Sri Lankan Ivories

Sri Lankan ivories
Ivory Carving was one of the traditional industries (Sinhala: ශ්‍රී ලංකාවේ ඇත්දත් කලාව; Tamil: இலங்கையில் தந்த சிற்பக்கலை) that existed in Sri Lanka from ancient times to the recent past.

Ivory was utilized by Sri Lankan craftsmen since the historical era of the country to produce ornaments, sculptures and other utility materials and objects. From the middle ages, when trade activities of colonial nations including the Portuguese (1597-1658), Dutch (1658-1796) and British (1796-1948) enhanced the local market of exporting elephants and tusks, ivory came to be used popularly for producing carved ornaments and utility objects of quality. Some of the Sri Lankan ivory caskets belonging to the Kotte-Portuguese Period (15-16th century A.D.) are classic examples of creative products carved with historical and religious events together with decorative motifs.

Anuradhapura Period (5th century B.C.-11 century A.D.)
Ruvanweliseya Ivory Statue
Evidence is there to show that ivory carving technology was in Sri Lanka since the pre-Christian era
. An Early Brahmi Inscription on Vegiriya Natha Devalaya premises in Kandy mentions the word "Datika" among other specific words such as Kubaraka (potter) and Manikara [(lapidary) Paranavitana, 1970]. According to S. Paranavitana, the word Datika is linked with ivory craft and the word itself means the ivory worker (Rambukwella, 2016). The first known carved ivory object produced in Sri Lanka was discovered in 1947 from the Ruvanweliseya Stupa erected by King Dutugemunu [(161-137 B.C.) Crespo & Gschwend, 2022]. The object was a naked female figure of 7.6 cm tall and it was recovered from a limestone reliquary in the southern Vahalkada (frontispiece) of the Stupa (Crespo & Gschwend, 2022). Based on its jewelled girdle, S. Paranavitana identified this as a 2nd-century figurine depicting Manimekhala, the Goddess of the Sea (Crespo & Gschwend, 2022; Paranavitana, 1950). Its nearest parallel is said to be an Indian ivory statuette found at Pompeii in 1938 (Paranavitana, 1950).

The chronicle Mahavamsa of the 5th century A.D. records the use of ivory associated with the construction of Lovamahapaya of Maha Viharaya by King Dutugemunu (Crespo & Gschwend, 2022). The Culavamsa, the later addition to Mahavamsa written after 1219, mentions that King Jettatissa II (328-337 A.D.) was an expert in ivory carving (Crespo & Gschwend, 2022). It says that he made a Bodhisattva statue and several other items using ivory of splendid quality (Chaiklin, 2009; Crespo & Gschwend, 2022). The chronicle further records that King Aggabodhi II (608-618 A.D.) added to the Thuparama Stupa an ivory decoration (Crespo & Gschwend, 2022).

After the Anuradhapura Kingdom, examples of using ivory during the Polonnaruwa Kingdom and the following kingdoms including Dambadeniya, Gampola and early Kotte are unknown (Crespo & Gschwend, 2022).

Kotte Period (15th century A.D.-16th century A.D.)
In the 16th century, ivory carvers in the Kotte Kingdom created magnificent ivory caskets and other items such as fans, combs and religious representations. However, due to various reasons, many ivory items belonging to this period did not survive in Sri Lanka today (Meegama, 2017). Some of the ivory items produced during this period are presently preserved in several European public and private collections (Chong, 2013; Biedermann, 2017; Meegama, 2017).

Portuguese who arrived in Sri Lanka in 1505 actively engaged in coastal trade activities by the mid of the 16th century. In 1541, King Bhuvanekabahu VII (1521-1550 A.D.) of Kotte sent an ivory casket of exceptional quality to King John III (1502-1557 A.D.) in Lisbon (Biedermann, 2017). This casket, presently known as the "Coronation Casket", is now preserved in the Residenzmuseum in Munich (Biedermann, 2017). It is said that Bhuvanekabahu VII presented four ivory caskets to the Portuguese monarch (Chong, 2013). He also sent five ivory fans to Catherine of Austria (of the House of Hapsburg), queen of Portugal between 1541 and 1549 (Chaiklin, 2009).

There is another casket known as the "Ramayana Casket" in Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. It is believed to be a gift produced by King Mayadunne (1521-1581 A.D.) of Sitawaka in the late 1540s (Biedermann, 2017). The "Robinson Casket" which is kept in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is said to have a connection with the conversion of King Dharmapala (1550-1597 A.D.) to Catholicism in 1557 (Biedermann, 2017). Dharmapala was the last king of the Kotte Kingdom.

Kandyan Period (15th century A.D.-19 century A.D.)
King Kirti Sri Rajasinha of Kandy
Kandyan Period is noted for the production of ivories of ornamental and utility value and the ivory trade enjoyed royal patronage (Santiapillai et al., 1999). During this period and for some time afterwards, Sinhala craftsmen executed some of the highest-quality ivory carvings in the country (Martin & Martin, 1990). Many fine examples of Kandyan ivory carving such as Buddhist statues, fan handles, panels, jewellery and relic caskets, medicine pill boxes, scent sprayers, bullock carts, medicine and gem scales, rings, fly whisks, combs, ear and toothpicks and manuscript covers are presently preserved in the Colombo National Museum as well as in the Kandy National Museum.

The kings of Kandy customarily sent gifts of ivory to other countries (Chaiklin, 2009). Under the Dutch who seized full control of the Portuguese-held areas in 1658, pipe cases made of ivory were exported to other countries and some of them are still found in present-day European collections (Chaiklin, 2009: Chong, 2013). In May 1638, the Dutch first signed a treaty with King Rajasinha II (1635-1687 A.D.) of Kandy to access royal ivory supplies (Chaiklin, 2009).

British Period (19th century A.D.-20th century A.D.)
The British expelled Dutch from Sri Lanka in 1796 and managed to annex the Kandyan Kingdom to the British Empire in 1815. Before the 19th century, Sri Lanka had a large elephant population perhaps numbering 12,000 and it easily supported the local craftsmen's demand for row ivory (Martin & Martin, 1990). However, from the middle of the 19th century up to 1937, thousands of elephants were killed with the encouragement of the colonial British Government to open areas for human settlement and for coffee, tea and rubber plantations (Martin & Martin, 1990; Santiapillai et al., 1999). In addition to that, elephants were captured in large numbers and exported to India and to Western zoos (Santiapillai et al., 1999). Also, ivory was exported to India as well as to Japan in response to a preference by Japanese carvers for Sri Lanka elephant ivory (Santiapillai et al., 1999). However, the British Government made the elephant a protected animal in 1937 (Martin & Martin, 1990). 

Before the middle of the 19th century, most of the local ivory works were created for the Sinhala aristocracy and other wealthy people (Martin & Martin, 1990). However,  the market demand changed considerably in the first six decades of the 20th century, and most ivory items were made for foreigners, especially British residents (Martin & Martin, 1990).

After Independence (1948-present)
Sri Lanka gained independence from the British in 1948 and the government held public auctions until 1965 to sell the country's ivory stock which was collected by the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) from dead elephants or confiscated from poachers and traders (Martin & Martin, 1990; Santiapillai et al., 1999). However, the government ceased to hold auctions in 1965 and began to stockpile ivory (Martin & Martin, 1990). After that, the local market demand was filled by the ivory removed from the carcasses of domesticated elephants (Martin & Martin, 1990). In 1981 the DWC gave an amnesty to all people who owned elephant tusks and ivory carvings and required them to register their stocks with the Department (Santiapillai et al., 1999).  Therefore after 1981, it was illegal for anyone to own unregistered tusks or sell ivory products (Santiapillai et al., 1999). Following Sri Lanka’s involvement in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) regulatory framework in 1989, the international ivory trade was banned in the country, curbing raw ivory supply to the domestic ivory carving industry (Chaiklin, 2009; Köpke et al., 2021).

Decline of the industry
Despite its long history coming down since the pre-Christian era, the Sri Lankan ivory industry began to decline in the middle of the 1960s due to the shortage of the main raw material and the use of ivory was prohibited in the country by later-imposed laws (Martin & Martin, 1990; Rambukwella, 2016). The quality of the ivory workmanship had also begun to deteriorate due to the lack of patronage by the aristocrats and wealthy of Sri Lanka, and their replacement as clients by foreign tourists and amateur customers commonly possessing less knowledge of fine ivory carvings (Martin & Martin, 1990).

By 1979, the Sri Lankan ivory industry had become one of the smallest in Asia (Chaiklin, 2009). During the 1970s and 1980s period, ivory carvers produced to local markets small-scale ivory items such as bangles, Buddhist sculptures, small elephant figurines, carved tusks, necklaces, earrings, bracelets, rings and Perahera elephant sculptures studded with local gemstones mainly targeting foreign tourists. However, these ivory products gradually disappeared from the market by the next decade as it became an illegal business for anyone to sell ivory products.

Ivory carving, as an art, is dead in the country today and is no longer openly practised (Chaiklin, 2009).

Sri Lankan Elephants and Ivory carvers 
Panchnari Ghata, Ridi Viharaya
According to some scientists, the Sri Lankan elephant (Elephas maximus zeylanica) is a distinct subspecies of the Asian Elephant [(Elephas maximus maximus) Chaiklin, 2009]. The percentage of Sri Lankan elephants bearing tusks is unusually small and only 3-7 % of the population bear tusks (Chaiklin, 2009).

By the early modern period, although other ethnic groups including Tamils ​​and Muslims were present in Sri Lanka, ivory carving was generally restricted to Sinhalese castes (Chaiklin, 2009). The Dutch minister François Valentyn (1666-1727 A.D.) recorded in the early 18th century that there were two distinct castes of ivory artisans, the carvers (Atdatkatayankarayo), who ranked high among artisan castes, and the turners (Liyana Vaduvo), who were lower on the social scale (Chaiklin, 2009). In Kandy, gold and silversmiths, painters, and ivory carvers were among the so-called Four Workshops (Pattal-hatara) allowed only to work for the king unless granted explicit permission to do otherwise (Chaiklin, 2009).

Ivory was worked in several parts of the country. The Portuguese priest Fernão de Queyroz (1617-1688 A.D.) recorded that there were skilled ivory workmen in Matara and the Dutch missionary Philippus Baldeaus (1632-1671 A.D.) mentioned that there were ivory workmen in Jaffna (Chaiklin, 2009). The Dutch Governor Joan Maetsuyker (tenure: 1646-1650 A.D.) noted that there were skilled ivory craftsmen in Kandy and other places (Chaiklin, 2009). Galle, a significant harbour of Southern Sri Lanka, is also known for ivory carvers (Chaiklin, 2009).

Ivory works
Sri Lankan caskets with magnificent ivory carvings are presently preserved in several museums around the world; Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Lisbon, Residenzmuseum in Munich (1 casket), Victoria and Albert Museum in London (9 caskets), Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (1 casket), Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and Ashmolean Museum of the University of Oxford in England (Biedermann, 2017; Chaiklin, 2009; Meegama, 2017). A casket with ivory carvings depicting Rāmāyaṇaya is presently in the Senarath Paranavitana Teaching and Research Museum of the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka (Meegama, 2017). Several of these caskets are categorized as diplomatic gifts or exotic luxury goods, created with European patrons in mind (Meegama, 2017). Although these caskets are modelled in the form of 16th-century European leather caskets adorned with metal handles, the Sri Lankan caskets are different from them as they are covered with floral designs, animal motifs and human figures (Meegama, 2017). Some of the notable ivory caskets of Sri Lankan origin are as follows (Biedermann, 2017); 
#) Coronation Casket (c.1541 A.D.): The ivory panels of the casket depict the key moment of the Sri Lankan embassy to Lisbon. In one panel, Prince Dharmapala is presented in effigy to John III by Sri Ramaraksa or possibly Bhuvanekabahu himself, and his hand is placed into that of the overlord. Another panel depicts the Portuguese monarch placing a crown on the head of the Lankan prince, anticipating his future coronation in Kotte.
#) Ramayana Casket (c.1547 A.D.): The panels depict certain scenes from Ramayanaya, an Indian narrative that has received little attention in Sri Lanka, but that became popular in the 16th century (Meegama, 2017).
#) Robinson Casket (c.1557 A.D.): The Betrothal of the Virgin, the Rest on the Flight to Egypt and a magnificent Tree of Jesse are depicted on various panels of this casket along with Sinhalese motifs. According to the view of some scholars, this is the first Sri Lankan casket to include Christian subject matter (Meegama, 2017).

Sri Lankan Ivory Caskets
Ivory fans
Ivory-made fans were another product created in Sri Lanka and traded to Europe (Chaiklin, 2009).

Buddha statues and relic caskets
The creation of ivory Buddha statues in seated or standing postures was very common in the Kandyan period. Most of the Buddha statues in the seated position are depicted in meditating attitude while standing Buddha statues are depicted with Abhaya or Vitarka Mudra. The dome-shaped (Stupa) ivory relic caskets/reliquaries were produced during the Kandyan period to deposit sacred materials inside them.

Decorative panels
Decorative panels
Ivory decorative panels were used to decorate door jambs of Buddhist temples like Dalada Maligawa as well as Devala Shrines to show the dignity of that particular place. These panels are decorated with various designs showing unique Sinhalese art elements such as mythical animals, flowers and branches enclosed by border designs such as Pala-peti, Arimbuwa etc. Sometimes decorated panels consisting of divinities often carrying chowries are depicted on either side of the door frames. A fine example of this kind is found at the door frame of Ridi Viharaya in Kurunegala in which a delicately carved Panchnāri-ghata motif (the pot of five women) and two lion images can be seen.

Medicine pill containers
Small containers of ivory and horn were used as medicine pillboxes by indigenous physicians during home visits to treat patients. A medicine container along with a small ivory scale that belonged to King Rajasinha I (1581-1593 A.D.) of Sitawaka is presently preserved in the Colombo National Museum.

Earpicks, toothpicks, hair tweezers and combs
Ivory earpicks, horns, syringe and combs
These are probably made for the use of elites. Often attached together in a bunch, these were decorated with Sinhalese designs and motifs. The combs are pierced and carved with traditional motifs depicting Goddess Lakshmi holding branches, figures of women, swans and Narilatha. Apart from these motifs, some of the subjects such as the god of love with sugar cane bow and flower arrows, courting couples, the nursing mother, and the mother with a grown-up child are found depicted on combs. Either side of some combs are identical while some are treated as the face and back of a particular figure. The human, faunal and floral motifs used to decorate the medial panel of some combs are very much similar to those of wood carvings found in Embekke Devalaya and Panavitiya Ambalama. It is said that carved ivory combs depicting themes of fertility were offered by the bridegroom to the bride during traditional marriage occasions (Chaiklin, 2009).

Sri Lankan ivories .
1) Biedermann, Z., 2017. Diplomatic ivories: Sri Lankan caskets and the Portuguese-Asian exchange in the sixteenth century. Cambridge University Press.
2) Chaiklin, M., 2009. ivory in early modern Ceylon: a case study in what documents don’t reveal. International Journal of Asian Studies, 6(1), pp.37-63.
3) Chong, A., 2013. Sri Lankan ivories for the Dutch and Portuguese. Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art, 5(2), pp.1-14.
4) Crespo, H.M. and Gschwend, A.J., 2022. The “Pangolin Fan” An Imperial Ivory Fan from Ceylon; Artistic Confluence and Global Gift Exchange between Sri Lanka and Renaissance Portugal. Jaime Eguiguren Art & Antiques. ISBN: 978-84-09-41680-6. pp.115-119.
5) Köpke, S., Withanachchi, S.S., Pathiranage, R., Withanachchi, C.R., Gamage, D.U., Nissanka, T.S., Warapitiya, C.C., Nissanka, B.M., Ranasinghe, N.N., Senarathna, C.D. and Schleyer, C., 2021. Human–elephant conflict in Sri Lanka: A critical review of causal explanations. Sustainability, 13(15), p.8625.
6) Martin, C. and Martin, E., 1990. Sri Lankan ivory sculpture in retrospect. Pachyderm, 13, pp.35-38.
7) Meegama, S.A., 2017. The local and the global: the multiple visual worlds of ivory carvers in early modern Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka at the Crossroads of History. University College London. pp.113-140.
8) Paranavitana, S., 1950. Sinhalese Art and Culture. Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, 98(4822), pp.588-605.
9) Paranavitana, S., 1970. Inscription of Ceylon (Vol. I). Department of Archaeology Ceylon. p.62.
10) Rambukwella, C., 2016. Traditional Ivory Crafts and Technology in Sri Lanka: A Historical and Technological Perspective. Asian Elephants in Culture & Nature. p.164.
11) Santiapillai, C., Silva, A., Karyawasam, C., Esufali, S., Jayaniththi, S., Basnayake, M., Unantenne, V. and Wijeyamohan, S., 1999. Trade in Asian elephant ivory in Sri Lanka. Oryx, 33(2), pp.176-180.

This page was last updated on 12 May 2023

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