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 Post subject: Architecture and landscape in ancient and medieval Lanka
 Post Posted: Sun Jun 25, 2006 2:00 am 
Architecture and landscape in ancient and medieval Lanka

Even in their ruined state, the ancient buildings display a rich variety of architectural forms. There were more than 25 styles in the panchavasa monasteries. There were multiple designs for vatadage and bodhighara. There were various types of roofs. The door frames also had many designs. Architects and archaeologists say that the ancient buildings consisted of a timber frame made from massive pieces of wood, strongly bound with heavy iron nails and clamps, with plastered walls and tiled roofs.

The ancient Sinhalese excelled in garden design. The Anuradhapura period produced not one but two planned gardens. They were at Sigiriya (fifth century) and Ran Masu Uyana (10th century). Sigiriya is one of the oldest landscaped gardens in the world.


by Kamalika Pieris
@ The Island


Our monastic structures are buildings that any country anywhere in the world would be proud to claim as their own," says the respected architect Ashley de Vos. So, let us start by looking at the Buddhist architecture of Sri Lanka. Cave temples with rudimentary living facilities have been found all over the island. The earliest are at Mihintale. These caves had a drip ledge (katarama) carved along the top edge of the rock ceiling to stop rain water running into the cave. This drip ledge is unique to Sri Lanka. Doors, windows and walls of brick or stone were added later. The roof and walls were plastered white and finished with decorative paintings. The chipped material of the rock was packed underneath the clay finished floor.

Dambulla and Situlpahuwa had more than 80 caves in each complex. Kaludiya Pokuna, Mihintale has a cave temple with brick walls, granite windows, and ceilings. Kiri oya region in Sigiriya has a cave with postholes that indicated a wooden platform. Another cave had lime plaster remains on its roof. Similar caves could be seen at Aukana and Arankele as well. Gal vihara (Polonnaruwa) and Dambulla temple are cave temples that were later converted to image houses.

The dagobas (stupa) are distinctive for many reasons. They are probably the largest brick structures known to the pre-modern world. Demala Maha Seya, which was never completed, had a circumference of 2011 feet. Jetavana is the largest stupa constructed in any part of the world. It is over 120 metres in height and has a diameter of 367 feet. The foundations are 28 feet deep. It needed bricks that could bear the load of 368 pounds. Jetavana was the third tallest building in the ancient world. Abhayagiri (370 feet) ranked fifth and Ruvanvelisaya (300 feet) came seventh. The first, second, fourth and sixth places were held by the pyramids.

The construction of a dagoba was considered an act of great merit. Dagobas were built to enshrine relics. They were constructed according to strict specifications. Entrances to stupa were laid out so that their centre lines pointed to the relic chambers. There was only one relic chamber initially, but a number of additional relic chambers were introduced when the stupas were rebuilt.

The dagoba is admired today for its structural perfection and stability. Engineers who examined Jetavana in the 1980s said that its shape was ideal for the materials used. Stupas such as Jetavanarama, Abhayagiri, Ruvanveli and Mirisavati were initially in the shape of a paddy heap. Other shapes such as the bubble, pot and bell developed later. It is suggested that the stupa at Nadigamvila digamvila was in the shape of an onion. An ornamented vahalkada was added to the stupa around the second century. The four vahalkadas face the cardinal points. They are ornamented with figures of animals, flowers, swans and dwarfs. The pillars on either side of the vahalkada carry figures of lions, elephants, horses or bulls, depending on the direction of the structure. The earliest vahalkada is at Chaitya.

Allthreemajor stupasin Anuradhapura sit on bedrock, about 14 feetbelow.According tothe Mahavamsa, the fissures were filled in with stones that were stamped down by elephants, whose feet were bound with leather. These were constructed entirely of brick. Bricks of different sizes were fitted neatly together. The stupas did not have vertical or horizontal joints. 38 million bricks were needed for Ruvanveli, 54 million for Abhayagiri and 62 million for Jetavana. The bricks were of exceptional quality. In the 1980s, the Jetavana bricks and the modern bricks were compared. The Jetavana brick had 60 per cent load bearing fine sand, with 35 per cent clay. The modern brick had 30 per cent sand and 65 per cent clay. The Jetavana brick was better blended and larger, and both hands were needed to lift it. The modern brick was lighter and needed only one hand to lift it. The Jetavana brick could take a load of 621 pounds per square inch. The modern brick started to crack at 265 pounds.

The bricks were bonded together using a clay slurry, called butter clay (navanita mattika). This was composed of finely crushed dolomite lime stone mixed with sieved sand and clay. This clay was pliable and could accommodate any movement within the structure, unlike a hard unyielding mortar The load was thus transmitted from one brick directly to another and not through an intermediary mortar layer. One side of the brick was left rough so that the clay slurry could be trapped in its crevices, providing an adhesion that prevented any lateral movement.

The stupa was thereafter covered with a coating of lime plaster. This was sometimes ten inches thick. There was a range of plasters, using different combinations of materials. The items used included lime, clay, sand, pebbles, crushed seashells, sugar syrup, white of egg, coconut water, plant resin, drying oil, glues and possibly even the saliva of the white ants. Some of these items are mentioned in the Mahavamsa. The fine plaster at Kiri vehera, (2nd century) used small pebbles. Crushed seashells mixed with lime and sand were used in the stupas of the fifth to twelfth centuries. Expensive plasters were used sparingly, for specific purposes such as water proofing.

Stupas in other countries have been struck by lightning, but not in Sri Lanka. Mahavamsa speaks of lightening protection for the stupa. The conical metal cap and its vajra at the top of the dagoba were supposed to have earthing properties. The Mahavamsa also refers to laying a sheet of copper over the foundation and applying arsenic dissolved in sesamum oil on this sheet. This would have kept out white ants and helped prevent plant life growing inside the stupa.

The construction of a dagoba needed much labour and time. Jetavana would have taken about 15 years to build. It is argued that 100 brick makers, 55 masons, 55 help hands and 25 carts would have been able to do the job, according to present day calculations. Lifting was probably done by chains of labourers. At Dedigama, there are abandoned earth ramps and brick steps leading to the top of the dome, which could have been used for this. The work may have been done by successive groups of people. At the Rankot vihare, Polonnaruwa, there was a layer of lime mortar after every twenty-three layers of brick, possibly to water proof the brickwork at the end of one season of work. The unfinished stupas at Polonnaruwa, Dedigama and Yudaganawa, had small heaped up bricks in the form of a miniature stupa at the centre of the last completed course. This may have indicated the end of a stage of work.

The vatadage is considered to be Sri Lanka’s most perfect and exquisite creation. It is a circular shrine enclosing a small dagoba. Polonnaruwa, Medirig-iriya and Tiriyaya vatadages still have their circles of slender, graceful pillars. The vatadage roof was of a sophisticated design unique to Sri Lanka. It was a three-tiered conical roof, spanning a height of 40-50 feet, without a centre post, and supported by pillars of diminishing height. The weight was taken by a ring beam supported on the inner row of stone columns. The radiating rafters met in a cartwheel like design. A diagram of this vatadage roof can be seen at the National Museum, Colombo.

The best examples of bodhighara are in Sri Lanka. The bodhighara at Nillakgama in Kurunegala district (8th century) was the first to be identified. Paranavitane considered it to be the only well preserved example of this type of shrine in Buddhist countries. It was "somewhat in the original form". Thereafter 38 more bodhigharas were found in Sri Lanka. The Bodhighara is a shrine enclosing a bodhi tree. This shrine consists of two platforms, with the tree on the upper platform. It had a roof that was neither circular nor square. A drawing by Ashley de Vos, showing what a bodhighara would have looked like appears in Viskam. There were many different designs for the bodhighara. Roland Silva’s monograph on religious architecture in early and medieval Sri Lanka has illustrations of these.

The brick shrine with vaulted roof as seen in Polonnaruwa at Thuparama, Lankatilaka and Tivanka Pilimage is also considered unique to Sri Lanka. Paranavitana says that these buildings have no exact parallel elsewhere in the Buddhist world. Specially shaped bricks of a fine texture have been used for the vertical mouldings at the entrance at Lankatilaka. The joints between the bricks are so fine that not even the point of a penknife can be inserted into the joints. The Thuparama is almost intact today and gives us some idea of the manner in which the vaulted roof was created. The principles of the true arch were known, but the horizontal arch was considered a safer method of construction.

The meditation houses found in the forest monasteries such as Ritigala and Arankele are unique to Sri Lanka. Each house consists of two raised platforms, linked to each other by a monolithic stone bridge. An elevated terrace and a boundary wall, with four entrances, complete the unit. The outer platform is open to the sky. It was larger and higher than the inner platform. The inner platform was on a natural rock and enclosed by a moat. There has been a building on it. The stone pillars which supported a roof can still be seen. There are couches on either side of a doorway. There is no ornamentation.

These meditation houses have achieved a very high degree of perfection in their architecture. The design combined square and rectangular shapes. It is not easy to match such conflicting forms and yet maintain symmetry. The architect has to know geometry. There was also a very high standard of stone masonry. The basements of these buildings were constructed of monumental blocks of stone, cut to different sizes, carefully dressed and very finely fitted together. The bridge connecting the two platforms was formed out of a single slab of stone. Some slabs were 15 feet by 13 feet. The sides are cut with such precision that the joints between this slab and the stone moulding of the platforms are hardly perceptible.

The nine-storied Loha maha paya (3rd century BC) would have been an elegant building. It had an exposed wooden frame supported on stone pillars. It was plastered in white, with shining copper roof tiles and a pinnacle at its apex. It had lightening conductors (chumbakam) made of amber and tourmaline. Its rafters were made of talipot palm. It rose up to a height of 162 feet and had approximately 179,316 square feet of floor space. It could seat 9000 monks. Roland Silva remarked in 1984 that such an extensive floor space would stagger the designers in Sri Lanka "even today". He also pointed out that the height of the Loha maha paya was only 50 feet less than the People’s Bank, which at one time was the tallest building in Colombo.

Even in their ruined state, the ancient buildings display a rich variety of architectural forms. There were more than 25 styles in the panchavasa monasteries. There were multiple designs for vatadage and bodhighara. There were various types of roofs. The door frames also had many designs. Architects and archaeologists say that the ancient buildings consisted of a timber frame made from massive pieces of wood, strongly bound with heavy iron nails and clamps, with plastered walls and tiled roofs. The dominant element in these buildings, they say, was the tiled roof supported by timber beams and rafters. The roofs had tiles from as early as the third century BC. There were red, white, yellow, turquoise and brown tiles. There were bronze tiles as well.

The temple complexes were well planned. In the Alahana pirivena complex at Polonnaruwa, the image house and stupa were built on high ground. The sloping area, which was terraced, held the other buildings such as the residential quarters of monks. A person entering through the gateway had a full view of Lankatilaka, which dominated the group.

Though our monasteries look as though they lack a layout, they do have a layout. The Manjusri vasthu vidya sastra manuscript gives the basis on which this layout constructed. The text is in Sanskrit but written in Sinhala script. Words such as navadada for nine indicate that the text is Sinhala as well. E. W. Marasinghe dates it to about fifth or sixth century AD at the latest. It is exclusively on Buddhist monasteries and is clearly from the Mahayana school. Marasinghe says that the text shows much originality and there is nothing similar in the existing Indian treatises, which deal only with Hindu temples.

The text gives 12 different arama layouts, with two alternatives for each, totalling 24 layouts in all. Each layout is contained within a grid. The layouts carry names like hastiarama, and padmarama. Pabbata vihara monasteries followed the hastiarama model. There are different layouts for different settings depending on whether the monastery is in a town, village, royal park, near a river, by the sea, in the middle of a forest, by a highway and so on. There is provision for placing the entrances north, south, east, or west, but there were conditions for this. In each layout, not only the religious buildings, but also the assembly hall, flower pavilion, dancing hall, hospital, refectory and kitchen had specific positions which fitted into certain sequences. Monasteries therefore had a very "architectural layout". The various buildings were placed in relation to each other, though on different levels.

There were specifications for nearly everything. The Manjusri text advised on site selection, discussed soil properties and gave procedures for soil testing. It suggested suitable trees for each monastic layout. It gives advice on the preparation and application of glues, pigments and pastes, and on the carving of elephants and horses, indicating the correct proportions of these animals. It even gives instructions on how to obtain measurements using the plumb line. There were auspicious times, auspicious materials and auspicious lengths. There were rituals relating to certain important stages in the construction. The first brick was to be laid by the architect, suitably clothed, facing east. The doors should open inward for good results. If images were incorrectly placed, the patron’s life and health would be affected.

Five royal residences have been identified. They are Vijayabahu’s palace in the inner city at Anuradhapura, the palaces of Nissanka Malla and Parakramabahu in Polonnaruwa, the palace of Sugala in Galabadda (Udundora) in the Uva province, and Parakramabahu’s palace in Panduvasnuvara near Hettipola, when he was ruling over Malaya rata.

They all had the same ground plan. Each was set in a rectangular area enclosed by galleries with an entrance from the east. A spacious courtyard in front acted as a sitting not allowed reception room. A flight of steps led to a central building where there was an imposing pillared hall with a dais at the end. Around the royal complex were over fifty small cells, in two or three rows. The hall in Nissanka Malla’s palace was 133 feet by 63 feet. The floors of the upper storey in Parakramabahu’s palace were of concrete. Panduwasnuwara palace had good provision for ventilation and there were soakage pits for drainage.

There was a palace on top of the Sigiriya rock as well. The outlines of the total layout and several detailed features can yet be seen. There was an upper palace that ran parallel to the lower one, but at a much higher elevation. It had a viewing gallery. The innermost royal abode, which was originally a storeyed structure, had a magnificent 360 degree view of the city gardens and countryside below. There was a series of successive courtyards, chambers, and terraces connected by stairs and paved pathways. My view is that this could not have been the seat of government. With all those ponds, gardens and terraces, security would have been a problem.

Polonnaruwa also has the remains of two magnificent audience halls. They are the public audience halls of Parakramabahu and council chamber of Nissanka Malla. Parakramabahu’s council chamber was a three-tiered oblong structure built on a broad terrace, facing north, and consisted of an entrance provided with two flights of steps, having a gangway in between at ground level. The pillars in the council halls at Polonnaruwa are square at the bottom, octagonal in the middle and square again at the top.

Kumara pokuna in Polonnaruwa provides one of the best examples of the construction of a royal bath. A flight of long narrow steps led to a oblong shaped pond that had graduated gangways. The water was conducted by underground pipelines from the canal nearby and led into the bath by two makara gargoyles. A stone water lock acted as water locking valve and an exit for used water. There is also the ruins of the changing room.

Some idea of hospital architecture could be inferred from the monastic hospitals at Mihintale and Polonnaruwa. This hospital plan can be seen at the National Museum, Colombo. There was an inner and outer court and the rectangular inner court had a series of cells, toilets and bath, with an exit at one end. One cell had a medicinal bath. Alahena had long dormitories instead of cells. The outer court accommodated a refectory, a hot water bath, storerooms and dispensary. A wall cordoned off the hospitals. The provision of two open courts in addition to windows ensured maximum ventilation and free circulation of air within the building itself.

A house dated to 450 BC, built of warichchi has emerged near Kirindi oya. Another has been found at Adalla, Wirawila. Valagampattu has produced evidence of houses dating from 50 AD to 400 AD. The kitchen utensils are still there. In medieval times, the rich had large houses built of stone, mortar and lime, with tiled roofs and whitewashed walls. There were rooms and apartments with doors and windows. The windows had fanlights. The doors had keys, locks, and hinges. The houses had compounds or courtyards and balconies. There were separate rooms for pounding paddy, a storeroom or atuva for paddy, and sheds for keeping chariots. Latrines are also mentioned. All houses however had small kitchens.

There was an air cooling method in the ancient period. A dried buffalo skin was fixed above the roof of the building. Water dripped onto it from several pipes, creating the effect of rain and sending in a cooling breeze. Pictures on walls were changed according to the season; cooling pictures for the hot season and warming pictures for the cool season.

There were architects to attend to the built environment. A cave inscription refers to a "city architect". Building was done scientifically, using superior instruments. For example, some stone slabs were so precisely cut that the joints are hardly visible and nothing could be inserted between the slabs. Ashley de Vos points out that this would require sophisticated instruments even today. Lifting and placing of twenty feet long, slender stone slabs, would have needed knowledge of structural mechanics. De Vos also suggests that we may have had the first pre-fabricated buildings in the world. Some sections of the monastic buildings were prepared separately and then fitted together.

There was artistry in addition to technical finesse. This is illustrated in the elegantly executed stone pillars dating from the eighth century. They are in various designs. The lotus stalk pillars of the Nissankalatha mandapaya are unique in South Asian architecture. Cost was also taken into consideration. Lime mortar was used in brickwork only when there was a structural risk like a vault or an arch.

Builders worked with a variety of materials, such as brick, stone and wood. Corbelled and circular brick arches, vaults and domes were constructed. Rock faces were used as supporting walls for buildings. The platform carrying the mirror wall at Sigiriya and the brick flight of steps stand on steep rock. Around the sixth century, the builders had moved from limestone to the harder gneiss. The Hatadage in Polonnaruwa had walls that were constructed of stone to the height of the upper storey. The lowest step of an imposing granite stairway that led to the upper storey of Parakramabahu’s palace can still be seen. Roland Silva also speaks of the meticulous detailing in the leaf huts used by the forest monks of the 5th century AD.

It is important to note however that the ancient architecture was not stone architecture. The stone remains we see are misleading. It was primarily timber architecture, with mud or masonry walls. There were sophisticated wooden buildings from the 3rd century. Sigiriya had an elaborate gatehouse made of timber and brick masonry with multiple tiled roofs. The massive timber doorposts remaining today indicate this.

"The timber carried the load. Frames were made out of whole trunks of trees. The gatehouse at the eastern entrance to Anuradhapura built in the 4th century BC used whole trees. The palaces at Polonnaruwa and Panduwasnuwara show vertical crevices in the brickwork where wooden columns, consisting of entire trunks of trees, carried the load of the upper floors and roof. These openings still retain the spur stones upon which the wooden column once stood.

Manjusri silpa text carries methods for cutting and seasoning of wood. Mature trees were selected and cut in the new moon when the sugar content in timber was less and destructive woodborers are not attracted. The stone remains show that sound carpentry techniques were employed. The axe, adze and chisel were the common tools used in timber work. Saddharmarat-navali mentions two practices of carpentry. Oil was applied on timber to prevent decay, and heated to straighten it.

The ancient Sinhalese excelled in garden design. The Anuradhapura period produced not one but two planned gardens. They were at Sigiriya (fifth century) and Ran Masu Uyana (10th century). Sigiriya is one of the oldest landscaped gardens in the world. It has a layout "unequalled in India". It is an intricate, symmetrical layout, developed along a "beautifully identifiable grid". There were three types of gardens at Sigiriya, a water garden, a boulder garden and a terraced garden. These used the geometrical style, as well as the organic style.

The water garden at Sigiriya was planned on a grid along the main axis in the east west direction. Both sides followed the same plan, giving a mirror image design. Each quarter contained fountains, serpentine streams with moving water, and deep or shallow ponds. The ponds had brick walls and a brick paved base, plastered to form a clean waterproof surface. Shallow ponds had polished limestone slabs. Some ponds were paved with quartz and marble. Streams had limestone slabs and curbs. They were fed by an extensive network of underground conduits. There was a sophisticated drainage system with limestone cisterns as storage or pressure chambers. This water garden predates by about 300 years, the popular Persian garden style, known as char bagh where the garden is divided into quarters by water channels.

Garden layout was based on certain rules and principles. Some of this can be found in the chapter on the layout of gardens and lakes in the Culavamsa. These gardens had flowers and trees. The Culavamsa talks of jasmine, champika, asoka, thilaka, sala, mango, jambu, kadamba and the murmur of bees in the gardens of Parakramabahu. They had pavilions as well. Remains of royal pavilions dating around the ninth century can be seen at Magul Uyana near Tissa wewa, Anuradhapura. Parakramabahu’s garden had a mirror pavilion, a monara pavilion, and one decorated with ivory (sanimandapa).

There were island pavilions surrounded by water called sitala maligawa. There were ponds with lotuses. The royal gardens in Polonnaruwa had dozens of ponds in different shapes and sizes and they had names. Sigiriya had an octagonal pond. Polonnaruwa had one resembling the coils of a serpent and another like an open lotus. Kuttam pokuna in Anuradhapura had a graduated series of ponds going from shallow to deep. Essential facilities were not forgotten. The Nandana gardens had a large gleaming bathroom.

The ancient Sinhalese also excelled in landscape design. Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, and Sigiriya had landscaped areas. Landscaped monasteries covering many hundred hectares could be seen at Arankele, Mihintale, Ritigala, Situlpahuwa and Weherabandigala. Rock sites and hills were selected most of the time and the landscaping was designed in harmony with the natural environment. The caves and flights of steps at Rajagirilena kanda monastery illustrate this very well. At Aranakele and Ritigala, the land with its rock boulders and forest was kept undisturbed. There were sand paths marked with dressed kerbstones and axial paths neatly paved with well-fitted stones.

Conscious integration of rocks into landscape was a special feature in the Sri Lanka tradition. At Wessagiriya, boulders dominate. They were deliberately left in place and small caves were cut on some of the sides. The boulder garden at Sigiriya has several clusters of large natural boulders linked by winding pathways. Ranmasu Uyana too had a group of boulders neatly converted into a royal park with summer houses and baths.

Terraces were interesting. Kaludiya and Sigiriya are some of the finest examples of terrace landscaping. Kaludiya had terraces along the axial path, with built or rock cut steps and rubble retaining walls of dressed granite slabs. Rainwater was carefully channelled from terrace to terrace through gargoyles and led to the main pond. The terraces at Sigiriya have been created by the construction of a series of rubble retaining walls, each terrace rising above the other and running in a roughly concentric plan around the rock. Retaining walls were built across the existing natural boulders, creating new terraces. In all ancient landscape works, retaining walls have played an important role in creating an architectural landscape.

Water was an important element in the traditional landscape. Buildings were mostly located in relation to water. In some cases buildings were surrounded by water, or were constructed in water. Ponds such as the rock cut pool at Mihintale were often dug out of rock. The scientific knowledge developed in irrigation and water management would have been of great use in this.

The built environment also had to be considered in landscaping. At Sigiriya, the whole land was covered with buildings, terraces, and ponds, with arrangements to collect rainwater, and structures had to withstand stormy winds. Almost every rock or boulder has had a building or pavilion set on it. Boulder gardens would have had a set of tiled roofed buildings, all elaborately painted and decorated and linked by winding pathways, paved passages and stairways. It is suggested that these buildings too were planned in harmony with the natural setting.


The writings of M. B. Ariyapala, S. Bandaranayake, T. K. Nimal P. de Silva, Ashley de Vos, C. E. Godakumbura, L. K. Karunaratne, E. W. Marasinghe, S. Paranavitana, L. Prematilleke, Roland Silva, Raj Somadeva and Gamini Wijesuriya were used for this essay.


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