February 2018


A Trilogy of Art of the Gampola Kingdom
February 2018




Lankathilaka shows distinctive Kandyan influence

Along winding roads past a bustling township off Pilimathalawa lie admired and inspired cultural and architectural marvels. Belonging to the Gampola Kingdom, these beautiful structures rise over the serene panorama of lush vegetation. Three marvellous heritage creations are connected by a common past; the history of a kingdom that lasted for 70 years under four kings. The temples of Gadaladeniya, Lankathilaka and the Embekka Devalaya of 14th century Sri Lanka are a testament to the political and cultural integration that the rulers of the Gampola Kingdom transferred to these fascinating structures. They remain enduring sentries that even today are admired and venerated.


Words: Jennifer Paldano Goonewardane
Photography: Vishwathan Tharmakulasingham and Anuradha Perera


Lankathilaka

The activity inside shops selling trinkets, statues and crafts along an uneven mountain path enlivened an otherwise laid back afternoon. Further up, revealed the beauty of a white structure that gleamed in the sunlight. Lankathilaka looked perfect, perched on the Panhalgala rock. The surrounding landscape of mountains and misty horizons magnified the striking appearance that surrounded this 14th century structure. As we walked around awe-struck by its beauty, a little novice monk was delightfully engaged in a board game with a caretaker of the temple. Bearing the keys to the temple, he pointed to the biggest stone inscription in the island chiselled in Sinhala and Tamil.


Lankathilaka is a fine example of the cohabitation of Buddhist and Hindu worship; the Buddhist image house faces the east while the shrine dedicated to Hindu deities faces west.


The outstanding feature of this architectural delight is the two-tiered Kandyan period roof. The copper plate inscriptions of Lankathilaka claim that the original structure had consisted of four storeys, now reduced to two. Even today, the pilasters, cornices, lintels and niches, with refined sculptures placed uniformly around the outer walls of the building display a sense of order. The main entrance is decorated with a dragon arch, with smaller versions at the subsidiary entrances on the sides.

The stupa – ‘Vijayothpaya’ represents the residence of God Sakra, surrounded by four mini-stupas symbolising the four guardian deities of Sri Lanka.


The larger than life door at the image house is a canvass of delicate designs. The walls inside resembled a tapestry of exquisite paintings; decorative motifs of creepers, blooms and birds, and the depiction of the former lives of the 24 Buddhas. Lankathilaka has the only painting of the famous ‘Hansa Poottuwa' that features four swans instead of the customary two. The image house as the centrepiece has a large figure of the Buddha, whose eyes are studded with precious stones. And like all other stories of yore, it is said that the light that trickled through the once open roof had fallen upon the jewels, which in turn had illuminated the entrance to the shrine.


Embekka Devalaya

The open hall at the Embekka Devalaya was ready for the midday pooja as the space filled with devotees. When the drums began to beat and the rituals followed, there was reverential silence. Those present awaited their turn to make invocations before God Kataragama. Legend has it that God Kataragama himself had decreed that a shrine be built on this very location in a dream to a drummer who used to perform at the annual procession in Kataragama, but was saddened by the fact that his advanced years prevented him from making the annual pilgrimage.


The Kapu Mahaththaya performs the rites and rituals at Embekka Devalaya and he proudly claims to be a descendent of Indians who came to Sri Lanka to carry out the duties at the shrine. Only he and his ancestors know what lies behind the curtains of the main shrine room.


Embekka is best known for its rich wood carvings, a total of 514 carvings; 128 panels on 32 columns, with four carved panels on every column. Flowers, especially the lotus are prominent at Embekka. Human, animal and mythical figures have been frozen in narratives. Another unique feature is the single joint that holds 26 beams, the virtual cornerstone of the structure, never-before-seen practise in Sri Lankan buildings. A dragon arch is the only adornment that adds a colourful intrusion to an otherwise uniform set of wooden columns. Preserved to date among many other treasures at Embekka is the palanquin of King Wickramabahu III, donated by the king himself, upon which the chief deity parades the village streets.


Like the elaborate carvings, the litany of woes that people expressed evoke an emotional response. And with such faith in God Kataragama, Embekka Devalaya will always remain a sanctuary of worship.


Gadaladeniya

Surrounded by the tranquillity of the countryside and the serenity of dawn, there was a sense of calm in the manner in which men and women were going about their rituals; a woman sweeping the hallowed ground surrounding the Sacred Bodhi Tree, a little boy picking strewn leaves, while a woman spent time in meditation.


Oblivious to all this, next to the temple, village lads were trying to fly their gigantic home-made kite. Amidst this unfolding theatre of events, every detail, both inside and out at Gadaladeniya looked as if its architects had fancied a majestic structure with bespoke finishes and custom-designed doors. It is widely believed that 1,000 stone smiths from India, together with local artisans had spent 30 years completing the building.


The stupa - ‘Vijayothpaya' built on a raised dais, according to oral tradition, represents the residence of God Sakra, surrounded by four mini-stupas symbolising the four guardian deities of Sri Lanka. The mini-stupas are situated above four image houses made of stone.


Atop the rock is the coveted architectural marvel, the image house. The carvings, the cornices and the niches overwhelm this brilliant work of stone masonry. The stones, it is believed had been brought from neighbouring Deniya, hence Gadaladeniya is an acronym for ‘stones brought from Deniya'.


On the threshold is a moonstone, four stone steps carved with images of dancers and musicians and a balustrade in the shape of Gajasinha - the mythical figure with the body of a lion and the head of an elephant. The entrance is dramatically beautiful with the two triple columns, each carved out of a single rock. The medley of carvings include figures of Hindu deities, episodes from Puranic legends and the figure of Shiva performing the cosmic dance, the lion, flowers and lotus capitals. The two triple columns are dissimilar because according to folktale, the right column was made by the chief architect Ganeshwaracharya, while the other had been completed by the best stone smith in the country.


The image of the Buddha at Gadaladeniya, according to the Podi Hamuduruwo at the temple, has been influenced by the appearance of Hindu deities; hence in place of the serenity associated with the face of the Buddha, an expression of stateliness is a unique quality in the images of the Gampola period. Above this image is an elaborate dragon arch as well as carvings modelled in lime plaster.


Gadaladeniya remains a hybrid of two great cultures.

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    The 24 Buddhas depicted at Lankathilaka

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    Intricately carved wooden pillar at Embekka

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    A majestic stone sculpture at Gadaladeniya

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    A rare Hansa Poottuwa with four swans

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    Embekka Devalaya where God Kataragama is worshipped with steadfast piety

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    Carved pillars, the 'crowning glory' of Embekka

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    Dig geya and dragon arch at the shrine's entrance

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    The unique stupa arrangement at Gadaladeniya

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    The ancient paintings of the image house at Gadaladeniya

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