March 2016


Gedige: An archaeological enigma wrapped in a historical mystery
March 2016




The entrance to the Anuradhapura Gedige marked by the granite door frames

In the heart of the ancient capital of Lanka, Anuradhapura is the three or four mile square area popularly called the Citadel. Around this square of hallowed ground rises the grandeur of Anuradhapura, the historic city that was the Island's royal seat of government for over 1300 years until it finally fell to Chola invasions from Southern India in 1017 AD.


Words Manu Gunasena


Within this historical area, or immediately surrounding it, is found not only the world's oldest recorded tree, the Sri Maha Bodhi, but also soaring mammoth stupas which rival the pyramids of Egypt and commanded the awe of the then known world. For nearly a thousand years after the fall of Anuradhapura, these giant monuments stood sentinel upon the abandoned, crumbling city. It was only in the later 19th century that the rediscovery of Anuradhapura began in earnest.


Scores of archaeologists have spent thousands of hours excavating the mystery of an era that produced miracles of engineering and created sublime works of art. Major reconstruction work has been done, and is still being done, to restore these rocks and brick artefacts to their original splendour. The Abhayagiri stupa, the second tallest in Lanka, is one such monument. Extensive research has been done to document its history and to shed light on the monastery that lay in its shadow. Active archaeological interest has also been expressed to explore the unknown origins and purposes of many of the edifices that mark the historic landscape.


One such building, close to Abhayagiri but lying within the citadel, is a building that had been destroyed by the Cholas in the year 948 AD and rebuilt by King Mahinda IV during his reign from 956 to 972 AD. This was said to have been the building that was used to house the sacred book, Dhammadatu, which had been brought to Lanka in the sixth century. But recently, as a result of painstaking efforts, the building was renamed 'The Temple of the Tooth' by the Archaeological Department. This is the sacred relic of the Buddha which was brought to the Island in the 4th century AD and first housed in the Abhayagiri Monastery.

Archaeologists had trouble identifying this building as a Gedige, a word derived from Pali Ginkhakavastha, which means a brick house used to shelter images
But while many of these buildings get their share of attention, and strenuous efforts have been made to unravel the mysteries hidden in their stones or bricks, others do not. A small crumbling structure made of bricks, situated east of the Temple of the Tooth Relic and north east of King Vijayabahu's palace, lies decrepit, reduced to a pathetic pile of cracked blocks. Even though its position within the citadel - close to the palace and the Temple of the Tooth - should have aroused interest, no one knows its history. No one knows who made it. No one knows when it was built or for what. And no one seems to care.


Archaeologists had trouble identifying this building as a Gedige, a word derived from Pali Ginkhakavastha, which means a brick house used to shelter images.


The size of this Gedige is 34 x 34 feet and it is made entirely out of bricks. Another building of similar size and shape, also built with bricks, lies adjacent to the Gedige. Both appear to have had semi-domed roofs, but in its ruinous state the height of its elevation can only be guessed at. These structures, or what remains of them, are the only known image houses built entirely out of bricks in Anuradhapura. Only the window frames and the entrance door have been built with granite.

These structures, or what remains of them, are the only known image houses built entirely out of bricks in Anuradhapura. Only the window frames and the entrance door have been built with granite.  But what did it hold?
But what did it hold? In the early Anuradhapura era, before the introduction of Buddha images, both kings and monks honoured the Buddha's exhortation to his disciples not to erect statues to honour him after his demise but to honour him by following his Dhamma and using it as their teacher. Thus in both India and in Sri Lanka, the Buddha came to be symbolised by the vacant throne or the stylised feet. These symbols were employed to represent the Buddha. Unlike in India where these symbols were incorporated in relief, in Lanka they were represented by rectangular slabs of stones and were worshipped by the Buddhists for centuries. Foot symbols, Sripathula, continue to be constructed even in modern temples. Stone slabs with the foot symbol are found scattered around ancient sites in many places of the Island.


The rectangular stone slabs representing the throne were placed in a special house known as the Asanagharaya. Even when the Buddha images were introduced to Lanka from the Mahayana tradition, many Theravada temples refused to admit them but held steadfast to worship of the throne symbol, but later, Buddha images came to replace the throne symbols.


During the first century BC the Abhayagiri monastery and in the third century AD the Jethawanaramaya monastery were the scenes of religious conflict. The two contending sects of Buddhism, Theravada and Mahayana, were engaged in rivalry, competing to be the dominant force, if not the only force, of Buddhism in the land. The internecine warfare ended late in the seventh or eighth century, when royal patronage returned to embrace the old Theravada Buddhism which still holds sway in Sri Lanka. But though Mahayana's interpretation of the Buddha's philosophy was exiled from Sri Lankan shores, the practice of image worship had caught on and, as evidenced by the plethora of statues found in every temple and at almost every street corner, continues to flourish even today.


It is this same practice that enshrined a statue of the Buddha in every temple in a specially constructed edifice referred to as the image house, and, if built in brick, as a Gedige. But while an image house in a temple is acceptable today, the ancient gediges have been looked down on. Perhaps it is because they not only contain a Buddha statue but also other symbols of Mahayana and even Tantric Buddhism - two streams of Buddhism that are no longer encouraged by any means. With the Mahavamsa, Lanka's ancient historical chronicle, taking a strong anti-Mahayana line, it was only to be expected that such Mahayana influences would be blanked from successive historical accounts or treated disparagingly.


This perhaps explains why the Anuradhapura Gedige has suffered so much neglect and been reduced to its pathetic state when compared to other buildings of the same era. It also may explain a general tendency by kings of old and Theravada subjects to ignore its presence and tolerate its existence only grudgingly.


The common fate of SriLanka's gediges becomes clearer to fathom when one compares the Anuradhapura Gedige to the Gedige at Nalanda in Matale, approximately 100km away. It is a quaint forgotten Buddhist temple, where Hindu sculpture and Buddhist art have fused to create a unique masterpiece.


Here, too, this enchanting architectural delight, though well preserved, is shrouded in mystery. No one really knows who built this hybrid of Hindu and Buddhist architecture. Not even its architectural uniqueness has helped archaeologists to discover an accurate date of its construction. Apart from loosely dating it to a period anywhere between the 7th century and the 10th century archaeologists have no clue as to the name of the king who may have initiated its construction.


But a stone Bodhisattva figure, which is flanked by two men in an act of worship, may be that of AvalokiteĊ›vara and its presence at the temple may show the existence of Mahayana influence, since Mahayana Buddhism was practised in Lanka in the 7th century AD. There is also the presence of erotic Tantric carvings, which show a strong resemblance to the ones at Khajuraho in India.

Perhaps archaeologists may someday be able to reveal the secret of the Gedige enigma which seems to be wrapped in a historical mystery

But that's not all. Take the Thuparama at Polonnaruwa - a typical example of a Gedige. Originally, it had a vaulted brick roof, and there is no trace of wood being used at all. The windows and the door frames, which can still be seen, are made of stone. But like the other gediges, no archaeologist so far has been able to identify the period of its construction or the king who built it. And this is in spite of it being situated in the quadrangle area known as the Dalada Maluwa next to the Atadage, which was built by Polonnaruwa's first Sinhala king, Vijayabahu the First, and the Vatadage built by his grandson, Parakramabahu the First.


Perhaps archaeologists may someday be able to reveal the secret of the Gedige enigma which seems to be wrapped in a historical mystery.

 

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    The ancient image house called a Gedige in Anuradhapura: mystery surrounds its origin

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    Two doorway entrances built in granite left to support the remains

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    The Thuparama Gedige in the quadrangle area of the Dalada Madura in Polonnaruwa

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    Nalanda Gedige in Matale: considered to be the epicentre of Lanka

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    Part of the mystery ruins at Anuradhapura

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    Brick wall surrounding a square opening, possibly a window, to let the sunlight through

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