|Mihintale - The birthplace of the culture of the Sinhala
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Mihintale - The birthplace of the culture of the Sinhala people
© 2003 The Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd.
Arahat Mahinda's arrival in Sri Lanka can be regarded as the beginning of Sinhala culture. He brought to Lanka not only a new religion but also a whole civilization then at the height of its glory. He introduced art and architecture into the island along with Sangharamas and Cetiyas. He can be regarded as the father of Sinhalese literature.
Buddhist Art and Culture
Arahat Mahinda brought to the island of the Sinhalese the commentaries of the Tripitaka and put them into Sinhalese for the benefit of the people of the Island. He thus made Sinhalese a literary language and inaugurated its literature.
Establishment of Buddhism in Sri Lanka influenced the development of Sinhala Culture and the Arts.
Historians agree totally that the acceptence by the people of Sri Lanka of Buddhism, with which the authentic history of the island begins, profoundly influenced the subsequent course of events therein and has imparted to its culture its distinctive character.
It is a fact that the foundation of Sinhala Culture was Buddhism. After Buddhism was established in Sri Lanka, it began to develop with the royal patronage provided for it. In a civilization based on Buddhism many changes took place.
Mihintalava, as time went on, developed into a sacred precinct, a complete Vihara consisting of Stupas, Uposathagharas, Bodhigharas, Patimagharas, surrounded by Avasas.
Caves for the residence of Bhikkhus who visited Sri Lanka as well as for Bhikkhus who entered the Buddha Sasana were found on the mountains of Mihintale, east of Anuradhapura. These were built on the advice of Elder Mahinda.
It was on his advice that parks like Mahameghavana and mountain abodes like Cetiyapabbata were donated to the community of Sangha. These simple abodes meant to suit the life of a Bhikkhu. The advice of Mahinda Mahathera was very useful. The caves found near the Kantaka Cetiya at Mihintale are considered to be the earliest examples of Buddhist architecture of Sri Lanka.
In finding abodes for the Bhikkhus, the Architects were also concerned about the environment. They took special care to protect the landscape, the trees, the rocks and the water springs in the vicinity. The first lesson that we learn from Elder Mahinda was to lead a life in harmony with the environment. The caves and abodes found at Mihintale in a rocky forest are good examples in this respect.
Besides caves, comfortable dwellings were among the kind of dwellings avowed by the Buddha for the use of the Bhikkhus. The Prasada, the abode built by the Commander Dighasanda for the use of Elder Mahinda at Anuradhapura, was such an abode. A Prasada, according to Mahavamsa was a building raised high on the ground with a stone railing and well-built walls. The word Prasada is also applicable to the abodes of royalty as well as of the nobility.
This is a refectory of the Parivena, the cells or Kutis. The monastic residences therefore seem to have been quite similar to the architectural designs of the higher classes of the laity. The Ratnaprasada at Anuradhapura is an example. The earlier Bhikkhus who were residing at Mihintale preferred to live in cave abodes rather than in Prasadas. The caves thus prepared for living are architecturally interesting.
The idea of utilising stone for building and making rock abodes for Bhikkhus was similarly introduced from India as part of the Mauryan culture of King Asoka.
The artifical improvements made to the caves were mainly a drip- line cut along the brow. This was to prevent rainwater flowing into the cave. Some caves were provided with an outer wall in front and covered by a lean roof in order to protect it from rain and sun. A window and a door were also fixed to the cave in order to create a simple abode.
When religious activities at Mihintale began to develop, the necessity to provide the Aramas, the monasteries, Sannipatasalas the Assembly Halls, Uposathagharas, the chapter houses, Vedahal, the hospitals, Jantagharas, the bath houses and ponds also became imperative. Such buildings, suitable for a religious life, were abundantly found at Mihintale.
The buildings associated with monastic life are found at the foot of the mountain near the flight of steps and facing the Lion Bath near Kantaka Cetiya. The Assembly Hall at the middle plateau is a simple but charming artistic creation: the seat at the middle of this building is meant for the chief monk of the monastery. The Alms Hall, too, is an important building. It is also architecturally impressive.
The courtyard of this building was used for such activities as cooking, serving food and providing water. Important utensils still seen there are the boat for providing gruel and another for providing rice. The hospital and the Alms Hall had a middle courtyard while the Assembly Hall had no such courtyard but a square building. The main feature of all these buildings was the presence of stone columns to support the roof.
There are several important features of this quadrangular hospital consisting of two sections. It has a central courtyard. This was used for a shrine room and around it were arranged rows of cells on all four sides. This site which faced south was laid out most symmetrically as an oblong, measuring laterally 118 feet 6 inches from west to east by 97 feet 6 inches in depth north and south.
This permitted the quadrated sides on east, west and north being divided up by cross brick walls into a range of seven cells on either hand - the two end rooms double the length of any of the mediate five - and nine cells in the rear. To the front the entrance passage occupied the central position limiting the number of rooms to four on each side of it. The rooms all faced inwards towards the central shrine. Each chamber was ten feet square; the narrow verandah ran all round their inner face.
Many of the basic features of an Ayurvedic Hospital are found in this hospital. The features of this hospital also disclose that treatment was necessary for a patient not only for the body but also for the mind. Thus, mental health care was also a feature of local treatment. This is suggested by the importance given to the shrine room in the Central Courtyard.
Among the ponds, the Naga Pokuna and the Kaludiya Pokuna are worthy of description. The Naga Pokuna is a natural rock basin in an elevated plateau at the foot of a hillock. The Kaludiya Pokuna is designed to look like a natural pond but it is in fact an artificial pool. The Naga Pokuna has followed the shape of the natural rock. It has a beautiful piece of sculpture of the Five-headed Cobra in the low relief on the rock face. The Lion Bath below it was supplied water from the Naga Pokuna.
Health care was one of the main considerations of the architects who designed the Monastic Complex at Mihintale. This is well illustrated by the presence of an irrigational network, hospitals, lavatories and the protection of the natural environment. Archaeological exacavations have brought to light the extent to which ancient Sri Lankans were concerned about hygienic conditions.
Even urine was to be purified through the use of pots before it was allowed to be absorbed into the soil. Sand and charcoal were used for this purpose. This was done also to protect the life of the creatures under the earth, which the disciplinary rules of a monk demanded. So strict was the disciplinary life of a Bhikkhu that even the lavatory stones were decoratated in the hope that this will help the meditating monk to be detached from wordly life.
A very clear and precise example of an Ancient Monastic Complex is found at Kaludiya Pokuna at Mihintale. The buildings erected at different levels by the side of the pool, allowing the natural environment to remain undisturbed, made a perfect abode for the meditating Bhikkhu. This architectural feature should illustrate amply the condition of aramic planning in ancient Sri Lanka.
The earliest Buddhist architecture in India pre-dates Sri Lankan Buddhist architecture only by a few decades.
When Devanampiyatissa embraced Buddhism, he huilt the religious edifices in the Royal Capital Anuradhapura and in Mihintale. The first Stupa built in this island according to the Great Chronicle is the Thuparama at Anuradhapura.
The earliest reference to this effect comes from the second century B.C. when the Chronicle says that King Lanjitissa carried repairs to the Kantaka Cetiya.
This is sufficient proof to suggest that this Stupa was built either during the reign of Devanampiyatissa in the 3rd century B.C. or somewhere close to that date by a king who succeeded immediately to the Sinhala throne. It is also said that King Uttiya, the brother of King Devanampiyatissa, built a Stupa on the summit of Mihintale enshrining the ashes of the Elder Mahinda.
Therefore, this Stupa is one of the earliest of the type to be built in Sri Lanka. The necessary guidance and instruction for the construction of such Stupas at the begining were given to the first Sinhala Buddhist king at Anuradhapura by the Mahathera himself, based on the experience he gained in India by watching the Stupas constructed by his father at Vidisa. Therefore, we can conclude that the earliest form of the Stupas at Anuradhapura and Mihintale were the same in form as that of the monuments at Sanci, the oldest examples in India.
According to Paranavitana encircling the Stupa is a second processional path enclosed by a massive balustrade (vedika). The summit of the dome is surmounted by pedestal (harmika), surrounded by a stone railing, from which rose a stone shaft supporting a stone umbrella (Chattra) or a series of umbrellas (chattravali). The outer balustrade of stone had four entrances at which were ornamental gateways (toranas) subsequently added.
About relic chambers of the ancient Stupas, a fine example of such a chamber is found at Mihintale, now known as the unknown - unidentified Dagaba. The structural features of this Stupa very much correspond to the Stupas found at Topavava and Sigiriya.
The Stupa at Mihintale, too, had three relic chambers. Paranavitana has given details of these in the section dealing with the "Precincts of a Stupa". In that relic chamber was a square stone slab depicting the cosmic mountain Mahameru. The reason for depositing such a stone in the relic chamber as believed by art historians was to show that the Stupa represented the cosmic world.
Attention is also drawn to the architectural feature of great Stupas called the Vahalkadas or the frontispieces. Many of the larger Stupas at Anuradhapura and elsewhere have at their cardinal points and facing the gateways, projections known as Vahalkadas. In most of the Stupas the architectural feature is in ruins but the Vahalkada feature at the Kantaka Cetiya at Mihintale remains comparatively somewhat well preserved.
The early Sinhalese inscriptions refer to this feature as Caturaayaka. Therefore, ayaka means a vahalkada, another name for the same sturcture. This terminology also helps us to understand the purpose of this architectural feature. Paranavitana has shown us that the Pali term ayaga has the meaning of respect or puja and the Stupa represents the cosmic mountain Mahameru and the Vahalkadas on its four faces. The Vahalkada features of these ancient Stupa monuments are important from the point of view of Buddhist sculptural art.
Another feature of Sinhala architecture is a Cetiyaghara, the feature of which is a Stupa in the concentric circles of monolithic pillars. They are called Vata-da-ges in Sinhala meaning circular relic houses. The earliest examples of this type of building come from Thuparama in Anuradhapura. Later examples are found in Medirigiriya and Polonnaruwa.
The inner circles of stone pillars no doubt sustained a roof over the Stupa to form a house that gave shelter to a Cetiya. The Stupa called Silacetiya at Ambasthala in Mihintale is also a Cetiyaghara. This may be the Cetiyaghara built by Kanittha Tissa in the 2nd century. This Stupa is of modest dimensions, having a diameter of only 29 feet at the base, and it stands on a stone-paved cirular platform 97 feet in diameter. Around the Stupa are two concentric circles of octagonal pillars.
The pillars in both circles are of the same height, namely 14 feet including the capitals; but as the platform level on which they were set up gradually rises as it approaches the base of the Stupa, the tops of the pillars in the inner circle are at a few inches higher level than those of the second. The capitials are flat at the top, none of them have pads or tenons like those at Thuparama.
The local artists were clever enough to adopt ideas borrowed from India creatively. The Stupas, the Cetiyagharas, and the Vahalkadas are clear examples of such creativity.
According to the inscription of Mahinda IV at Mihintale, there was not only a relic house at Mihintale in the 9th and 10th centuries but also a huge image house with a colossal stone image of the Buddha, a Bodhighara and a deistic shrine.
Sculptures, reliquaries and Buddha statues
The gold and clay reliquaries, and gold statues of Buddha discovered in the relic chambers, Buddha statues of stone, statues of Bodhisattvas, kings, the sculptures of the Vahalkadas, Guardstones, Naga stones, Makara Balustrades, Purnaghatas (full pots), and many other forms of sculpture comprise this category.
"A relic casket of polished blank earthenware of a type hitherto unknown - either in Sri Lanka or India - was among the objects discovered. The casket is cylindrical in shape, is 5 3/8 in. in height, and 2 7/8 in. in diameter at the base.
It is formed of three pieces, fitting one to the other, the uppermost to serve as the lid and the other two forming two separate compartments. The relic casket constitutes the most important specimen of ceramic art so far found in Sri Lanka. In the upper compartment was a reliquary of thin gold foil measuring 1 3/4 in. in height and 1 9/16 in. in diameter at the base.
This is made in the shape of an old miniature Stupa. The dome is bubbulakara or the bubble shaped and above it is the harmika surmounted by a chhatra or the umbrella.
By the side of the umbrella shaft is the Yupa projecting above the harmika. Inside the reliquary were found fragments of bone and a small quantity of ash.
In the other compartment again was found a miniature reliquary in the shape of a Stupa without the chhatra. This type of Stupa reproduces the earliest Stupa known in India at Sanci. Therefore, it could be safely concluded that this reliquary dates from about 3rd or 2nd century B.C.
The niche on the western side contained a bronze Buddha image with traces of gilding, 5 3/4 in. in height, seated in the dhyana mudra.
It is counted among the most artistic Buddha image made in metal. Two other images of the Buddha measuring 2 in. and 2 1/4 in. in height were also found in the floor. The style of the Buddha images indicated a date somewhere in the 7th or 8th century.
There are several theories about the origin of the Buddha statue and its worship. There are a few scholars who think that the Buddha image originated in Sri Lanka. The reason for such an assumption is a statement found in the Mahavamsa that a Buddha image was made in the reign of Devanampiyatissa.
But this is not in the account of that monarch's reign. Paranavitana categorically rejects such theories. Even in places like Sanci and Bharhut, the Buddha is represented by symbols such as the wheel of law, seat of enlightenment and the footprint.
Even in the earliest period in Sri Lanka, the Buddha was symbolically represented by Asana the seat and the Siripatula the footprint. The Gandhara and Matura Buddha images do not pre-date the Christian era. The earliest Buddha images found in Sri Lanka may go back to the first century of the present era.
The sculptures of the Vahalkada (The frontpieces of the Stupas)
Among the earliest sculptural art are those which adorn the stelae of the Vahalkadas or frontispieces of the large size stupas of the early period.
Examples for these are found in places like Kantaka Cetiya at Mihintale, Dakkhina Stupa, Ruwanvalisaya, Mirisavatiya (now collapsed and re-built), Abhayagiriya and Jetavana Stupa at Anuradhapura.
The material used for these sculptures is limestone of a coarse-grained variety which is not very durable.
Stylistically these scuptures exhibit the influence of the sculptures of Amaravati, Nagarjunakonda and Jaggayapeta, and belong to a period between the second and the fourth centuries.
However, the sculptures of the eastern and western Vahalkadas of the Kantaka Cetiya are different from the above both stylistically and in subject matter. The carvings on the stelate are in an archaic style which reminds us of the sculptures of Bharhut and Sanci.
The faces of the stelae are divided into a number of square panels by the bead and reel pattern, or by semi-circular lines. In the square panels are motifs such as the elephant, a decorated vase with leaves and flowers issuing from it, a peacock with young and a palmette design.
The Vahalkadas are of brick construction. However, the lower portion of the faces are of limestone. The stonework of the eastern and southern frontispieces are in a good state of preservation.
The Vahalkadas of Kantaka Cetiya are profusely ornamented. On the cornice below the topmost one is a frieze of ganas (the dwarfs) and on the one further below is a fieze of hamsas (geese). The brickwork above the facing contains arched niches between plasters.
In these niches were the images of deities made of stucco or terracotta. Some of these images are still seen in position though they are not well preserved. These and the whole structure of the Vahalkadas were originally painted.
The stelae at the Kantaka Cetiya are surmounted by figures of animals facing the four sides. The elephant faces the eastern side, while the lion, horse and the bull face and northern, western and southern sides respectively. These figures of animals are believed to symbolize the four quarters.
The friezes of ganas mentioned above are interesting from the religious point of view. Many of those figures are portrayed in varous attitudes.
Particularly interesting is an elephant headed Gana with tusk attended by other ganas. If this is considered to be the figure of Ganapati then, according to Alice Getty, it can be the oldest figure of this god ever discovered.
The relic casket of polished black earthenware which was discovered in the unknown Stupa at Mihintale is the oldest and also the most important specimen of ceramic art so far found in Sri Lanka. This casket, which is cylindrical in shape, is formed of three pieces. It is believed to be a relic casket brought to Sri Lanka from India in the 3rd or 2nd Century B.C.
The moonstones, balustrades, and guardstones that adorn the doorstep of ancient monastic buildings are important pieces of sculptural art. The examples of these at Mihintale belong to several stages of its evolution. These examples undoubtedly help us to understand the history of art in Sri Lanka.
The moonstone which is called Sandakada pahana in Sinhalese is a semi-circular slab of stone at the beginning of a flight of steps which lead to the ancient monuments and in particular to the religious buildings.
This sculptural element is also referred to as patika in Pali literature as well as in the Mahavamsa. The Samantapasadika explains the word patika by calling it a half moon shaped stone, the addha-canda-pasana which in Sinhala is called Sandakada pahana.
The two sides of the entrance to these religious or secular buildings were decorated with guardstones flanked by a pair of balustrades plain at the beginning but later decorated. The beginning of these so-called guardstones or muragal as they are known in Sinhala, was a pair of dressed rectangular slabs of stone with no sculptures on it.
The earliest of these were shaped archwise at the top and remained rectangular at the base both in plan and elevation. This was achieved by chiselling off the corners of the rectangular slab of stone. At the next stage of its development the shape at the top was made more elaborate by raising its centre smoothly to a point at the apex. The first attempt at decorating the guardstone is seen with the sculptural design of a purnaghata (Sinh: punkalasa) a full pot with lotus buds or flowers which symbolises prosperity.
It appears that this idea "arose out of the concept of placing a symbol of luck at the entrance to a building. In some instances a solid rock is cut into a form of a full pot and placed at the two sides of the entrances as a pot of plenty. Examples for these are seen at the site of the Indikatusaya monastery and in the full pot decorated slabs of stones at the monastic buildings near the beginning of the flight of steps to the Mihintale mountain.
The pair of balustrades that join the guardstones at the entrance were simple slabs of stone with no decoration at the start but later like the guardstones and the moonstones, became elaborate and decorative. Examples for this development also can be observed at Mihintale.
A complete Naga guardstone has seven cobra-hoods, the flowering spring, the pot of plenty and the dwarfs, and the naga king. The flowers of the sprig are stylized and those on the pot rise tier over tier. The arch above these figures is profusely sculptured with figures of double makara heads.
The Sinha Pokuna or the the Lion Pond is described as a handsome specimen of bold artistic work of its kind in granite to be found anywhere in the country. The water from the mountain is brought down to discharge through the open mouth of the standing lion. The faces of the pond above the lion figure are decorated with sculptures depicting dancers, musicians, elephants, lions and wrestlers, which are great works of artistic quality.
A student of classical Sinhala paintings will find ample material in places such as Sigiriya, Hindagala, Polonnaruwa, Dambulla, etc., but he should not forget that the best samples of traditional Buddhist paintings are found in the relic chambers of ancient Stupas.
Though such examples are not plentiful, the few available in places like Mihintale and Mahiyangana are very important and useful.
When the unknown Stupa at Mihintale was excavated in 1951 archaeologists discovered paintings executed in two of the walls of a Relic Chamber in this Stupa. Paranavitana who carried out the excavation found these paintings artistically interesting and wrote as follows :
The paintings depict divine beings among clouds which have cut off the lower parts of their bodies. The figures have been sketched in outline only, red and black being the pigments used, but are of high artistic quality indicating that the artist possessed skill in draughtsmanship, a subtle sense of form and an understanding of the principales of balanced composition.
Against a possible contention that what we see in the chamber are all that the artists intended to complete, and that the paintings are impressionistic sketches is the presence of vertical line dividing each scene into two-line which must have been drawn by the artist as an aid to balance grouping of the figures.
It can be said with certainty that the culture and art of Sri Lanka differ from those of mainland India solely because of Buddhism which generated free thought and expression in the lifestyle and the social organisation of the Sinhalese.
The indigenous thought and experience helped to develop what is known as Sinhala-Buddhist Art. The art forms that were very simple in the beginning began to grow in complexity as time went on.
"When we say that the culture and art (of Sri Lanka) form one aspect of the great culture and art of India, we do not mean that the works of art one would see in Sri Lanka are a mere repetition of what one would have seen in some parts or other of the Indian subcontinent.
The basic conceptions on which the ancient artists worked in Sri Lanka are the same as those which held good for their compeers in India, the methods and techniques are very often the same.
Motifs are found which are identical here as well as there; but at the same time certain characteristic features of early Indian art, which have undergone no development there, have been given much importance in Sinhalese art, and undergone evolution through a long period of time.
Similarly, some of the later developments in Indian Art - developments which have stamped the art of certain regions of the peninsula with an individuality - did not influence the course of artistic evolution among the Sinhalese".
The above statement by the late Senarat Paranavitana finds ample support in the ruins of Mihintale - the birthplace of the culture of the Sinhala people.
Mihintalava Mountain, the rocky citadel of Buddhism, is situated 13 km east of the city of Anuradhapura, or 226 km from Colombo.
This rocky citadel is an important place of pilgrimage for the Buddhist, who ascend the picturesque line of stone steps leading to the hallowed 'aradhana-gala' at the summit. These steps, numbering 1,084, so splendidly carved with great skill, indicate the work of superb constructional engineering. Seeing this line of steps a European once remarked "So wonderful to look at, it appears as if leading to Heaven".
Poson brings pleasant recollections of the heyday of Buddhism in Anuradhapura the capital of Devanampiyatissa and in Pataliputra, the capital of Asoka. Asoka's son Mahinda had given up a promising career in the Royal court of his father and joined the Order of Bhikkhu Sangha. His father's brother had done the same. Asoka's daughter Sanghamitta had made a similar decision to join the Order of Bhikkhunis.
History of Mihintalava
The Sinhala civilisation dawned at Mihintalava known as Mihintalava today. As reported in our Chronicles it was 2311 years ago or say two hundred and thirty six years after the passing away or parinirvana of the Buddha on a bright full-moon day of the month of Poson, that Arahant Mahinda with his companions visited this island.
He appeared on the Missaka mountain at Mihintalava bringing with him the sublime teachings of Gautama Buddha. It was after this event that the Sinhalese people who lived in this island of Sri Lanka received a way of life and a philosophy for life.
The long and proud journey of the civilisation of the Sinhalese people thus began on the summit of the Missaka mountain which is now called Mihintalava. This is in fact a unique incident in the annals of mankind.
It was due to this unique event that Sri Lanka became the centre of Theravada Buddhism and Buddhist civilisation.
The story of the advent of Elder Mahinda and his companions to Sri Lanka is chronicled in the Dipavamsa, Mahavamsa and also in Samantapasadika, the commentary on Vinaya.
After the Third Great Council held at Pataliputra under the distinguished patronage of Asoka the Venerable Moggaliputtatissa Mahathera having observed that the noble teachings of Buddha would take root in the neighbouring kingdoms, sent missionaries to those countries in the month of Kattika (October-November).
Accordingly Mahinda and his companions Istiya, Uttiya, Sambala and Bhadrasala were sent to Sri Lanka with the request that they should go to this island and establish the Buddhist dispensation there.
Having spent a month in the city of Vedisa the Thera of great miraculous power on the Uposatha day of the month of Jettha (May-June) rose to the air from the monastery with the four Theras Sumana and Bhanduka the two laymen also came along with the Theras and stood on the Sila-peak in the noble and lovely Ambastala of the beautiful Missaka mountain.
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