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Buddhist arts in Sri Lanka

By Devik Balami at
buddha face

If we look at the history, it has been recorded that when the sea connections was established between states near Mediterranean sea and China with India as the intermediary of choice, India started to grow its influences, through various sectors, towards southeast Asian countries. Therefore, trade routes linked with India were established in different south East Asian countries like- southern Burma, central and southern Siam, lower Cambodia and southern Vietnam, etc. With the establishment of the trade routes, Indian Influences were seen to other south East Asian countries along with the cultural transmission. It was recorded that the religion - Buddhism, Brahmanism, and Hinduism were spread out through transmission of sacred texts and Indian literature such as Ramayana and the Mahabharata. But the South Asian people accepted Buddhism rather than other religion and developed buddhist art in their respective countries with their own characteristics.

golden temple in sri lanka

History of Buddhist art

During 1st-8th century, south Asian countries developed their own verse of buddhist arts which had a foundation in the Indian Gupta style. These type of antique buddhist arts can still be found throughout the area.

During the period of the 8th and 9th century, the special type of buddhist art, Sailendran buddhist art, was developed in Medang Mataram Kingdom of Central Java, Indonesia. In this period lots of buddhist arts were built and therefore it was marked as the renaissance of buddhist art in Java. Some of the arts were Kalasan, Manjusrigrha, Mendut and Borobudur stone mandala.

During the period of 9th - 13th centuries, south East Asian countries became very powerful empires. They were also active in creating and building Buddhist architects and images of Buddha and of those who are associated with buddhism. The two Empires - Sri Vijaya and Khmer Empire which were located at south and north respectively were very active on building the images and arts of Buddha. They both expressed the rich Mahayana concept of Buddhisms.

During the 13th century, the Theravada Buddhism of Pali canon was introduced and this sect. of Buddhism was followed by the newly founded ethnic Thai kingdom of Sukhothai. In this period, the monasteries were typically built at the central places to receive instructions and to clear out the disputes of the monks. From the 14th century onwards, Theravada Buddhism was continued to spread in Burma, Laos, and Cambodia.

It is also noted that Singhasari Buddhist art was also developed in the East Java section during the 13th century.

Buddhist arts in Sri Lanka

As it has been noted that Buddhism was introduced in Sri Lanka in the 3rd century BCE by Buddhist missionaries sent by Mauryan Emperor Ashoka. In Sri Lanka, the first ever monastery built was the Mahavihara at Anuradhapura which was founded by Devanampiyatissa. This monastery helped to spread Buddhism throughout the area. Later the monastery became the center of the Theravada doctrine of Buddhism. Later another monastery, Abhayagiri Vihara, based on another doctrine of Buddhism, Mahayana, was established in BCE 89 by Vattagamani. With the establishment of Mahayana Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Theravada Buddhism many ideologies were contradicted with that of Mahayana Buddhism and hence there was a rivalry between the monks of both viharas. This conflict of ideas later helped to found another Vihara, Jetavanarama. Therefore, Buddhism in Sri Lanka was dominated by three monasteries- Mahavihara, Abhayagiri, and Jetavanarama. The monasteries built afterward were affiliated to one of the three mentioned above.

With the spread of Buddhism, the monks also built many antique Buddha statues and images depicting Buddha's teachings and his life history. These statues were mainly rock cut statues and bronze statues. Some of the rock cut antique Buddha statues are Aukana Buddha Statue, Maligawila Buddha Statue, Buduruwagala Raja Maha Viharaya, Rambadagalla Viharaya, Samadhi Buddha Statue, etc. and one of the famous Vihara, Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara consists of the image of reclining Gautama Buddha which was painted by the artist Solias Mendis.