On a Trail of Ivory Carving

Ivory inlaid table top. Nooit Gedacht, Unawatuna, Sri Lanka. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Does your family hold heirlooms of ivory inlaid combs of yesteryear?  Ivory combs or  panawa in Sinhala were apparently flirtatious gift, an expression of love and at times a gift  given surreptitiously during a clandestine affair.   


Ivory was extensively used in the making of jewellery boxes, bible boxes, Aurvedhic pill boxes, fans, vatapathas and in furniture making in the olden days. We all know now better than to buy any ivory artifacts. The carvers are fast becoming extinct too just as  the gentle, giant elephants that were killed for their tusks. Sri Lanka has only one traditional carver left and that is very much a dying craft. All sticky nuggets of information gleaned from a presentation by Deshamanya Vidya Jyothi Ashley de Vos to the Ceylon Society of Australia, Colombo branch, earlier this month.

Stuck with an information fever on ivory pre and post de Vos presentation ,  I set off combing my old and trusted print version of the Encyclopedia Britannica (EB) and my regular companion the effervescent Internet.  What these revealed were a veritable feast  of infor an addict like me.

Dentin that these tusks were composed of was prized for their beauty, durability, and suitability for carving. Elephant tusks from Africa average about 6 feet ( 2 metres)  in length and weigh as much as 100 pounds (45 kilograms) says the EB.  Asian tusks are somewhat smaller and EB says strictly speaking the teeth of the hippopotamus, walrus, narwhal, sperm whale and some types of  wild boar are recognized as ivory, but have little commercial value because of their small size.

Ivory furniture bracket Begram, Afghanistan.

I was surprised to read of the extensive use of ivory and how much that craftsmanship is preserved to this day.  The discovery tour took me from Paleolithic Venus figurines c.24,800 BC  (EB 17:703b) to the tombs of the ruler of Byblos, to the Eskimos in igloos carving in long winter nights working on ivory that came from the walrus and the whale.

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.”

The figure of the ivory Venus of Hohle Fels, Germany is a a statuette of a woman with “outsize bulbous breasts and hugely exaggerated genitalia” and according to the New Scientist has pushed back the history of female figurative art by 5000 years, to at least 35,000 years ago.

Elephants in Asia have had a close and respected association.  They were prized royal animals that kings rode to war. and in victory parades. Sri Lankan history and culture has a respected place for elephants.  In the early years elephants were not killed for ivory. Apparently, in Sri Lanka removing tusks from a dead elephant involved religious rites — a begging for forgiveness for removing the ivory.

The first description of the capture of elephants in 40 AD is by  Pliny the Elder or Gaius Plinius Secundus (23-79): Roman officer and author of the Natural history.  The British were the worst offenders with records of daily killings to clear virgin forests for tea and coffee plantations. Sri Lankan elephants were much in demand not only for the ivory but for fighting prowess.  Emmerson Tennent in 1859, says that the export of elephants from Ceylon to India had been going on without interruption from the period of the First Punic War. India wanted them for use as war elephants, Myanmar as a tribute from ancient kings and Egypt probably for both war and ceremonial occasions. Elephants were caught held in Kraals and taken via the Elephant Pass to Jaffna or to Mantota now Mannar and loaded on flat beds, about 10 at a time and exported. 

The Portuguese  quickly latched on to this lucrative trade in elephants and to also getting the ivory carvers to produce some exquisite work for gifts to the Royal Court of Portugal.   These and many of the work held in Museums abroad are in the “Catalogue of Antiquities and other cultural objects from Sri Lanka (Ceylon) Abroad” by P.H.D.H. de Silva, published by the National Museum of Sri Lanka, 1975. However, the Black and white photographs do not really do justice for these pieces. 

So from the faithful EB in print I jumped to my more active space the Internet. Here’s some of the information loot I found. Where there are photos they are reproduced with permission  for non commercial purposes . In the other instances there are links to the websites and the texts describing the pieces on these sites.

  1. Wood and Ivory Chest – British Museum

Ivory inlaid wooden box. British Museuem

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.

2. Ivory chest with detailed carving with gold, rubies, sapphires, height 18 cm. Kotte, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), around 1543

The chest was made at the court of the king of Kotte in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and was taken as a gift to Portugal, which had conquered parts of the island earlier in the sixteenth century. The ivory carvings depict the Ceylonese legation, dancers, musicians, people riding on elephants and scenes of homage and prayer. Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria acquired the chest later in the century with the aid of the Fugger banking family.

3.       Ashmolean University, Oxford: Ivory cabinet Sri Lanka, 2nd half of the 17th century

Dimensions : 19 x 24 x 15.5 cm (height x width x depth)

The top panel of this cabinet shows a Dutch party being received among the huts and palms of a seaport in Ceylon, while their ships ride at anchor. The back shows the climax of an elephant hunt, with six wild elephants penned in a stockade and European soldiers in the foreground. The door panels have pairs of a lion-headed variant of the auspicious hamsa bird, a common motif in the later ivory and metalwork of Ceylon. Traditional foliated scrollwork, with parrots and lion-headed serapendiyas (mythical creatures), appear on the front and side panels.

4. Virgin of the Immaculate Conception

The Walters Art Museum

Artist: Anonymous (Sri Lankan)

Date (Period): ca. 1690-1710

Medium: carved ivory with gilt and polychromy

Measurements: 10 1/8 in. (25.7 cm)

The Virgin’s mantle falls in the elegant, linear folds of Indian sculpture. The native style and facial features are smoothly adapted to the Christian apocalyptic iconography of the Virgin, who is represented standing on a crescent moon. With little reference to the body beneath the robes, her physical energy is directed into the peace and serenity of prayer. Native and European vocabularies are in dialogue. Christianity came with the Portuguese in 1505. Known to Europeans in the 17th century as Ceylon, the island became officially known as Sri Lanka in 1972.

See also: 

Elephants in Sri Lankan History and Culture:  

1 thought on “On a Trail of Ivory Carving

  1. The most fascinating thing that Ashley said was that ivory boxed were essentially a European thing. We never made them till we found a market in Europe. The Portuguese took our craftsmen to Portugal and trained them. So whenever we see a ivory box, let’s give the Portuguese also some credit!
    Incidentally, I just returned from Nooit Gedacht!

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