A Masterpiece of Classical Sinhalese Sculpture

Dr. Sarath Chandrajeewa, PhD ARAA
Institute of Aesthetic Studies
University of Kelaniya

The Bodhisattya doctrine is more or less a rival movement to Brahmanic god worship and may have evolved very early in the history of Buddhism, probably as early as the 2nd century B.C.  At the beginning, Bodhisattvas were regarded as subordinates to the Buddhas.  With the development of the theory of Dhyani Buddhas, Avalokitesvara was regarded as being the Dhyani Bodhisattva who emanates from the Dhyani Buddha Amitabha which means "Of infinite light".  His consort, called as Sakti, is Tara.   He rules over the universe during the present Kalpa spanning the period between the Mahaparinirvana of Gauthama Buddha and the birth of Manusi (mortal) Buddha Maitreya.1

Avalokitesvara's name does not appear in the earliest Buddhist texts as Lalithavistara, Divyavadana and Jatakamala or in any of the works belonging to Asvaghosa.

The larger Sukhavativyuha2 is the earliest literary reference to Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara.  It was probably translated from Sanskrit into Chinese in the 2nd century A.D.  Sukhavativyuha mentions him as the 'Son of Buddha'.   Avalokitesvara Guna- Karandavyuha Sutra3, dated to a period from the fourth to the seventh century A.D., Amitayurdhyana Sutra, which was translated from Sanskrit into Chinese in the third century A.D. and the Saddharma Pundarika-sutra4, (Lotus of the Good Law) praise his greatness.

The artists and pious craftsmen of Central Asia were especially inspired by the XXIV Chapter of Saddharma Pundarika-Sutra which represents the miraculous powers and the great compassion of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara.  This whole chapter is devoted to eulogize his greatness.  According to this text, he is called as 'Samantamukha', which means 'he who is omnipresent'.  He assumes the role of a full-fledged saviour.  It is said that he can assume any form in order to appeal to different audiences.  He will preach the law in the guise of a Buddha, Brahman, Sakra, Vaisravana, king, monk, nun, dragon or any other human, divine or animal form.  The Northern Buddhist iconography finds no less than one hundred and eight forms of Bodhisattya Avalokitesvara including human and supernatural forms to correspond with different aspects.  The common aspects are 'Lokesvara' and 'Padmapani'.  He was made to assume not only different forms of the Buddhas but also different virtues and attributes of other Bodhisattvas.   He went a step further by absorbing the qualities and characteristics of Hindu gods like Brahma, Mahesvara, (Siva) Visnu and Kuvera.  The concept of Avalokitesvara did not remain confined to India.  It spread along with Mahayana Buddhism to various countries and cultures of Asia.

The Pali chronicles such as, Mahavamsa and Culavamsa are reticent about mentioning Avalokitesvara and other Bodhisattvas from the Mahayana school.  They mention only Maitreya as the last future Buddha in the end of Kalpa, the current world cycle.  The Sanskrit texts, Avalokitesvara Gunakarandavyuha Sutra and Saddharma Pundarika- Sutra describe Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara's miraculous performances and mentions the Island of Sri Lanka.  This story bears a close resemblance to the story of Vijaya's landing in Sri Lanka.  Furthermore, it is very close to Pali Valahassa Jataka5 and 'Five Hundred Merchants' in the Lokottara Mahasamghika Mahavastu6.

Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara appears in the Tiriyaya inscription of about the 8th century A.D. and it is the earliest reference to the Avalokitesvara in Sri Lanka. The inscription mentions Avalokitesvara as 'a member of triad' consisting of the Buddha and Manjusri7.

According to S. Paranavitana, Avalokitesvara is mentioned under the name of 'Nayinda' in the Anuradhapura Mihintale inscription. This inscription, which was found during the reign of King Mahinda V8, belongs to the period of 956-972 A.D.

A copper plate, inscribed with the mystic formula 'Om manipadme svasti', believed to be a work of, in the 9th or 10th century A.D., was found within the 'yantragala' at the Pabaluvihara in Polonnaruva9.

The epithet 'Mahakarunika' generally considered as referring to Avalokitesvara, is repeated many times on the plaque which was found in the 9th century A.D.10 at Vijayarama complex in Anuradhapura.

Avalokitesvara. Anuradhapura period, 8-9 century. Gilt bronze; solid cast.

Natha seems to have been a very popular and a dominant figure, after the 8th and 9th centuries A.D.  Avalokitesvara (Natha) is described in the Sri Lankan Sariputra, a Sanskrit work on iconography used by the image makers in the island in the 15th century A.D.  Written between the 9th and the 12th century A.D., it is an adaptation of the South Indian Agama tradition.  It gives eight different forms of Avalokitesvara which are influenced by the iconographical representations of Hindu gods.  S.Paranavitana gives a translation from the original manuscript as follows11.

1  Siva Natha

"Of beautiful face, possessing three eyes, adorned with a crown and a bracelet formed of a serpent, holding a rosary, having four arms, a trisula, two hands in the bestowing and protection attitudes, having a robe of tiger's hide and riding on a bull of the colour of conch.  Such are the marks of 'Siva Natha'.

2  Brahma Natha

"Having four faces and four hands of a yellow colour, having a crest of matted hair, adorned with a bracelet of jewels, and a sacrificial cord of gold, one hand in the protection attitude, and another holding a book, riding a golden goose.  Such are the characteristic marks of 'Brahma Natha'.

3  Visnu Natha

"Having two hands, holding a chank (conch) and a discus, adorned with a crown and a tiara, a bracelet and a golden robe, in colour that of the lily flower (blue) and riding on a garuda bird.  Such are the marks of 'Visnu Natha'.

4  Gauri Natha

"With two hands, holding a bunch of flowers, adorned with a diadem and a lotus flower as an earring, of white body and dark green robe, with the lion as vehicle, the 'Gauri Natha' has thus been described in true characteristics."

5  Matsyendra Natha

"Having four hands and three eyes and holding a noose and staff as weapons with a vase and an ablation in the hanh, crest carrying a chunk, a woolen blanket and a necklace, dressed in a red robe, and riding on a pair of fishes.  Such is 'Matsyendra Natha'."

6  Bhadra Natha

"With two hands, of a white colour, holding an axe (pharasu) and a cock standard, with a diadem and (vasika) clad in red garments, and peacock as the vehicle.  These are the marks of 'Bhadra Natha'.

7  Bauddha Natha

"Two hands, white complexion, the protection and bestowing attitudes of the hands, rosary, a diadem, a white body, dark green robe, and a lotus seat.  These are the marks of 'Bauddha Natha'.

8  Gana Natha

"Four hands and three eyes, two hands holding a noose and an elephant goad, the other two hands in abhaya and varada mudras, a golden sacrificial thread, a white robe, girdle and bangles on the limbs, holding a small casket and a rat as the vehicle.   These are the marks of 'Gana Natha'.

The above descriptions from Sariputra does not tally with the sculptures of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara found in Sri Lanka.  Images found in the Island represent Avalokitesvara in princely attire.  He often carries a lotus and in the front of his makuta there is a little figure of Buddha in a gesture of meditation.  Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara constantly appears in Sinhalese art, but only in human form.  Tantric types of sculptures with a large number of hands and heads are not found in Sri Lanka.   The predominant Theravada background of the country was responsible for their outstanding preference for the human form of Avalokitesvara, as well as other Sinhalese Bodhisattva images in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa periods.  In this case, we can justify the strong vision and the long cultivated tradition of "Mahavihara School of Buddhist Art'.  According to the vision of the Theravada school only human beings can obtain Nibbana.  The Buddha was a unique human being and the Enlightenment is the highest sanctify status in the Universe.  The Buddha and arhats were venerated by divinities like Brahma and devas.  Celestial Buddhas in the Mahayana tradition are not recognised in the Theravada tradition, since they are considered only as mortal or manusi Buddhas.  Performance of miraculous powers did not play an active role in the Theravada school and they believed that the real miracle is the realization of the Ultimate Reality.

The sculptural images of Avalokitesvara Natha have been found in several distant sites in Sri Lanka.

The concept of Mahayana Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara was eventually associated with the Theravada cult of Bodhisattva Maitreya and Sri Lankan royal religion in the Anuradhapura period.  Many of the rulers propagating Buddhism were considered to be Bodhisattvas and some of them believed that a righteous and powerful Buddhist king could become a Bodhisattva.

In the early period, kings who embraced Buddha's teachings and ruled with the qualities of a Cakravartin were acknowledged by the Maha Sangha (Buddhist monks).  In the Digha Nikaya Commenary Buddhaghosa defines the term cakkavatti as the 'wielder of the wheel, who turns it for the happiness of others and whose actions and behaviour are directed for the benefit of others'12.  According to the Buddhist scriptures 'Cakravartin King possesses fine qualities as the ruler who rolls the wheel of state'.  "He knows what is good; he knows the Dharma; he knows timeliness; he understands assemblies and he knows the measure"13.

Lokottara which means activities of a more specifically religious nature, or beyond this world and loukika, activities performed for the purpose of worldly recompense of this world, are fundamental concepts inherent in the Sinhalese Buddhist Culture.   Lokottara symbolized the Buddha and Loukika, Cakkravartin.

The historical formation of the characters of Bodhisattvas were mainly influenced by the Buddha and the Cakravartin.  At the beginning, Boddhisattvas were regarded as subordinates to the Buddhas and Cakravartin.  With the later development of the Bodhisattva doctrine all these qualities transformed into the Bodhisattvas and the concept of Cakravartin disappeared.  The image of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, in the combination of Ialitasana and rajalilasana, attitude of royal ease, with the kataka mudra in the right hand, evokes the majesty of a Cakravartin.'  Veheragala Avalokitesvara is the most perfect example in support of this argument.

In fact, the royal court of Anuradhapura period was influenced by the Mahavihara and Abhayagirivihar monsteries.  Veheragala Avalokitesvara visually illustrates the 'Monastic and Royal' historical background of the times.  We see the marriage of 'Ascetic and Royal motif' concept in the form of religious sculptural creations.

The sculpture of the Veheragala Avalokitesvara is one of the treasures in the National Museum of Colombo Sri Lanka. (No. V.03).  Scholars date this sculpture as follows:

1971 - S. Paranavitana, in his 'Art of the Ancient Sinhalese' dates the seated Bodhisaitva, to the 6th century A.D.14 and the pose similar to Sinhanada lokesvara.

1973 - S.Gunasinghe, in his article 'Buddhist Scul ture of Ceylon' in 'Art in Asia' believes that Boddhisattva was from 9th or 10th century A.D.15

1980 - R.H. de Silva, mentions this Bodhisattva statue in 'Archeological Survey of Ceylon; Annual Report 1968 - 69', but the statue has not been dated.16

1981 - J.E. Van Lohuizen De Leeuw, in 'Sri Lanka; Ancient Arts' believes, that the sculpture in question is Bodhisattva Samantabhadra and was from 8th - 10th century A.D.17

1985 - N. Mudiyanse in 'Icons of Avalokitesvara from Natha Devale in Kandy' in 'Kalyani' believes it to be Avalokitesvara from 9th or 10th century A.D.18

1990 - U.V. Schroder, in his 'Buddhist Sculptures of Sri Lanka' and in 1992 in 'The Golden Age of Sculpture in Sri Lanka' says its Avalokitesvara from Late Anuradhapura period, 8th - 9th century A.D.19

1995 - The Museum Catalogue, 'The heritage of Sri Lankan bronze sculpture' believes that the Veheragala Avalokitesvara's style shows affinity to a South Indian product of 7th - 9th centuries in the stylistic trends of the Chalukyas.20

Actually, we have not found an ancient inscription or any other text dealing with direct identification of this bronze Bodhisattva.  This sculpture can be dated, based on two events.  Inscriptions found in Sri Lanka referring to Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, which can be attributed to 8th - 10th centuries and the Mahayana which apparently becomes more prevalent in 8th to 10th centuries.

Mahayanism reached Sri Lanka very early in the Christian era and it was probably early in the third century A.D.  In addition, we can not undervalue the strong activity of Mahayanism in the period of 273 - 301 A.D., during the reign of King Mahasena.21   Mahavamsa use the word 'Mahasatta', special designation of the Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, for King Sirisanghabodhi, during the period of 247 - 249 A.D.22   Culavamsa says during the period of 337 - 365 A.D. king Buddhadasa lived as a Bodhisattva23, and King Dhatusena, who reigned in 455 - 475 A.D., was a fervent worshipper of the Bodhisattva ideal and he ordered making an image of Bodhisattva24.

Among the fragmentary cave paintings at Gongolla in 5th - 7th A.D. and Karambagala in 5th - 7th A.D., are representations of the Bodhisattva with the attendant female figures.   Furthermore, in the Kothgalkanda cave in 5th - 7th A.D., there is a painting of Tara in the meditation posture.

Therefore, the ideological background for creating Mahayana images had been developed earlier than the 8th century A.D.  Also, we have no reasons to doubt that the royal court and treasury of early Anuradhapura encouraged the creation of Mahayana images in Sri Lanka.

When we study paintings and sculptures in any historical period, we see similarities of representation between the two media.

The Buddha seated on a jewelled padmasana.  Tivanka temple, Polonnaruva, 12 century.

An outstanding Sri Lankan Buddhist sculpture, the well known cross-armed standing statue at Gaivihara represents a very rare posture not classified in any iconographical texts.  This posture, Buddha seated on a padmasana in a teaching attitude, was represented in the mural paintings of the Tivanka Temple, in the south east retain wall of sanctum.  This painting has since been destroyed. The figures of arhats on either side of The Buddha have their arms crossed as in the Galvihara statue in an attitude of respect from the late classical style of Polonnaruwa in the period of 12th - 13th A.D.

Thus, we move on to another aspect of sculpture and painting in the world history of arts from pre historic times.  The same person working as a sculptor and a painter, has been a common feature in those times.

Dambuila paintings and sculptures, as well as many other Kandyan period temples and the early 20th century temple works by Sarlis Master are examples of the above practice in Sri Lanka.  In addition, we see the same situation in the western history of arts too.   Sistian Chapel paintings and Florentine sculptures done by Michel Angelo in Italy, in the 15th century and Andrea Rubleof s contribution to religious icons in Russia, in the 14th and 15th centuries, are two well known examples of the west.

The sculptor who created Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara from Veheragala shows the freedom of style, discipline of his craft and the accuracy of transmitting ideas into plastic form.  The body movements of Tara from the British Museum and the paintings of Apsaras in Sigiriya both represents the same discipline and accuracy of the above sculptor.

The subject of our study, Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara from Veheragala, was discovered in 1968 at Veheragala, Sirisangabo Vihara, Alavava, in Anuradhapura District.  It is gilt bronzed and solid cast in one piece.  The height is 49.8 cm.  Avalokitesvara is seated in a combination of Ialitasana and rajalilasana, displaying the kataka mudra with the right hand. 

Apsara. Sigiriya, 5th century .

There is an indication that formerly a sirascakra was attached to the back of the head.  The eyes are inlaid with rock crystal.  The elaborately plaited hair dress (jatamakuta) was originally inset with precious stones.  The large empty space in the center of the hair dress was probably inset with a cameo figure of the Tathagata Amitabha.  It is said in the Manibkha-hbum a Tibetian historical source attributed to king Srongtsa-sgam-poit, that Padmapani Avalokitesvara was born from a while ray of light that came from the right eye of Buddha Amitaba, who was engaged in deep meditation25.

In studying the symbolism of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara in the context of Indian iconography, the French Scholar M.T. De Maliman surmised that Avalokitesvara was originally a solar deity derived from Iranian Zoroastrian beginnings26.   G. Tucci27 and G. Schopen28 disputes the above theory.   According to J.C. Holt the impetus for this Bodhisattva's emergence lies within the early Buddhist tradition.  The importance of light symbolism emanating from Iranian sources eventually led to a further enhancement of Avalokitesvara's mythic image, an image which represents motifs of both compassion and light thouroughly combined29.   Our subject matter, this great sculpture of Veheragala Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara combines both these characteristics in a unique single creation.

According to Iconographical sources, his complexion is gold or white, meaning the flashing light.  The subject of our study, Veheragala Avalokitesvara, while contemplating his inner sound and inner light, evokes great compassion for all beings.   This statue is unique in all Buddhist art traditions in the world.


1.  Malalasekara, G.P. 1966 - Encyclopaedia of Buddhism. P. 411
2.  Max. M. trans. 1969 - The Larger Sukhavatiuyha
3.  Vaidya, P.L. trans. 1961 - Karandauyha Sutra
4.  Kern, H.trans. 1963 - Saddharma Pundarika Sutra
5.  Cowell, E.B. 1895 - Valahassa Jataka Pali text society, vol. 2 89/90 London
6.  Jones, J.J. 1956 - The Mahavastu Vol. 3
7.  Eplgraphica Zeylanica London/Colombo Vol. Iv pt3 pp. 151 - 160
8.  Epigraphica Zeylanica 1904 vol. 175 - 155
     Paranavitana, S. 1928 - Ceylon Journal of Science p.57
9.  Longhurst, H.A. 1938 - Archaeological work in Ceylon p.4
     Mudiyanse, N. 1967 - Mahayana Monument in Ceylon, p.95
     Chutiwongs, N. 1984 - Iconography of Avalokitesvara in mainland Southeast Asia p.80
10.  Mudiyanse, N. 1967 - Mahayana Monument in Ceylon. pp. 92,95
       Chutiwongs, N. 1984 - Iconography of Avalokitesvara in mainland Southeast Asia.P.80
11.  Paranavitana, S. 1928 - Ceylon Journal of Science pp. 60-2
       Goonaratne, E.R. 1995 - Rupamala. Pp. 3.10
12.  Digha Nikaya Commentary ii p.635
13.  Wimalaratana, B. 1995 - Concept of Great man - Mahapurisa p.68
14.  p.139
15.  Vol. 3
16.  pp. 81 - 82
17.  p.24
18.  Vol. iii - iv
19.  1990 - p286 1992 - p.82
20.  p.33
21.  Mahavamsa - xxxvii.v.31
22.  Mahavamsa - xxxv.v.90
23.  Culavamsa - xxxvii.109
24.  Culavamsa - xxviii.v.56
25.  Malalasekara, G.P. 1966 - Encyclopaedia of Buddhism p.41
26.  Mallman, M.T.De. 1948 - Introduction a 1 E tude D Avalokitesvara
27.  Tucci, G. 1948 - Buddhist Notes 1 Apprpos Avalokitesvara pp. 137 - 219
28.  Schopen, G. 1987 - The inscription of the Kusan Image of Avalokitesvara pp. 99 - 138
29.  Holt, J.C. 1991 - Buddha in the crown p.39