Perishing pre-historic cave murals | Sunday Observer

Perishing pre-historic cave murals

25 July, 2021
The Mailla rock cave with the reclining Buddha statue damaged by treasure hunters later retouched by someone or group
The Mailla rock cave with the reclining Buddha statue damaged by treasure hunters later retouched by someone or group

The eerily hunting sounds of the peacock juxtaposed with those of the laughing thrush fill the morning air as we follow the eight kilometre narrow and inaccessible jungle track from Kotiyagala to Mailla cave.

The potholes, muddy streams and rocky protrusions, make the journey arduous, compelling us to make frequent stops and at time literally crawl. But getting to the final destination – the Mailla cave – is worth the hiccups and the bother, although getting there also turned out to be another issue when we got hopelessly lost. The tracks were deserted. There is no one to ask directions.

Wandering around we finally came across a boy from Kotiyagala, returning from his Chena, who offers to accompany us to the Mailla cave. The Mailla caves are located in close proximity to the Lahugala and Yala National Parks, in an area more familiar for wild elephants and bears.

In 1975, the road to Mailla via Kotiyagala cut across heavily grown jungle, with significant wild life population. Over the past few decades, chena cultivation and deforestation have denuded the forest, exposing the caves to the elements and destroying the priceless artefacts such as paintings and clay statues.

Rocky boulders

The cluster of rocky boulders, which is Mailla proper, now lies in the middle of an isolated pocket of jungle amid vast a stretch of maize cultivation. Access to the cave is by foot. It is a long trek, across a sea of Illuk grass, shrub jungle, boulders and mud filled streams. Entrance to the Mailla cave complex is through the main cave. Upon entry, we came across some drawings on the rock walls.

These are believed to have been drawn by the Veddas and depict a figure riding an elephant. The main entrance leads to a cluster of caves, some of which are said to have been occupied by bikkhus in the past.

After one kilometre trek through forest canopy, we came to an oval shaped rock cave shrine which contains a reclining Buddha statue made of brick and clay. Its head, chest and lower section have been hacked by treasure hunters, but parts that are intact indicate it had been a pure white statue once upon a time.

According to historical records, the cave shrine of Mailla evolved into a Buddhist hermitage and was embellished with all the trapping of a prominent Buddhist shrine between 4th and 5th Century. The most extraordinary feature of this forgotten place is the fascinating paintings on the ceiling, unsullied, intact and left alone by man and the elements. The red and yellow painting covering surfaces made of two to three layers clay plaster mixer with paddy seeds is considered to be some of the oldest paintings in the country.

Exquisite floral designs

Among the paintings are exquisite floral designs, different, yet similar to what’s found in the early Sigiriya paintings. There are also figures of beautiful, bear breasted, bejeweled maidens with flowers in their hands and hair, not unlike the Apsaras of Sigiriya, painted on the rock ceiling.

The maidens are painted mostly in red and provide a stark contrast to the white background. But providing exquisite companionship to the fair beauties and elephant, oxen, spotted deer, painted in a style that renders them vivid and near real. We discover that a place of prominence has been given to the images of elephants in the Mailla caves. Prominent is the painting of several elephants – one engaged in water sports, another carrying a lotus in its trunk and the third on the verge of escaping from the scene.

The massive reclining Buddha statue was built in the main cave during the 5th Century.

A Chaitya had also been built atop the rock boulder at some point. Like the Mailla Buddha statue, the Chaitya too has been destroyed and all that remains today is a flat heap of rubble with weeds and ferns growing in places once enshrined with relics.

Despite the destruction, the Mailla Buddha statue is in better condition today due to a Good Samaritan, who had taken it upon himself to repair and retouch the vandalised statue.

The Mailla cave is probably one of the ancient art repositories in the country, offering a glimpse of aesthetic creativity of a generation of a bygone era.