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.
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.
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 Makara Thorana at the entrance too looks as if it has also been redone.
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 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.
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.
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.
Next to the 3 storey relic chamber is a “Tampita Vihara” which is a shrine room built on pillars.
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.
Many of Sri Lanka’s temples have decaying historic murals as this one.
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.”