May 2011


The Moonstone
May 2011




The Moonstone at the Vatadagey in Polonnaruwa

One of the striking architectural features of ancient Sri Lanka is found underfoot! The Moonstone, a semi-circular stone slab with carvings, has come to depict the skill of ancient stone artists.

Words: Manori Wijesekera Photography: Menaka Aravinda and Mahesh Prasantha

The Moonstone is said to have originated in India, during the time of Lord Buddha. It is said that the floors of the Pabbarama Temple in Shravasthi - built by Visakha, a wealthy devotee - were covered with rich, rare cloths as an offering to the sangha. Another rich lady wished to offer similar cloths but couldn't find a place to put them so Ananda Thera asked her to lay them before the flight of temple steps. Since then, Buddhist places of worship came to have a beautiful first step.

The Moonstone is called the Sandakadapahana (half-moon stone) or Irahandagala (sun-moon stone) in Sinhala. In ancient times, the sun was venerated as the giver of life, fertility and growth.

Made from granite or limestone, the earliest Moonstones were sans carving and rectangular in shape. After the 13th Century, towards the end of the Anuradhapura period, the shape of the Moonstone changed to a semi circle, and began to be filled with heavy carvings.

The carved Moonstones vary in their design but have some shared, common elements. Individual arcs form the semi-circular shape, often culminating with a decorative lotus. The number of arcs and the patterns vary from each temple and period, to make each Moonstone a unique and distinctive work of art.

The noted Sri Lankan historian and archaeologist Prof. Senarath Paranavithana believed that the Moonstones have a deep metaphysical interpretation, with each carved panel representing a spiritual stage in a person's ascent to nirvana.

Starting from the outermost semi-circular panel, he gives each a special meaning, which has become a widely accepted interpretation of the Moonstone:

i. The arc with a flower petal motif (palapethi) represents the fires of a worldly existence.

ii. The arc of four beasts, the elephant, lion, horse and bull represents the four mortal perils of birth, disease, decay and death.

iii. The arc of undulating scrolls of leaves and flowers (liyavela) represents natural desires or craving.

iv. The arc of swans or geese represents the "thoughtful ones who have left their worldly abodes."

v. The arc containing a second liyavela motif represents the heavenly worlds.

vi. The arc of lotus petals turned outwards, the arc of lotus petals turned inwards and seed cup in the centre forming together half a       lotus all represent nirvana or enlightenment.

Not all Moonstones follow this decorative arrangement, with some having more panels and others less. Each Moonstone seems to be as unique as its artist with the symbolism, the style of motif and intricacy of carving detail varying in each Moonstone. A few Moonstones have been found to have inscriptions, which archaeologists suspect were added after they were used as steps for many years.

The reign of the Chola empire in the 11th Century, during the Polonnaruwa era, brought the Hindu religion to the country, and the Moonstones created from then onwards did not have the image of the bull. The bull, a sacred animal to the Hindus, could no longer be on Moonstones, which were trod on daily by dozens of devotees. Similarly the lion, symbolising the Sinhala race, was also gradually removed and these two animals came to be carved into the Korawak gal or balustrades of temples and palaces.

This period also saw the transition of the Moonstone from the temple to more secular settings such as palaces and at the entrance to other important buildings of the time. The Moonstone was thus established as an aesthetically pleasing, artistic and refined form of a symbolic welcome to all who would enter.

After the Polonnaruwa period, the Moonstone appears in various shapes. During the Gampola and Kandy kingdoms, triangular Moonstones came into being, such as those found at the Temple of the Tooth and at Degaldoruwa Temple in Kandy. The concentric bands were gone, and a lotus was carved in the middle of the stone slab, and surrounded by elaborate designs of liyavel or scrolls of leaves and flowers. Another variation is the full circular shape, as in the Moonstone at the Raja Maha Viharaya in Horana.

Among the hundreds of Moonstones found across the country, a few which are considered to be most outstanding in aesthetical and technical perfection are found in the Dalada Maligawa in Anuradhapura, those at King Mahasena's Pavilion in Abhayagiri, the Sri Maha Bodhi in Anuradhapura and at the entrance to the Northern Pavilion at the Watadage in Polonnaruwa.

The Moonstone was thus established as an aesthetically pleasing, artistic and refined form of a symbolic welcome to all who would enter.

The Moonstone has been used in modern interpretations of Sinhalese art forms, and its symbolism and artistic techniques extensively studied. But it can only be appreciated in person, where stepping on a Moonstone is the first step in a journey of discovery.

 

 

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    Bisomaligawa, Anuradhapura

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    Isurumuniya, Anuradhapura

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    One of the best preserved Moonstones in Sri Lanka, King Mahasen’s Pavilion, Abhayagiriya complex, Anuradhapura

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    Sri Maha Bodhi, Anuradhapura

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    The Moonstone at the Degaldoruwa Temple

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    The Moonstone at the entrance of the Dalada Maligawa, Kandy

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