Lost in time in Kandy | Sunday Observer

Lost in time in Kandy

9 September, 2018

There are three temples of major interest within several kilometres of the city of Kandy– Gadaladeniya, Lankathilaka and Embekke Devale etched in stone, built in brick and carved in wood. They belong to what is sometimes called the ‘Gampola Period’, a time of great artistic activities in Kandy. If you are in Kandy, these tri-temples can be easily added to your one day tour.

Written and photographed by Mahil Wijesinghe during his recent visit to Kandy

Gadaladeniya, early in the morning

The cry of birds shatters the morning silence. Like a ghost in the mist, a grey colour granite structure hovers over the rock cliff and the sprinkled surroundings. I waited at the Gadaladeniya temple till the sun came out dispersing the thick mist that paved the way for a blue sky. The Gampola kings have given prominence to Buddhism mixed with Hinduism, and built their temples and palaces on the top of the rocky outcrops in their kingdom. The Gadaladeniya Temple, built on a rocky cliff, profits from its exceptional location.

The stone building erected in 1344, according to an inscription, is topped by a dome in the form of a dagoba. Another small dome adorns the adjoining Devale. Hindu influence is obvious in the construction of the temple. The stone entrance is finely sculpted and the steps are decorated with a frieze depicting dancers and drummers. The temple pillars, each one treated differently, are probably the work of several artists. The sanctuary houses a gilded statue of the seated Buddha, surrounded by statues of the standing Buddha. The Gadaladeniya Temple has been built during the reign of King Bhuvanekabahu IV (1341-1351 AD).

A gigantic wooden door in the image house opens in two halves has elaborate paintings and the door frame also contains beautiful carvings. At the foot of the steps to the main shrine there is a moonstone and two Gajasingha (elephant-lion) balustrades. A wooden carving of this mythical being is found on a wooden pillar at the Embekke Devale as well. In the foreground of the image house, one can see a somewhat big dagoba placed at a height of 40 feet with four accompanying miniature dagobas around it with cells.

They are said to be suggestive of four gods protecting the big dagoba. Inside the chambers of this structure are several miniature statues of Buddha and faded frescoes. The roof above the dagoba has ensured that it can stand the test of time through centuries. The metres long stone step pathway up to the temple from the western side looks magical in the morning. The Gadaladeniya Temple and the ancient Bodhi tree are beautifully lit up at twilight along with the mist laden mountain ranges.

Lankatilaka- ‘The Crown of Lanka’

Kandy’s other big attraction is the Lankatilaka Vihara. The temple rightly deserves its name, ‘The Crown of Lanka’. Its situated majestically at the top of the rocky outcrop called Panhalgala overlooking the countryside just three kilometres on the same road as Gadaladeniya Viharaya.

I catch a glimpse of the impressive Vihara in the distance as its newly white-washed exterior and dagoba atop the hill stand out amidst the treetops. The Viharaya, approached by a long flight of steps cut in the rock, is known to be one of the most magnificent works of architecture from the Gampola era. Built in 1344, like the previous one, it was, however, given a very different treatment. The stone and brick built Vihara depicts a combination of Indo-China architectural patterns mixed with the Polonnaruwa architectural features influenced by Viharas (temples) in Myanmar. The Lankatilaka Vihara has two parts, one Hindu and the other Buddhist.

The façade on the Buddhist side is composed of a magnificent white porch with a Makara Thorana (dragon arch) dating from the original construction. The tile-covered wooden roof is exceptional and very different from what we usually see. It adds a great deal of elegance to the temple. Inside the Buddhist section, walls and ceilings are covered with Kandyan-style frescoes, some of the oldest and best examples of the Kandyan style.

The massive stone inscription at the site reveals that this temple built in the 14th Century is a donation by Senalankadhikara, a Minister of King Buwanekabahu IV and the architect is Stapati Rayar from South India. The imposing white-washed building has four storeys, of which only the ground floor is used today. The unique feature at the Vihara is that its image house consists of a Buddhist shrine room with a crossed-legged gold-plated statue of Buddha underneath a fascinating Makara Thorana and also four Hindu Devalas within the image house that are devoted to four deities. To the west is a cluster of devalas with four chambers dedicated to deities, Vishnu, Kataragama, Saman and Pattini. The Sinhasanaya (throne)- lies on a raised platform in the temple premises and was built for the king to watch the Perahera, the annual pageant of the temple.

Embekke-wood carvings

One of the most beautiful sites just outside the city of Kandy is the famous Embekke Devale - the third and final destination in my journey. Embekke Devale nestles in Udu Nuwara, about 16 kilometres from Kandy close to Daulagala in a sprawling land of lush paddy fields- a sight to behold even from a distance.

This Devale dedicated to God Kataragama, had been erected at a site indicated by the deity at the foot of a Kaduru tree to a Panikkiya(drummer) during the period of Wickramabahu III of Gampola (1356-1373) Queen Henakanda Biso Bandara, a consort of King Wickramabahu III had assisted in the construction.

Embekke Devale is the finest living example of Sri Lankan architecture and art showcased in wood. Almost every inch of the wooden structure is decorated with elaborate, intricate carvings on beam columns, rafters, brackets, doorways, doors and windows.

The carvings include a series of decorations such as liyawel, lotus designs on Pekada (brackets) and decorative patterns on timber roof beams. Among these carvings, perhaps, the most amazing masterpiece of wooden pillars including carvings of the Hansa Puttuwa (entwined swans), two-headed eagles, mother breastfeeding her child, soldier on horseback, female dancing figure, wrestlers, elephant-bull combination and elephant-lion fusion. The main building called the Drummers’ Hall has some of the most intricate carvings on wooden pillars.

Just a few yards away from this is an entrance to the hall known as ‘Vahalkada’, which has some of the best wood carvings of Sinhalese art. It is believed, this Drummers’ Hall was originally in the abandoned Royal Audience Hall in Gampola.

Another fascinating feature here is that the roof of the Drummers’ Hall itself has a magnificent carving called, ‘Madol Kurupuwa’, a kind of giant catch pin, which holds together 26 rafters at the hipped end of the roof of Drummers’ Hall. This kind of amazing architectural marvel is very rare, and is one of the finest examples of medieval carpentry anywhere in the world.