Gal Viharaya (Rock Temple) at Ancient Capital of Polonnaruwa (ගල් විහාරය)

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Gal Viharaya or the Rock Hewn Shrine at Polonnaruwa is one of the most impressive antiquities seen in the island of Sri Lanka and possibly not rivalled throughout the Continent of India. This magnificent group of gigantic figures carved from the grey rock that forms their background was built by King Parakramabahu (1153-1186) and was part of the Uthararama Complex.

The first European to record this lost treasure was Lieutenant Fagon who pushed through massive jungles in search of the lost kingdom of Polonnaruwa in 1820. He reports

“In advancing about half a mile further in the jungle I came upon what at first view appeared a large black rock, about 80 ft. long and 30 high in the centre, and sloping towards the ends, and on advancing a few steps further found myself under a black and gigantic human figure at least 25 ft. high. I cannot describe what I felt at the moment.

On examination I found this to be a figure of Budhoo in an upright posture, of excellent proportions and in an attitude, I think, uncommon, his hands laid gracefully across his breast and his robe falling from his left arm.

Close on his left lies another gigantic figure of the same sacred personage, in the usual recumbent posture.1 climbed up to examine it more minutely and found that the space between the eyes measured one foot, the length of the nose 2 ft. 4 in., and the little finger of the hand under his head 2 feet. The size of the figure may be guessed from these proportions.

On the left of the standing figure is a small door of the Vihari, and on the right of the door another figure of the god of the same proportions as the former two and in the common sitting attitude. These figures are cut out clear from the rocks, and finely executed ; but whether each is formed of one or more pieces I forgot to examine.

The entrance to the Vihari is arched with a pilaster on each side cut out of the rock, the old wooden door in good preservation. Within sits Budhoo on a throne, a little above the human size with his usual many headed and many-handed attendants. The apartment is narrow and the ceiling low and painted in red ornament, the whole resembling others that I have seen in the Seven Corles, Matale, etc.

Between the door and the standing figure the rock is made smooth for about 6 ft. square, and this space is covered with a close written Kandian [sic] inscription perfectly legible.

1 may have overlooked many interesting points in this great monument of superstition, but it was nearly dark and 1 was obliged to return to Topary. Various names are assigned by the people to the other buildings, but they all agree on calling this Galle Vihari.”

Twenty years afterwards (1841) Major Forbes included a description of the “Gal Vihare” in his notice of the ancient structures of Polonnaruwa:

“Projecting from the perpendicular face of a large rock, in the strongest relief, are three colossal figures of Buddha : they are in the usual positions, sitting, standing, and reclining; the last-mentioned being upwards of forty feet in length. According to minute directions which the Cingalese possess, these positions of Gautama are, and his features ought to be, retained without variation. Between the sitting and standing figures, the Isuramuni [sic], or Kalugalla vihare, has been cut in the hard rock. In this cavern-temple part of the stone has been left, and afterwards shaped into the figure of Buddha seated on a throne: the two pillars in front of this wihare are also part of the solid rock. These works were completed in the twelfth century, and in the reign of Prakrama Bahoo ; yet are not only undecayed, but the most minute ornaments are sharp and undiminished by time or weather.”

The first statute you will come across is a seated Buddha in meditation. He is seated on a lotus. The rock behind the statue is decorated with carvings of “vimana”. Four smaller Buddha statues can be seen on these decorations.

Next is a smaller statue of Buddha (about 15 feet high) carved into the rock. On the sides of the statue are two deities. It is believed this carving represents the Buddhas’ visit to heaven called “Thusitha” to preach to his mother.

It is said that this statue was painted with pure gold and treasure hunters have burnt logs on the statue and melted the gold.

Third is a standing statue of Buddha. This has been disputed by some and think this is the statue of Ananda Thero at the site of lord Buddha’s passing away. This 23 feet tall statue is thought to be done by a later king as the chronicles talk about only two statues in the seating position and one statue in the lying position which was done by King Parakramabahu (1153-1186).

Next and last is a massive statue of Buddha passing away. This is 80 feet long. The ear lid falling along the body and one foot slightly behind the other (The toes are not positioned equally on the feet) are signs that this is not Lord Buddha resting but at his death.

References

  • H.C.P. Bell, 1911. Archaeological Survey of Ceylon : North Central, Northern and Central Provinces – Annual Report 1907. Colombo: H.C. Cottle.

Also See

Map of Gal Viharaya (Rock Temple) at the Ancient Capital of  Polonnaruwa

Please click on the button below to load the Dynamic Google Map (ගූගල් සිතියම් පහලින්)
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The map above also shows other places of interest within a approximately 20 km radius of the current site. Click on any of the markers and the info box to take you to information of these sites

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Driving Directions to Polonnaruwa Sacred City

The modern town of Polonnaruwa is also known as New Town, and the other part of Polonnaruwa remains the royal ancient city of the Kingdom of Polonnaruwa.

Route from Colombo to Polonnaruwa Sacred CityRoute from Kandy to Polonnaruwa Sacred City
Through: Central Highway – Kurunegala – Dambulla
Distance from Colombo: 230 km
Travel Time: 4.45 hours
Driving Directions: See on Google map
Through : Maradankadawala – Habarana
Distance: 103 km
Travel Time: 2 hours
Driving Directions: see on Google map
Route from Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa Sacred CityRoute from Batticaloa to Polonnaruwa Sacred City
Through : Maradankadawala – Habarana
Distance: 103 km
Travel Time: 2 hours
Driving Directions: See on Google map
Through : Maradankadawala – Habarana
Distance: 103 km
Travel Time : 2 hours
Driving Directions: see on Google map

Photos before restoration from www.imagesofceylon.com


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