Carved in stone | Sunday Observer

Carved in stone

7 March, 2021
Gal Vihara at Polonnaruwa
Gal Vihara at Polonnaruwa

Buddhism was first introduced to Sri Lanka in 3rd century BC by Indian missionaries under the guidance of MahindaThera, the son of Emperor Asoka in India.

Prior to the introduction and proliferation of Buddhism, the indigenous population of the island lived in a world of superstition. Along with Buddhism, religious art and Buddhist architecture were also introduced These art later spread across the country and the kings used this knowledge to build marvelous creations that stand tall as testimony to a proud history in the island.

At the outset, Mihintale was the cradle of Buddhism that depict fine examples of early Sinhala art, even today.

Having travelled to many parts in the country, I have had the chance to view several magnificent creations of rock-cut Buddha statues. These statues have been built during different eras in history and by several kings who reigned in the island.

Ancient creations

In this photo essay, I present some of the important Buddha statues, carved completely out of rock, in several provinces of the country. These ancient creations lay claim to unparalleled genius in art and simply cannot be surpassed in their beauty by any modern sculptures.

In the Moneragala district, is the colossus Maligawila Buddha statue. Situated near Buttala, this 7th century statue is over 34 feet in height and 10 feet across the shoulders. Carved out of a mammoth rock, the statue is set up on a pedestal of appropriate proportions. The limestone statue had been broken into three pieces by treasure hunters and was restored to its former glory by former President, the late Ranasingha Premadasa and declared open to the public in 1991.

On the border of the Kurunegala district, close to Migalewa, in Kuda-kathnoruwa, is a rock-cut Buddha statue called Sasseruwa Buddha. It is 39 feet and five inches in height, and is carved out of a living rock on top of the hill.

The Avukana Buddha, five inches less in height in comparison, is close to the bank of the Kala Wewa, in close proximity to Sasseruwa. Avukana is finely carved out of a rock that lies overlooking the Kala Wewa. Both statues were built by King Datusena, and are considered masterpieces of Sinhala stone sculptors.

Another colossus is at Buduruwagala, three kilometres from Wellawaya. The Buddha image in the centre, is 51 feet in height and is unique in that it stands in between two Bodhisatva images, most remarkable of the Mahayana sculptures of Sri Lanka. The central figure stands alone on a great boulder and is accompanied by two Bodhisatvas on either side.

The Bodhisatva to the right is attended on either side by two figures, one male and the other female. The Buddha figure is in high relief and some of the details have been completed in stucco and paint, traces of which are still visible. The site is isolated from human habitation and the impression created is one of great majesty and grandeur.

On the East coast, close to Pottuvil, there lies another rock-cut Buddha statue at Muhudu MahaVihara. This is part of the numerous stone ruins buried in the sands along the Arugam Bay beach. Over 15 feet in height, this Buddha statue was carved on limestone and later brought to this site. The statue was restored by the Department of Archaeology some time back and is believed to be the place where Queen Vihara Maha Devi landed from the sea and later married King Kawantissa of Ruhuna.

Another lesser known reclining Buddha colossus lies in the jungle site at Bakamuna, in Elahera. This site is also called Attaragollewa, where an unfinished rock-cut Buddha statue similar to Gal Vihara lies in the jungle.

The place is archaeologically important, considering the ancient ruins scattered around, with some even still buried in the earth.

Budupatuna is another mysterious and lonely spot where a rock-cut figure of the Buddha and two Bodhisatvas are symbols of the Mahayana school of Buddhism, lying deep inside the Lahugala-Kumana forest reserve. All three figures stand on pedestals. The Buddha himself in the centre, occupies a lotus pedestal, while the other figures stand on two layered plinths. Rock-cut statues have been damaged badly, dug and blasted by treasure hunters. In Bandarawela, on the Badulla main road, is a beautiful temple called Dowa Raja MahaVihara where a half finished Buddha statue is carved out of a huge boulder on the slope of the mountain adjoining a rock cave temple.

Forty kilometres from Anuradhapura, bordering the Wilpattu National Park, are another series of rock-cut Buddha statues in an archaeologically important place called Tantirimale, situated on a huge rock boulder, under a thick forest cover. This 3rd century BC temple complex was built by King Devanampiyatissa. The most magnificent sight at Tantirimale is the Samadi and reclining Buddha statues, carved on two separate rock boulders.

Gal Vihara, a series of rock-cut Buddha statues in Polonnaruwa, was constructed by King Parakramabahu the Great (1153-1186), the builder of Polonnaruwa.

Gal Vihara statues, ambitiously conceived and gloriously perfected according to the oriental canons, on an abrupt boulder of dark granite about 27 metres in length and 10 metres high, are at the centre and slope of the boulder, and are still in perfect preservation with their irresistible charm and sublime beauty.

The Samadhi statue at the Mahamevuna Uyana in the Anuradhapura sacred city is depicted in the position of the Dhyana Mudra. In the Dhyana Mudra, the Buddha sits crossed-legged with his upturned palms placed one over the other on his lap.

This position is universally known throughout the Buddhist world, and this statue is therefore one of the most typical pieces of Buddhist sculptures.

This statue is eight feet in height and is considered as one of the marvels of rock-cut statues in the country.In modern day, a massive rock-cut seated Buddha statue has been carved out by Indian sculptors in living rock at RambadagallaVihara, Moneragala in Kurunegala.

The 67 feet high Rambadagalla Buddha statue was ceremonially opened on April 30, 2015, and is the largest sedentary Buddha statue carved out of granite.