Among the numerous motifs that adorn the crafts of Sri Lanka, the mythical figure of makara stands out as one of the most fascinating configurations. Though it had become a favourite element in the arts and crafts of Sri Lanka, its origin, as with many other examples of motifs in Sinhalese art and architecture, has to be traced to pre-Christian ages of the mainland. According to the early researches, the origins of Sinhalese aesthetic aspects of art in our cultthe earliest form of the makara has been traced to the Lomas Rishi Cave of the Brabar hills in Bihar. Since then it has appeared not long after in the temples of Bharhut, Sanci, and Amaravati; in addition its appearance as an architectural feature has been noted in many countries in the Asian region, such as Cambodia, Jawa, Campa and Sri Lanka
The forms of these appearances have been so varied that many eminent commentators have defined the motif in different ways. Thus Grunwedel in his Buddhist Art of India (p.59) has thought it to be a sea-elephant; on the other hand JP Vogel in his book, The Relations between the Art of India and Jawa (pp.20-29) had been quite convinced “that there cannot be any shadow of doubt it is a crocodile“. What is more, some of the drawings of the animal are shown with four legs, while the vast majority of the figures show only two legs.
Meanwhile the description of the animal appearing in the Rajawaliya (v.192) runs as follows:
“The makara has the front of an elephant, and the feet of a lion, ear of a pig, the body of a fish living in water, having teeth turned inside and eyes of those of hanuman and a nice tail.”
There are other instances where the motif had appeared. It is found on the flag of Kamadeva, Indian God of Love, and is named Makaradwaja. In the symbolism of the Zodiac the house of Capricorn is given the name Makara. Its appearance in the architraves of early forms occurs in different ways, as for instance a head-dress ornament, as an ear-ring called makara kundala; in jewellery it is used as a pendant called makara padakkama. It is also found as medallions on railings and cross-bars, as a gargoyle carrying offering waters from a linga shrine; a later motif of pearly garlands suspendent from a kirti-mukha jaws of a makara, the extraction of which from its jaws is considered a proverbial example of courage (Yaksas – Ananda Coomaraswamy, Yaksas II, p.144)
In the architraves of various buildings in Sri Lanka the makara and the makara torana appear very frequently both at the entrance to a temple where as image of the Buddha is placed as well as the structure where the image is placed. A very striking example of an instance where the makara torana is placed at the entrance to the temple is at the Temple of the Tooth , Kandy .
Meanwhile, an example of a makara torana is placed over an image of the Buddha is the one at Danagirigala Vihara in Galaboda Korale which is reproduced above. There are numerous examples of this type of makara torans in various parts of the country both in their sculpture as well as their paintings. With regard to the latter Dr. Senaka Bandaranaike in his book Rock and Wall Paintings comments thus; “a three dimensional rendering often similar in scope to the panel compositions as contributing one of the most complex achievements of polychrome Kandyan sculpture” (p. 116). With regard to an image at Madawal, the same author on p.117 states that the chamber is dominated by “diminutive makara torana of painted and carved wood in the centre of which is placed a seated Buddha image…. the makara torana itself has the usual triple dragon arch with the makara resting on throna like brackets supported by dwarfs… The entire makara torana conception combines two and three dimentional representation and vertical and planar perspective.” The writer finally concludes that a “complex cosmological symbolism is expressed in a remarkable combination of economy and elaboration.”
Apart from the makara torans the makara has also been adopted to adorn balutrades of the stairs leading to a vihara . There are considerable differences in these sculptures as the makara balutrades have on the sides of the wall on which they are resting different illustrations of other carvings as well. Thus on the balustrade at the vihara at Lankatilaka at Polonnaruwaon the space between the extended tongue of the makara and the ground panel is the carving of a lion seated on its hind legs while backing the pilaster on which the makara is resting.
In a publication on Anuradhapura issued by the Archeological Department in 1964 is the picture of the remains of a balustrade discovered among the ruins on the north of Anuradhapura. In this balustrade on the outside below the extended tongue of a makara is a complete scene of a vihara building, a cave, animals such as monkeys, mongoose, deer, cobras, men and women and birds as well as trees carved. Similar makara balustrades appear in many other places such as the Dalada Maligawa , Thuparama , Ruwanweliseya , Abhyagiri ,Jetawana Vihara as well as Mayurapada Pirivena and Toluwila Ruins, but it is not possible in a short account of this nature to give more details about their contents.
The legend of makara is related by M. D. Raghavan in his book, The Karava of Ceylon, Society and Culture. According to him the story is popularly sung in verse form among the Ammanai. In this story King Aditi is described as a scion of Kurukula, a branch of the Chandrakula, the most illustrious of the Chandra races as sung by the ancient bards.
The central theme of the story is the glorification of makara as the symbol of the Kurukula races. It is a composite animal, a concept of early cultures, a symbol of creative power, a symbol of “Sakti”. “It has the head of a crocodile, the horns of a goat, the body of an antelope or deer, a curved tail like that of a snake with the head of a fish and feet like those of a panther or a dog, with two horns on the forehead, its sides and bloated belly covered with leopard like spots, it is like nothing on earth.”
Raghavan further states “The makara embodies in its combination the fundamental symbolism of Traditional Psychology. It is symbolic of the Five Elements. In so far as it belongs to the Element Earth, it is like a creeping snake. In so far as it belongs to the Element Water, it is like a fish. In so far as it belongs to the Element Fire, it is panther like. In so far as it belongs to the Element Air, it is like a deer or a mountain goat. Extending this to the four elements of manifestation, the nature of the makara is of a composite dragon.
Raghavan also states further that Varuna alone has subjected it properly and makara is the vehicle of Varuna, the Heavenly Father and Spiritual Ruler of the world. According to Ananda Coomaraswamy (Yaksas-1931) the makara is the great Leviathan moving in the waters and is obviously a symbol of the waters as will appear from its association more specifically of the essence, the principle of life.
With regard to the appearance of the makara symbol appearing on the flag of Kama, Raghavan states that it could lead to two interpretations depending on the application of the symbolism “alternatively to the desire which works its way in the world of Sansara, or to the desire which animates the soul in the path of return to God-reality.”
L. T. P. Manju Sri has shown in the sketch reproduced above, the many forms local artists have shows in their paintings at different places. Sketch No. 1 the artist is unkown; sketch No. 2 is from the Kettarama Vihara in Bibile; No. 3 is from the dana sala of the outer cella of Sunandarama Vihara in Ambalangoda; No. 4 is from the outer cella of the Viharamulla Vihara, in Bibillegama (18th Century) and No. 5 is from Timbiri Vihara, Monaragala and No. 6 from the audience hall of Palkumbura Vihara (18th Century).
It could be noted that no two sketches have any close resemblance to each other so that it would be evident that each one of these artists acted on his own conception of the Makara.
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- Ancient Heritage Sites of Sri Lanka