Saturday Magazine
The case of Avukana Buddha
Misconceptions about Sri Lankan Buddha image:

by D. G. B. de Silva

An article written by Denis N. Fernando which he claims he subscribed to the Mahaweli magazine several decades back has received wide publicity in the English media newspapers recently. It not only claims that the Avukana statue is modeled after the recently destroyed Bamiyan Buddha statue in Afghanistan but that it was a replica of the latter. When used in reference to iconography a replica has to be an exact copy of the original in all respects. The writer does not furnish any evidence to support that it is so. He expects the reader to believe [what he thinks was the sculptor’s view, namely] that ‘’the aesthetic beauty [of the work at Avukuna] was so graceful and pleasing that he gave it the name of the country of origin", which is Afghanistan or its variation Avagan in Turkish.

satstatu.jpg (11564 bytes)What are these aesthetic or other qualities that one finds represented in the Avukana statue which were found in the Bamiyan statue? None to speak of from an iconographical point of view. Even though the Avukana statue has caught the imagination of the uninitiated as a masterpiece probably on account of its colossal dimensions in the Sri Lankan context, and the sculptor’s mastery over handling hard material, art historians are not agreed on its quality as ‘’living beauty" or its suppleness when compared to the stuccoed colossal statues of Polonnaruva, now mostly lying in ruin. Incidentally, working on material like stucco gave the sculptor an advantage that the worker on stone did not have. This is an advantage that the Bamiyan sculptor has had over his Avukana counterpart as only the outline and limited features of the former statue were hewn out of stone and the outer-moulding was done out of stucco. This is another conceptual difference in techniques that distinguishes the sculptures of Afghanistan in general even from that of Gandhara where it drew its man inspiration from, which Denis Fernando has failed to recognize in his comparison.

We do not know even the facial features of the Bamiyan Buddha because the face was sawn off or had eroded. We also do not know what mudras’ [hand gestures conforming to religion- iconographical norms] were represented by the statue in Bamiyan as the hands were broken at the elbow. As such, the physical comparison that could be attempted is restricted but there were other features of significance left in the Bamiyan statue for an iconographical comparison. The writer has not attempted this probably because these would have yielded no comparison but contrast.

While we leave these for examination in sequence reference may be made at the outset to the conspicuous difference in the arrangement of the robe which is a stylistic feature which distinguished the Buddha statues executed in the Gandhara and other northern traditions from those produced in South, notably ancient Andhra country and Sri Lanka. The Avukana statue follows the typical highly stylised way of wearing the robe found in all Sri Lankan Buddha statues executed during the Anuradhapura period and thereafter. This is the position with the bared right shoulder and the edge of the robe shown on the left side of the body usually with the corner of the robe held together by the left hand at the left shoulder. [In some it is held below, one of the most fascinating displays which I admire most, being that of the Badulla bronze statue now in the National museum, Colombo, There are also a few other variations]. In contrast, the Bamiyan statue follows the typical Gandhara style of wearing the robe with both shoulders covered, the ends of the robe being invisible, and the style displaying strong Greek, Roman and Sassanian influence. In a few samples of Gandhara statuettes the right shoulder is bare but these are exceptions of an evolutionary phase than the rule.

The presence of a cloak-type outer robe, as seen projecting sideways from the back of the sculptures [one in a coin] of Parthian and Kushan kings which had interestingly become a feature in later sculptures of Thailand was clearly visible in the Bamiyan statue. This feature is not found in Sri Lanka except in a modified degree found in the bronze statue of the Gadaladeniya purana vihara where the Buddha is represented in ‘ Vairocana mudra’, and also in the bronze statuette now in the National Museum in Colombo, depicting the same ‘mudra’

Those relating to the robe are not the only differences in the Avukana and Bamiyan statues, but it is sufficient to show that Avukana statue like other statues of the Anuradhapura school differed conceptually from the Bamiyan statue. The only common feature about the two is that they belong to the colossal Buddha statue concept with Bamiyan taking precedence in proportions and mamentation. Such colossal types were the result of a phase of development which kept abreast with the advancement in the growth of a Buddhist literature centering round Sakyamuni Buddha’s life and went on to evolve into the concept of a Universal Buddha under the influence of northern schools of Buddhism. The appearance of these in Sri Lanka relate to the period of 8th-9th centuries when Mahayana forms of worship had gained the upper hand with colossal statues replacing even the earlier popular ‘stupa’ worship.

What Denis Fernando appears to have been interested in presenting is not an iconographical comparison encompassing a study of these and other characteristics. This seems to be the reason for his choosing to dwell on two peripheral points in support of his assertion. One of these is about the relationship of measurements of the Avukana and Bamiyan statues.


The measurements used in Buddhist statues were perfected in the ‘Silpasastras’ and these became uniform everywhere even though iconographical characteristics developed according to local pecularities and preferences of Buddhist schools. The claim that the height of Avukana statue has been made four and half times smaller than that of Bamiyan as a deliberate act is not convincing at all. The fraction is an irregular one that does not feature in traditional Buddhist or Hindu measurements. While the height of 39 feet [14 metres?] appears to have been a standard measurement used in Sri Lanka it would seem that the determining factor for the Avukana sculptor was the height of the rock where he was to hew out the statue. This measurement of 39 feet was used also as the height for the Weherahena [Matara] seated statue built in recent times. [In comparison to Avukana statue whose height is 14 m., the statue at Sasseruva is 11.84 m., the one at Buduruvagala is 13 m. the one at Maligavela is over 12 m. before it was repaired and installed. The measurements are as given in Prof. Jean Boisselier’s work: Archaeologia Mundi: Ceylon 1979].


The other argument used is the seeming parallel in the names Avukana and Afghanistan or rather its variation in Turkish which the writer calls ‘Avagan’. Parallels in names could be tempting but that is a trap that serious scholars may best avoid especially when the supporting evidence is fragile lest they fall into the same trap that Hugh Nevill fell at times because of his over- enthusiasm .One of his biggest howlers was noted by M. D. Raghavan, ethnologist, in the case where the British antiquarian had interpreted the title of a chief named ‘ ‘Dombranada ‘ appearing in a [corrupted] copy of ‘ ‘Mukkara-Hatana" as ‘ ‘Don Branada" or "Don Fernando" and had concluded that it must refer to ‘ ‘one of the earliest chiefs converted by the Portuguese unless he had taken his name from a Genoese adventurer of a still earlier date ии "The conclusion was bad enough; but the explanation was even worse. Raghavan suggested that the name of the chief was perhaps "Thomaram Nathan" [Tamil], Chief or commander of the javelin-armed or lance-bearing troops and had nothing to do with ‘ ‘Don Branada" as Hugh Nevill imagined." [‘Karavas of Ceylon’]. Even the latter could be considered only as a good guess. L. J. B. Tumer, a former British Civil Senant-writer also had a crack at Hugh Nevill when he called some of his derivations as ‘etymology gone to seed’!


To return to sequence, we should remind ourselves that there was no typical Afghan characteristics or an Afghan school in Buddhist art and that the concept of Afghanistan as a country did not arise until very late centuries. It formed part of the eastern part of Gandhara, the 21st province in the Achaemeneid empire under the Persians. The spirit of tribal nationalism was so strong there—a fact noted by Alexander’s historians as much as what we noted recently in the opposition to the Talebans—that after Achaemenied, Selucid, Parthian, Kushan and Sassanian rule the local rulers had always assumed their independence. When Hseun -Tsang saw the statues in resplendent glory and noted the presence of several thousands of Buddhist bhikkus of both Mahayana and Hinayana persuasion in the 7th century, Bamiyan [Fan-yen-pa or Wang-yen] was a separate land under its own ruler as much as neighboring Kapisa was. A number of Islamic dynasties ruled over the tribes later until Chinghis Khan sacked the kingdom in an act of revenge putting every one to sword except its ruler Jalah-ud-Din of the Kwarazon dynasty [1222] who was the last of the rulers of the land of Bamiyan.

Though scholars have identified a school of art as the Gandhara school even in that there were pronounced regional variations which were preserved separately in the western parts of former Gandhara such as Bamiyan, Kapisa, Hadda, Fondukistan and Kandahar, which characteristics were identified under their own specific names as all types of art traditions normally do. As such the Bamiyan tradition of sculpture could not have gone under the name Afghan or even Avagan sculpture at the date the sculpture at Avukana was executed.

The name Afghan or Avagan as applied to the country must date to a time when Bamiyan, Kapisa and others had ceased to exist as separate kingdoms. That could have happened after Chinghis Khan’s raid and the expelling of the ruler. When that took place in the 13th century Bamiyan had already ceased to be a source of Buddhist inspiration and Buddhism had already disappeared as the land had been under Moslem domination for at least four centuries.

This brings us to the important issue of the date of execution of the Avul ana statue.

Problem of Chronology

This is not the first time that Avukana statue has been at the centre of a controversy. Its date of execution itself is a subject of a dispute. The University History of Ceylon [Section written by Dr. S. Paranavitana ] states that the Avukana statue must at least be of the date of the 8th 9th century inscription found on a donatory inscription connected with the shrine. This only provides one of the parametres and is not a conclusive statement. The learned scholar seems to have preferred to accept an inference from Culavamsa where the chronicle gives "Kalasela" [Kalagala in Sinhala] as the name of an image caused to be sculpted by King Dhatusena. [5th century] Dr. Paranavitana has conspicuously avoided a comparison of the stylistic features of the statue in favouring the 5 century date. However, in the same context he calls the statues at Sasseruva, Tantirimale and Elahara as belonging to the later Anuradhapura period of sculpture, a description which he has omitted to apply to Avukana statue Coming from an erudite scholar and eminent archaeologist, this silence on his part on the sylistic features of Avukana statue is startling when one notes that he leaves no stone unturned when it comes to arguing a point in relation to a theory he is propounding as in the case of his changing positions on Potgul Vehera colossus, or his theories on Sigiriya and others. To cap it all he even introduced an Ananda Stavira and his "Parampara-pustaka" in support of his readings from interlinear inscriptions. Was the unarmed case on Avukana a strategy used by him to advance his pet option on the dating of Avukana statue?

The fragility of Dr. Paranavitana’s preference for the ‘traditional’ date was exposed [though not by name] by Prof. Jean Boisselier, learned French archaeologist, and art historian, whose advice, incidentally, I sought often when I was moving UNESCO to launch an International Campaign to safeguard Sri Lanka’s historical cultural monuments which saw the light of the day as the Cultural Triangle Project [That was before the authorship was ‘highjacked’ by two persons who claimed in the Archaeology Dept’s and Cultural Triangle publications that they were the ‘ Two wizards" like in the story of ‘’Alladin and the Lamp", who ‘’ turned the key" to the UNESCO initiative. To use a local slang that was the type of ‘one-upmanship’ that went under Prime Minister Premadasa’s [later President] handling of the Cultural Triangle Project]. That is by the way.

Prof. Boisselier observed that the traditional dating of Avukana statue was ‘ ‘a salutary example of the fragility of conclusions based on texts alone," He pointed out further that in Sri Lanka the dating in general ‘’was uncertain since dating of particular works is usually deduced from references in texts, without the cross-check that would be provided by stylistic analysis." He firmly asserted that the traditional date [5th c.] was a "stylistic impossibility."


The relevance of dating of Avukana statue to our inquiry is that the traditional 5th century date does not fit into the assertion that it was modeled on the Bamiyn colossus because the latter has been assigned as a work of the 6th century. If this date is accepted then the argument has to be reversed, i.e., Bamiyan was modeled after the Avukana statue. Historically and stylistically this was an impossibility. The alternate date [8th-9th c.] also present difficulties as by that date Moslems were in control of Bamiyan and Buddhism itself had begun to disappear from there if not altogether disappeared. It is to Central Asia or China where statues with distinct Bamiyan characteristics are found that one should turn to discover the latter’s influence. These works, e.g., Lung-men, and Yung -ken belong to the same date as the Bamiyan colossus [6th c.]

Sri Lankan School

One should be mindful that Sri Lankan Buddhist sculpture as much as other forms of art show a strong indigenous development once the country became the repository of ideas introduced from elsewhere. This is how art historians [e.g., Ananda Coomaraswamy], have seen the evolution of the Buddha statue from seeming models from the Andhra country, notably, from the Amravati school. After the waning of Buddhism in the Andhra country Sri Lanka became the leading centre for both Mahayana and Hinayana forms. In practically all Buddha statues produced in the Anuradhapura period this early influence of the Andhra school is a feature which cannot escape one s attention.

There are more differences between the Avukana and Bamiyan statues, both in conceptual terms and iconographical details, which one cannot go into for want of space. The fact that Avukana statue is sculpted in the round out of solid granite rock [Kalasela of Culavamsa?] in contrast to the Bamiyan counterpart sculpted on more inviting sand stone in the Hindukush range, but in its rudimentary form [not in round] to be moulded over with stucco facing with material in the use of which the local populace seem to have been adepts, itself deserves consideration in a comparative study.

Question of Mudras

One cannot be certain what ‘mudras were used in the Bamiyan statue in view of destruction the statue had undergone. However, some reasonable conclusions could be drawn through a closer examination of remaining details and the popular regional trends. The clearly discernible meticulously designed folds of the robe over both upper arms of the Bamiyan statue, would not have been meant to be hidden away with raised hands as one finds in the Avukana statue, where the right hand is held upraised in the "Asisa mudra" [a variation of ‘ "Abhaya mudra" peculiar to Sri Lanka]; and the left hand is shown holding the end of the robe on the left shoulder.

In the Bamiyan statue the indications are that the right hand appears to have been held in the popular ‘Abhava mudra’. That would be also the appropriate welcome gesture that would have pleased the weary caravaneers who have come through thousands of miles of dessert track to the welcoming land of Bamiyan, also crossing the treacherous passes on the Hindukush range or are about to cross them on their way to the land of the celestial empire.

There is yet another even more appropriate gesture named ‘’King Udayana mudra", a perfected example of which is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, belonging to the Northern Wei dynasty. [5th c. onwards} This ‘mudra’, with "Abhaya mudra" displayed by the right hand, and an open welcoming gesture of the left hand represent a perfectly balanced and graceful movements of the two hands, an almost an epitome of perfect courtesy as found in modern day ‘protocol’ as one finds when the President of the US welcomes important visitors to the White House. My own guess is that this gesture of the two hands would have ideally fitted into the scheme of the Bamiyan colossal Buddha.

Another variation for consideration is the gestures in the two hands found in the statue at the Yung-kan caves in China which also belongs to the Northern Wei dynasty, and which shows other parallels to Bamiyan statue which has the "Abhaya mudra" on the right, and a variation of the King Udayana [welcome] posture" on the left.

The statues with ‘’Vairocana Mudra" should not be excluded from this consideration. Examples of these are found in India [Buddha-Gaya], China [Lung-men], Japan [Todoji], Thailand [Sukhotai], Sri Lanka [Gadaladeniya and National Museum] in Colombo] this posture the right hand is held in the "Abhaya Mudra". while the left hand is usually held in somewhat half way down position with the palm in the open position. The left hand also takes the weight of the robe. The Gadaladeniya example also shows the arrangement of the cloak behind the robe though in somewhat modified style when compared to many such representations found in Thailand where the feature is very prominent.


The suggestions I have made above on the comparison of the statues are not conclusive and are open for discussion. My only claim to write on the subject was experience gained through extensive travel in Asian countries, particularly in China, Japan, India and Thailand where I was privileged to visit numerous representations of the Buddha statue, and travels in Europe and the USA where again I was privileged to see many expositions of representative Buddhist sculptures. This exposure against my early initiation to the field of Asian iconography as a University student and the extensive reading I have done on the subject ever-since provided me the background to prepare this paper.

Special mention should be made of the Exhibition of photographs and photo geometrical material brought by a Japanese archaeological enthusiasts including several professionals after a visit to Bamivan in 1971 at the Gangoji Gokurakubo Temple in Nara, held at the head quarter of the Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism where I was a privileged guest. The team visited Sri Lanka on my personal invitation extended to the High Priest of the sect whom I associated closely and they were hosted here by the Maha Bodhi Society and the Ceylon Tourist Board. [This was the first Japanese Buddhist pilgrimage to the island of this magnitude].

In my several visits to ancient Buddhist monuments in China I was privileged on two occasions to be in the learned company of the erudite Buddhist scholar, the late Dr. G. P. Malalasekara, and Ven. Tiranagama Ratanasara Thero who was on an extensive Asian tour collecting material for his volumes on Asian Buddhist Art and Buddha Images and learn much from them. [ Later I had the privilege of accompanying Dr. Malalasekara on visits to Buddhist shrines in Japan]. The visit of Ven. Ratanasara also gave me access to view hundreds of un-exhibited Buddhist silk screen paintings deposited in the vaults of the Imperial Palace in Beijing. This was our compensation for not being allowed to visit Tun-huang, the caves of ‘Thousand Buddhas". The Imperial Palace collection included many pieces from Tun-huang which had not fallen into the hands of Aurel Stein, the ‘Big Thief who was knighted by the British government for his act" as the female guide at the Beijing Museum explained to Dr. Malalasekara, .whose immediate reaction as I recall was to look at me to exchange solemn smiles. If what Peter Hopkirk, former journalist fumed writer says in his fascinating book "Foreign Devils on the Silk Road" [Oxford University Press, 1980] that the silk screen paintings removed by Sir Aurel Stein are so great in quantity that the great majority remain unexposed in the vaults of the British Museum for fear of arousing interest in their recovery, is true, then the charge by the Chinese may be not without some foundation.