Describe the Nature of Mahayana Art in Sri Lanka

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We believe in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the union of Sangha.


  • Describe the nature of Mahayana Art in Sri Lanka

    in relation to Mahayana sculpture

    Here Sri Lanka which is developing Theravada Buddhist is an Island which is many kinds of

    tradition of art, sculpture, architecture, painting and other forms of arts. Since the Buddhism came to Sri

    Lanka from India, art and architecture also came simultaneously. After developing Buddhism, there are

    two types of school Mahayana and Theravada in Sri Lanka. There are many kinds of architectural feature

    such as sculpture of Buddha statue, image, Bodhisatta figure etc. Not only Mahayana but also Theravada

    both schools have various kinds of sculpture relation to their respective culture and tradition. Out of them

    now I am going to discuss the nature of Mahayana Art in Sri Lanka in relation to Mahayana sculpture.

    First and foremost, I would like to talk about the Mahayana arriving at from India to Sri Lanka.

    Mahayanism reached Sri Lanka very early in the Christian era and it was probably early in the third

    century A.D. In addition, we cannot undervalue the strong activity of Mahayanism in the period of 273 -

    301 A.D., during the reign of King Mahasena. Mahavamsa use the word 'Mahasatta', special designation

    of the Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, for King Sirisanghabodhi, during the period of 247 - 249 A.D.

    Culavamsa says during the period of 337 - 365 A.D. king Buddhadasa lived as a Bodhisattva, and King

    Dhatusena, who reigned in 455 - 475 A.D., was a fervent worshipper of the Bodhisattva ideal and he

    ordered making an image of Bodhisattva.

    Mahayana influence began to take hold on Sri Lanka around the seventh Century and reached its

    zenith during the rule of King Mahasena. By the 7th and 8th Centuries the centres of Mahayana practices

    were the Abhayagiri and Jethawana monasteries which also includes the countrys largest Stupa

    complexes in Anuradhapura, Sri Lankas ancient capital. Meanwhile, the sculptors of Sri Lanka carved

    many kinds of Bodhistava and other figures such as Avalokitesavara, Buduruwagala, Avukana Buddha

    statue etc.

    The identification of these sculptures of ancient Sri Lanka with the Mahayana repertory of

    Buddhist art was carved possible on many stones. A major factor is their close similarity to the

    Buduruvegala. Another reason is the association of Buddhist divinities known as Bodhisattvas who

    belong to the Mahayana pantheon and who form a tout ensemble of the architectural composition of these

    sculptures. The best evidence for the association of Sri Lanka Bodhisattva sculpture with Mahayana

    repertoire is the group of colossal sculptures found at the ancient site known as Buduruvegala. Here at

    Buduruvegala the primary image of the Buddha is flanked on either side by a pair of Mahayana divinities.

    On one side is the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, the god par excellence in the Mahayana pantheon with

  • goddess Tara and on the other side is the Bodhisattva Mahasthamaprapta with his consort Prajna. These

    two primary Bodhisattvas are referred to in ancient Mahayana Buddhist texts as the followers of the great

    Buddha Amitabha or Amitayus who resides in the supreme heaven Sukhavati. The pictures of the five

    persons at Buduruvegala, the ancient site in south Sri Lanka is evidently an attempt to introduce or revive

    a Mahayana cult worship in Sri Lanka. These stupendous sculptures were believed to have been originally

    highly polychromed. Patches of paint still intact were found till recently by the archaeologists who

    discovered these sculptures in the present period. This indicates that most of these ancient stone

    sculptures in Sri Lanka were generously and profusely polychrome.

    Buduruwagala is located about 5 km from the Wellawaya on the Thanamalwila road. The name

    Buduruwagala means the rock with the statue of Buddha And this is exactly what it is. Seven figured

    are carved in this rock with a massive 51 foot Buddha statue in the Abhaya Mudra gesture at the centre.

    The rock itself has shape of a kneeling elephant with its head. Although there is no documented

    information about this site in the ancient scriptures, Different historians have dated these statues from the

    6th centuary to late Anuradhapura period. These carvings are of the Mahayana Buddhist style and belongs

    to the Pallawa- Sri Lankan art tradition.

    The centre figure on the left still has most of the plaster and some paint which has been applied

    by the ancients. This centre figure is thought to be of the figure of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva. He is

    identified by the small image of the meditating Buddha in the crown that he wares. This image can be

    clearly seen the carving. The bare breasted female figure on the right to this is thought be Tara Devi, the

    spritual consort of Avalokitesavara Bodhisattva. She is carved in a thivanka position bent in 3 places

    and is wearing a tall head dress. The other is thought to be their son Prince Sudana.

    On the right are 3 similar figures. And the centre figure is thought to be the Maithri Bodhisattva.

    He is the fifth Buddha for this eon. On the left is the Vajirapani Bodhisattva. He is one of the earliest

    bodhisattvas of Mahayana Buddhism. He is generally represented with a diamond club in his hand. The

    Buduruwagala sculptures are an important part of Sri Lanka's Buddhist heritage and art. They are perhaps

    the best representation of the little known influence of the Mahayana school of Buddhist thought and

    Tantric Buddhism that is mainly associated with South East and East Asian countries.

    The colossal Buddha statues of Bamiyan were sculpted by those who advocated Mahayana Buddhism. It

    was in Mahayana Buddhism that the concept of Buddha was elevated to a position of more a god-head

    than a human being. According to Mahayana the Buddha was not merely a sage who achieved Supreme

    Enlightenment through a progressive development of mental culture but a saviour of all human and divine

  • beings. Sakyamuni the historical Buddha was only an apparitional form emanated from the Eternal

    Buddha Amitabha or Amitayus who resides in the highest heaven Sukhavati.

    The portrayal of the Buddha figure in superhuman qualities was an attempt to emphasise the

    soteriological aspect of Buddhahood, hence the origin of the titanic image of the Buddha, first in Bamiyan

    which was a part of the Gandhara region where Mahayana Buddhism was supposed to have had its origin.

    It was natural that this concept of portraying the Buddha in super human qualities had gained currency

    wherever Mahayana Buddhism spread and Sri Lanka after the third or the fourth century of the present

    era was no exception to this.

    The Avukana Buddha image in Sri Lanka has many similar features to those of the Bamiyan

    colossi. It depicts in the right hand which is raised towards the right shoulder and palm spread, the gesture

    known as abhaya mudra which indicates that the votary is protected from all fears mundane or

    supramundane, hence abhaya means no fear. The left hand too is shown raised and touching the left

    shoulder. The palm of the left hand is turned towards the Buddha. This is a gesture indicating the votary

    to seek after the Buddha for release form sentient of all suffering. The Buddha stands erect on a lotus

    pedestal and is housed within a shrine of equal enormous dimensions as the remains of its foundations

    indicate today.

    The Avukana Buddha image approximately 43 feet in height is the archetype of colossal Buddha

    images that have been sculpted by the ancient Sinhalese of Sri Lanka. Although it is sculpted in high

    relief and the back of the figure in not separated from the rock boulder out of which the figure is carved,

    the Avukana image looks more like an image sculpted in the round.

    A limestone statue of the Buddha sculpted in the round and measuring approximately 52 feet,

    with its lotus pedestal, is found in a badly ruined state in the jungle thickness of an ancient site known as

    Maligavela in south Sri Lanka. Its lotus pedestal lies a few yards away from it arid another massive image

    of a Bodhisattva, a divine being belonging to the Mahayana Buddhist pantheon too is found close by

    lying flat on the ground. Since almost all the colossal standing Buddha images in Sri Lanka as well as

    those in other countries are sculpted in height relief, this particular image which is sculpted fully in the

    round is now reckoned to be the worlds tallest standing image of the Buddha ever sculpted in ancient

    times. Despite broken limbs and badly beaten by the elements it still emanates an amorphous suavity.

    A third image of the Buddha in colossal proportions is found at a place known as Sasseruva which is not

    far away from the ancient citadel Anuradhapura. This statue looks either badly weatherworn or left

    unfinished by the sculptor. The Sasseruva image of the Buddha falls short of the refined smooth finish,

    the elegance and perfect proportions, a brio to which the Avukana Buddha image has all claims. Yet it

  • bears all the features of the Avukana Buddha image in regard to stylistic concept. The hand postures, the

    method of wearing the robe with the right shoulder kept bare and bellowed at the bottom. The drapery is

    delineated by the parallel ridges which is the typical method followed by the Sinhala sculptor of the

    classical period, unlike subsequent post-classical times, when ridges were replaced by parallel groves and

    still later by schematic wavy patterns. The coiffure is shown in the traditional pattern of hair coiled into

    rings like a snail shell. The Sasseruva Buddha image stands on a lotus pedestal and is sculpted in high

    relief with the back of the image cleaving to the living rock boulder from which it was carved out. All

    these speak of a common tradition of colossal Buddha image sculpture in the early centuries of the

    present era that has been founded in Sri Lanka.

    The historical formation of the characters of Bodhisattvas were mainly influenced by the Buddha

    and the Cakravartin. At the beginning, Boddhisattvas were regarded as subordinates to the Buddhas and

    Cakravartin. With the later development of the Bodhisattva doctrine all these qualities transformed into

    the Bodhisattvas and the concept of Cakravartin disappeared. The image of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara,

    in the combination of Ialitasana and rajalilasana, attitude of royal ease, with the kataka mudra in the right

    hand, evokes the majesty of a Cakravartin.' Veheragala Avalokitesvara is the most perfect example in

    support of this argument.

    In fact, the royal court of Anuradhapura period was influenced by the Mahavihara and

    Abhayagirivihar monsteries. Veheragala Avalokitesvara visually illustrates the 'Monastic and Royal'

    historical background of the times. We see the marriage of 'Ascetic and Royal motif' concept in the form

    of religious sculptural creations.

    Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara constantly appears in Sinhalese art, but only in human form. Tantric

    types of sculptures with a large number of hands and heads are not found in Sri Lanka. The predominant

    Theravada background of the country was responsible for their outstanding preference for the human

    form of Avalokitesvara, as well as other Sinhalese Bodhisattva images in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa

    periods. In this case, we can justify the strong vision and the long cultivated tradition of "Mahavihara

    School of Buddhist Art'. According to the vision of the Theravada school only human beings can obtain

    Nibbana. The Buddha was a unique human being and the Enlightenment is the highest sanctify status in

    the Universe. The Buddha and arhats were venerated by divinities like Brahma and devas. Celestial

    Buddhas in the Mahayana tradition are not recognised in the Theravada tradition, since they are

    considered only as mortal or manusi Buddhas. Performance of miraculous powers did not play an active

    role in the Theravada school and they believed that the real miracle is the realization of the Ultimate


  • In conclusion, The concept of Mahayana Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara was eventually associated

    with the Theravada cult of Bodhisattva Maitreya and Sri Lankan royal religion in the Anuradhapura

    period. Many of the rulers propagating Buddhism were considered to be Bodhisattvas and some of them

    believed that a righteous and powerful Buddhist king could become a Bodhisattva. In this way we can

    study the nature of Mahayana Art in Sri Lanka in relation to Mahayana sculpture.


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    . . (Thesis)