Large, Fine, Painted Ivory Flask & Stopper
height: 29.8cm, diameter: 6.3cm, weight: 252g
This exceptional, museum-quality flask originates in 18th century Sri Lanka, and is made entirely from turned ivory. The ivory that comprises the body is so fine that it is almost translucent.
The flask is of slender proportions, and sits on a rounded foot and comes to a small mouth which has an elaborate turned spire-like stopper.
The foot, the mouth and the stopper are engraved and decorated with small dots and spirals arranged in patterns and highlighted with red and green lac.
The vessel might have been for serving palm wine (toddy) or possibly to hold an Ayurvedic potion. Another possibility is that it was used to hold holy water that was sprinkled on the faithful by Buddhist monks, or rosewater that was sprinkled by aristocratic figures on one another as they welcomed each other to their homes or to special events.
In Sri Lanka, containers for Ayurvedic medicines often were made of precious materials such as ivory and were finely decorated.
Traditional medical practice in Sri Lanka was a combination of Ayurvedic medicine (an ancient Indian medical practice) and Buddhist practice.
Pal (1981, p 101) illustrates a model of a Sri Lankan stupa (
dagoba) attributed to the 18th century which shows similar red over-painting as on this piece.
The flask here is in excellent condition. The ivory has a wonderful colour and the cross-hatched grain that is characteristic of elephant ivory is much evident. It is a splendid, rare piece. Related examples are on the National Museum in Colombo, otherwise we are unaware of other examples.
Coomaraswamy, A.K., Mediaeval Sinhalese Art, Pantheon Books, 1956 reprint of the 1908 edition.
Elephants and Ivories in South Asia, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1981.
private collection, UK
Inventory no.: 4771
A display of ivory items in the National Museum, Colombo.
(Photographed in late 2017.)