A Traveller’s Delight
By Ama H. Vanniarachchy
Time changes everything. Centuries ago, this was probably the busiest and the most important place on the island; always crowded with royals, ministers, foreign delegates, and high priests discussing political matters and the island’s security, while the outer city and the vicinity were busy with wealthy merchants coming from all over the world, along with vendors and busy citizens in the marketplace. The Temple of the Tooth and the nearby monastery would have been crowded with holy monks and pious pilgrims from the Far East offering rich silks and coins while chanting prayers to the Sacred Tooth Relic.
Forbidden to the public then, today, Yapahuwa is a major tourist attraction in the country. A place where the common folk were not even allowed to cast a glance is now a place where all sorts of people roam freely. Once a fortress with high security, fighting fearlessly for the island’s sovereignty against foreign storms, today, Yapahuwa even though in ruins, stands tall and proud, as a witness to the island’s past glory.
The once vibrantly coloured and plastered frontispiece of the Yapahuwa Fortress is now all bare in pale grey and white, yet not failing to appear splendid. In our last visits, we learned about the birth of this fortress. We learnt about Shubha Senapati and Buwanekabahu I and II; the two kings of Yapahuwa.
Yapahuwa’s reign as the capital city was short-lived but it was always inhabited by people; the laity and the monks. After the place was no longer the capital, it continued to be a Buddhist monastery. As we learned during our last visits Yapahuwa was a busy place since prehistoric times as our prehistoric ancestors lived in the cave shelters of this place. Knowing the past is like completing a jigsaw puzzle. Unless you have all the pieces the picture remains a mystery. So is history. Unless all the pieces fit in the right place, the picture of the past is never fully revealed.
Therefore, to know the past further, in-depth research is needed. Although Yapahuwa’s archaeological value is no less than Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, or Sigiriya, research about this place is comparatively low and many things about the place are yet to be revealed. Through our two previous episodes, we took you on a journey to explore the history and archaeology of Yapahuwa. We shall continue from last week and ascend the summit of the rock through the magnificent stairway, exploring the archaeology at Yapahuwa. Ruins are scattered all over the place, starting from the foot of the rock.
Cave temple of Yapahuwa
One can see an old cave temple before ascending to the summit of the rock. This temple is also known as the Yapahuwa Raja Maha Vihara. Its antiquity can be dated back to the Kandyan period, based on the wall paintings and the statues. The wall paintings in the temple are beautiful and they display typical traits of Kandyan period wall paintings, such as red background and stories drawn-on panels. One’s heart may get filled with a feeling of dull dismay as these beautiful paintings are in a dilapidated state; they need to be restored as soon as possible.
This temple is somewhat like a miniature art gallery. Although the wall paintings and sculptures do not display classical art styles, they are beautiful and a treat for the eye as well as to the mind. Among the many Buddha statues, there was one bronze standing Buddha statue which the writer feared for its safety. This and the other large and small seated Buddha statues, including the Vishnu and Saman statues, can be dated to the late 18th century based on their art styles. There can be seen Buddha statues and wall paintings that belong to the post-Kandyan period too, and these can be distinguished by the vibrant colours and different styles. The Kandyan-period paintings and Buddha statues need to be cared for by heritage professionals of the country before it is too late.
Bangalapitiya monastery complex
Situated closer to the rock is a large monastic complex that needs to be thoroughly examined by archaeologists. There are ruins of many ancient buildings here including ruined stupas, ponds, and many other structures. The 3rd century BCE – 1st century CE inscriptions suggest that the place’s antiquity dates to the early Anuradhapura period. There is a beautiful building that is referred to as a Bodhigara by locals, but whether it was actually a Bodhigara or not is debatable. The building has beautiful carvings and a Buddha statue. Some of the remains such as the moonstone can be assumed belonging to the Anuradhapura period.
Ruins at the foot of the rock
There is a building before you climb the stairs and archaeologists have not yet identified the building although it’s popularly known as the audience hall by the public. Only the base of the building can be seen today and there are remains of stone pillars and three entrances. There can be seen a second building, which is yet to be identified. Only the base of this building can be seen along with entrances and some stone pillars. Although not confirmed, locals call this ruined building the royal palace. If you walk around you will find many ruined building foundations in the vicinity which are yet to be identified.
The magnificent stairway
The most striking feature of the place is the magnificent stairway that leads you to the summit of the rock. The famous lions are carved here. There are more beautiful carvings that will keep the adventurous traveller entertained. The dancers, drummers, and the beautiful damsels, along with the mythical dragon faces and gajasinhas will definitely wash away the tiredness caused by climbing up the mighty stairway.
The many carvings here display similar characteristics that are of South and Southeast Asian sculpture. At a glance, the stairway might remind us of Khmer architecture. Although some scholars have not agreed, Prof. Senarath Paranavithana suggests that there might have been influences of Khmer art and architecture at Yapahuwa. However, some scholars refute this saying Khmer architectural influences are not prominent and saying that South Indian architectural influences are more notable.
The similarities between Sri Lankan and Indian arts and architecture have always been there since the 3rd century BCE as both shared similar cultural backgrounds based on Buddhism and Hinduism. The many foreign influences – including political, economic, and cultural – had a great impact in shaping the country’s arts and architecture during this time. The cultural influence of South India was gradually rising during these centuries. Hence the many carvings here, notably the female figures, remind us of the carvings at temples in South India.
The rest of the carvings are similar to those we can see in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. The beautiful damsels remind us of the similar female guardians carved at the Dematamal Vihara guard stone, the one at Anuradhapura, and the one at Polonnaruwa Lankathilaka image house. The earliest known female figure of this sort discovered so far is the beautiful Nagini figure at Abhayagiri Ayaka carvings.
Dozens of examples can be given from the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa period stone and brickwork, and wall paintings that are similar to the miniature lions and lion-faced dragon carvings that can be seen here. Hence, accordingly, how fair is it to completely ignore the evolution of the art styles that continued from the Anuradhapura period and say these carvings at Yapahuwa are notably foreign-influenced?
Temple of the Tooth Relic or the royal palace?
The magnificent stairway leads you towards another ruined building. What you can see here is only the base of a building including passages, entrances, and separate rooms. Although the public refers to this building as the Temple of the Tooth Relic, archaeologists say that there is no evidence to confirm this was the Temple of the Tooth Relic. The reason why it was considered as the Temple of the Tooth Relic was due to the grand and magnificent entrance connected to the building. However, Prof. Paranavithana assumes that these could have been ruins of the ancient royal palace.
On the summit of the rock…
As we learned last week, the summit is approximately five acres large, and 32 buildings have been identified there, including many ponds. As Dr. Senarath Dissanayaka states in his scholarly work Yapahuwa, apart from the royal palace and another few buildings, the rest of the buildings on top of the rock are yet to be identified. He dates the start of constructions on the summit of the rock back to early 1st century CE and continuing until the Kandyan period. However, he further says that out of the 32 buildings only two can be dated to the Kandyan period.
Archaeologists believe that most parts of the buildings on the summit were constructed out of wood during ancient times. There can be seen ruins of an ancient Buddhist stupa, built on the highest location on the summit. This small brick stupa is believed to be constructed during the Kandyan period. The ruins of the palace building were excavated and studied by H.C.P. Bell. Today, one can see ruins of a brick structure with stone pillars.
There can be seen halls, corridors, and rooms. Art historians say that the plan of this palace is similar to that at Polonnaruwa (Waijanthapasadaya), the palace at Panduwasnuwara, and the one at Anuradhapura (Vijayabahu’s palace). There are more ruins of walls, buildings, ponds, and two circularshaped buildings. The view one can enjoy on the summit is mesmerising. The best time to be here is early in the morning or evenings to be intoxicated by the magical performances of the Sun God and the Sky God during sunrise and sunset.
The archaeology of Yapahuwa is yet to be fully discovered. Only a fragment of this great site has been unearthed and sorted. If more archaeological work is done and the history of Yapahuwa is recreated, this could be a place that is only second to the Lion fortress Sigiriya.