Previous Post: A Visit To The Ruins Of Polonnaruwa – Part Two
The previous day I had visited the ruins of Polonnaruwa, the capital of a short-lived Sinhalese kingdom which flourished for less than two hundred years until an invading army from India led to its abandonment as its inhabitants fled to the still-Sinhalese south. While there I had marvelled at a number of the structures and monuments but one site stood out. The artistry, the technical skill, and the sheer scale of the Buddha figures carved out of the granite rock at Gal Vihara were all impressive, as was the remarkable shape that they were still in 800 years later.
While the reclining Buddha’s body stretches 14 meters (46′), the standing Buddha figure with its unusual crossed-arms mudra is almost 7 meters (23′) high. Impressive indeed!
That afternoon I returned from Polonnaruwa to my base camp in Dambulla, itself the location of an incredible collection of more recent (250 years ago) Buddhist devotional paintings and sculpturesuses inside a large cave in which five separate “rooms” had been created. And now, the next morning, my hired driver and I were off for a half-day visit with the famed Aukana Buddha.
The road to Aukana is a well-travelled one over which the taxi driver had taken many visitors staying in Dambulla. We were there in less than an hour. I bought an entry/photo permit and made the short walk up to the site, taking my shoes off at the entrance.
At over 14 meters (40′) high, this Aukana Buddha figure, also carved from a granite rock face, is Sri Lanka’s tallest. Its Pali name translates as “eating the sun”, a suitable one since it faces east towards the great Kala Wewa reservoir. The artificial lake was constructed during the time of Dhatusena in the 470’s C.E. (that is, about 1550 years ago).
Missing from the photo below is a human figure to give some sort of scale to the colossal statue. The two-level pedestal on which the figure is standing is about 1.5 meters (5′) high!
Still a mystery is exactly when this work was commissioned and done. Scanning the literature, two dates seemed to be mentioned most often. The reign of Dhatusena (455-473 C.E.), the builder of the nearby reservoir in the 470’s C.E., is the earliest time period to which the work is credited. Douglas Bullis, in his commentary on the Mahavamsa, has a brief passage where he comments on the date issue. He writes:
The statue seems to have been carved at the same time the great Kalawewa Reservoir was being built by King Dhatusena, perhaps as a permanent protective image for his great reservoir. (Mahavamsa, 280)
Wikipedia entries and a number of guide books place the statue’s creation at this time. The writer of this buddhanet.net article on the statue provides some circumstantial evidence that may support such a date. We read –
Avukana’s ancient name is unknown and so is the king who made its fine statue. In the 18th century the place was called Kalagal which in Pali would be Kalasela. A place called Kalasela is mentioned in the Culavamsa as containing an image for which King Dhatusena (455-73) had a diadem made. As Aukuana’s statue dates from around the 5th century BCE it may well be the place mentioned in the chronicle.
Note the alternative spelling of Aukana in the quote above. Also, note the writer’s error in using B.C.E. (Before the Common Era) when he clearly wants to say C.E. (Common Era), the acronyms used these days instead of B.C. and A.D. With their use the intent was to move away from the overtly Christian focus of the old way of organizing the past. However, the birth of Jesus is still the dividing line!
The second date given by some scholars is one some three or four hundred years after Dhatasena – i.e. after Dhatasena but before the collapse of Anuradhapura to the invading Chola army in 992. In Shifting Stones, Shaping the Past: Sculpture from the Buddhist Stupas of Andhra Pradesh (Oxford University Press.2014), the author Catherine Becker states that –
Dated roughly from the sixth through the ninth centuries, this rock-cut Buddha stands fourteen meters in height. The rendering of its robe, the slim. columnar representation of the body, and the general position of the hands all recall the Buddhas of ancient Andhra and attest to centuries of cross-cultural exchange between Andhra and Sri Lanka. (Becker 161-162)
Only a narrow section of the rock face connects the Buddha statue to the rest of the rock. The pedestal on which the statue stands is carved of a separate piece of rock which was later slid under the feet of the statue! In Buddhist iconography, hand positions are used to convey different meanings and moments in the Buddha’s life story. The one exhibited here is a version of one called the Abhaya mudra, the “Have No Fear” everything-is-cool position. However, it does not have the usual palm facing forward as in the image of the seated Buddha to the left. The Rough Guide to Sri Lanka has this observation –
The statue is in the unusual (for Sri Lanka) asisa mudra, the blessing position, with the right hand turned sideways to the viewer, as though on the point of delivering a swift karate chop. (See here for source)
There are two other standing Buddha statues in Sri Lanka roughly contemporary with the Aukana one which also depict the Buddha in a similar mudra. See the end of this post for more.
Visible on the sides of the rock face are the foundation walls of what would have been an image house. Twenty-three meters long and nineteen meters wide and high enough to contain the entire figure, it would have been the focal point of the monastic community which had already existed around the rock before the carving had begun.
The rock statue is located in a forested area (see the satellite image below) but is not the only Buddhist monument in the immediate area. Facing it perhaps thirty meters away is a round rock face upon which I sat for some time and took in the tranquil scene. Other than a few Sinhalese visitors there was only one other tourist – a hardcore German traveller – perhaps sixty years old – who had gotten there by local bus and foot over the past day from Anuradhapura. At the end of my visit, he would accept my offer of a ride to Dambulla.
To the northeast of the statue on a plateau, I found a couple of other essential ingredients of a Sinhalese Buddhist religious site –
- a Maha Bodhi Tree shrine and
- a small hollow shell of a dagoba (i.e. stupa).
Draped all around the tree – often connected in some fantastical way with the original Bodhi Tree under which Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha – were strings of a Buddhist flag different from the one seen in the Himalayas. This flag has six vertical bands of different colours symbolizing the aura which Siddhartha Gautama’s body is said to have emitted at the moment he became the Buddha, the Awakened One. Its creation goes back to the late nineteenth century at a time of Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka.
The hollow bell-shaped stupa is located at the northern edge of the site, looking like its annual paint job was late in coming.
A peek inside the stupa revealed a mishmash of cultic objects around a large seated Buddha figure. It was in the Touching The Earth pose taken by Siddhartha Gautama at the moment of his Enlightenment. Coins lay strewn on the mat in front of the statue.
As I walked away from the stupa and back to the Aukana Buddha statue, I remember thinking that while the level of contemporary devotion and sincerity may not have changed from the past, artistic sensibilities certainly had. On the plus side, at least this Buddha was spared the indignity of a flashing multi-coloured neon halo surrounding his head like the one that I would see in Pagan, Myanmar a few months later.
Other Standing Buddha Figures In Sri Lanka:
In preparing this post I ended up scouring the internet for information and images of other colossal standing Buddha figures found in Sri Lanka. Here is some of what I found:
1. The Sasseruwa Buddha at Raswehera
Not far from Aukana – about 11 kilometers as the crow flies but somewhat farther by road! – is the Raswehera Buddha. It is a real challenge to get to given the secondary or worse roads that you need to take. To complicate matters even the taxi drivers are often not sure about the exact route given the infrequency of requests to go there! The reward is a statue of almost identical height that looks much the Aukana but is in an unfinished state. It has a somewhat different mudra than the Aukana statue and is lacking the flame ushnisha (the bump on top of the head).
One story to explain why it never got finished goes like this – a master carver and one of his students engaged in a competition to see who could finish the task of carving a colossal Buddha the fastest – and most artistically. It would seem the master finished the Aukana sculpture first and won – and the student just put down his tools in defeat!
Given the positive karma involved in carving a Buddha figure and the disrespect in not finishing the job, you’d think the student would have kept on chiselling and sanding away! Best to be somewhat skeptical about this narrative!
The site of the Raswehera Buddha was also the location of a monastic community and given the caves and Kandyan-influenced wall paintings à la Dambulla as well as other monuments, it sounds like it would make a great day trip – led by someone who knew how to get there! I only found out about it after my visit!
2. The Maligawila Free-Standing Buddha
Believed to have been sculpted in the 600’s C.E., the above Maligawila Buddha figure stands 11.5 meters (38′) tall. Unlike the Aukana Buddha, it is free-standing and not attached to a rock face. Apparently, when it was found in 1951 it was broken into pieces and scattered on the ground. Subsequently, it was glued back together again. It is difficult to see any evidence of the breaks from the image above.
While it exhibits the same unusual hand mudra as the Aukana Buddha, it does not have the Aukana Buddha’s flame ushnisha. Instead, it has the more classic round bump on top of the head. It would be interesting to further research the development of the ushnisha in Buddhist art – it might help to date the various statues.
3. The Buduruwagala Buddha
The Buduruwagala Buddha is one of seven Buddhist figures carved in the rock face – the others are bodhisattvas important in the Mahayana strain of Buddhism like Avalokiteshvara and his female consort Tara.
Of all the Buddhas mentioned here, this one is the tallest at 16 meters (51′); it is also the most crudely realized and is still a part of the rock face to such an extent that the word “statue” is not the right word to describe it. The hand position is clearly in the Abhaya mudra, unlike those found in the other Buddhas mentioned. The pronounced ushnisha on top of the head does not seem to be of the flame sort.
I would highly recommend The Rough Guide To Sri Lanka both as a general guide for your visit to Sri Lanka as well as for its coverage of the Cultural Triangle. It provides maps and insightful commentary on all the major sites and includes information about many of the minor ones like Aukana and Raswehera.
Given that I knew pretty much zero about the ancient history of Sri Lanka before I arrived in Dambulla on Day One of my Sri Lanka visit, the hard copy book was often open – both during the day as I wandered through the various sites and at night while I prepared for another day’s site-seeing.
See here for an interactive satellite view of the terrain from Dambulla to Aukana.
Other Sri Lanka Cultural Triangle Posts:
Just click on the title to access:
- Sri Lanka’s Dambulla Cave Temple: A Buddhist Treasure Trove
- Before Machu Picchu Was, There Was Sri Lanka’s Sigiriya
- The Ruins of Ancient Anuradhapura – Part One
- The Ruins of Ancient Anuradhapura – Part Two
- Up The Steps Of Sri Lanka’s Mihintale (Mahinda’s Hill)
- A Visit To The Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Ancient Polonnaruwa – Part 1
- A Visit To The Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Ancient Polonnaruwa – Part 2