Avalokitesvara Buddhist Art

Art Sri Lanka
Avalokitesvara.  Anuradhapura period, 8-9 century.  Gilt bronze; solid cast.
A Masterpiece of Classical Sinhalese Sculpture
Dr. Sarath Chandrajeewa


Howard A Wilson


Albert Dharmasiri

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"When thus in the isle of Lanka the peerless thera, like unto the Master in the protection of Lanka, had preached the true doctrine in two places, in the speech of the island, he, the light of the island, thus, brought to pass the descent of the true faith."  1The Mahavamsa, (The Great Chronicle), so describes the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka by Mahinda Thera, the son of the Emperor Asoka of India, during the reign of King Devanampiyatissa (247-207 BC).  This momentous event in the history of the island laid the foundation of a unique civilization, and its impact determined the evolution and development of a great tradition of pictorial art, characterised at its best by a vibrant simplicity of the highest order.  The genius of anonymous painters transformed the rugged rock surface and the flat walls of the Buddhist shrines into epics of colour and figurative forms for the spiritual joy and edification of the devotees.


The thematic content of the Buddhist paintings in Sri Lanka can be classified generally into the following main categories: (1) the life of the Buddha, (2) the stories associated with the life of the Buddha, (3) the jataka stories (tales of the former lives of the Buddha), (4) Suvisi vivarana (declarations of the twenty four former Buddhas approving the Bodhisattva as the future Gautama Buddha), (5) Solosmastana (sixteen great locations of worship), (6) various deities and the representations of multifarious hells and underworlds.  The most popular jataka story at all times and places in the history of Buddhist painting in Sri Lanka is Vessantara Jataka, because, as Vessantara, the Bodhisattva, exhibited the perfection of supernatural generosity (dana).  Vessantara was also the last existence of the Bodhisattva, before being born as Siddhartha Gautama, who later became the Buddha.

Classical Style: Sigiri Frescoes

The long history of Buddhist painting in Sri Lanka falls into two clearly identifiable periods: the Classical and the Kandyan.  The Classical period can be dated from the existing records to a period from the fifth to the twelfth or the thirteenth century; and the Kandyan period from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century.  Fresco paintings of the beautiful damsels interpreted by historians as apsaras (celestial nymphs) executed on lime plaster on a pocket of western face of the fifth century rock fortress of King Kassapa (478-496) at Sigiriya represent the earliest datable, the best preserved and the most outstanding examples of the classical style.

The Sigiriya paintings are not religious in content, but they are suggestive of religious worship and hence an art of spiritual symbolism.  They constitute a climax in the evolution of a distinctive Sri Lankan tradition, although distantly related to the subsequent manifestations of Sinhalese art.  These magnificent paintings display a master's touch and a sureness of vision in the portrayal of the voluptuous beauty and charm of woman.  The observations of the eminent art historian Banjamin Rowland is typical of the praise lavished on these peerless manifestations of Sinhalese art by the visitors to Sigiriya.  "The Sigiriya paintings, outside of their exiting and inartistic beauty, are perhaps most notable for the very freedom they show at a period when the arts were tending to become more and more frozen in the mould of rigid canons of beauty.   The apsaras have a rich healthy flavour that, by contrast, almost makes the masterpieces of Indian art seem sallow and effete in over-refinement".2

Although the Sigiriya paintings can be termed realistic, the realism is not objective.   The realism of the Sigiriya paintings is amalgamated with idealism as in Sinhala poetry.  Ideal beauty in a woman as described by Sinhala poets, has a moon-like face, blue-lily eyes, lips like tender na leaves, swan-like swelling breasts, slim waists, and so on.  Sigiriya painters have transformed this poetical concept of ideal beauty into vibrating images of colour and form reflecting the mood of a society preoccupied with beauty and charm.

Relic-Chamber Paintings

The discovery of relic-chamber paintings at two sites in 1951, corroborates the earlier literary descriptions of paintings decorating a relic-chamber of a dagaba (a monument enshrining the relics of the Buddha or an arhat).  In an eight century relic-chamber, discovered at Mihintale are found fluent, rhythmical line drawings done in red and black depicting divine beings rising from clouds.  A still visible central axis adds freshness to the calligraphic drawings which brilliantly capture the elusive quality of figures moving at great speed.

Several fragments of paintings were discovered in an eleventh century relic-chamber of a dagaba at Mahiyangana.  They are executed in a painterly modelling technique, using subtle shading reinforced by expressive outlines.  The largest fragment depicts the Buddha with a halo seated under the Bodhi tree.  The halo is a constant element in Buddhist iconography, symbolizing the light emanating from the Buddha or other divinities.   As an artistic device the halo puts the head into greater relief.  Flanking the Buddha are two divine personages (gods or Brahmas) painted as old men with white beards holding flowers.  Some of the other fragments depict Vishnu holding a tray of flowers, Siva with his trident, and the inhabitants of the Suddhavasa (Abodes of the Pure ones) with shaven heads dressed in monastic robes.  The main theme perceived from the pieces is The Enlightenment of the Buddha.

Pulligoda Painting

An important fragment of a large painting belonging to about the eighth century, remains on the ceiling of a cave at Pulligoda in the vicinity of Dimbulagala.  It depicts five divine beings seated on lotuses with flowers in their hands and red nimbi encircling their heads undoubtedly paying homage to the Buddha.  The figures are brilliantly composed to create the illusion of spatial recession in the composition.   The painter's feeling for volume is apparent in the minutest detail; the delicate lines of fluctuating thickness are echoes of figurative forms.

Tivanka Murals

The Tivanka pilimage (shrine) at Polonnaruva contains the largest complement of murals paintings of classical inspiration.  Parakramabahu I (1153-1186) built the Tivanka shrine, but restorations were effected by Parakramabahu II (1236-1271).  Therefore the paintings may belong to both periods.  The figurative paintings that sprawl along the surface of the walls of the entresol between the inner shrine and the vestibule depicting the gods of the Tusita heaven in majestic grace entreating the Bodhisattva to be born as the Buddha, constitute monumental compositions of epic grandeur.  Luminous, resonant colours of yellow, red, brown, white and green, through subdued by age and neglect, impart warmth, sensuousness and an inner glow to the representations of divine beings.  In the opinion of Luciano Maranzi, the Italian restorer, the technique is 'fresco secco' finished in tempera.3  The plasticity of form is achieved by shading as well as a technique of contour modelling using close parallel lines.   Among these paintings is a figure of god, blue in colour, identified by Senarat Paranavitana as Upulvan the guardian god of Lanka.  This superhuman figure of infinite grace and beauty in an attitude of adoration with a flower in the hand is a masterpiece of Sinhalese art.

The earliest surviving representations of jataka tales are among the murals of the vestibule of the Tivanka shrine.  According to H C P Bell the identified jataka stories are as follows: Vessantara, Asankhavati, Sasa, Tundila, Vidhura, Guttila, Cullapaduma, Maitribala, Mugapakkha, Sama, Mahasudassana, Kusa and Mahaummagga.4   The elements of continuous narration technique, so popular in Kandyan times, are found among these murals.

The incident from the Cullapaduma Jataka where the king meets his erstwhile consort is one of the most complex compositions.  It imperceptibly displays the symbolic value of the proportions given to figures, important figures invariably being larger than the others.  Here the painter handles a common iconographic tradition with great imagination.

Fragmentary remains of paintings at Galvihara are of equal artistic importance.   The paintings at the Tivanka shrine and Galvihara rock shrine are the last classical realism or an idealised naturalism.

The fall of the Polonnaruva kingdom in the first half of the thirteenth century marks the beginning of a continuous decline of the Sinhalese civilization, never to regain the heights of pristine glory.  South Indian invasions compelled the abandonment of the ancient capitals of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruva and the seats of government were transferred further south.  This period witnessed few spells of peace and settlement.   The Portuguese who arrived in the first decade of the sixteenth century and the Dutch who succeeded them, ruled the maritime districts of Sri Lanka till the establishment of British rule over the whole island in 1815.  Despite the numerous literary references, eg. the King Narendrasinha (1707-1739) commissioning the paintings of thirty two jatakas, including Vessantara Jataka, on the two walls of the outer courtyard of the Temple of the Tooth5 a hiatus exists in the material evidence of the continuity of the history of painting from the thirteenth to the first half of the eighteenth century; partly as a consequence of the decline of Buddhism and the dissolution of the community of Buddhist monks, (Sangha) except for novices.

Kandyan Style

The Samanera (novice) Velivita Saranankara, later Velivita Pindapathika Asarana Sarana Saranankara Sangaraja, was instrumental in bringing back upasampada (higher ordination) from Siam (now Thailand) and revitalizing Buddhism, under the royal patronage of King Kirthi Sri Rajasinha (1747-1782).  The emergence of the Kandyan style of painting is associated with this religious revival.  This art form, with its own distinctive character in the evolution of the pictorial tradition of the Sinhalese, is described as Kandyan style due to its centrifugal dissemination from Kandyan provinces.


The line and colour used to produce volume and solidity of figurative forms and natural objects in the classical style, underwent a transformation in the Kandyan period, where it served the purpose of ornamentation in creating a two-dimensional decorative art form.   Vigorous, complex and expressive narration of the classical tradition was transformed in the Kandyan style into a method of simple continuous narration.   Nevertheless Kandyan painting should neither be construed as a mere postscript to the classical phase nor should it be elevated to the status of classical achievements, except on very rare occasions where the creative imagination of a genius has transcended the constraints of a style.

However, Kandyan painting is a distinct art form of great beauty which has its own dynamics and structural properties; it is an art form of abstract symbolism.  In spite of the unexplained historical gap between the classical and the Kandyan painting, a penetrative study reveals that the two styles are two different configurations of an indigenous Sinhala aesthetic tradition responding to the impact of historical forces and undergoing a process of change.

Kandyan painting, despite its rigid conventional character, produced a multiplicity of stylistic variations in different parts of the country.  The two major differences are between the paintings of the Central, Sabaragamuwa and North Western provinces (Central Kandyan School) and the Southern and Western provinces (Southern School).   All other regional manifestations are either subtle syntheses of both or betray inspirational leanings to either the Central Kandyan school style or the Southern school style.

An analysis of the underlying aesthetic principles, the compositional elements, and technical details reveal certain characteristics common to all inter-related stylistic variations viz. the division of the painting surface into horizontal registers along the length of the wall, decorative two-dimensional treatment, symbolism, thematic content, iconography and the method of continuous narration depicting important incidents of the story chronologically in linear progression.  Another important common denominator is the separation of the painting registers by narrow bands of white or yellow on which are written in Sinhala script the titles or short descriptions of the narrative pictorial sequences depicted above.  Sometimes the legend is carried on a rectangular shape.   Line plays a predominant role in the pictorial vocabulary of the Kandyan painter, in defining the distinct areas of colour and form.  Red outlines are occasionally reinforced by another outer black line creating a relief effect.  A tonal and decorative effect is sometimes achieved simultaneously by the use of very thin close parallel lines, specially in drapery.  The third dimension and one point perspective are absent.


The Kandyan painter used a tempera technique with a limited range of colours - white, red, yellow, black, blue and green.  The pigments, all made from earth or vegetable substances were mixed with the gum of the wood - apple tree and water.  The materials on which paintings were done were plaster (on rocks and walls), wood (ceilings, partitions, boxes), cloth, earthenware, and paper.  The rock and wall paintings were executed on a final coat of makul (magnesite).  A line drawing of the composition was first done on the surface in red or black and the colours were added subsequently.   The under-drawings which get covered in the final stages of the painting, are more vigorous and spontaneous than the final outlines of the figures.

Central Kandyan School

Certain features of the Kandyan style achieve a new character in the hands of the painters of the Central Kandyan school.  At a glance they resemble the linear illustrations on palm leaf manuscripts transferred to the walls with the addition of colour.  The absence of any reality in terms of time and space is more conspicuous.   The colours are applied pure and flat; the range is limited to red, yellow, white and black; and their juxtaposition is handled with consummate artistry.  Figure ground relationships are simple, but the negative areas of space are also profoundly important in the structure of the composition.

The paintings of the shrines at Degaldoruva, Gangarama, Medavala, Suriyagoda, Lankatilaka, Ridivihara and Dambulla represent a few of the best examples of the central Kandyan style.  The royal patronage received by these temples was a contributory factor towards the artistic superiority of those paintings.


The first five of these temples are in the vicinity of the ancient hill-capital Kandy.   Although the Sinhalese Buddhist painters have remained anonymous, the magnificent paintings in the cave temple at Degaldoruva completed in 1771 are attributed to Devaragampala Silvatenna assisted by Nilagama Patabenda and Koswatte Hitaranayide.   In addition to being priceless art treasures, Degaldoruva paintings are invaluable historical documents.  Among the most splendid and the best known paintings are The Battle with Mara (King of Evil) and four jataka stories Vessantara, Sutasoma, Silava and Sattubhatta.


Gangarama temple built by King Kirthi Sri Rajasingha, contains a gigantic image of the Buddha carved out of stone with superb wall paintings depicting various incidents from the life of the Buddha.  The Great Renunciation and The First Seven Weeks after Enlightenment are some of the finest compositions outstanding for their powerful style.

Madavala and Suriyagoda

The shrines at Medavala (1755) and Suriyagoda (1757) are temples-on-pillars.  This was an architectural style popular in the 18th century.  In this style, short stone pillars support a grid work of heavy wooden beams, which again bears a wooden floor.   The shrine is built on this wooden floor.  The walls are of wattle and daub; and the paintings are done on them.  The Medavala shrine is one of the best preserved examples of this style.  The Life of the Buddha and two jataka stories, (Vessantara and Uraga) are the principle themes of the Medavala murals.  The main theme of the murals at Suriyagoda is the Life of the Buddha.


Built on the rock at the top of a hill at Handessa, near Gampola, Lankatilaka Rajamaha Vihara stands majestically towering above the evergreen surrounding landscape.  The present restored temple is only a part of the original shrine which comprised four storeys and was constructed in 1344 by Sena Lankadhikara.  Paintings of the vestibule of the shrine are among the most monumental of the Kandyan style, for their superior draughtmanship, vision, and clarity of design.  The principal statue of the shrine a colossal sedent image of the Buddha belonging to the Gampola period (1341-1415) suggests the immeasurable splendour of Buddhist sculpture of the times.


The paintings at Ridivihara near Kurunegala are also ascribed to Silvatenna.   Among the paintings of the upper shrine, (the only murals in a good state of preservation) are the representations of Satsatiya (The First Seven Weeks after Enlightenment); stylistically they are a unique variation of the Kandyan tradition.   Although characterised by a rigidity in the treatment of figurative forms, the visual effect is an aesthetic delight.


The Rangiri Dambulu Rajamaha Vihara also known as the Rock Temple at Dambulla composed of five caves has an ancient history going back to the times of Vattagamini Abaya (29-17 BC).  Covering an enormous area of about twenty two thousand square feet of paintings, this is the largest cave temple complex in Sri Lanka.  The paintings and sculptures extant today are ascribed to the eighteenth century.  These restorations were carried out by the King Kirthi Sri Rajasingha.  A fragment of a painting belonging to the classical tradition is found just below the drip ledge of the fifth cave.   Cave 2 and Cave 3 contain the most important paintings artistically at Dambulla.

Except for the few paintings on the walls on both sides of the entrances, and a few instances inside, about three-quarter of the paintings are executed on the rock ceiling.   The life of the Buddha, history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Suvisivivarana and Solosmastana are the main subjects of the Dambulla paintings.  Large areas of the ceiling are covered with infinite rows of sedent Buddha images painted, perhaps, to depict the concept of the thousand Buddhas of the present age (kalpa), or to convey a sacred interpretation of the sky miraculously filled with countless Buddhas.  This endless multiplication also expresses the mystical power of the depicted figure.  This theme can be traced back to the times of Parakramabahu I (1153-1186) who erected a sermon house 'gaily adorned with many likenesses of the Victor (Buddha) in gold and the like and was resplendent with a garland of pictures of the Omniscient One, which were painted on stuff.6   Two compositions in Cave 2, The Defeat of Mara and The First Discourse of the Buddha are among the greatest achievements of Sinhalese Buddhist art.  These two great masterpieces separated by a gap of about twenty five feet, wherein The First Seven weeks after Enlightenment are painted, evoke diametrically opposed sentiments.  One is the terror and the agony of the dark forces of the inner consciousness preventing the liberation of the mind and the other the lifting of the mind to the realisation of Nirvana, the Ultimate reality.

Southern School

In spite of the conceptual approach to the pictorial narration, the painters of the Southern school often depicted various episodes of a story against a particularised setting, inspired by the natural surroundings in which they lived.  Sometimes paintings provide invaluable records in the study of the penetration of elements of western culture into the life of the Sinhala people.  The artists obviously revelled in the use of floral decoration.  The palette, dominated by the primary colours, reveal innumerable tonal variations.  A subtle modelling of forms by shading is an important element in the artistic vocabulary of certain painters of the Southern School.   Mulgirigala Rajamaha Vihara, Telwatta Purana Totagamu Rajamaha Vihara, Kataluva Purvarama Vihara, Dodanduva Sailabimbarama Vihara, Dodanduva Kumaramaha Vihara, Ambalangoda Sunandarama Vihara are a few of the temples that contain excellent examples of the paintings of the Southern School.

Painting on Wood

Paintings on wooden surfaces are found on the ceilings of religious buildings, manuscript covers, screens, boxes used to store sacred objects and votive tablets.   Godapitiya Rajamaha Vihara and Kadurugahamaditta Gangarama Vihara posses two large wooden boxes with the Dhahamsonda Jataka painted on both.

Painting on Cloth

Known in the Sinhala language as petikada, paintings on cloth also provide magnificent examples of the Kandyan style of paintings.  There are numerous literary references to the practice of painting on cloth in Sri Lanka from as early as the second century BC to the nineteenth century.  The great chronicle Mahavamsa has it that as King Dutthagamani lay dying, Saddhatissa, having covered the half finished Maha Thupa with white cloth over a wooden frame, commanded painters 'to make on it a vedika duly and rows of filled vases likewise and the row with the five finger ornament'.  Due to the non-durability of the material, only the eighteenth century examples are extant today.   In terms of iconographic tradition, compositional arrangements, figurative forms, treatment of design and colour schemes, the surviving examples of petikada bear a relationship to the temple murals of the Kandyan style.

Petikada may provide the clue to a missing link in the records of the Buddhist paintings of Sri Lanka between the thirteenth and the eighteenth century.  The stylistic origins of Kandyan painting which proliferated in the eighteenth century are shrouded in mystery, as it is diametrically opposed in style to the pre-thirteenth century classical realism.  In the absence of any immediate temple painting tradition to follow, the Kandyan painters may have been inspired by the paintings on cloth.

The Lotus

An eternal fount of spiritual nourishment to devotees and a perennial source of aesthetic delight to lovers of art, Buddhist painting in Sri Lanka as elsewhere, constantly uses the Lotus motif as an ornamental device with a semeiological content.   The ubiquitous lotus flower is the sacred flower of the Buddhists; it is the symbol of purity and spiritual attainment.

"As a lotus, fair and lovely,
By the water is not soiled
By the word am I not soiled
Therefore, brahmin, am I Buddha."

1. Mahavamsa, trans. Wilhelm Geiger, The Pali Text Society, London, 1980, p.96
2. Benjamin Rowland Jr., The Wall-paintings of India, Central Asia & Ceylon, Alfa Publications, Delhi, 1985.
3. L Maranzi, Ceylon/Preservation of Paintings, Paris, July 1972, p.3.
4. H C P Bell, Archaeological Survey of Ceylon, Annual Report, 1909.
5. Culavamsa, trans. Wilhelm Geiger, The Ceylon Government Information Department, Colombo, 1953, p.242.
6. Ibid., p.9.
7. Anguttara Nikaya Vol II, The Book of the Gradual Sayings, Pali Text Society, London, 1982. p.45.