Buddhist Baroque: Colombo’s Gangaramaya Temple

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panorama of the Gangaramaya temple front

panorama of the Gangaramaya temple front – click on image to enlarge

To say I was overwhelmed does not even come close to capturing the initial breathless moment of stepping inside the main temple at the Gangaramaya Vihara complex.  I had just walked over after spending a very restful hour contemplating the mostly Thai Buddha sculptures at the stunning Seema Malaka.  As the image below slows, it is built out onto Beira Lake on three connected platforms. As a modern “take” on Sri Lanka’s forest monasteries designed by Sri Lanka’s renowned contemporary architect Geoffrey Bawa, it has an almost Zen-like feel to it.

Seema Malaka on BeiraLake in Colombo

Seema Malaka on BeiraLake in Colombo – used for various monastic ceremonies by the main temple – the Gangaramaya which is perhaps 300 meters away

Passing through the open gate I took off my shoes and sun hat and headed to one of the two side doors of the main temple.  To my right as I approached the door was a Chinese bronze statue of Kuan Yin and an even larger bronze of the Hindu deity Ganesha, the son of Shiva and Parvati. The elephant-headed god is known as the remover of obstacles and the patron of those about to embrace a new beginning.

Kuan Yin and Ganesha bronzes in the Gangaramaya courtyard

While I am not a believer, I am still moved when I visit holy places, whether humble village shrines or massive cathedrals and stupas. What I experienced as  I stepped into the Gangaramaya temple  I can only call Buddhist Baroque.  It is the opulent grandeur of ten thousand Buddhas looking at you thanks to effort of the temple planners to have artists and sculptors fill up every available space with different aspects of the Buddhist narrative. I’d never seen anything like this before  in my limited travels through the Buddhist world.

Gangaramaya Temple - one wall

Gangaramaya Temple – side view of seated Buddha…see two pix down for front view

I spent over an hour in the temple, inhaling the atmosphere and taking in all the details. It was all but empty most of the time I was there and I was able to take my time framing shots of the various tableaux and shrine areas.  I made major use of my ultra-wide angle lens – shooting mostly at the 35mm equivalent of 15mm – and the digital spirit level of my Sony dslr helped prevent the keynoting effect. At other times I just accepted the inevitable distortion as I framed the shot. I upped the iso to 3200 or 6400 and avoided the use of flash.

pointing my camera up in the Gangaramaya Temple

pointing my camera up in the Gangaramaya Temple

looking up at the second massive bodhisattva figure

looking up at the second massive bodhisattva figure

another Bodhisattva figure - perspective correction in Adobe Lightroom!

another shot of the above Bodhisattva figure – this time after using perspective correction in Adobe Lightroom!

Buddhas and bodhisattvas at the Gangaramaya Temple

Buddhas and bodhisattvas at the Gangaramaya Temple

two small Buddhas in Dhyana (

two small Buddhas in Dhyana (“meditation”) Mudra

Buddha and bodhisattvas - a different angle

Buddha and bodhisattvas – a different angle

close-up of Buddha figure in abhaya (%22fear not%22) mudra

close-up of Buddha figure in abhaya (“have no fear”) mudra

Gangaramaya ceiling sculpture

Gangaramaya ceiling sculpture above the side door I entered

close-up of ceiling corner buddha

close-up of ceiling corner buddha

the Buddhist equivalent of angels hovering around central figure

the Buddhist equivalent of angels hovering around central figure

meditating monks and bodhisattvas at Gangaramaya temple

meditating monks and bodhisattvas at Gangaramaya temple

the main shrine of Gangaramaya's Temple

the main shrine of Gangaramaya’s Temple

the temple's central Buddha figure in

the temple’s central Buddha figure in “earth witness” pose

parinirvana Buddha figures in front of the main seated Buddha sculpture

small parinirvana Buddha figures in front of the main seated Buddha sculpture

The Buddha depicted at the moment of his enlightenment, with his right hand touching the earth in what is called the Bhumisparsha (“Earth Witness”) mudra or posture. the Buddhas at his feet are associated with the moment of his death at the age of 80, when he slipped off into what is called parinirvana.

Chinese Buddha and bodhisattvas

Chinese Buddha surrounded by disciples and  bodhisattvas

two of the figures from the above image

two of the figures from the above image

I continued my clockwise tour of the temple complex grounds by stepping out of the shrine room and into a large courtyard with a stupa (called a dagoba in Sri Lanka). More buddha figures lined the stupa and the surroundings. Guardstones – with depictions of the Nagarajas or Snake Kings – and the moonstone in front of the altar emphasized the classic Sinhalese style of Anuradhapura.

dagoba at the Gangaramaya Temple complex

dagoba (i.e. stupa) at the Gangaramaya Temple complex

main shrine at the Gangaramaya dagoba

main shrine at the Gangaramaya dagoba

side view of the Gangaramaya stupa

side view of the Gangaramaya stupa – with copy of the famous bronze statue of Avalokitesvara – see here for a Wikipedia-sourced image

The mini-stupas above and the ones you see below are done in Borobudur style.  The bronze seated Buddhas in various positions.  One is the Vitarka (“discussion”) mudra, with the index finger and the thumb of the right hand forming a circle. the other is the Dhyana mudra which we have seen already; it has the two hands placed together in the lap and is associated with the Buddha in a state of meditation.

mini-dagobas in the Gangaramaya courtyard

mini-dagobas in the Gangaramaya courtyard

Thai bronze Buddhas with Borobudur stupas

Thai Buddhas - row on row

Thai Buddhas – row on row

Chinese bronzes inside the artifacts collection room

Chinese bronzes inside the artifacts collection room

As i wandered around the room of artifacts, I noted Buddha figures that seemed to come from all over. I am guessing that the one above is from China and the one below in from Japan. Who they are exactly i cannot say.  The intellectualized Buddhism that I have been attracted to throughout my life is devoid of the statues and rituals and the Jataka stories that are the bread and butter of Buddhist artists.  My loss!

I am intrigued by the symbolism behind the eight-armed Buddha below, holding an axe (maybe to cut through ignorance?), a dharma wheel, a flag of victory,  perhaps a conch, and symbols of the moon and sun – but what does it all mean? What is the story behind it? Let me know in the comments section below if you are familiar with the details.

eight-armed seated Buddha figure

eight-armed seated Buddha figure

just a few statures of the massive Buddha collection

just a few statures of the massive Buddha collection

The temple is active in community affairs, providing technical training courses to over 7000 students daily at the various schools it has established. Its website details a new project to be launched in the Hambantota district on the south side of the island.  Given that the current President of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa,  is from this region, he and the head monk have even more to talk about than the temple’s general contributions to the community.

photo of current Sri Lankan president and head monk of Gangaramaya

photo of current Sri Lankan president and head monk of Gangaramaya

overview of back of artifact collection room

overview of the back of artifact collection room

Along with the massive elephants tusks, the temple complex also has its own elephant, appropriately named Ganga.  She is nine years old and has spent the past seven years at the temple, after being born in the Kattaragama district. For the past three Februarys she has appeared in the annual Nawam Perahera, a procession of monks and elephants carrying sacred relics  which makes its  way through the streets of this area of Colombo.  Google Nawam Perahera and you’ll be treated to dozens of colourful images of the event. The day I was there, Ganga was apparently off for a walk with her mahout in a nearby park. Some visitors are distressed on seeing her chained to a pillar on a very short metal leash. Others don’t seem to see the chains and are delighted by her presence!

display cases and elephant tusks at Gangarama Temple complex

display cases and elephant tusks at Gangarama Temple complex

My visit to Gangaramaya was an unexpected highlight of my visit to Sri Lanka. I entered the gates not knowing anything about the temple. i emerged over an hour later dazzled by the rich – and yes, sometimes a hodge-podge and sometimes kitschy,  collection of Buddhist statues and images. And while I am sure I missed most of the symbolism and identities of the various figures as they looked sympathetically at me, it was still a great experience.

Now I know what Japanese tourists with a solid Buddhist background must feel like as they stand in the middle of the Sistine Chapel and try to make sense of all the awe-inspiring Biblical images from the Old Testament they are surrounded by!

Useful Links:

The Temple has its own website and provides ample evidence of an extensive community outreach program.

Trip advisor has a string of comments from visitors to the temple complex. See here for a variety of views and the overall score.  It currently ranks 8th for things to do in Colombo!

Wikipedia has a short article on the temple, as well as more links which delve deeper into certain related topics.

Obviously the more you know about Buddhism before you wander into the temple, the more you will recognize and appreciate.  Two things that will help you along are these:

  1. the basic life story of the Siddhartha Gautama who became the Buddha; and

  2. the various poses used by sculptors to convey various moments in the Buddha’s story.  See this Wikipedia article on mudras for a quick introduction.

Your comments and questions are always appreciated, as are any suggestions on how to make this post more useful to future travellers. Just drop me a line or two!

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