Wood and ivory chest

From Sri Lanka, mid-16th century AD

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 Roamn 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.

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More information


J. Guy and D. Swallow, Arts of India 1550-1900 (London, Victoria and Albert Museum, 1990)


Length: 54.000 cm

Museum number

Asia OA 1892.2-16.25


Gift of Sir A.W. Franks


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