to a large irrigation tank, saying it was the only treasure he had. Enraged, Kashyapa walled his father up and left him to die. This behavior turned the public against him. They called him Pithru Ghathaka Kashyapa, ‘Kashyapa the Patricide’. Afraid they would help the rightful heir to attack him, Kashyapa moved here:

 

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He made it even more defensible with a moat and ramparts. Not only that, he planted a huge garden around the rock, including fountains and pools, supplied with water by a complex irrigation system. The entrance to the Sky Palace was via a staircase built into the rock, which was carved around it to look like a crouching lion—the entrance was through the lion’s chest.

 

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The frescos, painted during his rule, show beautiful maidens with flowers. According to Dr. Edwin Ariyadasa, the maidens are a kind of divine welcome committee in the form of Apsara, cloud goddesses dancing and scattering flowers as a welcome to (non-hostile) visitors to the palace.

 

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Another memorable room was the one reserved for Kolam masks. A kolam is a comic folk play in which masked actors tell a story through dance, mime and dialogue. There was one playing on a TV in a little movie theater. A couple of unmasked drummers sat off to the side and would strike up a conversation with the grotesque masked caricatures that appeared on stage. The conversation was all in Sinhalese (I think), but you could get a sense of the characters through their voices and posture—one, for example, seemed to be an unhealthy old lady who whined a lot. Another seemed to be a very angry man. After a bit of banter between the masked character and the drummer, music started up and the character would dance in a frenzy.

 

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Policemen masks

 

There was a lot more to the museum than I have described here: textiles, explanations of agricultural practices, musical instruments and jewelry to name just a tiny fraction of objects. In fact there’s a whole other museum next door–the National Museum of Natural History. Unfortunately, though, we have limited museum endurance and hurried through whole rooms near the end, desperate for a sit-down and cold drink. That wasn’t the museum’s fault, though. If you are ever in Colombo I would recommend a visit.  

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