Saturday Magazine
Buddhist paradise to executioner’s hell

Continued from last Saturday
The later Pallavas were making their ascendancy in Deccan along with the short-lived other dynasties such as Salankayanas who had succeeded to the early Buddhist tradition of Satavahanas and Ikshuvakus. Sri Parvata in Andhra was still surviving as a Buddhist centre though much of the vigour had been lost to rival Jains and Brahamans. It was the time that some of the ancient families were looking for new pastures in the Indonesian-Malayasian archipelago as one sees from the rise of Sailendras and attention could also have been directed towards Sri Lanka. A royal family from Kalinga came to Sri Lanka and renounced the world pleasures by taking robes. Interestingly, they were the Jain monks who advised Moggallana of the right time to return to the island. Silakala and later Manavamma also stand out in this configuration of Sri Lankan rulers who had both Indian political backing and Mahayanic support. One could expect that resources-wise Buddhist monks would have been able to garner international support, just as one finds a leading Upasika, Bodhisri, from Sri Lanka who left a long inscription at Sri Parvata in an earlier century listing the many viharas and stupas she built which work was supervised by Theras Chandramukha, Dharmanandi and Naga. That reference is useful to understand the close relationship that had continued to exist with centres like Amaravati, Nagarjunakonda and Sri Parvata and which continuity may not have been lost. In other words, political, religious and cultural developments cannot be examined in a vacuum. Probably, the construction of Sigiriya benefited from the accumulated vast Buddhist artistic tradition and material resources in the Deccan and across the Sumatran seas.

This is one way to understand how an undertaking of colossal dimension like Sigriya could have achieved fruition. My quotation from an early explorer of Assyrian palaces that the material might of the Assyrian monarchs could not have created architects, sculptors, and painters in a short time and that required social conditions in which the arts had long held their place is also very much true of Sri Lanka. International relations and goodwill would have been a major factor in Sri Lankas case as the country itself may not have been capable of generating resources as the Assyrians and Persians possessed.

I see no better source of inspiration than the energetic and spirited Buddhist clergy which could have been able to play the role of Ambassadors who created the right conditions, no matter what dynastic houses were ruling. Their begging bowl in those days was the precursor of today’s ‘Begging Bowl’ which our Ministers of Finance take to Europe [next time to Asia], that Sarachchandra wrote about in a novel. [Incidentally, he openly claimed that the novel was going to bE a ‘Punishment’ to those who ‘disturbed’ the satisfaction of his primordial instincts]. Senarat Paranavitana’s ASSERTION that Parinda, one of the Sad Dravidas construced", a Buddhist monastery in the deep south goes to show the resourcefulness of Buddhist monks as much as the generosity of alien rulers. I wrote in a recent essay how the tradition in Indonesia credits a Sri Lankan monk, Gunadharma, of constructing Borobudur; and that besides, there is an Abhayagiri vihara there credited to Sri Lankan monks. As we observed there is evidence in the Mahavamsa itself that the monastic complex at Sigiriya had been growing from the time before Dhatusena through Kasyapa and Moggallana.

Just as Saragon recorded in his clay tablets that the first buildings to rise in his new city were temples to most of the great gods, and then came the palaces, in Sri Lanka too could it not have been the temples that came up first? Raising of new palaces was rare indeed in ancient Sri Lanka and the emphasis has been on building temples and reservoirs. One cannot rule out the possibility of Kasyapa for a time, having sought refuge in a Mahayanic Buddhist monastery at Sigiriya or continuing forms of meditation required to expiate the sins. Such a possibility existed in the Avalokitesvara [Avlk.] cult worship. In fact, an allusion to it found in the claim in Mahavamsa that the king not only observed Uposatha but practised ‘Appamanna’ and ‘Dhutangas’ [Wijesinghe Tr.] That could mean that under the monks at Sigirya he could have received spiritual solace as well as refuge from crime, under Sri Lankan ‘immunity law’ at the time, in addition to physical security. The chronicle is clear that the king did not remain inactive. He had shown repentance and did many meritorious deeds outside Sigiriya, which included planting of gardens at the gate of the city [Anuradhapura is implied], groves of mango trees thought out the island, repairing the Issaramana vihara and giving more support to it, building the Bodhi- Uppalavanna vihara and offering it to Theravada (Mahavihara) monks, and caused books to be written.

Image worship

Dhatusena is credited with building several viharas, making additions to several existing ones; and repairing many. His reign saw a hive of activity in the spread of Mahayana Buddhism as seen from the Buddha images and Bodhisattva images and image-houses which were built. Among the prominent image houses coronation halls of his time was one known as ‘Abhiseka-jina’ built by Migara.

From the description it would appear that this ‘Abhiseka-jina’ was none other than a statue of Avalokitesvara. [Avlk,] In fact, the chronicle states that king Dhatusena had a diadem of rays made for the ‘Master in Black stone’ and a similar ornament made for the statue known as ‘Abhisheka-jina.’ This appears to be a reference to the ‘jata-mukuta’ that adorns the head of the Bodhisattva. statues. A diadem with rays would fit in more properly to a statue of Avlk, as this Bodhisattva is portrayed in the full splendour of a royal prince, rather than to any other Bodhisattva. Amitayur Dhyana Sutra (translated into Chinese in the 3 century] says: On the top of his [Avlk.] head is a heavenly crown of gems like those that are fastened (on Indra’s head), in which crown there is a transformed Buddha standing, twenty five yojans high." Regarding the rays the Sutra says: .... from between his eye-brows which has the colour of seven jewels, eighty- four kinds of rays flow out, (bhyamaprabha) each of them attended by numberless Bodhisattvas, freely changing their manifestations and filling the words of the ten quarters... with the colour of red lotus-flower. His garlands consist of eight thousand rays, in which is reflected a state of perfect beauty."

Avlk. is the Bodhisattva invoked for his great compassion. Senapati Migara building a coronation hall for his statue and wanting to hold a more elaborate coronation ceremony for it than what was dedicated to the statue black stone (Kala- sila) is understandable.


Where did the kings of Sri Lanka raise resources to build such a stupendous work as Sigirya in its complexity even in the long range? When Paranavitana who interpreted that Kassapa lived like Kuvera, the god of wealth, as a reference to Kassapa’s wealth, from where could he accumulate such wealth? Surely, he did not get it from his father. As the old king pointed out to Migra who was torturing him, the coffers were empty. Kala-weva was all that he had to show. Building such a mighty irrigation work and eighteen tanks altogether and undertaking repairs and additions to many temple building and building eighteen new empty. Kala-weva was all that he had to show. Building such a mighty irrigation work and eighteen tanks altogether and undertaking repairs and additions to many temple building and building eighteen new monasteries soon after a long drawn out war with the Dravidians would have surely exhausted the material wealth of his kingdom. The probable source and the medium was discussed earlier.

Sigiriya as ‘Sukhavati’

Next, let us look at the description of Sukhavati’ found in the Larger Sukhavati Sutra’. Buddha addressing Ajita, asks:

"Do you see in that Buddha country,... and d above in the sky, (places/ with charming parks, charming gardens, charming rivers and lotus lanes, scattered with Padmas, Utpalas, Kumudus, and Pundarikas; and below, from the earth to the abode of the Akanishthas, (brahma world) the surface of the sky, covered with flowers, ornamented with wreaths offlowers, shining on the rows of many precious columns, frequented by flocks of all kinds of birds, created by the Tathagathas?"

Do we not find at Sigiriya, that the artist has tried to create what is found in this description of Sukhavati Buddha World of the Mahayanists? I quoted in an earlier essay a view expressed that Borobudur had been constructed to symbolically represent the cosmic mountain (an idea rejected by some because it is Hindu); or the ten stages (paramita) of a Bodhisattva; and the whole edifice conceived as a lotus standing out of water (sagar) [A ground plan of this has been found during the excavations by the Cultural Triangle authorities]. Here in Sigiriya, from the evidence available so far, we do not find such finer symbolic representation of Buddhist doctrinal concepts but there appears to be a symbolic concept that it could represent the svargaloka (paradise) rather than the three worlds Bhu, Bhu-svar and Svar-lokas as developed at Borobudur. The idea of creating a Sukhavati,’ on earth existed in other Buddhist kingdoms as one sees from the name Sukhotai’ [paradise of Sukhavati] and the remains of that city in Thailand.

Is the above evidence sufficient or pot, to draw the conclusion that Sigiriya had been primarily, not an abode or a fortress of a monarch but the foremost centre of Mahayanic worship of AvLk. in the island? The cult took deep root in the Far East and is a leading form of worship there today. It had reached South India. Its popularity in South East Asia is seen from many Avlk and Dhyani Buddha figures discovered there. The popularity which this cult had reached in Sri Lanka from the 6th the 7 th and the 8th centuries is vouched by the presence of colossal Avlk sculptures found near Maligavila, (33 ft.high], Buduruvagala [20 ft.], and Weligama [12 ft], and numerous medium-sized statues and smaller bronze and wooden sculptures. Found at Mahayanic centre s like Tiriyaya, Veheragala, and Anuradhapura.

What could have persuaded Migara to consecrate an image of Avlk as suggested? Was he trying to expiate the sin of conspiracy and finally the murder of the king? According to Am utay yush Dhyana Sutra, those who meditate on Avlk will not suffer any calamity; and will expiate the sins which would involve them in births and deaths in immeasurable kalpas. When he himself could have benefited’ from that action. why did Kasyapa stand in the way of Migara holding a consecration ceremony for the statue? Was pressure exerted on him by Buddhist monks of other persuasion (Mahavihara) to prevent the execution of Migara’s idea too strong to avoid?

How much the introduction of radically different forms of Buddhist worship such as Vaitulya doctrine in the time of Mahasena and later and that of 'Dhamma-dhatu’ [Dhamma-kaya] in the time of Silakala had caused concern could be seen from the way these occasions have been treated in the chronicles. The period of the time of Mahasena onwards was one of frequent rivalry between contending sections of the Sangha and Vaitulya doctrine was gairung ascendancy. This is also seen from intense activity in introducing image and Bodhisattva worship as well as bodily relics of Buddha. It is clear that Kasyapa later made a special effort to win over the monks of Mahavira fraternity when he offered the temples he built in the name of his two daughters, Bodhi and Uppalavanna, to that Mahavihara fraternity which offer they refused to accept; but on his offering them to Sagaliya monks, the former accepted them as the king was willing to offer them to the Buddha’s image.

Relevance of Taras

Dr.Raja de Silva’s thesis of a Mahayanic establishment at Sigiriya is supported with evidence he has adduced to show that the female figures in the murals in the galleries are those of Taras, the Sakti of the Dhyani Buddhas. He observes that the hands of these figures display postures which are closer to those seen in representations of this Shakti. I see no problem with this observation. It only goes to fortify my belief that the statue that was housed in the coronation hall on top of Sigiriya [latter built by Senapati Migara] was a figure of Avlk. who is a complementary element in the Triad of Amitabha worship. In the Mahayanic concept Taras are grouped into five classes and attached to each of the five Dhyani Buddhas. They are distinguished from their different colours which they derive from the principal Dhyani Buddha. The colour of the Tara associated with Amitabha Triad should be of Jambunada gold[ Damba-rattaran] which would be closer to red.

Other features that correspond to the Triad are the diadem decorated with three or more rosaces, a high chignon and a mark of the Dhyani Buddha, and the body ornaments are a pair of earrings, a pair of necklaces, a pair of armless and six bracelets. The cloth belt is tied in a not on each side of the body leaving the ends to fall on both sides. These could vary. When one reflects on the female figures in the galleries of Sigiriya it is not difficult to recognise in them the attributes ascribed to Avlk. In the texts which these Shaktis share in common with their lord.

The female figures are shown as if they are on the clouds. This feature and the perambulatory posture suggests that they are portrayed as going to worship or attend on their lord Avlk. in the paradise of Sukhavati - in this case on the top of Sigiriya rock.

The hand gestures or the mudras of some them adopt poses familiar in Buddhist iconography and paintings such as those of Padmapani-Avalokitesvara.