buddhist symobls in sihalese art

WILLIAM E. WARD: SELECTED BUDDHIST SYMBOLS IN S[NHALESE DECORATIVE ART I T HE GOD SAKKA (INDRA) APPEARS TO MAHINDA AND COMMANDS HIM TO SET out on his journey (this being at the time the monks had invited Mahinda to go to Lanka (Ceylon) to preach the faith of the Buddha). "Mahinda, arise into the air like a swan and flyaway from Jampudipa to alight on the Missaka mountain".l Thus from the ancient chronical of Lanka we are told the story of the introduction of Buddhism onto the island of Ceylon. It was Mahinda, son of Asoka, who brought the faith of the Mahayana Buddhism to Ceylon in the year 307 B. C 2 The Missaka mountain is today called Mihintale and is located but a few miles outside Anuradhapura, first capital of Buddhist Ceylon and the seat of the government ruled by King Devanampiva Tissa. The legends tell us of how, while King Devanampiva Tissa was out hunting one day, he met Mahinda and was converted at that moment to Buddhism together with forty thousand of his followers. Keeping in mind that since the landing of the "Sinhalese" in the sixth century B. C, the greatest landmark in Ceylonese history was the conversion of the inhabitants to Buddhism in 307 B. C, we shall attempt to trace decorative elements and symbols back to their origins wherever they may be. We shall see how the craftsmen and artists of Ceylon must have been influenced by various contacts with other countries and their artists, e. g. Burma, Siam, and India. In fact, there was an active exchange of Buddhist priests between India and Ceylon at various times as were there actual visits made by priests of Burma, Arakan, Siam, China and Cambodia. Also there is made mention in the chronicles of Ceylon of several missions being sent from Ceylon at various times to the countries mentioned above, when the order had died out or had been weakened by invasions and non-Buddhist rulers. 1 Wilhe1m Geiger, Dtpavamsa and Malziiva11lsa, (Colombo, H. C. Cottle, 1908). Dtpavamsa 36-37. 2 S. M. Burrows, Buried Cities of Ceylott, (Colombo, A. M. & J. Ferguson, 1885). An interesting note is that copper plaques with inscriptions, 7 th & 8 th century A. D., found at the Vijayarama monastery Dagaba give proof of the presence of adherents of the Mahayana School of Buddhism on Ceylon. 27 0

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Page 1: Buddhist Symobls in Sihalese Art





out on his journey (this being at the time the monks had invited Mahinda to go to Lanka

(Ceylon) to preach the faith of the Buddha). "Mahinda, arise into the air like a swan and

flyaway from Jampudipa to alight on the Missaka mountain".l Thus from the ancient

chronical of Lanka we are told the story of the introduction of Buddhism onto the island

of Ceylon. It was Mahinda, son of Asoka, who brought the faith of the Mahayana Buddhism

to Ceylon in the year 307 B. C 2 The Missaka mountain is today called Mihintale and is

located but a few miles outside Anuradhapura, first capital of Buddhist Ceylon and the seat

of the government ruled by King Devanampiva Tissa. The legends tell us of how, while

King Devanampiva Tissa was out hunting one day, he met Mahinda and was converted at

that moment to Buddhism together with forty thousand of his followers.

Keeping in mind that since the landing of the "Sinhalese" in the sixth century B. C, the

greatest landmark in Ceylonese history was the conversion of the inhabitants to Buddhism

in 307 B. C, we shall attempt to trace decorative elements and symbols back to their origins

wherever they may be. We shall see how the craftsmen and artists of Ceylon must have

been influenced by various contacts with other countries and their artists, e. g. Burma, Siam,

and India. In fact, there was an active exchange of Buddhist priests between India and

Ceylon at various times as were there actual visits made by priests of Burma, Arakan, Siam,

China and Cambodia. Also there is made mention in the chronicles of Ceylon of several

missions being sent from Ceylon at various times to the countries mentioned above, when

the order had died out or had been weakened by invasions and non-Buddhist rulers.

1 Wilhe1m Geiger, Dtpavamsa and Malziiva11lsa, (Colombo, H. C. Cottle, 1908). Dtpavamsa 36-37.

2 S. M. Burrows, Buried Cities of Ceylott, (Colombo, A. M. & J. Ferguson, 1885). An interesting note is

that copper plaques with inscriptions, 7 th & 8 th century A. D., found at the Vijayarama monastery Dagaba

give proof of the presence of adherents of the Mahayana School of Buddhism on Ceylon.


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There was a great deal of travel on the part of both the laymen and Bhikkhus between

Ceylon and the mainland of India. The most important pilgrimage being to Gaya to worship

the Sacred Bodhi-tree.

Dr. Coomaraswamy, writing in his Arts and Crafts of India and Ceylon, informs us that the

Sinhalese are Dravidian and had already possessed a highly developed civilization when first

Aryan teachers reached them sometime before the Birth of Christ.3 Supporting this View,

we note that a Dravidian inscription was found near the pokuma in Anuradhapura. 4o

It is stated in the itfahavansa that King Prakrama Bahu, A. D. II 15, "brought Damilo

artificers" from the opposite coast of India to decorate Polonnaruwa. No comment is made

of this as an unusual proceeding.5 Certainly then there is no question of whether or not

there was influence from India. One has but to look at the Lankatilaka in Polonnaruwa

today and he can see clearly the evidence ofDravidian workmanship and Dravidian influence.

Note also the striking resemblance between the Seven Pagodas at Mamallapuram and the

architecture of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, especially the latter.

Today the Sinhalese willingly agree that sculptors from Southern India were employed at

both Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. Evidence of this is to be found in the many existing

villages of Tamil, (Hindus from Southern India), "gal-7vaduwas" (stone carvers).

This interesting question is asked by Mr. Burrows; "If the Sinhalese were the artists that

produced much of this architecture and sculpture, etc., why do we not see traces of their

art among them today?" He then goes on to comment that" We have but to look at the

great "Madura" temple to see proof that the Tamil is still a great builder and artist." I agree

with Mr. Burrows for I have seen work being carried out at the new Temple of the Sacred

Tooth in Kandy and true to tradition the craftsmen working on this Buddhist temple were

Tamils. But there is a good reason for this. The Sinhalese are agricultural and consider it

degrading to work for hire, yet they will do any form of work so long as it is for themselves

or their family using their own land and products of that land. It follows then that such a

people would "import" craftsmen to build and decorate their great temples. In Ceylon a

man may be the architect of his own house, a jeweler, painter and ivory carver.6 Knowing

3 A. K. Coomaraswamy, Arts and Crafts of India and Cey!on, (London, FouIis, 1913), p. 5.

4 Burrows, oj. cit., p. 34. :; Ibid., p. 40. 6 Coomaraswamy, oj. cit., p. 35.

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.all processes for his personal use. Regrettably, European influence is changing this position

·of the Siilhalese "landowner".

It is important to keep in mind that since Buddhism is the "form" of Buddhist art it is

necessary to understand Buddhism and its history. As Dr. Coomaraswamy points out;

An understanding of Buddhism is indispensable, not only for a rarional interpretation of the iconography,

in which the logic of the work is expressed, but also as prerequisite to aesthetic experience.7

I feel it will be valuable therefore to consider a brief discussion of the history of Buddhism

on Ceylon. Noting especially the various exchanges made by the Siilhalese Buddhists with

the faithful of other countries.

In pre-Buddhist Lanka there were no elaborate temples or buildings, likewise there were

no elaborate rituals for religious assemblies. In each city there were but two places of

worship, one devoted to Vessavana, guardian of the city and the second, Vydhadeva the

Siilhalese guardian god of the aboriginal population, who was placed under and symbolized

by a tal a (palm) tree. Mention is made of the Entrance to the sacred Bo-tree in Anuradha­

pura as having two palm trees growing on either side. This is supposed by some to be a

remnant of phallic worship. 8

Buddhism on Ceylon begins with the arrival of the Elder Mahinda, son of Asoka. Here,

there is a slight discrepancy of dates. Codrington calculates the event as having taken place

eighteen years after the coronation of Asoka and 236 years after the death of Buddha.9

This reckoning would bring the date to 247 B. c., a difference of 54 years from the date

given in the legends of Lanka. The important point being that the Elder Mahinda arrived

on Ceylon and met the king, who was hunting at the time near a hill afterwards known as

Mihintale. The sovereign had already become interested in Buddhism but lost no time after

the arrival of Mahinda in establishing the religion on Ceylon.

As tradition has it, the sacred teachings and sermons of the Buddha as well as the Elder

Monks had been handed down from generation to generation of monks orally. However

in the first century B. c., 500 Rahats assembled at Alulena (present day Aluvihare) and put

7 A. K. Coomaraswamy, Elements of Buddhist Iconography, (Cambridge, Harvard Univ. Press, 1935), p. 52.

8 Burrows, op. cit., p. 43.

9 H. W. Codrington, A Short History of Ceylon, (London, Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1939), p. 13.


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down in writing the text of the three Pitakas beginning with the Buddhas "In many a birth

of being" which He attends in His felicity while seated on the Vajra throne at the root of

the Bo-tree on the day He scattered the hosts of Mara and attained Buddhahood and ending

with the last words, "Oh Bhikkus, since all things are impermanent, be diligent," spoken by

Him at His final emancipation.1O

Thus due to the efforts of the Siilhalese we have in writing all that Gautama preached during

His 45 years as a Buddha, "His discourses to Devas, Brahma's, Nagas, Suparnas, men, Yaks as,

Raksasas, Siddhas, and Vidyadharas for their edification, the same in the number of letters,

words, granthas, and bhanavaras leaving nothing, adding nothing, free from all hearsay,

upheld by the three convocations of monks, pure as a stream of the heavenly river, free as

a crystal from all impurities, comforting the whole world like a great shower of nectar, great

straight path to the threefold knowledge and the names for the attainment of all happiness

desired by men, the same which had been brought down orally in succession of the great

Monks." Thus in the words of the Nikiiya Sangraha, we have clearly presented the work

of the counsel who, encouraged by the king, held a great convocation, recited the Blessed

One's teachings, while scribes carefully set down their words in writing.

By the 5th century A. D., Ceylon had become the center of Buddhism with the fame of

its literature established throughout India. At this time Siilhalese Buddhist monks traveled

to foreign lands, India, China and others, to introduce the literature as preached in Cey­

Ion. It is also noted that Buddhaghosa Maha Thera made a pilgrimage to Ceylon in the

5th century.

By the 1I th century troubled times weakened Buddhism in Ceylon and King Vijayabahu,

1I64 A. D., sent an embassy to King Anuruddha of Arakan requesting for monks to enable

the restoration of the ordination in Ceylon. Theras were sent to Ceylon and "thousands of

Siilhalese joined the Order and the Sasana was established again to the great joy and

satisfaction of the people".

In the 13th century A. D. agam the Bhikkhus were disorganized but monasteries were

established and learning encouraged by bringing monks from Soli in South India.

The Order in Burma fell into decay in the 15th century A. D. and the King of Burma,

10 Bimala Churn Law, Editor, Buddhistic Studies, (Calcutta, Thacker, Sprints & Co., Ltd., 193 I), P.482.


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Dhammaceti, sent 22 Bhikkhus to Ceylon to obtain and bring back to Burma the tradition

of the island. At a later period (c 16th century) the ordination of the Nikaya was carried

to Siam from Burma. "Books that existed in Ceylon were taken to Burma, Siam and

Cambodia and the Maha Nikaya was established in these countries. These countries helped

Ceylon get back the books and the ordination at a later period when the ordination had

disappeared from the island and when the books were lost".

Prince Rajasimha was an internal enemy to Buddhism on Ceylon. We are told that in 159 2

A. D. he killed his father and began to destroy the Buddhist religion by "slaying its priests,

burning its sacred books and breaking down its temples". Many priests, however, stripped

themselves of their robes through fear of the king, others fled to the mountains taking with

them some of the sacred books.

With the priests gone and the books and temples destroyed, it was necessary for Vimala

Dhammasuriya to bring Bhikkhus from Arakan (Northern coast of Burma) and again institute

the ordination. In 1734 the king sent ministers to Pegu, Arakan and Siam. Due to rough

seas and the death of the Sinhalese king the plans had to be abandoned after the ships had

reached Batavia. Later, however, in 1750, an embassy was sent to King Dhammika of Siam.

The next enemy of the Buddhists were the Portuguese with their over-active missionaries

who made every effort to convert the Sinhalese to the Roman Catholic Church. There

was for a time wholesale conversion on the part of the Sinhalese Buddhists to the Catholic

Church. This mass conversion, it follows, was only on the surface. At heart the Sinhalese

remained Buddhist, keeping what few sacred books they had and practiced their true faith

in secret. The Dutch were little better in regard to the religion of the Sinhalese. Then

came the English in 1815 and attempts were made to restore Buddhism as the national religion

of the island.

"Buddhism in Ceylon today is a continuation of the traditions of the Mahavihara Nikaya

formed by Mahinda Maha Thera in 306 (307) B. C. The ordination of all three Nikayas of

the Buddhist Bhikkhus now active in the island is a continuation of the Mahavihara fraternity,

for Burma and Siam had received their ordination from Ceylon at different times and the

continuity of the ordination is preserved by bringing this ordination back to the island from

these two countries".


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With this picture before us there can be little doubt that there was much outside influence

upon the arts and crafts of Lanka. It would be impossible for monks being sent from Siam,

for example, to spend years upon this island without leaving some of their own inherited

traditions and artistic abilities especially since "art" (and here I use the term referring more

to the decorative aspects of their art) is carried on as part of the Buddhist church. Decorative

art 11 in the Orient is not pure and simple decoration but carries vast meaning and signi­

ficance. Not forgetting, of course, that with each embassy to Ceylon or from Ceylon there

would be sent vast cargos of fine gifts, made of precious metals and enriched with precious

stones for which Ceylon is so famous. Indeed books and images used in the church were

sent in quantity. Also pilgrims carried back to their homes small votive plaques and images

obtained at the place of worship: As do the faithful pilgrims today.

We find evidence of Siamese influence in the fact that in a small vihare in Anuradhapura

there is a small recumbent figure of Buddha that had been brought by devotees from Siam.

I have myself seen in the Lankatilaka temple near Kandy a 14th century Buddhist temple

housing a statue of Vigm as well as the Buddha, a small bronze standing Buddha presented

by the people of Siam. The Siamese style is very evident.

Mr. Codrington in his A Sho'rt History of Ceylon suggests that it is possible that there is some

Siamese influence on late Siilhalese decorative art because in 1753 priests from Siam arrived

in Ceylon to re-establish the Buddhist sect forcibly lost during the Portuguese and the

Dutch occupations of Ceylon/2

Inside the temple of the Great God (Vi{1Ju) at Dambulla there is a gigantic recumbent figure

of Buddha and at His feet is a small wooden polychrome statue of Vigm who, legend tells

us, helped in carving the gigantic Buddha. During my visit to this temple I was told that

money for the temple had been contributed by Buddhists of Burma. Also that at various

times pilgrims from Burma would bring gold leaf to aid in the restoration of the polychrome

of the Buddha. Other legends, and perhaps with more truth, tell of King Walagam Bahu

(80 B. G) who took refuge in the caves at Dambulla at the time Anuradhapura was in-

11 Dr. Coomaraswamy divides the "decorative art" ofIndia by their chief component parts, e. g.: I) animal

style, 2) plant style, 3) geometric style. The arts of Ceylon likewise might be cataloged under these same

three headings. 12 Codrington, op. cit., p. I4I.


Page 7: Buddhist Symobls in Sihalese Art

vaded by the Malabars. Later after his return to Anuradhapura he had the caves built into

temples in veneration of the Buddha. 18

It is important to keep in mind that the true Sinhalese (Buddhist) art is that of the Kandyan

country. The arts and crafts of Northern Ceylon, of Jaffna, belong distinctly to Southern

India. The arts of the low country, coastal regions and Colombo are European H and most

" impossible" .

Although Ceylon is today a centre of Buddhism and contains many great monuments in

good repair, still much of the architecture and colossal sculpture has been damaged by the

iconoclastic zeal of the Tamils (Hindus) as well as by the destructive tropical fig tree.

Polonnaruwa is an example of such damage by fig trees and Anuradhapura an example of

destruction by invading Tamils.

The danger of "reading too much" into symbols and decorative elements is always present.

I therefore ask the reader not to accept my comments as final but merely as an introduction

to this vastly interesting and important subject, that of symbolism and meanings in the

decorative art of India and Ceylon.

I am particularly indebted to the late Dr. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy upon whose wisdom

I have drawn heavily. "It is necessary to remember also the continuity and vitality of the indigenous tradition, and to give to

the Sinhalese people the full credit for the fact that their art, taken as a whole, is perfectly distinct in

style and feeling from that of Southern India, and preserves clearer and more numerous examples of the

early Indian, and especially the early Buddhist style, that can be easily found in India itself". - A. K. Coo'l11oroswo'l11Y 15



" The Bodisat sitting at the foot of the tree... the whole tree (became) in colour like gold from the rays

issuing from his body".16

Bo-kola, Bo-Pata, are but two of the more important Sinhalese names used when referring

to the sacred Tree of Enlightenment and the leaves of the Tree. The Tree under which

18 Burrows, op. cit., p. 59. 14 A. K. Coomaraswamy, Arts and Crafts of India and Ceylon, (London, Foulis, 1913) P.39.

15 T.V. de Silva, Decorative Sfhhalese Art, (Colombo, The Ceylon Daily News, 1940), p. 14.

16 Translated by T. W. Rhys Davids, Buddhist Bz'rth Slories, p. 185.

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the Bodhisat attained the supreme knowledge of a Buddha. From The Ceylon Compiler's

Introduction to the Jatakas called the Nidana Katha we have the words of the Buddha as

He chose the sacred tree: May skin, indeed, and sinews, and bones wilt away, may flesh and bone in my body dry up, but till I attain to

complete Enlightenment this seat I will not leave! Thus firmly resolved the Bodisat turning His back

upon the trunk of the Bo-tree, and with his face towards the East "sat Himself down in a crosslegged

position, firm and immovable, as if welded with a hundred thunderbolts ".17

The twO names, Bo-kola and Bo-Pata, refer more specifically to the leaf of the Bo-tree

which is so important to the Siilhalese. This form (bo-Ieaf) is not only the most important

but the most persistent in Siilhalese Decorative art (fig. 1).18

According to Dr. Coomaraswamy the Bo-Ieaf form itself

did not come into use as early as the Bo-tree; however, it

did appear before the decline of Buddhism in India.19 We

still find traces of it in Southern Indian Art. It is important

to note that the Bo-Ieaf form has influenced other forms

i. e., the lotus flower.

We are told in the sacred chronicles of Ceylon that the

desire of Princess Anula to enter the Second Order, that

of nuns, led to an embassy to the court of Asoka re­

questing that Mahinda's sister Sanghamitta, a member of

the Order of Nuns, be sent to Ceylon to establish an Order

there. Mahinda's sister was sent to Ceylon with her eight Fig. I

brothers and the right branch of the tree under which Drawing of leaf of the Sacred Bo-tree

Gautama had attained Buddhahood. This branch which "miraculously severed itself from

the Parent tree" was conveyed down the Ganges together with Mahinda's sister and arrived

in Ceylon at the port of Jambukola (present day Sambilrural in the Jaffna Peninsula). Here

it was received with much pomp and ceremony, carried by Devanampiva Tissa to Anuradha­

pura and was planted in the Mahamegha garden,20 where it can be seen today covered with

17 IbM., p. 190 .

18 A. K. Coomaraswamy, Medieval Sz'izhalese Art, (Broad Compden, Essex House Press, 1908), p. 98.

19 Loc. cit. 20 H. W. Codrington, A Short History of Ceylon, (London, MacMillan & Co., Ltd., 1939), p. 14-


Page 9: Buddhist Symobls in Sihalese Art

its rich golden brown and bright yellow green leaves sacred to pilgrims who come from

all over the Buddhist world to worship this tree. Blessed indeed is the person who leaves

Anuradhapura having in his possession a leaf from this sacred tree. This is the oldest

authenticated tree in the world.21

Are we to wonder then that this sacred tree with its leaves should be so important in the

decorative arts of so religious a people as the Siilhalese?

The Bo-tree of Gautama Buddha has become as important, if not more so, to the Buddhists

as has the cross to Christians. Each is a symbol of a Man. The Bo-tree is the symbol of

Buddha and His Enlightenment as is the cross a symbol of Christ and Christianity. In the

earliest of Buddhist art the Blessed One was not portrayed anthropomorphically; thus the

Tree of His Enlightenment served as an object of worship. Although the Buddha taught a

" Way of Life" to be lived by all ,,,ho wish to end their endless cycle of rebirth on this

plain, He rejected image worship. Still in Buddhism as in all religions the masses soon forget

(those who are fortunate enough to have the knowledge of the true philosophy of their

religion) and fall into the effortless task of mechanical ritual and blind, ignorant following.

This, I must admit however, is less true with the Buddhists than with the other religions of

the world. Especially Buddhism as practiced in Ceylon today. Buddhists carry flower

offerings to the temple not so much in worship of the Man Buddha but rather in worship

and endless thanks for the "Way of Life" He taught.

The Bo-Ieaf has been adopted by the Sinhalese kings as a symbol denoting that Ceylon was

and is a Buddhist kingdom. We note that most Siilhalese royal banners carry on them the

Bo-Ieaf motif.22

It is interesting to note that during the 13th century there arose in Ceylon the Siri Sangll

Bo Family from a Siilhalese prince Vijaya Malla, who was descended from the princess who

brought the Bo-tree to Ceylon in the 3rd century B. C. "From henceforth all the kings of

the medieval period styled themselves Siri Sanga Bo". 23

'Trees of Life' are commonly seen in Siilhalese Temple decoration. Mal-gaha, suggesting

'tree of life' actually meaning 'Flower tree', is the name given to small jeweled trees found

21 Loc. cit. 22 Edward Perera, Memoirs of tile Colombo lWuseum, (Siilhalese Banners and

Standards), (Colombo, H. C. Cottle, 1916), p. 7. 21l Codrington, op. cit., p. 76.

Page 10: Buddhist Symobls in Sihalese Art

on the hats of the Kandyan Kings. The Mlll-gaha usually springs from a low triangular

mound, representing earth or rock.24

The tree of life in some cases in Ceylon is treated almost pictorially as on the Kelaniya

Vihare ceiling. The symbols of life are emphasized by the many forms of life seen living

under the tree, e. g., animals and man associated with the tree and living under it. Dr.

Coomaraswamy suggests that perhaps there is a Tamil influence, however he also states;

"or may belong to an older stratum common to both races 'Sinhalese and Tamil', the

likelihood of which must always be remembered when considering the origin of particular

decorative forms".25

Artificial trees often of gold decorated with precious jewels - rubies, star sapphires, diamonds,

etc.-may be placed before an image as an auspicious symbol of the 'tree of plenty'. For

the poorer classes, trees of silver decorated with bits of glass, glass beads, bits of cloth and

bright coloured paper will answer the same purpose. But always an auspicious symbol of

the 'tree of plenty'. 26



Perhaps the finest of all relief sculpture found in Ceylon is that on the Moonstones, so

called because they are the shape of a half moon (fig. 2). Actually these moonstones are the

first steps to temples, viharas, palaces, etc. These stone steps with the four sacred animals

are characteristically Sinhalese for they are not found elsewhere in India. It is interesting to

note, however, that in the Representation of a Stiipa: Detail from Amaravati, there is a lotus

step in the shape of a half moon: this is dated between 150-300 A. D. The early moonstones

in Anuradhapura date back to the 3rd century B. C.

The four sacred animals found on the moonstones, the elephant, bull, horse and the lion

are also found on the Asokan capitals. At the Vijayarama monastery in Anuradhapura we

see these same four animals supporting the four porches of the monastery. The elephant

24 Coomaraswamy, Of. cit., P.97. 25 Loc. cit. 26 A noteworthy comparison may be made

here of the 'Tree of Jesse' of Christian symbolism with the Mal-gaha. I refer the reader to Dr. A. K. Cooma­

raswamy's article, Tree of '.Jesse and Indian Parallels or Sources, (Art Bulletin, XI, 2, 1929), p. 217.


Page 11: Buddhist Symobls in Sihalese Art

Fig. 1 Moonstone from Anucidhapura, Ceylon. 1 nd c. A.D.

Carved in relief on this moonstone are the four sacred animals of the Buddha; one the lion, symbol of the lion race of the Sakya clan of which the Lord Buddha was descended; two, the bull sign of the zodiac for July and August, the time of the Lord Buddha's birth; the elephant, symbol of the

conception of Lord Buddha; and the horse, symbol of the great departure.

supportS the East porch, the horse supports the South porch, the lion supports the North

porch and the bull supportS the West porch. Here these animals probably represent the

Sotorovoron Deviya, or the four guardian gods of the four quarters.27 Likewise on the

Asokan capitals the same four animals are assigned to the quarters of the earth.

Alfred Foucher points Out that these four animals typify, respectively, the elephant, the

conception of Buddha, the bull, the date of the Nativity, the horse, the Great Departure,

and the lion, generally, the "Lion among the Sakyas", Sakyamuni. 28 This explanation

Dr. Coomaraswamy tends to favor.

A note of interest in passing is, "The Hindus feign that the four holy rivers of Eden 29

27 Archaeological Survey of Ceylon, 1891.

28 A. C. Foucher, The Beginnings of Buddhist Art (Paris, P. Geuthner, 1917), plate I.

29 It is interesting to note here the comparison of the four Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John,

with their animal symbolism and the four sacred animals of the Buddhists. The earliest type of emblem

for the four Evangelists was a simple scroll placed in the four angles of a Greek cross. A second type (of

greater significance in connection with this paper) was the four rivers which had their source in Paradise.

Page 12: Buddhist Symobls in Sihalese Art

flow through the mouths of as many animals: viz., the cow (bull), lion, elephant, and horse". 80

Let us now take up each of the four animals, one at a time, and investigate their probable


Elephant. As mentioned above the best probable answer to the question of the elephant

is that offered by Alfred Foucher, namely that the elephant is the symbol of the conception

of the Buddha. (See University prints, India, 0-12). The elephant in Ceylon plays a very

important role. This animal is used for power, wealth and religious activity. Each year

during the month of Esala (August) there is enacted in Kandy the world famous Perahera

or Procession of the Sacred Daladii (tooth) relic of the Buddha. In this procession hundreds

of elephants are paraded through the streets wearing their fine ornate trappings of velvets

decorated with gold, silver and precious jewels. And it is the honor of the king elephant

of the Daladii Miiligliwa (Temple of the Tooth) in Kandy that he should carry in a small

gold dagaba on his back the actual Daladii relic.

The elephant is also the 'work horse' of Ceylon. The elephant is used for much if not all

the heavy hauling that is done in the fields and in the plantations.

Many of the provinces have banners with elephants painted on them; e. g., the banner of

Matara Dissawa bears on it a small elephant, for the province is famous for elephants.

Under the Portuguese and the Dutch this province was headquarters of the gajanayaka

(elephant chief) and of the royal elephant department.

Later these four symbols became for St. Matthew a cherub, for St. Mark a lion, for St. Luke an Ox (bull)

and the symbol given to St. John was that of an Eagle. (Mrs. Jameson, Sacred and Legendary Art, Boston,

Houghton Mifflin and Company, 1857). (See central portal sculpture, west facade, Chartres Cathedral,

Glorification of the Saviour).

"Four posts to my bed

Four quarters over head

Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John

Bless the bed that I lie on."

-A rhyme taught children in the Church of England.

"And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a

man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle."-Book of Revelation, 4, 7.

In Chinese symbolism note that the four quarters are important and assigned to four guardian animals,

viz., North the Serpent, East the Dragon, South the Phoenix, and West the Tiger.

80 Edward Moor, The Hindu Pantheon, (Madras, J. Higginbotham, 1864), p. 263.

Page 13: Buddhist Symobls in Sihalese Art

Fig. 3 Nandi, sacred bull. 16 th c. sculpture in front of the Siva temple 11, Polonnaruwa, Ceylon.

Behold the fierce elephants of the Matara elephant establishment,

That shake off and put to flight the bees attracted to them,

And are as mighty as the elephants who bear the quarters of the globe,

And glory in their royal breed, that is worth the triple world in value.

Mayura Sandesa, v. 93 31

In the last two lines of this verse we are given a clue to the importance placed upon the

elephants by the Siilhalese,32 "And are as mighty as the elephants who bear the quarters of

31 The Mayura Sandesa is a work by a 14th century Siilhalese poet.

32 There is an interesting story related in legend concerning the loving care given elephants by the

Siilhalese. It is written, there was a great war raging around Vajitapura, believed to be one of the oldest

settlements on Ceylon (161 B. c., this date as taken from the complete list of kings in Mr. Flegg's Ceylon

Interlude, published for HQ SAC SEA, September 1945). The leader of the attacking army was Duttu

(Dushita, or wicked) Gemanu and he had an elephant, Kandula, whom he dearly loved. During the battle

the Tamils "poured down a stream of molten lead upon the elephant". The elephant, Kandula, was rushed

into a nearby river with Duttu Gemanu following. And "with his own hand he applied the preparations

Page 14: Buddhist Symobls in Sihalese Art

the globe, and glory in their royal breed, that is worth the triple world in value".

The elephant is not often seen as ornament, usually being used in pictures of the jatakas

and in historical pictures. The "Gaja La~~mi" of Hindu India, with her two elephants is

also seen in Ceylon. Best example being the relief sculpture on the 'Stone Book' at

Polonnaruwa. Here the common Indian subject of the two elephants pouring water over

Sri or La*.fmi (the goddes of earth) is seen.

The elephant is one of the Sinhalese 108 j1;[agul Lakunu.33

Bull. The Bull is the sign of the Zodiac for April-May. Thus is the symbol of the date of

the Buddha's birth on Wesak (the full moon of May).

The bull Nandi is the door-keeper of Kailasa, Sivas' abode.34 And III front of the Siva

temples in Ceylon are to be seen usually a pair of these bulls (fig. 3).

The bull Nandi is also Siva's vehicle.

The bull is among the 108 Magul Lakunu.

Horse. The Horse has hoots like balls, and the lower parts like a mound, a neigh like the sound of a storm, and

lotus eyes; he is swift as the wind, stately as a lion, has the gait of a dancer, a face like a cluster of Munumut

flowers, and the hinder part like a stack of corn.35

To the Buddhists of Ceylon the horse is sacred; it is the symbol of the Great Departure of

Prince Siddhartha, on the night the prince renounced his princely life and went out seeking

knowledge of the Law. It is with the horse in this form or this aspect that we are most con­

cerned in this paper. Again note that we seldom see the horse used as pure ornament. The

horse is usually seen in the paintings and reliefs of the Jatakas.

compounded by his physicians to give relief". The animal was then again ready for battle and charging

the iron gate with its tusks broke it down. The day was won. Kandula died some two thousand one

hundred years ago yet his name lives today in the memory of the Siithalese people. The Indian Annual

I946, (Bombay).

33 The Mangul Lakunu is the name given to the 108 auspicious symbols associated with each foot of

Buddha. A list of these symbols is learned by every child in the pansala (temple) schools.

34 Moor, op. cit., p. 264.

35 From the Rupavaliya, translated by A. K. Coomaraswamy in his Medieval Sinhalese Art, (Broad

Campden, Essex House Press, 1908), P.90.

Page 15: Buddhist Symobls in Sihalese Art


The Lion has eyes like those of a hare, a fierce look, soft hair on the chest and under the shoulders, back

plump like a sheep's, the body of a well blooded horse, a stately walk, and a long tai1.36

The lion as a symbol plays a very important role in the arts and life of the Siilhalese. The

Siilhalese were themselves descended from a king lion of the jungles of Bengal. But let us

go back to the legendary history of Ceylon to investigate the meaning placed upon the

lion by the Siilhalese.

This history begins with the Ramayana.37

Traditionally the first king of Ceylon was Vijaya and his grandmother, according to the

legend, was the daughter of the king of Vanga (Bengal). She runs away from home and

mates with a lion (Siilha) in the country of Lala or Lada (modern Gujarat). Thus her

children were known as Sinhala. Her son, Siilhabahu, carried his mother and twin sister

back to Bengal thus enraging the lion. The lion in search for his family brings much damage

on the country. For a reward offered by the king of Vanga the lion is slain by his own son.

Siilhabahu soon succeeds his grandfather as king of Vanga. Prince Vijaya, son of Siilhabahu,

commits such outrages against his father's capital that the king is forced to drive the prince

and his followers from the country. They put out to sea in small boats, and landing only

once at Supparaka made their way to Lanka. The prince and his followers find upon landing

the country of the Yakkhas (Ceylon). Thus the Siilhalese come to Ceylon led by Vijaya,

son of Siilhabahu whose parents were a daughter of the king of Vanga and a lion of the

Lala country.38 From the Sanskrit for lion we have the origin of the name Sinhalese, the

lion race.

Simha the mythical ancestor of the Siilhalese standing for majesty and power (fig. 4). Gautama

Buddha being called Sakyasimha, 'Lion of the Sakya's'. Many kings also called themselves


--- .~----.

36 Loc. cit.

37 The Ramayana is the epic poem relating the story of the ravishing of Sita by the demon king of Lanka,

Raval).a, and her recovery by her husband Rama with the aid of the monkey chief Hanumanta. Codrington,

op., cit. p. 5.

38 Codrington, op. cit., P.7.

39 Coomaraswamy, op. cit., p.87.

Page 16: Buddhist Symobls in Sihalese Art

Fig.... Simha, lion of Ceylon. Relief from northern temple. 16 th c. Polonnaruwa. Ceylon.

Page 17: Buddhist Symobls in Sihalese Art

Fig. 5" Nara Simha, lion with a man's head, from Kalyani temple, Ceylon. 20th century.

Nara Sirhha. - A lion with a man's head (fig. 5). We are told in the Rupavaliya;

reddish in hue down the knees, with fair nails, hair falling on the back, dazzling with divine ornaments,

beautiful eyes like the petals of a locus, expert at emitting flames of fire, possessing hot and cold disposi­

tions like the Sun and Moon, with curved teeth projecting outside the lips, with a tuft of hair on the

crown, bestowing all good:w

Gaja Sinlha. - A lion with an elephant's head.

From 16 to 32 kinds of Simha are recognized by Siilhalese artists.

Mr. Perera writing in the Memoirs of the Colombo Museum, (Siilhalese Banners and Standards)

40 Ibid., p. 88.

Page 18: Buddhist Symobls in Sihalese Art

quotes Griinwedel on the subject of the three lions on the gateway of the SanchI Srtipa.

"The three lions on the gateway of SanchI have been identified as the royal arms of

Ceylon".41 Says Mr. Perera, "this is the first representation we have of the Siilhalese royal

standard". The Lion is the national symbol, from the fabled origin of the Siilhalese monarch

Vijaya from the king of the beasts.42

The Maha Vihiira (a Buddhist monastery in Anuradhapura) was laid out in the shape of a lion.

"The similarity of the Siilhalese national symbol to the heraldic lion is remarkable, but the

lions of San chI were sculptured and the stone lion of Polonnaruwa was carved long before

European influence made itself felt".43

During a conversation with Dr. Coomaraswamy, a few weeks before his most unfortunate

death, concerning this subject, he doubted if there was any connection whatsoever between

the SanchI lions and the lion as the national symbol of Lanka.

IV - I _

HAMSA (HANSA), GARUDA, PEACOCK, KINDURA & SERAPENDIYA . . . Birds have always played an important role in Indian and Siilhalese decorative art. The

various bird forms lend themselves beautifully to many objects suggestive of bird forms.

Especially in Ceylon do we find metal work decorated with these forms, metal mountings,

brass water pitchers, various pots, clay tiles, eaves tiles, mats, small carpets and many other

forms too numerous to mention.

Mr. Paterson points out that" Purity, Truth and Justice" are typified by three animals, the

swan, the goose (GaruQ.a) and the hull. The first, "Purity" is typified by a swan, "which,

clothed with unspotted whiteness, swims, amidst the water, as it were, distinct from, and

unsullied by them: "as the truly pure mind remains untainted amidst the surrounding

temptations of the world".

41 A. Griinwedel, translated by A. K. Gibson, Buddhist Art in India (London, B. Quaritch, 1901), pp. 18,

28, 70. 42 Perera, op. cit., p. 6.

43 Loc. cit.

Page 19: Buddhist Symobls in Sihalese Art

"Garw;la" is remarkable for strength and swiftness, "Garu<;la is perfect light; the dazzling

full blaze of day; the type of Truth; the celestial vahan of Vi~t;lu. "

"Justice", typified in the sacred bull, is the vahan ofSiva; "the bun, whose body is Parameswara,.

and whose every joint is a virtue; whose three horns are the three Vedas; whose tail ends

where ad'herma, or injustice, begins."H

HAMSA . "The ha? sa has nails like those of a dog, and eyes like those of a fowl, a very red beak, a fish-like face,

and an unexpanded tail ".45

Vigm sings "The Song of the Immortal Gander" the universal melody of God's life-breath,

flowing in, flowing out. "Many forms do I assume. And when the sun and moon have

disappeared, I float and swim with slow movements on the boundless expanse of the waters.

I am the Gander. I am Lord. I bring forth the universe from my essence and I abide in

the cycle of time that dissolves it".46

In Hindu mythology the wild goose is associated, generally, with Brahma. Brahma rides

through the air on a Magnificent gander (Brahma's vehicle) (Fig. 6). "The gander is the animal

mask of the creative principle, which is anthropomorphically embodied in Brahma. As such, it

is a symbol of sovereign freedom

through stainless spirituality."47

The wild gander (hatp.sa) clearly

shows the twofold nature of a

saintly life. It swims on the sur­

face of the water, but it is not

bound to it. "Withdrawing from

44 Edward Moor, The Hindu Pantheon,

P·279· 45 From the Rupavaliya translated by

A. K. Coomaraswamy in his Medz'eval

Decorative Sznhalese Arts, p. 86.

46 Heinrich Zimmer, Myths and Sym­

bols in Indian Art & Civi/zzation, p. 48.

47 Loc. cit. Fig. 6 Hamsa

Drawing made from a Kandyan silver box of contemporary craftsmanship'

Page 20: Buddhist Symobls in Sihalese Art

the watery realm, it wings into the pure and stainless air, where it is as much at home as

in the world below".48 Flying from South and North, following the seasons, it is the home­

less free wanderer, between the upper celestial and the lower earthly spheres, at ease in

both, not bound to either. "It symbolizes the divine essence, which, though embodied in,

and abiding with, the individual, yet remains forever free from, and unconcerned with,

the events of individual life". 49

The melody of inhaling by a yogi manifests itself in a sort of song. As he inhales, the Indian

yogi hears a sound like ha1Jl and when he exhales he hears a sound like sa. Thus by so

humming or breathing to himself he repeats Hamsa, ha'!lsa regarded in this sense, as a mani­

festation of the "Inner gander".30 The divine Self (atman) in the body of the universe.

Haf!lsa (hansa) is the 'sacred goose' of Hinduism where it stands for discrimination, being

able, as the bird of Snarga Loka, to drink the milk only, from a vessel of milk mixed with

water. It also means "beautiful gait"; it is regarded as beautiful and auspicious. In poetry it

stands for the breasts of women, or for women themselves. "Ha1J!sa puttuva" meaning two,

three, or more hams as with entwined necks.51

There is mention made of "two wild ducks" (hangsas) in the Talkative Tortoise Jataka.

These birds are often considered swans, a favourite bird in Indian tales, many of which are

found in Buddhist carvings 52 and paintings.

Note the importance of the ha,?lSa on the "moonstones" ofCeylon. It is no doubt probable

that the procession of ha,?lsas on the moonstones are symbolical of the manifestation of the

Inner Gander, the divine Self (atman).


According to legend - Garu<;la is the natural enemy of the nagas, "serpents", on which it

feeds, "sweeping down on them from the skies".53

Note that usually the garu<;la, or gurulu (man-eagle) has a beaked nose and snakes twined

round him.54

<1,8 Loc. cit. 49 Ibid., p. 49. 50 Loc. cit. 51 A. K. Coornaraswamy, Medieval Siizhalese Art, (Broad Campden, Essex House Press, 1908), p. 85.

52 T. W. Rhys Davids, Buddhist Birth-Stories ('.fataka Tales), p. viii.

53 Edward Perera, Memoirs of The Colombo Museum (Sinhalese Banners and Standards), p. 18.

M Perera, op. cit., p. 18.

Page 21: Buddhist Symobls in Sihalese Art

Green, red and blue are the predominant colors of the Garu<;la. It is indicated that he is a

personification of the sky, the ethereal vehicle of Vi~l).u as the Sun. 55 Garuc;la is the son

of Vinata, and Kasyapa is his father. Triksha, Garutwanta, Supernf! and Punagri are other

names of Garuc;la. He is the favourite bird of Hari; lord of birds; swift as wind, and is

spoken of with praise, as being generous and mercifu1.56 The Garuc;la is placed at the entrance

of the passes leading to the Hindu garden of Eden, "as he resists the approach of serpents".57

There is an interesting story related about Garuc;la and his taking a wife. Garuc;la, by taking

a beautiful woman as his wife, alarms the tribes of serpents who wage war against him, for

they fear Garuc;la' s offspring might destroy them. Nevertheless, Garuc;la destroys all save

one, which he places as an ornament about his neck. 58

In Rama's last conflict with Raval).a, the latter is overcome with the aid of Garuc;la sent by

Vi~l).u to destroy the serpent arrows of Raval).a. 59


In Pali the peacock is called Mora (Sanskrit, Mayura) and is the symbol of the Maurya

dynasty. Note that on the East gateway at SanCI, on the ends of the lower architraves in

the corners under volutes there are two pairs of peacocks.50

The banner of the Kataragma Dewala in Kandy shows the god Kataragama 61 (Skanda)

mounted on his peacock, which stands on a throne with emblems of the moon and sun at

55 Edward Moor, The Hindu Pantheon, P.271.

56 Ibid., P.273.

57 Ibid., P.276.

58 Loc. cit.

59 Ibid., p. 277. 60 A. Grunwedel, Buddhist Art in India (London, B. Quaritch, 1901).

61 Kataragama (Kaddirkama), a renowned place of Hindu pilgrimage in the province ofUva (in Ceylon),

situated on the left bank of the Parapa-oya, about 58 miles S. E. of Badulla and 40 miles N. E. of Hambantotte.

The principal temple for which it is celebrated is dedicated to Skanda, god of war, who, according to

tradition, halted on the summit of a hill in the neighborhood, on his return from Makendrapuri, after

destroying the Asuras, who oppressed the Suras (gods). So great is the veneration in which the shrine

of this god is held, that pilgrims from every part of India resort to worship it, frequently bringing with

them pots of water from the Ganges at Benares slung 011 cross bamboos.' - Caste Chitty's Gazetteer,

P.139 (Memoirs of Tlu Colombo Museum).

Page 22: Buddhist Symobls in Sihalese Art

the top, and below are two small elephants (ruhunu getaga), symbolical of the district (Ruhuna). 62

The peacock is the vehicle of Skanda (Kartikeya).

Kartikeya is seen on the Kataragama Dewala banner of the district of Ruhuna, with six faces

and twelve arms, riding on his peacock. 63

The temple of Mahasen (Mahasen an incarnation of the war-god Kartikeya) is referred to

in the Selalihini Sandesa, v. 25 (15th century A. D.).

With the royal cock banner attached to the end of the golden flagstaff, thick with gems shining like Solar

rays and wrought in varied beauty, the temple of the god-king Mahasen will appear on the southern side

of the city of our King! 64


'The Lata Kinnara' hath a tuft of hair on the head, a garland around the neck, a human body, and singeth

melodiously; hath a human face and hands, but the nether part like that of a bird, with wings; a face fair

and radiant, a neck graceful as Brahma's! 65

The Kindura is a human above, with a bird-like body below, with human arms and shoulders

and wings large enough to sustain him in flight. Like most other mythical creatures he is

supposed to dwell in the Himalayas.56

The story of the Buddha as having been a Kinnara in a previous birth is an interesting one

as told in the Canda Kinnara Jiitaka. The Jataka briefly is as follows.

Once the Bodhisat was incarnated as a Kinnara and lived with his wife Canda on the

mountains of the moon. Now one day they had come down from the moon into the

Himalayas to play and sing together. On this same day there was in the mountains the king

62 Edward Perera, Memoirs of the Colombo Museum, (Sinhalese Banners and Standards), p. 17.

63 Hence the flag came to be used as the symbol of the district in which the shrine itself stands. "Skanda"

has several names in Sanskrit, but he is here commonly called "Kadirama" or "the Lord of the rays", he

having sprung from an assemblage of rays from the eyes of Siva, for the destruction of the Asuras. He is

represented with six heads and twelve arms, each holding a different weapon, and his vehicle is a peacock,

hence sacred to his followers. Of his two consorts, Diwane and Valli, the latter is represented as having

been nurtured by a Vedda female, and the Veddas are therefore particularly attached to his worship".

- Casie Chitty's Gazetteer, p. 140. (Memoirs of the Colombo Museum, Sinhalese Banners & Standards).

6 .. Edward Perera, Memoirs of The Colombo Museum, (Sinhalese Banners and Standards).

65 v. 146, Rupavaliya, translated by A. K. Coomaraswamy in his Medieval Sinhalese Arts, p.82.

66 Coomaraswamy, op. cit., p. 8 I.

Page 23: Buddhist Symobls in Sihalese Art

of Benaras, and this king seeing the two at play by a stream fell in love with Canda. So

madly in love does the king become with Canda that he kills her husband (the Bodhisat).

Thus Canda, in fear, flies to the mountains refusing to live with the King. So great were

her cries of grief that Sakra, Chief of the gods, and Lord of Deva-Ioka, hears her. Indra then

appears in the form of a Brahman and taking water from a pot sprinkled some upon

the dead Kinnara. Whereupon the dead Kinnara was restored to life and Indra departs

warning them never again seek the haunts of men. 67

The S~rapendiya, a form somewhat like a Kinnara, has a head like a lion, and the body of a

bird like the hamsa. The popular form used in modern architectural decoration of Ceylon.


THE LOTUS (Nelum Mala)

"The whole universe is sometimes imagined as one great flower (lotus) whose petals are

outlined by the starry worlds". 68

The lotus flower to the Hindu and the Buddhist alike is much more than just a flower. It

is a symbol of purity, the throne of the divine, the offering to the highest. 59 But perhaps

most important is the lotus flower as a seat or pedestal symbolizing that the feet of the gods

do not rest on the earth.70 In connection with the lotus as a symbol of purity we note that

the lotus growing in mud remains spotlessly clean by lifting itself above the mud. Thus a

symbol of purity for those beings born on earth yet capable of lifting themselves above.

For the Hindus the lotus is the universe or as sometimes called, "The Lotus of Brahma",

"the highest form or aspect of the earth". n And from sacred tradition we are told "the

filaments of the lotus are the innumerable mountains of the world, filled with precious metals.

The outer petals contain the inaccessible continents of foreign peoples. On the underside

of the petals dwell the demons and the serpents. But in the center of the perocarp, amidst

67 Translated by A. K. Coomaraswamy in his Medieval Sinhalese Arts, p. 82.

58 A. K. Coomaraswamy, Arts and Crafts in India and Ceylon, (London, Foulis, 1913), P.30.

69 T. U. de Silva, Decorative Sinhalese Art, (Colombo, The Ceylon Daily News, 1940), P.24.

70 Coomaraswamy, op. cit., p. 30.

71 Heinrich Zimmer, lWyths and Symbols in Indian Art tf Civilization, (New York, Pantheon Books, 1946),

P·5 2 .

Page 24: Buddhist Symobls in Sihalese Art

Fig. 7

Lotus motif found on the feet of the reclining Buddha from Polonnaruwa in Ceylon (Gal Vihare 14th c. A.D.)

the four oceans that extend to the four quarters, is the continent of which a part is India".72

The cosmic lotus is also called "The Goddess Earth".73 In the J3.g Veda the Lotus Goddess

is called by her classic names that of either SrI or La~~mi and sometimes both. She is also

praised in the Vedas as "lotus born", "standing on a lotus", "lotus colored", "lotus thighed",

"lotus eyed ", "abounding in lotuses", "decked with lotus garlands" and many others.u Of

course she is found among the principal figures sculptured on gates, railings, etc., of the

earliest Buddhist stupas at SancI and Bharhut. A note of interest here is that in Indian

literature beautiful women and men are usually described as being "lotus eyed".

The lotus flower is also the symbol of Samsiira, being widely opened by day and again dying

down. It is like the ebb and flow of human life-rebirth! 75

72 Loc. cit. 73 Ibid., P.90 . 74 IbM., P.91.

75 Coomaraswamy, op. cit., p. 29.


Page 25: Buddhist Symobls in Sihalese Art

Brahma the creator emerges from the cosmic lotus born of Visnu's navel; "A thousand

petaled lotus of pure gold 76 - the door or gate - opening or mouth, of the universe. The

lotus opens to give birth to Brahma the creator". 77 It is indeed most common to see the

rose-lotus used in the decorative arts of India. As Dr. A. K. Coomaraswamy points out,

everywhere in India the chief decorative motif is the rose-lotus. 7il I might also add that the

same is true for Ceylon where everywhere one finds the delicate fragrant lotus used as a

favorite form of decoration.

The lotus coming out of Hindu and pre-Buddhist mythology enters into Sinhalese Buddhist

philosophy and art in much the same way that other symbols and ideas found their way to

Ceylon. We know that there was an active exchange of ideas and people between Ceylon

and India from the days of Asoka on. It was obvious then that the Buddhists were to accept

the lotus symbol. (Fig. 7). As Or. Zimmer points out:

It is symbolic of the procreative power (sakti) of the immortal, adamantine, eternal Substance. Thus a

Buddha on or in the lotus symboli7.es the essence of Enlightenment as it permeates and sustains the universe

of Time.79

The throne of the Buddha as well as of the Bodhisattvas, and of all who are born agam m

Buddha paradise, is lotus-supported. In the case of the Buddha the throne of a lotus or lotus

and lion will be slightly larger than the Bodhisattvas'. Thus the Enlightened Ones ... "shall

appear seated in the cup of a lotus on a lion throne in Paradise." (SPt., p. 4 19) 80

As for the decorative aspect of the lotus in Sinhalese art let us see just what the Sinhalese

artist does with the flower. In the commentaries of various Sinhalese devotees we note that

this king or that wealthy merchant "built a temple to the glory of Buddha and adorned it

with a thousand lotuses, that they may shine for all time like the sun, the moon, and the

stars." 81 Often I have visited small temples in the hills of Ceylon during a "full moon"

76 Gold in token of its incorruptible nature.

77 Zimmer, op. cit., p. 90.

78 Coomaraswamy, op. cit., p. 5 I. 79 Zimmer, op. cit., p. 146.

80 A. K. Coomaraswamy, Elements of Buddhist Iconograplry, (Cambridge, Harvard Untv. Press, 1935), p. 46.

81 de Silva, op. cit., p. 24.


Page 26: Buddhist Symobls in Sihalese Art

celebration and have seen thousands of lotuses of all colors used to decorate the temple

and the temple garden.

Among the DambuIla cave temples there is one temple where there are painted on the ceiling

a thousand lotuses in all colors and many interesting forms. We note how the artists have

brought out certain characteristics of the sun, moon, and the stars. Mr. de Silver puts the

lotus designs of Ceylon into five classes as follows:

I) rounded petals

2) pointed petals

3) Cobrahood petals

4) sun-flower petals

5) mixed petals 82

It should also be noted that the Sitihalese artists usually use yellow, red, black and white,

when painting the lotus. This is unquestionably due to the limited availability of color for

the Sitihalese. Blue for example was a very rare col or coming from imported Lapis lazuli.

This rare yet much desired color was reserved for the eyes of only the noblest of religious

figures, namely the Buddha.

The Nelum-Mala (lotus flower) circle is always divided into 4, 8, 16 or more petals; however,

never is it divided into multiples of 3 or 5.83

The Pala-Peti is a form derived directly from the lotus flower and it is used as a border or

moulding. The Sitihalese Palapeit or Padma-pethi means Lotus petals. The origin of this

form probably is derived from the Padhmii-asana of the Buddha Statues, where the mouldings

are decorated with the lotus petals. This same pattern is also found in India where Dravidian

influence was felt. 84

Note the use of this form in the decoration on the moonstones of Ceylon.

In conclusion let me quote Dr. Coomaraswamy writing on the lotus throne and its meanings

in his Elements of Buddhist Iconograp~y,'

82 Loc. dt.

83 A. K. Coomaraswamy, Medieval Sz"izhalese Art, (Broad Camp den, Essex House Press, 1908), p. 96.

84 de Silva, op. dt., p. 15.


Page 27: Buddhist Symobls in Sihalese Art

"The lotus denotes ontologically a form established amongst the possibilities of existence, denotes a birth

and manifestation primarily in the intelligible, or also and consequently in the sensible world: while it

denotes ethically, detachment, as of one who is in the world but not of it." 85

Having arrived at the end of these notes there is no doubt in my mind that the craftsmen

of Ceylon, while among the most capable in the Orient, were influenced and drew much

of their inspiration from India and from other Oriental traditions. However, only on the

island of Ceylon do we see today efforts of considerable importance being made to per­

petuate Oriental traditions and ideals. True, in India such work is being attempted, but due

to the vast European influence such projects are meeting with less success.

Two movements of importance in the field of art on the island must be mentioned here.

One is Kaisiki, a school of dance, a school interested in and striving to restore the ancient

art of the dance to its "pristine glory". The other movement is the "Kandyan Arts Society".

This society is interested in Siilhalese and Tamil crafts and with workshops available to

craftsmen are doing much to foster a keener interest in Siilhalese arts and crafts.

85 Coomaraswamy, op. cit., p.59.