Sri Lanka is famous for its Buddhist art and architecture, particularly the massive dagobas, or stupas, at Anuradhapura and the images of Lord Buddha at the Gal Vihara in Polonnaruwa. Yet many visitors don’t realize that another impressive repository of Buddhist art beckons just ten kilometres outside Colombo along the Kandy Road.
The temple of Kelaniya is one of the most important places of worship for Buddhists living in and around the capital. Believed to have been visited by the Buddha himself, the temple has played an important role in nurturing and spreading Theravada Buddhism throughout South Asia. It not only provides a fascinating insight into Sinhala culture and history but also features some delightful murals and carvings, including a frieze of dwarves frozen in a range of enchanting gestures.
The exact date of Kelaniya’s origin is unknown, but according to the Mahavamsa the Buddha himself visited the site on two separate occasions. Over the centuries, the fortunes of the temple have reflected those of Lanka, the “shining land”, with high points marked by artistic excellence and such low points as times of colonial domination.
Though Kelaniya has been a place of worship for over 2,000 years, the present temple buildings date mostly from between 1880 and 1940 base days, the temple is surrounded by a small village of simple houses, but it must have been a marvellous place to set eyes on in the 14th and 15th centuries, when poets extolled the city’s praises, as did Sri Rahula thera in Salalihini Sandesaya: “Enter the great city of Kelaniya/Whose beauty from moment to moment is ever renewed/Forests of bell-hung banners enclose its fine dwellings/And glittering gems are set on its pinnacle tips. (The inhabitants of the city seemed to be entranced by its atmosphere).
Amorous husbands and wives, each with no thought but for the other /Wearing exquisite garlands of special fragrance/Their bodies anointed with sandal paste and saffron/Lie in that city’s moonlit balconies”.
It is worth approaching the temple slowly to take in all the details on the way. It sits on a manmade hillock on a plain by the banks of the Kelani Ganga. At the foot of the flight of steps facing the river are guardstones , each with a bas-relief Naga king holding a flowerpot and a twisted vine, as can be seen outside most Sri Lankan temples.
On either side of the king, in the lower corners, are two dwarves, called yakka, who are spirit attendants of Kuvera, the god of wealth. Like elephants, dwarves are believed to have great protective powers, which is why the main temple is ringed with them.
At the top of the steps, standing beneath a stately triple archway, the visitor faces the three great symbols of the “triple gem”: on the right is the dagoba, representing the living presence of Buddha; in the centre is the main temple building, signifying the community of monks, or Sangha; and finally on the left is a thriving bo (or pipal) tree, which reminds us of the Buddha’s enlightenment and as such symbolizes his teaching.
Facing the dagoba is an encased statue of Vihara Maha Devi, presented by monks of the Thai Sangha in 1990, and behind her is a small and colourful devala, or shrine, dedicated to the god Vibheeshana, an ally of Rama in the Ramayana epic.
The dagoba appears enormous to those who have not seen the massive structures at Anuradhapura, which rival the pyramids of Egypt for sheer size. The Kelaniya dagoba is said to contain, buried within its depths, a gem-studded throne on which the Buddha sat on his second visit here. It is certainly venerated by the local faithful who walk round it piously, heads bowed and floral offerings clasped between palms.
The stupa is in the form of a paddy-heap, one of the earliet styles found in Sri Lanka (other common shapes are bell and bubble), and reaches a height of almost 30 metres. Seeming to take nourishment from the offerings of devotees at its base, the majestic bo tree spreads its boughs wide, offering shade for those who come to pay their respects.
The tree is surrounded by a golden railing and has a simple stone Buddha image among its roots. Devotees bring lotus, water lilies and fragipani to decorate the ledge around the tree’s base, and the pungent aroma of incense pervades the area.
Flanked by these natural and man-made symbols, the main temple building is an imposing structure that owes its existence to a couple of Westerners, Henry Olcott and Helena Blavatsky, who came to the country on a spiritual pilgrimage in 1880.
Their fervour led to a resurgence of faith, and they managed to secure donations sufficient for the reconstruction of the building, which had fallen into disrepair. The delightful friezes and many of the temple’s best murals were added during this century by local artist Soliyas Mendis, whose work has drawn comparisons with creations from the golden age of Polonnaruwa in the 12th century.
The chubby dwarves endear the viewer instantly with their coy expressions and unusual postures.
All of them play a part in seeming to support the temple wall, yet none of them appears to suffer from the effort. No two of them are alike; some stand on their hands, and some face inwards, while others blow on flutes or strangely shaped horns.
Here and there plump fingers rest on rounded buttocks or a pudgy stomach, giving a sense of innocent sensuality. There is the undoubted influence of Indian classical art at work here, but the result is unique – a wonder to behold.
The dwarves are set between other friezes of geese, representing the distinction between good and evil, and elephants, the island’s holiest of creatures. The rest of the temple walls are decorated with sculptures of humans, more dwarves and creatures that seem to be combinations of various species. Beside the steps to the main entrance, the curled trunk of a protective elephant has been worn down by the tapping of coins on it for luck.
On entering the temple, the first sight is of a massive relief carving of the Naga king Manihakkitha. The walls and ceilings of the temple interior are covered with richly coloured and sharply detailed murals recounting both the life of Lord Buddha and episodes in the history of the temple.
One of Mendis’ murals depicts the razing of Kelaniya by the Portuguese – the first of three European powers to subject Sri Lanka to colonial rule.
Not all of Kelaniya’s bad times were caused by outsiders. Internal intrigue and mistrust sometimes triggered disaster. One eye-catching mural of a monk being dropped in a pot of boiling oil refers to an incident when the monk, acting for the king’s brother, delivered a love letter to the queen, which was intercepted.
The outraged king was hardly any gentler on his wife, who was bound and drowned in the Kelani Ganga. Other panels depict the Buddha’s first appearance at Kelaniya (in which Mendis captures wonderfully the expressions of awe on the faces of shocked locals) and the arrival in Sri Lanka of the Buddha’s tooth hidden in the hair of a princess.
As does his sculpture, Mendis’ painting shows influence from the modern Bengal school, but the subjects seem to dance with a life of their own.
A constant stream of devotees moves through the temple, dropping handfuls of rice into an urn as symbolic offerings, lighting incense and bringing newborns for blessing and initiation into the religion.
In contrast to the rich colours and movement on the walls of the rest of the temple, the innermost shrine, called the Hall of Perfumes, is backed by a painting of a blue sky with a single mountain peak.
A white gauze hangs between the small, golden, seated Buddha image and visitors, who prostrate themselves and sit in silent prayer in the temple’s hushed interior.
The pious activities of its devotees, as much as the temple’s fine sculptures and paintings, make a visit here a special experience.
Worshippers come every day of the week; on a fullmoon, or poya, day, it gets very crowded. The greatest crowds of all turn out for the temple’s annual perahera when people and elephants alike are dressed in their finest for an unforgettable pageant.
Map of Kelaniya Raja Maha Viharaya
Travel Directions to Kelaniya Raja Maha Viharaya