Sri Lanka is an island civilization with a long, rich and colourful history. Its
pivotal position in the ancient Silk Road, that functioned as a cultural highway between
the East and West, has given this island a cosmopolitan character since pre-Christian
times. In the inscriptions of a Mauryan Emperor of India in the 3rd century BC, Sri
Lanka was referred to as Tambapani. He names it as one of the countries to which he had
extended his benevolent services. Onesicritus of Astipalacia who was among the
convoy of Alexander the Great in his eastern campaigns (326 to 323BC) referred to Sri
Lanka as Taprobana.
The writings and cartography of the Greek geographer Ptolemy or Claudes Ptolomeus of
Alexandria of 2nd century AD presents us with an account of Sri Lanka, its topography,
economy and culture, showing the extent of contacts that existed between Sri Lanka and the
west in the ancient times.
The ancient Indians called
Sri Lanka the Sieladiba (Pali Sihaladipa).
An epigraphic record of this name has been found in an inscription
of Asoka, in the Tinnevely district of Tamilnadu in South India.
In an inscription of the 4th century Gupta Emperor Samudragupta, Sri
Lanka is referred to as Sainhalaka, the Land of the Sinhalas.
Sri Lankan links with the rest of the Asia has been as extensive as with the West and
the Indian subcontinent. Chinese sources refer to many occasions of cultural,
political and trade exchanges between the two countries. The maritime expeditions of
Cheng Ho are a clear indication of the sustained links between Sri Lanka and China.
However, the links with China waned with the expansion of European power in the Indian
The history of Sri Lankan painting and sculpture can be traced as far back as to the 2nd
or 3rd century BC. The ancient historical chronicles of Sri Lanka; such as the
Mahavamsa, written in the 6th century AD has numerous references to the art of painting
and sculpture in Sri Lanka. The earliest reference in the art of painting is to the
drawing of a palace on cloth using cinnabar in the 2nd century BC. The ancient
chronicles have description of various examples of paintings in the relic-chambers of
Buddhist stupas, and in monastic residence. Fragmentary remains of early wall
paintings have been recorded from various archaeological sites. The Mahavamsa also
refers to numerous description of sculptures and carvings in ancient buildings such as at
the Loha Pasada, a monastic residence in the ancient city of Anuradhapura.
In many ways Sri Lankan art is an expression of its long and enduring Buddhist tradition
that has absorbed and internalised numerous regional and local traditions for thousands of
years. The Indian mark in the Sri Lankan art is obvious and deep, it has not
inhibited the formation of a distinctly Sri Lankan tradition in the arts. The
persistence and the strength of this distinctly Sri Lankan character can be noticed in
Buddha images of Anuradhapura and in the bronze sculptures of Hindu Gods and Goddesses
made in the Kingdom of Polonnaruwa dating from the 11th to 13th centuries.
Many art historians treat Sri Lankan art in relation to successive 'Kingdoms' that ruled
the island from about 2nd century BC to the 19th century AD. While this type of periodisation has been extremely useful in reconstructing the
history of art, the 'Kingdom' and 'King' centered approach to history of art does not pay
sufficient respect to the broad stylistic continuities and changes that the practice of
painting and sculpture in Sri Lanka show in its long history. Traditional
historiography presents Sri Lankan art in terms of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Dambadeniya,
Yapahuwa, Kotte, Gampola and Kandy, the successive kingdoms of pre-modern Sri Lanka.
In this essay, however, following Senake Badaranayake (1986), the history of painting and
sculpture is presented considering the broad stylistic similarities and changes of the Sri
Lankan painting tradition. The historical phases of the island are divided into five
1. Early Historical period: 250BC - 500AD
2. Middle Historical period: 500AD - 1250AD
3. Late Historical Period - 1: 1250AD - 1600AD
4. Late Historical Period - 2: 1600AD - 1800AD
5. Modern Historical Period: 1800AD - 1900AD (Bandaranayake 1986).
These periods are treated in relation to the broad stylistic changes that can be
delineated from the history of art practice in pre-modern Sri Lanka.