Fading Murals of Bihalpola Raja Maha Vihare

Information is pretty thin stuff, unless mixed with experience said the American author Clarence Day and so it was with the Bihalpola Raja Maha Vihare  located off the Kurunegala-Narammala-Madampe Rd, Sri Lanka. We had been warned that the climb to the top was tedious but I was glad that I huffed and puffed and dragged my aching, creaking joints to the higher level of the temple.  Much of the murals are fading and decaying but the grandeur and the colours of what is left of the frescoes in the relic chamber (Datu Mandiraya) of this temple was well worth the climb.  

Mural of possibly Sariputta or Mogallana Arahat thera.Bihalpola Raja Maha Vihare. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

Mural of possibly Sariputta or Mogallana Arahat thera.Bihalpola Raja Maha Vihare. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

Historically the temple roots go back to King Devanampiya Tissa (B.C. 89-77), who is supposed to be the first person to convert when Buddhism was introduced to Lanka by Emperor Asoka. An interesting fact I gleaned after returning was that Kingship was founded in Ceylon [Sri Lanka] by Asoka with the consecration of Devanampiya Tissa. This is a hypotheses put forward by Senarath Paravitana, our pioneering archeologist and epigraphist. The temple was later renovated by King Walagamba (89-77 BC) and the paintings are supposed to belong to the Kandyan period.

Mural of possibly Sariputta or Mogallana Arahat thera.Bihalpola Raja Maha Vihare. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

The opposing right side mural of possibly Sariputta or Mogallana Arahat thera.Bihalpola Raja Maha Vihare. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

Ananda Coomaraswamy in his classic work Mediaeval Sinhalese Art describes in detail how the natural pigments were prepared by Kandyan artists. White was derived from hydrous magnesite obtained from  a cave known as the makul gal lena in Vetekgama near Maturata. Red came from Cinnabar, which is not known to occur in Lanka and says it must have been imported. Yellow from gamboge (goraka)  from the gokata tree (Garcinia morella). Black  is lamp black and was made from grinding the juice from the jack fruit, Kekuna oil (oil from Canarium zeylanicum) and rosin (hal-dummala, from the hal tree Vateria acuminata) and then mixing it with shreds of cotton cloth and setting on fire this mixture in a clean earthen pot with a second pot inverted above it. The soot is deposited on the top pot and then collected. Blue was rarely seen it seems, but was obtained from the indigo plant. Green was known as pacca and was made by mixing blue and yellow. Shades of colours were obtained mixing red, black and blue with white to form pink, grey and light blue respectively.

Coomaraswamy comments that a characteristic feature was the outlining of all forms with a clear black line: this outline and the occasional use of small quantities of green or white in the detail of an ornament gives just the necessary softening required to harmonize the strong reds and yellows and reduce their extreme brilliancy. This can be seen in the executing of the above two murals.

A fire in 1997 has damaged number of paintings and a wooden Makara Thorana at the temple and treasure hunters have got away with the Sacred Footprint of the Buddha and some of the statues at the Viharaya. Maybe the statue in the middle in the photo below is a replacement as it doesn’t seem to blend in harmony with the other two statues in the relic chamber.

The inner relic chamber. Bihalpola Raja Maha Vihara, Kurunegala. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

The inner relic chamber. Bihalpola Raja Maha Vihara, Kurunegala. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

The Makara Thorana at the entrance  too looks as if it has also been redone.

The makara thorana at the entrance to the relic chamber. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

The makara thorana at the entrance to the relic chamber. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

However, the Jataka stories — stories of Buddha’s previous lives on the Vihara walls are fast fading. The stories are visually retold in long panels and there is a small strip that is just sufficient to give a short explanatory note of the Jataka story. The Vessantara Jataka on the panels on the outer wall of the relic chamber tells the story of one of Buddha’s past lives — about a compassionate prince, Vessantara, who gives away everything he owns, including his children, thereby displaying the virtue of perfect charity.

The first two panels from the Vessantara Jatakaya. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

The first two panels from the Vessantara Jatakaya. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

The first panel probably shows the people requesting the King Sanjaya to send Prince Vessantara away from the kingdom as he gave away the magical white elephant that brought rain to the kingdom to envoys from Kalinga, a neighbhouring village.The second panel shows Prince Vessantara’s wife Queen Madri in conversation with a bear breasted servant.

Panel with the magical white elephant being led away. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

Panel with the magical white elephant being led away. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

The panel with the magical white elephant adds to the panorama but here it is the observer that has to move to follow the story while the mural stays static.

Panels showing people carrying away items given away by Prince Vessantara. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

Panels showing people carrying away items given away by Prince Vessantara. Photo copyright Chulie de SilvThe upper level where the relic chamber is situated is reached by two narrow wooden staircases and there are trap doors that were probably there to protect the relics.

The air is cool and tranquil and the view is lush and green from the higher level where the main Stupa enshrining Buddha’s relics are located. Historical records attribute the bringing of the relics to  Brahmin Hambinarayana from Vaishali. At the lower ground zero level, the Chief Priest had displayed some relics in a transparent casket. They looked like minute bone fragments.

The stupa on the top level. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

The stupa on the top level. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

Next to the 3 storey relic chamber is a “Tampita Vihara” which is  a shrine room built on pillars.

The 3 story relic chamber is next to the Tampita Vihara. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

The 3 story relic chamber is next to the Tampita Vihara. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

We might not have known the importance of this temple but the people from the vicinity were all there on this full moon Poya day.

Young devotees walk up the stone steps to worship the Buddha Statue at the temple on the top. Bihalpola Raja Maha Vihara, Kurunegala. 6 Dec.2014. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

Young devotees walk up the stone steps to worship the Buddha Statue at the temple on the top. Bihalpola Raja Maha Vihara, Kurunegala. 6 Dec.2014. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

Many of Sri Lanka’s temples have decaying historic murals as this one.

The shrine room, Bihalpola Raja Maha Vihare. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

The shrine room, Bihalpola Raja Maha Vihare. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

As Ananda Coomaraswamy said: “The value of these paintings lies not merely in their beauty and charm as decorations, but in the fact that they are priceless historical documents that could npt be reproduced under modern conditions.”

Advertisements

Among ghosts and legends at Sasseruwa (Res Vehera )

Ancient monasteries, potent legends, the mystique of incense laden Buddhist temples is a heady combination and a good playground for amateur photographers. Sasseruwa also known as Res Vihara is such a Buddhist monastery, so named as the area was flooded with rays of light (Res) when the Bodhi tree was first planted. The tree was one of the first 32 saplings (Dethis maha bo Ankara) of the Sri Maha Bodhi in the Anuradhapura.

The monastic complex is located off the beaten track at Galgamuva in the Kurunegala District. Dating back to the 2nd century BC, Sasseruwa Raja Maha Vihara had nearly 100 caves where over 360 priests had lived and attained spiritual enlightement like the Buddha. The main attractions now are the magnificent colossal unique Buddha statues – one reclining in the main cave shrine and the other, the unfinished standing brooding Buddha carved into a rock face. Incidentally both statues are around 39 feet in length and height.

Reclining Buddha Statue, rock cave, Sasseruva (Res Vehera). 23 Feb. 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

Reclining Buddha Statue, image house of the “Raja Maha Viharaya”  Sasseruva (Res Vehera). 23 Feb. 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

Details of the feet without the customary pedestal - the unfinished collosal granite Buddha Statue at Sasseruwa. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

Details of the feet without the customary pedestal – the unfinished collosal granite Buddha Statue at Sasseruwa. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

We had taken a couple of wrong turnings and the light was fading, and the inky blue black night was almost on us. I was despairing as there wouldn’t be enough light to photograph. The glimpse of the white stupa, across a lake at Sasseruva was a welcome sight.  As KM de Silva said, the white stupa “gave a subdued but unmistakable quintessence of Buddhism –simplicity and serenity.”

The Bodhi tree at Sasseruwa Raja Maha Viharaya. One of 32 saplings of the Anuradhapura Bodhi tree. Saseruwa Raja Maha Viharaya. 23 feb. 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

The Bodhi tree at Sasseruwa Raja Maha Viharaya. One of 32 saplings of the Anuradhapura Bodhi tree. Saseruwa Raja Maha Viharaya. 23 feb. 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

My mind wandered away back in time. I roamed invisibly among the caves of priests meditating; listening to sermons in the evenings, with “hulu athu’ (natural torches made of leaves) lighting up the complex; the Bodhi Puja at the feet of the tree; the lonely artist  moping near his unfinished statue; King Dutugemunu’s Army camping near the lake and even spotting a love tryst between a comely maiden and a handsome warrior. ..

Romanticism aside it was also interesting to reflect on the fact that although  the two forms of religious exercise Buddha proscribed were mediation and learning through sermons, how we lesser mortals needed the rituals of worship for spiritual sustenance. Prof. MB Ariyapala in his book “Society in Medieval Ceylon.” says how people influenced by beliefs and superstitions needed Bodhi trees, dagabas and image houses and the rituals of worship. Thus he says every monastery then also had to have amidst the meditating priests, Bodhi trees, stupas, image houses, and alters for offering flowers and incense. In that respect, society hasn’t changed that much from medieval times.

Reclining Buddha Statue, in the image house of the Raja Maha Viharaya. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

Reclining Buddha Statue, in the image house of the Raja Maha Viharaya. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

The main image house “Rajamaha Viharaya” is perched high up on a rock. Inside it is a virtual treasure trove, albeit the collection of frescoes and statues are fast decaying. The Pièce de résistance is unique 39.5 foot reclining Buddha Statue. I walked around the statue as I have never been able to before in any other temple. The robe is of actual cotton threads pasted on the statue and then painted. The threads, the story goes were were woven by a poor woman as an offering to Buddha.

Feet of the reclining Buddha statue with thumbs in equal position indicating this is not a parinirvana statue. Saseruwa Raja Maha Viharaya. 23 Feb. 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

Feet of the reclining Buddha statue with big toenails in equal position indicating this is not a parinirvana statue. Saseruwa Raja Maha Viharaya. 23 Feb. 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

Lotus chakra marks on the soles of the feet of Buddha. Sasseruwa Raja Maha Viharaya. 23 Feb. 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

Lotus chakra marks on the soles of the feet of Buddha. Sasseruwa Raja Maha Viharaya. 23 Feb. 2014. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

Buddha is supposed to have had thousand-spoked wheel sign on his feet, as described in the Digha Nikaya, in the “Discourse of the Marks” (Pali: Lakkhaṇa Sutta). In the earliest phase of Buddhism was generally aniconic, with the Buddha being represented as symbols such as a footprint, an empty chair, a riderless horse, or an umbrella. Many early worship stones with the Buddha’s foot print exist at monastery sites.

The entrance to the resident of the guardian cobra of the reclining Buddha, Raja Maha Vehera, Sasseruwa. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

The entrance to the resident of the guardian cobra of the reclining Buddha, Raja Maha Vehera, Sasseruwa. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

As I was trying to focus on the intricate design of chakras carved under the soles of Buddha, another traveller was pointing and photographing the hole on the wall just behind me. Apparently the hole was the entrance to the abode of a cobra, the guardian of the statue. And if that message on the wall was not enough for any robbers, there was this seated Buddha statue with the cobra sitting very protectively over the head of the Buddha.

The Cobra shielding the mediating Buddha. Sasseruva (Res Vehera) Raja Maha Viharaya. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

The Cobra shielding the mediating Buddha. Sasseruva (Res Vehera) Raja Maha Viharaya. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

Earlier, with creaking bones and wobbly knees I had climbed up uneven 300 or so stone steps to view in wonder the 39 foot vertical colossal Buddha statue of Sasseruwa. Chiselled in high relief, this unfinished statue is considered to be far inferior to that of the more famous twin the Aukana Buddha statue. In the fading light, there was so much feeling and intensity. One long ear lobe was carved ( as in photo) and the other was not.

Details of the face of the unfinished statue showing the carvings on the left ear. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

Details of the face of the unfinished statue showing the carvings on the left ear. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

At least 3 versions of legends exist as to why it was never finished –it was a competition between the master and the protege and the latter gave up when the Guru completed first his Aukana statue. The second is the work was abandoned when the artist discovered a crack on the rock. The third is that it was the work of a craftsman from King Dutugamunu’s army and was carried out when the army camped here before going to war with King Elara. Apparently, the army was unable to cross the “Malwathu Oya” (river Malwathu) due to heavy rains.

Saseruwa granite Buddha statue in the Abhaya mudra. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

Saseruwa granite Buddha statue in the Abhaya mudra. Photograph© Chulie de Silva.

This statue might have lost out to Aukana, but there is still an unmistakable impressiveness of this colossal which can dwarf a worshipper to a Lilliputian.

The cool black of a village night, pierced harshly by a few modern lights, yet caressed by soft breezes was upon us when we left. I turned back to record in my mind a one last look. Are the ghosts I could sense a figment of my lively imagination or is the disappointed sculptor still brooding; is the woman who sewed the robe still around — maybe returned to guard the statue as the cobra; are the many painters who devotedly painted murals lamenting over the decaying of their art works. Who knows, but what I saw was not just ruins but a rich piece of their lives. Are we telling their story well?

Binara Poya, Women Power & Therigatha

Today is Binara Pura Pasalosvaka Poya day the 2557th year, since the passing away of Sakyamuni Siddhartha Gauthama Buddha. It was on a full moon day like today that Lord Buddha consented to admit women in to the Buddhist Order on the fourth appeal made by his stepmother Maha Prajapati Gotami.

A damaged and fading frescoe of Buddhist Priests pay homage to Lord Buddha. Telwatte Purana Thotagamuva Rajamaha Viharaya. Telwatte. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

A damaged and fading frescoe of Lord Buddha and the future Buddhas, who are seeking “Niyatha vivarana (prediction of future Buddhahood). Telwatte Purana Thotagamuva Rajamaha Viharaya. Telwatte. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

According to Premasiri Epasinghe, writing in the Island newspaper in 2010, Buddha turned down the request thrice. Then the women, 500 of them banded together under Maha Prajapati Gotami, shaved their heads, wore yellow robes and made another appeal via Venerable Ananda Thera – the “Dharmabandagarika” (Keeper of the Dharma). That was good activism and good sense to seek the support of Ven. Ananda who was, Buddha’s cousin. son of Amitodana, the brother of Buddha’s father Suddodana.

According to the scriptures and stated by both Epasinhe and Walter Wijenayake writing in today’s Island “the Buddha gave womenfolk permission to enter the order subject to observances of eight chief precepts (ashta garu dharma). They are:

1. A Bhikkhuni has to worship a day old higher ordained Bhikkhu even if she was 100 years old in higher ordination. She should get up from her seat and show her due respects to the Bhikkhus who observe the major precepts.2. A Bhikkuni should not observe the rainy season precepts in an area where there are no Bhikkhus.

3. Every fortnight a Bhikkuni has to request for ‘Pohoya kamma’ from the Bhikkus. She has to know the time she should obtain advice from the Bhikkhus.

4. When a Bhikkuni concludes her rainy seasonal precepts observation, she has to do it in front of both Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis.

5. A Bhikkhuni who has committed a major mistake should confess it in the presence of both Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis.

6. A Bhikkhuni has to undergo two years as a special trainee and then become a higher ordained Bhikkhuni in presence of both Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis.

7. A Bhikkhuni should not scold a Bhikkhu under any circumstance.

8. A Bhikkhuni should not advise Bhikkhus, however, Bhikkhus should advise Bhikkhunis.”

Both writers point out as many have done before, that Buddha gave equal status to women. Reading these ashta guru dharma, I wonder whether Bhikkunis are on par with Bhikkus. To my understanding of these 8 rules Bhikkunis are not. I feel the rules do not giving any credit to a woman of being able to follow the path laid out independently. Some of these rules seem to be justified as no. 2, when you think that most of the 500 women might have lived very sheltered lives. In any case, the admittance of women into the Sangha community was a gigantic step forward and recognition as being suitable to lead the hard life as Bhikkuni.

Part of the statues that are at the entrance to the  shrine room at the Pulinathararamaya Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Part of the statues that are at the entrance to the shrine room at the Pulinathararamaya Photograph© Chulie de Silva

However, in Buddhism if a woman aspires to be a Buddha, the first step is to do enough “ping” –good karma- so she will be born a man. Then the real door opens for the long samsara journey, and she now a he, can ask for niyatha vivarana (prediction of future Buddhahood).

Goddess with many hands. Welle Devale. Unawatuna. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Goddess with many hands. Welle Devale. Unawatuna. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

In the Hindu Pantheon of Gods there are many absolutely gorgeous female Gods– Saraswathi, Lakshmi, Pattini, Durga, Kali , etc but in all their temples found within Buddhist temples, its male priests who perform rites.Women are not even allowed into the inner sanctums of these temples, unless they are accompanied by a well known male. Why Buddhists need these temples and follow these rites is another debate.

A Priest blesses a little girl at Welle Devale. Unawatuna. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

A Priest blesses a little girl at Welle Devale. Unawatuna. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Musing on all these on this poya day, I went searching for the Terigatha and found the Teragatha translations too.

 The Bhikkuni order is credited with the Therigatha, which are translated as Verses of the Elder Nuns (Pāli: theri elder (feminine) + gatha verse), a collection of short delightful poems supposedly recited by early members of the community of Buddhist priests — the Sangha — in India around 600 BC.

In the Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism, the Therigatha is classified as part of the Khuddaka Nikaya, the collection of short books in the Sutta Pitaka. It consists of 73 poems, organized into 16 chapters. It is the earliest known collection of women’s literature.

This poem from  Chapter 1: The Single Verses (excerpt) translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, is a honest and clear expression.

I.11 — Mutta {v. 11}   

So freed! So thoroughly freed am I! —
from three crooked things set free:
from mortar, pestle,
& crooked old husband.

Having uprooted the craving
that leads to becoming,
I’m set free from aging & death.

So in the final analysis it is Buddha’s teachings and one’s mind that is important. A verse in the Theragathas  -i.e the bhikkus’ verses says it all.

Vappa (Thag 1.61) {Thag 61}   

One who sees
sees who sees,
sees who doesn’t.

One who doesn’t see
doesn’t
see who sees
or who doesn’t

The Bhikkuni order went into decline in Sri Lanka and was virtually none existent for nine centuries or so. However, there now exists in Sri Lanka a functional bhikkuni sangha holding regular patimokkha (the twice monthly recitation of the precepts) and properly supported by bhikkus. Read more on the Contemporary Bhikkuni Ordination in Sri Lanka by Bhikkuini Sobhana.

Verses reproduced here with consent as per citation below:

“Therigatha: Verses of the Elder Nuns”, & “Theragatha: Verses of the Elder Monks”,edited by Access to Insight. Access to Insight, 23 April 2012, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/thig/index.html . Retrieved on 19 September 2013.

Vesak musings in Dhaka

    Women sell large pink lotus flowes near the Kalutara Temple. The gentle green sprouting bo -sapling on the concret pillar behind her and the white obituary notice on the concrete pillar saying life is transient sums up the cycle of birth and death. Significant in the the pali stanzas recited when flowers are offered is:     "Puppham malayati yatha idam me     kayoa tatha yati vinasa-bhavam." -- Even as these the flowers must fade, so does my body march to a state of destruction." Kalutara, Sri Lanka. December 26, 2008. Photo Chulie de Silva

Women sell large pink lotus flowers near the Kalutara Temple. The flower buds and white obituary notice on the concrete pillar saying life is transient sums up the cycle of birth and death. Significant in the the Pali stanzas recited when flowers are offered is:
“Puppham malayati yatha idam me
kayoa tatha yati vinasa-bhavam.” — Even as these the flowers must fade, so does my body march to a state of destruction.” Kalutara, Sri Lanka. December 26, 2008. Photo Chulie de Silva

The street below me is slowly waking up. The coolness and the soft gentle night of Dhaka will slowly and surely be replaced by chatter, noise, blaring of horns, the cries of the street vendors and the harsh light bringing with it the sweltering heat. Peering out through a tangle of telephone and electricity wires on a still cool and balmy morning I see a vendor with a basin of mangoes on his head and a vegetable seller his rickshaw van piled with glistening vegetables. He stops the cha walla who sells tea from a large flask for an early morning cuppa and they both sit on their haunches and shares a smoke.  A daily maid in a brightly clad red saree with two lasses in equally bright salwars walk passes them, wrapped in their own chatter. The garbage cart with the two young boys is further up the street.  I had watched a street fight between these two young lads and a bigger guy a couple of days ago on the way to work. The young had fought ferociously guarding their territory to operate. This is Dhaka, my abode for the present – I am a stranger – a bideshi – I do not belong but yet am very much a part of it; they are not my family here but am already wrapped in the myriads of issues of my coworkers – so are they my karmic connections? I am not sure if this is a past karma or I am making new Karma – fragments of thoughts, vignettes of life flit across my mind this Vesak as I peer down at the street.

Morning sweeper at Lalmatia, Dhaka. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Morning sweeper at Lalmatia, Dhaka. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Back in Sri Lanka people will be trekking to temple– my family to the Katudampe temple.

Detail from a frescoe at Katudampe Rajamahavihara. Katudampe, Sri Lanka. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Detail from a frescoe at Katudampe Rajamahavihara. Katudampe, Sri Lanka. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Today they say the moon will be the biggest, brightest full moon for 100 years. As the moon does the tango with earth, at times drawing close at times pulling apart, I reflect on how my life too has been a series of such dances where I have been close to some people on a daily basis and then moved away forming new circles of friendship.

The comfort and contentment that we take for granted from a happy family environment are poignantly missed by me in Dhaka. May, is also the birth month of my father and Vesak for me is intricately woven in with memories of him. One priest he had great respect was the scholar priest Rev. Thilaka fro the Katudampe temple. A serene temple set near the banks of a river, I too have good memories of the temple that does a great service to the village community. Paintings probably by late 19th century artists are not famous but is an important visual story telling for villages.

Part of the ceiling frescoes at Katudampe Rajamahavihara. Katudampe, Sri Lanka. August 31, 2008. Photograph©Chulie de Silva.

Part of the ceiling frescoes at Katudampe Rajamahavihara. Katudampe, Sri Lanka. August 31, 2008. Photograph©Chulie de Silva.

Often emotional transactions are much more complicated than financial ones but there is one factor that is common to both  We need to speculate to gain.  Thankfully, unlike your purse the heart has the capacity to replenish itself.

Yesterday, my bearded boss Shahidul Alam, writing from Berlin had introduced me virtually to a photojournalist and film maker Zin Myoe Sett  in Myanmar (Burma). My first contact in Myanmar!  Responding to Zin’s mail and thinking that he might be a Buddhist and thoughts of Vesak foremost in my mind, I had ended my email to him wishing him for Vesak and said “Buddhu Saranai” (May Buddha protect you) in closing.  Zin replied saying we add “Metta” (loving kindness) to it.  So this blog where I muse about teachings and recollect past events with a varied collection of photos and my ramblings is for my new friend Zin with Metta. And to all of you who have followed my blog and encouraged me to write more. …

A temple close to my village Hikkaduwa is the Sailabimbaramaya Temple in Dodanduwa. It is well known for the  giant granite Buddha statue which had eyes set with blue sapphires.  But the gems that were there are no more.  They were stolen.  Obviously the Buddha’s benevolent smile or the teachings did not matter a tot to the robbers.

The temple itself got the name from the granite statue which was brought to Dodanduwa from India.  The story is that the incumbent monks had heard of the granite statues in a region in India called “Kaveripattam” and a Governor had intervened to send one to Sri Lanka by ship. Dodanduwa, then did a brisk trade in salted fish, earthenware and salt with Maldives and India. People of the area says the  statue was taken from the harbour at Dodanduwa to the temple up the river on a raft.

The first Buddhist School in Sri Lanka by the name ‘Jinalabdhi Vishodaka’ was started by in the premises of Sailabimbaramaya Temple by Venerable Dodanduwe Piyarathana Maha Nayaka Thera.

Interestingly, as I roam around these temples with my camera comes the realisation that  rejection of the not so perfect is universal. I found these rejected statues tucked away at the Kataluwa temple.

Damaged and discarded Buddha statues at Kataluwa temple. Kataluwa, Sri Lanka. September 10, 2011. Photo Chulie de Silva

The perfect is worshiped thus;

Ye cha Buddha atita cha-ye cha Buddha anagata,
Pachchuppnanna cha ye Buddha-aham vandani sabbada.”
The Buddhas of the ages past,
The Buddhas that are yet to come
The Buddhas of the present age,
Lowly , I, each day adore!

A modern Buddha Statue at the Katudampe Rajamaha Vihare. Katudampe, Sri Lanka. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

A modern Buddha Statue at the Katudampe Rajamaha Vihare.
Katudampe, Sri Lanka. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

To my life’s end the Buddha and his teaching will be my refuge. Sadly. as recent news reaching me from Sri Lanka shows that the difference between paying lip service to the teachings and practicing them is profound.

I have carried with me when I lived abroad a little book called the “The Mirror of Dhamma” by venerables Narada Maha Thera and Kassapa Maha Thera. I was introduced to this book by my sister-in-law Swineetha Fernando way back in 1965. I have in turn given copies to my sons and I hear my granddaughter Tara, can get her tongue around some of the Pali gathas with an interesting twist. I have thumbed this book many times and  today I leave a you a wish for Vesak from this book.

Visible, invisible too
Those dwelling near or far away.
The born, and those seeking birth
May every being live happily.”

See also

A Salutary Poem at Vesak from Rabindranath Tagore

Kataluwa Purvaramaya Temple: tragic deterioration of a country treasure

The decaying painting is supposed to depict Mahadana Sitano and wife in western dress enjoying music. The integration of western modes of dress to eastern Buddhist visual story telling of the Jataka stories is a notable feature of the Kataluwa paintings. Kataluwa Sri Lanka, September 2011. Photograph © Chulie de Silva.

To get to Kataluwa we turned left near the 83rd mile post on the Southern coat road, crossed a railway line on to a village road and lumbered into a deserted temple grounds. Monkeys roamed on the roof tops, a pack of stray dogs followed the chief priest, playfully tearing his robes.

Greeting us right at the entrance was a British court of arms and a date which said 1886.

The fading court of arms at the entrance to the Kataluwa Temple main shrine room. Photograph © Chulie de Silva

Kataluwa temple paintings represents the Southern school and belong to the 19th century although the temple is said to have existed from the 13th century.  There are several interesting points in the temple paintings that one needs to do a serious study of it and not a flying visit as I did.  For instance the four walls of the temple are creations of artists of four different schools. The British Royal court of arms, Queen Victoria, and  Queen Mother are given prominence among the Eastern gods.

A portrait of the lovers in the Sandakinduru Jatakaya at the entrance to the main shrine room. In this story Buddha is killed by his chief adversary Devdutta, but restored to life by Sakra who was moved by the lamnetations of his wife. Jataka stories are episodes from the Buddha’s previous lives.  Note cameo of Queen Victoria above both doors. Photograph © Chulie de Silva.

Kataluwa temple frescoe of wedding party with white horses showing the western influence Kataulwa, Sri Lanka. September, 2011.

Kataluwa temple frescoes showing damage due to leaky roofs and rain water seeping in. Kataulwa, Sri Lanka. September, 2011. Photograph © Chulie de Silva

Part of the Vessantara Jatakaya temple frescoe Kataluwa Temple. Kataluwa, Sri Lanka. September, 2011. Photograph © Chulie de Silva

Reclining Buddha Statue Kataluw Reclining Buddha Statue Kataluwa Temple. Kataluwa, Sri Lanka. September, 2011. Photograph © Chulie de Silva.

The Buddha watches mutely the decay around him. But there were no flowers at the altar, no villagers worshipping at his feet.  Two men clearing the over-grown garden said the villagers are in conflict with the chief priest and do not patronize the temple. Whatever the reason the days when the paintings were claimed as the finest examples of the Southern painting tradition are gone. If the roofs are not repaired, the damp walls restored we will soon lose these works of art.