Pinnacle of Buddhist Iconography
By Ama H. Vanniarachchy
“The image on the Outer Circular Road at Anuradhapura is the best known of the Buddha images from Ceylon, for its embodiment of the spiritual qualities extolled in Buddhism,” writes Prof. Senarath Paranavithana in his book Art of the Ancient Sinhalese published in 1971. The statue which he refers to is the Samadhi Buddha statue at Mahamewna Gardens, Anuradhapura. This statue, considered a masterpiece of the ancient Sinhalese, is also considered one of the finest Buddha statues of the entire Buddhist world. Ven. Prof. Bellanwila Wimalaratne Thera states that this statue, when considering its representation of the spiritual purity of the Buddha, surpasses all the other Buddha statues in Sri Lanka for its excellent craftsmanship and artistry.
The statue’s power of captivating the viewer or the devotee is par excellence. It is said that Jawaharlal Nehru found solace and strength whilst looking at a photograph of this statue and meditated on it when he was imprisoned by the British in the 1940s and that he had a photograph of the statue in his cell at the Dehradun Prison. It is also reported that he visited Anuradhapura to see the actual statue after he became Prime Minister of India. Therefore, Ceylon Today Heritage paid a visit to this masterpiece to witness the charm of the monolith that captivated the hearts of many, locally and globally.
The Samadhi Buddha statue is located in the Mahamewna Gardens, Anuradhapura. It is close to the famous Kuttam Pokuna or the twinponds and is located on land that belongs to the Abhayagiri Monastery.
Rediscovery, conservation, and archaeological discoveries
This Buddha image was discovered in the early 1880s when Ceylon was under British rule. The statue was lying on the ground and its nose was damaged when it was first discovered. The damaged nose was fixed during later conservation work. Prof. T.G. Kulatunga states in his book Abhayagiri Vihara at Anuradhapura, that it was Longhurst who was Archaeological Commissioner in the 1930s who repaired the nose of the statue. However, archaeologists and art historians are of the view that this new nose has ruined the aesthetic beauty of the Buddha statue. Archaeological excavations conducted at the site unearthed remains of a second Buddha statue, an asana and a Buddha’s footprint slab. The remnants of the second Buddha statue were only fragments of the base.
Further excavations revealed that there were four statues placed facing the four directions around a Bo tree, and there had been a bodhigara. Asanas and footprints were worshipped as symbols of the Buddha before the Buddha statue was introduced to the Buddhist world. They were overshadowed by the popularity of the Buddha statue in later times. This statue is facing the North while the fragment pieces of the second statue were facing the South. The Eastern and Western statues have not been discovered. Archaeologists assume that these two statues must have been relocated.
The dolomite marble Buddha statue is 7 feet 3 inches in height and is in a seated position. This asana or seated position is known as the Veerasana. Veerasana was the popular asana of Buddha statues in Sri Lanka while Padmasana was popular in India. The hand mudra of the statue is known as the Dhyana Mudra. This mudra shows the Buddha in deep meditation or samadhi.
Hence the eyes are shown half closed, looking downwards focused on the tip of the nose, and a gentle subtle smile is on the tightly closed lips. The large ears show the Buddha’s lambakarna feature, while the hair is shown as short curls. The body is straight, firm and has a strange majestic appearance that leaves the viewer awestruck. The robe seems to be very soft and delicate. The right shoulder is uncovered. This is once again a common feature of Buddha statues in Sri Lanka. In most of the Indian Buddha statues both shoulders are covered.
Archaeologists also say that originally this statue was gilded and had inlaid eyes. They say that the eyes were studded with gems or other precious stones. Prof. Chandra Wikramagamage writes that the body of the statue was in pink colour while the robe was in red. He also says that a siraspatha was fixed to the statue in later times. Eyes made of precious stones and coloured hair curls that were once fixed to Buddha statues have been found in many places in Sri Lanka during excavations. These findings confirm the belief of scholars as they indicate that ancient stone Buddha statues were embellished with precious stones – coloured and sometimes, gilded.
Antiquity of the statue and scholarly interpretations
Art historians and archaeologists identify this statue as one of the earliest Buddha statues of the country. Prof. Paranavithana dates this to 3rd century CE, which is the date agreed by many later scholars. Prof. Kulatunga dates the statue to 3rd – 4th centuries CE. Prof. Wickramagamage also dates the statue to 3rd century CE while Prof. Anuradha Seneviratne dates the statue to 3rd or 4th centuries CE. Martin Wickremasinghe believes that the statue reflects ‘Nibbana’ or Eternal Bliss. He states that there is no other statue elsewhere in the entire Buddhist world that depicts the Samadhi or Deep Meditation of the Blessed One than this statue. Dr. Nandadeva Wijesekara writes that the Kushan statues of Kathra must have been the prototype in creating this seated posture of the Buddha.
He further writes that when compared with all the other Dhyani Buddha statues of the Gupta Art School, this particular statue can be considered as a masterpiece. Prof. Wikramagamage says that this statue can only be compared to the statue at Asokaramaya (Anuradhapura) and that the spiritual purity of the Supreme One is depicted excellently, not only through the gentle face but also through the entire body. Ven. Kamburupitiye Vanarathna Thera, who has done extensive research about the Buddha statue, explains that this statue displays characteristics of the concept of Buddha which is explained in the Theravada tradition rather than the physical appearance of the Buddha that is explained in texts on iconography. The example he states to prove this point is the ushnisha. Ushnisha is a Mahapurusha feature of a Buddha.
Those artisans who followed later texts on iconography made a noticeably large ushnisha (they appear as a knot of hair on top of the head). This is why many Indian statues have a prominent ushnisha. Early Sinhalese Buddha statues have a lesser prominent ushnisha, depicted as a slight bump on the top of the head, which is actually how it is described in the Theravada tradition. Ven. Vanarathana Thera further says that this statue must have been created prior to the period when image-houses became popular, as this statue was placed under a Bo tree.
The Mahavamsa (38th chapter) says that during 5th century CE, King Dhathusena (455–473 CE) built an image house for this statue. The Mahavamsa description further says that King Dhathusena fixed eyes made of precious stones, fixed hair curls made of blue gems, a golden robe, and more precious offerings to the granite statue.
Could this be the oldest known Buddha statue in Sri Lanka?
Ven. Vanarathana Thera in his book, Lakdiva Budu Pilimaya mentions that some scholars believe that this statue could be the one placed by King Devanampiyatissa (247 - 207 BCE) at the Thuparama Monastery. There is a statement in the Mahavamsa (36th chapter) about a great granite stupa being placed at Thuparama by Devanampiyatissa (247 - 207 BCE). The chronicle further says that this statue was later relocated to the Abhayagiri Monastery by King Mahasen (277 - 304 CE).
This statue is referred to as the Mahasala Pilimaya or the Magul Maha Sala Pilimaya in the Mahavamsa. He further states that based on the textual evidence this so-called Mahasala Pilimaya could be assumed as the largest statue at that time and a special statue that was venerated by monarchs.
This was called the Mahasala Pilimaya or the Great Granite Buddha statue, as it means there could have been other smaller granite Buddha statues. Eminent scholar T.D. Devendra also assumes that this famous Samadhi Buddha statue is the statue made by King Devanampiyatissa (247 - 207 BCE). However, further extensive research is needed to find out if this statue is the Mahasala Pilimaya mentioned in the Mahavamsa.
The Buddha statue is considered as the culmination of Buddhist art. It is also the most popular sacred object of veneration in the Buddhist world. Known as one of the three chethiyas, the Buddha statue was introduced after the Bo tree and Stupa. Although it is debatable when, where, and why devotees created the Buddha statue, art historians generally believe that it was during the 1st century CE that the first Buddha statue was created. This was by the Kushans.
Kushan King Kanishka (127–150 CE), is honoured as the first king to create a Buddha image on one of his coins and then on a relic casket. Starting from then, the concept of a Buddha statue spread across the Buddhist world. The Buddhist art of the Kushans is known as the Gandhara School or the Greco-Buddhist arts.
It may be during the same time or slightly later, the Mathura Art School also produced the Buddha statue. Based on archaeological evidence, archaeologists say that during the time of Asoka the Buddha statue was not in use. There could be many reasons for this. Some scholars say that since the Buddha is described as appatima (cannot be represented in an image), early devotees may have had a fear or reluctance to create the Supreme One in human form.
Some scholars say that they may not have had any prototype to follow. In early Indian Buddhist art, the Buddha was not shown in human form. Instead he was represented with the Bo tree, seat, umbrella, footprint, or lotus. However, the Kushans whose art had Greek influences, followed the statue of the Greek god Apollo as the prototype.
This could be why Gandhara-style Buddha statues resemble Greek artistic styles. While the situation of the world was as such, what happened in Sri Lanka? Although many believe that the ancient Sinhalese created the Buddha statue after it was created in India, scholars such as Ven. Vanarathana Thera and Devendra challenge this assumption. They highlight the statement of the Mahavamsa which says about a Great Granite statue or the Mahasala Pilimaya.
Whether this statue is the oldest or not, whether it is the Mahasala Pilimaya or not, none of these scholarly interpretations matter to become fascinated by the charm and grandeur of the ancient monolith. It is astonishing how the artist has given life to a rough lifeless granite and embodied the spiritual purity of the Buddha, depicting him in deep samadhi. It is even magical how the statue can transpose tranquillity and peace into the mind of the viewer’s restless and untamed eyes, through the statue’s calm, half closed eyes.