Sri Lanka, Buddhist Art in

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During the twenty-five hundred years of Sri Lanka's history, its royal capital has been located in a number of places. In chronological order they were Anurādhapura (ca. 500 b.c.e.–1000 c.e., North-Central province); Polonnaruva (1000–1235 c.e., North-Central province); Dam̆badeṇiya (1232–1272 c.e., North-Western province); Yāpahuwa (1272–1284 c.e., North-Western province); Kuruṇē̈gala (1293–1341 c.e., North-Western province); Gampola (1341–1411 c.e., Central province); Koṭṭe (1411–1597 c.e., Western province); and Kandy (1480–1815 c.e., Central province). Sri Lanka's Buddhist art is often analyzed in terms of these different periods. Of these eras, the Anurādhapura and Polonnaruva periods offer the most important surviving examples of early Buddhist art. The instability of the kingship and the wars that prevailed during the other periods resulted in less art surviving from those eras.

Of these less copious periods, the Yāpahuwa rock fortress is a remarkable monument from the Yāpahuwa period. From the Kandy period, the king's palace and the Tooth-Relic Temple at Kandy, one of the most important Buddhist pilgrimage sites in the country, have survived. Gadalādeniya and Lankātilaka, two temples from the Kuruṇē̈gala period that still stand near the city of Gampola, are famous for their architectural features and intricate carvings.

Some of the important architectural structures and features from the Anurādhapura and Polonnaruva periods include the stŪpa or dāgäba (symbolic burial mounds of the Buddha with relics enshrined), bodhighara (bodhi tree shrines), āsanaghara (shrines enclosing huge rectangular stone slabs that symbolize the throne of the Buddha), vatadāge (circular relic shrines), and chētiyaghara (circular shrines built around stūpas, sheltering the monument).

The sacred bodhi tree shrine from Anurādhapura, one of Sri Lanka's most venerated Buddhist sites, has a long history dating back to the third century b.c.e. According to the Sri Lankan chronicles, the Buddhist nun Saṅ ghamitta, who was the daughter of Emperor AŚoka (mid-third century b.c.e.), brought a sapling of the original bodhi tree from Bodh GayĀ and planted it in this location at Anurādhapura. There are both literary and inscriptional references to bodhi tree shrines in Sri Lanka from the early Anurādhapura period onward. A well-preserved structure of a bodhi tree shrine dating from the Anurādhapura period still stands at Nillakgama in the Kuruṇē̈gala district. The structure includes two square stone walls with an entrance on one side, demarcating the shrine, which was inside.

Famous examples of circular relic shrines include those at Thūpārāma (Anurādhapura), Medirigiriya (Polonnaruva), and Tiriyāyi (Trincomalee), all dating to the seventh to tenth centuries. In Pulukunāvi (Batticaloa district) there are remains of an early āsanaghara, an architectural feature referred to in ancient literature and inscriptions. The remains of the largest chapter house for Buddhist monks stand in the ancient city of Anurādhapura. Such chapter houses, of which numerous ruins have been found throughout Sri Lanka, were called Uposathaghara in the ancient literature and Pohotaghara in inscriptions.

Before the introduction of buddha images, worship of the Buddha using aniconic symbols was common in Sri Lanka from about the third century b.c.e. to the second century c.e., as it was in contemporary India. A large number of stone footprints of the Buddha have been found in Buddhist monasteries from the early common era. A considerable number of bodhigharas and āsanagharas from the Anurādhapura period are also evidence of a tradition dating back to an aniconic phase of Buddhism.

Early Sri Lankan artists appear to have been influenced by three main Indian artistic traditions: Amarāvati (or Āndhra), Gupta, and Pallava. Of these, the Amarāvati school of art from the Āndhra region of India was the earliest and the most influential. Almost all surviving art in Sri Lanka beginning in about the first century c.e. shows the strong impact of the Amaravati style. During the fifth to sixth centuries and sixth to seventh centuries, styles deriving from Gupta and Pallava, respectively, begin to appear in Sri Lanka.

The unique early art of Sri Lanka includes numerous seated and standing buddha images, including some monumental buddha statues. There are also gigantic stūpas, some with highly ornate frontispieces called vāhalkada, which consist of four rectangular architectural projections at the base of the stūpa facing the four cardinal directions. Further early Sri Lankan art includes sandakadapahana (moonstones), dvārapāla (guardstones), and the renowned Sigiriya paintings of beautiful damsels from the fifth century c.e.

The earliest Buddhist edifices in Sri Lanka are natural rock shelters prepared and dedicated by lay devotees from the third century b.c.e. to the first century c.e. as residences for Buddhist monks during the earliest phase of Buddhist monastic activity in the region. Most of these cave sanctuaries include short formulaic dedicatory inscriptions declaring the donation. These rock shelters are devoid of any carvings, sculptures, or paintings; if there once were paintings, rain and weathering washed them away long ago.

The eminent Sri Lankan archaeologist and epigraphist Senarat Paranavitana (1896–1972) published more than one thousand of these early Brāhmī cave inscriptions from almost three hundred early monastic sites scattered throughout Sri Lanka. Using the number of caves with inscriptions as an index, the largest of these early Buddhist rock monasteries are Mihintale, with 75 inscriptions (Anurādhapura district, North-Central province); Situlpavvuwa, with 59 inscriptions (Hambantota district, Southern province); Rajagala, with 46 inscriptions, (Ampāra district, Eastern province); Periya Puliyankulama, with 34 inscriptions (Vavuniya district, Northern province); and Ritigala, with 33 inscriptions (Anurādhapura district, North-Central province).

Stūpas or dāgäba begin to appear from about the second century b.c.e. onward, simultaneous with the earliest phase of Buddhist cave construction. Early Sri Lankan stūpas are of gigantic proportions. The three largest are from Anurādhapura, the earliest capital of Sri Lanka: Ruvanvälisä̆ya, from the second century b.c.e., has a diameter of 294 feet at the base and was originally 300 feet tall; Abhayagiriya, from the first century b.c.e., has a diameter of 325 feet and a height of 325 feet; and Jetavana, from the third century c.e., has a diameter of 367 feet and was originally 400 feet tall. Until Anurādhapura was abandoned in the tenth century, these three stūpas were enlarged a number of times by successive kings.

The earliest Buddhist art in Sri Lanka appears in the relief carvings of the stūpa vāhalkada (frontispiece). The earliest of these relief carvings date to the first and second century c.e. and are found on the vāhalkada of the Kantaka Cētiya (stūpa) at Mihintale, eight miles east of Anurādhapura. Mihintale is the site where Buddhism was believed to have been first introduced to Sri Lanka by Buddhist missionaries from India, who were led by the arhat Mahinda during the mid-third century b.c.e.

Unfortunately, little art from the earliest period has survived because the stūpas were enlarged in various phases through the centuries. With the exception of the Kantaka Cētiya, surviving relief carvings of all other stūpas are late in date and can probably be assigned to the second to fourth centuries c.e. For example, the carvings at Dīghavāpi stūpa (Ampara district, Eastern province) date to the second century c.e.; those at Dakkhina stūpa (Anurādhapura) and Yaṭāla stūpa (Humbantota district, Southern province) date to the second to third centuries c.e.; those at Ruvanvālisä̆ya (Anurādhapura) to the third century c.e.; those at Abhayagiri stūpa (Anurādhapura) to the third or fourth centuries c.e.; and those at Jetavana stūpa (Anurādhapura) to the late third century.

The main images appearing in Sri Lankan frontispieces include divinities, such as Sūrya and Indrayakṣas with attendants, such as Kubera and Vaiśra-vana; yakṣinīs or other females with attendants; Gaja Lakṣmi, the goddess of prosperity; nāgas in complete serpent form, often with five or seven cobra hoods; nāgarājas in human form, often with five or seven cobra hoods; nāginīs, female serpent figures in human form with cobra hoods; and stone pillars depicting the kalpavṛkṣa or the tree of life. Figures of yakṢas, nāgas, elephants, lions, bulls, and birds were shown emanating from this tree of life. Attached to these frontispieces were stone pillars topped by elephants, lions, bulls, and horses (Von Schroeder, pp. 80–95). All these early works are related to the late Amarāvatī tradition of the Āndhra region in India.

The earliest available buddha images in Sri Lanka appear to be no older than the 250 c.e. to 350 c.e. period. A few seated buddha images from this period have been found at Anurādhapura at the sites of Abhayagiri Stūpa and Thūpārāma Stūpa (Von Schroeder, p. 113). Seated buddha statues become increasingly common in many parts of Sri Lanka beginning in the fifth to sixth centuries. The majority of them show the direct impact of the Amarāvatī school. The seated buddha statues at Abhayagiri Vihara, Pankuliya Vihāra, and Asokārama Vihāra (all at Anurādhapura), datable to between the sixth and ninth centuries, are a few well-known examples. The majority of the seated buddha statues found in Sri Lanka are in the samādhi (meditative) posture.

According to the available evidence, most of the standing buddha images from Sri Lanka also date from the fifth to sixth centuries c.e. and later. There are monumental standing buddha images carved in rock and stone at Avukana (42 feet, ninth century, Anurādhapura district); Sassēruva (38 feet, eighth to ninth centuries, Kuruṇē̈gala district); Buduruvāgala (44 feet, ninth to tenth centuries, Monarāgala district); Dōva Rajamahāvihāra (38 feet, ninth to tenth centuries, Badulla district); Maligāvila (30 feet, eighth century, Monarāgala district), and Lankātilaka and Tivanka (26 feet, twelfth century) at Polonnaruva. The twelfth-century Gal Vihara, or "rock temple," at Polonnaruva is a unique monument carved out of solid rock and famous for its monumental recumbent and standing rock-cut statues in the round.

There are a number of monumental MahĀyĀna rock-cut and standing stone statues in the round. They include the eighth-century Dam̆bēgoda stone image in the round at Māligāvila; at 45 feet in height, this image, believed to be Avalokiteśvara, is the largest bodhisattva statue in the world. The 13-foot Kushtara-jagala rock-cut relief at Väligama (Southern province), which dates to the ninth or tenth century, is also believed to be an image of Avalokiteśvara. There are also two groups of rock-cut reliefs at Buduruvāgala. One group includes a 12-foot Sudhanakumāra on the left, a 24-foot Avalokiteśvara in the middle, and a 20-foot Tārā at the right; the other group includes a 22-foot Vajrapāni at the left, a 25-foot Maitreya in the middle, and a 20-foot Avalokiteśvara at the right. These images all date to the ninth or tenth centuries (Von Schroeder, pp. 292–295).

Other early Buddhist art of Sri Lanka from the Anurādhapura period was influenced by the Gupta and

Pallava traditions of India. The famous Mithuna or "loving couple" figure, which dates to the fifth to sixth centuries, from the so-called Isurumuniya Monastery of Anuradhapura is a well-known example of Gupta influence. The "man and the horse head" figure (sixth or seventh century) from the same monastery is considered to have been influenced by the Pallava tradition. Beautifully carved dvārapālas (guardstones) from the sixth to tenth centuries flank the entrances to Buddhist monasteries from Anurādhapura and many other parts of Sri Lanka; these are unique examples of both Gupta and Pallava artistic influences. The sandakadapahana (moonstone), an elaborately carved half-circle stepping stone placed at the entrance to a Buddhist monastery, is unique to Sri Lanka. At the center of these stone ornaments is a lotus flower from which emanate concentric half circles of vegetable, animal, bird, and flame motifs. Although the most refined moon-stones are from the late Anurādhapura period, the carving of moonstones continued into the Polonnaruva period and later.

Although secular in nature, Sigiriya's elegant symmetrical gardens (fifth century) and water gardens are the earliest such examples in South Asia. Almost contemporary to the famous AjaṆṬa paintings from India, the renowned fifth-century rock paintings at Sigiriya, which was built by King Kāśyapa as a palace city, are masterpieces of early Sri Lankan art. On the western face of the Sigiriya rock, about four hundred feet above the ground, there are twenty-two extant paintings of beautiful women voluptuously depicted, most with their breasts exposed. Two images in particular appear prominently in these paintings: an elite lady standing alone holding a flower or an elite lady accompanied by a handmaiden. The meaning of these images is controversial. Ananda Coomaraswamy (1877–1947) was of the view that they are celestial nymphs or Apsaras. Senarat Paranavitana, however, proposed that they symbolize the clouds (megha) and lightning (vijju) surrounding Mount KailaŚa (Kailash). His theory was that the builder of Sigiriya fortress, King Kāśyapa, lived there as Kuvera, the god of wealth in Hindu and Buddhist literature, who is supposed to dwell at Ālakamanda on Mount Kailāśa. But some evidence points in another direction. The ladies holding flowers and accompanied by handmaidens appear to be popular motifs in art throughout west, central, and south Asia prior to Sigiriya times. It is possible that the Sigiriya paintings are an adaptation in a Sri Lankan context of this internationally popular subject. Given Sri Lanka's flourishing role as a trade center connecting the eastern and western trade routes during the fourth through sixth centuries, such a sharing of international art motifs was quite possible.

See also:India, Buddhist Art in; Sri Lanka


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Von Schroeder, Ulrich. Buddhist Sculptures of Sri Lanka. Hong Kong: Visual Dharma, 1990.

Benille Priyanka