WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka

Buddhist Art:

Stupas - Novel features and designs

Medirigiriya Vatadage

Just as much as literature in Sri Lanka grew with Buddhism, so did the countrys art and architecture as well as sculpture - all vital aspects of a countrys heritage. It was after Arahat Mahinda introduced Buddhism during the reign of King Devanampiya Tissa (307-267 BC) that these started developing. In the countrys capital, Anuradhapura, the king built the Maha Vihara, a temple and residence for the monks, after dedicating the Nandana and Mahamega royal pleasure gardens to the Maha Sangha.

The earliest monument found in Sri Lanka is the stupa, which is described as a hemispherical dome surmounted with a spire (kota). During the time of Emperor Asoka, numerous stupas were built at hallowed sites in India. In these were enshrined relics of the Buddha which people venerated. When it was observed that there were no Buddha relics in Sri Lanka, the king, on Arahat Mahindas suggestion, appealed to Emperor Asoka to send some relics. He responded to the kings request and sent the right collarbone relic of the Buddha.

The king built the Thuparama dagaba to enshrine this relic. This was thus the oldest stupa built in Sri Lanka. Originally it was in the shape of a heap of paddy but as restorations were done in later years, it took the form as seen today. It has a diametre of 59 feet 6 inches at the base. As the name suggests, Thuparama comprised a stupa and an arama, a residential complex. Ruins of such a complex can be seen within an area of over three acres around the stupa.

The stupas built later on were much larger than the Thuparama. King Dutugemunu (161-137 BC) built the Mirisaveti which ha a diametre of 168 feet at the base and the most venerated stupa - Ruvanvali Mahaseya, also known as Ratnamali Mahathupa. While the base has a diametre of 289 feet, the height is given as 120 cubits (riyan), equivalent to around 300 feet. It took the form of bubbulakara or bubble shape.

In the middle of the dagaba was built a relic chamber, in the centre of which was placed a bo-tree made of precious metals, and an image of the Buddha round which were groups of figures representing various events in the life of the Buddha. When the Abhyayagiri dagaba was originally built by King Vattagamani (Valagamba - 103 BC) it was not very large but later enlargements made it larger than the Mahathupa. King Mahasena (276-303 CE) is credited with building the largest of them all - the Jetavana, which has a diametre of 367 feet at the base. Though the present height is estimated at 232 feet, the original height is supposed to have been 160 cubits.

Large stupas were also built at Mihintale at the site where Arahat Mahinda met the king, Magama, Dighavapi (near Ampara), Kataragama and other places. The builders of stupas in Sri Lanka had closely followed the designs of such monuments built in Sanchi and other places in India. In huge monuments, the dome rose from a triple-based platform. The dome was surmounted by a square railing of wood or stone which later became a cube of masonry. A stone pillar embedded in the dome rose above the railing. The stupa was crowned by an umbrella (chattra) or a series of umbrellas.

The Kantaka Chaitya in Mihintale is a fine example of a small dagoba. It features some of the finest stone carvings and terra cotta figures. They are well preserved to this day. The presence of a vahalkada or frontpiece is another interesting feature in this chaitya.
There are carvings of animal figures, pot and foliage and other familiar ornamental motifs. These frontpieces seen in most dagobas project from the base and face the cardinal points.

It can be observed that after the 4th century, the building of colossal dagobas has virtually ended. Thereafter smaller ones have been built using Thuparama in Anuradhapura as a model. This type came to be known as vatadage or rotunda. It is a circular relic house and apart from Thuparama and Lankarama in Anuradhapura, the best example is seen in Polonnaruwa.

Mihintale Kantaka Chaitya

There are two other beautiful ones at Medirigiriya close to Polonnaruwa and Tiriyayi off the Anuradhapura-Trincomalee road. These circular shrines enclosed stupas of smaller size and had wooden pillars right round. Later they were replaced by carved stone pillars. The pillars are arranged in four to two concentric circles, diminishing in size outwards.

After the sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha was brought to Sri Lanka in the ninth year of the reign of King Kitsirimevan (303-331 BC), a temple to keep the Tooth relic was built in Anuradhapura from where the king ruled. Thereafter in each capital of the Sinhalese kings, there was a separate Temple of the Tooth.

The earliest Buddha images found in Sri Lanka are of the standing type and they resemble those found in Amaravati in India. Our Buddha images have been done out of limestone and are said to be much more impressive than those in India. Images and sculpture show the influence of the Gupta period in India. The famous Isurumuniya lovers is a fine example of this influence.

Along with the other piece of sculpture showing the man and the horse, they are two of the most beautiful and most famous carvings of ancient Sri Lanka. Isurumuniya also boasts of a number of elephants carved out of stone. Incidentally, Isurumuniya is the first rock temple mentioned in our history. It is mentioned that 500 wealthy persons who had been ordained came for relaxation to this rock. On account of their being isurumat (wealthy), the place was called Isurumuni.

Isurumuniya lovers

The Great Brazen Palace or Lova Maha Paya shows how the kings (in this case King Dutugemunu) built excellent monastaries for the use of monks. It was a quadrangular palace being one hundred cubits in length and the same in height. There were nine storeys, each of them having one hundred apartments. A special hall was erected in the centre of the palace and it was supported on golden pillars.

While the kings built stupas and monasteries for the monks to reside, the royal palaces were also marvels of Sinhalese architecture. The palace complex was within the inner city and it was protected by high ramparts. History records that the palace of King Parakramabahu the Great had one thousand rooms.

Royal baths formed a special architectural feature of the early times. Some of the remains of these show that each bath in Anuradhapura was 20 feet 10 inches square. The inner walls were paved with dressed stone. An underground drain 70 feet long supplied water from Tissawewa. In Polonnaruwa, the royal baths (kumara pokuna) were located within the palace. There were stone slabs in three tiers. The lotus bath was paved with stone slabs resembling the petals of an open lotus. Royal pleasure gardens in Anuradhapura are also fine examples of ancient architecture.

WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka