Art from Sri Lanka: The Jeweled Isle

Buddha Shakyamuni, Kandy period 18th century, gilt copper alloy with partial black coating, 41.91 x 36.2 x 21.13 cm, purchased with funds provided by Murray and Virginia Ward © Museum Associates/LACMA

This major comprehensive survey of art from Sri Lanka, showing over 250 works, addresses nearly two thousand years of the island’s history. The image of a bejewelled isle, first invoked in Greco-Roman accounts of Sri Lanka’s precious gems, inspired numerous literary descriptions of the island’s wealth and beauty. The exhibition includes decorative objects fashioned from gold, silver, and ivory, as well as 19th-century photographs that document the country’s medieval past, as well as landscapes, flora and fauna.

The island has also been known by many names, Serendib by the Arabs, Ceilão by the Portuguese, Zeilan by the Dutch, Ceylon by the British and from 1972, Sri Lanka. The exhibition presents an exploration of this multi-faceted island and its complex society of cultures, religions, and history, and is a rare chance for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) to showcase their rarely seen collection of this country’s works of art.

Sri Lankan Buddhist Practice

The religious pieces in the exhibition convey the importance of the sacred sites and relics in Sri Lankan Buddhist practice, as well as representations of Hindu gods, attesting to the long and constant interaction between Sri Lanka and South India. Hindu gods such as Ganesha are honoured by Buddhist and Buddha, and in Vaishnava Buddha is considered to be an avatar of Vishnu. Christianity and Islam also find their place on the island.

In the exhibition, a selection of ivories, textiles, and furnishings show the nearly four centuries of European colonial presence in Ceylon/Sri Lanka and explore the dynamic interaction between local and foreign visual traditions and echoes its multi-cultural citizens. In the early 16th century, the Portuguese formed close trading relations with the powerful Kingdom of Kotte, and traded exclusive goods such as elephant, precious woods such as ebony, gemstones, spices such as cinnamon, and luxury objects made from ivory and often inlaid with gold and precious stones.

Sri Lanka and the Ancient World

However, Sri Lanka had been known to the ancient world since the 4th century BC, when Greek mariners first heard of a fabulous jewel-bearing island somewhere beyond India. Evoking this sense of ancient wonder, the opening gallery of the exhibition features a display of 21 gemstones mined in Sri Lanka. This section of art from Sri Lanka also introduces the diversity of Sri Lanka’s religious and artistic traditions. In addition to Buddhist artworks, there is an important set of shrine panels that addresses the Buddhist incorporation of Indian gods, some clearly Hindu, into a protective pantheon. Impressive masks and painted earthenware vessels used in festivals and healing rituals further attest to the range of practices associated with popular and folk religious observances.

The Bejewelled Isle

The image of a bejewelled isle, invoked in ancient Sanskrit texts and in Greco-Roman accounts of Sri Lanka’s precious gems, inspired numerous literary descriptions of the island’s wealth and lush tropical beauty. The notion of ‘jewels’ is apparent throughout the exhibition, which includes precious decorative objects fashioned from gold, silver, and ivory, as well as 19th-century photographs documenting Sri Lanka’s extraordinary monuments, people, landscape, and flora. Horace Walpole used this notion when he invented the idea of ‘serendipity’ (the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident) in 1754, in a letter to a friend, after reading a Persian tale, The Three Princes of Serendip, translated into English from the French.

The Three Historial Periods and Art from Sri Lanka

Following the introductory gallery, the rest of the exhibition is loosely organised around  three historical periods in chronological order that examine the major periods of Sri Lankan history: the 3rd century BC to 10th century; 11th to 13th century; and the 15th to 19th century. Together, these sections address themes such as the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka, Buddhism’s accommodation of indigenous deities and beliefs, the interaction between Hinduism and Buddhism, and the connection of Sri Lankan kingship to the possession of Shakyamuni Buddha’s tooth relic, which remains today the most venerated object in Sri Lanka Buddhist life. Various sub-sections of the exhibition address multiple, often interrelated, facets of Sri Lankan art including the relationship between Indian and Sri Lankan culture and visual forms; Portuguese and Dutch mercantile expansion on the island; the establishment of British colonial power; the development of Sri Lankan decorative traditions; the richness of Sri Lankan courtly arts;  and the legacy of Sri Lanka in the modern day.

As Buddhism is the dominant religion in Sri Lanka and has always been an important focus for artistic expression throughout the island’s history and Buddhist visual traditions can be seen in nearly all the sections of the show. The third section on Kandy, the last independent kingdom of Ceylon, and the present home of the tooth relic, includes  a special focus on the arts associated with its annual grand Esela perahera held over 10 days, which usually falls in August. A perahera is an annual Buddhist festival that is also organised and linked to most monasteries that includes a procession of dancers, jugglers, musicians, fire-eaters, with elephants carrying replicas of relics on elephants’ backs.

Many of the photographs in the exhibition convey the importance of the sacred sites and relics in Sri Lankan Buddhist practice, which are explored through the presentation of art associated with three of Sri Lanka’s historical regions and periods, the first being Anuradhapura, then Polonnaruwa, and finally the kingdom of Kandy.

The Mahavamsa 

The history of the island was first set out in the Mahavamsa (also known as the ‘Great Chronicle of Ceylon’), an epic poem written in ancient Pali that narrates Sri Lanka’s history from its legendary beginning up to the reign of Mahasena of Anuradhapura (302 AD). The Anuradhapura period stretches from 377 BC to 1017, and Buddhism reached the island’s shores during the earlier period of this kingdom’s influence, through Devanampiya Tissa, who had links to Ashoka the Great in India – the great missionary of early Buddhism. It was at this time that Sangamitta, daughter of Ashoka, brought the Bodhi sapling to Sri Lanka.

Ancestors of the first sapling are still venerated at the Maha Bodhi in Anuradhapura today. The relic of the Buddha’s tooth was also brought to Anuradhapura in the 4th century, at a time of monumental growth – it was during this period that the golden age of Sinhalese culture began. And, as an agricultural-based society, the use of advanced engineering skills produced some of the most complex irrigations systems of the ancient world. These  tanks (lakes) and the ruins of the Anuradhapura complex can still be seen today.

The Chola Dynasty in Sri Lanka

An invasion from the Southern-Indian Chola dynasty, at the end of the first millennium, saw Anuradhapura conquered and the capital was moved east to Polonnaruwa. This second most ancient kingdom, now in North Central Province, was declared the capital by King Vijayabahu I. In 1070, the king defeated the Chola invaders who had previously sacked Anuradhapura, and reunited the region. The golden age of Polonnaruwa was under a later king, Parakramabahu I (1153-1186), who encouraged trade and agriculture and improved on the irrigation systems that were used in Anuradhapura. Today, the archaeological sites of Polonnaruwa are some of the finest to be found in the country and are a World Heritage Site. The Vatadage (originally built to hold the relic of the tooth) is one of the finest remaining buildings in Polonnaruwa and was built during Parakramabahu I’s reign.

The Kingdom of Kandy

The third historical section of art from Sri Lanka looks at The Kingdom of Kandy. Founded in the 15th century, it was initially as a client kingdom of the Kingdom of Kotte (located on the southwest coast) and became an independent kingdom in the late 15th century.  It managed to stay an independent force through various domestic and foreign invasions until it finally fell to the British in 1818. The kingdom was famous for its jewellers and metalworkers – and brides and grooms today still often opt for a lavish Kandyan-style wedding. Kandyan art also has a distinct school, which can mainly be seen in the many frescoes and wall paintings in Buddhist temples throughout the land.

Sri Dalada Maligawa, in the centre of Kandy, is the most important shrine to Sri Lankan Buddhists and has housed the relic of the Buddha’s tooth since the mid-17th century. The first temple to house the tooth was built by King Viravikrama (r 1542-57), but following raids by the Portuguese, the tooth was moved for safe keeping and only returned after a more substantial building was erected to protect the relic. The royal palaces of the former kingdom still exist and can be visited near the main temple complex.

While many religious sculptures, paintings, and architectural fragments from these sites variously express the so-called ‘jewels’ of Buddhism, Hinduism was also an important part of the island’s cultural and religious fabric. Therefore, the exhibition of Hindu gods and Indian deities that attest to the long and constant interaction, in particular, between Sri Lanka and South India. The domestic objects of ivories, textiles, and furnishings further reflect nearly four centuries of European colonial presence in Sri Lanka and the dynamic interaction between local and foreign visual forms and traditions.

Colonial Photographs of Sri Lanka

An important anchor throughout the exhibition is provided by the late 19th-century British colonial photographs, which provide a context for many of the objects on view and art from Sri Lanka. Archaeological and architectural photographs, in particular, constituted an important record of Ceylon under British rule. They convey the significance of place in Therevada Buddhism and allude to colonial narratives regarding the island’s history.

The photographs include works by Joseph Lawton (active Sri Lanka, circa 1860-72), Charles T Scowen and Co (active in Sri Lanka circa 1875-94), WLH Skeen and Co (active in Sri Lanka circa 1860–1920), amongst others. British photographic studios in Ceylon addressed a range of subjects, including the natural wealth of the island as well as the lifestyles of individual sitters. Charles T Scowen produced a number  of extraordinary botanical studies in the Royal Botanical Gardens at Peredeniya, near Kandy, several of which have been brought together for this exhibition.

Contemporary Art 

The final gallery includes a contemporary art from Sri Lanka by California-based artist Lewis deSoto (b 1954). DeSoto’s large inflatable sculpture is inspired by the massive 12th-century stone carving of the reclining Buddha at Gal Vihara (Rock Monastery) in Polonnaruwa. The artist’s work serves as a commentary on the power of the Buddha’s  teaching and the visual impact of the Buddha’s image. Also included in this gallery are modern photographs by Reg van Cuylenberg (1926–1988), a Sri Lankan photographer who undertook several tours across Sri Lanka between 1949 and 1958, documenting the various places he visited, the festivals he witnessed, and the people he encountered. As a counterpoint to the colonial photographic archive, Van Cuylenburg’s photographs, taken in the optimistic  years following Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948, represent a Sri Lankan’s personal view of a much beloved homeland in his book Image of an Island: A Portrait of Ceylon. Modern images reuniting an ancient world.


The Jeweled Isle, at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 9 December until 21 June 2019,

There is an opening performance on 16 December at 10am, including an oil lamp lighting ceremony and traditional dances and drumming

The Ramayana and Sri Lanka