Fast vanishing wall paintings of Walalgoda historic Tempita Vihara | Sunday Observer

Fast vanishing wall paintings of Walalgoda historic Tempita Vihara

5 February, 2017
The Bhikku at the temple stands near the entrance to the image house (Budu Ge) on the upper floor.
The Bhikku at the temple stands near the entrance to the image house (Budu Ge) on the upper floor.

When we visited Maduwanwela Sri Mudalindaramaya in Kolonna a couple of weeks ago, its Chief Incumbent Ven. Maduwanwela Sugathananda Thera said that the Walalgoda Tempita Vihara was on the verge of collapse. Hearing this sad news, we hastily decided to visit this little known archaeologically important Vihara in Panamura, about 12 kms from Maduwanwela. I have visited the Walalgoda Vihara 17 years ago, and this was my second visit.

All three Tempita viharas: Maduwanwela Sri Mudalindaramaya, Walalgoda Vihara and Omalpe Vihara are close to Panamura, (of elephant kraal fame), 12 kms south of Embilipitiya.

The Viharaya nestles in a sleepy village in Walalgoda, in the backdrop of an endless chain of mist-laden mountains touching the skies that are ever-changing in colour in the Kolonna valley, on the boundary of Sabaragamuwa Province.

Turning right at the Panamura junction, on the Embilipitiya-Middeniya highway, we drove three kms on a meandering road, where the best moments of nature can be witnessed from the paddy fields which stretch as far as the eye could see. We reached Walalgoda junction and turned right, proceeding two kms into the serene woodland village of Walalgoda, before reaching the Viharaya.

When we stepped into the Vihara, a pupil Bhikku came out and informed that the Chief Incumbent has left the temple to attend a ceremony and we were educated about the temple by the pupil Bhikku. According to him, the Walalgoda Tempita Vihara is one of the few Tempita Viharas surviving today.

The emergence of the Kandyan School of Painting is associated with the revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka in the late 18th century. It was then that Velivita Pindapathika Asarana Sarana Saranankara Sangaraja Thera helped to bring Upasampada (the rite of higher ordination) from Siam back to Sri Lanka and, under the patronage of King Kirti Sri Rajasingha, helped reawaken the religious movement. The Kandyan Provinces grew in power, and the arts under Kandyan Kings prospered.

Kandyan art and architecture

Although the Walalgoda Tempita Vihara is situated far away from the Kandyan Kingdom, it occupies a special place in the study and appreciation of Kandyan art and architecture. It is one of the oldest surviving examples of the Kingdom’s distinctive architecture, and its murals are among the finest manifestations of the emerging Kandyan style. The Vihara has a well-documented history. It was commissioned between 1755-1760 by King Kirti Sri Rajasingha, the Kandyan King who led the Buddhist revival of the 18th century.

The Walalgoda Pin Pathraya at the Vihara records that Ven. Upali Thera who came from Thailand lived in this Vihara making Vinaya rites and Upasampada (the rite of higher ordination) for Bhikkus who resided in the Vihara by marking a Sima Malakaya in the Vihara. Furthermore, it states that this Vihara had been built for Ven. Upali Thera by local chieftains Omalpe Alahakoon Mudiyanse, and Walalgoda Jayawardene Wijekoon Mudali who has also donated a large number of paddy-fields to the temple.

At the centre of the 8x8 metre square two-storeyed building of the Vihara complex is the Image House (Budu Ge) decorated with murals, which houses the main Buddha statue belonging to the Kandyan period, dug out by treasure hunters in the recent past, but now repaired.

The unique feature of this Vihara is that the Image House (Budu Ge) is built about ten feet above the ground on a wooden platform. An elaborately decorated Makara Thorana and beautifully illustrated Narilatha flowers depicting two naked women adorn the doorway from the top to the bottom of the entrance to the image house.

Wooden beams

A dramatic architectural feature of this small building is that the upper platform is constructed on 16 massive wooden beams. There is a narrow high steeped flight of wooden steps with balustrades to reach the upper floor of the vihara. It also has a characteristic double-pitched Kandyan roof and a railed wooden balustrade around the veranda on the ground floor which had been used by Bhikkus in the past. Now, the wooden railed balustrade is seen only in some sections.

We were told by the pupil Bhikku that the Vihara had been ransacked and burned during Dutch occupation. The Katuwana Dutch Fort is located close to the Vihara. Generations of Kandyan artists have made many contributions to the art of temples. The most significant of them is painting Jathaka stories on temple walls and caves.

The archaeologists involved in the documentation and analysis of Kandyan paintings, estimate that there are a few temples spread across the Sabaragamuwa Province where Walalgoda Vihara is a unique temple which contains 18th century wall paintings dating back to the time of King Kirthi Sri Rajasingha’s reign in the Kandyan Kingdom.

Kandyan murals tend to be folk in style. The human figures do not seem to follow classical proportions. Many appear with pot bellies.

They are also excessively decked with ornaments. In a few paintings the figures have their eyes extended in a peculiar way. Looking at Walalgoda Paintings, the sharp-eyed viewer will notice how the trees, foliage, birds and animals are illustrated in the panels with prominence. The story is narrated in a series of panels, separated from each other and laid in sequence. Most of the paintings carry a short text at the bottom. The sequencing and layout of the panels appear like filmstrips ready to roll.

The Bhikku at the Vihara told us that a number of university students who study aesthetic subjects and art researchers frequently visit this isolated Vihara to carry out their research surveys owing to its fine Kandyan style murals endowed by master painters with the beautiful and excessive creations of their immeasurable artistic genius. Some of the wall paintings of Walalgoda Vihara were featured in the lavishly illustrated book Rock and wall paintings of Sri Lanka by renowned archaeologist Senaka Bandaranaike and veteran photographer Gamini Jayasinghe.

Today, most of the paintings in the Walalgoda Vihara have been damaged substantially due to neglect. The worst affected are the paintings on the outer walls exposed to sun and rain. The reason for the damage is the direct sunlight and humidity. When I visited the Vihara 17 years ago, some of the paintings on the outer wall were in good condition. Looking at those paintings today, these were also discoloured and faded.

For some time, this Vihara was in a dilapidated condition due to desolation and improper maintenance. When we visited the Vihara two weeks ago, workers of the Department of Archaeology were urgently repairing its roof removing all the decaying wooden beams and old tiles, and replacing them with new tiles and beams. The Walalgoda Tempita Vihara has been named as a protected archaeological site and is under the protection of the Department of Archaeology. However, it is sad that today, the Vihara building and its priceless magnificent wall paintings are said to be in a bad state without proper care by relevant authorities.