Sri Dalada International Museum of World Buddhism

This note comes from a visit last year; what the effect of Covid-19 has been on the museum and temple I’m afraid I don’t know.

Behind the Temple of the Sacred Tooth in Kandy, Sri Lanka, stands a splendid big classical courthouse of 1880. Today it houses the International Museum of World Buddhism. First mooted soon after Independence in 1948, it was only when this building became available that the project went ahead; the museum opened in time for the 2600th anniversary of Buddha’s enlightenment in 2012.

The museum was a joint initiative of the Temple authorities and the Sri Lanka Department of Archaeology, and the project was led by the well-known local archaeologist Professor Leelananda Prematilleke.

The overall design of the museum’s display is high-quality, though the exhibits are mostly modern and there is a heavy reliance on photos, paintings and text; few of the video screens were working on my visit. The first few galleries one sees, dominated by a big Buddha-image, are dedicated to the life of the Buddha, the spread of Buddhism and topics like Temple rituals and the design of the international Buddhist flag, which is credited to Col. Henry Steel Olcott, American founder of the Theosophical Society. This, incidentally, is the museum’s only mention of Buddhism in the West.

The remainder of the museum is devoted to a series of varied displays on Buddhism in those 18 Asian countries and regions where it has or has had a strong presence. Some of these seem to have been largely developed by a local organisation; thus the Japanese gallery was promoted by the Hoganji Temple and the Chinese by the Buddhist Association of China. Approaches vary greatly; the Indian gallery has a rather random selection of displays, looking at pilgrimage sites, Buddhist architecture, mudras, and symbolic and anthropomorphic representation. The Indonesian gallery concentrates on Borobudur, while the Malaysian looks at the distinctive characteristics of Buddhism in Malaysia, like the leadership role of the laity. Bangladesh emphasises its good relations with Sri Lanka, while the Korean gallery examines ‘the true nature of Buddhism’.

Visitors to the museum are expected to remove their shoes. Visitor numbers seem low, because marketing and even sign-posting are minimal. Of the huge crowds visiting the next-door temple, only a tiny fraction can find the museum. This is a shame because it is both interesting and imaginatively presented.

Crispin Paine



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