Wednesday, 4 February 2004  
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Mihintalava - The Birthplace of Sri Lankan Buddhist Civilization

Silumina  on-line Edition

Government - Gazette

Sunday Observer

Budusarana On-line Edition

Mural paintings in Sri Lanka, Process of evolution

by Derrick Schokman

The actual evidence of early mural paintings in Sri Lanka is rare. There are clues however by which to trace the form these paintings took from ancient times to the present day.

The earliest examples of Sinhalese paintings in a good state of preservation are the famous Sigiriya frescoes (5th century). They are secular paintings unlike the others found in temples and viharas which are religious related to Buddhist culture.

Ananda Coomaraswamy was of mind that the Sigiriya frescoes were the product of an isolated school of painting directly imported from India - from Ajanta, Ellore and Bagh - which disappeared soon after.

George Keyt’s murals at Gotami Vihara

Later discoveries however have shown that this style of painting had emerged very much earlier than the 5th century AD and carried over long after upto the 14th century representing a mature sophisticated artistry in modelling the limbs, drapery and ornaments of the figures with exquisite detail. The earliest such example going back to the 2nd century BC was discovered by Bhikkhu Painter Manjusri in the Karambagala Cave near Ridiyagama about 6 miles from Ambalantota. The fragment about 2 feet square showed the head of a Bodhisatva and the bust of an apsara showering flowers on the Bodhisatva.

In 1956 the Archaeological Department reported another such discovery in Gonagolla near Ampara dated to the 3rd century AD. It showed a Bodhisatva and a female figure in supplication.

At the Hindugala Rock Temple near Peradeniya another patch of painting was discovered immediately above the roof of the present vihara building. It could be a scene showing the Buddha receiving alms from the merhants Tapassu and Bhalluka. It has been dated to the 7th century.

In a ruined stupa adjacent to the Kantaka Ceitiya at Mihintale has also been found paintings akin to those at Sigiriya - divine beings among the clouds. These paintings have been attributed to the 8th century.

In 1950 when a 11th century relic chamber in the Mahiyanganga stupa was opened more of these Sigiriya type paintings were discovered, depicting a scene from the enlightenment of the Buddha. Commissioner Bell in 1879 came across further evidence of this style of painting in the Dimbulagala caves in the Tamankaduwa district - haloed figures of deities adoring the Buddha. These fragmentary paintings have been dated to the 12th century.

Finally there are the paintings oi the Polonnaruwa period. The Culavamsa refers to paintings in the palace of Parakrama Bahu I and on the walls and ceilings of some religious edifices. Those surviving at Tivanka and the Gal Vihara give an indication of the paintings of that period. The Tivanka paintings contain several of the Jataka stories, and those in the Gal Vihara show Bodhisatvas, Devas and Brahman devotees worshiping the Buddha.


There is a distinctive difference in style when we come to the Sittara paintings of the Kandyan period. Here we find a new influence from South India taking possession of the paintings that cover temple walls. Largely because its sponsors King Kirti Sri Rajasinghe (1747-80) and his brother Rajadi Rajasinha were of Tamil blood.

Modern Times

The new style was more primitive in method and simpler in technique. Shading disappeared giving way to flat colouring. The paintings are epic in manner but not artistic in any modern sense. Yet they are attractive. and served the purpose for which they were created.

Namely to instruct devotees in the Jataka stories, or previous births of the Buddha and episodes in his life in long panels of continuous narration, set close together with the same figures repeated in new situations to show the progress of the story in the manner of strip cartoons published in daily newspapers.

Numerous examples of sittara are extent to this day at Degaldoruwa, Dambulla, Dodantale, Dangirigola, Ganegoda, Mulgirigala and Totagamuwa temples.

The Degaldoruwa Rock Temple, 3 miles from Kandy is a good example of Sittara painting executed by the best painter of the day, an unordained monk by the name of Devaragampola Silvatenne Unnanse - four Jataka stories namely Sattubhata, Sutasoma, Mahaseelava and Vessantara.

He was also responsible for the high class paintings of the Ridi Vihara near Kurunegala. There is one on the roof of the Supreme Buddha battling with Mara and another of a row of Devas and Brahmans carrying flowers in their hands to worship the Supreme Buddha.

The old art tradition of Ajanta and Sigiriya was revived in the 20th century by Solius Mendis when he painted the walks of the new wing of the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara. In addition to beautiful panels glorifying the religion, Mendis also introduced several historical panels viz: the arrival of Vijaya, the destruction of the temple by the Portuguese and other events.

Another series of modern frescoes that deserves attention is found at the Gotami Vihara in Colombo. They were painted by George Keyt who derived his inspiration from the stone carvings at Sanchi and Amaravati in India.

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