Classic Sinhalese civilization in Sri Lanka produced wonderful Buddhist architecture and statuary, elaborate temple art and detailed and exquisite cave frescoes. Modern works are more secular but many are still largely religious in nature.

Bryan Pfaffenberger wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Classical Sinhalese civilization excelled in Buddhist architecture, temple and cave frescoes, and large-scale sculpture. In colonial times artisans, few in number by 2001, produced fine ivory carvings, metalwork, and jewelry. A mid-twentieth-century school of Sinhalese painting called the Forty-Three Group sparked a renaissance of Sinhalese art that was expressed in a traditional idiom in the temple paintings of George Keyt. [Source: Bryan Pfaffenberger, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]

Some temples at the ancient classical cities have elaborately-carved moonstones that served as a kind of auspicious welcome mat to the temple. Moonstones are typically semicircles comprised of a series of rings representing a purifying fire. Inside the rings are a variety of symbolic motifs: lions (sickness), geese (purity), elephants (birth), serpents (desire), and bulls (death). At the center is a lotus flower. Moonstones are typically accompanied by guard stones often with the Naga king and his dwarf attendants.

Support for the arts comes from local and private sources . Whether nationally acclaimed or only locally recognized, Sri Lankan artists are primarily supported by the clients who commission or purchase their work. In addition, some larger corporations sponsor particular projects and the government gives some small stipends and positions of honor to notable artists. [Source: Bambi L. Chapin and Kalinga Tudor Silva, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Buddhist Art in Sri Lanka

According to the Encyclopedia of Buddhism: The Anuradhapura period (377 B.C. to A.D. 1017) witnessed the fluorescence of an economically advanced and artistically sophisticated culture. Although the only surviving examples of painting are the frescos of heavenly maidens (perhaps apsaras) found at Sigiriya, thousands of free-standing stone sculptures of the Buddha, scores of stone-carved bas-reliefs, and hundreds of bronzes are still extant, including the famous colossal images at Avukana and the meditative Buddhas that remain within the ruins of the Abhayagiri monastic complex at Anuradhapura. Early anthropomorphic images of the Buddha in Lanka bear a stylistic, and sometimes material, affinity with Buddha images created at Amaravati in south India, while images from the later Anuradhapura period, such as the eighth-century Avukana image, reflect the development of a distinctive Lankan style that emphasized the significance of the Buddha as a mahapuru a (cosmic person). [Source: Encyclopedia of Buddhism, The Gale Group Inc., 2004]

According to the Asia Society Museum: Sri Lanka has had a thriving Buddhist culture for more than 2,000 years. According to tradition, the religion was introduced in the mid-third century B.C. by missionaries sent by Ashoka (reigned ca. 272 – 231 B.C.), India's first great Buddhist king. The missionaries were led by Mahinda, who was possibly the son or brother of Ashoka.Sri Lanka's king, Devanampiyatissa, converted to Buddhism and the country's earliest monastic complex, the Mahavihara at Anuradhapura, was founded circa 236 B.C..

According to the Asia Society Museum: Sri Lanka's king, Devanampiyatissa, converted to Buddhism and the country's earliest monastic complex, the Mahavihara at Anuradhapura, was founded circa 236 B.C.. Around this time, a cutting from the bodhi tree under which Shakyamuni Buddha achieved enlightenment was brought from India to Sri Lanka by a nun named Sanghamitta and planted at the Mahavihara; the tree (or its descendent) still flourishes and is the most popular pilgrimage objective in Sri Lanka. Worship of the bodhi tree subsequently became an important part of Sri Lankan worship, and a bodhi tree shrine was established in every monastery. [Source: Asia Society Museum |~| ]

“Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka's capital from circa 500 B.C. to 993 C.E., became the center of the country's Buddhist culture and home to the three main monastic complexes: the Mahavihara, the Abhayagiri, and the Jetavana. Virtually all other Sri Lankan monasteries owed ecclesiastical allegiance to one of these three institutions, whose relative importance in any given period was determined by patronage from members of the ruling dynasty. Both Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism were practiced in Sri Lanka. Although Mahayana Buddhism was quite popular in Sri Lanka, especially from 300 C.E. to 993 C.E., it was the conservative Theravada Buddhist tradition that made the country so influential in Buddhist Southeast Asia.

Paintings at Sigiriya

The best examples of ancient Sri Lankan painting are found at Sigiriya (94 kilometers north of Kandy), a 200-meter-high (650-foot) -high, table-top block of granite topped by a magnificent 1.2-hectare (three-acre) fortress built in the A.D. 5th century by Kasypaya, a fearful king for protection from his half brother after the king murdered his father. The southern side of the Sigraya citadel was once covered with paintings, but all that remains today are two adjacent depression in the rock with depictions of “apsaras,” or celestial nymphs. Of the 500 figures painted onto the polished rock walls in 30 caves 1,500 years ago only 22 remain in one cave. Some paintings were damaged by a vandal in 1967.

One of the most outstanding features of Sigiriya are the famous Maidens of Sigiriya, beautiful life-size frescoes of voluptuous thin-waisted, bare-breasted women scratched in a granite overhang underneath the fortress about half way up the granite cliff. The breasts are large, firm and shapely.

The famous Maidens of Sigiriya are said to be the only non-religious paintings found in Sri Lanka. They are reached by a spiral staircase about halfway up the rock face. They are usually covered by a curtain to protect them from the elements. The frescoes are among the earliest ever painted, predating Michelangelo by around 1,000 years. They resemble women painted at the caves in Ajanta, India.

Near the frescoes is a mirrored wall, where graffiti written between the 6th to the 11th century can be seen Almost 700 of the inscription have been deciphered. Many are comments on the maidens. One reads: "The girl with the golden skin enticed the mind and eyes." Another reads: “The ladies who wear golden chains on their breasts beckon me.” Some believed the women were Kasyapa’s wives. “I saw the long-eyed ones of the King who, being separated from their lord, are worn out with grief and those eyes are comparable to full-blown lilies”. Another wrote that the golden-colored ones in the caves appeared as if they were hurling themselves down from the summit of the rock, being unable to console their hearts as, indeed, the King had died. A monk named Sirinaga speculated they were inmates of the King’s harem who wanted to escape.

On getting to the frescoes, Patrick Wullaert wrote: "A metal spiral staircase leads up to the Sigiriya Damsels, beautiful - both in subject, execution and colour - paintings of half-naked women. Nobody really knows who these ladies are. They may be women in waiting, or apsaras, heavenly nymphs. To me they definitely are the latter !”

These sensuous are not characteristic of paintings found in Sri Lanka. Most paintings are in the form of repeated images of th Buddha or scenes from life like those found at Dambulla and Polonnaruwa. See Sigiriya, Dambulla and Polonnaruwa. .

Maidens of Sigiriya: Who Are They?

Several scholars have interpreted the frescoes in different ways. To some, they depict female members of the royal household. Since most of them are in pairs, these have been described as portraying a queen and a maid or a lady-in-waiting. Difference in colour indicates that they are different personalities, these scholars argue. Pioneer archaeologist, H C P Bell says they are ladies of the king’s court on their way to a nearby temple because they are carrying flowers and moving in one direction. Another theory is that they are Kasyapa’s queens with attendants bringing floral offerings to a shrine, which seems to be located in Thusitha heaven, since the figures appear to be half immersed in the clouds denoting that they are in heavenly spheres. Are they Kasyapa’s queens mourning for the royal husband, was another theory about the damsels.

To renowned interpreter of Asian art and culture, Dr Ananda Coomaraswamy, the ladies in the frescoes are Apsaras (celestial nymphs) because the figures are cut off at the waists by conventional clouds. Dr Senerat Paranavitana, the respected archaeologist says that the figures represent Lightning Princesses (vijju kumari) and Cloud Damsels (meghalata). He interprets the whole of Sigiriya as the abode of God Kuvera.

Even if the artist depicted celestial beings, he was obviously influenced by the queens in the King’s court when drawing the figures. Cornets and tiaras crown the head; flowers and ribbons adorn the hair; heavy ornaments and jewelry are worn in the ears, neck, breast, arms and wrists. There is a feeling of movement in that the bodies are bent forward or sideways. The eyes are cast down with either a downward look or a side long glance. The eye lids being narrow, there is a distinct look of them being half closed.

Buddhist Sculptures in Sri Lanka

Most the of classical art found in Sri Lanka is in the form of Buddhist sculptures. There are sitting Buddhas, standing Buddhas and reclined Buddhas with a variety of mudras (hand positions). Many early statutes were made of limestones and deteriorated in the weather. Ones that have lasted better include ones made of granite, marble, and other kinds of hard rock. Small sculptures were made of jade, ivory, crystal, coral emerald, and pink quart.

The earliest Buddha images found in Sri Lanka are of the standing type and they resemble those found in Amaravati in India. Sri Lanka Buddha images from this period have largely been made from limestone and are said to be much more impressive than those in India. Images and sculpture show the influence of the Gupta period in India. The famous Isurumuniya lovers is a fine example of this influence. See Below

According to the Asia Society Museum: Worship of the bodhi tree has been an important part of Sri Lankan worship, and a bodhi tree shrine was established in every monastery. Each consists of seated images of the Buddha placed around the tree facing the four cardinal directions. Unlike Indian representations of the Buddha seated under the bodhi tree, in Sri Lankan images, the Buddha holds his hands in the gesture of meditation (dhyana mudra) instead of in the earth-touching gesture (bhumisparsha mudra) that Shakyamuni used to call the earth to witness his right to achieve enlightenment. [Source: Asia Society Museum |~| ]

“Like southern India, the island was long a port-of-call for those who traveled along the international shipping lanes that crisscrossed the Bay of Bengal. The complex interrelationship between Sri Lankan and Southeast Asian sculpture produced by the transmission of Buddhist thought and imagery along the trade routes is illustrated by the provenance of a small standing Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. This delicate sculpture, reportedly found in southern Thailand, has been assigned a Sri Lankan origin, although some scholars have proposed Thailand, Vietnam, or Cambodia as its place of creation. The stylistic links that have caused so many scholars to disagree over the provenance of this piece suggest the important, yet under-researched, role Sri Lanka played in the diffusion of Buddhist art styles in Southeast Asia. The practice of Mahayana Buddhism in Sri Lanka is also evidenced by a four-armed image of the Bodhisattva Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future. [Source: Asia Society Museum

Buddhist Sculptures in Anuradhapura

Anuradhapura (205 kilometers northeast of Colombo) is Sri Lanka's oldest and most important Sinhalese capital. Founded in the 4th century B.C. it was the capital of the Anuradhapura Kingdom till the beginning of the A.D. 11th century . During this period it was a wealthy city and remained one of the most stable and durable centers of political power and urban life in South Asia and created a unique culture and a great civilization. The focal point of Anuradhapura is the sacred Bodhi tree. The Tissa Wewa, Bas-awakkulama and Nuwara Wewa and tanks flank the main area of ruins.

The Archeological Museum at Anuradhapura has a fine collection of statutes, carvings and freezes that have been unearthed at the site. Avukana Buddha Statue (along Kurunegala-Dambulla road or Galewala-Kalawewa road, accessible by train) is in Anuradhapura but not in the sacred city of Anuradhapura. Nevertheless it attracts large numbers of pilgrims who pay homage to this statue, which is one of the largest in Sri Lanka and faces Kalawewa.

The standing Buddha statue including the pedestal is 13 meters (42 feet) in height. The right hand depicts the Abhaya Mudra (the upper arm of the right hand is raised, with the palm outwards, indicating freedom from fear). The left hand is holding a robe. One of the special features of this statue is that both hands are turned upwards. On the head is the Siraspatha (A feature over head of the Buddha statue), excluding the Siraspatha and the pedestal, the height of the statue 11.8 meters (38 feet 10 inches).

The rock cut colossus at Avukana, which is almost in the round and there being a narrow strip left to hold the image to the rock is one of the magnificent statues of Ceylon. From the ruins of the foundation and the walls, it can be seen that the statue would have been enclosed in a building. The hood over the statue is a modern construction. It is believed that King Dhatusena the architect of Kalawewa is the builder of the statue.

Samadhi Buddha Statue

"Samadhi Budu Pilimaya" is an image of Buddha dated to the A.D. 3rd Century. Seated under a Bo tree, it depicts the Lord Buddha in the serene state of Samadhi, or deep meditation. It is said that Great Indian statesman Jawaharlal Nehru found solace and strength in a photograph of this statue which he kept with him when he was imprisoned by the British in 1940s. The kindness and compassion of Lord Buddha flows through the half closed eyes. It is regarded as one is the finest Meditation Buddha statue in the world. [Source: My Sri Lanka ]

The Samadhi Buddha is located in Mahamevnawa Park at Anuradhapura. The Buddha’s position — the Dhyana Mudra (cross- legged with upturned palms, placed one over the other on the lap) — is a meditation posture associated with his first Enlightenment. This statue is 2.2 meters (7 feet 3 inches) in height and carved from dolomite marble. It was found in 1886 at Mahamevnawa Park. It is similar to the Toluvila statue from the same period. Both are similar to Gupta period Buddha images. It is believed that the original Samadhi Buddha was gilded and had inlaid eyes made of precious gems. It is likely that it was one of the four statues around a sacred Bodhi tree shrine. This is the only one that has survived largely intact. [Source: Wikipedia]

The Toluwila Statue was found among the ruins in a temple at Toluwila in Anuradhapura. It is 1.7 meters (5 feet 9 inches) in height. The distance between the knees is also 1.7 meters. The width of the shoulders is about one meter (3 feet 5 inches). At present this statue sits near the main entrance to the Colombo Museum.

Isurumuniya and Its Splendid Rock Carvings

Isurumuniya Vihara (near Tissa Wewa tank in Anuradhapura) is a rock temple dated to the 3rd century B.C.. It is known for its rock carvings, which include one of elephants splashing water and a another of man with a horse’s head. Many of the best carvings are in a small museum within the temple.

Isurumuniya was built by King Devanampiyatissa as a residence for 500 high-caste children after they were ordained as monks. King Kasyapa I (473-491 A.D.) renovated this vihara (a Buddhist temple-monastery) and named was as "Boupulvan, Kasubgiri Radmaha Vehera" after the king’s two daughters. There is connection to a cave. Above is a cliff. A small stupa is built on it. It can be seen that the constructional work of this stupa belong to the present period. Lower down on both sides of a cleft, in a rock that appears to rise out of a pool, are carved figures of elephants. On the rock is carved the figure of a horse.

The carving of Isurumuniya lovers on the slab has been brought from another place and placed it there. In this 6th Century Gupta style carving a woman, seated on the man's lap, lifts a warning finger, probably as a manifestation of her coyness; but the man carries on regardless. The figures may represent Dutugemunu's son Saliya and the law caste (Sadol Kula) maiden Asokamala whom he loved. It's known that he gave up the throne for her.

A few yards away from this vihara is the Magul Uyana. The ancient Magul Uyana is situated close to Isurumuni Vihara and Tissa Wewa tnak. In it are various ponds. There are remains of small cells, seats made of stone steps and taps. According to legend Prince Saliya met Asokamala in this garden. The largest pond in this garden is 31-x-55 feet in length and breadth. This is not a place of worship. About a kilometer to the south of Isurumuniya in a mountainous region is Vessagiri, with 23 caves made of stone. Above the caves are inscribed the names of donors. These are the oldest inscriptions in Ceylon written in Brahmi script.

Along with the other piece of sculpture showing the man and the horse, they are two of the most beautiful and most famous carvings of ancient Sri Lanka. Isurumuniya also boasts of a number of elephants carved out of stone. Incidentally, Isurumuniya is the first rock temple mentioned in our history. It is mentioned that 500 wealthy persons who had been ordained came for relaxation to this rock. On account of their being isurumat (wealthy), the place was called Isurumuni.

Buddhist Images in Polonnaruwa

Polonnaruwa was the capital of Sri Lanka from the A.D. 11th to 13th century. It is believed to have been founded by Hindu kings from the Chola dynasty in southern India after they sacked Anuradhapurra.

Gal Vihara (within the Northern Group of Polonnaruwa) is the most photographed of Polonnaruwa’s attractions Here are four Buddha images carved from a single 32-meter (100-foot) -long granite outcropping in the 12th century. They are regarded as among the most beautiful ancient Buddhist statues in the world. A five-meter (15-foot) -tall seated Buddha is flanked by a life-size image. The standing Buddha is about eight meters (25 feet0 tall. The languid, graceful reclining Buddha, stretches for 12 meters (50 feet). A few pilgrims come here and leave offerings.

The images of Gal Vihara were made during the rule of King Parakramabahu I. The first is a samadhi image in a meditation posture. The second is inside a cave. The third is standing Buddha image with crossed arms. The fourth is a reclining Buddha depicting the Buddha’s death or moments before death before he achieves nirvana after death. The third, standing, Buddha image is highly appreciated as it indicates Buddha’s great mercy and sorrows also see the ability of the artist who made the black patch going over the nose and avoided going over the eyes.

George Keyt and Forty-Three Group

The mid 20th-century “Forty-Three Group” school of art fueled a resurgence of interest in Sinhalese art. The leader of the movement, George Keyt (1901-1993), was known for his temple painting. George Keyt's name is synonymous with Sri Lankan painting. His work has many sides and is famous as an innovative genius-one who created new art forms. Keyt's artistic career spanned more then seven decades and his work won recognition abroad as well in Sri Lanka.

Keyt was born in Kandy. His parents were of Indo-Dutch origin. He was educated at Trinity College one of the leading educational institutions in the Kandy area. His passion for art began while he was still at school. Keyt won his first art prize at the age of 15 and his first public exhibit was a pen and ink drawing displayed at the annual exhibition of the Ceylon society of arts. Between 1947 and 2003 Keyt held more then 25 one-man exhibitions in Sri Lanka.

Buddhism has played a leading role in the art and work of George Keyt. From an early age he was drawn towards the teaching of the Buddha and this influenced him in his works later in life. Championing the cause of Buddhist revival, he wrote numerous prose and verse pieces in Buddhist publications, While contributing decorative drawings on religious subjects as well" George Keyt has maintained a degree of individuality in his paintings from the start. His paintings have covered a number of varied themes, including Buddhism and music. The Jataka tales (stories of the previous lives of the Buddha) have been featured extensively in his artwork. He has also done murals on temples in which the monastic, court and village life of the old times are depicted.

George Keyt was a founding member of “Forty-Three Group”, one of the most influential art groups in Sri Lanka. It was founded in 1943. Eight artists and Keyt got together to and spread the group into a number of European countries from 1952 on wards. Several of Keyt’s painting were taken to London for exhibition and are still on display there. The George Keyt Foundation which was setup in 1988 to honor the artist and promote his work, has tried to get those painting returned to Sri Lanka. The foundation is also aiming to set up a modern art gallery to help to young and aspiring artists and provide them a place to display their paintings. The George Keyt foundation was situated at 42/5, Ananda Coomarasvamy Mavatha Colombo 3. It may not be there anymore.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Sri Lanka Tourism (, Government of Sri Lanka (, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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