Midweek Review

Gotama Buddha Murals
by Professor Anuradha Seneviratna

I was delighted when George Keyt asked me to write a brief text for his artistic masterpiece - The Gotami Vihara paintings. I thank him profusely for this honour When the original manuscript was prepared, I had the opportunity to show it to him. Having read it, he expressed to me how happy he was with it.

The intention was to present this publication to George Keyt on his 92nd Birth anniversary. We were however not able to prepare the publication in time, and he passed away a few months later.

The flow of the Karmic force cannot be stopped. Therefore, I am dedicating this to his memory.

Buddhist Art

The earliest Buddhist paintings have been found dating back to the fifth century AC, in the Ajanta Caves in India. Some of these clearly depict the early life of Prince Siddhartha, his birth, renunciation and enlightenment. Early sculptures depicting the life of the Buddha are found in the Ellora, Ajanta Caves as well as at Amaravati, Bharhut, Saranath, Nalanda, Nagarjunakonda and Sanchi, Gandara in Pakistan and Borobudur in Indonesia. In Sri Lanka, paintings on temple walls depicting scenes from the life story of Siddhartha Gautarna the Buddha can still be seen at Hindagala Vihara (6th Cen. AC), Polonnaruwa Tivanka Pilimage (12th Cen. AC), Dambulla Rajamahavihara (18th Cen. AC), Gangarama Degaldoruwa and Suriyagoda Rajamahavihara in Kandy (18th Cen. AC), Kaballalena Vihara in Kurunegala (18th Cen. AC) and Kataluwa Purana Vihara in Galle (19th Cen. AC). In the early 20th Century with the Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka, artists such as M. Sarlis and Solias Mendis and a number of others, added their artistic creations to the Buddhist Viharas in the country. M. Sarlis painted the murals depicting the life of the Buddha at Karagampitiya Vihara in 1930 (?), while Solias Mendis did so at Kelaniya Rajamahavihara between the years 1932-1946. George Keyt painted the murals of Gotami Vihara in Borella in 1939-1940.

Gotami vihara

The Gotami Vihara is situated in Borella in the capital Colombo. The land for this Vihara was donated to Venerable Dodanduwe Piyaratana Thera in 1900 by Lady Apolonia de Soysa, the mother of Sir James Peiris who was a distinguished member of the State Council of Ceylon and who fought for the Independence of his country. Piyaratana Thera, for his part, is credited with having the first Buddhist School built in the country during colonial rule. Harold Peiris, a lover of art and a social worker, was a grandson of Sir James Peiris. His wife Peggy was George Key’s sister. This relationship was an important step in the history of art in Sri Lanka, for it was Harold Peiris who enabled his brother-in-law, George Keyt, to demonstrate his creative skill through the murals in their family temple, the Gotami Vihara. The subject-matter is the life of Gautarna Buddha.

George Keyt

George Keyt and Lionel Wendt, together with artists George Claessen, Ivan Peries, Richard Gabriel, Aubrey Collette, Justin Daraniyagala, Geoffrey Beling, Harry Pieris and Manjusri Thera, formed the ‘43 Group, which promoted art in Sri Lanka, and in the following years supported a number of young painters. This assembly of artists was named the ‘43 Group, because the organisation was founded in 1943. Lionel Wendt played the key role in this Art movement and it was Wendt, in fact, who influenced Keyt in his decision to devote himself totally to a life at the easel. This chain of events showed ‘Wed that it was karma that played the main role for things to come. My attempt in this part of the essay is not to write a biography of Keyt - H. A. 1. Goonetileke has already written it - or to write an evaluation of Keyt’s paintings - for I am not competent to do so. I will therefore keep myself to the theme.

The Murals

That a Scholar of the calibre of Telwatte Nayake Thera could guide the celebrated artist, George Keyt, and relate to him the life story of Gautama Buddha ‘ was fortuitous; for the mural painted by him on the inner walls of the circumambulatory shrine room of Gotami Vihara is a ‘Magnificent and innovative artistic achievement. (By the time Keyt had already acquired much knowledge about Buddhism through his association with the monks of the Malvatu Vihara in Kandy). Manjusri Thera, who was also a pupil of the Nayaka Thera, then decorated the panels with floral designs and later made copies of the original Keyt paintings for reproduction.

The walls for the paintings were newly created by the architect Andrew Boyd. It is reported that no initial or finished sketches were done by Keyt for the murals. He outlined the walls with burnt sienna and later, at the request of Telwatte Amarawansa Thera, colours were added to these line drawings and the lines thickened. He charged no fee for his work and received only the cost of the paints and his food from the dayakas or devotee -supporters.

The scenes from the life of the Buddha were selected. They were: the invitation of gods to the Bodhisattva to be born in the human world, the dream of Mahamayadevi, the birth of Siddhartha, the ploughing festival, Siddhartha’s skills in the art of archery; his marriage ceremony, dancing-girls, his disgust with worldly life, the four signs, seeing his newborn son, the great renunciation, crossing the river Anoma, cutting off his hair, meeting King Bimbisara, meeting the spiritual teachers, his defeat of Mara, the first sermon, and finally the passing away of the Master.

The scenes were created in the manner of lineal continuation on to the next frame. The height of each frame is six feet three inches. Three incidents, namely, Buddha’s visit to Kapilavasthu, his first sermon, and his passing away, were depicted separately on the outer surface of the inner wall of the circumambulator. They are the largest of the murals.

There is a discrepancy in the -sequences of events at one place. According to traditional belief, the Bodhisattva left his palace after seeing the sleeping dancing-maids sprawled on the floor. Canonically, this incident follows immediately after seeing the four signs. But Keyt has painted the scene of the dancing-girls before the realization of the four signs. Perhaps this change of sequences makes sense, for the Bodhisattva had already begun to question the true nature of life soon after his marriage. It may well have been the total rejection of his worldly life of music, glamour and love, which led him to seek the reality of existence.


Keyt’s artistic creation at Gotami Vihara is, no doubt influenced by the great Indian and Sri Lankan tradition of sculpture and painting. It is a superb transformation of stone sculpture into wall paintings harmoniously blended to create a new technique which is oriental in the full sense of the word. It is definitely not a complete break with the style and compositional methods of traditional art or even a departure from conventional subject-matter as some art critics claim. I quite agree with H. A. 1. Goonetileke when he writes:

"Keyt has never allowed himself to escape his influences - he has accepted them all because he was an innocent in the first instance in the pure sense of that term. The conventions of Sri Lankan classical fresco paintings as well as the mediaeval Kandyan temple paintings, stylised and frozen in form and colour, have been a major factor in the artistic language he has evolved for himself. But there is no denying the extensive influence of the Indian classical tradition, noticeable throughout his career, especially where he is preoccupied with striving for spiritual and lyrical expression or achieving spontaneous patterns of intense humanism. The richness of invention and decorative design reminiscent of the whole history of Indian classical painting and sculpture are never absent in his work."

The new style in the Gotami Vihara murals can be traced to the fact that the original black and white line drawings were later transformed into coloured murals. When the originals were drawn, many decorative curve-lines were used to draw the flat figures. The resultant vivid contrast after the colours were applied made the murals more brilliant and extraordinary. The small curve-lines then added additional depth and weight to the paintings which are the largest scale of drawings Keyt has attained.

The friezes of the famous Indonesian Buddhist temple Borobudur, and the sculpture of Amaravati, and Nagarjunakonda no doubt are reflected through form and sequence to these murals, for George Keyt’s murals at Gotami Vihara are essentially Oriental; but I do not say that he was directly influenced by them.

In one sense they mark the continuation of a local tradition, on the other hand they are unique because they represent creativity through a new style of drawing. To me and to many others who appreciate the drawings of Keyt, the Gotami Vihara paintings no doubt are the greatest among the religious paintings he has executed in his lifetime and they represent a landmark in the history of Buddhist art in modern Asia.


George Keyt, Drawings. H. A. I Goonetileke, Colombo: 1990

George Keyt, A Life in Art . Colombo 1989

George Keyt ge Gotami Vihara Bitu Situvam, Albert Dharmasiri, Colombo 1991

"Gotami Vihara Frescoes" - Ceylon Daily News Vesak Number 1950

"The Lives of Keyt". Tissa Devendra, Observer Pictorial, Colombo 1991

(from: Gotama Buddha-Murals by George Keyt. Colombo

The George Keyt Foundation, 1993)

PROF. ANURADHA SENEVIRATNA (B.A., Ph.D.), is a Fellow, Oxford University, Professor of Sinhala at the University of Sri Lanka, Peradeniya and an author on historical monuments for UNESCO and publications on Art, History and Culture in Sri Lanka.


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