RELIGION AND ICONOGRAPHY

"Sri Lanka: Introduction - Religion and Iconography (Section 3)" by Howard A. Wilson from THE GROVE DICTIONARY OF ART (34-VOLUMES), edited by Jane Turner, copyright ¬ 2003 by Oxford University Press, Inc. Used by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.

Buddhists form the largest religious group in Sri Lanka (65% of the population in 1990), followed by Hindus (20%), Christians (8%) and Muslims (7%).  The introduction of Buddhism to the island around the 3rd century BC determined in many ways the shape and character of Sinhalese culture.   The intermingling of 'religious' and 'national' identity underlies the importance many Sinhalese place on protecting and preserving Buddhism in their homeland.

Hinduism, brought to the island at an early date, became less evident after the arrival of Buddhism.  From the 6th century AD, however, it re-emerged with an important role as the religion of the Tamil minority.  Islarn was brought through trade links; Christianity, which may have been practised from an early date, was brought in many sectarian varieties by European colonizers.  The Roman Catholicism of the Portuguese developed stronger roots in the island than the various forms of Protestantism of the Dutch and British.


(i) Buddhism.  (ii) Hinduism

(i) Buddhism

One of the first mission fields of Buddhism, Sri Lanka has nourished the tradition for some 2300 years, the longest continuous Buddhist history in the world (see also BUDDHISM, III, 2). Theravada Buddhism has been the dominant and most enduring form. The Theravada tradition has fostered a distinctive way of life and a particular form of culture, the Buddba-sasana. Mahayana Buddhism, which spread to the island in the 3rd century AD or earlier, was influential for over a thousand years. The Abhayagiri Monastery in Anuradhapura, which became its centre, was suppressed by King Parakramabahv I in AD 1165; his reunification and 'purification' of the sańgha (monastic community) re-established Sri Lanka as modal of Theravada Buddhist society. Six features in particular are emblematic of this island of Buddhism (dhammadďpa): the sacred texts known as the Tipitaka, the Mahabodhi tree, the dăgaba (stupa), the daladă (tooth relic), the footprint of Buddha and the Buddha image, the focus of Sri Lanka's Buddhist art.

One of Sri Lanka's most important contributions to Theravada Buddhism is the preservation of the Tipitaka, the Theravada canon. When Ashoka's embassy headed by Mahinda arrived in Sri Lanka in the 3rd,century BC, the teachings were brought as an oral tradition. At the time of King Vattagamani Abhaya (reg 89-77 BC) the tradition was committed to writing in the Pali language at Aluvihara, near Matale. Sri Lanka became the vital repository of these scriptures for the Theravada world. The scriptures were copied on strips of palm-leaf (ola), and the fragile leaves protected by covers of wood, often intricately painted, or of carved ivory.

The Mahabodhi tree grew from a cutting of the tree at Bodhgaya under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. It was brought to Sri Lanka by Sangamitta, a Buddhist nun and daughter of Ashoka, and rooted at Anuradhapura. The tree was planted on a high terrace and surrounded by a railing with gates at the four cardinal points. There was also an empty throne (ăsana) beneath the tree as an aniconic reminder of the Buddha. Such tree shrines (bodbigbara) were eventually replicated at every monastery on the island.

The dăgaba, the focal point of most monastic complexes, is associated with the Buddha's death and passage into nirvăna (Pali parinibbdană). As such it was a reminder of the Buddha and a symbol of the nirvăna to which every pious Buddhist aspired. Over time, the ancient burial mound came to be regarded as Mt Meru, the 'world mountain', and was oriented with its four gates to the four directions of the earth. Its central shaft joined earth and sky and thus the physical and the spiritual dimensions of life. In its centre was a relic (dhătu), which several as a sacred reminder of the Buddha and his teaching (see also STUPA, 2). The largest dăgabas dwarf those of India (the Jetavana at Anuradhapura: h. 123 m, diam 113m: the Great Stupa at Sanchi: h. 18 m, diam. 36.6 m). Some smaller dăgabas were of a distinctive covered from (ratadăgë), with wooden pillars supporting the roof.

Sri Lanka's most celebrated relic, the daladă or tooth of the Buddha, was brought to the island sometime after AD 361, according to tradition by a Brahmin princess who concealed it in her hair. By the time of the Polonnaruva period (c.1070-1250) the relic had attained great importance and its possession was regarded as essential for the exercise of royal sovereignty. A cultus arose surrounding it and a Dalada Mahgawa, a 'palace' of the tooth relic, was built to house it adjoining each royal palace in succession. Once a year the relic is carried in procession through the streets of Kandy on the back of a great bull elephant the ten nights preceding and on the night of the full moon of August. This is the famous Esala, Perahera (August procession).

The Buddha's footprint (pada) has a special significance in Sri Lanka in that the Buddha is said to have visited island and left his footprint on the second highest peak, Samantakuta (2243 m). Named for the tutelar deity Saman, the peak is also known as Sri Pada. The mountain and its footprint appear often in Buddhist design motifs, particularly in vihăra (monastery) painting where the solosmasthăna (the 16 sacred sites of pilgrimage on the island) are frequent subject-matter. The peak is also sacred to Hindus, Muslims and Christians and the ascent of the mountain is one of the most famous pilgrimages of the island.

Central to the Sri Lankan sculptural tradition is the Buddha image. Artists sought to embody the two ideals of wisdom and compassion in their portrayal of the Buddha. If the masterpieces of Gupta India emphasize compassion, the Sri Lankan tradition emphasizes the strength of the solitary arhat and the great serenity that accompanies big quest for wisdom. There is an ascetic and austere restraint about the Sri Lankan Buddha image that conveys great strength and spiritual heroism.

Two iconographic consequences followed the arrival of Mahayana Buddhism: the practice of carving colossal Buddha images and the representation of bodhisattvas particularly Avalokiteshyara, Tara, Maitreya and Man jushri. The c. 8th-century colossal (h. c. 12 m) east-facing Buddha known as the Aukana (literally 'sun-eating') Buddha is carved almost in the round on an enormous vertical rock face some 50 km from Anuradhapura. The giant form conveys undeniable spiritual majesty and express the Mahayanist conception perfectly: the cosmic character of the Buddha filling the universe, at the same as he transcends it. The seven figures carved in high relief at Buduruvagala include a central Buddha (h. 15.5m) of the 9th or 10th century flanked by two bodhisattvas (h. c. 12m) each with two attendants. Some of the most famous Buddha statues on the island are the four at the Uttararama or Gal Vihara, at POLONNARUVA dating from the mid 12th century. The first is a seated figure within a cave cut from the rock, the second a magnificent seated Buddha surrounded by Tantric symbols, the third an unusual standing Buddha (h. c. 7 m) in a cross-armed pose (the face filled with compassion for a suffering humanity) and the fourth a reclining Buddha (1. c. 14 m) symbolizing the, Buddha's passing into parinibbăna. Among the finest Sri Lankan bodhisattva figures is the gilt-bronze Tara (h. 1.46 m;London, BM) dated by scholars variously from the 7th-8th century to the 12th.

Representations of the Buddha also dominated the art of wall painting. The walls of the inner chamber, the ambulatory and the antechamber of the image-house (patimăgbara) one of the most important structures of the monastic complex, were covered with paintings usually in horizontal bands in a continuous narrative. Subjects Acre: the 24 Buddhas (Süvisi Vivarana) who preceded Gautama; the retelling of the Buddha's life story (Buddba Carita); the 16 sacred places of Buddhist pilgrimage in Sri Lanka (Solomastbăna);a number of the best-known jătakas (stories of the Buddha's previous lives); and, particularly in coastal monasteries, scenes of hell appropriate to various wrongs committed. The ceilings are covered with floral designs or with paintings of the planetary and astral worlds and the celestial places of the gods. All these paintings the world of the Buddha, a transcendent realm of religious symbols that is very different from the world outside. The worshipper who enters the image-house changes worlds, returning to the centre of his or her religious and cultural identity. The whole complex may be envisaged as a series of concentric circles, beginning at the entrance where one takes the first step of spiritual development, subsequently 'reading' all the symbols of the Buddha's life and the morals of the jătaka tales, and ending with the Buddha at the centre.

Buddhist symbolism is also reflected in a variety of other ways in religious structures. One of the most characteristic is the Sinhalese entrance. It is comprised of a set of stairs, with a carved moonstone at the base (see fig. 2), and a guardstone and a balustrade on either side. Guardstones typically portray năga-kings holding a flower filled pot-of-plenty. The semicircular moonstone is literally the first step and symbolically the first step on the path of religious development. In a series of carved concentric circles the entire spiritual life is summarized: from the flames of desire on the outer circle, through symbols of the earthly life, to a lotus centre symbolizing the attainment of nirvana.


(ii) Hinduism

Sri Lankan Hinduism is an extension of the Tamil tradition (see HINDUISM, I), and there is an unbroken continuity between the arts created in the service of Buddhism and Hinduism. In the early period in Sri Lanka neither ethnic divisions nor religious differences were sharply drawn. Hindu temple and Buddhist monastery often stand side by side and there is little distinction in their decorative schemes or iconographic detail. Further, the four guardian deities of Sri Lanka are all of Hindu origin. Upulvan (Vishnu) is the national protector; the others are Saman, Vibeheshana and Kataragama (Skanda or Murugan). Greater differences seem to have developed from the 5th or 6th century AD as a devotional (and sometimes militant) Hindu revival swept southern India, accompanied by the decline of Buddhism there. Interesting bronzes portray four Shaiva saints and hymn-writers of this revival: Manikkavasagar, Sambandar, Appar and Sundarar (Colombo, N. Mus.).

Perhaps the greatest difference between Buddhist and Hindu images is one of inspiration, as seen in the treatment of the Buddha image and the icon most characteristic of Tamil Shaivism, the Nataraja (Shiva as Lord of the Dance). The Buddha image is emblematic of the heroic strength of detachment from the life process and of nirvanic serenity. The icon of Shiva, on the other hand, is charged with energy and symbolizes the dynamic character of the fife process. The cosmic dance illustrates the rhythmic interrelationship between opposites in the world process: beginning and end, creation and destruction, appearance and disappearance.

The whole of nature as a 'divine epiphany' is evident in the complexity of pattern and happy exuberance of Sri Lanka's temple art. Püjă (Skt: 'worship') in the Hindu temple is accompanied by the music of flute, drum and bell; the air is heavy with incense and the smell of jasmine, sandalwood and turmeric. Offerings are of the five elements: earth (symbolized by sandalwood paste or ash), water (by water, milk or coconut milk), fire (by oil lamps or camphor), wind (by incense) and ether (by auspicious and sacred sounds).

Among Hindu festivals in Sri Lanka is the colourful Vel procession. The vel is the trident sacred to the god Kataragama and is carried by a great gilded temple cart between important Hindu temples in Colombo. The most important Hindu shrine and pilgrimage centre, located on the Menik River in the south of the island, is also sacred to Kataragama. In July and August thousands of Hindu penitents are joined by many Buddhists in honouring the Powerful warrior god. This festival is also celebrated at such other sites as the Nallur Kandaswamy Temple in JAFFNA, rebuilt in the 19th century.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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S.  Paranavitana ed: History of Ceylon, i (Colombo, 1959-60)
 
R.  Beny: Island Ceylon (London, 1970)
 
R.  Gombrich: Precpt and Practice (Oxford, 1971)
 
S.  Paranavitana: Art of the Ancient Sinhalese (Colombo, 1971)
 
T.  Ling: The Buddha (New York, 1973)
 
D.  K. Dohanian: The Mahayana Buddhist Sculpture of Ceylon (New York and London, 1977)
 
R.  Silva: 'Classical Creations', Sri Lanka,ed. J.G. Anderson (Hong Kong, 1983/R 1992), pp. 281-9
 
A.  J. Weeramunda and J. Anderson: 'Society and Religion', Sri Lanka, ed. J.G. Anderson (Hong Kong, 1983/R 1992), p. 69
 
S.  Bandaranayake: The Rock and Wall Paintings of Sri Lanka (Colombo, 1986)
 
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R.  Gombrich: Theravada Buddhism (London, 1988)
 
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HOWARD A. WILSON