Wall paintings of Kataluwa: Art lover’s delight

The main image house of the Purvarama temple at Kataluwa
The main image house of the Purvarama temple at Kataluwa

The Southern part of Sri Lanka is dotted with exquisite Buddhist temples with long histories and unique features of colonial influences. Among these, a temple which has works from what is termed the Southern School, is the Purwarama temple of Kataluwa renowned for its marvellous wall paintings.

Although I have visited many Kandyan-period painting temples in the Central Province, I have rarely visited temples in the Southern Province which have works from what is termed the Southern School. One such temple is the Purwarama temple of Kataluwa. I have wanted to visit this temple at Kataluwa for a long time, as it is renowned for its marvellous wall paintings. I had an opportunity to visit it on my recent visit to Matara.

I reached the temple through a gravel road, having driven around two kilometres inland, passing Koggala. I never imagined I would come across the Purwarama temple of Kataluwa on this road. Not a single Bhikku was seen in the temple at the time we visited, and thickets covered the buildings and walls.

The temple was deserted, the doors of the image house were open, except for a pack of mangy dogs who greeted us when we entered. I wandered – and wondered in silence, amazed that so many tourists and pilgrims pass within a couple of kilometres of the temple without knowing its existence. The murals in the Purwarama temple at Kataluwa are a remarkable manifestation of the scope, content and evolution of indigenous paintings at the zenith of British colonial power in 19th century Sri Lanka.

One can only fully comprehend the Kataluwa murals if one views them in their contemporary context. By the time they were painted, Sri Lanka, and especially, its maritime provinces, had lived through 350 years of colonial rule by Portugal, then Holland, and finally Britain. Inevitably, contemporary artistic styles were strongly influenced by European standards and values, a trend clearly mirrored in the Kataluwa murals. The history of the Purwarama temple of Kataluwa dates from about 1840 and was founded by its chief incumbent monk, Venerable Kataluwa Gunaratana Thera. Its modest early structure, consisting of an image house and ante-room was later enlarged with the addition of a porch and a corridor which encircles it on all four sides. The murals, which would have taken three to four years to complete, were added between 1884 and 1886.

Walking around the temple premises, we first spotted a Chaitya and an arched-entrance with the carving of British insignia and a few carvings of lion figures. The four corners of the foundation podium of the main Chaitya has four miniature Chaityas. Having entered from this entrance, we stepped into the image house, about a metre and half above the lower terrace. Just as we entered the image house whose doors were kept open, a pack of dogs ran away from the image house.

Dutch architecture

The sprawling building, the roof of which was renovated with new tiles, has seven arched-doorways providing access to the outer chamber - two each on three walls and one on the front wall, which is the main entrance. The main door leads to the two openings that provide access to the inner chamber. The inner chamber has one other exit leading to the two doorways on the sidewall. Three windows provide light to the dark outer chamber. The inner chamber which is the shrine room has no windows. All the doors and windows show signs of Dutch architecture.

At Kataluwa, the most noteworthy of the wall paintings are to be found on the four exterior walls of the encircling corridor of the image house, and on the wall of the anteroom, providing a colourful and evocative backdrop for the image of the Buddha which dominates the middle chamber.

The murals are painted along the whole length of the wall surfaces in horizontal friezes or panels, each about two feet wide. The walls of the corridor each have three such friezes, finished at the top with a decorative band of garlands and lotuses. The lowest panel of each wall is painted with lurid scenes of the underworld and the Apaya (hell).

Observing the wall paintings at Kataluwa, what we grasped was clear evidence of the work of four groups of artists from four different schools of art, each portraying a distinctive style. Each group of artists was assigned the decoration of one wall of the corridor, with all four sharing sections of the high walls of the ante-room. The friezes in the middle section of the front wall of the corridor are painted in the style used in 18th century Kandyan temples.

Most of the walls depict Jathaka Stories. The murals flanking the Vessanthara Jathaka, on the left and right walls of the corridor are of singular interest, in a style unique to Kataluwa. They represent an interesting stage in the evolution of painting in the island, in the last quarter of the 19th century, when Western influence was strongest. Although the stories in the murals are traditional, and the virtues and values they exalt are Buddhist, the main characters of the stories are turned out in Western attire, and the narration is made in the context of Western bourgeois society.

The murals above the main doorway are done according to British colonial grandeur. The outer chamber shows Dutch influence in architecture while the murals on the walls show British influence on society. The doorway to the inner chamber with British insignia illustrated in the Makara Thorana (Dragon arch) has the word ‘Purwarama’ written in English.

Another striking feature is the painstaking and meticulous preoccupation on details, resulting in an almost calligraphic style that reminds one of miniature painting. The artists wallow in an extravagant draftsmanship of every imaginable style, making the embroidery in fabric, jewellery, furnishing and landscape details almost an end in itself and achieving an overall aura of luxury and flowery elegance.

British insignia

The murals on the reminder of the corridor walls are from the Southern School. This style is often encountered in the older temples on the Southern coast, such as Mulkirigala, Kumarakande and Sailabimbaramaya temple at Dodanduwa.

Stepping into the image chamber, we first spotted two main entrances to the inner chamber which have the British insignia painted above and are set within the traditional Makara-Thorana (dragon arch). The main attraction inside the image house is a reclining Buddha belonging to Kandyan style.

The outer walls of the inner chamber are different to those seen elsewhere. The three sides, besides the one with the entrance has the 28 images (Atavisi) of the previous Buddhas mounted in line, and are enclosed within a large glazed polished timber cabinet spanning the length of the walls. This is a special feature not generally seen during the Kandyan period. This could be an addition to the outer chamber that was incorporated later and the floor of the outer chamber is laid with terracotta.

The temple and the murals have survived a long period, over 150 years to date. However, its future well being is very bleak. As we have witnessed, the doors have come off the hinges. Lighting oil lamps and incense sticks may cause damage to the murals. Ground salinity and dampness are affecting the lower murals which have faded off completely. The murals around the windows are fading and have begun to decay. Stray dogs are seen taking shelter within the chambers of the image house. Tragically, the contribution of the villagers towards the temple is almost nil. This was evident from the dusty flower altar in the image house without any floral offerings or Buddha Poojas.

Having visited the priceless murals of the Purwarama temple of Kataluwa, we grasped that the magnificent murals were decaying day by day. The murals no longer seem to get proper attention and if no conservation measures are taken, the artistic legacy of the Southern School will soon be found only in books and in the hearts of the art and his

The murals on the reminder of the corridor walls are from the Southern School. This style is often encountered in the older temples on the Southern coast, such as Mulkirigala, Kumarakande and Sailabimbaramaya temple at Dodanduwa.

Stepping into the image chamber, we first spotted two main entrances to the inner chamber which have the British insignia painted above and are set within the traditional Makara-Thorana (dragon arch). The main attraction inside the image house is a reclining Buddha belonging to Kandyan style.

The outer walls of the inner chamber are different to those seen elsewhere. The three sides, besides the one with the entrance has the 28 images (Atavisi) of the previous Buddhas mounted in line, and are enclosed within a large glazed polished timber cabinet spanning the length of the walls. This is a special feature not generally seen during the Kandyan period. This could be an addition to the outer chamber that was incorporated later and the floor of the outer chamber is laid with terracotta.

The temple and the murals have survived a long period, over 150 years to date. However, its future well being is very bleak.

As we have witnessed, the doors have come off the hinges. Lighting oil lamps and incense sticks may cause damage to the murals.

Ground salinity and dampness are affecting the lower murals which have faded off completely. The murals around the windows are fading and have begun to decay. Stray dogs are seen taking shelter within the chambers of the image house.

Tragically, the contribution of the villagers towards the temple is almost nil. This was evident from the dusty flower altar in the image house without any floral offerings or Buddha Poojas.

Having visited the priceless murals of the Purwarama temple of Kataluwa, we grasped that the magnificent murals were decaying day by day.

The murals no longer seem to get proper attention and if no conservation measures are taken, the artistic legacy of the Southern School will soon be found only in books and in the hearts of the art and his

 

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