Book on Bellanwila murals: A tribute to Somabandhu’s artistic vision | Sunday Observer

Book on Bellanwila murals: A tribute to Somabandhu’s artistic vision

23 April, 2023

The coffee table book containing the paintings of Bellanwila Vihara will be launched at the BMICH on April 28 in the presence of Chief Incumbent of the Vihara Ven. Bellanwila Dhammaratana Thera, who is the patron of the publication titled “Visual Poetry of Bellanwila”.

This illustrated book contains a large number of colour photographs of murals of Somabandhu Vidyapathi which were captured by veteran photographer Lal Hegoda and his team. W.M.K. Wijayabandara and Charulatha Abeysekara Thewarathanthri have done a great job of designing the book and penning the script in poetic language. The postscript of Sarath Chandrajeewa recalls the history of artistic tradition of Sri Lanka and he rightly points out the aesthetic value and stylistic uniqueness of Bellanwila murals among Sri Lankan paintings.

Ven. Bellanwila Dhammaratana Thera

Bellanwila is one of the oldest Buddhist temples in the Western Province and its history goes back to the 3rd Century BCE. The historic Bodhi tree of the temple premises is believed to be one of the sacred thirty-two saplings sprung from the Sri Maha Bodhi of Anuradhapura.

The second development phase of the temple can be traced to the Kotte period and the recent constructions of Bellanwila began in the 19th Century. Bellanwila is one of the most venerated and popular temples of the country and it can be placed with Kelaniya and Kalutara as the most visited sites by devotees and tourists alike.

The modern paintings by the great artist, Somabandhu Vidyapathi have given an added value to the Bellanwila temple. The new painting works were started by Somabandhu in 1990 and it went on till 1998. He was 75 when the work was completed.in1998. The total area of Somabandhu’s paintings covers 4,632 sq. ft on the temple walls.

Bellanwila paintings may be placed as the latest example of the long tradition of mural paintings of Sri Lanka. The classical paintings of Sigiriya and Thivanka are the best surviving examples of this tradition. Temples with paintings of the Kandy period, such as Dambulla, Degaldoruwa, Medawala and Gangarama having their own sub styles show a continuation of the Sri Lankan tradition.

Unlike other temple painters, Somabandhu has not paid importance to Jathaka stories, though they contain some picturesque narrative scenes. His emphasis was on the life events of Gautama Buddha and some important events of the history of Buddhism.

Queen Maya’s wondrous dream on the day Siddhartha was conceived has been illustrated with the mythical white elephant and four guardian gods. The birth of Siddhartha at the Lumbini grove placed below the above scene and both can be taken as a one picture. The tilling ceremony and miracles that happened with the infant Siddhartha are depicted in another picture.

The learning of arts and sciences by young Prince Siddhartha has also been selected by the painter. Events related to the marriage of Princess Yasodhara, the four omens seen by Siddhartha which led him to understand the reality of worldly life, birth of the son Rahula and the Great Departure are given prominence in his painted story. His Journey as a recluse, meeting various teachers, suffering in the forest life, and triumph over the Mara (Death) have been selected as events to be painted.

The Buddha’s life after attaining Supreme Enlightenment, from Sujata’s offering of milk rice up to the Maha Parinirvana, is the subject of Somabandhu’s paintings. The Third Buddhist Council (Sangayanawa) and taking the Bodhi sapling to Sri Lanka by Theri Sanghamitta during Emperor Ashoka’s time are also considered as events worth decorating the walls of the Bellanwila Vihara.

The murals of Somabandhu at the Bellanwila temple and the illustrated book “Visual poems of Bellanwila” on those paintings and the painter are landmarks in the history of Sri Lankan art. Sadly, these paintings and the painter came into existence after the time of great art critics, such as Ananda Coomaraswamy, Nandadewa Wijesekara, Siri Gunasinghe and Seneke Bandaranayake. Otherwise, Somabandhu and Bellanwila would have been given a prominent place in their classical works.