Rajpal Once More: Pictorial Impressions of Early Colonial Sri Lanka 

Pictorial Impressions of Early Colonial Sri Lanka — Two further publications in the Series ….

courtesy of The Sunday Island, 7 November  2015,

TRAVEL and TRANSPORT: Rajpal de Silva & Ranjan Gooneratne
RELIGION and RITUALS: Rajpal de Silva & Albert Dharmasiri are to be launched on the 19th of November 2015
Comment – Vijita Fernando

The third and fourth volumes of Rajpal de Silva’s series of pictorial impressions of the early colonial era in Ceylon are once again a fascinating exploration into life in those early years in Ceylon. These two volumes deal with travel and transportation of the colonial years which he has compiled along with Ranjan Gooneratne, and religions and rituals of those early years in collaboration with Albert Dharmasiri.

Pictorial impressions in this context mean drawings or paintings on paper or canvas created by both local and foreign artists and span the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries before the camera became perhaps the chief – and certainly the most popular – means of documentation. As in his two previous volumes – dress, customs and occupations – de Silva has been remarkably successful in gathering copies of paintings and black and white illustrations from a variety of sources, all of which have embellished – and even superseded – the text in many instances.

Travel and Transportation

The well researched and documented text is, however, the key to the reader’s enjoyment of the intricate details of travel and transportation of those early years, beginning from the dim distant past when travelling was only by foot until the wheel is claimed to have been invented in Mesopotamia in the 4th century AD. Primitive water crafts, padda boats, later more sophisticated boats for fishing in the deep sea are profusely illustrated, a pointer to the popularity of fishing as a livelihood industry. As the wheel came into common use, transportation and travel became sophisticated with horse drawn, or bullock drawn vehicles, and then the train and the motor car in early 1900.

Transportation is vividly illustrated in paintings of men and women carrying goods on their heads or shoulders in several paintings from the album of Mrs.M.Bunker, (1848). Several methods of carrying children are illustrated in the black and white sketches of Esaias Boursse, (1660s). The pingo man, the ‘triacle’ (thirikkale), palanquins, jinricksha, rickshaw and developing forms of travel as the railway and its many innovations naturally led to the history of railways and roads, resting places, ‘ambalams’, bridges, toll bars all of which are here in vivid detail and accompanied by exquisite illustrations from the albums of painters of those early years.

Religions and Rituals

Serendipitously, this volume opens with a series of exquisite water colour paintings of Adam’s peak by Edward Lear (1876), Ernest Haeckel (1882), W. Fairholme (1860s) and several others, of equally arresting scenes.

Descriptive notes on Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity and their philosophy are accompanied by a preponderance of images from these religions. A series of illustrations of the Jataka stories, the sacred Bo tree and representative paintings of Hindu and Islam adorn this section. An Imam with his koran by Ms. M. Brunker, mosques and lighthouses in Galle, a Hindu temple in Sea Street, both by A. Hugh Fisher 1907), Christian churches, several views of a church by Esaias Boursse, The Roman Catholic Mission Station, Negombo, signed ‘G.F.G’ (1873) portray forms of worship among the devotees from different parts of the country, revealing an abiding interest in the traditional religious practices. Pilgrimages which seem to have been an essential part of religious practices are illustrated in the series of paintings by a number of artists from across the seas through these centuries.

Of particular interest are the sections on astrology which played a significant role in the people’s culture even then, as the series of watercolour impressions of masks of ‘yakas’ by Ms. M. Bunker vividly portray.

Discovering these artists and their paintings is in itself a fascinating story. As de Silva tells you these pictorial impressions have been ‘discovered’ from numerous institutions the world over, from museums, libraries, archives, galleries and also from private collections. His tales of these finds are legion! Some are near unbelievable. Some are serendipitous, as on a visit to the Peradeniya University library he chanced upon four volumes containing over a hundred water colours of dress by Major and Mrs Derby Griffiths, while searching for quite a different album!

There was also the occasion at the University of Visual and Performing Arts in Colombo when he was able to trace the 1835 album of superb water colour drawings by Tamil artists (unsigned) during his quest for impressions of dress in the past centuries.

Rajpal de Silva’s continuing research into Sri Lanka’s history and antiquarian art, especially of prints, engravings and water colour drawings has resulted in several publications during the past couple of decades. These offer a unique and comprehensive record of printed art up to the end of the 19th century. Illustrations published in travel folios, newspapers and magazines are all pre-camera images providing insights into aspects of Sri Lankan life, the country’s physical features, its people, dress and religious rites, customs, monuments, fauna and flora and historical events.

The two current volumes are worthy followers of the two previous volumes on People and Dress, and Customs and Occupations. Sadly, they may probably be the last in this series.

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