Evidence of Mahayanist in Sri Lanka | Sunday Observer

Evidence of Mahayanist in Sri Lanka

25 February, 2018
The figures at Buduruwagala in relief on the face of large rocks
The figures at Buduruwagala in relief on the face of large rocks

Having visited Dematamal Vihara (featured last week), my next destination on the same road was Maligawila, a vast monastic complex with two huge statues of standing Maligawila Buddha and Dambegoda Avalokitheswara Bodhisattva statues belonging to Mahayanist.

As I venture into most of the archaeological sites around the country, I have encountered a number of Buddha images constructed often in a seated position, in the attitude of meditation, or standing. But, in some places I have seen, all the images are in a standing position as groups. There are other images in the recumbent posture. Travelling in the Ruhunu Province I have come upon several Mahayana sites with granite statues belonging to Mahayanist.

Among the standing statues are three colossal figures in granite. They are Avukana and Sasseruwa in the North Central Province and Buduruwagala and ‘Kustarajagala’ in Weligama, in the Ruhuna and some of the archaeological sites strewn around Ruhuna are the most outstanding relics today, from a period during which Mahayana and Tantric Buddhism held sway in Sri Lanka.

The beginning of Mahayana Buddhism in Sri Lanka was probably in about the year 100 BC. This coincided with similar events in neighbouring India. There were many exchange of visits between the Indian and Sri Lankan Mahayanists. According to the Mahayanists, the attainment of individual liberation as followed by Theravada Buddhism was a selfish objective. They taught that the true followers of the Buddha should aspire to become a Bodhisattva so that he could later lead others to the path of liberation.

In Theravada Buddhism, there is only one Bodhisattva, Maitreya, while in Mahayanist there are innumerable Bodhisattvas. The latter religion has been called the ‘cult Bodhisattvas’. The elaboration of religious ritual and worship of images of both Bodhisattvas and others paramount in this religion later came to absorb Tantric practices.

In the latter it was taught that liberation may be realized through the repetition of sacred texts and formulae and through special types of yoga involving sexual intercourse with a shakti or ‘spiritual wife’. The influence of Tantrism resulted in the adaptation of Tantric goddesses, such as Tara, among the icons which were worshipped. The attendant figures at Buduruwagala rock reflect Mahayana-Tantric doctrines.

According to historical notes, Mahayanism reached its peak in Sri Lanka in the 3rd and 4th centuries. During this time it received royal patronage, chiefly from Gotabaya (253-266) and his second son Mahasena (276-303), in preference to the orthodox doctrines. Later, kings like Dhatusena (463-479) and Sena II (851-885) supported Bodhisatta worship but by this time Theravada Buddhism had been restored to its rightful place.

Apparently, most of the Mahayanist sites scatter around the Southern Province today. The first and most significant site is the awe-inspiring Buduruwagala. I too on several occasions in recent times, went along this roadway flanked by farmers’ huts, cottages and modern houses. Amidst the forest this forested mountain frontier, stand in all its serenity, the Buduruwagala tank which had been restored in the past years. It waters the rice fields worked by the peasantry there. The profile of the Namunukula, Bandarawela hills and the Ella gap loom over these frontiers.

Before us stood a rock boulder in the shape of an elephant’s back with its protruding head, and set beside this were these wonderful figures in groups in real relief pose. In the middle of these figures, stands a Buddha statue carved out of its boulder which appeared to have been sculptured in high relief in stucco. When observing these figures, these carving stand in a stone gallery of rock icons in separate groups.

To the right of this Buddha statue, is the largest carving of Bodhisattva (manifesting the doctrine of Mahayana Buddhism representing Avalokitesvara). The panel on its left symbolizes Maitriya- Maitri Bodhisattva, identified to be that of Sudhana Kumaraya.

The other figures in this panel of figures are those of Manjusri Bodhisattva and goddess Tara Devi supposed to be the consort of Avalokitesvara. Vajira Pani is also identified as one of the female figures. Goddess Tara Devi is mentioned in the Mahayana Tantric doctrine which had their origins in India.

From this rock gallery of carvings of human figures, it is seen that each of the Bodhisattva is flanked by a female companion on one side and a male on the other side. Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara is symbolized by the Dhyani Buddha Amitabbha in head dress as evident in this particular icon which appears on the right hand side of the Buddha statue.

Similarly, Bodhisattva Avalokiteswara statues and other Bodhisattva images had existed in ancient times, besides the remains found at Buduruwagala. Among them is the well-known Bodhisattva Avalokiteswara colossus icon at Dambegoda in Maligawila, Okkampitiya. This gigantic Avalokiteswara Bodhisattva statue which had fallen down many years ago, and lay in tatters in the tentacles of the dense jungle was restored and brought to the upright position it had stood in 1990. It was unveiled by the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa. This gigantic Avalokiteswara Bodhisattva statue is 16 metres high. It appears to date back to the same period of the Buduruwagala Bodhisattva statues around 9th-10th century A.D.

The other awe-inspiring Mahayana site where similar Avaloketeswara Bodhisattva statue exist, is at Weligama, on the main road to Galle, the well-known Kustarajagala. This statue also sculptured on the face of a solitary rock, is situated within the Weligama town. It is one of the finest Mahayana sculptures found in Sri Lanka.

This statue, belonging to the 7th-8th centuries AD had been carved inside a niche on the rock to protect it from the ravages of the weather. It is also referred to as a statue of God Natha, Maithri Bodhisattva, as well as Avalokestiswara. The statue is heavily draped in elaborate ornaments and clothes. The head-dress is elaborately designed with four figures on it. Many necklaces adorn the neck. Parts of the head-dress touch the shoulders. This is one of the most beautiful and intricately carved statues in Sri Lanka, suggestive of the influence in the peak of Mahayana Buddhism in the country, dated to the 10th century.

The other Mahayana sites where similar Avalokiteswara Bodhisattva statues exist is Situlpauwa, situated 24 kilometres from Tissamaharama, and is one of the major ancient monasteries in Magam Pattuwa (Southern Province, Ruhunu Rata), in the Yala National Park where two such Bodhisattva statues are found, one is headless. Even in the priceless archaeological site of Yatala in Tissamaharama, such Bodhisattva images have been discovered. The ancient site of Muhudu MahaVihara at Pottuvil also contains two elaborately carved Avalokiteswara Bodhisattva statues flanked by Buddha.

The belief in a Bodhisattva (future Buddha) is preached in the doctrine of Mahayanism. Avalokiteswara appears to be the Load of Compassion worshipped by Mahayana Buddhists. He is the guardian of the sick, according to the Mahayana school of Buddhism and is the Bodhisattva Avalokiteswara. The Buddha Amittabha denoting its head-dress as worn on his head. In Mahayans Bodhisattva statues, the face is directed towards Heaven and not towards the earth as the heavenly guardian of the sick and the infirm. In the precinctsof Dambegoda Bodhisattva Avalokiteswara, according to archaeologists, a hospital for the blind and sick were built in the blindman’s village called Kanagama, which had been known to be around Maligawila Dambegoda. The Bodhisattva statue of Weligama too has several legends related to sickness and the favourite among them seems to be that this statue was constructed under the patronage of a prince who had a skin disease, which was cured at this site.

Since all of these Bodhisattva Avalokiteswara figures in Ruhuna have been dated to the 10th century, these sculptures appear to have been built long after the peak of Mahayana Buddhism had faded.