Colossal Buddha images of ancient Sri Lanka

buddha.jpg (14557 bytes)By A. D. T. E. Perera
The millieu of Buddhist sculpture in Sri Lanka was a variegated one. Images and icons of the founder of the religion, the Buddha, comprised its main repertory. In the iconography of the Buddha image there were three primary types: the seated, standing and the recumbent. Of the standing type there was a sudden growth towards a tendency for the colossi in early types. It is this type that is analysed below.

Colossi in Buddhist sculpture could be traced back to the second or third century of the present era with West Asia as its probable place of origin. In the region now known as Bamiyan in Afghanistan there are still insitu Buddhist sculptures which are among the most stupendous of their type. These are the two images of the Buddha in the standing attitude. They measure approx. 112 and 172 feet respectively. They are housed within their own chapels.

These two sculptures are covered with a thin plaster of stucco probably to camouflage the rough edges of the natural rock surface, and are finally gilded and polychromed. The walls of their chapels including the ceiling above are lavishly painted with designs of floral and other motifs. There is no doubt that the Bamiyan sculptures of the Buddha would have been a veritable source of inspiration to the early Buddhist artists who happened to cross the Kabul valley which linked the southern branch of the ‘Great Northern Highway’ referred to in the early Buddhist and Indian texts as the Uttarapatha, the trade route of the then known world which bridged the East and the West on commercial, cultural and political levels.

Traders, pilgrims and even men of learning crossed this region in search of various fortunes. It is the opinion of scholars that men from Sri Lanka too had enough links with this region of the ancient world known as Gandhara, although properly speaking Gandhara covers a still vaster area.1

When the Mahasaya or the great pyramidal stupa at Anuradhapura in ancient Sri Lanka was completed by the monarch Dutthagamini (circa 161-137 B.C) it was recorded in the ancient chronicle Mahavamsa that among the many distinguished Buddhist monks who arrived at the final crowning ceremony of the stupa, to grace the occasion were the dignitaries of the monastic establishment of Gandhara. It was the religio-cultural contacts that prevailed between the two regions, namely Sri Lanka and Gandhara which may have led to the borrowing of the ideas pertaining to colossal statues of the Buddha.

The first attempt in portraying the Great Sage Sakyamuni Gautama in stupendous form in Sri Lanka was the statue that is known as the Avukana Buddha. Recent researches by archaeologists and art historians in Sri Lanka have enabled them to distinguish a close similarity between the very mane Avukana and the Bamiyan region which was referred to in ancient times variously as Vokkana, Avakana, or Vakana and in early Chinese literature as O-po-kini. It has been surmised that the above toponyms, which were used in early Buddhist Prakrit and Chinese literature with reference to this particular region now known as Afghanistan (wherein Bamiyan is situated), bear a close similarity between the word Avukana, hence could have been responsible in deriving the name used in reference to the particular colossus in Sri Lanka which very much resembles the Bamiyan colossi.2

The colossal Buddha statues of Bamiyan were sculpted by those who advocated Mahayana Buddhism. It was in Mahayana Buddhism that the concept of Buddha was elevated to a position of more a god-head than a human being. According to Mahayana the Buddha was not merely a sage who achieved Supreme Enlightenment (Sambodhi) through a progressive development of mental culture (bhavana) but a saviour of all human and divine beings. Sakyamuni the historical Buddha was only an apparitional form emanated from the Eternal Buddha Amitabha or Amitayus who resides in the highest heaven Sukhavati.

The portrayal of the Buddha figure in superhuman qualities was an attempt to emphasise the soteriological aspect of Buddhahood, hence the origin of the titanic image of the Buddha, first in Bamiyan which was a part of the Gandhara region where Mahayana Buddhism was supposed to have had its origin. It was natural that this concept of portraying the Buddha in super human qualities had gained currency wherever Mahayana Buddhism spread and Sri Lanka after the third or the fourth century of the present era was no exception to this.

The Avukana Buddha image in Sri Lanka has many similar features to those of the Bamiyan colossi. It depicts in the right hand which is raised towards the right shoulder and palm spread, the gesture known as abhaya mudra which indicates that the votary is protected from all fears (bhaya) mundane or supramundane, hence a+bhaya, that is ‘no+fear’. The left hand too is shown raised and touching the left shoulder. The palm of the left hand is turned towards the Buddha. This is a gesture indicating the votary to seek after the Buddha for release form sentient bondage (samsara). The Buddha stands erect on a lotus pedestal and is housed within a shrine of equal enormous dimensions as the remains of its foundations indicate today. Miniature metal images of the gods of the Hindu pantheon have been found below the feet of the Buddha image. This has been interpreted as an attempt to show that the Buddha is above all gods or titans of other popular Indian religions.

The Avukana Buddha image approximately 43 feet in height is the archetype of colossal Buddha images that have been sculpted by the ancient Sinhalese of Sri Lanka. Although it is sulpted in high relief and the back of the figure in not separated from the rockboulder out of which the figure is hewn, the Avukana image looks more like an image sculpted in the round.

A limestone statue of the Buddha sculpted in the round and measuring approximately 52 feet, with its lotus pedestal, is found in a badly ruined state in the jungle thickness of an ancient site known as Maligavela in south Sri Lanka. Its lotus pedestal lies a few yards away from it arid another massive image of a Bodhisattva, a divine being belonging to the Mahayana Buddhist pantheon too is found close by lying flat on the ground. Since almost all the colossal standing Buddha images in Sri Lanka as well as those in other countries are sculpted in heigh relief, this particular image which is sculpted fully in the round is now reckoned to be the world’s tallest standing image of the Buddha ever sculpted in ancient times. Despite broken limbs and badly beaten by the elements it still emanates an amorphous suavity.

A third image of the Buddha in colossal proportions is found at a place known as Sasseruva which is not far away from the ancient citadel Anuradhapura. This statue looks either badly weatherworn or left unfinished by the sculptor. The Sasseruva image of the Buddha falls short of the refined smooth finish, the elegance and perfect proportions, a brio to which the Avukana Buddha image has all claims. Yet it bears all the features of the Avukana Buddha image in regard to stylistic concept. The hand postures, the method of wearing the robe (civara) with the right shoulder kept bare and bellowed at the bottom. The drapery is delineated by the parallel ridges which is the typical method followed by the Sinhala sculptor of the classical period, unlike subsequent post-classical times, when ridges were replaced by parallel groves and still later by schematic wavy patterns. The coiffure is shown in the traditional pattern of hair coiled into rings like a snail shell. The Sasseruva Buddha image stands on a lotus pedestal and is sculpted in high relief with the back of the image cleaving to the living rock boulder from which it was carved out. All these speak of a common tradition of colossal Buddha image sculpture in the early centuries of the present era that has been founded in Sri Lanka.

To this group one could add the huge lotus pedestal sans image, within a stupendous shrine in Anuradhapura. The pedestal still bears the mortices meant for the feet of the huge image. This is found in the precincts of the famous Jetavana dagaba, the gigantic stupa built by king Mahasena (about 276-303 A.D) who patronised Mahayana Buddhism despite bitter protest by the orthodox Buddhist clergy, the Theravada monks of Sri Lanka. It is quite likely that this monarch Mahasena had installed a huge image of the Buddha in a shrine facing his equally stupendous stupa, the Jetavana dagaba which was the most massive edifice of the then known Buddhist world. (The Jetavana stupa has a diameter of 367 feet at its base with its original height of 160 cubits or 400 feet). This image of the Jetavana dagaba complex, made out of limestone is believed to have been reduced to ashes after a conflagration which destroyed the enormous shrine complex at a subsequent date.

All the Buddha images that have been discussed above are dated approximately around the fourth to the sixth centuries of the present era while some scholars believe that a date little anterior too might not be improbable.

The identification of these colossal Buddha images of ancient Sri Lanka with the Mahayana repertory of Buddhist art was made possible on many grounds. A major factor is their close similarity to the Bamiyan colossi. Another reason is the association of Buddhist divinities known as Bodhisattvas who belong to the Mahayana pantheon and who form a tout ensemble of the architectural composition of these sculptures. We have mentioned above the discovery of the huge Bodhisattva image close to the image of the Maligavila Buddha colossus. The best evidence for the association of Sri Lanka Buddha colossi with Mahayana repertoire is the group of colossal sculptures found at the ancient site known as Buduruvegala. Here at Buduruvegala the primary image of the Buddha is flanked on either side by a pair of Mahayana divinities. On one side is the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, the god par excellence in the Mahayana pantheon with goddess Tara and on the other side is the Bodhisattva Mahasthamaprapta with his consort Prajna. These two primary Bodhisattvas are referred to in ancient Mahayana Buddhist texts as the acolytes of the great Buddha Amitabha (or Amitayus) who resides in the supreme heaven Sukhavati. The portrayal of the five colossi at Buduruvegala, the ancient site in south Sri Lanka is evidently an attempt to introduce or revive a Mahayana cult worship in Sri Lanka. These stupendous sculptures were believed to have been originally highly polychromed. Patches of paint still intact were found till recently by the archaeologists who discovered these sculptures in the present century. This indicates that most of these ancient stone sculptures in Sri Lanka were profusely polychromed. Buddha colossi with their gilded figures and polychromed and the back walls of their shrines painted with motifs and legends would have been an awe-inspiring spectacle to the votary and a lively attraction to the onlooker.

Yet another type of colossal Buddha image was also tried by the ancient Sinhala master sculptors. However this type has nothing to do with the Mahayana form of Buddha worship. This was the portrayal of the Buddha’s death bed, referred to in early Pali texts as Parinibbana-manca. The theme has apparently gained currency after the fall of the ancient citadel Anuradhapura, hence belongs to the last lap of the classical period of Sinhala Art.

The first attempt to portray the dying Buddha in colossal proportions was made by the great monarch Parakramabahu who ruled from his new capital city Polonnaruva. It is possible that the theme must have been imported by those who have made acquaintances with the western Indian rock-cut Buddhist sanctuaries like Ajanta, Ellora, Nasik, etc. King Parakramabahu’s innovation in the figure sculpture of the Buddha’s Parinibbana-manca had seemingly gained currency subsequently. Several such colossal images are found dispersed in many ancient sites in Sri Lanka. Of these the images at Tantrimale and Attaragollava are the best known for their aesthetic appeal still associated with them despite their badly weather worn limbs. The colossal Buddha in Parinibbanamanca has also been tried in media other than granite. The laterite and brick too have been resorted to by later post-classical period sculptors to portray colossal images of the Buddha in this position.

In late mediaeval times the concept of the dying Buddha has been superceded by that of the ‘Sleeping Buddha’, probably and aberration of the former type. This may have been a result of Thai (Siamese) and Burmese influence.

Thai and Burmese schools of art were the repertoire of several such Buddha images in the reclining attitude in and after the fifteenth century. This was the period Sri Lanka had enough religio cultural contacts with these who kingdoms in south east Asia.


(1) B.A. Litvinsky, Mahadeva and Dutthagamini, The Buddhist, Colombo,43(1972).16-17.

(2) It could be surmised that the very name Avukana reflects a faint echo of the famous Gandhara site Bamiyan which was within the periphery of the Avakan region of Indian literary fame. For an analysis of ancient names of the Bamiyan site such as Avakan, Avakana, Vakana, Vakan, Vokkana and Chinese rendering O-po-ki-van see Divyavadana, ed. P.L. Vaidya, Darbhanga, 1959, ch. 37, p. 465; Kavyamimansa, ed. K. A. Ramasvami Sastri Siromani, Baroda, 1934, p.57, 309; Epigraphia Indica, II.60; Brhatsamhita, 15, 28; see further, A. D. T. E. Perera, Roruka the Lost Buddhist Kingdom was not Mohenjodaro, Studies in Indo-Asian Art and Culture, New Delhi, Vol.3(1973) 85 ff; Id. The Avukana Buddha — was it Sakyamuni Buddha or the primordial Buddha Amitabha, The Buddhist, Colombo, 45. (1974).35ff.