The Ancient India & Iran Trust motif
Howard Wilson Archive Six Marks of Buddhist Art and Iconography in Sri Lanka
The Bodhi TreeThe Dagaba The ScripturesThe BuddhaTemple of the ToothSri Pada
The Arts of the PalaceThe Arts of the Vihara
Chronology
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THE DAGABA
       

The Stupa, or Dagaba as it is called in Sinhalese, is an indespensible feature of almost every Buddhist vihara (monastery) in Sri Lanka. It was originally a simple tumulus or burial mound built to hold a relic of the Buddha. The Dagaba has been associated with the Buddha’s death and passage into Nirvana (parinirvana). As such, it was a reminder of the Buddha and a symbol of the Nirvana to which every pious Buddhist aspires. Over time, the ancient burial mound came to be regarded as Mt. Meru, the ‘world mountain’ and was oriented with its four gates indicating the directions of the earth. Its central shaft joined earth and sky, symbolising the physical and spiritual dimensions of life. In its centre was a relic (dhatu) which served as a sacred reminder of the Buddha and his dharma (teaching). The shape of the Dagaba is said to have been inspired by the leaf of the Bodhi Tree. Worshippers could circumnavigate the Dagaba as they meditated.

 
Anuradhapura Period

250 BCE - 683 CE

Ruvanveli Dagaba

Ruvanveli Dagaba

Thuparama Vatadage

Thuparama Vatadage

The Ruvanveli, Dagaba of the Mahavihara (above) was built by Dhutugamini, one of the early kings of Sri Lanka (161 - 137 BCE) and is located near Anuradhapura in the north central province of Sri Lanka. It is 300ft in height and 294ft in diameter. The dagabas of Anuradhapura dwarf many of those on the mainland of India and are often compared to the pyramids of Egypt.

The Thuparama is smaller and is the oldest stupa, having been built in 244 BCE during the reign of Pandukabhaya. The relic it contains is said to be the right collarbone of the Buddha. Most of the smaller dagabas had pillars built to carry a wooden roof enclosing the sacred space and would then be called a Vatadage. These forms remind one of Buddhist railings which similarly marked the sacred precincts of the Indian stupas and the great stone chaitya-gharas which are prayer centres found in Buddhist or Jain shrines in India. Other important examples are at Polonnaruva in the central province of Sri Lanka.

 
Polonnaruva Period

1055 - 1215 CE

Ruins of a Vatadage

Ruins of a Vatadage

In Polonnaruva these ruins of a vatadage built in the 12th century CE, indicate how the worshipper moves from an entrance with beautiful stone balustrades on either side, and proceeds up the steps symbolic of spiritual development, to venerate the Buddha inside the structure.

The Path

The Spiritual Path


Balustrade

Balustrade

Carved stone entrance balustrades were added similar to the ornamental gateways of India facing the four cardinal points. Their ‘faces’ contain the earliest stone sculpture in Sri Lankan art: notably the Mauryan animals of the four quarters, lions (N), elephants (E), horses (S) and bulls (W). Makaras, floral designs, and hamsas are often included as well.

Moonstone

Moonstone

Traditionally, at a place of worship, there is first the moonstone, originally a simple stone on which to wipe the feet before entering sacred space. In time, the shape of the stone was changed to half circular and carvings were added alternating animals of the Four Quarters. The moonstone is both literally and symbolically the first step on the path of spiritual development. In a series of concentric semicircles, the entire spiritual life is summarized: from the flames of desire on the outer circle, through symbols of the earthly life, to a lotus centre representing the attainment of nirvana. The moonstone sculptures represent one of the earliest forms of Sri Lankan art. The moonstone shown above is the one most famous. It is found at the Queen‘s monastery (47 - 42 BCE) in Anuradapura.

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