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 Post subject: ‘Latha karma’ or floral creeper motif in Sinhala art
 Post Posted: Tue Sep 06, 2005 12:46 am 
‘Latha karma’ or floral creeper motif in Sinhala art

by R. C. de S. Manukulasooriya
The Island - 2000

Among the multiplicity of variegated and multi-faceted motifs in Sinhalese art forms the combinations of flowers and creepers or latha-karma make a fascinating background to the craft or object they adorn. Throughout the centuries from the sculptures of the earliest available archeological specimens as found in Mihintale and Anuradhapura and the terra cotta figurines excavated from places like Panduwasnuwara, the wood work and metal crafts of more recent centuries, the delicate crafted ivory work, in embroidery, in the lacquered craft works and even the wall paintings in temples, varying specimens of latha-karma or floral foliage motifs are found in abundance.

Of these forms Bell remarks, "The main ornament, repeated in endless variety.... is the continuous scroll foliage... single or double, large or small, plain or complex its convolutions throwing off leaves... or sometimes a repeated flower or even enclosing partially or throughout figures of dancers — the one leading idea is ornamentation, more elegant, refined and better suited for its purpose". (quoted by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy in Mediaeval Sinhalese Art — page 99)

Latha-Karma (Pali lata kamma) in general terms is the creation of decorative forms using certain elements of liya vel or rambling creepers to obtain and effect of grace and charm. Thus the liya vela is a decorative art form using the leaves and flowers and other appurtenances of a rambling creeper to create a thing of beauty.

In its primary meaning vela is a climbing plant, a jungle creeper, one that entwines a tree or creeps along the ground; it has a secondary meaning of "rope", thus the word "welpota". Meanwhile "liya" also has the primary meaning of "vela" or "latava", while in poetic usage it takes a secondary meaning of "woman" as well as "gracefulness".

It is in the manner in which the variety of its various components made up of flowers, leaves, buds, branches and tendrils are rhythmically disposed that contribute to its ultimate gracefulness and enchanting effort. It may either be used to cover a somewhat vacant space or may form a border to give a sense of completeness to a picture or work of art. In either case it would bear an appearance of being an intrinsic part of the main theme.

Many of these specimens start from a central figure either of a bird or an animal, natural or mythical or even a human being, commencing in each case either from its mouth or some part of his anatomy; there are some that commence from a flower such as a lotus or a mythical flower such as a sina mala or from a symbolic figure known as a traditional art form.

The basic rudimentary form of this design composition is a line drawn in a regular undulating rhythmic form to which a variety of extensions, permutations, configurations, modulations and modifications have been conjoined. According to Ananda Coomaraswamy the basic element displayed in the liya vela is the scroll or suli vela while T. U. de Silva in his book "Parani Sinhala Chitra — Sarasili Mostara", has given three different types: "thani suli saha ira" (single spiral and line), "suli deka", (double spiral) and "Suli Vela", (continuous spiral). It is around these three basic forms that all the other elaborations are made. These rambling creepers are never found depicted in their natural form but are stylised representations of the originals. In some of them, particularly those on some of the moonstones of the Anuradhapura period, the roots, the stem and the leaves are all depicted in their natural form. It is however, the manner of the incorporation of these elements in a rhythmic pattern that has given the remarkable distinction which characterise them.

The stylised forms in which leaves, flowers, buds and tendrils are depicted are the generally accepted conventional forms known in Sinhalese art, particularly in the Kandyan era. The flowers are generally mythical, such as katuru mala or sina mala. Even when natural flowers are incorporated such as sapu mala, picca mala or annasi mala, it is never in their natural form but in a stylised manner which were known as the conventional forms at the time. The differences, if any, are due to regional variations in different parts of the country.

A simple ornamented leaf in basic scroll formation found in ancient stone sculpture, old wood work, silver and brassware and in lacquer work is called peralum patha. Ananda Coomaraswamy points out that a noteworthy form in Kelaniya pottery is an archaic form reminiscent of Greek and other Mediterranean forms.

It is not always a single creeper that is depicted, which is termed thani pota vela. Sometimes two similar creepers called depota liya vel are combined interlacing or running parallel to each other in a regular rhythmic pattern to which are given the names of vel dangara or vel puttuwa or bada vel. Often too in the formation of these combinations a multiplicity of creepers are incorporated which is called dangara vel.

Often too in the formation of the leaf the formation called the liyageta is used; this is found chiefly in lacquer work and is termed liyageta vela. Generally is walking sticks where lacquer work is used the creeper ornamentation makes it a latha yatthi, while a floral pattern would make it puppa yatthi and a stick adorned with birds is called sakuna yatthi.

In Indian sculpture the motif appears in a somewhat different form, is Bharhut, Mathura and Nagarjunakonda. In some Caves in China also the floral creeper is depicted in a somewhat different forms from the ones found in Sri Lanka.

In Sri Lanka too there are significant variations. Thus the earliest form obtaining in the Mihintale vahalkada in what may be termed kalpa lata form, though adopted in later centuries in the free standing pillars at Polonnaruwa, in the moonstones the form adopted is quite different as the display of the leaves, stem and roots are in their natural formations. Several centuries later in the Kandyan era the stylised forms begin to reappear. In Anuradhapura at Mirisavatiya and Abhayagiriya in particular the old form as well as the newly adopted natural forms are seen.

To the multiplicity of these variant forms of this motif must be added another class of liya vela where human and animal forms are incorporated. The most significant of these is called the Nari lata, a mythical creeper which embodies within its branches the enchanting bust of a maiden of exquisite beauty. Apart from the specimens of this motif depicted in the wall paintings of the mediaeval period, in ivory works, pottery, metal crafts and other similar crafts many references are also made to it in the literary works of this period. In one verse in the Subhasita the author states that the face of a liya thambara was capable of breaking the spiritual attainments of dhayana of a hermit. It is also stated in these works that the nari lata creeper is found in the Himalayan mountains around the mythical lake anotattavila.

Ananda Coomaraswamy in his Mediaeval Sinhalese Art (pages 92-93) has recounted this story as found in Kathavastu Prakarma to illustrate the nature of the mythical nari lata vela, of how a Brahman in Kasirata lost his dhayana power which he had attained with considerable difficulties by observing severe austerities.

It is also in the literary works of the mediaeval period that references are found to similar creepers bearing animal forms such as sinha latha (lion faces), vershaba latha (bull faces) and kinduru latha where the mythical kindura is depicted.

In the Buddhist temples of the Kandyan era the nari lata ensemble has been a favourite motif and has been depicted in a variety of forms. One of the most enchanting representations is the one found at the Ridi Vihara which is reproduced in Mediaeval Sinhalese Art (page 92). In this instance only the bust of the female figure is shown wreathed in a profusion of delicately delineated rambling creepers. In certain other instances the bare bust of the female form is depicted in a combination of both frontal as well as side aspects of their faces. In many instances the part of the figure below the waist is shown in the form of a flower in full bloom. Some of these flowers are not natural flowers, but mythical flowers such as sina mala or katuru mala or kadupul mala. Of the kadupul mala which is also a version of katuru mala, Ananda Coomaraswamy says that it belongs to the Naga world (Mediaeval Sinhalese Art, page 94). There are also references in Sinhalese literature of the period where it is said that young damsels decked their hair with kadupul flowers. (Selalihini Sandesa v 44 — K. D. P. Wickremasinghe). Buddhist literary sources also refer to the kadupul tree as the effulgent throne of God Sakra as he sits under it accompanied by his vast retinue enjoying divine luxury.

It is perhaps the one single building where the nari lata as well as kinduru lata in their great variety of forms are found is the Dalada Maligawa in Kandy. In one of the Ground Floor Ceiling Panels an interesting deviation is noted in that the human figure is not that of a woman but that of a male and the large number of individual faces accompanying the main figure also appear to be males. (Temple of the Tooth, Kandy — T. K. N. P. de Silva — Plate 133 — No. 42.42).

Also reproduced in this report is a profusion of different examples of this theme. Over the Stone Doorway on the South Wall (Plate 30) is the figure of Lakshmi surrounded by a multiplicity of curvaceous creepers bearing a prodigality of leaflets and sina flowers of varying sizes and shapes shown on two sides of the figure of Lakshmi. Similar creepers more simply displayed with a separate flower, in each segment of the two panels of the doors are seen on the South end and north end walls. (Plates 34 and 35). On the beams and brackets on the ground floor as well as the upper floor and the ceilings throughout the entire building a multitudinous variety of creeper designs of different forms are found amounting to a veritable gallery of traditional Sinhalese Art.

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