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Sri Lanka - General Impressions and Brief History

SRI LANKA | Thursday, 8 May 2014 | Views [2002]

Sri Lanka – General Impressions and Brief Cultural History


The mythical land of Ceylon/Sri Lanka has long held a grip on my fantasy.  It is a land of legend, both Hindu and Buddhist, as well as the birthplace for the historical record of Buddhist texts. It is a land filled with incredible scenery and wildlife.  It is a place where earth touches the sky in naturally formed and human constructed mandalas.  Some consider it paradise on earth, while others recognize the very real material and political problems the nation has undergone over the past few years.  With the Civil War now behind them, the government is doing all in its power to invite tourists and their foreign currency back to the island, long a site of international trade.  Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta, and many other early merchant-explorers relate stories of their time and experiences in Sri Lanka and speak of the tremendous cities they encountered.  I wanted to see them for myself and also to see if the stories from Myanmar, Laos and Thailand about the Sri Lankan influence in Stupa design and conventions in the development of the Buddha image could be substantiated. What I found was that the stupa connection with two Bagan, Myanmar exemplars are fairly clearly demonstrated, but the convention with the straight fingers on the Buddha is not at all definitively shown and more research could well be conducted on this aspect of the imagery. 


The island of Sri Lanka has been inhabited since humans dwelled in caves. Two sites, Aligala and Pitana, indicate that they were occupied from about 10,000 BCE, which is classified as the pre-historic to proto-historic eras in this region.  Human cultural development came later to this area than to central Anatolia, for example, where Göbelki Tepe demonstrates a much more highly developed infrastructure than the cave inhabitants in either of these two sites.  On the other hand, it could be that we simply have not found the kinds of artifacts that would indicate the sophistication of the ancient people in modern day Turkey. The latter part of the proto-historic, about 1,000 BCE (ca. the time of King David in Jerusalem and the end of the New Kingdom in Egypt), saw the construction of megalithic above-ground cemeteries. Some of the tomb artifacts include carnelian beads and iron tools, which again came later to this region than their use in Anatolia.

The first textual mention concerning the history of Sri Lanka refers to the arrival of Aryans from Northern India led by Vijaya in the 5th C BCE. These newcomers are considered to be the ancestors of the current Sinhalese peoples. The native inhabitants of the island were the Yakkas and Nagas, the latter living in the coastal areas and the former inland, who were gradually absorbed into the better-equipped and organized immigrants.  The first ruler over large tracks of land with a social –political system to back him was Pandukabhaya who set up his power base in Anuradhapura in the 4th C BCE.

The major cultural breakthrough was sparked with the arrival of Buddhism by Thera Mahinda, the Indian Emperor Asoka’s son, in about the 3rd. C. BCE. It actually came before then, and some say it arrived during Gautama Sakyamuni’s lifetime, but it didn’t become part of the social fabric of the island until the Sinhalese kings adopted the faith and supported monasteries and the construction of stupas in the Early Monastic Period, from about 300 BCE - 100 CE. This is the time when the Buddhist Canonical text were written at the Aluvihara Monastery and Buddhism started to have an historical text-based record. Early monasteries were founded in Sigiriya, Podurangula and especially around Anuradhapura, including the famous Mahavihara and Abhayagiri Monasteries, the latter which was a major site of learning and scholarship from the 2nd C BCE for about a thousand years and the former the site of early sectarian conflicts; pre-Christian stupas were built at  Ratnamali and at Abhayagiri. It was also the time of the first Buddhist cave imagery with the first Dambulla Cave paintings in the 1st. C BCE.  The Dambulla Caves remained a place of recurring artistry until the last independently ruling Sinhalese king in the 1840s.


Anuradhapura was the capital through various dynasties until it was moved to Sigiriya during Kasyapa’s reign from about 477-495.  During the first centuries of the Common Era, the nation was repeatedly invaded by Southern Indian armies, and sometimes conquered, but not for long. Kasyapa moved his capital out of political reasons (he had killed his father and the people in the capital weren’t all that happy with him), but after his death his brother, the rightful heir, moved it back.  As the political power of the Anuradhapura kings dissipated over time, so did the importance of the capital city.  But not before Mahayana Buddhism came to the region and some of the sculpture and architecture in the area reflects this influence well into the Polonnaruwa period in the 11th-13th C., the next major capital.  Theravadan Buddhism was, and is, the major form of religion accepted and practiced on this island from about 4th C CE. Hinduism, like Mahayana, floats in and around the Theravadan framework and especially during the Later Monastic Periods, ca. 6-10th, the Polonnaruwa periods, and the Colonial period, with the importation of Tamilese tea plantation workers, Hindu statuary and artifacts can be seen in abundance. A fair amount of Polonnaruwa art includes Hindu deities as guardians of the Buddha. Siva, Vishnu and Ganesha are commonly incorporated into the Buddhist imagery, as is Skanda, Siva and Parvati’s other son and the God of War and Victory, who has a special place in Sri Lankan mythology and religion, where he is variously known as Kataragama or Kartikeya. We were fortunate enough to see preparations for one of his processions by Tamilese tea workers on our way from Adam’s Peak to Udawalawe.

The Polonnaruwa period is known as the second golden age under the reigns of King Parakramabahu (1153-1186) and King Nissankamalla (1187-1196), that is towards the end of the golden age of Bagan in Myanmar. These kings, especially Parakramabuha were known for their irrigation projects as well as for their support of religious structures.  Even during the Anuradhapura times, the kings had ordered the construction of ‘tanks’ (they are really large pools) to hold water, such as the Elephant Pools at the Abhayagiri Monastery, but Parakrambuha took this concept and went hog wild; he is said to have constructed or restored 165 dams, 3910 canals, 163 major tanks, and over 2376 minor tanks all over the island. (A Guide to the Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka) Some of his ‘tanks’ are larger than many good-sized mountain lakes. (for readers in Flagstaff, they are larger than Mary’s when it’s full or for those in Salt Lake they are about the size of Deer Creek Reservoir!)

The last of the three major cultural capitals was Kandy, which was the home of the royal family from the 17th – the early 20th C.  It too has a large tank-pool in front of the white-washed palace.  Today the area is home to the Tooth Relic, which was supposedly sent by the Indian King Guhasiva to his friend King Mahasena of Sri Lanka, when he feared that he would lose a battle with a neighboring king who wanted the Buddha’s Tooth (a canine) for his own purposes. In order to save the tooth, King Guhasiva ordered his daughter, Hemamala, and son-in-law, Danta, to take the relic to the safety of his friend if he lost the battle in the 4th C, which he did.  Sri Lankan royalty have been responsible for the relic ever since, with special buildings constructed at all three capitals to house the artifact.  The relic casket is now on view from 6:40-7pm daily at the Kandy Royal Palace and there is always a huge line of people hoping to do homage.  In another section of the palace there is a room with modern paintings detailing scenes from the legend of Hemamala and Danta and in yet another a special room/building for the elephant (stuffed and standing) that carried the relic during the annual celebration for a number of decades during the last century. Besides the royal palace, Kandy remains the heart of the cultural life of the island and people from all over flock here for theatrical performances.  Leelananda Prematilleke and Chandra Wikramagamage’s edited version of Sri Lanka: Glimpses of an Island Culture, 2003 provides an excellent explanation of some of the facets of Kandian drama.  I’ve copied some of their material in an appendix below for those interested in learning more about these particular performance styles as well as about Sri Lankan sacred imagery in general .


The three cultural capitals that form the Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka are fascinating archeological sites.  Each one is dramatically different from the other as they are separated by hundreds of years, nonetheless, they all contribute to the development of Buddhism, not just here in Sri Lanka, but throughout SE Asia. After learning about them, and at times being overwhelmed by the images, it was good to go back to the forest and experience the beauty of Sri Lanka’s landscapes and see it’s very diverse wildlife.


Appendix: From Sri Lanka: Glimpses of an Island Culture

Sri Lankan sculpture of the ancient period saw the exuberance of the production of icons such as the Buddha, Bodhisattvas and various divinities. Stone, crystal and metals like gold, bronze, silver, copper and brass sculptures stand out as the most numerous products of sculpture.  Although the archeological discoveries of the Buddha images in stone are datable to the 2nd C AD, yet the tradition recorded in the Chronicle Mahavamsa, takes the origin of the Buddha image to as far back as the 3rrd C BC. The Buddha images were depicted in three main postures – standing, seated and recumbent.  Yet seemingly walking attitude is seen in some images as the Galvihara standing image and the brick-built image of the Tivanka image housed at Polonnaruwa.  The ubiquitous seated posture of Sri Lanka was the easy leg posture, right placed on the left –known as Virasana, as against the interlocked leg posture of the Indian images, known as Padmasana (lotus posture).  The recumbent posture of the Buddha image, usually depicted inside cave shrines signify the demise {this is actually an inappropriate term for his passing – it wasn’t his demise but rather a transition from one state to another } (Mahaparinirvana) of the Sleeping Buddha. (25)


Kandyan painting: The division of the wall space into horizontal panels, the presentation of Jataka scenes in the style known as continuous narration, the two-dimensional presentation of figures, limited color scheme of red, yellow and black and such other features, convey the feelings of primitive style of painting as represented in painted clothes. (Pata-citra).  Usually, the mural content of these paintings is confined to Jataka scenes, life incidents of the Buddha, sixteen sacred sites, etc.  The repetition of numerous Buddha figures on the rock ceilings reminds one of the ‘Thousand Buddha’ concept in cave shrines of Central Asia.  The scene of enlightenment of the defeat of Mara at Dambulla constitutes a rich play of figures presented in the most exuberant and dramatic manner.  (28)



Crafts: The Sri Lankan Chronicles record the arrival of eighteen guilds along with their Sanghamitta who arrived in Sri Lanka bringing a sapling of the Tree of Enlightenment (Sri Maha Bodhi) in the 3rd C BC.  These guilds were various artificers, who excelled in the techniques of different arts and crafts such as ivory carving, iron smelting and smithery, jewellery, lacquer work, weaving, pottery, etc.  These crafts practitioners came down the ages living together in different villages and formed themselves into guilds or kulas, a term used today placing them on a lower pedestal than agriculturists.  Yet, the chronicler mentions instances where even great Sinhalese rulers practiced such arts.  For instance, the great hero king Dutthagamani worked with a potter’s family prior to his becoming king.  Voharikatissa (214-236) was reputed to be an excellent ivory carver. (28)


Theater and Ritual:….

Masks have a link with rituals and it is only by witnessing such rituals, where the actors appear wearing the masks, that one can gain insight into the masks as a live art form….

  Masks can roughly be divided into two broad categories as Kolam masks and Devul Dancing masks.  Kolam is a countryside dance-drama where every actor wears a maks.  The world Kolam itself means ‘mask’, a form of camouflage. In the performance of this dance-drama there is a narrator who introduces various episodes followed by the story comprising mime, masked dance and off the cuff dialogue. (31)

   Devil Dancing popularly known as Thovil and Sanni are actually folk ritual ceremonies performed to get rid of diseases.  There are eighteen Sannis (diseases) in this ritual.  The wirch-doctor performs wearing masks representing the respective diseases. For instance, Kana Sanniya (blindness), Amukku Sanniya (vomiting), Bihiri Sanniya (deafness) etc.


  The masks assume their character after painting for which traditional vegetable extracts are used…..

  In the early days a Kolam performance contained about fifty to sixty characters. Each character appeared on stage as a solo performance or in a group with several others. Generally, the character types could be categorized into three groups: human, super-human, and animal.  The production of masks to characterize the respective groups depends on the knowledge of the carver of the masks.  The masks used in Devil Dancing are never caricatures of any human form.  They either represent a particular disease or a demon known as Sanni, meaning sickness. (32)


Specific dances are associated with specific diseases, which are believed to be caused by evil forces or supernatural beings.  Even the dress of each dance varies to suit the diseased. Thus, the supernatural beings are conceptualized with the characteristics of the sick person suffering from a particular disease.


Non-masked rituals:

Gam-maduva is a collective ritual performed to propitiate several deities and bring prosperity and ward off evil.  The ceremony begins after harvesting.  Rice is collected from each household, then cooked and offered to various local deities such as Dadimunda, Kataragama, Saman, Vibhisana, and Pattini.

… The above ceremony is followed by Devol Bage in which the episode known as Amba Vidamana occurs.  It is supposed to be an enactiment of the birth of Pattini from a mango. Yet another episode, the destruction of Rama, is enacted in the Gam-maduva.  This connects up with the story of the goddess Pattini and her husband Kovilan.  Even god Kataragama (Skanda) comes into play in one of the episodes connected with the performance of Gam-muduva.  Thus, even though the primary motive behind the play is to bring forth prosperity to the villagers, the popular mind appears to create a feeling of enjoyment among the masses at the expense of popular religious thought.


The Sinhalese folk play is linked with the ritualistic practices of the folk religion and cannot be discussed in isolation.

Kolam performances begin at night and a series of characters drawn from various sources appear.  Some include characters drawn from contemporary society with a view to expose their weaknesses.  Thus, characters like the Police Inspector, Money Lender and Government officials are included.  The dialogue is always imprompty and meant to evoke the audience’s laughter.  Kolam performance takes place in the courtyard of a house in a circular arena around which the audience gathers. 

   Sokari is confined to the hill-country and Vanniya. It is enacted in mime and some actors wear masks.  The drum is used to accompany the story.  Sokari is performed on the threshing floor or kamata. When paddy is gathered and stacked up, the farmers cannot leave the place even at night, lest it should be destroyed by wild animals. They gather in the kamata and spend the night watching sokari. In this form it serves no other purpose than entertainment. (37)

Nadagam is a kind of dramatic entertainment that appears to have come into vogue in the early part of the 19th C.  This form of entertainment has been popular along the coastal belt in the West and South. Nadagam is sometimes referred to as folk opera, because the play is enacted entirely in the medium of song, although dance performances are included too. Nadagam texts have been used for puppet plays as the original art form is no longer popular.

Dance: There are three main forms of Sinhalese dance: the Kandyan dance, the Low country dance limited to the Maritime region and the Sabaragamuva Dance which in effect is a mixture of the other two traditions.

The origin of Kandyan dance is the ritual Kohomba-kankariya, which is still performed in the Kandyan region. Like other ritual performances, the Kohomba-kankariya is episodic.  It relates the intervention of gods to cure King Panduvasudeva who was afflicted with Divi Dosa, a sickness caused by spiritual forces.  The refinement and systematization of this ritual dance form gave way to the growth of a new autonomous dance form that later became known as Udarata Natum or Kandyan Dance. Today it is performed in religious pageants and temple rituals and on any festive occasion.

  The modern Kanyan dance is based on Vannams (descriptions) and is borrowed from Tamil especially with the introduction of Kerala ruling power to Sri Lanka during the Kandyan kingdom.  In the Kandyan tradition, there are 18 Vannams with slight variations in certain localities, and the Kandyan dancer is supposed to be conversant with all 18 Vannams.

   Sabaragamuva was influenced by Kandyan dance forms as it is from a region that used to belong to the former kingdom. It is a synthesis of Kandyan and low country dances.  As a whole it consists of four main categories: 1) dances associated with Buddhist and Hindu temples, 2) dance performed in connection with rituals to invoke the blessings of gods and planetary deities, 3) ceremonies connected with rituals for demons, e.g. dances connected with ‘Sanni’ and 4) dance associated with social occasions. (39)

A dance form organized in the low country is called devol natum, where demons or mysterious beings are associated with the ritual.  The demons are identified as being responsible for certain illnesses and the propitiations of this evil spirit is sought by performing the dance rituals known as devol madu.  The presentation of this ritual throughout the night represents one of the most entertaining events in the villages.


Traditional music: Hevisi is an ancient national and religious form of playing a type of drum in religious performances in temples and devales (Hindu temples), religious processions, funerals, chanting of pirit (Buddhist sacred texts), and other occasions like alms-giving to Buddhist monks. Hevisi comprises the instruments called davula (large drum) tammattama (double drum) and horanava (trumpet). (40)


Drum (Bera) – special kind of drum beating using the Kandyan drum, the devil drum (yak-bera), the large drum, double drum and trumpet during auspicious occasions. (This is the drum that the women were playing on the terrace of the hotel for the Sinhalese New Year.)




Other sources: A Guide to the Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka

                        Museum plaques in Sigiriya, Polonnawaru, Kandy and Colombo




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