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 Post Posted: Sun Dec 24, 2006 4:11 am 

By Jagath Weerasinghe
© Copyright The Serendib Gallery, Sri Lanka


Sri Lanka is an island civilization with a long, rich and colourful history. Its pivotal position in the ancient Silk Road, that functioned as a cultural highway between the East and West, has given this island a cosmopolitan character since pre-Christian times. In the inscriptions of a Mauryan Emperor of India in the 3rd century BC, Sri Lanka was referred to as Tambapani. He names it as one of the countries to which he had extended his benevolent services. Onesicritus of Astipalacia who was among the convoy of Alexander the Great in his eastern campaigns (326 to 323BC) referred to Sri Lanka as Taprobana.

The writings and cartography of the Greek geographer Ptolemy or Claudes Ptolomeus of Alexandria of 2nd century AD presents us with an account of Sri Lanka, its topography, economy and culture, showing the extent of contacts that existed between Sri Lanka and the west in the ancient times.

The ancient Indians called Sri Lanka the Sieladiba (Pali Sihaladipa).

An epigraphic record of this name has been found in an inscription of Asoka, in the Tinnevely district of Tamilnadu in South India.

In an inscription of the 4th century Gupta Emperor Samudragupta, Sri Lanka is referred to as Sainhalaka, the Land of the Sinhalas.

Sri Lankan links with the rest of the Asia has been as extensive as with the West and the Indian subcontinent. Chinese sources refer to many occasions of cultural, political and trade exchanges between the two countries. The maritime expeditions of Cheng Ho are a clear indication of the sustained links between Sri Lanka and China. However, the links with China waned with the expansion of European power in the Indian Ocean.

The history of Sri Lankan painting and sculpture can be traced as far back as to the 2nd or 3rd century BC. The ancient historical chronicles of Sri Lanka; such as the Mahavamsa, written in the 6th century AD has numerous references to the art of painting and sculpture in Sri Lanka. The earliest reference in the art of painting is to the drawing of a palace on cloth using cinnabar in the 2nd century BC. The ancient chronicles have description of various examples of paintings in the relic-chambers of Buddhist stupas, and in monastic residence. Fragmentary remains of early wall paintings have been recorded from various archaeological sites. The Mahavamsa also refers to numerous description of sculptures and carvings in ancient buildings such as at the Loha Pasada, a monastic residence in the ancient city of Anuradhapura.

In many ways Sri Lankan art is an expression of its long and enduring Buddhist tradition that has absorbed and internalised numerous regional and local traditions for thousands of years. The Indian mark in the Sri Lankan art is obvious and deep, it has not inhibited the formation of a distinctly Sri Lankan tradition in the arts. The persistence and the strength of this distinctly Sri Lankan character can be noticed in Buddha images of Anuradhapura and in the bronze sculptures of Hindu Gods and Goddesses made in the Kingdom of Polonnaruwa dating from the 11th to 13th centuries.

Many art historians treat Sri Lankan art in relation to successive 'Kingdoms' that ruled the island from about 2nd century BC to the 19th century AD. While this type of periodisation has been extremely useful in reconstructing the history of art, the 'Kingdom' and 'King' centered approach to history of art does not pay sufficient respect to the broad stylistic continuities and changes that the practice of painting and sculpture in Sri Lanka show in its long history. Traditional historiography presents Sri Lankan art in terms of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Dambadeniya, Yapahuwa, Kotte, Gampola and Kandy, the successive kingdoms of pre-modern Sri Lanka. In this essay, however, following Senake Badaranayake (1986), the history of painting and sculpture is presented considering the broad stylistic similarities and changes of the Sri Lankan painting tradition. The historical phases of the island are divided into five periods as:

1. Early Historical period: 250BC - 500AD

2. Middle Historical period: 500AD - 1250AD

3. Late Historical Period - 1: 1250AD - 1600AD

4. Late Historical Period - 2: 1600AD - 1800AD

5. Modern Historical Period: 1800AD - 1900AD (Bandaranayake 1986).

These periods are treated in relation to the broad stylistic changes that can be delineated from the history of art practice in pre-modern Sri Lanka.


The earliest paintings and sculptural works that formed an essential part of the development of Sri Lankan Buddhist architecture in the early historical period can no longer be found. But the relief sculptures of the frontispieces (vahalkadas) of ancient stupas, dating from the 2nd and 3rd centuries, and their platforms depict the relief sculptures probably made towards the end of the Early Historic Period. The stylistic features of these sculptures shed much light on the formation of a Sri Lankan classical style in sculpture and painting. The work of the Middle Historical Period shows the continuity and the persistence of this style throughout this period.



The earliest datable paintings in the classical style are found in the 5 century place-city of Sigiriya of King Kashyapa. After Sigiriya, the 12 century AD murals at the Tivanka Image house at Polonnaruva are the most comprehensive body of paintings found at one place that belongs to this period. A period of 600 years separates Tivanka from Sigiriya, but stylistically Thivanka murals are an extension of the classical-naturalistic style that developed during the Early Historical period centered in the Kingdom of Anuradhapura.

The painting style and technique of the Sigiriya murals are unique among the murals of the Anuradhapura period. While it can be located within the broad stylistic aspects of Anuradhapura paintings, Sigiriya, however, has unique features in terms of line and its application. The lines of Sigiriya murals impart an ambience of sketchiness and swiftness that establishes the sense of volume in the shapes and forms of the figures. The multiple presences of sketchy lines further enhances the sense of volume-ness of the shapes and forms of the painted figures by giving rise to a subtle spatial ambiguity at the edges of the painted forms. In other words the lines of Sigiriya murals constitute an exploratory pictorial approach in the very act of drawing as an art, and in the act of registering the sense of volume on a flat surface. The sense of volume-ness thus registered on the surface is further confirmed by the way the paint has been applied.

The paint has been applied in sweeping strokes, imparting slightly more pressure on one side of a flat brush, which has thus created a deeper color tone along the edges of a shape. This has also resulted in leaving a high tone area on the shapes and forms of the figures. This feature is more or less a common stylistic feature of the Anuradhapura paintings, as can be seen from the murals of Mahiyangana relic-chamber, or form the 'Pulligoda galge' murals. However, what distinguish these murals from Sigiriya are the lines and their application. In general the main characteristic of the lines of Anuradhapura painting style, including that of Polonnaruwa is that it is a sure and precise linear mark registered on the surface is also the artists last line. One does not see the sketchy and exploratory nature of the Sigiriya lines and their application that make them unique among the murals of the Anuradhapura period.



Sri Lankan art, in general goes through a phase of significantly stylistic changes during this period, the culmination of which can be see in the wall paintings and sculptures of the18th and 19th centuries. The classical naturalism of the previous periods gradually transformed itself in to a highly stylistic art form, which is nevertheless, equally expressive and vibrant as were the works of the classical school of art in Sri Lanka.

After the collapse of Polonnaruwa kingdom in the 13th century AD, the country entered an era of relatively unstable political atmosphere for 400 years necessitating the administrative capital of the country to be moved to five different locations (Dambadeniya, Yapahuwa, Kotte, Sitawake and Gampola) and finally to Kandy in the 17th century AD. Some art historians believe that a hiatus occurred in the Sri Lankan art tradition during this period and what happened afterwards in the arts was of inferior quality. This opinion, however, is highly contested now. Bandaranayake (1986) and a few others have substantially shown the continuity of the Sri Lankan art tradition from the early historic periods to the late historical periods.


The artistic remains of these periods are solely restricted to sculpture and carvings. Paintings are long lost. Our knowledge of the paintings of this era is limited to various references made to the art of painting in the literary works of these periods.

However, the impressive fortifications at Yapahuwa surpassed only by those of 5th century Sigiriya, present us with excellent examples of stone carvings.

The relief stone carvings of the granite windows of Yapahuwa speak for the remarkable artistic achievements of this period.


Kandy the last capital of pre-modern Sri Lanka, came into prominence in the 18th century and lasted till 1815, when the Island became a British colony.

Paintings and sculpture of this period are found in numerous temples in Kandy and other regions where authority of the Kandyan royalty could reach.

Stylistically, the Central Kandyan Tradition is the anti thesis of classical naturalism of early and middle historical periods; it is a highly stylized art idiom that forms the basis of the pictorial language of the central Kandyan School.


3.3 The Southern School

The Southern School, which has many general stylistic features in common with the Central Kandyan tradition, nevertheless has an artistic expression of its own, probably rooted in the now totally extinct painting tradition of Kotte and Sitawaka; the two administrative Capitals before Kandy, which were located within or in the neighborhood of the western coastal regions of Sri Lanka.



As it might be surmised, the Buddhist paintings of the early 20th century constitute an impressive diversity in styles as can be seen from the temple murals of the time. Several centuries of colonial domination of the country, and the resultant exposure to various art traditions and also the rise of nationalism and the quest for an authentic art tradition can be considered as the root cause for this dynamism in art styles in the Buddhist mural tradition of Sri Lanka. The George Keyt murals at Gotami Vihara, the Solius Mendis murals at Kelaniya Raja Maha Viiharaya and the numerous murals by M.Sarlis, all done during the first 4decades of the 20th century, are the best examples to illustrate this diversity in styles.

Murals of Gotami Vihara, painted in the 1930s by one of Sri Lanka's most important modernist painters presents a Buddhist mural done in a style that has successfully synthesized Pablo Picasso's cubism, the linear beauty of Anuradhapura paintings and the sensuality of traditional Indian sculpture into a sensual and sumptuous artistic language Murals of the Kelaniya Raja Maha Viharaya, painted by Solius Mendis in the late 1930s and early 1940s was an attempt to revitalize the Sinhalese classical art tradition of Anuradhapura. The result however is not a reinvention of the classical tradition but an amalgamation of several Indian, and European visual idioms into a style that recalls the classical naturalism of Anuradhapura.

M.Sarlis Buddhist murals and his lithographic prints on Buddhist themes can be considered as the first formulation of a popular tradition of Buddhist art in Sri Lanka, out side the ethos of the feudal elites and the urban bourgeoisie. His was an art form that did not look back to Kandy or Anuradhapura for artistic inspirations. His style, which is largely of borrowings from western naturalism in a somewhat 'folk' manner, constituted an art language that is interesting and 'beautiful' in its own way. His style had the basics of any 'popular art tradition' of the 20th century: the glitter, and the meretriciousness.


Related Links:
:arrow: Buddhist Art
:arrow: Arts and Crafts History of Sri Lanka

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