Remains of religious edifices of Buddhist shrines are the main
sources for a study of the Buddhist architecture of Sri
Lanka. Buddhism was introduced into the island by the
missionary son of Ashoka in the 3rd century BC. Ashoka is
credited to have given birth to Buddhist Architecture in
India which spread to the neignowring countries.
The Architectural remains of Sri Lanka, of Buddhist monuments
can be studied and dated from three sources. The Mahawansa a
great chronical gives an account of the work done by each
King during his period. These accounts are useful to get an
idea of the buildings themselves and their construction and
development. The second source is Epigraphical, being
letters inscribed on rock often to record donation of a
building or monastery. The third is archeological ovidence
from excavation and the monuments. A more important source
is the study of the development of architecture and
architectural design over the years from all 3 sources.
My talk attempts to trace the history and development of
Buddhist Architecture through a study of the monumental
remains of a living Buddhist culture and religion in Sri
Lanka continuous for over 2500 years.
KEYWORD : Buddhist Architecture of Sri Lanka
Remains of religious edifices of Buddhist and Hindu shrines
are the main sources for a study of the ancient architecture
of Sri Lanka.
Buddhism was introduced into the island by the missionary
son of Ashoka in the reign of King Devanampiyatissa 3rd
cent. BC. Ashoka is credited to have given birth to Buddhist
Architecture in India. An examination of the early forms of
Buddhist buildings in India would therefore be necessary to
an understanding of the history of Architecture in Sri Lanka
as well. We also have three sources from which we can date
the Architectural remains of Sri Lanka.
This great chronicle gives an account of the work done by
each King during his period. These accounts are useful both
to get an idea of the buildings themselves and their
construction methods as well as their dates of construction,
addition or development.
The second source in Epigraphical, being letters inscribed
on rock often to record a donation of a building or a
The third is archeological evidence from excavation. This is
achieved by a study of the site and from a study of the
associated pottery and other finds. A more important source
to us would be the study of the development of architecture
and architectural design over the years. Our study would be
the study of architecture from an analysis of the buildings
and architectural decoration. Since Buddhist architecture in
Sri Lanka is linked with the spread of Buddhism in India it
is relevant and necessary to look at Buddhist architecture
in India. In this study the main architectural type is the
pillar, i.e. STUMBA. Other architectural forms are the
STUPA, the CHAITYA and the VIHARA.
STUMBA the Pillar
The pillar in Indian architecture has been traced to the
Vedic YUPA set up at the sacrificial altar. The best
examples of the pillar are those set up by Ashoka bearing
his edicts. In one of them it is mentioned that 26 years
after his consecration Ashoka set up these pillars in the
length and breadth of his country so that his subjects could
be benefited by the teachings of the DHARMA.
These free standing pillars of polished sandstone were
erected along the highways and at places sacred to the
Buddhists. A pillar consists of a shaft and a capital. The
shaft is monolithic and is carved out to be circular in
section and tapering to the top. The capital craved
separately was in three parts, an inverted lotus, an abacus
and the crowning figure of an animal. The abacus was
circular or square and had relieves of animals carved on it.
The crowning animal has been a bull, an elephant, a lion or
a horse. The lion capital from Saranath has four lions
seated back to back, and has in recent years been used as
the national emblem on the flag of India.
The STUPA traces its origin to very early times. After the
death of the Buddha his ashes were enshrined by Ashoka in
eight STUPAS which have since not been found. Ashoka is said
to have constructed as many as 84000 STUPAS and thus
initiated the STUPA worship. In Sri Lanka or elsewhere the
STUPA indicates a spot sacred to Buddhism. STUPAS are said
to enshrine the SARIRIKA, bodily relics, PARIBOSIKA, objects
associated with the Buddha, UDESIKA relics sacred to
Buddhism. The STUPA evolved from the prehistoric burial
mound. Buddhist STUPAS however, have undergone several
periods of development in each country and has evolved forms
of exceptional beauty. The development of the STUPA and the
STUPA house, WATADAGE, makes an interesting study.
In no other country in Asia has the STUPA undergone so much
of development and change, and continues to develop and
change, as in Sri Lanka.
The STUPA form was introduced from India and in the early
examples retain the characteristics of the Ashoka form at
SANCHI. However, over the years many large and small STUPAS
came to be erected by pious Kings for the Enshrinement of
Buddha relics or as commemorative STUPAS or to contain
objects associated with the Buhhha and the Dhamma.
The shapes of the STUPAS developed according to their size
and one is able today to recognize six significant examples
defined by the shape of the dome.
Such shapes as the BUBBLE, the BELL shape, the POT shape,
the LOTUS shape, the HEAP OF PADDY shape and the AMALAKA
shape are seen in the large MAHA VIHARA as well as the small
STUPA of the village temple.
The STUPA also gains its value from the enshrinment of
telics or sacred objects at various levels done with great
reverence and meanings. Several ancient STUPAS now in ruins
have revealed their sacred treasures providing the art
historian much material for study.
The WATADAGE literally means a circular relic house. This is
a development of a STUPA sheltered by a roof and as expected
it is a pillared building around a small STUPA provided with
four entrances and four Buddha images placed at the cardinal
points. Several examples of these are found in Sri Lanka,
the earliest being the ones at Mihintale and Anuradhapura
3rd century BC. These mark the spots connected with the
introduction of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.
Much later and more developed forms are seen at
Medirigiriya, 8th Cent. and Plonnaruva 12th Cent., both
considered as gems of architectural design.
In modern times architects have designed and built in
concrete a circular relic house enclosing a small STUPA in
the south of Colombo. This is also the site of a much
venerated Bodhi tree temple situated alongside the main
southern highway and is visited by pilgrims from all parts
of the island.
The BODHIGHARA ów Bo-tree Temple
The Buddha, Gautama (563-BC to 483-BC) found Enlightenment
at Buddha-Gaya in South Bihar, seated on a stone-seat
("Vajrasana") under a Bo-tree. Therefore, both the Bo-tree
and Vajrasana became objects of worship, not only in
Buddha-Gaya, but also in
many other places in India and Sri Lanka. Soon after the
introduction of Buddhism in Sri Lanka a Bo-sapling from the
great Bodhi-tree in India was brought to Sri Lanka by Theri
Sanghamitta, the daughter of the Indian Emperor, Ashoka and
was planted by King Devanam Piyatissa (250 to 210BC) in the
royal garden of the City of Anuradhapura. The Chronicle
states that the first "Bodhigara" tree temple, was erected
during this time, and since then many kings are said to have
built or repaired Bodhigharas.
The Bodhighara was a structure, designed to house the
bodhi-tree (Ficus religiosa). But like the thupaghara or the
patimaghara, it could not be entirely covered with a roof,
for the Bodhi-tree requires sunshine for its growth. The
Bodhighara was designed in a manner as to cover only the
area around the tree, leaving an open space in the center.
Whether roofed, or enclosed with a railing or wall, "Bo-tree
Shrines" were usually terraced on three or more levels, each
enclosed by a railing. At the four sides, steps with Makara
balustrades at the entrances, with guard-stones, and
moonstones were provided.
SRI MAHA BODHI
This is the oldest historical tree on record in the world.
Besides its historical value, it is of religious
significance, as it belongs to the original tree, at the
foot of which the Buddha attained Enlightenment. Presently,
it stands on a high terrace enclosed with a railing.
In any contemporary monastery or temple, the Bodhi-tree
takes its place both locationally and ritually on the same
level as the stupa and the image-house, which together
constitute the three principal shrines in the sacred
precinct of a temple.
The Bodhighara generally contains a large Vajrasana to the east and three smaller altars
facing the other directions. All these, display images of the Buddha with flower-altars. As
the Bodhighara and Bodhimalaka have the same objects of worship, their religious
practices are the same. Although the development of the Bodhighara deviated from the
Bo-maluva at a certain stage of its evolution, both continued to develop on parallel lines.
The first stage of development of the "Bo-tree Shrine" was
an elevated terrace known as Bodhimalaka which was
approached by a decorative flight of steps.
The next stage of development took the form of an elevated
terrace, in which four Buddha images were placed at the four
cardinal points, as seen at the Samadhi- Bodhighara at
The 3rd stage of development is represented by the erection
of "railing sites" referred to as the Buddhist railing
Temples an elevated terraced, four Buddha images and a fence
very similar to that in Buddha-Gaya, in India. The railing
was erected to define the ambulatory area around the shrine.
The third important shrine in a Buddhist temple complex is
the Image house. Images for worship had been built inside
caves or were placed at the cardinal points of stupas in
early times. There are reference to images of Buddha having
been deposited in the relic chambers of the large stupas.
However we see three different types of image houses being
open to allow the tree to grow and spread out.
PILIMAGE, Image house
The best example of a Bo-tree shrine is seen at Nillakegama.
Here one could see all the features of a Bodhighara with
doorways, guard-stones, flower-altars and pillars which
supported a roof over the ambulatory space. The center was
architecturally developed over the years. These include the
single seated image house. The image is almost always in the
Samadhi attitude of meditation. The standing image is in the
attitude of blessing, is set in a high image house and is
sometimes in the posture of thribanga, standing at ease. The
recumbent image or the reclining Buddha is more often found
in cave temples due perhaps to the shape of space available
in a shallow cave. Such shrines contain a large area of
painted surface on the rock ceiling and the exterior wall
There are also examples of image houses with several images
in them or combinations of the seated and the standing
image. An image house in Polonnaruva is considered by some
to represent the Buddha, the Damma and the Sanga, the
thri-ratna. Most image houses were built of stone
foundations, brick walls and timber roof.
TAMPITA VIHARA, Temple on pillars
Some remarkable examples of timber and mud image houses set
on stone pillars have been built by the craftsmen of the
mediaeval period and are still in use in several villages of
the central highlands. The temple of the Tooth relic in
Kandy is indeed the finest timber shrine room built in the
mediaeval period and still maintained in good repair.
This temple is the center of a week long festival of dance
and celebration in the month of August when a colourful
procession parades in the temple square every night.
Kandy also has the two large monasteries of Malwatte and
Asgiriya occupied by the two high priests, a continuation of
the Maha Vihara concept which originated in Anuradhapura
after the introduction of Buddhism.
MAHA VIHARA and the PIRIVENA
Soon after the introduction of Biddhism large monastery
complexes came to be built in Anuradhapura. Some of these
were Universities or seats of learning where monks learned
in apprenticeship under very learned teacher monks. Such
complexes accommodating several hundred monks needed more
buildings of refectories, assembly halls, dwelling houses,
toilet facilities and even hospitals and infirmaries. In Sri
Lanka we are fortunate in being able to identify all these
buildings and their complex layout in several of the ancient
sites. Other facilities at these sites included meditation
halls, ponds and spouts for bathing and paved paths and
stairways. The development of the site as a monastery park
was for providing the serenity and quiet required by a monk
for study and meditation. Besides the large complexes, the
villages, temple was a part of every village and also had
the basic requirements for worship and teaching of the
Dhamma. These small but well planned buildings continued
over the years and their remains go to make up the stone and
timber Viharas of the type called the TAMPITA VIHARA or
temple on stone pillars. Several hundred of these, one in
each village make up an interesting study. The finest of
these being Temple complex in Kandy, the Dalada Maligawa.
Buddhists who in the beginning congregated in the park soon
found the necessity for a room and shrine as a symbol of the
Buddha. The hall which the Chaitya as its main shrine
originated with the rock cut halls of Ajants containing a
Stupa at one end and a hall in front for congregation. This
perhaps provided the form for the Watadage concept in Sri
Lanka, further developed over the years.
As a dwelling place for monks, was built a room near a
Chaitya. A complex with a number of rooms for several monks
came to be called the Sangarama. Viharas were originally of
mud and timber construction. These timber and mud buildings
have totally disappeared and are referred to in the texts.
The viharas built of stone and brick in later years remain
in ruins. Early caves converted, contain walls of stone and
brick and are identified by drip ledge inscriptions
indicating they are donated to the monks.
Sri Lankan architecture is not without its secular buildings
of palaces, assembly halls, council chambers, royal pleasure
gardens, houses of chieftains and farmers, rest halls and
many other buildings. We have in the island a complex
collection of these restored and documented.
In the field of town planning there are the capital cities,
the monastery and meditation parks, temple and the devala
villages, and irrigation schemes of village tanks and large
reservoirs fed by transbasin canals. There are also parks
and pleasure gardens for public use and for use of royalty.
A living tradition of pilgrimages and festivals for
generations, continue todate. The most important being the
full moon of May (Wesak), June (Poson) and August (Esala).
1894 - Architectural remains of Anuradhapura - James G. Simither
1931 - The temple of the tooth Kandy - A. M. Hocart
1946 - The stupa in Ceylon - S. Paranavithana
1972 - Glimpses of Ceylon past - S. Paranavithana
1990 - Buddhist tree temples in Sri Lanka - S. Bandaranayake
1993 - Heritage of Asia and Oceania - ICOMOS
Timber Architecture of Sri Lanka - L. K. Karunaratne
1993 - The cultural Triangle
UNESCO - Sri Lanka
Central - Cultural Fund