Indian FS opens exhibition on Buddhist heritage of Sri Lanka in New Delhi



Our Special Correspondent

NEW DELHI, April 15: India’s Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai inaugurated an exhibition of photographs titled ‘Buddhist Heritage of Sri Lanka: a shared culture with India’ at the India International Centre in New Delhi last week.

The photographs were taken by renowned Indian art historian and film-maker Benoy K Behl, who has meticulously documented through exquisite pictures the history of Buddhism in more than 20 countries across the globe.

The exhibition is organised jointly by the Sri Lanka High Commission in India, the India International Centre (IIC) and the India-Sri Lanka Foundation (ISLF). The exhibition features 40 photographs of historic sites in Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya, Dambulla, Kandy and Kelaniya.

Mathai, quoting from a speech made by India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru during a visit to Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, in 1950, said that the bond of Buddha and all that it conveys is a bond between India and Sri Lanka which nothing can break.

Elaborating on the shared culture of India and Sri Lanka, Mathai spoke of recent steps in the cultural sphere and joint celebration of the 2600th Sambuddhatva Jayanti, which have further strengthened the historic bonds between the two countries. He spoke of the exposition of the Kapilavastu Relics of Gautama Buddha in Sri Lanka last year, where over three million people paid homage to the Relics, and India’s gift of the 16-foot Buddha statue based on the Gupta period statue in Sarnath which is installed at the entrance to the International Buddhist Museum in Kandy.

Mathai recalled Nehru’s words about the solace he had derived from the Samadhi Buddha statue in Anuradhapura, a photograph of which was his constant companion in the Dehradun jail: "....the strong calm features of the Buddha soothed me and gave me strength and helped me overcome many a period of depression."

Speaking on the occasion, Sri Lankan High Commissioner to India Prasad Kariyawasam traced the historic civilisational ties between India and Sri Lanka. The photographs, he said, tell the story of the ties that have bound the people of India and Sri Lanka for thousands of years, the great civilisation that once flourished, and the moral and ethical codes of compassion, tolerance, selflessness and non-violence which in today’s modern world seem to be overtaken by materialism, egoism and parochial interests.

Photographer Benoy Behl spoke of the culture of all of South Asia being deeply unified by a vision of great compassion. Sri Lanka is one of the great inheritors of this vision of life, Behl said and recalled the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka in the 3rd Century BC during which time, artistes did not put their names on their work, and ephemeral personalities were not considered important.

Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai was gifted a sapling of the sacred Bodhi Tree in Bodhgaya, nurtured and kept alive jointly by the people of both countries over thousands of years, as a symbol of the deep and abiding friendship between the people of the two countries and respect for the teachings of Gautama Buddha.

Kariyawasam said India and Sri Lanka are geographically separated by a mere 48 kilometres of sea known as the Palk Strait. Being situated in such close proximity to each other geographically, it is abundantly clear that interaction between the people of India and Sri Lanka would have predated recorded history. "Relations between our two countries are ancient and steeped in legend. The two great epics of India, The Ramayana and The Mahabarata, have references to Sri Lanka. So does the Skanda Purana associated with God Skanda."

The Mahavamsa or the Great Chronicle which is the main source for the reconstruction of the early history of Sri Lanka talks of the arrival of a Prince from Bengal and Kalinga named Vijaya, in about the 5th Century BC, who settled in Sri Lanka and established its first Kingdom.

Although this legend is deeply embedded in Sri Lanka’s literature, its history and its folklore, there is no record of its visual or artistic depiction in ancient Sri Lanka. What is interesting however is that this story finds artistic depiction in a series of murals called the ‘Simhala Avadana’ in the 5th Century monastic caves of Ajanta in Western India, the envoy pointed out.

According to historical records, Buddhism was officially introduced to Sri Lanka around the middle of the 3rd Century BC, during the reign of India’s great Emperor Ashoka, who sent his own son Arhat Mahinda, an enlightened Buddhist monk, to Sri Lanka, with the Message of Buddhism. Soon thereafter, his daughter Sanghamitra, who had become a Buddhist nun, was sent to Sri Lanka with a sapling of the Pipal tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment in Bodhgaya.

"This tree continues to stand in Anuradhapura even today, and it is acknowledged as the oldest recorded tree in the world. It has remained in continuous worship since its inception in the 3rd Century BC. It was from this tree that the tree that you now find in Bodhgaya, was revived, when the original tree in India was no more. Our two countries have jointly kept this sacred and historic tree alive. It stands as a symbol of our deep friendship, our commitment to peace, non-violence, tolerance, respect for all beings, and the teachings of Gautama Buddha, Kariyawasam declared.

The introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka also saw the introduction of the culture and the civilisation of Buddhist India to Sri Lanka. New forms of art, architecture, and cultural practices made a deep impression on Sri Lankan civlisation. It is even believed that it was Emperor Ashoka’s son Mahinda, who had lived in large cities like Pataliputra, the capital of the Magadhan Empire and had seen great monasteries like Asokarama and Sanchi in Vidisha, who originally planned and laid out the Holy City of Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka, he said.

For nearly 13 centuries, Anuradhapura remained the principal seat of government and the major centre of Sri Lankan culture and civilisation. Its monasteries were great centres of learning, visited by scholars and pilgrims from many parts of Asia. It housed an international trading community, which included traders from India, China, Rome, Arabia and Persia. Sri Lankan ambassadors were despatched on several occasions to the imperial courts of Rome and China from the court at Anuradhapura.

The Great Indian Buddhist scholar and commentator, Buddhaghosa, spent many years in Anuradhapura during the 5th Century, codifying the Buddhist scriptures which had been lost in India. Gunavarman, the Kashmiri monk who carried Buddhism to Indonesia and China, passed through Sri Lanka, and must certainly have visited the city’s monasteries. Monks from Anuradhapura went out to many lands, including India, China, Cambodia and Java, and they left inscriptions and records of their visits in those places.

Influences from southern India have been of fundamental importance in Sri Lanka from prehistoric times. For a thousand years before the arrival of the Portuguese, several conquerors from South India invaded parts of Sri Lanka and established short lived dependencies.

At the same time, there was a long history of Sri Lankan rulers sending emissaries to Southern India for their queens and for cultural and economic pursuits. The Buddhist temples from the Polonnaruwa period (1017 – 1215) onwards incorporated Hindu shrines in their premises. This is a feature one would find in Buddhist temples even today.

The Kingdoms of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa declined due to a combination of factors. Invasions from South India were one major reason, and the seat of power shifted gradually southwards and to the central mountains in search of security. Southern Kingdoms also came under pressure from powerful naval expeditions of Chinese Emperors seeking tribute and obedience. These were before the arrival of the European colonial powers.

The ruins of great monasteries and cities, colossal man-made lakes, numerous inscriptions and a large body of ancient literature still survive as testimony to the achievements of the Sri Lankan people over a period of 2000 years and more. They indicate that Sri Lanka took its place with other countries in Asia, as one of the most advanced and developed countries of the pre-modern world from about 3rd century BC to about the 15th century.

Throughout this period, the people of Sri Lanka had evolved their own distinctive culture and economy while keeping in close contact with the outside world and being open to ideas and exchanges with the countries of the Indian Ocean region and beyond, the envoy added.

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