The Tradition of Ivory Carving, with special reference to Sri Lanka

Wood and Ivory Chest from Sri Lanka – British Museum


From the sixteenth century Europeans began to visit the countries around the Indian Ocean in search of trade. The Portuguese were active on the coast of Sri Lanka from around AD 1500 as merchants and later as rulers. Boxes such as this one were made as gifts or export items for Europeans. This is one of the largest examples of ivory-covered wooden boxes made in Sri Lanka from the mid-sixteenth century onwards.

Ivory carving has been practised in South Asia for over two thousand years, though very early examples survive only in specific archaeological contexts. The presence of an example of carved Indian ivory (a mirror handle) recorded from Pompeii indicates the antiquity of its desirability outside its land of origin. Examples of carved ivory panels for decorating furniture have also been recovered from the Begram Hoard in Afghanistan, dated to the early centuries AD. This discovery suggests the route that such luxury items travelled overland from India to the Roman world.

This wooden box is covered in thin sheets of ivory carved with decorative designs in a traditional Sri Lankan style. Around the sides are three main horizontal panels. In the middle is a row of male and female dancers, musicians and courtiers. Above is a row of hamsas, mythical birds of ancient Indian lore. Below is a row of vyalas, or griffins. On the lid of the box are further animals from Hindu-Buddhist mythology including the half-woman half-bird kinnari. In the seventeenth century, Sri Lankan ivory carvers made similar boxes for the export market with European scenes and decorative designs. The inside of this box is lined with blue cloth painted with a network of birds and branches.

n.b. Photo and Text reproduced from the British Museum website under the specified Terms of Use.

Would like to learn more about ivory carvings — join us at


of the  


Ceylon Society of Australia

 Colombo Chapter


The Tradition of Ivory Carving, with special reference to

Sri Lanka


“Ivory Carvings executed by Sri Lankan craftsmen adorn many a foreign collection. In the historic period elephants were not killed for ivory, but came from private collections. Exquisite ivory carvings of statues, combs, reliquaries, etc were executed using diyatharippu lenses. There is one paramparika diyatharippu ( traditional) carver left. Soon there will be none .” 


 Desamanya Vidya Jyothi Ashley de Vos

Fellow of the Sri Lanka Institute of Architects, Member of the Royal Institute of British Architects

National Chairman of the International Council on Monuments and Sites

Director Conservation on the Jetavana Project, Anuradhapura.

President of the Wildlife & Nature Protection Society of Sri Lanka

Visiting Faculty, Depts of Architecture, Landscape Architecture & Conservation studies, Faculty of Architecture, University of Moratuwa, Katubedde.

visiting Faculty ICCROM, Rome. and ACCU, Nara, Japan.

Consultant to Department of Archaeology, Member Advisory Board, Dept of Archaeology.

Member Galle Heritage Foundation, Galle.


Questions and discussions will follow


Date: Saturday, 6th March 2010 at 5.30 p.m.

Venue: Lions Activity Centre, Vidya Mawatha, Colombo



(Vidya Mw, which joins Wijerama Mw to the Independence Square, is now accessed from its Wijerama Mawatha end. Proceed along Bauddhaloka Mw, turn into Wijerama and then turn left –  towards Independence Square – at the lone tree junction.

Enter the Lions Activity Centre through drive-way on your right between the SLAAS and the Institute of Engineers buildings)

Members please invite any/all persons who are likely to be interested in attending and/or the proceedings and the Society.

  Interested? Please contact persons below. No fee for attendance.

 Chulie de Silva, (President) Tel:  077 777 2220; e-mail:  Daya Wickramatunga, (Secretary) e-mail :, Mike Udabage, (Treasurer) Tel: 077 541 2420 e-mail:

About the Ceylon Society of Australia (CSA)

The CSA is a non profit organization, incorporated in Australia. Its main objectives are to foster, promote, and develop interest in the cultural heritage of Sri Lanka, especially the post-medieval period when this country was first exposed to, what we now call, globalization.  Apart from publishing the journal- The Ceylankan which has attracted much international appreciation, the Society holds meetings quarterly in Sydney, Melbourne and Colombo. Most importantly, it is non-political and non partisan, and studiously steers clear of political and similar controversial issues. CSA is not a formal, high profile Society but, rather, a gathering of like-minded people, open to receiving and imparting new ideas, who would enjoy a quarterly meeting in reasonably modest and intimate surroundings. The Colombo Chapter caters to CSA members in, and passing through Sri Lanka, and the Sri Lankan public. ! 

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