Hindu Art
Art Sri Lanka
Parvati.  Polonnaruva period, 11 century.  Bronze; solid cast.


Sirinimal Lakdusinghe

arwA.gif (862 bytes)  To view sculpture      arwA.gif (862 bytes)  To read Sinhala article

Hinduism in Sri Lanka

Although Buddhism has been the basis and backbone of Sri Lankan culture for over two thousand years, Hinduism has also contributed in a significant way.  Hindu beliefs and customs were known to the Sri Lankan people from the beginning of the country's history.  It is with the early inhabitants who are thought to have come to the island from the north-west and north-east regions of the South Asian mainland that the beliefs and practices of Hinduism, in its original Brahmanic form, came into the country.   However, it is because of the close intercourse that Sri Lanka had with South India that the present form Hinduism has spread in Sri Lanka.

South Indian princes and adventurers who invaded the country were able to capture the throne several times during the early half of the Anuradhapura period.  This happened for the first time when two Tamil brothers, Sena and Guttika, ruled the kingdom for ten years in the second century BC.  Again in the same century, Elala, a Tamil prince who arrived in Sri Lanka from the Chola country, ruled Anuradhapura kingdom for forty-five years.  During the reign of king Vattagamini Abhaya (89-77 BC) seven Tamils who came from South India ruled the country for fourteen years.  Besides these, during the latter part of the Anuradhapura period a large number of South Indian mercenaries were brought over to Sri Lanka.  One of the factors influencing the spread of Hinduism in Sri Lanka at this time was the political connections that Sri Lanka had with South India.

Hindu Temples in Sri Lanka

The Mahavamsa, the great Pali chronicle of Sri Lanka, records that King Pandukhabhaya built dwelling places for brahmanas and sivika-salas (Mahavamsa 10:12).  Professor Senerat Paranavitana believed that the words sivika-sala means a shrine housing a Shiva linga (Paranavitana 1929).  Since phallic worship was known in India from very early times it is not impossible that there were shrines housing lingas in Sri Lanka in the fourth century BC.  Similarly the Mahabodhivamsa refers to a deva-geha, a residence for gods, belonging to a brahmana named Diyavasa in Anuradhapura during the reign of King Devanampiyatissa (250-210 BC).

There were several Hindu temples in Sri Lanka during the reign of King Mahasena in the fourth century (Mahavamsa 37:40).  Mahinda II, a Buddhist king who ruled the country in the eighth century, is referred to in the Mahavamsa as having restored many temples of gods and fashioned costly images of gods for these temples (Mahavamsa 43:143).

In the seventh century there was a Hindu revival in South India under the patronage of the Pallava kings.  Sri Lanka had a close connection with the Pallava kingdom during this period.  King Manavamma (684-718) was a great friend of the famous Pallava king Narasimhavarman, who with the aid of his navy restored Manavamma to the throne of the Anuradhapura kingdom, which he had lost to usurpers.  During, the period of the Hindu revival in South India, temples seem to have been built at various places and in Sri Lanka too, especially at port-towns and in the places where South Indian troops had established their settlements.  The port-towns seem to have had a fair population of Tamils from very early times.  This seems to be the reason why the most renowned Hindu temples of Sri Lanka, such as Koneshvaram, Tiruketishvaram and Munneshvaram are found at famous ports.  Tirugnanasambandar, the great Tamil saint of the seventh century, has composed hymns praising the glories of Tiruketishvaram and Koneshvaram.

The Anuradhapura Period

H C P Bell, the first Commissioner of the Archaeological Survey of Sri Lanka, in the course of his excavation work at Anuradhapura, discovered a group of about a dozen small Hindu temples, which he termed 'Tamil Ruins', in the area between the pathways leading from two of Anuradhapura's major Buddhist monasteries, the Jetavana Vihara and the Abbayagiri Vihara to the outlying Vijayarama and Pankuliya monasteries (ASCAR 1892:5).   In the subsequent report for 1893, he records the discovery of four or five more shrines and also residences for officiating priests.  All these temples were based on a similar plan with a vestibule (mandapa), a middle room (antarala), a sanctum (garbhagrha) and with a brick basement (adhisthana).  These Hindu temples seem to have been built in the capital during the latter part of the Anuradhapura period, all probably constructed in the Sri Lankan style of timber and brick construction, possibly to cater to the religious interests of the South Indian mercenaries who were brought to Sri Lanka by the Sinhalese kings and who had settled in the capital.

The Period of Chola Domination

When Chola ruler Rajaraja (985-1014) conquered Sri Lanka around 993, the country underwent its most intense period of Hindu activity.  Although areas such as the south-cast and the central mountain regions remained independent, a large part of the island was virtually a province of the Chola empire, till the Sinhalese king Vijayabahu I (1055-1110) defeated and expelled the cholas from the country in 1070.  At the time of the of the Chola occupation, the military commander of the Cholas had his headquarters at Polonnaruva.  Although Vijayabahu was crowned at Anuradhapura, he too established his capital at Polonnaruva, which had also been used occasionally as a royal residence during the late Anuradhapura period.  In India at this time Hindu art and architecture attained its most brilliant expression under the patronage of the mighty Chola emperors.  The spirit of Chola building activities spread to Sri Lanka immediately after the country became a province of the Chola empire.  A Shiva shrine, the Vanavanmadevishvaram, named after the queen of the Chola Emperor Rajaraja I, was built at Polonnaruva, and is still preserved as one of the best examples of Hindu temple architecture to be seen in Sri Lanka.  Many other Hindu temples have also been discovered in the archaeological excavations at Polonnaruva.  At least seven important Shiva devotes and five Vishnu devales can be identified among the ruins at Polonnaruva.  The chola rulers not only built new Hindu temples but also repaired and restored some of the ancient temples in the island.  For instance, the inscriptions of Rajendra I and Adirajendra refer to two Hindu temples at Mantai (Mantota), to which several donations were made by then.

The Post-Chola Period

Even after the overthrow of Chola rule by Vijayabahu I in 1070, the Hindu temples seem to have been maintained by the Sinhalese rulers, who not only acknowledge their role in society but also extended their royal patronage to some of these temples, as witnessed by a number of Sinhalese and Tamil inscriptions.  A Shiva temple at Kantalai was named 'Vijayaraja-ishvaram', after Vijayabahu I, and a Brahmin settlement in the area was known as 'Vijayaraja-catur-vedi-mangalam' (Epigraphia Zeylanica 4:195).

A Hindu temple at Nikavaratiya was, known as Vikkrarma-Calamega-ishvaram' indicating that it was built by King Vikramabahu (Epigraphia Zeylanica 3:311).  Vikramabahu was referred to by the title 'Parvati-pati' in the Kahamnbiliava inscription (Epigraphia Zeylanica 3:407).  Parakramabahu I (1153-1186) is credited in the Chulavamsa, the latter part of the Mahasvamsa, with the erection of thirteen temple of the gods and the repair of seventy-nine decayed temples, as well as the restoration of twenty-four other devales (Chulavamsa 79:19,22).  King Nissankamalla (1187-1196) helped brahmanas by building a brahamana satra (Epigraphia Zeylanica 3:174).  King Parakramabahu II (1236-1271) who ruled from Dambadenia, the capital of Sri Lanka after Polonnaruva, built several temples of gods at Polonnaruva (Chulavamsa 88:93, 119).  Thus it is very, clear that the Buddhist rulers of the post-Chola period were not only tolerant towards Hinduism, but were also active patrons of that religion.  During the time of the temporary occupation of the northern part of the country by the Pandyan kingdom, in the thirteenth century, more Hindu temples were built at several places in the island.   The Shiva Devale No. 1 at Polonnaruva and the temple at Tirukkovil, in the Eastern Province, are two Hindu shrines constructed during this period.  The establishment of the independent Hindu kingdom of Jaffna, in the northern part of the country, soon after the Pandyan invasions, led to a revival of the Hindu religion in that area.  One of the famous Hindu shrines built at this time in the Jaffna kingdom was the Kandasami temple at Nallur.  Even the southern part of the country came increasingly under the influence of Hinduism during this period and in its aftermath.  This fact is very well demonstrated by the references to Hindu temples that we see in the Sinhalese Sandesa (message) poems of the 14th to 16th centuries and also by several Tamil inscriptions recording donations to various Hindu temples during the period of the Kotte kingdom (15th to 16th century).  King Rajasimha I of Sitavaka became a follower of Hinduism and built a Hindu shrine, popularly known as the Berendi Kovil at Sitavaka, the capital of his domain.

The Polonnaruva Bronzes

Since the discovery of a group of Hindu bronzes from Polonnaruva in 1907, scholars have expressed divergent views on the question of their origin.  H C P Bell, who actually discovered them, expressed the view that "there is every likelihood that when the Cholas who brought the Sinhala people under subjection, began building shrines to worship their gods and started making images, of their deities and saints, they employed Sinhala artisans" (ASCAR 1908: 74).  The scholar-statesman, Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam was equally emphatic "Let it be asserted once and for all that they are Polonnaruva bronzes, for the better or for worse" (Arunachalam 1907: 67).   These two early opinions were.,in agreement that the bronzes were of Sri Lankan workmanship.  A different opinion was expressed a few years later by Ananda Coomaraswamy who thought that "they may have been cast in Sri Lanka, but as a group they belong to the prolific South lndian school of mediaeval bronzes represented in Madras and Tanjore," while O.C. Gangoly argued that "it will be impossible to associate the Saiva images from Polonnaruva with local artists of Ceylon brought up in the tradition of Buddhist art" ((Coomaraswamy 1914: 9-10; Gangoly 1915: 65)

We must note here, that all these scholars expressed their opinions after studying only those bronzes that had been found at Polonnaruva in 1907 and 1908.  However, most of the pieces exhibited here are drawn from the hoard of Hindu bronzes discovered much later, in 1960.  It is largely these later icons which exhibit those distinctive characteristics which have led us to argue that they were made in local atelier. C. E. Godakumbura, who as the Archaeological Commissioner presided over this remarkable discovery, was one of the first scholars to pronounce unequivocally that these bronzes were made by Sri Lankan artists (Godakumbura 1961: 239-53).

It is interesting to note with hindsight that O.C Gangoly himself had considered some bronzes of the first collection to have been made by local craftsmen : "There is no doubt, however, that these beautiful images which the chola colonists brought to Ceylon excited the wonder and emulation of the local Sinhalese craftsmen, some of whom attempted to copy some of these models and to reproduce the conventions of poses and peculiarities without a previous knowledge or training as to its traditional rules and measurements (Gangoly 1915: 74-5). Here again we must note that his opinion was that the more refined Hindu bronzes from Polonnaruva were made by, South Indian craftsmen and those of poor quality were the product of Sinhalese artists.

A Sri Lankan School of Hindu Sculpture

Discussing the seated figure of Parvati of the Shiva Somaskandamurti group, Gangoly observed that "the seated figure of Parvati found in Ceylon is perhaps an attempt of a Sinhalese sculptor to reproduce a Tamil model of the same deity.  If we compare this image with somewhat similar sedent figures of the same goddess it will be apparent there is a deviation both in the modelling and the treatment of the figure, as also in the ornaments and details in the Ceylonese example, which marks it out as the work of an artist unacquainted with the rules and convention of South Indian sculpture.  The hand carrying the lotus, in this class of images according to the rule in South Indian sculpture, should never reach the niple of the right breast.  Similarly the drawn up right leg shall nearly touch the knee of the leg in this class of images.  Both these rules have been observed in the South Indian examples but not in the Ceylonese specimen" (Gangoly 1915; 67).

Gangoly's observations provided a vey sound basis for us to propose with confidence that the figure of Parvati was the work of local artists.  This hypothesis has formed the basis for further investigations which have now clearly revealed the existence of what we may call a 'Sri Lankan school' of Hindu bronze sculpture.

An important point of departure in this enterprise was the identification by the present writer (Lakdusinghe: 1983) that the figure which was found in 1908 by Bell and commended on at length by Gangoly belonged to a Somaskandamurti of which the image of Shiva was found in 1960 by Godakumbura.  Most of the characteristics discussed by Gangoly in the female figure were also obvious in the image of the god himself.  We may now safely assign this icon of Somaskandamurti too, to be the product of a local atelier. This in turn has made it possible for us to observe that a number of figures in the Polonnaruva hoard bear the same non-canonical characters and are similar in a number of ornamental details that they can be classed as a group.  As discussed in the accompanying catalogue notes, we may now argue that Nos. 36, 37 fall into this group.

Most scholars, including the recent commentators on these bronzes, assume that these figures date from the Chola occupation of the country in the 11th century, and only in a very few instances propose a tentative 11th-12th century date (i.e. Okada 199 1: 130, see also Van Schroeder 1992).  However, considering the historical content, the iconology and the stylistic characteristics of these images it seems much more likely that they date from the latter half of the 12th century.  The massive proportions of 1figures such as the Shiva Nataraja (No. 34) and the magnificent Ganesha (No. 42) are very much in keeping with the characteristic breadth of vision and grandeur of many of Parakramabahu I's artistic and architectural works.  It is also argued in the notes on the individual pieces below that several of them seem to belong to one atelier, and in some cases, to have been executed by the same hand.  In the final analysis it is only the image of the Shiva Saint Sundaramurti (No. 47) which can be unmistakenly classified as an import bronze of South Indian origin. The only other exception is No. 39 the figure of Ardhanarishvara which was found at a Buddhist site in Anuradhapura and dates from a much earlier period, 7th-8th century.  It is in fact the earliest Hindu bronze found in Sri Lanka, and is clearly an experimental work stylistically and iconologically very different from any South Indian bronzes.

It is on the basis of these bronzes that we are able to suggest the possibility of a 'Sri Lankan school' or at least the possibility of Sri Lankan bronze casters, basically unfamiliar with the classic conventions of South Indian Hindu sculpture, producing Hindu icons for local needs.  Regarding the possibility of a Sri Lankan school we may draw attention to Godakumbura's observation that while describing icons of Chandeshvara, Gopinatha Rao refers to a book called the Kamikagama, where the canons on Hindu sculpture available in Sinhadesa or the country of the Sinhalese are included (Godakumbura 1961: 239-53).  Furthermore, the present writer is aware of a manuscript of a translation of Sri Lankan Sanskrit treatise, the Rupamala, which lays down the particulars for casting and drawing the images of Hindu deities.  Although neither the author nor the date of the work can be traced, the translator says that from the language used it may be assigned to a period between 1090-1190.  One of the most significant aspects of this manuscript is that it begins with an adoration of the Bodhisatva Natha and that it also has a description of the Buddha.  All these points amplify the possibility of a local tradition of Hindu sculpture in Sri Lanka in which we may locate most of the exhibits presented in the present selection of bronze masterpieces.

Geiger W
1929-30 The Culavamsa. Translation, 2 vol. Pali Text Society, London, Reprint Colombo 1953
Geiger W
1950 - The Mahavamsa. Translation, Colombo 1950.  Reprint Pali Text Society, London 1964
Godakumbura C E
1961 - Bronzes from Polonnaruva.  Journal of Royal Asiatic Society, Ceylon Branch, vol. VII part 2, pp. 239-253
Godakumbura C E
1964 - Polonnaruva Bronzes, Arts Series, no. 5, Archaeological Department, Colombo
Lakdusinghe S
1983 - Sri Lankeve Hindu Pratima (Hindu Images of Sri Lanka).  Unpublished M A Dissertation, University of Sri Jayawardhanapura
Lakdusinghe S
1987 - A unique Ardhanari Bronze from Sri Lanka.   Kalyani vols. V en VI,   pp. 56-60
Lakdusinghe S
1988 - Re-identification of some Hindu Bronzes from Polonnaruva.  Paper presented at the Royal Asiatic Society, Ceylon Branch
Paranavitana S
1929 - Pre-Buddhist religious beliefs in Ceylon.  Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Ceylon Branch vol. XXXI (82), pp. 302-328
Rao T A G
1914 - Elements of Hindu Iconography. Madras
Schroeder U von
1990 - Buddhist sculptures of Sri Lanka.  Hong Kong
Sivaramamurti C
1963 - South Indian Bronzes.  Lalit Kala Series of Indian Art, vol. 9 Lalit Kala Akademi, Delhi
Sivaramamurti C
1974 - Nataraja in Art, Thought and Literature, New Delhi
Srinivasan P R
1963 - Bronzes of South lndia, Bulletin of the Madras Government, n.s., General Section 8, Madras
Barret D
1965 - Early Cola Bronzes, Bhulabhai Memorial Institute Bombay
Bell H C P
1913 - Archaeological Survey of Ceylon: Annual Reports, 1907, 1908
Cartman J
1957 - Hinduism In Ceylon, Colombo. Chulavamsa, zie Geiger, 1929, 1953
1914 Bronzes from Ceylon. Memoirs of the Colombo Museum, vol. I