October 2017


Katu Ge: the Colombo Museum
October 2017




The Colombo National Museum, one of the city's most striking colonial buildings

Often known locally as the Katu Ge (derived from the Sinhalese word for a museum, kautukagaraya), the Colombo National Museum is one of the city's most striking buildings. Sprawling across its own park-like grounds in the middle of Cinnamon Gardens, the museum is a worthwhile visit for anyone planning to tour Sri Lanka.


Words and Photography
: David Blacker


Completed in 1876, the museum is one of the few purpose-built buildings of the British Period still in use. This is perhaps the most publicly accessible. The Colombo National Museum has been open to all visitors for almost a century and a half.


Ensuing much persistent lobbying by the Royal Asiatic Society, the newly appointed Governor of Ceylon, Sir William Gregory, assigned the task of designing a building to house a national museum to the Public Works Department's own architect, J G Smithers. The neo-renaissance Italianate style popular in 19th century Europe and the United States was selected.


When the Colombo Museum was opened to the public in January 1877, the building was, however, only about a quarter of the size of the current museum and it was only as the 20th century began that expansion was considered. Two new wings were added, and by 1933, these had been further extended as well.


The museum consists of a ground floor and one storey, with the former divided into historical pre-colonial periods and the latter into areas of interest. As a result of the gradual expansion in size, the museum has no large central atrium the way many museums do, but rather a series of medium-sized halls.


The sheer size of the historic monuments in the ancient cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa can be overwhelming and a few hours at the museum will be a well spent, introduction to the finer points of the island's history. The entrance hall is dominated by the Toluvila Statue, a beautifully sculpted Samadhi Buddha from the Late Anuradhapura Period, which is thought to be the finest example of its kind in Sri Lanka. Beyond and to the right, the tour begins chronologically with the Pre- and Proto-Historic Period, before moving on to the Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, and Kandyan Periods.


Fact Box

The Virtual Museum

The Colombo National Museum has its own free app for Android and iOS and is worth downloading before your visit. The app includes floor plans, commentary and an augmented reality feature which syncs with the QR codes prominently displayed on the exhibits.

Need to Know

The museum does not charge extra for cameras, but a special fee is taken for video recording equipment.


Most of the exhibits in the Anuradhapura section are from the Late Anuradhapura Period and showcase the pinnacle of art and craftsmanship from the oldest and longest unbroken period of Sinhalese supremacy on the island. A pair of exquisitely gilded bronze sandals, cast to fit the feet of a three metre-tall Bodhisatva statue, a door knocker, and a head ornament, all from ninth century Veheragala display exquisite workmanship.


The displays in the Polonnaruwa Era hall indicate the strong influence of Hinduism in ancient Sri Lanka; on show are bronze statues of Parvati and Siva Nataraja both from between the 11th and the 13th centuries. This section also contains a working scale model of a traditional dam-and-sluice system, including the biso kotuwa, a feature designed to control the flow of water from larger reservoirs. This model gives an accurate insight on the hydro-engineering capabilities of ancient Sri Lankans that will be a great source of information when actually visiting one of these great "tanks".


The hall housing the Kandyan Period is a favourite of visitors. It is ruled over by a large central display of the throne, crown and royal accoutrements of Sri Wikrama Rajasinha, the last Sri Lankan king, which were taken to the British Museum after the fall of Kandy. The royal regalia were returned in 1936 and eventually became a permanent exhibit in Colombo.


The entire upper floor of the original 1876 building is divided into three sections on currency, handicraft and weapons respectively. This part of the museum is perhaps the best showcase of its interior design and architecture, with high vaulted ceilings and a grand double-winged wooden staircase leading to the ground floor. The Arms and Armaments section displays a variety of edged weapons and firearms from the island and its many visitors. Also on view is the museum's newest exhibit, a Kandyan sword known as the Kasthane.


Outside, the lawn provides broad expanses of grass shaded by huge old banyan trees, and is a perfect place to have a seat after a few hours of walking.

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    Cloth paintings, many from the 18th and 19th centuries

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    The spectacular high vaulted ceiling and grand double-winged staircase

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    The Toluvila statue from the Anuradhapura Period

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    A model of the ancient dam-and-sluice system with the Biso Kotuwa

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    The grand Golden Throne of the Kandyan Kingdom

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    Ninth century gilt bronze sandals from Veheragala

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    An ornate door knocker found in Veheragala

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    Kasthane, an elaborate Kandyan dress sword

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