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 Post subject: Fine arts in ancient and medieval Sri Lanka
 Post Posted: Sat Mar 04, 2006 3:37 am 
Fine arts in ancient and medieval Sri Lanka

by Kamalika Pieris

The fine arts selected for discussion are painting, sculpture, metal ware, music and dance. Literary references confirm that these arts existed in the ancient and medieval period. Sinhala and Pali texts such as Visuddhimagga (5th century), Mahavamsa (6th century), and Sasadavata (12th century) contain many references to paintings. A fragment of painting, dated to the 2nd century BC was found in Karambagala, a cave near Ridiyagama, a village six miles from Ambalantota. There was also a fragment at Situlpahuwa. This has now disappeared. Paintings dating to the fifth century AD have been found at Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa, Mihintale and Mainyangana. The Hindagala paintings are dated to the seventh century AD and the relic chamber paintings at Mihintale to the eighth century. The Dimbulagala caves and Tivanka pilimage murals, Polonnaruwa, are dated to the 12th-13th century.

The Yapahu vistaraya says that Parakramabahu II (1236-1270) engaged three thousand painters to decorate four palaces, each with nine storeys, as well as 500 other small houses. A distinctive court style was used for the ‘profusely painted’ palace walls. Cave walls were also painted. Such paintings can be seen today in the caves at Sigiriya and Dimbulagala. Houses had ‘cooling pictures for the hot season and warming pictures for the cool season.’ (Chandra Wickremagamage. Sunday Times. 1.6-03 p. 2.)

Fa Hien (fifth century) stated that on festive occasions, the roads were decorated with representations of the previous births of the Buddha. These were beautifully painted in diverse colours. The relic chambers at Mihintale and Mahiyangana had paintings. Remains of painting can be seen at Ruvanvelisaya, Mirisaveti and Jetavana, in Anuradhapura. The Lankatilaka contained ‘fragments of painting of great beauty’. Its interior had been covered with paintings. Cave temples such as Karambagala, Kudagala still retain fragments of paintings. The paintings were based on themes from the Dhamma, life of the Buddha and Jataka stories. The Maha Suddassana Sutta is depicted at Ruvanvelisaya and the Sasa Jataka at Dimbulagala.

These paintings are mostly line drawings done on dry plaster with brush and paint. The plaster was clay or lime based. Ant hill clay, cow dung, straw, vegetable fibres, rice husk, and sand were used for the plaster. The predominant colours are red, yellow and brown but green, white, blue and black were also used. Pigments were obtained from minerals and vegetable sources. The mineral colours extracted from earth materials have lasted better than vegetable pigments.

The paintings depict the Buddha, boddhisatvas, devas, sages, ordinary men and women, mythical creatures, dwarfs and flowers. The Galvihara, Polonnaruwa has eight male figures from the waist upward, and an old man, with a drooping moustache. There is a humorous depiction of a dwarf at Ruvanveliseya. Birds and animals are also depicted, such as elephants, horses, lions, stags and swans. Motifs decorate the background. At the cobra hood cave in Sigiriya, a geometrical design of circles, diamonds, ovals, and dots can be seen. Whole walls were painted over. One method was the mural narrative style. This can be seen best in the well composed, well executed Tivanka murals. Lie wall space was well utilised. Planes, levels, and figures are well arranged. The artist was able to pack a wealth of events into the mural, depicting character and incident as well as the story.

Even a casual observer can see that these paintings are products of a very advanced tradition of painting. The finish can be seen even in the fragments. The figures are well drawn, and well painted. The lines are firm and controlled. The human figure is well depicted, with considerable detail in the ornaments and facial expression. Colours have ‘lovely hues’ and ‘delicate tones of lasting permanence.’ Striking effects were achieved at Tivanka, with a limited palette of red, yellow and green. There were different schools of painting. The difference in the styles at Sigiriya and Dimbulagala indicate this.

Stone carving

Fine examples of stone carving have survived into modem times. At Katupilana, there is an elephant carved on the boulder, by the Mahaweli Ganga, which can be mistaken for a real one. The Kantaka cetiya has a frieze of dwarfs in lively attitudes, some playing music. It also has stone columns with carvings of flowers, men, beasts and birds. The stone seats at Sigiriya and the western monasteries at Anuradhapura are elaborately done. Some of the vahalkada at the entrance to the stupa, have graceful sculptures of humans, deities, motifs of elephants, lions, horses, bulls framed within patterns of flowers and creepers. The guard stones found near important flights of steps (dvarapala) have symbols signifying prosperity and good fortune. They originally showed a pun Kalasa or nagaraja, and they evolved into ‘beautiful princely figures with snake hoods.’ The guard stones found near tanks depict a multi-hooded snake.

The Sandakadapahana (moonstone) is a semicircular slab placed at the foot of a flight of steps. It is usually of white polished limestone. It had started as an undecorated half moon but subsequently became very elaborately decorated. The moonstone at the Queen pavilion, Anuradhapura is considered the best of the lot. It is a half lotus, with concentric bands of geese, foliage and a frieze of elephants, lions, horses and bulls racing each other. There are a few variations to this standard design. Maligawila has a square frieze around the moonstone. The Horana moonstone has swans and peacocks. Oggamuwa has a panel of twelve elephants. The Magul Maha Vihara has riders on the elephants. In the 14 century, the moonstone became a full circle.

The Sandakadapahana is considered a decorative feature unique to Sri Lanka. Nandadeva Wijesekera says that ‘In no other tradition anywhere in the world are these found in this shape and style.’ The workmanship and design are much admired. The friezes are extremely fine and very elaborately worked out. Buddhist monuments at Andhra in India also contain moonstones. The ones in the Sinhala Monastery at Nagajunikonda, Andhra are the best decorated and these show an affinity with the Sri Lankan moonstone.

Buddha statues

Buddha statues have been found all over the island. Gal vihara, Kurulpettagala is ‘crowded with images.’ Fragmentary brick and stucco recumbent statues were found at Kosgahaulpota near Dimbulagala, (Tamankaduva district), Hebassa in Buttala Korale, (Moneragala district) Pidurangala (Sigiriya) and Lankatilaka (Polonnaruwa). Bronze Buddha statues were found at Veragala Siri Sangabo vihara, Alauwwa. A free standing crystalline lime stone statue, 15 meters high, carved out of a single block of rock, fashioned completely in the round, was found at Maligawila. Seruwila had a stone statue of the Buddha seated under the hood of the naga king Muchalinda. Buddha statues have also been found at Pul Eliya, Tambalagallewa, Kantale, Kuda Ambagaswewa, Moragoda, Mahapotane, Komarikawela, and Konketiya (near Buttala). Some at least of these images were originally plastered and painted.

The statues are in seated, standing, and recumbent postures. Hands are usually in dyani, abhaya, or vitarka mudra and the seated posture is with legs crossed (virasana). Standing statues of lifesize dimension are found all over the island, including Mannar and Kuccaveli. These standing statues have been described as ‘bolt upright.’ Some statues are huge. There are colossal seated statues at Abhayagiri, Toluvila, Gal vihara (Polonnaruwa), colossal recumbent statues at Dambulla, Polonnaruwa, Ataragollawa, Tantirimale and colossal standing statues at Aukana, Rasvehera, Buduruvegala, Maligawila and Dova. The Buduruvegala statue is the tallest. The largest and most impressive statue in the island is the standing statue at Aukana. It is dated to the 12th century and is 46 feet high.

Local limestone and granite were used for the stone statues. In some instances they were carved in pieces and set together. The Maligawila and Dombegoda statues were transported to the site, and the Dombegoda statue was thereafter lifted up on to a hill. Technical problems were overcome. The heavy load coming on the shoulder of the free standing cantilevered, right arm in the Maligawila statue was given additional support by hanging the arm on to the shoulder by using thick steel straps. The present day engineers found it difficult to lift the fallen Maligawila statue. The statues are noted for simplicity of style and the expression of equanimity on the face of the Buddha. The Samadhi statue at Anuradhapura, dated to the 4th century AD has been commended for its ‘excellent workmanship, unparalleled in India or Southeast Asia’. D. T. Devendra (1957) argued that the Buddha statue had originated in Sri Lanka. Siri Gunasinghe (1973) suggested that the Sinhalese were the first to produce a Buddha statue in the round.

Drama, music and dance

The only information I could find on drama was a reference to puppets in the Culavamsa. But medieval literature is full of references to ‘naccha, geeta, vadita’ (dancing, vocal and instrumental music). Festive occasions were marked by music and dance. The king was surrounded by musicians and dancers. Nissankamalla watched artistic performances of dancing and singing, Parakramabahu II had organised a sort of variety entertainment, full of songs and dances where the music was loud and the drums sounded like thunder claps. There was a festival of songs and dances during the time of Vijayabahu IV. The medieval literature also tells us that people sang while gathering herbs.

The earliest mention of musical instruments is in the Vamsatthappakasi-ni, the seventh century commentary on the Mahavamsa. It refers to strings, percussion, wind and two sets of drums, with leather on one side, or both sides. Thirteenth century texts such as the Dambadeni asna, Thupavamsa, Saddhar-maratnavali, Saddharmalankaraya and Pujavali talk of ‘pancha thuriya nada’. The Kavsilumina refers to tempo, octaves, pitch, tone, and intervals. The Thupavamsa refers to 50 varieties of drums and three varieties of veena. The veena was a popular instrument. It is regularly mentioned in the literature. The Sigiri graffiti also refers to it. The veena was made out of coconut shell or hollowed out gourd. There was chamber music produced by a variety of veenas. Other instruments mentioned in the medieval literature are gold, silver and gem set conches, gold and silver trumpets, flute, horanava and cymbals.

Musicians are shown in the sculptures at Yapahuwa, Ganegoda and Velgam Vihara. Veena players are seen at Mahiyangana and in a 4th century frieze at the Colombo Museum. Kanthaka cetiya shows a conch player, the Dedigama lamp has drummer. The pillars near Ruvanvelisaya have dwarfs playing the veena, flute, conch, and drums. Carvings depicting veena, flute, conch, trumpet cymbals, kettledrum, udakki can be seen at Lovamahapaya. There is a tambourine and oboe at Yapahuwa.

Dancers can be seen in the sculptures at Yapahuwa, Ganegoda and Velgam Vihara. A bronze figure of a dancing woman was found at the Kuttam pokuna in Anuradhapura. A dancer is shown on the bronze lamp from Dedigama. The Mahavamsa states that King Bhathika Abhaya (BC 19-9 AD) and Mahadathika Mahanaga (9-12 AD) ordered dances to celebrate the completion of the Mahastupa in Anuradhapura and the Ambasthala stupa at Mihintale. From the medieval literature, we learn that masks were used in dance and that there were clownish and mimic dances. Dancing halls, dancing women and dancing families are mentioned. The Sasseruwa inscription refers to a father and son who were both dancers. Such references may indicate the existence of natum parampara.


The ancient craftsman worked with precious stones and precious metals. There are references in the stone inscriptions to coppersmiths, goldsmiths, ivory carvers, and lapidaries. The Sihalavathhupakarana refers to a smith who worked in both copper and gold. The Mahavamsa lists many objects crafted in gold during the construction of the Ruvanvelisaya. A gold reliquary dated to the first or second century AD was found in Kotavehera in Laggala. Chinese documents of the 8th century refer to gold filigree work and gem studded necklaces. Jewellery excavated at Abhayagiri, Jetwana and Sigiriya were of excellent artistic and technical quality. Sigiriya excavations yielded a well crafted, gem-studded earring dating to the 5th century AD.

Bronze artefacts such as a ceremonial bowl dating to the 2nd or 3rd century, decorated with astamangala symbols were unearthed at the Abhyagiri vihara complex, Anuradhapura. Two bronze Buddha statues, a boddhisatva statue and a bronze gilt door handle dating to the 8th century were found at Veragala Siri Sangabo Vihara, Alauwa. They were excellently crafted. The two bronze 12th century elephant lamps found in the Dedigama stupa, also showed superb craftsmanship and knowledge of metallurgy. The outflow of the oil was controlled using a hydrostatic principle.

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