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xEurasia Odyssey

Sri Lanka - Cultural Triangle Impressions

SRI LANKA | Thursday, 8 May 2014 | Views [2418]

Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle Sites – General Impressions




We began our exploration of the cultural sites in Sri Lanka with a stop at the Dambulla Caves enroute to Sigiriya from the beach at Negombo near the international airport.  Dambulla has five main caves, which lie on top of a hill about forty-five minutes from Sigiriya, which one can see from the distance. The caves are accessed by a long broad set of evenly spaced stairs that are well-maintained for the hordes of pilgrims and tourists who visit the site.  The stairs begin on the side of a Buddhist Museum with a very large golden Buddha towering above the building and plaza below. The newly built museum showcases reproductions of the paintings from the caves, which are good to see as sometimes the images in the caves are difficult to decipher, as well as a very nice collection of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas from around the Buddhist world laid out by country.  The presentation makes it easy to see the differences in artistic style, starting with India and ending with Nepal. There is also a separate room displaying artifacts from the region, both Buddhist and Hindu.  The caves, too, have a small Vishnu shrine, that is almost always closed, between the first and second hollows. Similar to the caves at Ajanta and Ellora, the Dambulla caves are partially man-made and partially following natural indentations in the cliff-face.  While the caves are not laid out in chronological order, the first one is supposed to be the oldest, starting with imagery from the 1st C BCE.  The paintings, however, have been redone over time, so it is impossible for someone who has not studied the site in detail to discern which fragments might be the oldest.  The earliest discernible artwork is from the Polonnaruwa Golden Age with King Nissankamalla’s support for gilding (some say) 73 statues of the Buddha in standing, sitting, and reclining postures. The first reference to the site in the Sri Lankan Chronicles discusses King Vijayabahu I’s renovation of a number of temples, including the Dambulla Caves, after his expulsion of South Indian invaders in the 11th C.  There are a number of Buddha statues in each of the caves, and in most of them there is a reclining Buddha as well as the Buddha in meditation. The walls and ceilings are entirely covered with painted images of monks or Buddhas or of various designs and symbols, including the Dharmacakra wheel. I tried to pay particular attention to the fingers of the 10th-13th C statues to see if the Myanmar theory was correct that the straight finger convention came from Sri Lanka in the 10th C, but none of the statuary from the Polonnaruwa period in Dambulla displayed this approach.


The Dambulla Caves were a nice synthesis of some of the Hindu and Buddhist cave art that I have been fortunate to see on both the XEurasia and SE Asia trips as if spans such a long timeframe, about two thousand years from the 1st C BCE to the 19th C, whereas the others were used for ‘only’ a few centuries.


The next stop, Sigiriya Lion Rock, also had cliff art, but it wasn’t exactly of a sacred nature, but rather more for the King’s pleasure as it consists of almost entirely images of bare breasted women. In addition to the paintings there are poems to the women on the cliffs, but these are from a later date and are an early type of graffiti. Some researchers of the site believe that as Kasayapa considered himself the God of Wealth the figures in the paintings were modeled on ladies in his court. On the other hand recent scholarship seems to indicate that under the lime-washed surface of the Mirror Wall, which was polished to reflect in the sun, were painted Apsaras. “Thus, a person walking along the gallery behind the Mirror Wall was ‘walking among apsaras’ and the gallery became ‘a celestial ascent’ to the Lion staircase and the palace on the summit.” (A Guide to the Cultural Triangle)


While the meaning behind the images is a subject of debate, the layout of the site is indisputable.  The staircase ascends fairly steeply to the first gallery of paintings which one now traverses via a solidly constructed platform.  Near the end of the platform is a narrow spiral staircase winding up to the paintings.  There are guards at the entrance, who will gladly explain the images for a fee.  After descending the spiral staircase, one comes to the ‘Mirror Wall’ which didn’t look like much to me, but then we didn’t see it reflected off of anything either.  At the end of this gallery is another set of stairs going up to the plateau with the beginning of the Lion’s staircase.  Formerly the whole side of the rock cliff would have looked like a lion, but now only the lions’ paws remain at the bottom of the steps. As one ascends this last set of stairs the view rises above the surrounding treetops to encompass the vast horizon which extends to what seems the ends of the earth when one arrives at the summit and former royal palace.  Kasayapa might have been a nasty person, but he sure knew how to chose a good location for his home – even if he did kick out the resident monks to get it.  I was never able to find out if the swimming pool on the summit was something he built or whether he simply remodeled and refined what the previous monastery had. Either way, it is impressive to find a pool on top of this very tall and isolated rock.


The story of Sigiriya recounted in The Guide to the Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka reads:


The Chronicle tells the story that king Dhatusena (459-477) had two sons, Kassapa and Moggallana.  The former was from a non-royal consort.  The king also had a daughter whom he loved as his own life and gave her in marriage to his sister’s son, Migara, and made him the commander of the Army. One day, the king saw his daughter with a blookstained garment, and when he inquired, she said that her husband beat her on her thigh with a whip for no fault of hers. Infuriated by this the king got his own sister killed.  With a vindictive mind, Migara approached Kassapa, set him against his father, awoke in him a craving for the crown and maneuvered to take the king a prisoner.


To smite the king further, Migara told Kassapa that the king was hiding his treasure for his brother.  When Kassapa asked for this treasure from his father, at first he denied, but when repeatedly asked for it, he went with Kassapa’s messengers to Kalaveva, the reservoir he built and pointing to the water said: ‘This here, my friends, is my whole wealth’. Hearing this Kassapa was filled with fury and got Migara to slay him.


But he could not live in peace for fear of his brother Moggalana. He sought refuge in Sigiriya ‘which is difficult of ascent for human beings, cleared the land round about, surrounded it with a wall and built a staircase in the form of a lion’.


Kassapa and his master builders are responsible for most of the work visible today.  After Kassapa the site reverted back as a Buddhist monastery and disappeared from history and human memory until about the 17th C when it reappears as a distant outpost and military center of the Kingdom of Kandy. (94-5)  (N.B. Kassapa is also spelled Kasayapa; there are many different spellings throughout the island for the same historical personages or places.  The Sinhalese script is not Roman, and this, at least in part, accounts for the differences.)




From Sigiriya, we went on to Kasayapa’s father’s capital, Anuradhapura, which is now a very large archeological site.  We did not get into the modern city of the same name as the three ancient monasteries and various other buildings occupied all our time and attention.  It was also about 95 degrees out, with the same amount of humidity and our bare feet burned when going around the temples.  Footware of any kind is not permitted in the temples or around the stupas, not even by the Bodhi Tree as that is also considered sacred.  In fact, some of the museums with Buddha images had a no shoe policy. We were perfectly happy to sit in the car with our burned soles and not walk around modern traffic after the excursion to the ancient places. But the pain was worth it for the sites.


We first stopped at Isurumuniya which was built by King Devanamplyatissa who reigned from 250-210 BCE. He built the monastery to house the 500 high-caste children who had been ordained by Maha Thera. This site is also famous for the 6th c Gupta style carving known as “the Lover’s” which is said to represent King Dutugemunu’s son, Saliya, who fell in love with a commoner, Asokamala, and for whom he abdicated the throne. Another interpretation is that it represents the Bodhisattva Manjushri with his consort. The carving is in a small museum at the site, which also has a small stupa and a nice sacred Bodhi Tree roped off to protect it. The rock face of the monastery has elephants carved on either side of a natural break in the cliff.


 From Isurumuniya we drove to the archeological park that contains the Abhayagiri and Jetvana Viharas, and the Bodhi Tree grown from a cutting of the Buddha’s Bodhi Tree in Bodhi Gaya. This is the oldest sacred Bodhi Tree as the one in India is actually a third or fourth generation, while this one is from the original tree. The cutting was brought to the Anuradhapura by the king’s son and daughter. The Ruvanmali Maha Stupa is in the same complex as the Bodhi Tree. It is quite large, recently repainted a brilliant white with gold-gilded spiral.  This is perhaps the oldest of the Sri Landan stupas existent, having been originally constructed (though renovated and rebuilt a number of times since then) in the 2nd C BCE.  This is also the site of the first foot burning while trying to circumambulate the stupa.  There were also monkeys playing around at a small Buddha shrine at the entrance to the site, which caught my attention as they were happily eating all the offerings left for the Buddha. I thought he would be pleased. 


The Jetavanarama Stupa is quite different from its neighbor. This fourth century edifice is still brick, and not white-washed, but it also has a proportionally much large  square box above the dome and a smaller spire than the earlier one. Nonetheless, these two were among the tallest structures of the ancient world, only outshone by the Giza Pyramids, and they are impressive.


The Abhayagiri monastery is a large complex with many structures scattered throughout the region’s forests. It was built by a king who had been defeated by a South Indian army and sent into exile.  He promised to build a monastery if he were ever to be able to return. After fourteen years he managed to build an army, come back and defeat the usurpers.  King Vattagamani Abhaya honored his pledge and had the monastery constructed. When it was built there was no difference in ideology to the earlier Mahavihara, but this changed when Dhammaruci arrived from India in 77 BCE and set up a different, more Mahayana, form of Buddhism.  The monks at Abhayagiri became known as Dhammarucis over time. Abhayagiri was supported and protected by the royal family and became a major center for Buddhist teaching and study until the 9th C, co-existing and sharing resources with Nalanda University in Bihar, India. By the 7th C Abhayagiri had intellectual and trade relationships with Buddhist centers in China, Java and Kashmir. Among the structures of Abhayagiri are the Lankaramaya stupa which is laid out like a chakra wheel mandala, the Mirisavatiya Dagoba, which has a small white stupa and a number of finely carved pillars with intricate reliefs, the Elephant Ponds for the monks to bathe –which are larger than six Olympic sized pools, and numerous smaller buildings. The moonstone entrance reliefs in Abhayagiri are famous for their symbolism.  The various half circles are said to represent the flames of desire and anger, the four animals- elephants, bulls, horses, geese- are birth, disease, old age and death, the leafy vine is greed, and the lotus the pure abode of truth (Saddhavasa Brahmaloka). The hamsa (geese) also represent the renunciation of a householder’s life, which is a form of death/transformation.


Anuradhapura is a fascinating site and one it would have been fun to spend more time in if our feet had not been burnt from the hot stones.


The next day we traveled to Polonnaruwa, the medieval capital of Sri Lanka.  This was the 10th-13th C center of activity.  One of the most striking elements of this site is the extent of Hindu imagery incorporated into the buildings, reliefs, and architecture of the site.  The kings of this time allowed religious plurality and the blending of religions is a highlight of the artwork of this period. The Polonnaruwa period is also recognized for the tremendous amount of international trade, especially for their exports of pearls, precious stones, and spices, all of which are still some of the main trade items in addition to tea, which the British brought with them. The wealth gathered through the exchange of merchandise and taxes led to massive construction.  Some of the major buildings we visited included the Atadage, which housed the Tooth Relic; the Mausoleum, which is said to resemble the cosmic Mt. Meru and which is supposed to have been a place where the king could go to spend time on the summit as Kuvera the God of Wealth; the Satmahal-prasad, a seven-tiered pagoda which looks like it belongs in Thailand and is in fact similar to Wat Kukat in Lamphun; and the Uttararama or Galvihara with its group of large Buddha statues carved out of the rock face in sitting, standing and reclining positions. When we were there the cave entrance was closed so we could only see the three on the outer walls, but they were impressive enough.


The last of the royal cities was Kandy.  In this city we only had time to visit the Royal Palace complex as the whole region was packed with people preparing for Singhalese New Year and it was basically impossible to either walk or drive through the streets.  The Royal Palace was a treat, though, as it now houses the World Buddhist Museum, which is excellently laid out with rooms displaying how Buddhism is practiced in each of the Buddhist countries as well as in those which are not officially Buddhist, like China, Nepal and Malaysia, but where it is common or historically important. It also has the Tooth Relic and we were able to see the stupa-shaped jewel encrusted golden casket with the relic briefly in our tour through the crowded lines; the actual relic remains hidden.  Musicians announce the opening and closing of the shrine every evening while the crowds line up to be shepherded by guards quickly through a tightly controlled passageway in front of the shrine doors.  People leave their offerings as they pray in passing.  The Tooth Relic Temple in Kandy was constructed by King Narendrasimha in the early 18th C and is a two-storied building with the relic housed on the upper floor. The Tooth Relic is perhaps the most sacred item in Sri Lanka; it was a sign of divine approval of the kings who kept it housed in the best possible buildings, and remains well-protected today.


One of the most unusual rooms/structures in the palace is the separate hall for the elephant who carried the relic during the annual festival in the latter part of the 20th C.  The elephant has taken on an element, not just of respect, but of awe verging on worship given the flower and fruit offerings we saw laid out in front of the taxidermed pachyderm.




Outside the city of Kandy are three medieval temples that have unique architectural features.  The first The Gadaladeniya Temple is “built on a rock and an inscription tells that King Buvanekabahu IV built it in the 14th C.  It was built by a South Indian architect and therefore displays South Indian architectural layout with a devale (Vishnu temple) attached to it.  The Buddhist temple is named after the village. (Cultural Guide 121)


   The outside of the stupa has Buddhas in the four directions, while the main area has a seated Buddha under a makara torana (an arch of mythical beasts). A host of mythical beasts and deities surround the sides. The entranceway guardians have been identified as versions of Vishnu and there is a separate Hindu temple nearby.


At the site was an artist who was copying the frescos from the temple.  He had spent the last 20 years taking care of the temple and drawing it.  It takes him three days to make about a standard sheet-sized  watercolor, which he sells for 2,000 rubies, ca. $17.  He also paints note cards, which he sells for 200 rubies & I did buy two of those.




According to the brochure from the site, the Lankatillaka Temple is built on the summit of a rock named “Panhalgala” in the village of Rabbegamuwa. It dates back to 1344 during the reign of King Bhuwaneka Bahu IV who was supposed to be a ‘ruler of great wisdom and faith, and a mine of excellent virtues’.


The exterior of the image house is decorated with sculpted elephants.  The inscription indicates that the structure originally had four stories, but building collapsed and only the ground floor remains standing. The most important part of Lankatillaka is the role its decorative painting played in the development of Kandian painting.  ‘The designs are varied and delicate, especially those on the ceiling, which are unsurpassed in beauty and elegance in the history of art in Sri Lanka.  The Hansa Puttuwa (conjoined swans) motif records the best presentation of its kind in the realm of Kandyan period paintings.’ (site brochure)




What is really unique is that there is a Vishnu temple directly inside the front of the building, facing west, while the Buddhist temple is at the back, facing east.  The Vishnu temple has standing images of Vishnu and Lakshmi on three sides and on the back, where one can’t walk around, on one side is Skanda/Kataragama on his peacock and on the other a standing very large red bellied short-tusked Ganesha.  This site is a good example of a Buddhist Hindu shrine of the 14th C.




The last of the three outlying temples we visited was the Embekke Devale which is  dedicated to Kataragama/Skanda and supposedly built by King Vikramabahu III (r. 1357-1374). The devale consists of a sanctum (garbha), a vestibule (digge) and a drummers’ hall (hevisi mandapa). The drummers’ hall and entrance porch (which is said to be older than the hall) are the main attractions with its 504 wood carvings on the pillars, including those of mythical animals, dancing women, foliage, a hunter/king on a horse, and a mother with child.  (A Cultural Guide 123)


The carvings are strikingly reminiscent of Newari carvings of the same period.




The plaque at the entrance reads: “In a moment you will be entering the historic Embekke Devala, built in the 14th or 15th century which tradition asserts, was the Audience Hall of the Gampola Kings, and later converted and dedicated to the Sinhalese War God Kartikeya, better known as Kataragama Deviyo.


  In the Digge (Drumming Hall) are to be found sculptured in the medial panels of the wooden pillars and on the beams conventional Sinhalese designs of swans, the double headed eagle, the woman growing out of the vine, bacchanalian figures in characteristic pose, a wrestling pair, dancers and soldiers, men and women in fluent and graceful movement and these unique carvings display the skills of the ancient maters and bear testimony to the craftsmanship of the school of wood-sculptors of the period.”


The ca. square foot image carvings are beautifully done and this site is replicated in the modern capital, Colombo, on a much grander scale than the original here outside Kandy.  Both lay testament to the importance of Skanda, aka Kataragama/Kartikeya in Sinhalese tradition.




The cultural triangle of Sri Lanka houses the three earlier capitals, Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Kandy,  with their sacred and secular architecture and legends. They are the heart and history of the country and no trip to this island nation is complete without visiting all of them.  At the same time, they showcase the transitions in Buddhism over time here and elsewhere, including the incorporation of Hindu elements within the more orthodox Theravadan tradition officially practiced. The royal capitals and their temples give insight into the political support for the official doctrine.  The local rituals give insight into how the people worship, such as in some of the Sinhalese New Year’s celebrations that we were fortunate to stumble upon.



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