Polonnaruwa. The watadage
- Place of origin:
Sri Lanka (photographed)
Lawton, Joseph (photographer)
- Materials and Techniques:
- Museum number:
- Gallery location:
This close-up view is of a section of the podium of the Vatadage, the most important building within the sacred centre of the medieval city of Polonnaruwa. Vatadage are circular buildings with four entrances leading to a central dagoba (stupa) and four Buddha figures, one in each cardinal direction. Lawton took many photographs of the vatadage, from many different angles. This dramatic, almost abstract image demonstrates his boldness with the camera. Aesthetically strong, the close shot also highlights the stone frieze of lions and dwarfs.
Joseph Lawton (died 1872), a British commercial photographer, was active in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) between 1866 and1872. 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.
Close-up view showing a detail from the podium of the vatadage. It is possible to see the carvings of lions and dwarfs. The thick roots of a tree overhang the podium on the right hand side of the photograph.
Place of Origin
Sri Lanka (photographed)
Lawton, Joseph (photographer)
Materials and Techniques
Marks and inscriptions
Lawton 29 or Lawton 27 marked on bottom left hand side
Height: 21 cm print, Width: 27 cm print, Height: 26 cm mount, Width: 33 cm mount
Object history note
This photograph was one of a set given to the museum by Mrs Moberley. Her late husband George Moberley, had collected them while in India and Ceylon during the1860-70s. See Registry file MA/1/M2393
Historical significance: Vatadage are circular buildings with four entrances leading to a central dagoba (stupa) and four Buddha figures, one in each cardinal direction. This vatadage is the most important building within the sacred centre of the medieval city of Polonnaruwa. It was erected in the 12th century and is attributed to Nissankamalla (1187-96). It housed the tooth relic of the Buddha until the 16th century, after which it was moved to a shrine in Kandy.
Just north of present-day Polonnaruwa, 140km north of Kandy, are the ruins of ancient Polonnaruwa, the medieval capital of Sri Lanka between the 11th and 13th centuries.
When the Chola kings of southern India invaded Sri Lanka in 993 AD, they conquered the city of Anuradhapura and moved the capital to Polonnaruwa. This was strategically located for defence against attacks from the unconquered Sinhala kingdom of Ruhuna, in the southeast. The Sinhalese ruler Vijayabahu I evicted the Chola in 1070, however, he and his successors kept the capital at Polonnaruwa, adding enormous temples, palaces, parks, gardens and huge tanks. During the 12th century, Parakramabahu I built the Royal Palace and many of the archaeological ruins found at the site originate from this Palace complex, including city walls, clusters of dagobas, temples and various other religious buildings. By the 13th century, attacks from southern India forced the Sinhalese kings to abandon the city, resulting in Kotte (near modern Colombo) and Kandy assuming positions as the centres of power.
The architectural structures became overgrown by dense vegetation and it was not until the latter half of the nineteenth century that they were uncovered and the sites excavated. The Polonnaruwa Visitor Information Centre and its museum, funded by the Dutch government, were opened in 1998/9 and offer information as to the changing state of the site from that period of excavation to the present.
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.
Photograph of the Vatadage at Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka by Joseph Lawton, albumen print, 1870-71
Labels and date
The Vatadage (Hall of the Relic)
By Joseph Lawton (died 1872)
Lawton took many photographs of the vatadage, from many different angles. This dramatic, almost abstract image demonstrates his boldness with the camera. Aesthetically strong, the close shot also highlights the stone frieze of lions and dwarfs. [36 words]
Albumen print, 1870–71
Museum no. 2234-1912 
Likely printed between 1872-1882
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.
Archaeological sites; Buddhism
South & South East Asia Collection