The photos of Buduruvāgala (also spelt Buduruwagala) taken nearly two decades ago tumbled out of a shoe box of old letters and cards I was rummaging in. With it came the memories of that journey to see Buddha’s rock with the remarkable Mahayana sculptures in Sri Lanka. We were holidaying in Ella. A last ditch effort on my part to rekindle the old romance. That was a lost cause but we did drive from Ella, turning South at Wellawaya to see this colossus of Buduruwagala.
The land was parched dry, spent and desolate, like an aged wrinkled parched man waiting for a drink. We walked on foot, the last stretch, in blistering heat with little respite. No throngs of tourists. This was late 1990s, and with us were just a couple of local visitors. We didn’t talk much, but that was par for the course where the marriage was.
Buduruvāgala means the rock with the Buddha images and is a composite of the words Buddha=Budu; Ruva=images and Gala=rock. The gigantic rock when it came into view was at first glimpse so surreal in the barren landscape. I remembered the descriptions of the rock comparing it to a huge elephant reposing, bowing and paying homage to the seven statues sculptured in to it.
My search for more information, unearthed some interesting facts. This is Sri Lanka’s finest example of Mahayana sculpture and is dated around 9th -10th c A.D., and it was possibly a site for a monastery. The statues and the writings on it indicated that the worship and practice of Mahayana Buddhism was more widespread in Lanka than I first thought. Mahayana influence began to take hold in Sri Lanka around the 7 Century, and reached its zenith during the rule of King Mahasen (A.D. 276-303) says Janaka Perera in an article The Impact of Mahayana Buddhism on Sri Lanka. “By the 7th and 8th Centuries the centres of Mahayana practices were the Abhayagiri and Jethawana monasteries (which also includes the country’s largest stupa) complexes in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka’s ancient capital.”
The imposing central Buddha image is the tallest in Sri Lanka and is 13 m. in height and is said to be of Dipankara Buddha and not Gautama Buddha as I assumed earlier. The Buddha is said to be in the Samabhanga posture and the right hand is held in the Abhaya Mudra position. This could very well be the tallest stone sculpture of a Buddha, now that the Bamiyan statues are no more.
The six carved statues on either side are all of bodhisattvas. In very simple terms bodhisattvas are ones who aspires to be a Buddha. Mahāyāna Buddhism encourages everyone to become bodhisattvas and to take the bodhisattva vows.
On the right of the main Buddha statue are statues of Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva in the centre, a bare breasted Goddess Tara to his left and Prince Sudhanakumara to his right.
Avalokiteshvara (height 7.160m) is the bodhisattva of compassion. He has eyes that are half closed, long ear lobes, wears a cloth round his waist (dhoti), and his matted hair crown holds an effigy of Amitabha. His hands are in the ahvana mudra (gesture of calling) position. The male figure on the right of Avalokiteshvara, is supposed to be of Prince Sudhanakumara. He too has a matted hair crown and holds a book in his right hand and his left hand is in the ahvana mudra position too. On the left of Avalokiteshvara, is the only female bodhisattva of the group and is identified as Tara. This statue standing at 5.980m., is probably the largest statue of Tara found in Sri Lanka. She is portrayed here in the Tribhaṅga or Tribunga posture – a tri-bent body position in the traditional Indian sculpture. She also has a matted hair crown and holds a water pot in her lowered left hand and her right hand is in the ahvana mudra position.
There are three more male bodhisattva sculptures to the left of the central Dipankara Buddha statue. The central bodhisattva is attributed to be Maitreya ( the next Buddha according to Theravadha Buddhism) and is 7.3 m in height. His eyes are half closed, he wears a necklace and his hands too are in the ahvana mudra position. The 6.17 m. statue on the right hand side of Maitreya with both hands in the ahvana mudra position is supposed to be an unidentified variation of Avalokiteshvara. The figure on the left of Maitreya holding a vertical vajra in the right hand uplifted in kartari mudra position with the left hand in the ahvana mudra position and is identified as Vajrapani (Vajra-bearer height 6.4m).
The descriptions and identification of the statues are from a paper by Mahinda Degalle titled Buddha’s Rock – Mahayana Legacy at Buduruvagala.
Deegalle states that identification problems have risen in two statues — Sudhankumara on the right hand group and Maitreya on the left hand group.Both are also identified, variously, as Manjusri.
Janaka Perera’s article The Impact of Mahayana Buddhism on Sri Lanka states that “By the 10th Century, pillars of a temple within the precincts of the Thuparama were identified as tridents (vajra), similar to the dorja or thunderbolt of Tibet which is usually held by Mahayana Bodhisattvas (A.M. Hocart, ‘Archaeological Summary).” He also states that many practices such as the 7th day almsgiving for a dead relative to transfer to him/her merit gained by giving alms to the Sangha stems from the belief in gandhabba – a state of mind that exists between the death and rebirth of a being. It is widely accepted that the idea of gandhabba spread in Sri Lanka via Mahayana sects that emerged during the Anuradhapura period of Sri Lanka’s history.
Further, he quotes Sri Lanka’s former Archaeology Commissioner Dr. Raja De Silva in his scholarly assessment of Sri Lanka’s World Heritage site Sigiriya. De Silva states that King Kassapa I (478-496) who figures prominently in the history of the famous rock was a follower of Abhayagiri monks and that available evidence reveals a strong possibility that the site was a Mahayana monastery. He also identifies the famous Sigiriya frescoes of Tara – the consort of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (Sigiriya and its Significance /Digging into the Past).
See also my post of the Sri Lankan Gilded Tara statue at the British Museum