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Some reflections on the temples of the South

Murals, Kataluva Purvaramaya, Ahangama

The social and cultural history of Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka has been the object of study for well over a century. Far from receding into a world of their own, these temples occupied a prominent place in the world around them. Buddhist monks lived under a code of piety and self-denial, and they operated under their rules and customs. Yet despite being cut off from mundane concerns, they were very much linked to the society they hailed from. Granted entire villages for their upkeep, the clergy made use of the social institutions of their time, most prominently caste, to maintain their hold.

The first proper sociological overview of the relationship between the Buddhist clergy and Sinhala society was R. A. L. H. Gunawardana’s Robe and Plough: Monasticism and Economic Interest in Early Medieval Sri Lanka. Gunawardana’s point, in essence, was that conventional narratives of Sinhalese kings, especially Parakramabahu I, uniting warring religious factions underlay a very complex reality. For Gunawardana, Parakramabahu I didn’t so much enable the triumph of one faction (Theravada) over another (Mahayana) as achieve a compromise between the two, a compromise that was in line with the interests of a monarchy in search of unity against the threat of South Indian overreach.

Comprehensive as it was, Gunawardana’s book did not delve much into Sri Lanka’s post-Medieval history. Nor did it examine the sociological relevance of Buddhist temple art and architecture. Coming in almost 70 years after the publication of Ananda Coomaraswamy’s Medieval Sinhalese Art, Senake Bandaranayake’s Sinhalese Monastic Art sought to fill this gap. Published five years before Robe and Plough, Bandaranayake’s book limited itself to the same period covered by Gunawardana, the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa kingdoms. It laid the groundwork for a more comprehensive study 20 years later, The Rock and Wall Paintings of Sri Lanka. This latter work, a landmark for its time, has since proved itself useful to scholars of social and cultural history, particularly of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

In The Rock and Wall Paintings of Sri Lanka, Bandaranayake divides the history of Buddhist art into four distinct periods: the primitive rock-shelter paintings, associated with prehistoric times and Veddah tribes; the paintings of the Early and Middle Historic Periods, dating from the 5th to the 13th century AD; the Kandyan Period; and the Southern or Maritime Period. The latter two belong to the period between the 14th and 19th century, while the Southern Period can be located in the Dutch and British eras, going beyond the 19th century and well into the early 20th century. Bandaranayake constantly emphasises that these periods can’t be viewed in isolation from each other, since there were, to quote the title of another of his works, important continuities and transformations between them.

I wish here to examine some of his insights on the Southern Tradition. Concentrated along the coastal belt between the Galle and Matara districts, the Southern Tradition has been the object of much study over the decades. However, because of its position in the nationalist consciousness perhaps, it is the art of Kandyan temples, the murals and the sculptures, that has won more attention. Even more intriguingly, though it has been claimed that Southern painters either stuck independently to their artistic visions or borrowed extensively from the Kandyan tradition, the reality remains more complex. There were important intersections between the Kandyan and the Southern traditions, to be sure, but there were also cleavages and distinctions. Bandaranayake underscores this point painstakingly.

“What is not yet clear is whether the Southern murals are a provincial offshoot of the Kandyan school, branching off in the late 18th or early 19th century; or a continued and late development of that same tradition, as most observers view it; or a partly independent school or sub-school, with its own history and character… What is not so certain, due to the lack of sufficient evidence, is the nature of the relationship between the two schools in the period from about 1750 to 1830 and before, and the forms of art that were extant in the southern and western regions in the preceding phase of the 17th and early 18th centuries.” (Senake Bandaranayake, “The Rock and Wall Paintings of Sri Lanka”, page 201)

Part of the reason why we don’t have a clear answer to this, Bandaranayake observes, is that there is a substantial body of work belonging to the Southern mural tradition that has been lost to us, “the reconstruction of which… is about as impossible a task as the retrieval of the pre-1750 painting styles of the Kandyan kingdom.” Although the great scholar-painter Manjusri once attempted to date the temples and monasteries to which this phase belongs, Bandaranayake rightly cautions against his chronologies. For instance, while Manjusri dates the murals at the Sunandaramaya in Ambalangoda to 1802, Bandaranayake argues that they appear “too elaborate” to belong to that period.

Dharmasalava, Pushparamaya, Balapitiya

Perhaps the most important point to note about Buddhist temple art in the South is its immense diversity. To say this is not to deny, or underestimate, the artistic diversity of the Kandyan murals. They too were influenced by other periods and cultures, predominantly Dravidian. Like the Kandyan Tradition, the Southern Tradition was influenced heavily by a folk culture. Whatever period they belonged to, these murals epitomised the spirit and age of a people who were yearning for freedom from colonial subjugation and at the same time accommodating the colonial presence in their homeland. It is this latter quality which sets the Southern Tradition apart from the Kandyan School, since direct confrontations between the Kandyan regions and British colonialism transpired much later.

These confrontations threw up their own bundle of contradictions, sparing not even the post-1815 Kandyan political landscape. At the Maduwanwela Manor in Embilipitiya, for instance, we are told that Maduwanwela Dissawe spurned the colonial administration by laying on his floors mosaic tiles featuring Victoria’s face. Popular lore has it that the Dissawe wished to spite the British, against whom he nursed a grudge, by walking on tiles that bore obvious colonial associations. One can accept this view, but one can also question it, on the grounds that the post of Dissawe under the British required acceptance of colonial political structures, above all the primacy and suzerainty of the British monarchy.

The Maduwanwela Walawwa is a secular establishment, with its share of intrigues. We can note similar contradictions in Southern temples, extending beyond the Southern coastline. Victoria’s portrait adorns the entrance of many of these temples, including the Kotte Raja Maha Viharaya. We can cite several reasons for this. For instance, the Head Priest of the Randombe Viharaya in Ambalangoda, who has been there since 1965, told me that since it was under Victoria’s reign that Buddhists in Sri Lanka obtained certain rights and freedoms, such as the declaration of Vesak as a public holiday, devotees wished to note their gratitude and thus placed her portrait at the entrance.

Another possible reason, told to me by a history writer, is that Buddhist monasteries wished to remain neutral vis-à-vis the confrontations between locals and colonial officials in the Maritime Provinces. By setting up Victoria’s portrait, along with Dutch symbols and crests, at the entrance, these temples more or less promoted their fealty to the British crown. This does not, however, explain the rationale given by certain prelates for the mosaic tiles laid down in the budu-meduru or image houses: as in the Maduwanwela Walawwa, to publicly spite the colonial powers by symbolically “trampling” on them. The Randombe Head Priest’s explanation is particularly interesting, and needs to be quoted in full.

“Under the Dutch and the British, there was a general feeling among the people of the South that an alien power was treading on our way of life, our history. By laying down these tiles in the image-house, devotees ensured that when perambulating around the outer chamber, they would pay their respects to the Buddha and also spurn European rule. The Europeans had treaded on our way of life and we were treading on theirs.”

These are, to be sure, anecdotal accounts and explanations, and they must be taken with a pinch of salt by the scholar. Yet they cohere with the artistic and architectural motifs of these establishments. Bandaranayake does not fully delve into these aspects of Southern monastic art, but he does imply that there’s a great deal about the tradition that we are yet to ascertain. Why, for instance, would a temple feature Victoria’s portrait at the entrance while also featuring depraved Anglicised elites along the walls of its inner chamber, as is the case at the Kataluva Purvaramaya in Ahangama? What explains the incredible church-like architecture of the Dharmasalawa at the Pushparamaya in Balapitiya? And what of the art nouveau sculptures and backdrops in the image house at Randombe?

Senake Bandaranayake’s explanation is perhaps the most accurate: these motifs and details, he tells us in the closing paragraph of The Rock and Wall Paintings of Sri Lanka, are “as much a comment on our perceptions of that tradition and the historical trajectory that produced it, as they are indicators and reflections of our contemporary moment.”

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

Sri Lankan. History fanatic. Movie addict. Book lover.

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