Gal Vihara -Polonnaruwa

Rock carving and sculpting arts of the ancient Sinhalese

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Eddy Billard

The Gal Viharaya, Constructed by the Great King Parakramabahu in the 12th century CE, this rock temple was the central attraction of the local power structure accommodating four massive Buddha statues carved into the face of a granite boulder. Beautifully carved and intrinsically decorated with figurines that adorn these majestic sculptures, the Gal Vihara is the epitome of Buddhist arton the island of Buddha, that’s today known as Sri Lanka.
Gal Viharaya (Originally Uttararama)
The Gal Vihara or Gal Viharaya, the temple is called so because of the Granite/Rock
(Sinhala = Gal) face used to carve out the four statues. It was a part of “Uttararama”, also
known as the northern monastery in the city of Polonnaruwa. The images/sculptures depicted at Uttarrama show some significant differences, perhaps following an altogether different style from the preceding Anuradhapura period. The broader forehead in the Gal Vihara is one of the striking examples of this, the carving of robes with two parallel lines, instead of the practice of using a single line as prevalent in the Anuradhapura period, that’s influenced by the Amaravati school of art. Moreover, the identification of the standing image has been a subject of controversy amongst historians and archaeologists. Interestingly, each of the images has been carved so as to make use of the maximum possible area of the rock, with the height of the rock deciding for the height of sculptures.The remains of brick walls at Gal Vihara indicate that perhaps that each statue used to have its own image house. As per records pertaining to the relevant time-space, Parakramabahu I used to organise acongregation of monks at Uttararama for purifying the Buddhist priesthood, which in due time took the shape of concrete conduct for them. This is evident from the inscriptions that bare records on the same rock face containing the images of the Buddha. The space in front of the images resembling a terrace is supposedly also the location for the assembly hall where this congregation was held. The polished rock face between the Vijjadhara Guha and the standing image is precisely where the inscriptions recording all this information is located. The was abandoned. Functioning as a centre of Buddhist education in the region,

Uttararama primarily served as an educational institution from its inception to its abandonment during the fall of the Polonnaruwa Kingdom. According to the chronicles of Chulavamsa, Gal Viharaya was amongst the most prominent and famed from amongst the hundred-odd temples built throughout Sri Lanka by the great king Parakramabahu I (1153-1186). As per the legend, the king ordered the construction of a total of three caves post the completion of the temple at Uttararama. Namely, VijjadharaGuha (cave of the spirits of knowledge), the Nipanna Patima Guha (cave of the sleeping image), and the Nissina Patima Lena (cave of the spitting image).In spite of treating them all as “caves”, only the Vijjadhara Guha in actuality is a cave, whilst others are image houses similar to the Lankathilaka and Thivanka, featuring their walls connected with the rock faces. However, only the base of these walls is all that remains, and the decorative frescoes have given way to rubble, on account of the passage of time andvandalism.

The Sculptures
The Gal Viharaya is easily counted amongst the best examples of the rock carving and sculpting arts of the ancient Sinhalese. Carved out of a massive single granite rock measuring cuts of almost 15 feet (4.6 m) for accommodating the rock faces in the statues,the sculptures are one of the finest examples of Buddhist art in the country with natural rock excavations to such an extent. Veteran-renowned archaeologist Senarath Paranavithana claims that the images were evidently old plated in their early years as well, thus adding to the social prestige and importance of Uttararama 

in those times.

The Seated One

Kennedy Coonghe

One of the Samadhi Buddhist statues, the large seated image is around 15 feet and 2.5 inches tall. The dhyana mudra is depicted in this image and is aesthetically carved out in to perhaps the most enchanting images of all at Gal Viharaya. The lotus flower serves as the seat, with its base decorated with carvings of lions and flowers. Decorated with makara images, the statue sits on a carved throne with four small images of the Buddha. These images are identical to the larger image that is carved inside the small chambers. Such fascinating images have been reported to contain elements of Mahayana-Tantric influences and is an unusual feature in ancient Sinhalese sculpture.

Vijjadhara Guha

The smallest of all the four statues, standing at just 4 feet 7 inches (1.40 m) in height, the sculpture is strikingly similar in appearance to its larger neighbour and is placed inside an artificial cave called Vijjadhara Guha. Four square shafted stone columns at the sides are left us, measuring around 7.9 m wide and 3.89 m high, as the base of the lotus-shaped seat of the Buddha image adorns beautiful carvings of lions. Carved behind this is athrone and a parasol featuring elaborate designs and figurines that the larger than the image itself.A prabhamandala (halo) also rests between two four-armed deities, and the walls of the cave were decorated with frescoes with remnants on the corners at the back. The figure on the right is the god Brahma, and the one on the left is the deity Vishnu according to archaeologist H. C. P. Bell.

The Standing One

Eddy Billard

The bone of contention amongst historians and archaeologists as there is a general belief that the sculpture is of Ananda and not of Buddha. The sculpture stands on a shaped pedestal, and the image is 22 feet 9 inches (6.93 m) tall. The sorrowful expression on the sculptures face is what that has exactly led manly  to believe that it a depiction is of the monk Ananda. Leaning back in a relaxed manner, with its arms folded across the chest and standing right next to the reclining image that without any doubt is from the Buddha’s parinirvana, lamenting at his teacher’s demise.Clear and precise, the facial experience utterly transcends the limits of spatial and temporal experience. Also, paint glimpses of the Greek statue modelling of the sixth century BC are evident from these sculptures.  There mains of the walls, However,  indicate that the two images were once in separate chambers, rather than next to each other.Archaeologist Paranavithana believes that the sculpture depicts Buddha only, highlightinpara dukkha  Duke highs mudra or “sorrow for the sorrow of others”. However, this a rarey used gesture in Sinhalese sculpture, and perhaps another possibility that it could be Buddha in his second week after enlightenment that was spent gazing at the Bodhi Tree in gratitude for provision of shelter.  And interestingly, the image has no mentions in the chronicles of Chulavamsa. It’s very much possible that it’s not Buddha, it is also possible that it might have been sculpted at an earlier time period than the rest.

The Reclining One

Eddy Billard

The largest statue in Gal Vihara standing at 46 feet and more, the reclining image is also one of the most resplendent sculptures in all of Southeast Asia. Another Buddha statue depicting parinirvana rests on the right side of this image, with the left arm lies along the body and thigh, whilst the right arm supports the head on a bolster. Singular lotus flower.

flames (prabhamandala) behind Buddha’s head and an arch (Torana) adorned with lotuses encircle the areola. Perhaps the most fascinating of all is the outer arch, with four mini sature representations of the stupa carved on either side of the arch. The votive stupas at Nagapattinam seems to be the influencer for shaping these stupas, as their shape is quite unorthodox to the contemporary techniques of that age.

References –
1.Fernando, P.E.E.  India Office Land grant of King Kirti Sri Rajasingha.CJHSS 3(Jan/June 1960)
2. Buddhist Studies [Bukkyo Kenkyo] 27: 99
 118.Deegalle, Mahinda. 1999. “A Search for Mahayana in Sri Lanka.” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist
3.Basnayake H. T.(1986). Sri Lankan monastic architecture. Delhi, India: Sri Satguru Publications 
Also Read about  Anuradhapura


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