Ratnapura National Museum


The Sabaragamuwa Province has more to it than meets the eye. Besides its precious stones which have given its fabled capital the name of Ratnapura or ‘City of gems’, its rich gem-bearing alluvia have yielded the discovery of an entirely new extinct fauna for Sri Lanka, among them the lion, elephant and hippopotamus. The region is also a veritable treasure trove of artifacts and implements relating to prehistoric man in Sri Lanka.

Indeed, little is it known that Sabaragamuwa was once a leading human settlement in the island before the arrival of Aryan-speaking settlers. It was here at Bellan Bandi Palassa that the remains of Balangoda Man or Homo Sapiens Balangodensis were discovered, thus providing us with evidence of the existence of primitive man in Sri Lanka. Balangoda Man has been shown to closely resemble the Veddas in their physical anthropology and there is good reason to believe that Sabaragamuwa was once a thriving Vedda settlement.

Somana cloth depicting Sinhala gladiators
Somana cloth depicting Sinhala gladiators

The very name Sabaragamuwa literally means ‘Village of the Sabaras’, the term Sabara being a synonym for Vedda. The former existence of Veddas here could also be traced in the toponymy of the region, for instance the place names Vedda-gala, Vedda-vatta and Vedda-kumbura in the Ratnapura district. Further, at least one family name suggesting a connection with the Veddas, Veddage is known in the area.

Thus we would have to suppose that with the advance of the Sinhalese to the interior forested regions following the fall of the Rajarata civilisation in the 13th century, the Veddas abandoned their ancient hunting grounds and withdrew obliquely along the base of the central hills to Uva and other parts of the Vedirata which they presently occupy. Those who chose to remain behind would have gradually assimilated with the Sinhalese and lost their distinct identity with the passage of time.

Stone age

Housed in an old early 19th century Sinhalese manor known as Ehelepola Walauwa, the Ratnapura National Museum is unique in that it combines the disciplines of palaeontology, zoology, botany, geology and folk culture, all under one roof.

Here one would find a variety of stone implements used by primitive man in Sri Lanka. These implements are largely made of quartz and point to a definite stone age in Sri Lanka. Indeed, a considerable assemblage of lithic implements have been recovered from Batadomba and Kitulgala caves showing that the region is rich in such artifacts.

Wooden makara torana
Wooden makara torana

The displays in the museum may only be a minute proportion of what is still actually hidden beneath its sands. Here one would also find a large collection of spiral shells belonging to a variety of snail supposed to have been consumed by primitive man. That the consumption of snails was widespread in the region in pre-historic times is borne out by findings at sites such as Batadomba cave which has yielded an abundance of Acavus and Paludomus snails. The existence of such remains in a human settlement certainly point to such molluscs figuring significantly in the diet of primitive man.

Also on display are the teeth of a variety of extinct fauna including lion, rhinoceros, hippopotamus and wild boar besides the fossilized teeth of an extinct elephant. The Ratnapura beds thought to represent the Pleistocene have yielded evidence of three species of primitive elephant, namely, Elephas Hysudricas Sinhaleyus, E.Namadicus Sinhaleyus and E.Maximas Sinhaleyus, the last of which is thought to be the progenitor of the modern Sri Lankan elephant.

Other finds include two species of rhinoceros, namely, Rhinoceros Sinhaleyus and Rhinoceros Kangavenas, one species of hippopotamus, Hexaprotodon Sinhaleyus and a species of lion, Leo Leo Sinhaleyus. Many of the finds have been confined to teeth which have however been thought sufficient to establish the identity of these species.

Fossilised teeth of elephant
Fossilised teeth of elephant

Other interesting exhibits include specimens of fossilised wood and a fossil cast of a worm’s nest. One could also find here some rare fauna of the region such as a huge polmal eel of over three feet and a good collection of medicinal plants including the madara (Cleistanthus Collinus) which is hard to come across these days. Other interesting exhibits include an assortment of native timbers, minerals and precious stones.

Folk life

An important aspect of the museum is its portrayal of the folk life of the region including various forms of dress, ornamentation, weaponry, pastimes and musical instruments besides other mundane day-to-day activities. Particularly fascinating is a rare wooden makara torana depicting a number of figures with folded hands in a gesture of reverence belonging to the 19th century.

Other interesting exhibits include a Somana cloth of the 18th century depicting Sinhalese gladiators and fighting elephants and an old dancer’s costume of the Sabaragamuwa tradition including a blue jacket with human figures and a red belt.

Besides these, one could find a good collection of traditional Kandyan jewellery including various sorts of necklaces, bangles, anklets and ear ornaments such as the kola, a cylindrical ornament worn on the lobe of the ear which seems to have had its origins in the leaf ornaments worn by the Kandyan women of yore as suggested by its name, and the kuru, a trinket worn on the helix or upper rim of the ear as seen in the photographs of some Kandyan women occurring in the Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon published in 1907.

Also to be seen are a variety of items connected with the cookery of the region. These include a tripod pan with three moulds for preparing those delectable cakes known as kiri roti made of rice flour, grated coconut and coconut milk and often consumed with treacle.

This dish is hardly if ever made nowadays. Other interesting exhibits include moulds for making seeni pittu and various sweetmeats. Pastimes include Olinda, Neranchi and Pancha boards some of which may well be over a century old. Particularly interesting is a large bed with holes in the middle for playing olinda said to have belonged to Ehelepola Nilame. Among the musical instruments are various kinds of drums including a rather unusual bummadiya made of clay in the shape of a pot with its mouth covered with talagoya skin said to have been used in ceremonies connected with paddy fields.

The weaponry on display include some old Sinhala swords including a rare sword said to have belonged to Ehelepola as well as a fine collection of old guns including a Vicker machine gun used during the first world war. Other interesting exhibits include a mangul parakkuva or puzzle knot, a rather unusual sesatha with female figures and a few kukul pahan or oil lamps with the figure of a cock.

Sunday Observer

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