Buduruwagala sculptures as seen from the eastern approach: The standing figure of the Deepankara Buddha is the central figure of Buduruwagala
Sri Lanka is synonymous with Theravada Buddhism and the landscape is dotted with numerous Buddhist temples, stupas and sculptures ranging from ancient monasteries more than 2000 years old to large modern edifices. However, the Mahayana school of Buddhism was also prevalent in Sri Lanka, making its own contribution to the history and culture of the Island... Buduruwagala is one such example.
Words and Photography Nishan Perera
A major component of Mahayana Buddhism is the importance of the various Bodhisattvas that gained prominence in Sri Lankan Buddhist history around the 3rd Century AD during the reign of King Datusena and King Mahasen. One of the best examples of Mahayana Buddhist art in Sri Lanka is at Buduruwagala, located about five kilometres south of Wellawaya, off the Wellawaya-Tanamalwila road.
A rough surfaced road passes through rice fields and along a small reservoir surrounded by dry zone vegetation. The road leads you towards one of the many large monolithic rock formations found across Sri Lanka's dry zone. And here, in the middle of the dry zone forest, and carved into the rock face are seven figures facing eastward towards the rising sun. The exact origins of these figures remain unclear but historians believe they were sculptured some time during the 8th or 9th Centuries AD based on the artistic form. Although the figures appear to be rather plain and lacking colour the original sculptures were plastered and painted over as is evident by traces of stucco and orange streaks.
On approaching the site the visitor is greeted by an imposing figure of a standing Buddha carved out of the rock face and surrounded by vegetation. At 13m it is the tallest Buddha image carved out of rock in the country and is considered the only major historical sculpture of the Buddha influenced by Mahayana Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Based on its size, style and physical features it is believed to be a depiction of the Deepankara Buddha although a few scholars believe it to be a depiction of the Amitabha Buddha. On either side of this image are a total of six other images depicting various Bodhisattvas and their consorts.
The Bodhisattvas appear to have been important figures of worship during the time that the Buduruwagala sculptures were made. The most significant of the three figures to the Buddha's left is thought to be the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara that stands over seven metres in height and retains much of its original white finish. To the left of this white painted figure is the form of Prince Sudhana, while on the right side is a female figure of his consort Tara Devi, depicted in the traditional thrice bent posture. In Buddhist mythology Tara Devi was believed to have the power to prevent natural disasters, disease and be particularly helpful to women. To the immediate right of the main Buddha is an image of the Bodhisattva Manjusri. This image has suffered some damage over time especially to its lower section. The central figure to the left adorned with a crown and ornaments is that of the Maithri Bodhisattva, another prominent Bodhisattva in Buddhism. On the extreme right is the Vajrapani Bodhisattva. This image has lost all traces of its original paintwork and shows the intricate carving carried out on the rock.
the Bodhisattvas appear to have been important figures of worship during the time that the Buduruwagala sculptures were made
In addition to the rock sculptures a small bronze figure of a Bodhisattva less than four inches in height has been recovered from the site and is now on display at the National Museum in Colombo. Another interesting aspect of this site is a large hole carved in the shape of the flame from an oil lamp. The rock face inside this has a natural oily coating and many devotees who visit Buduruwagala believe that anointing their foreheads with this oil and presenting themselves before the figures of Tara Devi or Vajrapani can solicit cures for various ailments.
The Buduruwagala sculptures are an important part of Sri Lanka's Buddhist heritage and art. They are perhaps the best representation of the little known influence of the Mahayana school of Buddhist thought and Tantric Buddhism that is mainly associated with South East and East Asian countries. A visit to Buduruwagala is also an opportunity to explore the surrounding area and experience typical rural life in the dry zone of Sri Lanka. Leaving the main road is a step back from the chaos of Sri Lankan road travel and the fast pace of modern life. Life moves at a slow pace through the heat of the day, the air still except for the sound of insects and the occasional call of a bird or monkey. Fishermen go out in small outrigger canoes to fish in the reservoir while farmers tend acres of golden rice fields.
The best time to visit is early morning when the call of forest birds echo through the countryside as the sun dawns to light up the magnificent sculptures of Buduruwagala. The world seems perfect at that moment and gazing upon the rock sculptures can provide a rewarding sense of peace and tranquillity.