Cult of Avalokitesvara that time forgot | Sunday Observer

Cult of Avalokitesvara that time forgot

30 July, 2023
Abhayagiri Vihara;  a major monastery in  Theravada, Mahayana  and Vajrayana  Buddhism
Abhayagiri Vihara; a major monastery in Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism

Imagine for a moment that you are an enterprising tradesman sailing the Maritime Silk Road in the 9th Century. Setting off from the shores of Gujarat, you make a stopover at Cochin and make a quick exchange of exotic spices for some grain while loading up supplies for the long voyage ahead. You set off again hurriedly, further south and round off the verdant green Island of Taprobane, but your crew is a bit uneasy as you get ready to cross the Bay of Bengal.

Your boat’s first mate talk to you about a Buddhist shrine on the east coast of the island said to belong to the protector of travellers. You take this into consideration and gently navigate your vessel into a natural harbor that night. Your crew marvel at many ships from diverse nations birthed at the harbour; from Arab Dhows to Chinese Junks.

A novice bhikkhu in a bamboo hat carrying a lantern has been eagerly waiting your arrival at the pier and beacons to you to follow him. You follow the bhikkhu through the cobblestoned pathway through a jungle to a fairly large stupa. You gesture to your crew to offer the gifts to the attending bhikkhus and a novice bhikkhu takes you to the most marvelous image house you have ever seen.

There at the centre your eyes meet the benevolent Avalokitesvara – the compassionate. You and your grateful crew bow and offer prayers before making your way back to the ship; assured that your voyage will be closely watched from above by the Boddhisatva with a thousand hands.

Avalokitesvara, meaning – ‘lord who gazes down (at the world)’ in Sanskrit and Guanyin- ‘Regarder of the Cries of the World’ in Chinese, is a bodhisattva who contains the compassion of all Buddhas and is the principal attendant of Amitabha Buddha (Pureland Buddhism) on the right. Avalokitesvara is primarily found in the Mahayana, Vajrayana and Tantrayana Buddhist traditions.

According to the Lotus Sutra, an influential and venerated Mahayana text, Avalokitesvara is considered the protector of sailors and merchants; “Even if a cyclone were to blow the ship of one of these toward the land of raksasa demons, they would all become free from the danger of those raksasa demons if there were even a single person among them who chanted the name of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. For this reason, he is called Avalokitesvara.”

Maritime Silk Road

A 10ft tall Bodhisattva sculpted in bas-relief within a hillside niche in Weligama

The latest data-driven archaeological studies shed new light into the worship of Avalokitesvara, providing a glimpse of a thriving Indian Ocean region in the 7th,8th, 9th and 10th centuries where shrines make up the major hubs of the Maritime Silk Road. But this Indian Ocean wasn’t limited to trade alone, the ships transported bhikkhus, artisans and diplomats who cross-pollinated ideas and exchanged iconographies in what can be best described as a ‘golden age’.

The Avalokitesvara survey project in Sri Lanka, led by Prof. Osmund Bopearachchi of the Centre national de la recherchescientifique (CNRS) and UC Berkeley, in association with the Department of Archaeology and Rajarata University, discovered numerous Mahayana sites with Avalokitesvara statues across the island, indicating the deity’s popularity and influence in the region.

“From the seventh century, merchants from China, Arabia, Persia, and South India developed networks of trade with Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. It was with the sudden burst of trade activity between China and the Middle East in the eighth century that Sri Lanka began to play a decisive role in maritime trade across a wider expanse of the Indian Ocean.

It was during the peak of this movement that the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara and his consort Tara became popular as the protectors of sailors throughout Asia,” Prof. Bopearachchi states in the research book The Maritime Silk Road: Global Connectivities, Regional Nodes, Localities published by the Amsterdam University Press.

Using geographic information system (GIS) mapping software, the survey revealed spatial and temporal trends regarding the placement of Avalokitesvara images. It demonstrated that the cult of Avalokitesvara as guardian and protector of mariners gained prominence in Sri Lanka starting from the 7th century. During this period, his statues were erected in sanctuaries strategically situated at estuaries, bays overlooking the sea, or along navigable rivers inland.

The survey project aimed to study the relationship between Buddhism and maritime trade in Sri Lanka, focusing on the cult of Bodhisatva Avalokitesvara as the protector of mariners.

According to the Mahayana tradition, Avalokitesvara was a bhikkhu who sat in meditation in a cave high up in the Himalayas. However, when he came to the very brink of enlightenment, he heard faint cries of distress from many distances away. Avalokitesvara listened and they were all crying out; wailing and grieving. The sound seemed to become louder, so he looked down and saw millions of beings suffering in so many ways; some dying untimely deaths by fire, shipwreck and execution, while others suffer from the loss of friends and family, and illness, hunger and war.

A tremendous compassion welled in his heart. He asked “How can I seek enlightenment for myself when there are so many suffering in the world who need my guidance?” Avalokitesvara made a vow to help all beings be free from suffering or his body to be split into thousand pieces if he ever hesitates, even for a second, in these efforts.

Avalokitesvara then entered into a deep mediation on compassion for a long time. At last, he emerged and looked around, but people continued to suffer. He fell into despair and thought about giving up the effort. Instantly Avalokitesvara’s body shattered into a thousand pieces and he cried out in agony. But out of his great compassion the shattered pieces of his body took a new shape. His shattered head became eleven heads (Ekadasamukha) able to look in every direction of space.

Out of his shattered body appeared a thousand arms (Sahasrabhuja) able to reach out in all directions. And so, Avalokitesvara could help beings far more effectively than ever before. His icon is that of immense compassion. The Sanskrit mantra associated with Avalokitesvara; ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ (Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus).

Thiriyai site

According to Prof. Bopearachchi, the investigation began with an 11-line inscription in South Indian Grantha script from the 7th or 8th century, found in Thiriyai, a small hamlet 29 km North of Trincomalee, referring to merchants who endowed a Mahayana Buddhist shrine dedicated to Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara and his consort Tara.

The accuracy of the reference was confirmed in April 1983 through an excavation by the Department of Archaeology. They discovered 31 Buddha statues, 11 Bodhisattva statues, three Tara statues, a casket stupa top, and four dhyanibuddhas buried under a paving stone of a ruined padanagara.

One notable find was the statue of Adhibuddha or Vajradharma adorned with an elaborate jatamakuta (hair dressed up as a crown) depicting the five Tathagatas. It was likely imported from Bihar or Orissa in Northern India, with a parallel sculpture found in Ratnagiri dating back to the 4th century CE.

The seated Buddha in vajrasana, discovered at Thiriyai, follows the Pāla style and resembles a similar sculpture from the ancient Nalanda monastery in Bihar, dated to the 9th or 10th century CE.

The statue of Padmapani-Avalokitesvara, seated in lalitasana and displaying varadamudra, also appears to have been imported from Bihar, evidenced by a comparable sculpture from the Nalanda archaeological site dating to the ninth or tenth century CE.

The location of Thiriyai on the left bank of Yan Oya, a major route to the eastern sea, suggests it likely received donations from mariners and merchants who frequented the Buddhist shrine.

Likewise, the project discovered numerous Mahayana sites with Avalokitesvara statues across Sri Lanka, indicating the deity’s popularity and influence in the region.

The cult of Avalokitesvara expanded from India to Sri Lanka and beyond, linked with maritime activities and trade along the Silk Roads.

Maritime trade routes between Sri Lanka and various regions, such as Cambodia and Indonesia, facilitated the exchange of Mahayana cults and influenced the iconography of Avalokitesvara.

The iconic Avalokitesvara bronze statue from Veheragala, dated  to the 9th Century CE. (Colombo National Museum)

Terracotta votive plaques (tshatsha) found in the Asokaramaya monastic complex in Anuradhapura are significant, depicting Buddha Sakyamuni seated in vajrasana with the bhumisparsamudra gesture and surrounded by miniature stupas. The plaques show close similarities in style and iconography with those found in Bihar, particularly around Bodhgaya and Nalanda. In the 8th century, Vajrayana Buddhism was practised in several monasteries in Anuradhapura, including Asokaramaya and Vijayarama.

In the Vijayarama complex, 13 copper plaques with inscriptions were discovered inside an ancient stupa. These inscriptions, written in Sanskrit using Sinhalese characters, date back to the 8th or 9th century and are the earliest written records of Tara worship in Sri Lanka.

The pabbatavihara of Vijayarama is constructed following the Manjusribhasitavastuvidyasastra.

A relief decoration on a ceremonial platform in Vijayarama portrays Avalokitesvara and Tara. According to the Sadhanamala, Avalokitesvara is depicted as distributing streams of nectar (amrta) from his hands, with Sucimukha standing below, receiving the nectar with an uplifted face and pale appearance.

These findings highlight the presence and influence of Vajrayana Buddhism in ancient Sri Lanka and shed light on the early worship of Tara in the region.

During excavations led by T.G. Kulatunga under the Central Cultural Fund, 55 Buddha statues, one Avalokiteśvara, and one Tara were found in the padanagara at the Baswakulma complex.

Adjacent to the padanagara is the Abhiseka-mandapa, where Mahayana ceremonial baths took place, involving anointing Buddha statues with fragrant water as part of Mahayana rituals.

These Mahayana monuments were discovered in the Mahavihara, which was traditionally considered the seat of Theravada Buddhism in ancient Sri Lanka.

Additionally, the Abhiseka-mandapa located to the South of the Abhayagiri stupa also aligns with the description of Snanagrha (sweet-smelling bath-houses) mentioned in the Bodhicaryavatara.

Abhayagiri Vihara is identified as the centre of Mahayana Buddhism in ancient Sri Lanka, indicating the coexistence and influence of Mahāyāna and Theravāda traditions in the region, said Prof. Bopearachchi.

Two types

The study identified two types of Avalokitesvara statues: the ascetic and princely types, influenced by Maharashtra in the Indian Deccan plateau.

The triad of Buddha in the middle, flanked by ascetic and princely Avalokitesvara images on either side, is found in various Sri Lankan archaeological sites. The cave No. 2 at Aurangabad, India features similar depictions, with the ascetic Avalokitesvara on the right and the princely one on the left, both standing on lotus pedestals and holding a lotus banner with a small Amitabha (the principal Buddha in Pure Land Buddhism, and spiritual teacher of the Avalokitesvara) seated on it.

The ancient Buddhist shrine of Buduruwagala, Sri Lanka, dating back to the 9th or 10th Century, includes seven statues belonging to the Mahayana tradition. Among them are the two types of Avalokitesvara, along with other Mahayana Bodhisattvas. The central figure, Gautama Buddha, is flanked by Vajrapaņi and possibly Manjusri. Tara and Sudhanakumara, an assistant or son of Avalokitesvara according to Pali tradition, are also depicted. The figure wearing an animal skin around the waist is the ascetic form of Avalokitesvara, while the image of Amitabha is shown with a crown-like jatamakuta.

Recent excavations conducted by the Archaeology Department at the Kurundi ancient monastic site brought to light, some fragments of a Buddha statue imported from Andhra Pradesh dating back to the 3rd century CE and two heads of ascetic and princely Avalokitesvara images which can be dated to the 8th or 9th century.

Vajrayana Buddhism

The most important discovery was an eighth to tenth-century stone inscription of the Vajradhatu-mandala in Anuradhapura correctly identified by Kellie Powell (UC Berkeley), Sri Lanka, indicating the widespread practice of Vajrayana Buddhism in the region. Consecration rituals featuring pancabuddha Vajradhatu mandalas were used to sanctify important Buddhist sites like the Abhayagiri Stupa. Sri Lankan practitioners were knowledgeable in the Sarvatathagatatattvasamgraha, and there were maritime contacts between Sri Lanka and Cambodia related to the worship of Avalokitesvara.

Maritime trade routes facilitated the introduction and exchange of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism among Sri Lanka, India, Southeast Asia, and China. The visit of Vajrabodhi from Sri Lanka to China and the presence of Sinhalese bhikkhunees in China led to significant religious exchanges.

The bronze statue of Avalokitesvara found in Malwathu Oya provides valuable evidence of these religious interactions. The survey also revealed previously unknown inscriptions and votive tablets, highlighting the widespread practice of tantric Mahayana, or Vajrayana, in Anuradhapura from the eighth to tenth centuries. The distribution pattern and diverse iconography of Avalokitesvara imagery reflect the dynamics of trade during this period.

Studies like the Avalokitesvara survey project offer useful insights into Sri Lanka’s past. As the country emerges as an important trade nexus in the region, we ought to look back and gain a clear understanding what we can expect in the future. And there are questions like: what happened to the Avalokitesvara cult and how did it evolve into the veneration of Natha Deviyo?

Unlike Europe’s ‘Dark Ages’ medieval South Asia was definitely experiencing a golden age, with thalassocracies like the Chola Empire and its trading guilds making an impact that reverberated through the region for centuries. Perhaps it’s time that world history turns its spotlight to the incredible orient and reveal its thousand stories laying dormant beneath the waves of the ocean of time.