“At six a.m. I set off for my fifth visit to the Gal Vihara. … like a pilgrim to Nirvana the jungle still dark but with shafts of dawn now appearing. The head of the standing figure — which I like to believe represents Ananda — was haloed with the first light , while the Master was in deepest shadow. The anguish on the face of the disciple seemed more delineated as he stood protectively over the reclining figure. Little scrappy dogs of all colours kept guard, and I was alone on this great plateau of gneiss,” so wrote Roloff Beny, a passage from his diary quoted in his most prized book in my collection “Island Ceylon.”
Beny, a charismatic reputed photographer uses a blue suffused surreal Gal Vihara image with the standing and reclining statues on the cover of his book. “No words can adequately describe the feeling of exaltation that I experienced when the spirit of the Island took possession of me,” he says. On his diary notes he asks “How many times down the centuries had the dawn touched the sorrowing face and gradually painted the rippling robes of the Buddha and brought to life the dying features?”
The standing Buddha is considered to be of the finest of sculptures and is 22 feet 9 inches (6.93 m) tall. “The expression is clear and precise, while utterly transcending the limits of spatial and temporal experience,” says Beny adding that “the statue recalls Greek modelling of the sixth century BC.”
Some like Beny are of the opinion that this statue is that of Ananda Maha Thera but Dr. S. Paranavitana identifies it as that of Lord Buddha in the attitude described as Para dukkha dukkhita – “He who sorrows for the sorrows of others”.
The reclining image is 46 feet 4 inches (14.12 m) in length, and is the biggest statue in Gal Vihara,and is also supposed to be one of the largest sculptures in Southeast Asia.
The colour and texture of the rock with the banded striations gives an extraordinary effect almost differentiating the textures between clothing and skin. The carving on the pillow is beautifully executed too, with indentations which looks like the crushing of a pillow, with the weight of the head. The pillow has the wheel or chakra, the symbol, which is also found on the underside of the soles of the feet of the reclining Buddha. The slight drawing back of the upper foot in this statue is an indication that this is his withdrawal into parinirvana.
The wheel – chakra – in Buddhist art symbolizes Buddha as the one who in his first sermon at Saranath, set the wheels of Dhamma in motion — Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion. His subsequent discourses at Rajgir and Shravasti are known as the “second and third turnings of the wheel of dharma.” The eight spokes of the wheel symbolize the Noble Eightfold Path set out by the Buddha in his teachings.
The wheel also represents the endless cycle of samsara, or rebirth, which can only be escaped by means of the Buddha’s teachings. And some Buddhists regard the the wheel’s three basic parts as symbols of the “three trainings” in Buddhist practice: The hub symbolizes moral discipline, which stabilizes the mind. The spokes (usually there are eight) represent wisdom which is applied to defeat ignorance. The rim represents training in concentration, which holds everything else together.
The Gal Vihara or Gal Viharaya is so called because of the rock/granite ( Sinhala = Gal) face that was used to carve the four statues and it was part of “Uttararama” (the northern monastery), in the city of Polonnaruwa.
Wikipedia quoting the chronicle Chulavamsa says “the Vihara was one of the more prominent of the 100 temples built throughout ancient Sri Lanka by King Parakramabahu I (1153 – 1186). The chronicle mentions that Parakramabahu I, had his workmen build three caves in the rock after finishing the temple: the Vijjadhara Guha (cave of the spirits of knowledge), the Nissina Patima Lena (cave of the sitting image), and the Nipanna Patima Guha (cave of the sleeping image). Although they are described as “caves”, only the Vijjadhara Guha is a cave, while the others were image houses similar to the Thivanka and Lankathilaka, with their walls connected to the rock face. These walls, which were evidently decorated with frescoes] have since been destroyed and only their bases now remain.
While visiting Angkor Wat in 1993, I first noticed that there in Angkor was a temple very similar to the Sathmahal Prasadaya at Polonnaruwa and heard about the ties between Lanka and Cambodia during this period.
See Bernard VanCuylenburg’s article about; Lanka and Cambodian connections: http://lankavisions.weebly.com/the-cambodian-connection.html
[ See also Wikipedia for more history and images of the seated Buddha statues]