Antiquarian Maps & Prints

Art Sri Lanka

Right: View near Point de Galle, Ceylon.  1809.
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Fra Mauro's map of 1459 showed Ceylon as triangular, but placed Adam's Peak accurately.


In 1652, this map by Sieur Sanson, the Royal Geographer of France, was published.


The Dutchman, Isaak Tirion, had his maps published in French and Italian editions also.   The detail reflects the European's mercantile interests.

One of the rarest Ceylon maps existing is this ornate mariners' map by Doncker, published about 1660.


Dr. Brendon Gooneratne  MBBS DAPE PhD

So, geographers in Afric maps,
With savage pictures fill their gaps
And o'er unhabitable downs
Place elephants for want of towns.

- Jonathan Swift

Cartographers of Sri Lanka, or Ceylon, as it was until recently known, have been in a more fortunate situation than those of Africa.  Because of its geographical position on the ancient sea routes to the East, and its colourful reputation for elephants, spices and precious stones, Sri Lanka was well documented in the ancient history of the Romans and Greeks, Persians and Arabs.

The island was known as Lanka to the Indians of early times, as is recorded in the epic poem, the Ramayana.  The Arabs called it Serendib, and in maps of the seventeeth century it was named Selen-diva (meaning the Island of Selen or Seren); it is not too dificult to see how this title yielded, in time, to Seylan, Ceilao and Zeilan, and finally to the more modern name, Ceylon.  The Greeks and Romans called it Salike after Ptolemy and also Taprobana, from the Tamba-panni of the Indians.

Legend has it that the first Aryan colonist to settle in Sri Lanka, Price Vijaya (the son of the 'Lion King' of North India and the founder of the Sinhalese race), discovered when he landed at Mannar on the north-west coast of Sri Lanka that the sands were copper-coloured, and gave the unknown terrain the name 'Land of the copper-coloured sands', Tamba-panni.*

*This term has also been translated as 'Land of the great red lotus pond', probably referring to the immense irrigation works and artificial 'tanks' that are a prominent feature of the Anuradhapura district even today.

The Romans and Greeks believed the island to be far greater in size than it is, partly because of the great cities and fairly dense populations they encountered during their brief sojourns on the island.  The high central mountain ridge, that rises to eight thousand feet in some parts, helped to support this exaggerated conception of the island's area.  An embassy from the King of Ceylon that visited the court of Rome during the reign of the Emperor Claudius (A.D. 40) and an exchange of ambassadors during the reign of the Emperor Julian (fourth century A.D.) generated some interest in the island and its size, inhabitants, wealth, and natural resources.

The old cartographers already had some idea of the topography.  According to the Chronicles of Ceylon - the Mahawamsa (543 B.C. to A.D. 301) and the Culawamsa (A.D. 1266 to 1758) - the island was divided into three parts, based on the point where its greatest river was joined by another.  Old records which describe land grants demarcating areas of the country suggest that the rulers of Sri Lanka (at times there were several kings ruling different provinces simultaneously) must have had a good knowledge of the terrain.  Cartography was, therefore, known in ancient Ceylon, though it was, only with the advent of foreign invaders from the West, and the development of navigation and of cartography in Europe that more detailed information became available on the island in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

The Greek and Roman descriptions of Sri Lanka were based on the accounts of two visitors, Onesicritus and a Roman tax collector who came there by accident.  The former was a captain, attached to Alexander's forces, who crossed from India to Sri Lanka with a naval detachment around 330 B.C.  The latter collected taxes in the maritime provinces of the Roman Empire of Asia Minor, and his vessel was blown by unexpected storms to the island's shore.  During his stay he was entertained by the king, and when he returned to Rome he took with him, among many costly gifts, curiosities, and examples of the island's natural products, a first-hand knowledge of the people, their behaviour and their capital city, and a working knowledge of the topography of the country.  He was accompanied by an embassy of the King of Ceylon.


It was, however, only during the time of Ptolemy (Claudius Ptolemacus, geographer of Alexandria) in the second century A.D. that Ceylon was drawn with comparative accuracy, though Diodorus Siculus in 44 B.C. had given correct information on its position and extent.  Sri Lanka was drawn as an island with an area over ten times its real size: but the basic knowledge revealed in Ptolemy's map - the central mountains and rivers, the location of elephant-feeding grounds, and, most important of all, the city of Anurogrammi (modern Anuradhapura) - is remarkable for a map maker who to rely on secondhand information.

In Ptolemy's map of Sri Lanka (Taprobana), the island a positioned to the west of the southern trip of India.  In the Munster woodcut version of this map, and in other editions (there were thirty-one in different atlases of the period before A.D. 1600) - for example, in the Magini edition of 1597 - a curious sketch of the Ceylon elephant is included as a separate inset.  The animal is shown as having anklet pads shaped like powder puffs on the soles of its feet, and a trunk that broadens towards its extremity, with an open-grooved appearance, instead of tapering to the end as is the case with the real elephant.  the pads probably represent the artist's method of suggesting visually the soft, silent tread of the great beast as it moves through thick jungle, and the appearance of the trunk might similarly be a pictorial record of the known versatility and flexibility of the real appendage.  The tusks, too, are depicted as curving upwards, like those of the mammoths of prehistoric times.

The inscription plaque of the Munster map and the subsequent editions of the Ptolemy map present a quotation from a description of the island by Lodovico di Varthema, an Italian who visited Ceylon in 1506 and published an account of his travels in 1510.

Ptolemy's knowledge of Ceylon was also remarkable, for the second century A.D., in that he got Sinhalese place-names fairly accurate - a fact that points to the existence of an early working knowledge of Ceylon's topography among European traders and mariners.

Independently, the Arab and Maldivian traders were producing mariners' charts of Ceylon which were astonishingly accurate for the period, especially in assigning it to its correct latitudinal position.  However, Edrisi's map and Fra Mauro's Mappo mundo of the fifteenth century (which were supposed to represent an advance of world cartography from Ptolemy's basic conception of the then known world) produced in fact many inaccuracies about Ceylon.  These included a curious division of the area into two separate land-masses in Edrisi's map and the representation of the shape as triangular in Fra Mauro's Mappo mundo, with an exaggeration of the number and size of island around Sri Lanka.

With the voyage of Vasco da Gama around the Cape of Good Hope in 1497, a new era began in the cartography of Ceylon.  The Portuguese, who came to the East to trade, plunder, and gain converts to Catholicism, attempted systematic colonisation.  To do this effectively in Ceylon they needed a good military force and accurate charts giving a detailed picture of the terrain, seaports and natural resources.

Ceylon had obvious value for a naval power with territorial ambitions in the East, by reason of its geographical location and the many safe anchorage points on its coast.   More knowledge became available to the cartographers of the island for two reasons: one was the rapid development of the seaport of Galle, in the south of Ceylon, which was discovered accidentally by the Portuguese when the son of the naval commander in Goa, Lourenco de Almedia, was blown into its harbour in a storm in 1505 while pursuing the Malabars of South India, who were Portugal's rivals in trade in the Indian Ocean.  (This marks the beginning of Western domination of Ceylon.)  The other factor was the development of Colombo, on the western seafront, as the second important naval and trade harbour for Portuguese ships.  Dourado's atlas, published in Lisbon in 1586, is said to contain one of the earliest Portuguese decorative maps of Ceylon.

Around 1595, a Spanish cartographer named Cypriano Sanchez working for Portuguese map makers in Lisbon, produced his beautiful copperengraved map of Ceylon, pentagonal in shape and fairly detailed in its description, for by this time the Portuguese had been in Ceylon for nearly ninety years and had control of its maritime provinces.  This fact, together with their military strength and naval fleets in Goa and India, helped them to acquire (among other things) new topographical knowledge of the country.  The two important errors in this map, otherwise accurate for its period, are the diminished area of the northern peninsula of Jaffna or Jafnapatam, and the total omission of the port of Galle (Punta Galle or Point de Galle), a harbour well known to European mariners and cartographers and, as has already been mentioned, the place of the first Portuguese arrival in Ceylon.


A map from the Mercator-Hondius atlas of 1609, based on the earlier copperplate map of Cypriano Sanchez.

The Sebastian Munster version of the original map of Taprobana by Ptolemy, who also called Ceylon Palaesimundu and Salike.  The artist added the elephant design.

Remarkable accuracy in the detail of Ceylon's coastline was achieved by Nikolaas Visscher, a Dutchman whose map appeared in 1680.


By the time the Sanchez map appeared in the famous Mercator-Hondius atlas, more knowledge of Ceylon was beginning to accumulate.  This is reflected in a comprehensive descriptive text on the reverse of the map in the atlas, providing information about the island's location and climatic conditions and descriptions of the appearance and customs of the inhabitants.  The kingdom of Kandy is indicated on the map, but no further detail was possible until the central mountain fortress was penetrated in numerous forays and military manoeuvres from the coast during the seventeenth, eighteenth and even the early nineteenth centuries.

The Mercator-Hondius atlas produced separate maps of Ceylon in a number of issues from 1609 to 1630, and the last two of these were in colour.  The animals shown in some areas of the map are accurately and picturesquely drawn.

Until Kandy fell to the British in 1815, occasioning a flow of first-hand information to the outside world regarding the topography of the interior, a fairly constant feature of the maps of the period had been the positioning of Adam's Peak or Sri Pada (Mountain of the Holy Footprint).  The fact that so much legend was woven around this mountain assisted its popularity among cartographers.  Besides the Christian and Muslim belief that the mountain stood in the Garden of Eden, and that Adam had left his footprint on its summit, there was the Buddhist belief that the Lord Buddha visited Ceylon around 500 B.C. and that the heroically proportioned "footprint" visible on the rock was his.

Ibn Batuta, the itinerant Muslim pilgrim whose travels in the then known Eastern world for twenty-eight years from A.D. 1324 through Asia Minor, Africa, South-East  Asia and the China Sea, and the island of the Indian Ocean, brought him to Ceylon, described the rites by which Muslims worshipped the footprint.  The iron chains fixed on the steep side of the rocky summit of the mountain, to help climbers and pilgrims to steady their feet during windy weather, were said to have been placed there during the time of Alexander the Great.  Cartographers originally derived their information from travelers and traders and this later appeared in maps and charts; the regular insertion of the mountain (visible from the sea coast on a clear day) in such maps provided a useful landmark for navigators off the coast of Ceylon.

With more European nations joining in the race to plunder the East, the cartography of Ceylon continued to develop.  In the Jansson map of 1657, reference is made to Jan Thyssen's battery near the eastern coastal city of Batticaloa, which in 1638 had been captured by the Dutch from the Portuguese.  The rock of Mulkirigala, a three hundred-foot eminence lined all the way up with temple-caves and fresco paintings, was a landmark on the southern coast; rising dramatically in the midst of flat country, it is clearly visible from the sea and appears much bigger than it actually is.  This rock was frequently listed by Dutch cartographers, together with forts that the Dutch built along the southern and southeastern coasts.  Valentijn, in his lengthy work on Ceylon, and other Dutch recorders seem, for some unexplained reason, to have confused it with Adam's Peak, calling it "Adam's Berg".


Senson, the Royal Geographer of France, appears to have based his map of Ceylon on Jansson's atlas of 1652.  His unfamiliarity with the local languages and local nomenclature resulted, however, in a duplication of place-names, and the production of a confusing map.

The Visscher map of Sri Lanka in 1680 produced an accurate coastline and a good description of the bays, harbours, and river estuaries.  The interior was, however, poorly mapped.

It was left to Robert Knox, an English captive in the Kingdom of Kandy for nineteen years from 1657, to publish a remarkable book on Ceylon in 1681 with the most detailed map of the island that had so far appeared.

The place-names of the Kandyan district were given in great and accurate detail, for Knox was not only intelligent and observant but had learned the Sinhalese language; he had been granted Royal permission to roam within the boundaries of the kingdom and even to trade and sell produce as far away as the ancient ruined cities of  Ceylon in the north-central province.  His quick observation and retentive memory helped to save his life, for his knowledge of the countryside helped him when he and a companion in captivity decided to make their escape to Manner, a town on the north-western coast which was then under Dutch control.

A similar map is to be found in Philip Baldaeus' Description of the Island of Ceylon.   Baldaeus was a Dutch missionary who spent ten years in Ceylon from 1656.  His book provides detailed plans and descriptions of the coastal forts of Ceylon.  The Dutch edition (1672) is a magnificent production, and the English translations were published from Churchill's Voyages.

Despite the knowledge of the interior of Ceylon that was available by the end of the seventeenth century, some Dutch maps of the early eighteenth century continued to leave large blanks in the central mountain region, and went so far as to say that "these mountains could not be marked in their proper place on the map".  Both the French de L'Isle (1722) and the Dutch Isaak Tirion (1750) maps gave greater detail and fairly accurate representation of the interior of Ceylon.  In addition, the latter gave the demarcations of the 'Cinnamon Districts', important to the flourishing spice trade which had originally attracted Arab traders and European invaders to Ceylon and had provided the continuing motive for a consolidation of military might.

Around this period (1680), Johannes van Keulen and, later, his kinsman, Gerard, produced magnificent decorative maps of Ceylon.  Johannes van Keulen's map was both accurate and descriptive, but Gerard van Keulen went into greater detail in demarcating the Korales (provinces).

Both Keulen maps carry representations of ornate plaques, cherubs, graceful sailing ships, and colourful dolphins.

Reacting to the hardships caused by successive foreign invasions, the Kings of Kandy developed an isolationist attitude, deliberately refraining from control of the dense jungle growth around the central mountain range which provided a natural line of defence.   This policy produced conflicts with the Dutch, who considered it their right not only to occupy the maritime provinces they captured from the Portuguese in 1656, but also to enjoy unrestricted access to the cinnamon trees that grew wild in the jungle country surrounding (and sometimes even within) the boundaries of the Kandyan Kingdom.

In 1796, after many years of strife and warfare, Dutch power was finally eliminated in Ceylon, and the British replaced them.  Many attempts were made to conciliate, but over, or conquer the Kandyan kingdom, but they were discouraged by the natural defence of mountain and jungle, the few and extremely risky passes into the capital city, Kandy, and the diseases prevalent in the jungle (notably malaria).

At last, with internal trigue in the Kandyan court, and by subtle manoeuvre of the king's chief ministers, the kingdom fell to the British in 1815; Ceylon became a Crown Colony of the British Empire.

Just before Kandy was captured, the Rev. James Cordiner produced a map of the island in his comprehensive book on Ceylon.  This, when contrasted with the map in Dr. John Davy's book, establishes the extent of new knowledge gathered over a very short time.   Davy (brother of the famous scientist inventor, Sir Humphery Davy) travelled with the British forces into the Kandyan kingdom during the 'rebellion' of 1818 as physician to the armed forces.  His map provides details of the road system then existing in the central province, and of the military fortresses in the province and around the highlands of Uva.  These details became vitally important after the Kandyan 'rebellion' by chiefs anxious to retrieve the lost Kingdom.  In Davy's map, the waterways and their tributaries are well documented.

In 1822 Captain Schneider produced 'A New and Correct Map of the Island of Ceylon', incorporating details of the interior and giving information on the maritime provinces derived from Dutch cartography.  Schneider was an engineer and a surveyor, and his accurate map was a milestone in the history of Ceylon cartography.

While Schneider was preparing his map, Captain (subsequently Major-General) John Fraser produced a map which bore the stamp of the professional, and is today the modern map of Ceylon.  It took forty years to complete, and was drawn on the scale of half a mile to an inch.  Just below the title appears an engraving of the beautiful satinwood bridge over the Mahaweli River at Peradeniya (near the site of the present University campus and of the modern bridge that connects the main Colombo-Kandy road) that was completed in 1832 and was of Fraser's own design.  The bridge consisted of a single span of two hundred and five feet, twenty-two feet wide and arching sixty-seven feet above the river bed.

By the middle of the nineteenth century Ceylon had been mapped in practically all its major detail.  The British mapped the harbours of Trincomalee and Colombo for naval purposes, and numerous details from these map were added to subsequent general maps of Ceylon.  The Tallis map of 1850, with inset vignettes of scenes of Ceylon, is a good example of the cartography of the time.  Survey Department maps from this period onward provide increasing detail of village areas and ruined cities.

The shape of the island shown in maps changed with the accumulation of knowledge - from the triangular shape Ptolemy ascribed to it in the second century A.D. to the pentagonal and rectilinear shape of the sixteenth century, and finally to the tear-drop shape of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The first map of the new Republic of Sri Lanka will be seen as the culmination of an astonishingly rich cartographic tradition.

The Author: Dr. Brendon Gooneratne, of the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine at the University of Sydney, collects Ceylon maps and books and is a student of cartography and of Ceylonese antiquity.