Sweetening the pill: containers for medicines

The majority of objects in the Casey Wood collection, as well as many of those in the Colombo and Kandy museums, are containers for medicines. Among them are a great variety of shapes and sizes, often matched to the specific types of medicine they were intended to contain.

As Casey Wood himself noted, the pill boxes are often very difficult to date. In the original catalogue and labels he attempted to assign specific dates to the pill boxes, but in his later unpublished piece, he concluded that it might have been better to simply have labelled them ‘very old’, ‘old’ or ‘modern’ since the design is apparently extremely consistent since the beginning of the Kandyan period (c. 1595). Ananda Coomaraswamy considered that his own collections mainly dated from the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries and the same dating is given for most of the objects in the Colombo National Museum. The most common origin for all the boxes in museum collections is the Kandy area and the lac work seems likely to have been produced nearby in the specialist centre of Matale.


Two ivory pill boxes with bo-leaf patterns from the Casey Wood collection

The most ornate objects are made from ivory.  Very often they are decorated in red and black lacquer, usually with a pattern that is a stylised version of the bo-tree (Ficus religiosa). These objects are normally very small and have been made through skilful lathe-work. As ivory was a commodity controlled by the Kandyan king in this period, these valuable containers were probably owned by court physicians or given as gifts to monasteries.

The same pattern is often used to decorate relic caskets, which are also many from ivory. In fact, the bo-tree is considered to be a relic of the Buddha. It also provides a link to the ancient capital of Anuradhapura, where the original bo tree was planted. The use of the same design for these pill boxes is a demonstration of the close links between Buddhism and the practise of medicine. (See Jinadasa Liyanaratne, Buddhism and Traditional Medicine in Sri Lanka. Kelaniya: KelaniyaPress, 1999.)

The most remarkable of these ivory pill boxes is in the Colombo National Museum. As well as the main container, it has five miniature containers attached to its lid. Perhaps this container was intended to correspond to a particular treatment regime.

Other materials that were used to make containers for pills, powders, and ointments include wood, and buffalo horn, and metal. The antiquity of the practise of using horn as a container for medicaments is demonstrated by a passage from the Culavamsa chronicle, in which King Parakkamabābu (1153-86 AD) orders the preparation of: ‘different kinds of medicine, preserved in cow horns for the healing of venomous wounds caused by poisoned arrows.’

Some of the pill boxes made from horn are given horn-like shapes, while others have a similar form to the ivory objects. In a couple of examples in both the Casey Wood collection and the Colombo Museum, the horn containers have a ivory stopper that doubles-up as a seal for letters or other important papers.


A horn container including ivory seal from the Casey Wood collection.

In a few cases, the pill boxes are made into more unusual shapes. Examples from the Colombo Museum include a small wooden container in the shape of an elephant and another that resembles an acorn. In one example from the Casey Wood collection, a brass box has been cast in the shape of a medicinal fruit.

Fruit-shaped brass box for pills

Fruit-shaped brass box for pills

Why make pill boxes so ornate? There are various possible explanations. Compact containers designed specifically for particular drugs and regimes are useful for medical professionals who need to carry a range of containers with them. Patients are less likely to lose or forget about high quality objects. They are also more likely to be convinced of the power of medicines that are packaged using symbols that relate to other forms of power. In the case of the ivory pill boxes decorated with the symbol of the bo tree, the healing power of the Buddha and his relics is conferred on the contents.




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