Thursday, March 23, 2017

Statues in Sri Lanka

Introduction to Statues in Sri Lanka

There are three main symbols that Buddhist worship such as Pagoda, Bo tree, and Buddha statues. The main purpose of these symbols is to generate confidence towards the Buddha and his teachings. Statue sculpture has a very long history in Sri Lanka. According to archeological researches and excavations, still any statue was not found which belonged to early 2nd century AD. However, it is a common truth that worshiping statues is very famous in Sri Lanka from ancient era.

In accordance with the idea of professor Paranavithana the oldest statue has been found from Mahailuppallama and it could be belonged to 2nd - 3rd century AD. Further he says that the art of statues in Sri Lanka has followed the Amaravathi tradition that practiced in southern India. Statue sculpture has been developed very much in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa period. Almost every temple is consisted with a shrine room where images are placed. 


Origin of Buddhist Architecture in Sri Lanka

Even though chronicles say that the lord Buddha visited Sri Lanka several times and gave relics to enshrine in sthupas, it is difficult to find out architectural evidences or records to prove about the style or manner of architecture in that era.

However the common acceptance regarding the origin of Buddhist architecture in Sri Lanka is the 3rd century BC (247) when Arahath Mahinda brought Buddhism to Sri Lanka.
Buddhist architecture took a systematic way after the arrival of Venerable Mahinda.

After arrival of venerable Mahinda, his residence was Kalappasada and it was not a well-built monastery. Later on Mahavihara developed as a huge Buddhist monastery.
In time to come many types of monasteries were built in the island while statue sculpture is developing all over the Island.

Types of Statues

According to the material – stone, brick, iron, moon stone, tusk, wood

According to the material by which statues are sculptured, we can name statues thus, stone statues, brick statues, iron statues, moon stone statues, tusk statues, wood statues etc… the giant works of statues have been done with stone. For examples; Aukana Buddha statue, Polonnaruwa Galviharaya, Dhambulla are major places in Sri Lanka for Stone works. Pidurangala ancient temple in Sigiriya has a very long Buddha statue made by bricks.

According to the posture of the hand - Dhammachakka, abhaya, dyana, bhumishparsha, paradukkhadukkitha. 

This category is considered the posture of the hand and according to the posture of the hand they have been named in these names.
On the other hand standing statues, sitting statues, lying statues are other types of statue sculpture in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka has a prominent art of statue sculpture.

According to the posture of the body – standing, sitting, lying. According to the posture of the body, this category has been come in to existence.

Dhyana Mudra

     In the Dhyana Mudra the Buddha sits cross - 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 sculpture. Samadhi Buddha statue is the best example for this posture. This types of statues show calm and pleasant facial impressions with closed eyes. This types of statues emphasize the meditative Buddha.

Bhumisparsha Mudra

    "Earth-Touching Mudra," which depicts the simple action the Buddha took to fend off the illusions projected by Mara, who was desperate to prevent the Buddha from realizing that his, Mara's, projections, and with them the entire world, are an illusion.

Dharmachacra mudra

 This posture indicates the Buddha’s first declaration of the Dhamma (Dhammacakkappavattana sutta) for five ascetics at the Isipatana in Baranasi. This is also very famous in Sri lanka. And the name Dharmachacra has been come with the first discourse of the Buddha.

Standing Statues
    Third is a standing statue of Buddha. This has been disputed by some and think this is the statue of Ananda thero at the site of Lord Buddha’s passing away. This 23 feet tall statue is thought to be done by a later king as the chronicles talk about only two statues in the seating position and one statue on the lying position which was done by King Parakramabahu (1153-1186).

Famous Buddha statues in Sri Lanka.

Aukana and Resvehera (Sesuruwa) statues

Sri Lankan ancient sculpture in stone in the form of Buddha statues, sluices, guard stones, pillars and other such artefacts are over 2000 years old. Among the largest such standing Buddha statues is this famed Aukana Buddha statue lying amidst Raja Rata - the cradle of our ancient civilization. It is carved out of a rock boulder and lies close to the serene Kalaweva tank built by King Dhatusena of the 5th century AD.

The Aukana Buddha colossus in stone is also easily accessible through the Mahaweli System H, at Galnewa. This Aukana Buddha statue is 46-feet high, resting on a fine lotus stone pedestal. The symbolic gesture carved on the statue, called Mudra is in the form of Ashiva Mudra which signifies giving or blessing.

A few miles away from Galnewa via Magalweva in Mahaweli System H, lies a similar standing Buddha statue enclaved amidst a vast conclave of rock cave shelters and giant boulders in the folds of the jungle fastness. This Buddha statue is known by two names one is Resvehera and the other Sesuruwa.

Resvehera has its derivation that the patriarch Bo tree standing there had originated from a sapling that was brought from the Sri Maha Bodhiya in Anuradhapura. As when the Bo sapling was planted there, the rays (halo) of Lord Buddha illuminated around the place.
Sesuruwa means what is similar, as the Resvehera statue bears similar profiles to the Aukana Buddha statue. But there is a world of difference between the sculpturing structure of these two Buddha statues.

While the Aukana Buddha statue is 46 feet high, the Sesuruwa/Resvehera one is 36 feet high. This Resvehera statue is carved into a rectangular frame in the rock boulder itself. The siraspota is absent there, while it is portrayed in dots for the hair. The Aukana Buddha statue stands on a stone pedestal in the form of an exquisite lotus symbol. While that of the Resvehera statue stands on a plain rectangular stone pedestal.

The symbolic mudras (gestures) depicted here differ from each other. The Aukana Buddha statue has the Ashiva Mudra (giving of a blessing), while in the Resvehera one, the Mudra is in the form of Abhaya Mudra (meaning freedom from fear or fearlessness). For all visual purposes, from the sculptured features on the Resevera Buddha statue it appears that it was left in an unfinished state of sculpturing for some unknown reason.

Builders of the statues

Some attribute these to have been constructed by king Dhatusena of the 6th century AD, when he was living in a temple called Sinhagiri Vihara. Still others say it was built during the epic reign of King Parakrama Bahu, the Great of the 13th century, AD. The Resvehera Statue also dates back to the 12th-13th century AD. As regards the canopy constructed over the Aukana Buddha in the past, there are diversified views expressed by archaeological authorities, as regards to its removal. It is learnt from the Archaeological Department sources (its Advisory Board) had approved its removal. Some say that removing such an overhead roof would be damaging to the statue, as then it would be exposed to the natural elements like sun, rain and wind. From ancient times, the statue had been kept open sans any canopy over it. Consequently, it was quite exposed to the rigours of time, wear and tear of even the natural phenomenon like rain, sun and wind. In conclusion let me mention one unique feature of its sculpturing the Aukana Buddha statue.

According to local traditions, they say that the degree of accuracy of sculpturing it was such that if a drop of water (meaning rain water), detaching itself from the tip of its nose would drop in perpendicular into the small depression (if there is no blowing), carved between its big toes. That depression is still to be seen carved out in that fashion between the toes. (Gamini G. Punchihewa)

Samadhi Buddha statue

This deceptively simple monolithic Buddha statue in the Samadhi/ contemplative posture is now considered a master peace of Buddhist art. Its classical simplicity and purity of line and form having vested it with the transfusion spiritual quality reflecting the Spartan code of the Theravada Buddhism. Samadhi Buddha Statue belonging to 4th Century AD. is considered as best of Sinhalese sculpture. Found at Abayagiriya Monastry complex in 1886. Sculptured out of dolomite marble, the statue is 7 feet 3 in. in height.

Dambulla Buddha Statues

The rock of Dambulla is the centre of a Buddhist cave-temple complex established in the 3rd century BC and occupied continuously until today. Its location has marked a transportation node between the Eastern and Western Dry Zones and between the Dry Zones and the central mountains throughout the history of Sri Lanka. The cave-temple complex is established on an inselberg or erosional remnant of importance in the study of the island's geological history.

This cultural landscape is an extraordinary and unique complex: the cave-temple, rock paintings in five caves and 157 statues of various sizes (The temples contain 153 Buddha images, 3 images of kings and 4 images of gods and goddesses). Dambulla bears witness in its richly layered composite nature to the use of the entire site for close to four millennia.

Within these caves, one of the best preserved ancient edifices in Sri Lanka, is housed a collection of 150 serene statues of Buddhist Order & the island's history.
The first cave named "Devaraja Viharaya" houses a 14m long Buddha statue depicting the final extinction. It was carved out of sold rock. By the head of Buddha are Ananda, Buddha’s shadowlike disciple, God Vishnu & God Maha Sumana Saman. The cave was named Devaraja meaning the Lord of Gods in honor of god Vishnu.
The second & the largest cave, "Maharaja Vihara", meaning "The Temple of Great Kings" in Sinhalese was named after King Valagambahu & King Nissankamalla whose statues are contained there among 16 standing & 40 seated statues of Buddha. Also on display are the statues of Hindu god Vishnu & God Maha Sumana Saman. Throughout the entire span of rock ceiling & entire width of the rock walls are the finest Buddhist murals in Sri Lanka. 
Also painted are the epochal events of the glorious history of Sri Lanka. The duel between the hero of the nation, King Dutugamunu & marauding Dravidian invader Elara is graphically depicted herein with paramount importance. The Buddha statue hewn out of the rock on the left side of the room is flanked by wooden figures of the Bodhisattvas, Maitreya to the left & Avalokiteshvara or Natha to the right. There is also a mini dagoba & a spring which drips its water from a crack in the ceiling, into a huge metal pot which never overflows. 
Most possibly excess water is being controlled by an underground channel below the rock floor on which the pot is fixed. Or it could simply be, that the water evaporates at such a rapid rate in the dry zone, there is no chance of overflow at all. Perhaps it cannot be explained.
The third cave, the Maha Alut Vihara is of paintings on ceiling & walls in Kandyan tradition commissioned during the reign of King Kirti Sri Rajasingha, the famous Buddhist revivalist. In addition to 50 Buddha statues, there is also a statue of a king. The fourth & fifth caves are smaller & inferior to the other caves.

Polonnaruva Gal viharaya.

The Gal Vihara, also known as Gal Viharaya, is a rock temple of the Buddha situated in the ancient city of Polonnaruwa in north-central Sri Lanka. It was constructed in the 12th century by Parakramabahu I. The central feature of the shrine are four images of the Buddha, which have been carved into the face of a large granite rock. The images consist of a large seated figure, another, smaller seated figure inside an artificial cavern, and standing figure and a reclining figure. These are considered to be some of the best examples of ancient Sinhalese sculpting and carving arts, and have made the Gal Vihara one of the most visited monuments in Polonnaruwa.

The images of Gal Vihara follow a different style than the images of the previous Anuradhapura period, and show some significant differences. The identity of the standing image is subject to a certain amount of dispute among historians and archaeologists, some of whom argue that it depicts the monk Ananda rather than the Buddha. Each of the images have been carved in a way that uses a maximum possible area of the rock, and their heights seem to have been decided based on the height of the rock itself. Each statue appears to have had its own image house, as indicated by the remains of brick walls at the site. The Gal Vihara, or Uttararama as it was known during that period, was where Parakramabahu I held a congregation of monks to purify the Buddhist priesthood, and later drew up a code of conduct for them. This code of conduct has been recorded in an inscription on the same rock face containing the images of the Buddha.

The main feature of Gal Vihara is the four images of the Buddha that have been carved on a single, large granite rock face, considered to be among the best examples of the rock carving and sculpting arts of the ancient Sinhalese. The rock has been cut almost 15 feet (4.6 m) deep to create a rock face to accommodate the statues, and is the only example in the country where a natural rock has been excavated to this extent for such a purpose.

Misuse of Buddha statues

In the ancient era people respected to the Buddha statues with a great adoration. But, for the present a lot of statues have been built in unsuitable places where most of people do unethical and illegal behaviors. Four way junctions, three way junctions, impure places, are some of examples for unsuitable places where Buddha statues have been built.
On the other way, many types of Buddha statues are sold to foreigners and the way they do this is not ethical and not respectful. This is not a good sign of a Buddhist country.


Ancient Sri Lankan architecture mainly grew around Buddhism. Buddhism had a significant influence on Sri Lankan architecture, since it was introduced to the island in 3rd Century BC. The Architecture of ancient Sri Lanka displays a rich variety of architectural forms and styles from the Anuradhapura Kingdom to the Kingdom of Kandy.

Monasteries were designed using the Manjusri Vasthu Vidya Sastra, a manuscript which outlines the layout of the structure. The text is in Sanskrit but written in Sinhala script.
Common features can be seen almost every period with a considerable development. Sometimes, there are ups and downs in the architecture in Sri Lanka since foreign invasions

Buddhism had a significant influence on Sri Lankan architecture. Giant monuments and arts reveal the inherited arts.

 Sri Lankan architecture has developed with a magnificent Technology. Sri Lankan architecture is not without its secular buildings of palaces, assembly halls, council chambers, royal pleasure gardens, houses of chieftains and farmers, rest halls and many other buildings. We have in the island a complex collection of these restored and documented.


on Schroeder, Ulrich. (1992). The Golden Age of Sculpture in Sri Lanka
Social Studies and History Grade 10, Sri Lanka. Educations Publications Department, Sri Lanka. 2006. p. 141.
Silva, R. 1990, "Bricks – A unit of construction in ancient Sri Lanka", ICTAD Journal, Vol.2, No. 1, pp. 21-42, Colombo.
Professor T.G.Kulathunga (2004). "4". Lankave Stupaya(Stupa of Sri lanka) (in Sinhala) (first ed.). p. 66.
Pieris K (2006), Architecture and landscape in ancient and medieval Lanka

Ven. Sumiththa T.
Sri Lankan Buddhist Cultural Centre - Hong Kong 
3F, 27 Sheung Heung Road, To Kwa Wan, 
Kowloon, Hong Kong