Wall paintings at Subodharamaya | Sunday Observer

Wall paintings at Subodharamaya

9 July, 2023
Pix: Uthpala Wijesuriya
Pix: Uthpala Wijesuriya

Although we had been told we could view the murals, there was virtually no one at the Subodharamaya, in Karagampitiya, after we had spent a good part of the morning driving there. One of the domestics told us the Chief incumbent was inside the avasa-ge. After perambulating his residence and calling out his name – something we felt encouraged to do, given the notice on the wall at the entrance informing us that he was in – we realised this was simply not the case. Another domestic, much older and more informed, told us that the bhikkhus had all gone for a dhana, and would not be back for two hours.

We tried calling the person who had given us permission to come twice, to no avail. In any case, the domestic informed us, there was very little he could do: the key lay in the Chief incumbent’s possession, and he could not access it. Apparently there had been some robberies, and these had been serious enough to hinder him from opening the image-house, even for a history writer and his assistants. “It is better not to take risks,” he grinned. We smiled back. “Of course,” I said.

This was my second visit to Karagampitiya. The first had been last year, a month before the crisis and the protests hit the country. Back then I had travelled here, impromptu and with no prior notice, with an Indian postgraduate student. I had wanted to show her two or three temples, and more importantly their paintings.


Fortunately, we had been granted access to the image-houses. I recall the murals vividly even now. They had all astonished me, not only for what they depicted, but also for the sheer diversity, eclecticism, and attention to detail that undergirded them. As one of my students said when I told him of my second visit, “I did not know such a temple existed in Colombo.” But it did, and does.

In The Rock and Wall Paintings of Sri Lanka, Prof. Senake Bandaranayake describes the Subodharamaya as “perhaps the only Buddhist temple in Sri Lanka with wall paintings in three different types of building – the image-house, the preaching hall, and the sat-sati-ge.”

He lists it as one of three temples which have “their entire complement of 19th-century murals still intact”, the other two being the Kotte and Kelaniya Rajamaha Viharas. Having been to the latter two, I can vouch for these achievements. But from my travels in Sri Lanka so far, in Kandy and along the Southern coastline, I have yet to encounter a temple and set of murals that exude the eclecticism of the Subodharamaya paintings.

This is, to be sure, no mean feat. But it is not entirely surprising. The wall paintings at the Subodharamaya are housed in three buildings, and each displays a style distinct to itself. Indeed, at times several styles interact and coincide with each other in the same building, provoking us to reflect not so much on what is being depicted as on who painted them, from what period, and for what purpose. Like the greatest wall paintings of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist temples, there is a sense of incongruity in these works.


Ostensibly, they depict the life of the Buddha, as well as his previous lives. Yet embedded within are telltale symbols of the society which produced them. Such incongruities are present in the Viharas of Galle and Matara as well, particularly in the Kataluva Purvaramaya.

But in the Colombo District, there is no other temple which vividly captures this incongruity as does the Subodharamaya.

In general, Buddhist bithu sithuvam served a didactic purpose. While drawing attention to their style, they also drew attention to the stories being depicted, “for the serene joy and emotion of the pious” as the author of the Mahavamsa has put it. Yet from period to period the painters of these murals took liberties with what they depicted.

The centre or focus of their attention remained the Buddha, the Tatagatha, before whom every mortal being and mundane thing bowed. To make their work relevant to the people, they had to make these stories relevant to the present. In that sense, these painters could not escape the times they worked in: they had to feature the most discernibly contemporary desiderata.

In the Subodharamaya, as in the Kataluva Purvaramaya – the latter like the Karagampitiya Vihara in terms of its size, but also, like it, more emblematic of 19th century Buddhist art and Sri Lankan society than any “big” temple from the area – it is these desiderata which inform us of the changing social and economic landscape of the world their painters hailed from.

This was no doubt linked to the commercial upswing that the country’s Southern and Western regions experienced in the late 19th century: a development that encouraged the most devout painter to experiment freely, not just in terms of form, but also in terms of the themes they explored.

Buddhist Revival

Coming right before the traditional style of the early 20th century – a style very much present at Karagampitiya, in various places – these murals take us back to the Buddhist Revival, a period when a nascent Buddhist bourgeoisie, and petty bourgeoisie, donated much of their newfound wealth for the upkeep of temples.

Despite my disappointment at not seeing these murals a second time, I was happy that the Sat Sati Ge lay open. This housed some of the more recent paintings, Europeanised and reminiscent of early 20th century prints. Yet the building seemed archaic in comparison to the image-house and preaching hall, looking much older and more evocative of the past.

In their own way, such paradoxes adorn the Buddhist temples of Sri Lanka, particularly from the 19th century. They remain as much a comment, as Bandaranayake argues in the closing lines of his study, on our perceptions of the tradition that produced such works, “as they are indicators and reflections of our contemporary moment.”

The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at [email protected].