The Ancient India & Iran Trust motif
Howard Wilson Archive Six Marks of Buddhist Art and Iconography in Sri Lanka
The Bodhi TreeThe DagabaThe ScripturesThe Buddha Temple of the ToothSri Pada
The Arts of the PalaceThe Arts of the Vihara
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Polonnaruva Period

(1055 CE - 1597 CE)


In their portrayal of the Buddha, artists sought to embody the two ideals of wisdom and compassion. If the masterpieces of Gupta India emphasize compassion, the Sri Lankan tradition emphasizes the strength of the solitary ‘enlightened being’ (arhat) and the great serenity which accompanies his quest of wisdom. There is an austere restraint about the Sri Lankan Buddha image which conveys great strength and spiritual heroism. The most outstanding example of a colossal Buddha is the Aukana located near Polonnaruva. Aukana means ‘sun-eating’. The colossus stands 39ft tall and is facing east. It is carved in high relief, as part of an enormous vertical rock face. The giant form conveys undeniable spiritual majesty and expresses well the Mahayanist traditions of the broader path. The giant forms communicate the cosmic character of the Buddha: that of filling the universe while at the same time transcending it.

Aukana Buddha - Gal Vihara

Aukana Buddha - east facing

Aukana Buddha - Gal Vihara

Aukana Buddha - detail


The Gal Vihara Buddha Sculptures

These four famous sculptures are at Uttarama, Gal Vihara in Polonnaruva. These sculptures date from the mid-12th century CE. Both seated sculptures are in the posture of the hero (virasana) with one leg upon the other and hands facing upwards as though coming out of meditation and preparing to stand.


In an artificially cut cave, a serene Buddha is seated in meditative posture.



The passage into nirvana is symbolised by this 46 ft long reclining Buddha.


Tantric symbols surround this magnificent seated Buddha.



Compassion is seen in this 23 ft tall Buddha in cross-arm pose.



The most magnificent bronze Bodhisattva ever found in Sri Lanka is this gilt image seated in an attitude of royal ease. This masterpiece, now found in the National Museum of Colombo, is 16 inches in height and is from the 10th century CE.

The broader path of Mahayana Buddhism spread to the island quite early (perhaps earlier than the third century CE) and the Abhayagiri Vihara in Anuradhapura became its centre. Two iconographic consequences followed: first, the practice of carving colossal Buddha images; second, an understanding of the Bodhisattva. In Mahayanist thought, the Bodhisattva is a figure who refuses to enter nirvana until all beings can enter. As a result the Bodhisattva was a very popular saviour figure.



One of the greatest of Sri Lankan portrayals of the Bodhisattva is the bronze Tara in the British Museum found 700 - 750 CE. It is a work of great elegance and beauty and is two thirds life size.

The influence of the Mahayana form of Buddhism for virtually a thousand years had meant endless disputes between the major spiritual groups and political factions of Anuradhapura. In 1165 CE, one of Sri Lanka’s greatest kings, Parakramabahu I, finally suppressed the Mahayanist Vihara at Abhayagiri, which had been the centre of the Mahayana tradition. His reunification and ‘purification’ re-established Sri Lanka as a model Theravada Buddhist society.

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