Sri Lanka pilgrim trip – Part 1 – Gal Vihara

Went to Sri Lanka(a pilgrim trip) in June this year(2017). The Posan day, full moon in June, is the important commemoration of the arrival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, with Venerable Mahinda(Son of King Asoka of India), during the reign of King Devanampiyatissa. The two kings were friends. At a later time, Asoka’s daughter, Bhikkhuni Sanghamitta also went to Sri Lanaka(at the request of women who wanted to enter the sangha order) and she brought along the sapping of the Bodhi tree from India, together with 18 classes of craftsmen. This was the beginning of the Bhikkhuni sasana in Sri Lanka. 

Although we could not stay long enough to visit many other places in Sri Lanka, we still managed to visit sites with important Sri Lanka Buddha images. One of these sites is the Gal Vihara, built at the ancient royal city of Polonnaruwa. The importance of Gal Vihara has been recognised with its international stature as a Unesco Heritage site. The term ‘Vihara’ in Pali means monastery, is one of the earlier and simpler cave types (lens Guha-patimaghara) which housed Buddha images that were for people to pay respects. It is reported to be build around the 12th century. 

In much modern times like ours, these sculptures and architecture still provide inspirations to us whether as pilgrims or artists, for example , British sculptor Richard Deacon was reportedly inspired by the reclining image at Gal Vihara at a tender young age of 7. 1

The Buddha images from Gal Vihara, are carved into the natural granite rocks. There are in a series of four and these carved Buddha images(sculptures) are over 850 years old. Still looking incredibly beautiful, serene, refined and displayed artistic excellence in execution and proportions. They featured classic Buddhist iconography, such as the depiction of Buddha’s paranibbana(a reclining Buddha image), which can be identified by the right palm beside the head and facing upwards, left foot resting over the left foot.

Gotama Buddha paranibbana iconography

Beside this paranibbana relief sculpture, is another standing buddha sculpture with a very special and unique iconography(see image below), of both hands folded across the chest. The standing Buddha image is on a Lotus pedestal. This present proposed iconography meant that Buddha was glazing with gratitude towards the Bodhi tree for sheltering him during his enlightenment. The long ear lobes indicated his princely background before renunciation. The hair are represented with snail coils shaped towards the right. There is slight protrusion on the head, a Sri Lankan style of unisha(symbol of Buddha’s wisdom). Usually, Sri Lankan robes are covered over left shoulder. The robes are represented with smooth flowing parallel lines.

Due to the uniqueness of the mudra, there are various theories explaining the meaning of it. One of it even suggested that the sculpture was influenced from Southeast Asia. Writer Anura Manatunga wrote or propose that this mudra as vajarhumkara mudra, and it bore influence from Southeast Asia. But there is no further elaboration. 2

Gotama Buddha image of paradukkha iconography
Both Buddha images from side view

The sitting Buddha Samadhi(Pali term for concentration) image is sitting a pedestal with either lions or makara motifs. The makara are Sri Lanaka mythical animals, composite of different part of animals. Samadhi iconography are recognised by their meditation pose, right palm over the left palm mudra, cross leg in concentration. Most Sri Lanaka Buddha images samadhi pose are of this type. Behind the Buddha, are a frame relief with makara on the left and right, Dhyani Buddhas in their abodes. The image depicts the Buddha in his peaceful and focus meditation.

Gotama Buddha samadhi iconography. Mahayana influence of Dhyani Buddhas can be seen of the backdrop behind the buddha image.

“S. Paranavitana wrote that apart from the fresco at Tivamka shrine, the only noteworthy example of a painting at Polonnaruwa(era) is the figure of a bearded old man” (See second photo below) the center of the Rock wall at the back of the cave is occupied by a Buddha image in high relief on a vajrasana (diamond throne) , attended by various divine figures. This sculptural group was originally painted, and formed the central graduate of a large composition, probably showing the Buddha being adorned by Brahmas, Devas and other heavenly beings”3

From: Introduction by S. Paranavitana, 
Ceylon Paintings from Temple,
​Shrine and Rock Hardcover, W.G.Archer Published 1957, 
Fresco(12th century) depicting an old man with beard holding a flower(probably a Brahma paying homage to the Buddha, can be seen in this sculptural image Another source describe this as Brahmas and Devas in a celestial palace.

The above outline tracing is the details of fresco painting which was described by S. Paranavitana as important in the history of Sri Lanka fresco paintings. I had traced this from, “The rock and wall painting of Sri Lanak, by Senaka Bandaranayake and Gamini Jayasinghe”4. We can see the intricate design and details of the painting in the 12th century of Sri Lanka.

Old photographs of Gal Vihara by British Photographer, William Louis Henry Skeen

Some old photographs of Gal Vihara can be viewed at the following links. They showed the same place but much different view of the environment due to renovation in modern times.
1. Galvihara (Stone Temple) with lying Budha
2. Skeen, Reclining Buddha, Gal Vihara, Polonnaruwa, British Ceylon, c. 1880s.

1. In the studio: Richard Deacon,
2. Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, Anura Manatunga, Nagapattinam to Suvarnadwipa, Reflections on the Chola Naval Expeditions to Southeast Asia, ISEAS, 2009 
3. Introduction by S. Paranavitana, Ceylon Paintings from Temple, Shrine and Rock Hardcover, W.G.Archer Published 1957,
4. The rock and wall painting of Sri Lanak, by Senaka Bandaranayake and Gamini Jayasinghe, Lake House Bookshop, 1986