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Howard Wilson Archive Six Marks of Buddhist Art and Iconography in Sri Lanka
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The Arts of the PalaceThe Arts of the Vihara
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THE ARTS OF THE VIHARA: THE MONASTIC COMPLEX
       

Other major benefactors of Sri Lankan artistic tradition were the well educated priests (bikkhus) of the monasteries (viharas).

Elements of the Monastic Complex: commonly there was a shrine containing a bodhi tree cutting (bodhighara), a shrine (dagaba/stupa), a monastery proper (pirivena), an image house (patimaghara), residential cells (avasa) for the bikkhus and which were arranged around a quadrangle, a meditation hall (padhanaghara), a hall used for full moon (poya) ceremonies (poyage), and a preaching hall (banamaduva).

Lankatilaka Temple

Lankatilaka Temple

The Lankatilaka Temple is a special temple because it honours the Buddha as the central figure and also incorporates art representing the Hindu Gods who are meant to protect the Buddha. A corridor goes around the temple where there are four Hindu Gods, each facing a different direction and all guarding the Buddha who is in the centre. This represents an unbroken continuity between Buddhism and Hinduism.

Buddha

Buddha

An entrance to the temple

The Image House:
The earlier patimagharas were built in the first century CE. The common form is that of a small antechamber leading to the inner chamber which is, in turn, often surrounded by an ambulatory for visiting worshippers. The inner chamber is the ritual centre of the building. It contains the principal Buddha statue surrounded by bodhisattvas, arhats, disciples and gods. This inner chamber is a re-creation of the other-worldly realm where the Buddha resides. It is the centre of the Sri Lankan Buddhist world.

The image on the right is Kataragama, the Hindu God of War, in this case, guarding the Buddha.

The walls and ceilings of the patimaghara are covered with paintings which evoke the world of the Buddha, and is a transcendent realm of religious symbols, different from the world outside.

The worshipper who enters the patimaghara changes worlds and returns to the centre of his religious and cultural identity.

The whole complex may be envisioned as a series of concentric circles, beginning at the entrance where one takes the first step of spiritual development subsequently ‘reading’ all the symbols of the Buddha’s life, the morals of the Jataka tales, and ending with the Buddha at the centre.

Kataragama
Embekka Temple

Embekka Temple

A short distance from the Lankatilaka temple is the Embekka Temple, originally built as a Hindu Shrine (Divale) but honours the Buddha and acknowledges the Buddhist traditions as well. This building is basically an elegant covered porch with wooden posts displaying beautiful carvings of animals and humans, each illustrating life scenes as seen on the right.

It was built by the King Vikramabahu III of Gampola Era in 14th Century CE.

Embekka Pillar
 
Cave and Wall Paintings of the Vihara
Bikkhu

Bikkhu

The Lock

The Lock

As with most religions, pictures tell the story. In the case of Sri Lankan monasteries, wall paintings are used to illustrate the scriptures. Here the paintings provide, through stories, the teachings of the Buddha. The walls of the inner chamber, the ambulatory, and the antechamber are covered with paintings done in horizontal bands (as shown below) in a continuous narrative technique rather like a film sequence. Subjects are: the Suvisi Vivarana, the twenty four Buddhas who preceded Gautama, each of whom declared that Prince Siddhartha would become a Buddha; The Buddha Carita is the retelling of the Buddha’s life story; The Solosmasthana, the sixteen sacred places of Buddhist pilgrimages in Sri Lanka. Also represented are a number of the best known of the Jataka Stories which are folk tales of the previous lives of the Buddha before he was born Prince Siddhartha. In coastal Viharas can be found hell scenes illustrating the retributions suffered for the heinous wrongs committed. Ceilings of the Viharas are generally covered with floral designs or with paintings of the planetary and astral worlds and also celestial palaces of the gods.

Wall Panel

Wall Panel

This image is meant to show how these paintings are organized. On wall panels there is continuous movement from one frame to the other illustrating the life and teachings of the Buddha.

Cave painting

The walls and ceilings of the patimaghara are covered with paintings which evoke the world of the Buddha, a transcendent realm of religious symbols which is very different from the world outside. The worshipper who enters the patimaghara changes worlds and returns to the centre of his religious and cultural identity. The whole complex may be envisioned as a series of concentric circles, beginning at the entrance where one takes the first step of spiritual development subsequently ‘reading’ all the symbols of the Buddha’s life and the morals of the Jataka tales, and ending with the Buddha at the centre.

Cave Painting Cave Painting

There are two main types of wall paintings: one is the early Kandyan style, shown upper left, very simple with a limited range of colour, progressing to a slightly later Kandyan style, shown upper right.
The later second style, which is the Low Country school of painting, uses a more comprehensive range of colour and more intricate detail as shown below. Both schools illustrate the life of the Buddha.

Low Country

Low Country

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