Posted by: lrrp | September 10, 2004

A journey through cave temples (www.sundaytimes.lk/040509)

Take the Moneragala-Siyambalanduwa highway. Turn off at Kodayana and go up to Kotiyagala. Walk along a jungle track for six miles and you reach two large caves on the slope of a mountain called Myella kanda.

This huge cave shrine has a recumbent Buddha image made of brick and clay. Its head, chest and lower section have been damaged by treasure hunters, but the parts that are intact indicate that it is a pure white statue with flowing robes. It is typical of the Anuradhapura period statues.

The ceiling of this cave is completely covered with a series of paintings centring on the recumbent Buddha statue. Among the paintings are exquisite designs, some very uncommon compared with early paintings like Sigiriya. Then there are the female figures similar to the Apsaras at Sigiriya and Vessagriya.

Looking for material for a publication on Sinhala Buddhist art, renowned photographer Gamini Jayasinghe and a keen student of archaeology Dharmasena Rassapana accompanied by well-known artist Kusana Manjusri did the trek to the Myella caves and found the place fascinating. They also found a cave with visuals of prehistoric or Veddah rock art. “One was a sketch of a figure riding an elephant. It looked like a primitive form of art done with the finger immersed in clay or ash in white,” author Rassapana explained.

Elephants figure prominently in these cave paintings. “We noticed four distinct features in them. One elephant is engaged in water sports, another is carrying a lotus in its trunk. A third gives the impression it is ready to run. Lastly the frontal view of a moving elephant is shown. In the middle of an intricate ceiling design, there is also an elephant within a circle with its tail bent.”

Myella is just one among many cave temples featured in the first of three planned books, released as a Sarvodaya Vishva Lekha publication titled ‘The Grandeur of Sinhala Buddhist Art – Classical Period’. It covers the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa periods.

Formerly a senior administrative officer in the public service, Rassapana read archaeology for his degree at Peradeniya. Prof. Senerat Paranavitana was his lecturer. After retirement, he was keen to locate places his professor had spoken of and began his search with photographer Gamini Jayasinghe.

“We noticed a similarity in the places we visited, be it well known sites or lesser known ones. Habessa, Myella, Vessagiriya have all belonged to the same school of art and have common features,” Rassapana says.

The Habessa cave temple in the Monaragala district also has a cave with a recumbent image with paintings on the ceiling.

At Situlpauwa (earlier known as Chittalapabbata) near the Yala sanctuary, hundreds of caves in the jungle have been found. One of them, Korawakgala contains a drawing of red lines on thick plaster of a line of swans carrying lotus flowers in their mouths. Most of the paintings in these caves are damaged.

Another cave temple with the Sigiriya touch is Gonagolla in the Gal Oya valley. A female figure has been identified by Paranavitana as a dancer performing the Parjanya pooja in front of God Parjanya calling for rain. Dressed in a jacket with sleeves, this has been described as one of the most graceful and sensual figures among the ancient paintings.

A group of divine beings paying homage to the Buddha carrying flowers and seated on lotuses is seen in the Pulligoda cave temple in Dimbulagala.

Better known places like Sigiriya, Gal Vihara and Tiwamka image house have also been extensively discussed in the book, with the photographs presenting a number of sights hitherto not seen. Among the Tiwamka paintings, the Buddha descending to the city of Sankissa from Tusita heaven after preaching to the gods, for example, has been captured in a close-up with details of the image. Another interesting picture is the one showing a different head dress (somewhat similar to a modern day helmet) worn by a divine figure. In fact, head dresses and ornaments in these paintings are varied.

The writer draws attention to remains of paintings seen in the Gal Vihara cave with the seated Buddha. In one strip is an old man with a drooping moustache and a flowing white beard holding a flower with a long stalk in his fingers and the thumb of his right hand, while in the open palm of his left hand is a conch shell. A single string necklace and a brahmanical cord are worn round his bare body. Divine figures paying homage to the Buddha are also seen.

The author concludes that painters belonging to the classical period (up to 13th century A.D) had worked with religious devotion and creativity. They were absorbed in the creations that presented many aspects of humanitarian ideals. He believes that up to now, other artists have not been able to achieve these heights of excellence.

Readers will naturally be tempted to visit the places described in the book. What a lot more there is to see in our own country, was my reaction.

-D. C. Ranatunga

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