The Colossi of Gal Vihara

21 Jan
The Hatadage - Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka (2010)

The Hatadage – Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka (2010)

From Kandy, I hopped on a squat, 10-seat mini-bus that dropped me off somewhere in the direct center of the “cultural triangle” of Sri Lanka. I was off to explore the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, the lion rock fortress of Sigiriya, and the painted rock caves of Dambullah. This region of Sri Lanka was arid, stifling, and Serengeti-like — in dramatic contrast to the lush green hills of Kandy and the monsoon-saddled hill country where I had scaled Adam’s Peak. On these plains, the city of Polonnaruwa rose to become the seat of Sinhalese power and Buddhist culture after the fall of the Anuradhapura. I spent the day bicycling through the ruins of this once great city and was not surprised to learn that the Sacred Tooth had resided for decades in a specially constructed, circular structure here called the Hatadage. This structure had been built in the 12th century and originally had a large wooden roof and was ornately covered with stone statues, intricate moonstones, and reliefs that ran all along its sides. The roof was now long gone along with most of the statues, but the moonstones (these are like stone welcome mats each in the shape of a crescent and are patterned with elephants and other emblematic figures) which serve as the entry marker for each of the Hatadage’s 4 staircases survived the temple’s destruction. Aside from the Hatadage, Polonnaruwa is home to a remarkable set of statues carved out of a single block of granite. I have no idea how this granite found itself in the middle of the flat scrub land on which Polonnaruwa sits, but during the reign of Parakramabahu I this chunk of stone was transformed into 4 images of the Buddha– 3 of which ranked amongst the largest stone statues in all of South Asia for a time. These statues are collectively referred to as Gal Vihara and represent the consensus zenith of Sinhalese rock sculpture. Each captures the serenity and evocative power of 3 Buddhist mudras (gestures).

Largest of the 2 seated images at Gal Vihara

Buddha in samadhi mudra – Gal Vihara

The first is a seated image of the Buddha in dhyana or samadhi mudra which depicts the Buddha in deep meditation with one hand upon the other, both palms up and resting on his crossed legs. This representation of the Buddha’s hands is cradle-like and perfectly conveys the concentration and discipline necessary in navigating the path towards Enlightenment. This same image is duplicated in the form of a small stone statue of the Buddha that is found inside an artificial cave set apart from the main 3 Colossi images. The 3rd image at Gal Vihara is one that is unique in all of Buddhist sculpture. This image shows a standing Buddha with eyes closed and arms crossed on his chest with hands flat just above his elbows.

Standing image of Gal Vihara

Standing Buddha image – Gal Vihara

This posture was not one I had ever seen before and because of its proximity to the 4th and largest image — which is of the reclining Buddha in the lion pose he assumed at Kushinigar before he passed — I thought the standing image showed one of Buddha’s disciples (like Ananda) mourning the Buddha’s passing.  However, based on when archaeologists believe each of these statues were carved, some believe that the standing image was built well before the reclining image was constructed. While that doesn’t disprove the view that the sculptors still intended to create a joint scene of the standing disciple and the reclining Buddha given the large amount of stone to draw from, it would be unprecedented to have such an image dedicated to anyone other than Buddha at that time. In any case, if the standing image is of the Buddha, then many people do believe this posture does represent a mudra that has precedent in some ancient Indian traditions: the mudra of the acknowledgement of the sorrow of others. Whatever the case, this image conveys an emotional rather than spiritual or contemplative message. That’s what is radical about this statue.

Reclining Buddha - Gal Vihara

Reclining Buddha – Gal Vihara

The last image is giant and beautifully crafted. The cylindrical pillow on which the Buddha’s head rests seems so real that one can clearly grasp the depth of belief that must have moved the sculptors’ hands. In most parts of Asia where Buddhism spread there are monumental depictions of the reclining posture the Buddha assumed during the last moments of his earthly life before passing into parnirvana. As one stands before these images of the reclining Buddha and stills the distractions around oneself, there is a silent communication between the image and the observer that takes place. One that to me is about removing the fear of death, and instead, invoking the universality of the knowledge that can be attained in order to transcend mortality. I walked the length of the reclining Buddha image of Gal Vihara and then stepped back. I noticed a mound of granite slabs rising before me which faced down towards the statues. I walked up to the top of these slabs and was able to observe the whole Gal Vihara menagerie at one time and then I could see what it was — a short story.

A tale of Buddha - Gal Vihara

A tale of the Buddha – Gal Vihara

The start to the story begins with the first small seated image which has to be experienced by peering into a small rock cave. Then, when the observer comes out of the cave he is hit with the next image — which is that of the large seated statue of the Buddha captured in the throes of the deepest meditation. Next, is the image of the standing Buddha who after coming out of his meditation is now wrestling with the knowledge he has attained. Is this the knowledge of suffering in the world that most people do not see which chains them into repeating the same mistakes and reaping the same unhappiness over and over again? The Buddha integrates this knowledge as part of his teaching, and when the final moment of his life comes he is ready and accepting. The face of the Buddha in his reclining pose is depicted similarly across all Buddhist cultures.  His eyes are closed, his lips are shut, and his head is propped up by his right hand as it rests on a cushion. At Gal Vihara, the reclining Buddha’s mouth is curved upwards in a slight smile. There is a definite feeling of optimism which bursts out of the granite along with something else — effervescence.

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4 Responses to “The Colossi of Gal Vihara”

  1. Tibet Travel Package January 25, 2013 at 5:58 am #

    Hey there! Would you mind if I share your blog with my zynga group?
    There’s a lot of people that I think would really appreciate your content. Please let me know. Many thanks

    • sid nasr January 25, 2013 at 7:04 pm #

      Hi – No problem; please go ahead and share the blog. If your group has questions about some of the sights I describe feel free to refer them to me. Thanks, SN

  2. Denise Marie Hanusek February 24, 2015 at 12:29 pm #

    Mr. Nasr,,

    I am the curator of an exhibit at Pitts Theology Library at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia honoring Thomas Merton on the 100th anniversary of his birth . We would like to use your photograph of the sleeping Buddha in the exhibit. Would this be acceptable to you? Please contact me at your earliest convenience. Thank you.

    Denise Marie Hanusek

    • sid nasr February 24, 2015 at 6:57 pm #

      Thanks Denise – will send you a separate email.

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