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Massive Cast & Engraved Sri Lankan Buddhist Temple (Vihara) Door Key

Kandy Region, Sri Lanka
19th century

length: 31cm, width: 10.8cm, weight: 1,335g



from the collection of Sir Christopher Ondaatje, UK.

This massive cast brass door key was intended for a Buddhist temple or monastery (vihara) in Sri Lanka. More than 30 centimetres or a foot long, it weighs almost one and a half kilograms.

It has been cast such that the rounded contours of the handle emerge from the mouths of stylised makara-type creatures. The baluster-form shaft is engraved with typically Kandyan flower patterns.

Such a large key would have been used to open a massive padlock that would have been used on the doors of temples and other monastic buildings. Being large and heavy meant that they were difficult to steal by concealing them in one’s clothing. They were also more difficult to lose or misplace.

A related example is illustrated in Coomaraswamy (plate XLIV).

Sir Christopher Ondaatje is of Sinhalese and Dutch ancestry and was born in Sri Lanka (or Ceylon as it was known) in 1933. A businessman, writer and Olympian, he is the older brother of author Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient, among many works.

The final image shows a related temple door knocker, photographed near Kandy, Sri Lanka, in July 2009.


Coomaraswamy, A.K., Mediaeval Sinhalese Art, Pantheon Books, 1956 reprint of the 1908 edition.

Weereratne, N., Visions of an Island: Rare works from Sri Lanka in the Christopher Ondaatje Collection, Harper Collins, 1999.

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