Heritage

Buddhist treasures

Print edition : April 19, 2013

The birth of the Buddha, Mural by Soliyas Mendis, Kelaniya Vihara, early 20th century. Soliyas Mendis' paintings are remarkable in showing their roots in the art of Sri Lanka and ancient India while serving the contemporaneous needs of Buddhists on the Island.

Apsaras, Mural, Sigiriya, c. 5th century. These paintings carry forward the tradition of apsaras, celestial beings who carry offerings of flowers for deities and venerable beings.

Apsara, Mural, Sigiriya, c. 5th century. These 5th century paintings display an exquisite rendering of volume and form. The skilled painter persuades the eye to experience even the softness of human flesh. Above all, the expressions transport us to a realm of peace and beauty.

Apsaras, Mural, Sigiriya, c. 5th century. The paintings of the Sigiriya caves are very similar to those of Ajanta. The figures have the same inward look and lyrical grace.

Sigiriya Rock. Sigiriya, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is famous for its rock shelters and caves that date back to the 3rd century BCE. In the 5th century, King Kasyapa built a beautiful palace atop the nearly 200-metre-high Sigiriya rock. Around the rock are the remains of his magnificent capital.

Buddhas, Gangaramaya Temple, Colombo. This great temple displays both the Theravada and Mahayana traditions. Situated in the heart of the city, it is an island of peace, of Buddhist heritage and art. The architecture is spread across three acres and represents the devotional art of many countries.

Mirisawetiya Stupa, Anuradhapura, 2nd century BCE. This 209-metre-tall stupa brings before us the grandeur of the spirit. Its size and magnificence fill us with awe and transport us away from the turmoil and confusion of the mundane world.

Ruwanmalisaya Stupa, Anuradhapura. Built in the time of King Dutugemunu, it stands 103 metres tall and has a circumference of 290 metres. One of the many great places of veneration in the ancient city of Anuradhapura, it reminds us of the fact that both king and commoner at that time were preoccupied with that which was eternal and beyond the material life.

Bodhi Tree, Anuradhapura. It is probably the most venerated living tree in the world. The tree grew from a cutting of the Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya brought by Sanghamitra, daughter of Emperor Ashoka, in 249 BCE and planted by the king of Sri Lanka who called himself Devanampiya-tissa, meaning “Beloved of the divine”.

Aukana Buddha, near Kekirawa, c. 5th century. This is the tallest Buddha statue in Sri Lanka, standing 39 feet (11.88 metres) above its lotus plinth and 46 feet (14 m) above the ground. It is known to have been made during the reign of King Dhatusena. It is in this period that brhad, or giant, Buddhas began to be made in Sri Lanka and in the caves of Maharashtra. The tradition soon spread to South-East Asia and northwards to Kashmir, Ladakh, Afghanistan and Central Asia.

The Rankoth Vehera Stupa, Polonnaruwa, 12th century. Polonnaruwa was the capital of Sri Lanka in the 11th and 12th centuries. This grand stupa is believed to have been made during the rule of King Parakramabahu and King Nissankamalla, in the 12th century C.E.

Jataka Story, Mural, 12th century. The Jatakas, tales of the Buddha in his previous births, formed the principal theme of Buddhist art from the earliest times. These stories can be found in the relief of the Bharhut Stupa railings, the Sanchi Stupa railings, and the early Ajanta paintings of the 2nd century BCE.

Beings on their way to Nirvana, mural, 12th century. The gentle expressions on the faces of these beings on the path to salvation are a constant theme of Buddhist art. The artistic style seen here is very close to the contemporaneous art of the Chola period in India, especially the inner ambulatory paintings of the Brhadisvara Temple in Thanjavur, of the end of the 10th century.

Vatadage, Polonnaruwa, 12th century. Vatadage means circular relic house or shrine. It is similar in concept to the chaitya-griha made to house objects of veneration in India. The structure had a shape unique to ancient Sri Lanka and was built around small stupas which enshrined holy relics. Vatadages may have had wooden roofs, supported by stone columns, sometimes arranged in concentric rows.

Seated Buddha, Galvihara, Polonnuruwa, 12th century. Four magnificent rock-cut Buddha statues at Galvihara, carved out of a granite hill face, depict the Buddha seated, standing and reclining. Galvihara is part of a monastery built in the 12th century during the reign of King Parakramabahu. Polonnuruwa is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Dambulla Caves, 1st century BCE to 13th century C.E. This World Heritage Site situated in central Sri Lanka is the largest and best-preserved cave temple complex in the country and is carved out of a huge rock that towers 160 metres over the surrounding plains.

Seated Buddha and Mural Paintings, Dambulla Caves, 1st century BCE to 13th century C.E. The temple site has five caves where numerous paintings and sculptures were made during the Anuradhapura (1st century BCE to 993 C.E.) and Polonnaruwa periods (1073 to 1250).

Interior, Sri Dalada Maligawa, or Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, Kandy. After the Parinirvana of Gautama Buddha, the tooth relic was preserved in Kalinga. It was smuggled to Sri Lanka by Princess Hemamali and her husband, Prince Dantha, on the instructions of her father, King Guhasiva, in the 4th century. The present-day temple of the tooth was built by Vira Narendra Sinha.

The Kelaniya Rajamaha Vihara. It is Sri Lanka's oldest royal Buddhist monastery, patronised by kings from the time Buddhism began to be practised there.

Interior of Mandapa, or Hall, of the main temple, Kelaniya Vihara. The paintings on the walls and ceilings of the Mandapa are of the 18th century. This is in continuation of the earliest tradition of Buddhist art of fully painting the interiors of temples and caves.

Geese within a lotus medallion, ceiling of Mandapa, Kelaniya Vihara. The similarity of exquisite art and themes can be seen across thousands of kilometres, from Ajanta in Maharashtra to Kelaniya. These deep cultural bonds do not know geographical or political boundaries. Cave ceilings were painted exactly like this at Ajanta in the 5th century.

Sanghamitra brings the holy Bodhi Tree to Sri Lanka, Mural, Kelaniya Vihara, early 20th century. The painter Soliyas Mendis travelled to India in the end of the 19th century to study the paintings of Ajanta. When he returned to Sri Lanka, he created a new style of art, which has its roots in the gentle expressions and exquisite grace of the Ajanta paintings. His work represents a valuable link and continuation of the ancient style of Buddhist paintings. The paintings also display a close affinity to the style of the Sigiriya paintings and are distinctly Sri Lankan.

Seated Buddhas, Gangaramaya Temple, Colombo. These Buddhas are made in the Thai tradition. The stupas made in between remind us also of the upper-most level of the great stupa of Borobudur.

Avalokiteswara, 9th century, Anuradhapura District, Guilt Bronze, Solid Cast, National Museum, Colombo. The exquisite figure sits in a posture of royal ease.

Queen Maya’s Dream, Marble Slab, 2nd-3rd century, National Museum, Colombo. The style of art is very similar to the contemporaneous art of the Deccan in India, especially at Amaravati and Ajanta. The bliss upon the face of the standing figures is sublime. The supple bodies of the seated women are exquisitely made and the flesh is almost tangible.

THE culture of all of South Asia is deeply unified by a vision of great compassion, which is born out of seeing no separations between different people; between the lives of men and women and that of animals and birds, plants and trees. This vision of life sees all of us and indeed all that is around us as a part of the same. Our understanding of ourselves as separated human beings, our self-centred goals, our egos, are considered to be an illusion. The high purpose of life is to lose our attachments in the material world, to be able to see the truth beyond. Sri Lanka is one of the great inheritors of this vision of life.

In the 3rd century BCE, Sanghamitra, daughter of Emperor Asoka, carried a cutting of the revered Bodhi tree at Bodhgaya to Sri Lanka. Buddhism was symbolically planted, along with the holy tree, on the island. Both the faith and the venerated tree continue to flourish today.

The deeply venerated tree is at Anuradhapura in central Sri Lanka and it may be the oldest recorded living tree in the world. It stood at Bodhgaya since at least the 6th century BCE. The cutting brought by Sanghamitra was planted in Anuradhapura in 249 BCE by the king of Sri Lanka who called himself Devanampiya-tissa, meaning “Beloved of the divine”. He was following a tradition of not using his name. This was a time when no portraits were made in Indic art and the names of artists were not put on their works. Our ephemeral personalities were not considered important. The higher purpose of life was to lose the sense of the self, the ego, and to recognise the ‘maya’ or ‘mithya’, the world of illusory forms, around us.

The Bodhi tree marks a most wonderful and unique interaction between two countries. In fact, when the tree at the original site in India was no more, it was grown again from a cutting of the tree in Sri Lanka. The two countries have jointly kept the tree and its tradition alive.

Benoy K. Behl is a film-maker, art historian and photographer known for his prolific output of work over the past 34 years. He has taken over 36,000 photographs of Asian monuments and art heritage, made 126 documentaries on art history and held exhibitions in 29 countries. An exhibition of his photographs on the Buddhist heritage of Sri Lanka will be held at the India International Centre, New Delhi, from April 9 to 16.

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