Tag Archives: Kushinigar

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.

Part I (Cont’d) – Tree

8 Aug

The Emperor Ashoka ruled much of the Indian subcontinent in the 3rd century BC. He had consolidated his kingdom and dynasty through many brutal wars. He was a destroyer. But, after one particularly horrific battle where he was left alone to survey the carnage of rotting corpses, burnt villages, and destruction he and his army caused, he had an awakening. He was disgusted at what he had done and how meaningless it all was. At that moment, he felt a warmth come over him and he swore he would change his life. Buddhism had taken hold of much of the subcontinent during the 200 years since the Buddha had passed. The Sangha had grown and become strong. This community filled many parts of Ashoka’s kingdom and so Ashoka sought out the Buddhist monks in his midst. He converted to Buddhism and adopted the Buddha’s teachings as his own. Going forward, he would live his life and root his kingdom and legacy in the name of the Buddha and practice only non-violence and tolerance. He had two children from his first wife – a son called Mahindu and a daughter named Sanghamitta – whose name meant “friend of the Sangha.” His two children would devote their lives to Buddhism and Ashoka himself set out to visit the key sites of the Buddha’s life: Lumbini, the Bodhi Tree at Magadha, the deer park where the Buddha gave his first sermon, and Kushinigar.

Bodhi Tree – Bodh Gaya

When Ashoka came to Magahda he saw the Bodhi Tree and he placed a grey sandstone slab under it to mark the spot where the Buddha had sat. Then, Ashoka commissioned the building of the original Mahadabodhi Temple. Ashoka loved the serenity of the forest and spent many days and nights sitting and sleeping under the Bodhi Tree. Legend has it that he spent so much time with the Tree that his wife became jealous. This jealousy drove her to the point where she poisoned the Tree and it rotted and decayed. Other traditions say that the Tree was toppled during a battle Ashoka had with another warring tribe who had sought to claim the forest and the remnants of the Magadha kingdom. We may not know what exactly happened to that original Bo Tree, but we do know that the young Princess Sanghamitta understood the importance of the Tree and was able to save a small cutting or sapling from the Tree after it had been felled. Fearing any reprisals from her mother or Ashoka’s enemies, she hid the small shoot in her long hair and took surreptitious care of it. Her brother, Mahindu, had already become a Buddhist monk and begun a mission to the south of the subcontinent — even as far as to the island nation of what is today, Sri Lanka. Sanghamitta was determined to take the cutting of the Tree to where her brother was since she knew the Tree would be safe there. She traveled under the cover of night from village to village until she reached the end of the subcontinent. From there, she took a boat and sailed to the northern tip of Sri Lanka. The cutting of the Tree was kept in a golden vase during the crossing from India to Sri Lanka. Once she reached Sri Lanka an advanced guard of King Tissa met her and they took her to the royal capital of Anuradhapura where Mahindu had successfully passed on the Buddha’s teachings to an eager people. Mahindu himself had taken to living in a rock cave just outside of Anuradhapura. (Little did I know while I was reading this story at Bodhi Gaya about Mahindu, a year later I would be fumbling [barefoot again] down a ravine while getting followed by dubious looking dogs as I tried to find this rock cave. It was off a plateau now called Mihintale about 13km away from Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka. A “mango tree” dagoba had also been built on the top of this plateau marking the location where Mahindu had first met King Tissa. A very holy site for Sri Lanka Buddhists).

Rock Cave of Mahindu – Mihintale, Sri Lanka

Mahindu traveled to Anuradhapura to meet his sister there and she gave him the vase with the sapling. Then, during an elaborate ceremony, Mahindu, Sanghamitta, King Tissa, members of the royal family, and other monks planted the tree in an elevated mound. This all took place in the 3rd century BC. For more than 2000 years afterwards, this sapling grew and was taken care of by successive members of the royal family and the monks who lived in Anuradhapura up to the present time. What happened next was that centuries later when the original Tree in Bodh Gaya was toppled again by an invading army, the Buddhist order in Anuradhapura took a sapling from their tree – reverentially called Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi – and replanted it in Bodhi Gaya at the same site where the original Tree had sprouted. But, this Tree also was toppled and then in the late 19th century, the British viceroy or whatever who had control of th Bihar province had a new Bo Tree planted. It was this Tree that I saw in 2009. Although it was young (under a 150 years old), it was still mighty and massive with history. But, as I read the story about Sanghamitta I knew I would have to travel to Anuradhapura and see Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi. And in 2010, I was in Anuradhapura — an electrifying plain strewn with enormous, bubble-shaped Dagobas which I will detail later — but first it was the Tree. The Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi Tree is the oldest “human tended” tree in the world. The monks in Anuradhapura have meticulous records of how generation after generation their order has taken care of the Tree. There were golden shrouds tied around knobby elbows of the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi and various metal braces were placed around the tree in order to hold up and spread the weight of its lumbering branches. I had never seen such tender upkeep of any non-human being before. There were many pilgrims and lay people walking around the tree and praying in the covered shrines built around the tree. There was a rotating wheel of activity like being in a fair or carnival.

Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi Tree – Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka (2010)

I sat in a corner of the Tree complex and was covered by the shade of one of Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi’s large, leafy branches. I clearly remember the feeling I had of just how insignificant my own life was. I had the life span of a gnat in the eyes of this Tree. No question about that. There was something undeniably supernatural about being in the presence of another living thing that was over 2 millennia old. When I thought back to Bodh Gaya, the connection this Tree had to the Buddha himself, and the journey the Tree had made with Sanghamitta to get to this place – it was almost too much to comprehend. Every culture or religion has its share of myths and legends that sustain and define its identity. The Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden has been passed on by tradition as bearing forbidden fruit. The Bodhi Tree was just the opposite – it was a catalyst that led to the receipt of complete Knowledge in the case of the Buddha. The Tree was then an object to be revered and celebrated. Here, before me was its 2,200+ year old descendant. It had been cared for by the Sangha and would likely live on for another millennia, or until the Sangha was no more. Would there still be a Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi without the Sangha’s care? Would the Sangha have still been able to be as strong as it was in Anuradhapura without something tangible like the Tree to motivate it and stay true to the Buddha’s teaching? The two’s destinies had been intertwined. Each needed the other, but if either was to over-indulge on their attachment to the other, then there would be conflict and loss of purpose. As I stood up and was ready to leave the Tree complex, I noticed a few twigs and leaves that must have fallen from Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi. I picked up a couple of them and put them in my bag. I guess I needed to stay attached to this experience in some way. I had done the same thing at Bodh Gaya the year before. Back to Bodh Gaya then. From there, I set out like the Buddha had to the deer park.

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