Guardians of Ancient Treasures
By Ama H. Vanniarachchy
“The stones here speak to me, and I know their mute language. Also, they seem deeply to feel what I think.”
- Heinrich Heine
A walk among the ruins at Anuradhapura is a like a journey to the forlorn past of a fallen kingdom. One may encounter forgotten heroes who will tell you about their voyages. Also, you will be greeted by cheerful little dwarfs (wamana) blessing you with a lotus and a chank; or a wise old dragon (makara) with a splendid tail will shower you with good luck. If you see magnificent elephants and tuskers; graceful galloping horses; prideful lions and gentle bulls all following each other in a row, make sure to witness them in utmost silence. A row of graceful swans will suddenly emerge out of nowhere and vanish in the dry blue sky.
Do not fear if you encounter a fearsome yet magnificent Naga Raja or king cobra. These Naga Rajas or the guardians of treasures have withstood time embracing change gracefully and remaining faithful for more than two millennia.
The many Naga Rajas carved out of stone at Anuradhapura, fascinate the viewer not only with its aesthetic value but also with the symbolism and philosophy behind it. These classical works of art are among the finest examples of masters of masonry in Anuradhapura.
Naga Rajas: Guardians of treasure
Naga Rajas are not uncommon amidst ancient Sinhalese art. They are commonly seen at Buddhist monasteries, tanks, ponds and also at some non-religious buildings. Nagas are always associated with mysteries and splendour. Also they are associated with water and treasures beneath the soil. To be precise, nagas are considered to be guardians of precious things.
It is believed that the nagas were an ancient tribe that lived in Sri Lanka. According to folklore and chronicles, Nagadeepa and Kelaniya were ancient naga kingdoms and Buddha visited these places; once, to reconcile a war between two naga kings and the other time as per the invitation of a naga king. Reliable literature sources such as the Mahavamsa, Deepavamsa, Vansaththappakasini, Poojawaliya and Saddharmalankaraya refer to this event. Jataka tales such as the Valahassa Jataka mention about the naga kingdoms at Kelaniya and Nagadeepa.
The naga kings mentioned here; Chulodara, Mahodara, Princess Kanha and King Maniakkhitha appear to be powerful and wealthy. It is interesting to see the role of Maniakkhitha as he was present during all three visits of the Buddha to Sri Lanka. This indicates his power and authority as he was free to visit other kingdoms of the island including a Yaksha kingdom at Mahiyangana. Maniakkhitha is also notable as one of the earliest known Buddhist kings of Sri Lanka prior to Devanampiya Tissa.
Therefore the importance of the nagas as early inhabitants of the island is clear. There are also monarchs of Anuradhapura bearing the name ‘Naga’, which hints their original roots liked to the naga tribe. Some scholars also suggest that nagas were mariners and they were associated with naval work of the island. Another belief is that the naga tribe were people who worshipped nagas (cobras). Nagas were always considered as beings with mystic powers in many parts of the ancient world and they were worshipped in many ancient cultures.
In folklore, local and foreign, there are two types of nagas. One is the animal species cobra and the other is the celestial being Naga. In Sinhalese folk belief both these types of nagas are considered as sacred. It is said that celestial nagas live in the oceans and inland waters and they can take any form they wish. Sometimes they appear real cobras and roam around the earth and at times take the form of humans. Also, it is believed that a cobra is guarding ancient treasure. Another folk belief is that dead relatives reincarnate as a cobra and protect the living dear ones or their hidden treasures.
Why at temples?
Why were these nagas carved in front of temples and near irrigation projects? This could be a tribute to the early inhabitants of the island, and emphasise the impact and importance of the Naga tribe in Sri Lanka. Maniakkhitha being the first Buddhist king in Sri Lanka achieves a high place in the country’s history. Carving Naga Rajas at a temple could be a tribute to these first Buddhist inhabitants of the country.
The nature of the celestial nagas, who are shape shifters are always portrayed as powerful, mystic and majestic. Therefore, their connection with guardianship is understood.
The association of the Naga tribe with the sea is also always portrayed throughout history. Kelaniya and Nagadeea are both located in coastal areas of the island. They are believed to be mariners and naval experts. Also, celestial nagas are believed to be living in the oceans and inland waters. Therefore, the carved nagas near irrigation work in ancient Anuradhapura hints of this past connection.
The stone carvings of the nagas we see can be categorised into two types based on their iconography. They are;
- Nagas as animals – differs based on the number of hoods and the daranas (coils)
- Nagas as humans with cobra hood – differs based on male and female
These are some of the fascinating naga carvings I encountered among the ruins at Anuradhapura:
- A stone slab which was a part of the ayaka of the stupa lies at the Abayagiri Stupa premises. The Naga Raja found here is a five-hooded cobra. The edge of the tail can be seen in the front.
- A magnificent Naga Raja with seven hoods is seen in the Jetawanarama ayaka carvings. The colour of the stone enhances the masterpiece’s quality and it is interesting to see how the artist has marked the cobra’s body with tiny marks adding texture. His tail is hidden beneath the coils. If you look closely you can see the eyes and the tongue of the cobra’s head in the middle and both sides. The marks of the inside of the cobra head is also visible. A chathra or an umbrella can be seen above the naga’s head, which emphasises the sacredness of the naga.
- Another fearsome Naga Raja can be seen at Jetawana ayaka carvings. This one is well- preserved. The seven hooded naga is shown as it is hiding its tail beneath the coils. The marks of the body and the cobra hood, the eyes, mouth and the tongue are notable.
- A remarkable Naga Raja can be seen at the ayaka at Maha Stupa. Placed on top of a garadi, the Naga Raja has seven hoods and a longer coil which makes this figure stand out from other naga figures.
- Another similar one - a naga with seven hoods, tall and standing on top of a garadi - can be seen at Mirisaveti Stupa. A chatra can also be seen on the top of the hood.
The Naga Rajas which are at Abayagiri, Jetawana and Maha Stupa ayakas are splendid stone works that belong to a much earlier date, approximately to the 3rd – 2nd centuries BCE. Each time a chathra, a symbol of holiness and royalty is placed above the Naga Raja.
- The Naga Raja at the Kuttam Pokuna is one of the best stone works we have found to date. The Naga Raja is placed at the pond walls as to symbolise the nagas who were mariners and irrigation engineers of the past. A makara arch can be seen on the top of the Naga Raja.
The second form of Naga Rajas are the human form. In the early carvings that is between the 3rd – 2nd BCE century carvings at the ayakas of the above mentioned stupas, there can be seen female naginis too.
- A Naga Raja that is dated to the 1st century CE is seen at the Kantaka Chethiya, Mihintale. The carving is damaged and most of its features are faded away. The Naga Raja is shown in a worshipping or greeting hastha mudra.
- Another well-preserved Naga Raja can be seen at Jetavana ayaka. Dated back to the 3rd century CE by Prof. Senarath Paranavitana, this exquisite piece displays a high level of masonry. The rhythmic flow of the garments, the position of the figure and his charming youthful smile, welcomes the pilgrim while guarding the ancient stupa. The five cobra hoods around his head are significant.
- A similar carved pillar can be seen at Jetavana Stupa ayaka. A female nagini is carved below the naga and she has one cobra hood rising above her head. This naga also has a five headed cobra hood and he is holding a lotus with his right hand.
- Later, the Naga Raja was added to the muragala or the guard stone. The Naga Raja is shown in heavy ornaments and more decorated attire, a high headdress and a filled pot in one hand with a sprig of flowers in the other hand. There are Naga Rajas with five, seven and nine cobra hoods among guard stones.
“Strangely, an ancient ruin warms you while you feel cold looking at a modern building! Why? Because the past had a soul, it had an idealism; it had an aesthetics and a grace!”
- Mehmet Murat ildan