The Dutch Period Museum, Colombo

It is on Prince Street in Pettah, the marketplace in what was once the Fort area, and is no more princely, being daily overrun by plebeians for decades now.

I had taken the hotel car, and we went slowly, slower than walking, seeing colored balloons, dress pieces for men at 200-rupees-each piled on the street side, electrical appliances, telecom services endorsed by Katrina Kaif on a poster squeezed into a sidewall, carts selling little spheres of fried snacks and their crumbs aging to powder and paste in crevices between cover and shelf, tiny shops that none can enter selling bread and buns, dress shops, hand bags and clutch purses wide off from those they are meant to imitate, and crying "cheap" from every pore, backpacks, pipes and tubes and mirrors and Asian toilets and everything a man needs who is limited by a budget.

I was surprised at the Deepal's restraint with the horn. So different from home! And he was quiet, his voice soft when he answered my questions. They don't seem to raise their voices at all in Buddhist societies across Asia—so I wondered if here in Colombo they gave equal voice to their rage when they rioted during what some people call the Black July of 1983. But of course I wasn't doing right; I should've just shared the hope and optimism and happiness that is presently raging everywhere on the island.

The museum is a tall building which was the house of the Dutch Governor in the seventeenth century. It has eight columns symmetrical about the entrance, and wood-shuttered windows on each of two levels that break the plain white facade. The building is bereft of any ornamentation, and must have looked as plain then as now, but commanding, on account of the high columns. The story on the Dutch colonists that is displayed inside contrasts with the facade. They are described as given to pomp and protocol "to grotesque lengths." The lesser among them, the clerks and soldiers and sailors, are portrayed as drunken derelict men who were an embarrassment to their own superior compatriots. I was impressed by this portrayal because the museum is set up, and run with assistance from the Dutch, and so the description is a brave admission.

There are coins from the period, and one kind of them is hook shaped, bunches of hooks, which is how they must've been carried. Swords, guns, daggers and gunpowder and horns to hold gunpowder, they occupy a room. Almost all the other rooms are filled with period furniture: a sturdy jakwook cot with vaulted reapers on top; chairs and tall twisted candle holders in satinwood; calamander chairs and a regal palanquin; almiras worked out of suriyamara; a table with legs like antlers made from a single block of kumbuk; an ebony couch, many other chairs with netted seats to be placed in corners and to accompany settees and for writing tables; bureaus with many drawers. Alloyed chandeliers are scattered everywhere.

A guide had attached himself to me, in the meantime, and he was eager to reveal two things most of all: concealed receptacles and trays in bureaus and writing tables, and the white in various objects including a small tablet showing Adam and Eve in Eden. "Genuine ivory!"

My attention was drawn to the stuff they'd made with tortoise shell: combs, little boxes for storing little things, ornaments, holders for ornaments, and other such things made from material that must have been precious to the tortoise. I remembered Mauritius, where also the Dutch had riddled the tortoise, the giant tortoise, and sent some other species to rapid extinction.

I came away liking small museums: you can leave them better satisfied: with the feeling like when you've finished reading a book.

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