Home The Cultural Triangles of Sri Lanka

The Cultural Triangles of Sri Lanka

From Tamraparni to Taprobane and from Ceylon to Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka, the Stunning Island as its current name signifies, is a land with a long rich and colourful history.

This Island has been known in different names from ancient times each with a geographical, ethnic, or cultural significance.


Sri Lanka’s identity as a nation finds clear and irrefutable proof in the epigraphic records of India of the third century B.C. The word Tamraparni means copper-coloured palms, as the name given by the founding settlers because of the colour of the soil. In fact, it was the name they gave to worship which they established at the point of landing. The region has conserved this name until today in its Sinhala form Tammanna.


Onesicritus of Astipalacia who accompanied Alexander the Great on his eastern campaign (326 to 323 B.C.) left the earliest known record of the island, referring to it as Taprobane, clearly a Greek rendering of Tamraparni. The Romans, too, knew Sri Lanka as Taprobane and its people as Salai (Sinhala), and the earliest reference to it is by Pliny the Elder in connection with freeman named which the pagans or Graeco-Romans called Taprobane was identified in India as Sieladiba Annius Plocamus.

Sinhaladipa, Sihala, Sinhala, Sinhalanam Dipa, Simhalanam Dipa

It is Cosmas who noted that the island (Pali Sinhaladipa, meaning the island of the Sinhalas). Chinese names for the island, it is interesting to note, were derivatives of the Indian appellation Sinhaladipa.

Selendip, Serendip, His-lan-ch’ih, Ceilo, Ceylan, Ceylon

In referring to the country as the Island of the Sinhala Race, both Pali and Sanskrit could use two forms: Sinhaladipa or Simhaladipa, as a compound of two words, or Sinhalanam dipa or Simhalanam dipa, where the first word, in the plural of the genitive case, means ‘of the Sinhalas’.

Lanka and Sri Lanka

According to the Sri Lankan historical tradition, Lanka was already the name of the island before the Sinhalas under Vijaya came there. It is simply as Lanka or Lankadipa that the country is referred to in the Pali Chronicles and Commentaries and early Sinhala inscriptions.

An extraordinary sense of history

The long impressive array of names emanating from civilizations long lost merely underscores the antiquity of the country and the place it had occupied in relation to each of them. What makes Sri Lanka unique is that it has maintained an unbroken written record of its history with a remarkably dependable chronology, which enables us to understand and appreciate what the world had noted about its genius and achievements. With Vijaya’s arrival to Sri Lanka events began its writing history. A township at the point at which they landed, and which they called Tambapanni, became its seat of government. As far as historiography is concerned, the arrival of Buddhism, with its unique institution of the self-renewing intellectual community of monks and nuns, together called the Samgha, gave an unprecedented stimulus. The earliest works of conscious history in Sri Lanka were the historical introductions to the Sinhala commentaries on the Buddhist cannon. The most significant achievement of the Mahavamsa is that it began as continued to be an amalgam of both the court tradition of history and monastic history. The chronological framework, which they present, continues to be the cornerstone of Sri Lankan history, in spite of the fact that some lacunae remain to be filled concerning the earlier period.

Later chronicles and works of history

Apart from commentaries and glossaries written to these chronicles, the historiographers of Sri Lanka down the ages produced an enormous number of specialized works in which the history of sacred objects and places was recounted. These works were in both Sinhala and Pali and constitute a class of literature called Vamsakatha. Substantial chapters in the narrative Buddhist literature in Sinhala, the extant works of which date back to the thirteenth century but are still read by the general public, are devoted to recounting continuous history or historical episodes.

Historical research today

Over a hundred years ago, the Archaeological Survey of Ceylon began to address itself to the excavation, conservation of, and research into several hundred monuments in all parts of the island. The earliest known attempt in Sri Lanka to present its historical record in the form of chronicles dates back to about the fourth century. Mural paintings dating from the fifth century at hundreds of sites have been catalogued and documented.

Landmarks in history

The island had been the meeting ground of several sects and religious persuasions, which developed in the Indo-Gangetic basins of Northern India. Buddhism gave Sri Lankans a serene philosophy of life, which served as an enduring source of inspiration for their creativity in art, architecture and literature. Thousands of early Brahmi inscriptions recording donations to Buddhist shrines by people of all races, classes and occupation testify to the extent of popular patronage, which Buddhism received.

The southern Kingdom of Ruhunu

A court intrigue compelled Mahanaga, the sub-king of Devanampiya Tissa, to seek his fortunes in southern Sri Lanka where he first served some local rulers as commander of their Javanese (Javaka) forces. Dutthagamani Abhaya built the Mirisavatiya Stupa and established a monastery around it. For the Mahavihara, he constructed the Lovamahapaya (Brazen Palace), the ten-storeyed, thousand-roomed dwelling place for monks.

A lasting contribution to Buddhists

Just four decades later, chaotic conditions caused by a Brahmin in revolt, an invasion from South India, the usurpation of the throne by five Tamil rulers in succession and a twelve-year drought tested the ingenuity of the Buddhist Samgha. The Sinhala Commentaries lasted for several centuries, even after they were translated into Pali, the lingua franca of Buddhist world, in the fifth century, and are found quoted in Sinhala works of the tenth and twelfth centuries. The half-century that followed was an era of peace, which saw a number of excessively pious kings whose preoccupations were more with popular Buddhist ceremonies than with matters of State. The country had been well administered, however, and foreign trade flourished. It was one of these kings who sent the embassy to the Roman court.

Rise of the Lambakannas

The Vijaya-Pandukabhaya dynasty, which had ruled Sri Lanka, hitherto was beginning to degenerate. It came to a point where there was no one who could claim the right to the throne through descent from a male member of the royal family. It was during this period that the hydraulic engineering works of Sri Lanka received a significant impetus, apparently because rice growing for export had become a principle element of the economy.

Dynastic changes within the Lambakanna clan

A dynastic change within the Lambakanna clan itself, caused most probably by a severe famine when grain had to be rationed, brought Sirinaga I (195-214) to the throne. His first decree was to abolish a grain the Brazen Palace, added a stone parasol to the Ruvanvalisaya and restored the stairway of the Bodhi-tree.

Challenge to Mahavihara

The Mahayana form of Buddhism was introduced again to Sri Lanka and this time it actually received the support of the Abhayagiri monastery. Gothabhaya was determined to suppress the heretics. Not only did he rebuke sixty monks who upheld Mahayana doctrines but had them branded and exiled to South India. This incident was the cause of a most serious conflict between the Mahavihara and the Abhayagiri in the reign of his second son a decade later. Mahasena was an unrivalled builder. He established at least nine monasteries and two nunneries. However, his greatest achievements were in the provision of water resources. He built as many as sixteen giant reservoirs and diverted the water of the Mahavaliganga with a canal. The technological perfection of his system of providing water resources win the admiration of modern engineers who with minimum renovation of his dams and spills have managed to incorporate many of them in the development of the North-Central Province.

Beginning of the Lesser Dynasty

The Chronicles, the Dipavamsa and the Mahavamsa, end with the reign of Mahasena. The kings that followed are said to belong to the ‘Lesser Dynasty’. The reason for this division is not easy to unravel. However, it seems to have had some special significance for the ancient historiographers. The reign of Mahasena’s son and successor, Kirti Sri Mevan (303-331) was marked by two significant contacts with India. Recorded in a Chinese narrative and confirmed by an inscription at Buddha Gaya itself is his mission to the Gupta Emperor, Samudragupta, to provide accommodation at this holy site for Sri Lankan pilgrims. It is no doubt due to the reputation of Sri Lanka as a haven for Buddhism that the Tooth Relic should be taken to the Abhayagiri monastery each year.

A golden age of art, architecture and literature

Denounced by the Samgha as a parricide and fearing reprisals by his brother, Kasyapa (477-495) established his capital at Sigiriya where he built his fortress on top of the rock and planted gardens at the gates of the city. He is reputed to have planted mango groves at intervals of seven or eight miles throughout the island. Apparently influenced by the cultural revival of India under the Guptas, as most of his predecessors probably were, his contribution to art and architecture, especially landscape architecture, stands as a permanent monument to a monarch who fancied himself a god and created an environment of beauty and grace all around him. After eighteen years, Moggallan a returned with mercenaries from India. In the ensuing battle, Kasyapa’s elephant turned to avoid a swamp and the army fled under the impression that the king was retreating. Left alone, he killed himself before the enemy could reach him.

Rise of Tamil influence in Court

Too frequently, had the contenders to the throne in the preceding period fled to South India and sought the aid of mercenaries. A growing presence of Tamils near the vortex of power was inevitable. In the period following Agbo II, they wielded decisive influence as to the occupants of the throne. It was during this period of seven decades of war and rebellion that the Chinese pilgrim, Hiuen Tsang, cooled his heels in South India awaiting an opportunity to pursue his search for Buddhist texts and teachings in Sri Lanka. So prolonged was the struggle that he had to be satisfied with data he could collect from visitors. There was a slight respite in the reign of Aggabodhi Salamevan (733-772) were not very free of internal dissension, and rule temporarily from Polonnaruva. For some time both alternated as seats of government as the security situation demanded. The shift of the capital to Polonnaruva was inevitable, even though Sena I’s successor Sena II (853-887) avenged the sacking of Anuradhapura by supporting a disgruntled Pandyan prince, besieging and sacking Madura and recovering the lost treasures of Sri Lanka.

Involvement in South Indian politics: the Cola invasion

Three decades later, relations with the Pandyans had changed and Kasyapa V sent a sizeable army to aid the Pandya king against his Cola adversary. When on a second occasion a Pandyan king sought assistance, Duppala V (939-940) was unable to oblige due to internal dissensions. The king left behind his regalia, which led to the invasion by the Cola king, Parantaka, demanding that these be surrendered, but Udaya III drove him back.

Cultural achievements amidst political upheavals

In spite of these upheavals, several kings of this period took steps to reform the Samgha, lay down rules of discipline for Brahman priests, codify laws including cast rulings, and reform the judiciary. Art and literature appear to have flourished. If Sena I was actually the author of Siyabaslakara, the very need for such a sophisticated rendering of a standard work on rhetoric’s in Sanskrit suggests the level of refinement to which poetry had developed. Still extant is the impressive glossary, which Kasyapa V wrote on the Commentary on the Dhammapada. Sena IV was a reputed Buddhist scholar well versed in the doctrine and expounded it to a joint assembly of the three sects or schools of Buddhism in the country. Many of the recent findings of Buddhist sculpture, especially of Mahayana Bodhisattvas and Taras in bronze, are also datable to this period. It is recorded that Tantric Buddhism made its first appearance in the reign of Sena II.

From Vijayabahu I to Parakramabahu the Great

Whatever the position of the northern part of the island as a province of the Cola Empire, the region to the east and south of the Mahavaliganga maintained a degree of independence. As many as six rulers, not all of Sri Lankan origin, exercised power until Kirti, a descendedant of Mahinda V, became king under the name of Vijayabahu in 1065. Ten rulers contended for power over the next fifteen years. Among them were the queens of Parakramabahu I and Kirti Nissankamalla. In fact, Lilivati, the queen of the former, ascended the throne three times and ruled for a total of less than six years. Kalyanavati was queen for six years from 1202 to 1208. This troubled period culminated in the invasion of Magha from Kalinga, which tolled the death knell not only of Polonnaruva as a capital, but also of Sri Lanka as a unified kingdom.

Technical and cultural progress

Despite political upheavals in the initial stages, the reigns of both Vijayabahu I and Parakramabahu I are characterized by significant achievements in the technology in the Polonnaruva period is manifest in impressive monuments, both religious and secular, the unprecedented magnitude of irrigation schemes, the planning of the city, the precision of the measuring and surgical instruments found at the hospital of Alahana Parivena and the quality of pottery, ceramics and metal artefacts. Sinhala had developed into an expressive language capable of producing ornate poetry as well as prose comparable with the finest works of Sanskrit literature. Gi poems like Muvadev da vata, Sasa da vata, and particularly Kavsilumina, a beautiful poem in the strictest traditions of a Sanskrit Mahakavya, are among the finest achievements of the increasing impact on the literary style of Sinhala prose, and Tamil appears in inscriptions in both the capital and elsewhere. The momentum in intellectual pursuits created in this period was such that it survived a long period of disruption and near-anarchy.

The fall of Polonnaruva and the drift to the south-west

The Magha (1225-36) is attributed a veritable reign of terror and destruction. Torture, extortion, pillaging of holy shrines and monuments and book burning marked his twenty-one year reign, which the chronicles record as the darkest age in the country’s history. The glory of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruva disappeared, never to return. At the same time, Sir Lanka had maintained its trade and cultural relations with both east and west. Arab traders settled down and Muslim saints, as in South-East Asia, were active in propagating their religion. The trade mission of Bhuvanekabahu I of Yapahuva to Egypt in 1283 and the travels of Ibn Batuta in the island in 1344 are indicative of the close relations with the Middle East.

Religious and cultural activity amidst political chaos

As already, stated, religious and cultural activities persisted in spite of the chaotic political situation. Sri Lanka’s contribution to the spread of Buddhism, especially in South-East Asia, was redoubled and marked progress made on the island itself regarding the development of Buddhist institutions. Rules of conduct for the Samgha were promulgated under royal auspices. Prose narrative literature also made tremendous advances in order to keep pace with the growing public demand for books to read. Among the most reputed writers were lay scholars such as Gurulugomi and Vidyacakravarti. Equally significant were developments in the field of Sinhala poetry, where a wide range of meters with a rhyme at the end as well as one or more intermediate places tested the mastery of the composer’s language.

The Kingdom of Kotte and the golden age of Sinhala poetry

The seat of administration of Parakramabhu VI was Sri Jayavardhanapura, better know as Kotte. As in the successive capitals since the drift to the south-west, no major monuments matching the grandeur of Anuradhapura or Polonnaruva had been constructed in Kotte. This apparent decadence in art and architecture could be related to the vagaries of the economy of the island, which had progressively lost its importance as a trade emporium because of the expansion of the Arabs to South-East Asia, thereby permitting the Chinese to trade with the West while bypassing Sri Lanka. The reign of Parakramabahu VI was the heyday of Sinhala poetry. The Samgharaja Thera Totagamuve Rahula himself was an accomplished poet. To his credit stand the Mahakavya Kavyasekharaya and two Sandesa poems, of which the Salalihini Sandesa is a work of great literary merit. Thera Vidagama Maitreya’s poems were more religious and didactic.

The rise of the Kingdom of Kandy

Kandy had already become the seat of government of an independent or semi-independent ruler at least three decades before the arrival of the Portuguese. Sena Sammata (1469-1511) Vikramabahu (1471-1511) is credited with founding the city of Kandy. Vimaladharmasuriya was the first to commence tentative negotiations with the Portuguese. His cousin, Senarat (1604-35) continued such negotiations in the face of renewed attacks by the Portuguese.

Rajasimha II and the advent of the Dutch

Negotiations with the Dutch in the reign of Rajasimha II (1629-87), the most powerful ruler of Kandy were more fruitful. The battle of Gannoruva in 1638 was followed by a joint operation with the Dutch to capture the Portuguese fort at Batticaloa. In the course of the following two years, the Dutch occupied Trincomalee, Negombo and Galle. A dispute over the payment of the cost of these wars enabled the Dutch to retain these forts. As the battles between the two colonial powers raged during the next two decades, Rajasimha II continued to claim that all the territories captured by the Dutch should eventually be passed on to him, but the Dutch quibbled over payment of costs and refused to part with them.

The end of the Sinhala dynasty

Both economically and politically, the Kingdom of Kandy began to decline after Rajasimha II. With the death of his grandson, Sri Vira Parakrama Narendrasimha (1707-1739), the Sinhala dynasty ended. The throne passed to his brother-in-law, Kirti Sri Rajasimha (1747-1780). The Dutch continued to govern the coastal areas, which they had acquired in the reign of Rajasimha II, but the dissatisfaction of their subjects, added to the growing popularity of Kirti Srirajasimha due to his patronage of Buddhism, culminated in a rebellion in 1760.  This prompted the Dutch to invade Kandy, which they held for nine months. The war eventually ended in 1766 with the conclusion of a treaty, which was grossly unfavourable to the King of Kandy. Under its terms, the entire maritime belt all around the island came under Dutch rule.

Reunification of the island under British rule

The British saw an opportunity to continue their hostilities against the Dutch and made contacts with the Nayakkar kings. In 1782, Trincomalee was taken by the British but was soon captured by the French, who was held it for a year. The British sent several expeditions, as their predecessors had done, to annex Kandy. They failed for the same reason, but because of the unpopularity of the last Nayakkar king who was described as a ruthless and cruel tyrant, the British found themselves approached by courtiers and chieftains.


Within months of adopting a Constitution with far greater national autonomy, Sri Lanka because independent on 4 February 1948, remaining part of the British Commonwealth. The 1978 Constitution, with its subsequent amendments, has brought into existence a unicameral Parliament with an Executive President, a Prime Minister with a Cabinet of Ministers , and a system of Provincial Councils with specified legislative power and a Chief Minister and Board of Ministers in each Province.

Religious and cultural life in the colonial period

A veritable decadence in the religious and cultural life set in with the fall of the Kingdom of Kotte. Portuguese oppression of national religions coincided with the hostilities of Rajasimha I of Sitavaka who, seeking to absolve his crime against his father became a Hindu. Even Alagiyavanna, the last poet to hold on to the classical traditions of Sinhala literature, converted to Catholicism.

Renaissance of Buddhism and its impact on culture

It is noteworthy that steps to revitalize Buddhism were actually initiated by the first two Nayakkar kings. Sri Vijayarajasimha with his queens adopted Buddhism and, according to the Mahavamsa, was the first patron of Velivita Sri Saranankara. The mission from Siam led by Thera Upali, however, came in 1753 in the reign of Kirti Sri Rajasimha. With the guidance of Thera Velivita Sri Saranankara who had now become the Samgharaja, the Supreme Patriarch, ranging impact on the entire cultural life of the country.

National Religions under British rule

Buddhism thrived alongside Hinduism and other folk cults, which were collectively called Devagama, the religion of gods. When the Kandyan Convention was drawn up and the British rulers were required to take over thee religious responsibilities of the traditional royalty, the Sinhala version of the document referred to both the religion of the Buddha and Devagama, although the English version had, whether inadvertently or otherwise, dropped and reference to the latter. However, no specific mention was made in the Convention, both Islam and Catholicism were protected and freely practised in the Kandyan kingdom without the impediments to which the Dutch subjected their co-religionists.

What affected all religions, however, was the decision to hand over the entire educational system of the country to Protestant Christian missionaries. Evangelization was the raison d’, tre of the schools they established.

The national and religious revival movement

Apparently galvanized into action by these predictions, the Buddhists took the offensive first by issuing tracts, intensifying Buddhist scholarship and entering into open controversy with the Christian clergy. They had a band of enthusiastic and influential allies in Western orientalists who were delving into Eastern religions and literature. Among the Sinhalas, Anagarika Dharmapala agitated for reforms in every field, political, administrative and economic. He considered independence from foreign domination as vital to national development. Progressively, state policy was made more equitable and the twentieth century dawned with a better deal for all, even though not all the problems were solved.

Abhayagiri Vihara

The Northern Monastery, Anuradhapura

An exemplary foundation

Anuradhapura, one of the most extensive ruins in the world, and one of its most sacred pilgrimage cities, was a great monastic centre as well as a royal capital, with magnificent monasteries rising to many stories, all roofed with gilt bronze or tiles of burnt clay glazed in brilliant colours. To the north of the city, enriched by great walls and containing elaborate bathing ponds, carved balustrades and moonstones, stood Abhayagiri, one of 17 such religious units in Anuradhapura and the largest of its 5 major viharas. The term Abhayagiri Vihara means not only a complex of monastic buildings, but also a fraternity of Buddhist monks, or Sangha, which maintained its own historical records, traditions and way of life. Once flourishing, the great monasteries of Anuradhapura fell into melancholy ruin, only to be overgrown with vegetation, their walls and roofs pierced by the thrust of trees and tangled roots, and the great dagaba, became a tree-covered hillock the size of a town. It is recorded in the chronicles that King Vattagamani Abhaya (Valagamba) established Abhayagiri, during the period of his second reign, from 89 to 77 B.C. According to the chronicles, the name Abhayagiri Vihara originated from the names of King Vattagamani Abhaya and of the Giri priests who lived in the Jain monastery.

The golden age of Abhayagiri

The accession of King Mahasena in the third century A.D. saw the suppression of the Theravada doctrine practised by the Mahavihara monks. The king prohibited the giving of alms to them and went as far as to demolish the buildings of the Mahavihara and re-use their materials for the construction of new buildings at the Abhayagiri. The accession of Mahasena ushered in the golden age of Abhayagiri. After the Buddha’s Tooth Relic was brought to Sri Lanka in the fourth century, Abhayagiri was selected to house the relic for public veneration. By the seventh century A.D., Abhayagiri Vihara consisted of four mulas, fraternities or grouped institutions for religious teaching: the Uttara-mula, Kapara-mula, Mahanethpa-mula and Vahadu-mula, all of which have now been located and identified through archaeological excavations, research and epigraphically evidence. A dark era of eight hundred years engulfed Abhayagiri Vihara until its rediscovery in the 1880s awoke scientific and scholarly interest in the abandoned and vandalized ruins. Mistakenly identified at first with Jetavana Vihara, they were photographed and drawn by specialists in the late nineteenth century, while the Department of Archaeology, established about the same period, undertook excavation and conservation work of some of the edifices at the beginning at the twentieth century.

Planning and layout

Covering approximately 200 hectares, Abhayagiri Vihara had all the components required by doctrine for a Buddhist temple; the image house, stupa, Bo Tree shrine, chapter house (poyage or ruvanapaha), residence for monks, and refectories. By the seventh century, the stupa, the Uposathagara chapter house, the refectory, the principal Bodhighara, and the assembly hall of the Abhayagiri fraternise were completed. A road access system anticipating modern concepts of town planning has been uncovered, with the highway from the city to the north running through the monastery.

The stupas

The stupa as it stands today is the original as last renovated by Parakramabahu I. No major renovation or conservation has been done since, apart from some attempts at consolidation of the cube, cylinder and spire by the Department of Archaeology in 1910-12 and reconstruction of parts of the three basal terraces by the chief monks in 1926 and after. There are other stupas in the Abhayagiri Vihara complex. One such is the Lankarama Stupa, which originally had a conical roof covering. This has been identified as the Silasobbhakandaka Cetiya built by King Valagamba.

The Bo Tree shrine

Recent excavations in the Cultural Triangle have identified a fourth stratum demarcating the trough used plant the Bo Tree. An inscription, dating from between the first century B.C. and the first century A.D., found in this layer firmly establishes that the Bo-Tree shrine and the earliest refectory belong to the fourth cultural phase. Also found in the Bodhighara among objects of worship were representations of the footprints of the Buddha statue, one can identifying the use of disused footprints as column bases. Further excavations have uncovered several seated images, indicating the final development as a shrine with seated Buddhas and asanas.

The Image House and other monuments

The largest preaching hall hitherto discovered in Sri Lanka, the Sannipatasala, is situated opposite the southern entrance to the Stupa, serving both the clergy and laity: this was an open hall with stone parapet walls on four sides. The four guardian deities flanked the entrances, facing the cardinal points. The Abhishaka Mandapaya, or Anointing Hall, is thought to have been used for anointing Buddha statues and other objects of veneration during festivals.

The residential quarters

A pancavasa complex, of which approximately thirty have been found at Abhayagiri, consists of a group of five two-storied residential buildings enclosed by a wall, according to the requirements of the disciplinary code of monks, with its entrance situated at the end of an axial avenue. In its outer precincts were ancillary and service buildings. The buildings had elaborate doorways and lotus petal pedestal of brick or stone. A significant architectural feature of each complex, adding much to the beauty of the landscape environment, was the pond, often very ornamental, to which surface water was systematically drained. Other reservoirs such as the Eth Pokuna, or Elephant Pond, were linked to these smaller ponds by underground pipes.

The biggest rice-bowl in the world

Within the refectory excavated and conserved by the Cultural Triangle project is a stone trough with a capacity of five thousand alms bowls, indicating that this trough was used to contain boiled rice, or alternatively, to store uncooked rice offered as alms to the bhikkhus. Excavated remains from four different cultural phases, and a stone inscription from the first century B.C., to the first century A.D., descending a gift to the refectory, confirm this.

Ancient water management

The Elephant Pond, equivalent in area to six modern Olympic swimming pools, is perhaps the largest fabricated pond in Sri Lanka. The Elephant Pond was perhaps built for the supply and storage of water to three of the fraternities, excepting Kaparamula. It is an eloquent testimony to the highly developed water management and hydrological engineering techniques of the ancient Sinhalese. Among the most significant artists, achievements in the field of hydrological engineering are the Twin Ponds, or Kuttam Pokuna.

Ancient technology

The 500-acre site also contains many ancillary buildings connected with the day-to-day functioning of the processing of lime plaster and pottery glazes. It is significant that remnants of paintings belonging to the Anuradhapura period have been discovered in the Abhayagiri Vihara Complex. Some of these are found in the sculptures of the gateways and the gatehouses. There is evidence in the chronicles, supported by finds from the excavations, that the entire stupa, stone slabs and statues had all been painted with locally produced lime or lime-based paint. One such ‘paint factory’ has in fact been discovered and restored at Abhayagiri, within the precinct of the Mahanetpamula.

Architectural decoration

The architectural elements of the buildings excavated at Abhayagiri Vihara clearly reflect the social beliefs and religious practices prevalent at the time. Although Buddhism was, the state religion and the principle doctrine followed by the majority of the population, the influence of other local beliefs, particularly Hinduism, were considerable, and are expressed in the architecture of the period. The best example of a moonstone, a unique creation of Sri Lanka sculptors, can be seen at the foot of the steps leading to the Pancavasa commonly known as Mahasena’s palace.

The Samadhi Buddha images

Coomaraswamy dates the image of Buddha in Samadhi posture, considered the finest Samadhi image in all Sri Lanka to a period before the third century A.D. The discoveries of a pit behind the statue suggest that this was one of four that stood on each side of a Bodhigara, or Bo-Tree shrine.

Some remarkable finds

The Ardhanarinatesvera bronze image, discovered during excavations of the inner boundary wall of the Abhayagiri Stupa, is the first of its kind discovered in the world. The dancing posture is a feature, which is not found in similar statues discovered in India.


Over seventy inscriptions, dating from the first century B.C., to the eleventh century A.D., illustrate the development of early Brahimi, middle Sinhala, Sanskrit and Tamil. They are of inestimable value to archaeologists and historians for the new light they shed on the religious, political and soci-economics life of ancient Sri Lanka. Also of special significance, is the finding of an inscription on a gold ingot with older lettering specifying its weight, thereby making possible a comparison between early units of measurement and those used today? Coins found at Abhayagiri date from the pre-Christian era to the Dutch period.


Stupa and monastery complex

King Mahasena (276-303 A.D.), the first of the great tank builders in Sri Lanka, founded Jetavanaramaya, or Jetavana Monastery. Historically, Jetavanaramaya is very important in the development of the three Theravadi sects in Sri Lanka. This vast edifice, which has withstood the ravages of time and the elements for about 1600 years, is an eloquent witness to the engineering expertise and the sound knowledge of geometry and physics of the ancient inhabitants of Sri Lanka. The area where the Jetavana monastery stands was originally known as the Nandana Pleasure Grove, mentioned for the first time in connection with Thera Mahinda, the son of Emperor Asoka, the renowned ruler of India of the third century B.C.

Mahinda’s last resting place

The two Chronicles are vague and at variance regarding the exact identity of the spot where Thera Mahinda’s body was cremated after it was brought from Mihintale, where his parinibbana took place. The Stupa, or Dagaba as it is called in Sinhala, is an integral feature in any Buddhist Monastery , whether in Sri Lanka or in other Buddhist countries in South and South-East Asia. All stupas, including those built during modern times, are supposed to contain even a small particle of the corporeal remains of the Buddha or a Buddhist saint. Stupas were also built at sites where important events connected with religion took place. In addition, Jetavanaramaya is one of the most important religious edifices in Sri Lanka.

The layout of the monastery complex

The layout of this religious complex was similar to that of Abhayagiri but in smaller scale, with about 3000 monks when worked out because of the use of the refectory. The area of the compound also covers about 48 hectares. Although the religious buildings, the community units and the residential courts are more or less identical to those of Abhayagiri or for that matter any of the five major monasteries at Anuradhapura. The site, covering approximately eighty hectares and set out as a monastery, contains all the major elements of a highly evolved monastic architecture: the caitya or stupa, the pilgrimage or image house, the Sannipatasala or assembly hall, and the pannasala or residential complex. The ruins visible today above ground level belong to the last cultural phase of the site: the ninth to tenth centuries A.D. The gradual evolution of the whole monastery complex commenced at the northern end of the site in the latter half of the third century A.D., with the stupa as its focal point, gradually spreading to the north-west, south and east over a period of about six centuries.

The tallest stupa in the world

The focal point of the monastery complex, and its most striking feature, is the Jetavana Stupa. At the time of collapse of the Roman Empire in the fourth century A.D., this was the third tallest monument in the world, being surpassed only by the two tallest pyramids at Gizeh. At over 120 metres in height, it is the tallest stupa in the world, and indeed the tallest brick building ever completed by man, containing approximately 93,300,000 baked bricks. The brilliant design of the architects of old was developed gradually, culminating in the great stupa of the Jetavana, which stands even today as a towering monument to the masters of brick-masonry. Thus Jetavana stupa, the tallest Buddhist monument in the world, is until today, from the point of view of brick technology, still the tallest edifice constructed of this material. Therefore, from both a religious and a technological point of view, the Jetavana stupa qualifies as an outstanding monument of humankind.

Other monuments

The ruins visible today above ground level belong to the last cultural phase of the site: the ninth to tenth centuries A.D. The gradual evolution of the whole monastery complex commenced at the northern end of the site in the latter half of the third century A.D., with the stupa as its focal point, gradually spreading to the south and east over a period of about six centuries. This unique example of ancient Sinhalese architecture lies within a vast enclosed are bounded by brick boundary walls, more than one metre thick.

The Jetavana treasure

The excavations in the Jetavana Monastery Complex have brought to light a great number of ruins, as well as artefacts, collectively known as the ‘Jetavana Treasure’. The artefacts include imported ceramic were as well as locally manufactured vessels whose shapes, forms and functions are conceptually influenced by countries to the west, north and east of Sri Lanka; intaglio seals made of semi-precious stones and glass, with local and foreign subjects; Roman, Indian and other foreign coins; more than 300,000 beads fabricated from a wide range of materials – clay, glass, stone, precious and semi-precious stones, crystal, agate, carnelian, ivory, bone, shell, gold and silver, as well as bronze-ware and etched beads; pendants, tooth and bone amulets; shell, turned ivory, bronze and glass bangles; shell, ivory, bone, carnelian gold and bronze rings; a large collection of turned and carved ivories and bone seals; bronze ornaments; bronze hinges and nails; jewellery in a great variety of materials including lead; crystal reliquaries and reliquary spires; seven gold sheets containing assorted pages of the sacred Mahayana text Pranjnaparamita inscribed on it; polished and unpolished precious stones; slabs of stone with paintings; sculptures carved out of both local and imported stone; Buddhist and Hindu bronzes and ritual objects, and imported raw materials such as carnelian and lapis lazuli.


The medieval capital

Polonnaruva, the medieval capital of Sri Lanka from the eleventh to the end of the first quarter of the thirteenth century A.D., is situated in the Dry Zone of the North-Central province. Archaeological evidence for the early habitation in Polonnaruva goes back to the second century B.C. A study the nearby of primeval forests of Habarana (land of Sabaras or prehistoric tribes) would enable the history of human occupation of Polonnaruva and the suburbs to be traced back to remote times. During the first millennium A.D., when Sri Lanka’s capital, Anuradhapura, was flourishing, Polonnaruva served as a fortified outpost (kandavuru-nuvara) where Sinhala garrisons camped during periods of internal strife between the rivals of Anuradhapura in the north and Mahagama in the south. The strategic significance of Polonnaruva lay in its ability to command the river crossings of the Mahaveli, thus providing a buffer against the invading armies. Thus, Polonnaruva gained the status of an important city, even in Anuradhapura times. With the development of irrigation works and agricultural activities, Polonnaruva became a flourishing city. From about the seventh century, Polonnaruva became the country residence of the royalty of Anuradhapura. Being far from the northwestern shores, which acted as an entry-point for the South-Indian invader, and being on the ancient highway, Polonnaruva enjoyed a strategic position, and gradually became as important as the thousand-year-old city of Anuradhapura.

Planning and layout

The city of Polonnaruva covers an area of about 122 hectares, spread out to a distance of five kilometres from north to south and three kilometres from east to west. Within this area are several groups of carefully planned building complexes, some fully and others partially excavated and conserved. The main city comprises a walled inner citadel and an outer walled city. The streets are laid out on a regular grid, orientated north south and east west. The walled citadel, containing the royal palace complex, covers an area of ten acres. The Buddhist monasteries of Polonnaruva provide the best surviving examples of image shrines, stupas, chapter houses, hospitals and ponds. Three colossal bricks-built shrines: the Thuparama, Lankathilaka and Tivamkapatimaghara, throw much light on the vaulted viharas (gedige) type described in commentaries from the thirteenth century.

Potgul Vehera monastery

At the southern end of the city, outside the Royal Garden of Nandana Uyana is the monastery referred to as the Potgul Vehera, or the ‘Library Monastery’. Its buildings are grouped on terrace around a central square monument a circular shrine or library for sacred books. At the northern boundary of the site is a sculptured figure carved in to the face of the rock outcrop. This figure has been a subject of study and conjecture by many scholars. Who have interpreted it variously as the likeness of a king or sage? The location of the site and the statue on the bund of the lake makes one wonder if it is a likeness of the great tank-builder and builder of the lake, King Parakramabahu himself.

The citadel and palace complex

Moving north from Potgul Vehera, we come to the Citadel with its storeyed palace complex, assembly hall, and the stone bathing pool of the royal garden. The smaller citadel of Nissankamalla, who succeeded Parakramabahu, is also in this area, situated in the ancient Dipuyyana. The palaces of Parakramabahu and Nissankamalla, with their audience halls and the bathing ponds, provide an insight into the royal palace architecture of ancient Lanka.

The quadrangle

Leaving the citadel by its northern gate, one comes to the sacred quadrangle containing some of the earliest and most sacred monuments of Polonnaruva. The central unit here is the Vatadage, or circular relic house, which fulfils the role usually occupied by a stupa in the monastic complex of Dalada Maluva. Oriented towards the north, the Vatadage is entered via a strongly projecting porch giving access to a broad, raised circular terrace. Four flights of steps, preceded by moonstones of exceptional beauty, lead from this terrace by four entrance doors, now in ruins, oriented to the cardinal points, each, which has a seated Buddha image placed in its axis, into the shrine room.

Manikvehera monastery complex

Leaving the outer city, one comes to the monastery complexes, which comprise several stupas, shrine rooms and assembly halls as their central and dominant features. The Manikvehera monastery complex, situated immediately north of the northern boundary wall of the ancient city, has revealed several significant features. The sacred terrace with the stupa, image house and Bodhi tree shrine, was constructed in at least two stages. The first stage appears to date from about the eighth century A.D.

Alahana Parivena

To the north of the city, Parakramabahu I erected the vast complex known as Alahana Parivena, a monastic university which is now being fully excavated and landscaped. This important site, extending over an area of more than eighty hectares, was selected for excavation and conservation under the UNESCO- Sri Lanka Cultural Triangle programme. Prior to commencement only about ten per cent of the area to the east of the sacred edifices had been excavated by the Archaeological Survey, under the director of Senarath Paranavitana.

Artefacts and inscription

A significant aspect of the systematic excavations carried out at Alahana Parivena has been the retrieval of small and large artefacts relating to the monuments and the history of the site. Thus, the written history can now be confirmed and clarified by inscriptional data and artefacts. All of the foreign ceramics discovered at this site are Chinese Sung period ware, including ‘Timokku’ tea bowls specially made for the royal family. The skeletal remains of a twelfth or thirteenth century man discovered during excavation at Alahana Parivena are among the very rare remains of historic man to be found in Sri Lanka.


To the north of Alahana Parivena, Parakramabhu I founded another great religious complex known as the ‘Northern Monastery’ or Uttararama, in the chronicle. Galvihara, the most celebrated site in Polonnaruva and one of the most famous on the whole island, is known, for its large rock-cut images which are in a perfect state of preservation. From left to right, the group consists of a great sitting Buddha, an artificial cavern cut out of the rock, and an upright and a reclining Buddha. These figures give an idea of other colossal status of the same period such as the Great Buddha of the Lankathilaka, which were executed in perishable materials and have vanished without any trace. The modern name of the ‘Galvihara’ refers to this sculptured rock-face.

The Northern temple

Situated at the northernmost boundary of the ancient city is the large monastery complex believed to be the ancient Jetavanarama or the Veluvanarama. The image house, or Tivanka-patimaghara, enjoys fame for several reasons. This shrine contains a unique collection of twelfth-century murals of the classical school of painting a contribution of the earlier periods seen at Sigiriya and Ajanta. Polonnaruva continued the earlier painting tradition on a larger scale for both secular and religious edifices, where the medium of fresco secco was used universally, for decoration as well as edification. In the monastery garden of the Northern Temple is a bath built of stone in the shape of an open lotus. Many more such baths of lotus design built in the monastery grounds, probably to contain water for the use of the monks, lie in ruins and are yet to be excavated and conserved.

The Hindu temples

Polonnaruva has perhaps the largest number of Hindu temples spread out amidst the Buddhist shrines and located within the ancient city limits, almost on the periphery of the Alahana Pirivena Complex. They thus form part of the extended layout of the ancient sites in and around this area. Compared to the larger Buddhist shrines of the Vatadage and Jetavanarama, the Hindu temples can be considered small but significant in the design and execution, with a definite Hindu character conforming to an orthodox religious architectural tradition, and it is clear that these temples are the work of architects conversant with the practice of Hindu temple architecture. Whilst most have been built entirely in stone, a few have stone plinths and a brick superstructure; a method also not uncommon in the building of Buddhist temples in Polonnaruva. Only the Siva Devales of Polonnaruva have a totally stone-built form. Within the Alahana Parivena complex itself, several Hindu shrines have been constructed. One of structures recently excavated contained two significant stone sculptures of Surya and Parasurama, now in the Colombo Museum. There is a clear geographical separation of the Hindu temples from the Buddhist shrines, and their location suggests exclusive use by royalty of the area around the Hatadage and city limits.

The gardens of Polonnaruva

Polonnaruva is described in the chronicles as a garden city, where King Parakramabahu I is recorded as having planted one thousand plants of every variety in the Laksa Uyana, or Park of a Thousand Trees. This obviously refers to the planting and development of the park reserves outside which surrounded the city limits, extending up to the cultivated lands and the lake. The parks within the city are clearly named in the ancient records, and their extent can be defined by the existence of the monuments around which the park has been set out. The Nandana Uyana was the royal park set out within a walled area. We can see Polonnaruva, a city of monastery parks, royal gardens and orchards, a continuation of the garden tradition begun in Anuradhapura and continued through the Sigiriya gardens, and the development of a garden-city concept of city planning.

The hydrological system

Legendary accounts suggest the existence of an agricultural community in and around Polonnaruva as early as the Anuradhapura period. However, it is not until the construction of tanks of Giritale, Minnariya and Kaudulla is not until the construction of tanks of Polonnaruva, with their network of irrigation channels, that populous farming villages came into existence in the area. The possibility of trans-basin diversion to bring water from the perennial rivers to supplement the rainwater of the tanks was realized when the Elahera channel was cut to connect Giritale and Minneriya in the eighth century.


City, Palace and Royal Gardens

One of Asian’s major archaeological sites, Sigiriya presents a superb example of fifth-century urban planning, architecture, gardening, engineering  hydraulic technology and art. Situated on a mountain like rock with a height of 200 meters above the surrounding plain, Sigiriya’s location gives it considerable natural beauty and historical interest. A place of ancient civilization situated close to the capitals of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruva. The dense forest cover remains and many of its present village settlements and fabricated reservoirs date back to the first millennium B.C. At present Sigiriya, it is known as a royal capital of the fifth century A.D., with the ruins of an ancient palace remaining on top of the rock, widespread gardens maintained for the pleasure of the royalty, a number of moats and parapet, and the world famous Sigiriya frescoes on the western side of the rock.

The history of Sigiriya starts from prehistoric times up to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

King Dhatusena 1 (459-477 A.D.). Kasyapa 1 (477-495 A.D.) were the master minds who gave this unique rock its present name ‘Simha-giri’ or ‘Lion-Mountain’ and are responsible for its spectacular if tragic history.

One of the most important aspects of the archaeology of Sigiriya is that it is one of the best-preserved and most highly structured surviving urban sites in South Asia from the first millennium A.D. The palace stands about 360 meters above mean sea level and 200 meters above the surrounding plain. On the plain below, extending east and west are two equipped confines. The rock is walled with a ‘citadel’. Sigiriya is a brilliant combination of interlocking of geometrical plan and natural form.

The fifth-century paintings of the Sigiriya rock is the most famous feature also it lies more than 100 meters above ground level. Today everyone is able to climb this rock by the help of a spiral staircase. Only few paintings are remaining up to date, which once extended in a wide band across the rock from the western face to the northeastern corner. When John Still observed this rock more clearly these are the exact words he told about this beautiful magical rock, ‘the whole face of the hill appears to have been a gigantic picture gallery… the largest picture in the world perhaps’ (Still 1907:15). The most majestic and extraordinary part of Sigiriya is the painter’s art that remains on the rock shelter which is popularly known as ‘Cobra-hood Cave’. The shelter it self dates from the earliest phases of livelihood at Sigiriya and bears a donator message belonging to the last few centuries B.C. With a free and intricate picture of features, the paintings combine geometrical shapes and motifs

Many poems have been addressed to the women who are drawn in Sigiriya and these beautiful verses have been written on the highly polished surface of the Mirror Walls, which lies just below the painting gallery. These are known as the ‘Sigiri graffiti’, which dates from about the sixth to the early fourteenth century, and hundreds of these verses have been scribbled on the surface of the gallery wall and also in some of the plastered surfaces in the caves below. Paranavitana and another 150 recently by Benille Priyanka deciphered nearly seven hundred of these. These magnificent poems, which express the thoughts and emotions of ancient visitors to Sigiriya, reveal comments on the paintings themselves an also a literal meaning of it which appreciation art and beauty.

Closely connected with the paintings and the poetry are a series of mini earth collectibles found in the remains of collapsed structures in the Boulder Garden area on the western slopes at the base of the Sigiriya rock. From nearly a decade of Cultural Triangle excavations at Sigiriya, these are found among the most remarkable archaeological finds. Most of the collectibles come into sight today as female torsos, modelled in the familiar ‘classic realist’ style of the Middle Historical period (circa sixth to thirteenth century). A characteristic concern with three-dimensional form and sensitivity to both anatomical and ornamental detail is shown in these modelling of the small sculptures.

The importance of these figures is that these represent the famous apsaras who are in the Sigiriya paintings. . The similarity of the three-dimensional and the two-dimensional image is a basic principle of South and Southeast Asian art in the concept of the union of sculpture and painting. Which is even more unique and rare is that to find ancient works of art which are actual models of other works of art, a movement which can be called as ‘art about art’.

The water gardens are, perhaps, the most massive and extraordinary work that lies in the central section of the western precinct. There are three principle gardens, which lie along the central east-west axis. At the head of each causeway in the entire garden, there is a walled enclosure with gateways placed. There is a triple entrance to the west, which is the largest of these gateways. Garden 2 the ‘Fountain Garden’ is a narrow area on two levels. Even today, these fountains operate in rainy weather. Garden 3, which is on a higher level, consists of a massive area of patio and halls. Today by excavations, it had been revealed that a network of underground conduits, which is fed initially by the Sigiriya Lake, interlinked the pools.

The boulder garden presents a garden design, which is in contrast to the water gardens. It is an entirely crude or even formation, which consists of a number of winding pathways, which link several clusters of large natural boulders that extends from the southern slops of the Sigiriya hill to the northern slops below the raised ground of the lion staircase. One of the most important features of this boulder garden is how almost every rock and boulder had a pavilion or a building set upon it. The third garden form at Sigiriya, the terraced gardens have been designed out of natural hill at the base of the Sigiriya rock.

The Mirror Wall dates from fifth century and it is still preserved in its original form. The Mirror Wall is built up from the base of the rock itself; also, it has a highly polished plaster finish, from which it gets its ancient name, the Mirror Wall. The Sigiriya Graffiti contains in the polished inner surface of the mirror wall.

From all these remarkable work, the most dramatic feature is the great Lion Staircase, which is now preserved only in two colossal paws. We know that one of the principle features of king Kasyapa was the construction of the Lion Staircase House in the Sigiriya complex. The Lion was symbolized as the ultimate and solitary guardhouse to the palace on the summit of it as the Lion was treated as a mythical ancestor and the royal symbol of the Sri Lankan Kings.

Sigiriya is the earliest surviving palace in Sri Lanka, which provides important data for the study of Asian palace forms. The outer or lower palace, the inner or upper palace, and the palace gardens to the south are the three distinct parts of this palace complex. These three parts congregate on a huge and magnificent rock-cut pool runs down the complex between the outer and the inner palace.

Sigiriya extends in to a large hinterland known in ancient times as the ‘Sinhagiri Bim’ the Sigiri Territory which shows in the archaeology research of the Sigiriya complex that it is not limited to the palace, the gardens and the city. A multifarious archaeological landscape consisting of a large number of rural settlement sites, village tanks, major iron-producing centre, and a variety of Buddhist monasteries are shown in the recent archaeological explorations. Outside the city walls and along the Sigiri Oya shows the immediate greater Sigiriya area including suburban settlements. The Sigiri Mahavava, a great-fabricated lake more than eight kilometres in length, and the twelve-kilometre long Vavala canal system that is a major irrigation network to the south of the Sigiriya rock. Directly to the north and south of the city are the ancient fortresses of Mapagala, with its ‘Cyclopean’ walls, dating from the first to the third centuries A.D., and the major monastery complexes of Pidurangala and Ramakale. Up to date from these studies of this remarkable landscape have made it one of the most intensively surveyed archaeo-historical micro-reigns in South Asia.


The Golden Mountain temple

The Buddhist monastery at Dambulla, the ancient Jambukola vihara, is best known for its rock temples and its great cycle of well-preserved eighteenth-century rock and wall paintings. It is one of the largest cave temple complexes in the South and Southeast Asian region and one of the most important centres of Buddhist pilgrimage in Sri Lanka. Dambulla is also an extremely complex archaeological and historical site, a palimpsest reflecting successive periods of human occupation, with a history extending from prehistoric and protohistoric times right down to the modern period.

Prehistory and the first farmers

Along the western slopes of the Dambulla rock is a series of large boulders, terraces and caves, which formed the habitat of prehistoric man. Excavations on the uppermost terrace of the Dambulla complex have yielded remains of prehistoric stone implements, displaced from the rock shelters when they were cleaned out in Early Historic times. They are the first indication we have of a process of successive waves of human activity at Dambulla, when one historical period overtakes another, leaving some signs or remains of its predecessors behind. These prehistoric remains make Dambulla one of a small and rare group of recently identified prehistoric rock-shelter sites in the northern Dry Zone. Prehistoric man was succeeded by the first settlers and farmers of the protohistoric period at some time during the first millennium B.C. Dambulla is surrounded by a number of megalithic cemeteries and protohistoric and early historic settlements. Early settlement sites on the bank of the Dambulla Oya, the Dambulla River, are amongst the oldest village and proto-urban settlements discovered in Sri Lanka so far, which throw significant light on the rural base of Sri Lanka’s classical civilization.

The early monastery

Thus, the protohistoric period at Dambulla merges with the early historic one. At some time around the third century B.C., the western and southern rock face and the surrounding boulder are become the location for one of the largest early Buddhist monastic settlements in the island. Dambulla is undoubtedly the largest, the most dramatic, the best-preserved and the most integrated example of this type of Buddhist vihara in Sri Lanka. During the Middle Historical Period (c. fifth to thirteenth century A.D.), Dambulla continued to develop as a major religious centre.

The Maharaja Vihara

The architectural masterpiece of the Dambulla complex is the Maharaja Vihara, which has been formed by the addition of screen walls and partitions to the central section of the great cavern referred to above. Its vast interior, one of the most dramatic internal spaces in Sri Lankan architecture, is not compartmented, but is spatially differentiated by a complex arrangement of statues and paintings.

Stupa, Bodhighara and assembly hall

An important development of the middle historical period was the expansion of the Dambulla vihara to an elaborate architectural complex at the foot of the rock in the southwestern sector, excavated and conserved under the Cultural Triangle programme. During the latter part of the Middle Historic Period, at the end of the twelfth century, King Nissankamalla, who was left an elaborate inscription on the rock face, visited Dambulla.

Dambulla and the Kings of Kandy

Towards the end of the Late Historical Period, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Dambulla once again becomes a centre of major royal and religious activity. In keeping with longstanding traditions, the entire upper terrace complex is restored and refurbished during the revival of Buddhism and Buddhist art in the reign of Kirti Srirajasimha (1747-82). The five main rock temples are entirely or over-painted in the post-classic style of the central Kandyan School of the late eighteenth century.

The Dambulla cycle

These eighteenth century murals form the most important artistic heritage of Dambulla. They cover an area of more than 2000 square metres, spread over the five shrines. The largest of these is Vihara 2, which is an elaborate complex of paintings, sculpture and architecture and one of the most ambitious undertakings of the Kandyan artists. The murals at Dambulla are the largest preserved group of rock and wall paintings in the region, after the cycle of ancient paintings at the Indian site of Ajanta. They are also one of the finest examples of Late Historical Period murals belonging to a pan-regional tradition that extends across South and Southeast Asia, especially in Southern India, Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand.

Rock and wall paintings

The Dambulla paintings as a whole display an enormous variety of style and subject matter. The great Mara Parajaya (‘Defeat of Mara’) panel resembles similar compositions at Degaldoruva or Danakirigala, while the Isipatana panel, with its exquisite artisanship in the treatment of the nimbus around the Buddha and the elegance and variety of its massed gods and goddesses, is rarely matched elsewhere in Kandyan art. The narrative style of the Buddha Carita registers depicting the period before the Mara Parajaya and Enlightenment are in a typical eighteenth century narrative style.


Dambulla has also one of the richest collections of Sri Lankan sculpture in the form of a large number of Buddha images in standing, seated and recumbent postures as well as a few outstanding figures of gods and Bodhisattvas and three rare royal portrait sculptures. A large number of these images date from the Middle Historical Period, (cerea fifth to eighth century A.D.), but many of these have been restored or remodelled in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, although their original styles, detail and iconography preserved.

The richest ensemble of sculpture at Dambulla, like the paintings is found in the great Maharaja Vihara. The main entrance to this shrine, from the south, leads directly to the principal Buddha image and Makara torana, both fashioned out of the natural rock and flanked by the Bodhisattva Maitreya and the god Natha, and by two seated Buddhas. Behind the main image are statues of and Visnu/Upulvan, two of the four guardian gods of Lanka, as well as painted representations of the gods Skanda/Kataragama and the elephant-headed Ganesa. A long line of Buddha images, possibly representing the previous Buddhas, extends eastwards, dominating the northern and eastern extensions of the shrine. At the western end, four other seated images face the chamber and are thought to be the four most recent Buddhas, Kakusanda, Konagama, Kasyapa and Gautama; to the right as we face the main image is a rock –cut dagaba with eight directionally-oriented Buddha images, while to the right of the southern door is a recumbent Buddha image, dating from the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. Two royal portraits figures, one traditionally associated with the founder king Vatthagamani Abhaya and the other with Nissankamalla, who visited Dambulla and repaired and restored the temple in the twelfth century, are located at the western and eastern ends of the vihara respectively. This vihara also contains the third royal portrait sculpture at Dambulla, an unusual nineteenth-century full – figure sculpture of King Kirti Srirajasimha, standing against a painted mural backdrop depicting a cloth hanging and royal attendants.

Nineteenth and early twentieth century

With the collapse of the last independent Sri Lankan kingdom in 1815, Dambulla lost its royal patronage and during the mid-nineteenth century, became for a time the centre of anti-colonial resistance. However, despite the setbacks resulting from this situation, the Dambulla complex retained its palimpsest of various historical periods and especially the integrity of its penultimate eighteenth-century developments. The final additions to Dambulla were the construction of the verandah facades by the abbot of the complex in the 1930’s, in a style which is a mixture of European and Asian detailing deployed in a manner typical of Asian transitional architecture from the late nineteenth to early twentieth century.


The historic hill capital

The last capital of the Sinhala kings, Kandy is remarkable for the natural beauty of its setting in a peaceful wooded valley, overlooking a vast artificial lake. The palace buildings, shrines and the British period buildings give it a special character, while the religious importance of the Tooth Relic and the annual procession of the Dalada Perahera contribute a dynamism and unique cultural importance to the historic hill capital. Numerous references founding the Mahavamsa, the great chronicles of the Sinhalese, and in the Brahmi inscriptions found on Kandyan sites dating from the beginning of the Christian era, reveal a long-standing occupation of the Kandy region, but it is not until the downfall of the two great kingdoms of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruva, when the capital city, along with the royal residence, was moved to the hill country, that the area comes into historical focus.

A natural fortress

The geographical location of Kandy was very important in creating a natural defence strategy. The city was built in a valley surrounded by three mountain ranges: Udawattakele to the east, the Hantana range on one side and the Bahiravakanda range on the other. The river Mahaveli, flowing towards the north-west, turns back on itself towards the south-west, forming a triangular boundary. Kandy has played an important role in Sri Lankan history, not only as the last capital of Sri Lanka, but also as the bastion of the Sinhala culture that flourished for more than two thousand years. Kandy has reserved certain important aspects of the performing arts, architecture and religious practices of the by-gone civilization, providing an opportunity for present and future generations to identify the roots of the past.

A city floating in the heavens

The character of a typical medieval city was preserved when Kandy was established as the capital of the hill country. The hierarchy was emphasized by the privileged location of the royal palace and the temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic high up on the terraces of the eastern hill, over looking the residential area with its roads laid out on a regular grid orientated to the cardinal points. During the 130 years of British occupation of Kandy, the city grew in scale, particularly the residential areas, and many hotels and commercial, residential and administrative buildings were built. In addition, the British who cut down the forest surrounding the city for reason of security, and built three redoubts imposed many conceptual changes on Kandy immediately after its occupation.

Kandyan art and architecture

The architecture of the Kandyan kingdom cannot be compared either in extent or in magnificence with that of the ancient glories of Anuradhapura or Polonnaruva. Although a continuation of a long-standing tradition that was directly influenced by the buildings of Gampola, Kandyan wooden architecture has a distinct character of its own which responds directly to the needs of a small agricultural community: comfortable rather than luxurious. The buildings are smaller in scale and simpler in appearance, but refined in detailing. It is possible to trace the development of a well-developed Sinhala painting tradition that originated a few centuries prior to the beginnings of the Christian era. The art of painting has always played an important role in Buddhist architecture as a decorative medium for both facades, and interiors, and the long continuity of the tradition had absorbed the contributions of the many schools, which prevailed during different historical periods.

The palace complex

The royal residences, the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, the administrative complex and ancillary buildings, grouped around beautiful courtyards, were situated at the eastern corner of the city on terraces along the hill slope, forming a magnificent facade. Originally, the palace complex was separated from the rest of the city by a moat, and could be entered only through three doorways. The last king of Kandy, Sri Vikramarajasimha, built the present gateway to the palace as a common entrance by joining the official and sacred entrances, in order to provide room for the dominating octagon in front of the palace.

The Tooth Relic

The Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha, brought to Sri Lanka during the reign of Kirti Sri Megahavanna (301-328), has been referred to as the palladium of the Sinhala kings. It was protected and venerated by the King who built a temple for it within the royal palace. The Kandy palace was not a single edifice, but a complex comprising a large number of small buildings arranged in terraces on a rectangular plan around many open courtyards. Dominating the palace complex from the centre of a vast courtyard was the shrine housing the Sacred Tooth Relic, the principle monument with its own architectural character.

The Tooth Relic shrine

The Tooth Relic Shrine as we see it today is a rectangular building on a magnificent granite base with its long axis running east west. This stone platform, with its beautifully carved cyma-recta moulding, is a characteristic detail inherited from the Anuradhapura period. The Tooth Relic Temple being a very special building in Sinhala architecture, it has become a living museum of the arts. All the inner wall surfaces, ceilings, beams and columns were painted with murals depicting the life of the Buddha, his previous births, and floral and geometrical designs. The stone doorways and moonstones were exquisitely carved and decorated with traditional motifs. The timber doorways were richly inlaid with ivory and metal carvings, and the door sashes with paintings. Terracotta was used to decorate the external walls and the roofs. This temple or the inner shrine was not a large building, but a very richly decorated one employing all the materials and media used in Sinhalese art.

The Council Chamber

Popularly known as Magul Maduva, the Royal Hall in which the King and his Ministers sat for business of administration and judgement is an excellent example of the timber architecture of the Kandyan period. During conservation work, during the British period were replaced by new timber of the same identified variety. Today this building is used for special national functions presided over by His Excellency the President.

Royal residences and other buildings

The residential place of the last king was located at the northern end of the building complex. It was a long building with a central doorway leading to an imposing hall decorated with stucco and terra cotta work. Rooms were disposed in two wings connected by a long verandah facing the inner courtyard.

Other shrines

Natha Devale is the oldest shrine in Kandy, built in the fourteenth century. This stone-built structure, of three-storey expression with a domicile stupa above the inner chamber, is one of the best examples exhibiting South Indian influence. Maha Devale, the shrine dedicated to the god Visnu of the Hindu Pantheon was found on an upper terrace to the north of the Nathadevale entrance. The shrine was a linear, mud-built structure on a podium, with an upper storey above the sanctuary. To the west of Nathadevale, across the Eth Vidiya, or Elephant Street, was the shrine dedicated to the goddess Pattini. This deity, greatly venerated by the people, was associated with the cure of infections and children’s diseases.

Major monastic complexes

The Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka belonged to three major sects: Siamic, Amarapura and Ramanna. The Rev. Upali, who brought the higher ordination from Siam, now Thailand, established the largest of these, the Siamic sect, during the reign of King Kirti Srirajasimha. This sect had two chapters, the Malvatta and Asgiriya. The Malvathu Mahavihara is located on the south bank of the Kandy Lake. Gangarama Vihara is about two kilometres to the east of the palace and near the bank of Mahaweli River.

Asgiriya Vihara was the original hermitage monastery of Kandy. Its plan, with the residences built around a central chapter house, is very similar to Malvatta. Vijesunderama Vihara of Asgiriya was architecturally important, and had three special buildings: the old poyage, and two image houses with Kandyan period mural decoration. The Hindagala Vihara was part of Malvatta Vihara, but located on the Peradeniya-Galaha road. It was a cave temple on a hill, reached by a long steep flight of stone steps.

Kandy today

With the advent of the British, the city of Kandy changed its role and became the service centre of the hill country plantation industry. Three bridges were

built, linking the city to Colombo and the other plantation areas. Kandy functioned as the commercial and administrative centre of the Central Province. The city changed its face with the construction of hotels, commercial buildings and churches along the streets in the residential areas of the historic city. Thousands visit the Tooth Temple, one of the most sacred places in the world for Buddhists, every day. The fascinating and colourful procession, conducted every year in the month of August to venerate the Sacred Tooth Relic, is a tradition unbroken since the fourth century. This national and religious event gives the city a very special importance in Sri Lanka. Hence, the city of Kandy has become a unique city, living in harmony with a beautiful landscape while guarding its cultural and religious importance intact.