Saturday Magazine

Exploring the heights of Pilikuththuwa

Part II: From len viharas to mural paintings

Painting of King Vessanthara distorted with the king shown wearing socks and shoes!

Painting of doratupala on the doorway distorted and replaced by this painting of a Portuguese soldier armed with a sword and other armaments

Text and pix by Gamini G. Punchihewa

In the years gone by of monarchy rule in ancient Lanka the rock cave shelters cloistered in the recess of the forests served the recluse Buddhist monks in performing their meditation chores and other religious observances. Such cave hermitages were patronised by the ruling kings of the time, chieftains and the people as well. As the years passed, such cave shelters turned into len viharas (cave temples) and len avasas (abodes of Buddhist monks). Such len (cave shelters), were gifted by the kings, queens, and other nobles of the royalty. Foremost among such noble chieftains were the paramukas (chieftain of royal rank holding multiple designations).

Inscriptions and drip ledges - Katarans.

On the apex of those rock cave shelters were carved drip-ledges (kataran), for preventing rain water from falling into the interior of the cave abode. Below such drip ledges bore the etched stone inscriptions mostly of Brahmi scripts. In them are mentioned the names of the donors with their titles and the names of kings and queens. The name of paramuka stands gloriously carved on them, denoting the donors’ designations. The ancient concept of cultural values had been symbolic of the tank (weva), dagaba and rice field (ketha). Such features are well portrayed in the innumerable archaeological relics found in the nooks and corners around Raja Rata, Maya Rata, Pihitirata, Ruhuna Rata and even extending to the medieval kingdom of Sitawake.

Len viharas, Len avsas not a far cry from Colombo!

Not far away from the city of Colombo, such vestiges of our priceless cultural heritage are found at a len vihara called Pilikuththuwa Raja Maha Vihara, atop a mountain frontier. It is off Yakkala on the Colombo-Kandy road, about 30 miles from Colombo. The len vihara lies in the upper maluwa (higher terrace), just going past the two giant Bodhiyas looming over the premises.

Disfigured paintings replaced by those of Portuguese paintings

The Portuguese, during their invasion into this area in the 16th century are said to have disfigured some of those mural paintings and on the entrance doorway to the image house of the len vihara. They had mercilessly disfigured the paintings on the doorway depicting a doratupala. This doratupala figure is daubed and instead a Portuguese soldier armed with a sword stands. Some of the Vessanthara Raja’s mural paintings are also disfigured. Instead there appears Vessanthara Raja wearing socks and shoes. The doratupala is the divine guardian of a doorway. (See pictures)

Authoritative quotes on defaced paintings

In the Sinhala book Pilkuththuwa Raja Maha Vihara authored by Sanjeewa Prasanna Tennokoon, Sirimal Lakdusinghe, Director of National Museums, writing an article on ‘Gampaha District’ has discussed the Pilikuththuwa Temple paintings. The book has been published by the Department of Cultural Affairs. The English translation follows:

“The paintings and statues were done in the 19th century in one of the rock caves in the temple premises after converting it into an image house (buduge). Various incidents pertaining to Dharmapala, Mahakanaha, Vessanthara Jataka stories, Arahants, sun and moon’ illustrations of ‘Hell’ are shown in the temple murals. The canopy is decorated with a thousand flowers. A glance at the doratupala’s (divine guardian of a doorway) recalls the views expressed by Andrea Neil on the Kelaniya Temple paintings. It is to the doratupala figure with a Portuguese war uniform. Furthermore King Vessanthara is shown wearing socks and trousers and draping a shawl. Manthree Devi appears to be an average woman, wearing a kambaya (woman’s coloured cloth) and puffed sleeved jacket. This neither has a head dress or shoes.

His comments go further: “King Vessanthara offering alms to the beggar and needy had been painted in a very unaesthetically pleasing manner. The scene of the kitchen has been painted in a different manner compared to the paintings at Kelaniya and other locations. Manthree Devi is shown serving meals seated under a jak tree. In this panel, the upper portion of the bodies of the women remain naked, and not covered with any kind of clothes. But the artist has shown reluctance in a painting the breasts, and has displayed a higher degree of discipline by avoiding the appearance of breasts by carefully covering up with limbs and various external objects.

“The Kelaniya frescoes painting techniques of the early period differ more or less with the Kandyan style. The fact that artists from distant areas have failed to follow up the discipline and methodology of Kandyan painting traditions in the proper manner may be because of the inspiration they got from other styles of paintings and the lapse of time.

“The Pilikuthtuwa Temple paintings reveal the quiet changes the artists of the Kandyan period are undergoing. Even the painting of a tree is done in a geometric and a stylish character producing a creative work of art. But the Pilikuthtuwa artist has made a faithful attempt to paint the jak, mango, breadfruit and plantain with easily recognisable artistic forms embodying the individual characteristics of the particular species. In this contrast, the Pilikuththuwa paintings differ not only from the traditional Kandyan paintings found in early temples such as Degoldoruwa and Dambulla, but also from the Kandyan temples.”

These conclusions made by an acknowledged authority such as Sirimal Lakdusingha, on the Kandyan style of architectural patterns of such temples, reveal that the artists or the painters who had done these original paintings in Pilikuththuwa temple had not achieved the pristine style of Kandyan paintings.

Another striking but spectacular part of the paintings lie on the rock cave’s ceiling. Here the paintings are well portrayed having the signs of the 12 lagnas of the astrological chart, with their symbols well featured. On the cave roof ceiling if the image house are paintings of the lotus flower in full bloom and its tendrils winding around have been artistically executed.

Inside it (in the upper maluwa—terrace) lies a Buddha statue in reclining pose, a Sammadhi Buddha statue and another standing Buddha statue. The temple chronicles have recorded that the paintings on the mural and rock cave ceilings were later touched up in 1874, by a painter / Siththara, named Mangala Thiraye Sriya.