Murals par excellence | Daily News

Murals par excellence

Kalani Raja Maha Viharaya

The Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara is a site made hallowed by the visit of the Buddha and is one of the most sacred worshipping places of the Buddhists of Sri Lanka. In the opinion of Raven-Hart, author of 'Ceylon History in Stone', the KelaniMaha Vihara "is a sort of sample book of the buried cities, as if it is there for the convenience of visitors who are unable to visit them."


The chronicles, Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa, record in detail the story of the Buddha's visit to Kelaniya on the eighth year after his enlightenment, on the invitation of the Naga King Maniakkhika. The jewelled throne, on which the Buddha sat while preaching, is said to have been enshrined in the original Stupa of the Kelaniya temple.

Among the many Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka, the KelaniViharaya stands out as one of the most exquisite examples of the sculptor’s art.The history of temple murals in Sri Lanka dates far back to the time of King Dutugemunu. the Mahavamsa which mentions that the Ruwanvelisaya inner shrine room contained murals.

The Kelaniya Raja Maha Viharaya exemplifies the art of Buddhist murals in Sri Lanka –in the eyes of the common man as well as the experts. The original paintings on the shrine walls have been added during the reign of King Voharikatissa (214 - 236 AD). In 1213, an invasion from South India led by Kalinga-Maga, resulted in the destruction of many of the shrines and temples in the island including the Kelaniya temple.

However, King VijayabahuIII rebuilt almost all the temples, and the Kelaniya temple was returned to its former glory. Later, King Parakramabahu Il and Parakramabahu VIboth helped in further restoration. The temple was destroyed once again in the 16th century when the Portuguese conquered Sri Lanka, and again it was rebuilt in 1767 by the King of Kandy, Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe. In this restoration, Kandyan style panoramic paintings were made to adorn the walls, their themes drawn from the Jataka tales and the early life of the Buddha and 'solosmasthana' or 16 sacred shrines in the island. There are also paintings of the planetary gods of the 'Navagrahyo' and zodiac signs. The temple received further attention in 1888 by Helena Wijewardena who, saddened by the derelict state of the temple buildings, commissioned the famous temple artist SoliusMendis to restore the interiors of the buildings. For more than 20 years, Mendis painted murals depicting events in the life of the Buddha and scenes from Buddhist history in Sri Lanka. He also added geometric ceiling paintings to the temple hall.

New Murals

It is the experts’ opinion that murals at Kelaniya temple are among the best works in the 20th century. Temple murals in 1767 were two-dimensional with a limited range of colours. The works of Mendis were three-dimensional and influenced by the older works of Sigiriya and Lankathilaka.

From ancient times the tradition has been to paint the walls of temples with portrayals of the Jataka stories. But Mendis has made a welcome departure from this custom in his new paintings. Instead it has infused variety into the murals by introducing spectrums depicting an array of historical scenes, connected with the birth, rise and progress of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

Paintings depict King Devanampiyatissa presenting the Mahamegha Park to Arahant Mahinda. Here the King himself is seen marking the boundaries with a silver plough drawn by twoelephants and other depiction of Buddhagosha committing the Tripitaka into books at Aluwihare.

Other significant scenes include Buddhagosa's presentation of the Visuddhimaggato the Sangharajaof Maha Vihara at Anuradhapura; King Kirthi Sri conferring the title of Sangharaja to WeliwitaSaranankara Maha Thera by presenting him the ivory fan as the emblem of office, the bringing of the Bo-tree by TheriSangamitia, and the Tooth Relic by Prince Danta and PrincessHemamala. Sinhala designs and patterns run on the pillars. Carved garlands of flowers finely executed in sculptural work curtain off the inner chamber.

The paintings in the outer chamber are breath-taking. They record important events in the history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and the history of Kelaniya. The paintings in the upper strip of panels portray the Buddha's three visits to Sri Lanka. In the lower strip are murals depicting the events that led to the killing of the Maha Thera of Kelaniya and the consequent floods and the sacrifice of Princess Vlharamaha Devi during the reign of Kelanitissa.

The other notable murals are those showing the institution of Theravada tradition of ordination on the Burmese monks and the looting and destruction caused to Kelani Vihara by Magha in early 13th century and by the Portuguese in the late 16th century.

Solias Mendis

It is said that stone masons from India and gilders from Myanmar joined SoliasMendis and his group in the restoration process. Their handiwork can be seen in the rows of sculptured swans, dwarfs and elephants on the outside of the temple,and above them the Hindu deities. SoliasMendis is acknowledged to be in modem times the 'The maestro incomparable.' It is said that, he was a genius inspired by the Hindu Goddess Saraswathie, the venerated icon of Art.

His paintings are considered to be among the best examples of the fusion of Indian traditions with the techniques of European academic art. Mendis gave much attention to detail of facial expression. Even the wrinkles seen on the forehead made the faces look real. These inspired creations were clothed in a mixture of soft shades, giving flashes of a little orange with a tinge of lemon and red where necessary, to provide life and contrast as well. It is said that he made himself the paint from boiling an unorthodox concoction of herbs and roots and bark of trees found in certain parts of the island. He had for itsbase white clay, often moistened. He also added certain ingredients to act as preservatives of colour. His painting of buildings, costumes and furniture, appear to be authentic and indigenous.

He stood on scaffoldings for twenty years to paint all that we see. It was left to the Russian born, Karl Kassman to complete the paintings in the Centre room with a backdrop of the Himalayas, to give an impression that the Buddha was looking down with compassion, on humanity from a great height. Art and artists came into prominence only at times when the country prospered. Therefore, at times when a country was faced with the threat of foreign invasions, artistic contributions were few and far between. The art works of Kelaniya Raja Maha Viharaya could be categorized as one of those rare efforts.

Although the new tradition of ancient art which had its birth at the hands of Solias Mendis did not proceed beyond the confines of the Kelaniya Raja Maha Viharaya,it undoubtedly laid the foundation for a new era of art in this country. Mendis breathed new life into mural painting in Sri Lanka.

There's an age-old saying which says ""The sins of a life time; Are all rendered null; Once Kelaniya is worshipped; A single time"It might not be that easy, but certainly, there is a serene and sanctity about the place that could wash away at least some of the most grievous hurtsof one's past.


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