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Gal Vihara (Stone Shrine), Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka

Gal Vihara (Sinhala: stone temple) Thervada Buddhist Temple at Polonnaruwa (UNESCO World Heritage Site),Sri Lanka with three Buddha Statues of heroic proportions and a smaller image having a touch of Mahayana Buddhist influence, is the most perfect specimen of Buddha statues hewn out of solid granite in Sri Lanka. According to the Culavamsa, the second part of Mahawamsa, the unparalleled historical chronicle of Sri Lanka, Gal vihara, an archeological wonder of the orient near the Demalamaha seya stupa at Polonnaruwa was constructed by King Parakrambahu the Great (1153-1186 A.C), the supreme builder of the Sinhalese Buddhist Nation. Gal Vihara statues, ambitiously conceived and gloriously perfected according to the Oriental canons, on an abrupt boulder of dark granite about 27 meters in length and 10 meters in height at the centre and sloping towards the ends are still in perfect preservation with their irresistible charm and sublimity.

All four images hallowed out of the single massive slab, bringing to life serene facial expressions and graceful flow of the robes, are highly credible efforts to capture the boundless compassion and the infinite wisdom of Siddhartha Gauthama Buddha, the Tathagata (the one who came thus), the Omniscient. The ravages of time, rain, thunder and heat have done no harm upon the statues as if gods, the superior and resplendent beings in some other worlds have protected those for centuries.

In eternal love with Gal Vihara since the discovery of it at the early medieval lost city of Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka

Nearly a century and a half following the wild flight, the great escape from the natural fortress of Kandy surrounded by wooded hills and River Mahaweli Ganga (Sinhala: Great Sandy River), through Anuradhapura,"a world of hewn stone pillars" of Sri Lanka Holidays by British sailor Robert Knox Jr. (1641-1720) (An historical relation of the Island of Ceylon) in the year 1679, Lieutenant Mitchell Henry Fagan of the 2nd Ceylon Regiment, forcing his way through almost impenetrable undergrowth in the year 1820, encountered-face to face-a colossal statue gazing out at him from the foliage: Gal vihara. A colossal figure of Buddha cut from a granite wall was most serenely gazing at him from out of the foliage. "I cannot describe what I felt at that moment," he wrote.

"Neither could I when I first saw the great statues at the tender age of 8. It was like dream that you dream when just about to wake up. And you wake up with the dream & still on a cloud. But the upright Big Buddha most definitely smiled at me. Am I dreaming? No, Big Buddha smiled again." That's bunpeiris. There sprang up an eternal love on the spur of the moment: Gal Vihara was no longer a rock temple of rock carved statues. It is the heartthrob. If it was the flow of the sculptor's heart then, since then, it has been the stream that wash and cleanse the minds and the hearts of all those who stand in front of it. Stand, kneel or sit in front of the great statues. The sweeping serenity of the statues would breeze-open your heart and inflame it with eternal love.

Location of Gal Vihara

The Buddha statues at Tantrimalai close to glorious capital of ancient Sri Lanka, Anuradhapura (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) though almost as massive as the Buddha statues at Gal Vihara once called Uttararama (Sinhala: The Northern monastery), in view of being located in the northern sector of the sacred city of Polonnaruwa (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) is about 18 km north of the promontory situated between Parakrama Samudra, and the Citadel at the early medieval city of Polonnaruwa. It is less than half a kilometer from the extensive oblong site, artificially banked up, whereon are located Kiri Vehera Dagaba, Jetavana Dagoba and other historical, cultural and archeological attractions.

Encapsulating the monumental significance of Gal vihara: don't even dream of doing this, call the archeological experts.

Prof. Chandra Wikramgamage of Sri Lanka writes: Only a few countries in the world can be proud of long lived traditions of art and architecture. Of the few countries which possess such traditions of art and architecture which could be considered as a world heritage, Sri Lanka is one. Here, there exists a multitude of incomparable creations of art and architecture which have evolved throughout a lengthy period of 2500 years. The Gal vihara, which belongs to the middle ages, is such a creation. This creation which is unique in all three aspects, architecture, painting and sculpture has achieved a greater excellence in sculpture. There is no doubt that the massive images of the Buddha, that have been completed with a combination of proportion, external beauty, Mudra and life through facial expressions, specially the sedent image in the left corner and the standing image that is to the right of the recumbent image, have kept the observers spell-bound for about 800 years from the 12th century, when they were created, upto the present day. No other place in the world can be found, where one observing the images at dawn or in the evening can experience the love for humanity, peace and happiness that is depicted by them. The greater the number of times one looks at them, each time one sees something new in them that deepens one experience. The craftsman or the craftsmen possessed the capability of leading the observer towards spiritual happiness. Cultural tourists, art historians and those seeking spiritual peace, repeatedly visit Gal vihara discarding national and religious differences, because of its incomparable beauty. Unquote Prof. Chandra Wikramgamage of Sri Lanka. The paragraph is quoted by courtesy of the good professor.

Encapsulating the monumental significance of Gal vihara: British colonialists in Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) on Gal Vihara

In 1840 Major Jonathan Forbes (Eleven Years in Ceylon, 1840, London) who visited Gal Vihara narrated of the three large Buddha statues in front of the rock and a seated image in a cave. Major Forbes too attributed the construction of shrine to King Parakrambahu the great.

In 1855 Samuel Baker (Eight Years in Ceylon, 1890, London)) made a record of Gal Vihara following his visit to Polonnaruwa. In 1860 Sir James Emerson Tennant (1804-1869) the colonial secretary of Ceylon (1845-1850) published an account of Gal Vihara.

Emerson wrote Gal Vihara was the only temple in Sri Lanka built in the style of Ajanta and Ellora of India. Emerson also stated that Gal Vihara was also called Kalugal Vihara (Sinhala: granite temple) an Isurumuniya by some people including Major Jonathan Forbes.

"One cannot avoid being struck by the fact that the artistic talent exhibited in the execution of these singular monuments in Ceylon was far in advance to what was prevalent in Europe at the period when they were executed", narrated Sir James Emerson Tennant. He went onto say "This rock-hewn shrine strictly Kalugal-vihare, the black rock (granite) Temple stands unrivalled due to its special features, the most impressive antiquity par excellence to be seen in the island, Ceylon and possibly not rivaled throughout the continent of India."

James Ferguson (History of Indian and Eastern Architecture, 1910, London) was the first specialist who left a detailed account of Gal Vihara in 1876. The seated Buddha Image to the left is referred to as the best specimen of its kind. James Ferguson minced no words: compared with its overpowering grandeur and indescribable attraction, the puny, though not to be despised, rock-scooped shrine of Isurumuniya at Anuradhapura is but "as moonlight unto sunlight, and as water unto wine." The most comprehensive account of Gal Vihara was made by Harry Charles Purvis Bell (1851 - 1937), a man of unflagging energy and outstanding ability, the first commissioner of archeology of British Ceylon.

"This rock-hewn shrine - strictly Kalugal Vihara the black rock (granite) temple stands unrivalled due to its special features, the most impressive antiquity par excellence to be seen in the Island of Ceylon, and possibly not rivaled throughout the Continent of India".

Four caves at Gal Vihara

Gal Vihara consists of four cave shrines having statues in the three postures in four cave shrines named Cave of Vijjadhara, Excavated Cave, Cave of Standing Image and Cave of Reclining Image. The sockets cut into the rock behind the statues testify that the walls had originally separated each four statue from one another. So do the ruins of the foundations of the brick walls separating the for caves.

Vijiadhdharaguha (Cave of Vijjadhara)

Vijiadhdharaguha guha houses a huge yet serene exquisitely carved seated Buddha statue in Dhyana Mudra framed by a Sanchi-style arch, with miniscule Bodhisattvas worshipping the supremely enlightened being from their celestial dwellings. The arch is decorated with the symbols of Mahayana symbols. The symbols include universal diamonds (Visvaraja), double lotus (Visvapadma) and the flame like symbol over the head of Buddha called Siraspata.

The Excavated Cave

The Excavated cave too houses an image of Buddha in Dhyana Mudra, yet smaller than the main image at Vijjadhara Cave. The rock-cut sedent image, 4 feet 7 inches high is seated on Padmasana (Sinhala: lotus pedestal) 3 ft high. On either side of the head of the statue are minuscule images of Brahma and Vishnu.

The Cave of Reclining Image

The space between the eyes measured one foot, the length of the nose 2 ft. 4 in., and the little finger of the hand under his head 2 feet. Now, you can guess the size of the figure: 46 feet (14 meters). In spite of the colossal proportions, the delicateness of the features are of supreme serenity and sublimity.

The pillow is black rock granite yet the unknown sculptor has carved the statue of heroic propotions with such tenderness even the bolster like pillow has taken a slight depression under the head.

Cave of Standing Buddha Statue

The seven meter tall statue of supreme craftsmanship, with its eyes half-closed, arms folded, contours of the rock flowing over the face dreamily betrays a sorrowful expression. But then again, the supremely enlightened, the Omniscient, has transcended all sorrows. As such, the sorrowful expression could also be a puzzle. The elongated ears of the statue, the rightward curled clusters of hair, the Padmasana (Sinhala: double lotus pedestal) are unmistakable signs that make the scholars conclude the statue is that of Buddha himself and not of the disciple attendant Ananda, who still hadn't attained the arhathhood (Sinhala: supreme enlightenment, the state that leads to breaking free of the cycle of birth, death and rebirth upon the final extinction) grieving over the final extinction of his master.

The Reclining Image: posture of parinirvana final extinction or posture of reclining

Buddha's parinirvana (final extinction, rather than death, following the life in supreme enlightenment, braking free of the cycle of death and rebirth) seems to be indicated in part, by means of the higher foot which is slightly withdrawn: the pain caused by the last breath. Is it? Perhaps not. This posture coupled with the placing of the head resting of the right palm is called Simhaseyya (Sinhala: Lion-posture): the lion sleeps resting its head on its right paw.

Moreover, the final extinction (passing away beyond death) is depicted in Buddhist art with the accompanying images of disciple, sal trees and flowers dropped by god( resplendent and superior being in other worlds). Such features exist in Gandhara art and in Ajanta in India.

Still more, it is said that the placing of left leg drawn back a fraction is simply to avoid the discomfort that could be caused by two ankles and the two knees coming into contact. The recumbent Buddha image (14 meters in length) at Devaraja cave, Golden Dambulla Rock Temple too features the left leg drawn back a fraction.

Most of all, the author of Chulvamsa has named the cave of the reclining image as Nipannapatima Guha meaning cavern with the recumbent image. There rests the argument of reclining image against the image of final extinction.

Here is the mystic, Thomas Merton, on Polonnaruwa and the Gal-Vihare six days before his accidental death in Bangkok. "Polonnaruwa was such an experience that I could not write hastily of it..its vast area under trees. Fences. Few people. A dirt road. Lost. The we find Gal Vihara...The path dips down to a wide, quiet hollow surrounded with trees. A low outcrop of rock, with a cave cut into it, and beside the cave a big seated Buddha on the left, a reclining Buddha on the right, an Ananada, I guess, standing by the head of Buddha. In the cave another seated Buddha... I am able to approach the Buddhas barefoot and undisturbed, my feet in wet grass, wet sand. Then the silence of the extraordinary face. The great smiles. Huge and yet subtle. Filled with every possibility, questioning nothing, knowing everything, rejecting nothing..without refutation, without some other argument...I was knocked over with relief and thankfulness at the obvious clarity of the figures...Looking at these figures I was almost forcibly jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tied vision of things, and an inner clearness, clarity, as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious... there is no puzzle, no problem, and really no 'mystery'... All problems are resolved and everything is Asian pilgrimage has come clear and purified itself... I know and have seen what I was obviously looking for. I don't know what else remains but I have now got beyond the shadow and the disguise...' Whateve one feels about the meaning and message of this early Buddhist work,its grandeur cannot be denied.

Buddhist monastic architecture in Sri Lanka; the woodland shrines
Anuradha Seneviratna, Benjamin Polk 1992 Abhinav Publications 1992 Architecture

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Gal Vihara

Gal Vihara

Gal Vihara

Gal Vihara

Gal Vihara

Gal Vihara

Gal Vihara

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