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Photograph - Anuradhapura- Sri-maha Bódhin Wahanse (the sacred Bó Tree). Sculptured moon-stone at the principal entrance, 6 feet 6 inches in diameter. (No. 133)
  • Anuradhapura- Sri-maha Bódhin Wahanse (the sacred Bó Tree). Sculptured moon-stone at the principal entrance, 6 feet 6 inches in diameter. (No. 133)
    Lawton, Joseph
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Anuradhapura- Sri-maha Bódhin Wahanse (the sacred Bó Tree). Sculptured moon-stone at the principal entrance, 6 feet 6 inches in diameter. (No. 133)

  • Object:


  • Place of origin:

    Sri Lanka (photographed)

  • Date:

    1870s (photographed)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Lawton, Joseph (photographer)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Albumen print

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

Semi-circular moonstones are found at the base of steps leading into Buddhist sites in Sri Lanka. The carvings have been interpreted in many ways. The half-lotus in the centre may be a symbol of enlightenment. On the outer ring the different animals could represent the four stages of life, the elephant - birth, the horse - old age, the lion - illness, and the bull - death. The geese in the inner ring represent purity.

Joseph Lawton (died 1872), a British commercial photographer, was active in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) between 1866 and 1872. Though he was initially employed by the firm HC Bryde, by the mid 1860s he had established his own studio in Kandy. Lawton was commissioned by the Archaeological Committee to photograph the main archaeological sites in Sri Lanka. He created a unique series of aesthetically powerful images of Anuradhapura, Mihintale, Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya.

Official photographic surveys conducted by Lawton and others documented the architecture and facilitated antiquarian scholarship. However, as a commercial photographer, Lawton made sure that his photographs were not merely documentary. His images were taken to appeal to tourists and overseas buyers seeking picturesque views of ancient ruins overgrown with creepers and gnarled trees.

Physical description

A semi-circular, carved moonstone with two steps visible at the bottom of the photograph. Photograph was taken as photographer stood on steps. at the foot of the steps. In addition to stylised floral designs, the moonstone is intricately carved with a shallow relief depicting a row of birds and a row of miscellaneous animals including elephants, lions, oxen and mules.

Place of Origin

Sri Lanka (photographed)


1870s (photographed)


Lawton, Joseph (photographer)

Materials and Techniques

Albumen print

Marks and inscriptions

Written on negative and appears in the bottom left corner.


Width: 278 mm photographic print, Height: 220 mm photographic print, Width: 326 mm mount, Height: 260 mm mount

Object history note

This photograph was one of a set purchased by the museum from Lawton and Co. in 1882. See Photograph Register 81259-86096, Modern Volume, 13.
The register entry is dated to 24.4.82, and the cost is noted as £16.43.4

The photograph was initially part of the photographic collection held in the National Art Library. The markings on the mount are an indication of the history of the object, its movement through the museum and the way in which it is categorised.

The mount is white. On the right hand side is a label which reads: A.in.ANURADHAPURA. A label printed with title is pasted underneath the photograph. The museum number is written in the bottom right hand corner.

Historical significance: The ‘Bo’ (‘Bodhi’) tree was planted as a cutting from the tree in Bodhgaya under which Buddha found Enlightenment. It was brought by the Princess Sanghamitta as a gift from her father, the Buddhist Indian Emperor Ashok, after 236 in the 3rd century BC. This huge specimen of Ficus religiosa, or sacred figtree, may legitimately be the oldest tree in the world, substantiated by a history of guardians keeping uninterrupted watch over it. It has been protected by monks since it was planted and is now guarded by the Army, while its well-being is tended to by the Director of the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens. It stands at the crossroads of Sri Maha Bodi Mawatha Mihindu Road and Kurunegala Road and is supported by a metal structure, from which you can see the top of the tree from a terrace. There are a number of other Bo trees around Sri Maha Bodhi and every twelth year pilgrims come to make offerings during the Snana puja and bathe the tree in milk. This sculptured moonstone is located at the base of the stairs outside the main entrance.

Anuradhapura was one of the first centres of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and is the home of some of the most sacred Buddhist sites in the world. It is situated in the North West province, about 200km from Colombo. Anuradhapura was established as Sri Lanka’s first capital in 377 BC by King Pandukhabhaya (437-367 BC), who named it after the constellation Anuradha. He started the complex irrigation works on which it depended and King Devanampiya Tissa, who reigned 250-10 BC, began the first stage of religious building. This building project included the Thuparama Dagoba, Issurumuniyagala, the Maha Vihara, the Sri Maha Bodhi and the Brazen Palace. A branch of the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha was believed to have gained Enlightenment was brought from Bodhgaya in India and successfully transplanted.

Anuradhapura remained the capital city until the 9th century when repeated invasions from south India resulted in the deterioration of its architectural structures and the virtual disuse of its irrigation works. After the 13th century, its political functions were taken over first by Polonnaruwa and then by capitals to the south. In the 1820s Ralph Backhaus, a young British civil servant, mounted a private expedition to search for the remains of the city. Despite widespread public interest in his findings, archaeological research, excavation and restoration were not begun until 1872. The New Town was started in the 1950s and is now the most important Sinhalese city of the north. It currently houses the headquarters of the Sri Lanka Archaeological Survey. In 1988, it was designated a World Heritage Site.

Historical context note

This is one of a series of photographs taken by Lawton of the archaeological sites of Anuradhapura, Mihintale, Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya (1870-71). This series was commissioned by the Archaeological Committee (set up by the Governor of Ceylon in 1868) and became his signature work. Photographic surveys, conducted by Lawton and competitors such as the more prolific commercial firm WLH Skeen and Co., coincided with antiquarian scholarship that emerged as a result of the deforestation necessary to lay roadways, railways and plantations in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. This process was propelled by an expansion of both the export and tourist economies. A colleague of Lawton's proposed that his involvement in the physical labour of clearing the archaeological sites that he photographed contributed to his death. After Lawton's death, many prints were produced by the firm for the tourist market, however, the original negatives were sold to a variety of different clients and are now considered to be lost.

Descriptive line

Photograph of a Moonstone from the principal entrance of the Sri-maha Bódhin Wahanse (the sacred Bodhi Tree) at Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, by Joseph Lawton, albumen print, 1870-1.

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Regeneration: A Reappraisal of Photography in Ceylon, 1850-1900. London: British Council, 2000. ISBN 086355444X
Falconer, John. Pattern of photographic surveys: Joseph Lawton in Ceylon. In: Pelizzari, Maria Antonella. ed. Traces of India: Photography, Architecture, and the Politics of Representation, 1850-1900. Montréal: Canadian Centre for Architecture, 2003. 156-173p., ISBN 0920785743.

Production Note

Likely printed between 1872 and 1882

Attribution note: This is one of a series of photographs taken by Lawton of the archaeological sites of Anuradhapura, Mihintale, Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya (1870-71), commissioned by the Archaeological Committee which the Governor of Ceylon set up in 1868. Two sets of these photographs were produced by Lawton: one which remained in Sri Lanka (now in such poor condition it is considered to be unusable) and a second which was sent to the Colonial Office in London (first kept in the Library of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and now in The National Archives). After Lawton's death in 1872, further images were produced by the firm under the supervision of his wife and sold largely to a tourist market. Reprints of this particular photograph appear in an album currently held in the Word and Image Department (PH.1202:85-1920) as well as in the Scott Collection (92/16/3) within the India Office Select Materials of the British Library.


Albumen process

Subjects depicted

Archaeological sites; Buddhism


Photographs; Archaeology


South & South East Asia Collection

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