Although no monument has been clearly discovered which belongs to the period before Arahath Mahinda’s visit to the island in 3rd century BC, the chronicles record that the earliest form of Buddhist Architecture in Sri Lanka was the Mahiyanganaya and Girihadu Seya. Accrding to chronicals they have been built well before the parinirvana of Buddha in 543 BC.
It is obvious that any elevated terrace requires a flight of steps to reach the surface level above. The steps of ancient buildings were individual stones cut in to shape. A pole or railing is required to hold and provide ease to the climb. Through the passage of time this rail would have developed into an abacus now known Korawakgala decorated with depictions of artistic stone carvings on it. This also provided the stability to the stone steps and stopped any erosion. However, it seems that this stony rail structure did not contain any structural support itself to avoid a sudden collapse or a slide towards its front. A strong stony wedge deeply inserted into the ground would have solved this requirement which laid the foundation for a more advanced and a sophisticated guardstones to emerge. Another unique feature also grew along with this entrance architecture which the moonstone which adorned every flight of steps before the steps.
So we find 3 main unique components in the ancient Buddhist Architecture. They are
The moonstone (Sandakada Pahana) has been a permanent feature of the Buddhist building of all historical periods. This is a semi circular piece of stone which stood at the foot of a flight of steps in most Buddhist buildings. The sculptural design, in its main features, consists of a half lotus in the center, surrounded by concentric bands of a row of geese, a foliated pattern and a procession of animals.
Although the moonstone is generally semi circular, sometimes you will come across square or other shaped moonstones. It is thought that the moon stones originated as blank square stone and later developed in to a semi circular shape. This again developed to include multitude of carved decorations in later stages. But the moonstones in the monasteries where the forest dwelling monks lived maintained the blank semi circular shape.
The design of the moonstone has undergone many changes over time, But the moonstones show the highest level of creativity and the most highly ornate ones have generally been dated to 8th-10th centuries, towards the latter half of the Anuradhapura era. Those reflecting the latest changes belong to the 18th century. Degaldoruwa provides the best of these latter (Devendra, 1965).
In most of the richer moonstones of Anuradhapura Era, the outer edge is designed with a ring of flames and below that is a ring filled with 4 types of animals – The elephant, the horse, the lion, and the bull chasing each other. Some moonstones show these beasts in their own semi circular band. The next is a semi circle of a creeper with a wavy stem with foliage (“liyawela”). Next is a line of swans with a twig of flower and a leaf on their mouth. Next is again a floral pattern and at the center is lotus with petals all around the semi circle on the moonstone.
The earliest investigator to consider of that these intrinsic carvings were meant to communicate some idea was H.C.P. Bell. In 1891, he, with bis assistant, Mr. (later Dr.) D.. M. Wiekremasingha, excavated the Vijayarama monastery to the north of Anuradhapura where he discovered small bronze figures of the guardian deities of the quarters (dik-palas), buried under the floor of each of the four porches at the cardinal points of the edifice. Associated with the figures of the dik-palas were also found bronze figurines of animals the elephant on the east, the horse on the south, the lion on the north and the bull on the west. These animals are not the vehicles of the respective guardians of the quarters Judging from the positions in which the effigies of the four animals were found at Vijayarama coupled with the detail of Buddhist cosmology according to which four rivers flow out of the Anotatta lake from the four directions, respectively, through mouths of these four animals, Mr. Bell concluded that they symbolized the quarters: elephant, east; horse, south; lion north and bull, west. Further, Bell inferred that the purpose of representing these animals on moonstones at the entrance to buildings was to indicate that these shrines were open to all Buddhist worshippers of the four quarters (Paranavitana, 1954).
In 1952, William E. Ward attempted to interpret the lotus which fills the most inner half of the moonstone. He describes each part of the moonstone from the outer ring but offers an interpretation only for the inner lotus form. He states that since the moonstone is the first step to a temple, monastery or palace, it is plausible to consider that this “lotus” step becomes a part of symbolical offering on one self when entering a sacred place (Ward, 1952).
Both the above interpretation are only partial picking out certain components of the carving of a moonstone and Paranavithana provided a more detailed interpretation of all the semi-rings of the moonstone.
Professor Paranavithana believes that the outer ring of fire represents the never ending life and the pains of passion associated with it. Moreover it says to the devotee who approaches the shrine, that he too must realize this if he were to attain his goal, which is the same as that attained by the Buddha.
After the ring of fire, you find a band of animals (generally four), elephant, bull, lion and horse. Paranavithana noting that the animals on the moonstones are not stationary but are moving in a procession chasing each other. He looks at the richest moonstones of Anuradhapura and notes that band of animals starts with a elephant and ends with a elephant indication a full circle of the four animals chasing each other. Thus the animals are following each other in a never ending circle. This is Sansara (the circle of life and death) with its never ending circle of birth, decay, disease and death After the ring of fire, you find a band of animals (generally four), elephant, bull, lion and horse. Paranavithana noting that the animals on the moonstones are not stationary but are moving in a procession chasing each other. He looks at the richest moonstones of Anuradhapura and notes that band of animals starts with a elephant and ends with a elephant indication a full circle of the four animals chasing each other. Thus the animals are following each other in a never ending circle. This is Sansara (the circle of life and death) with its never ending circle of birth, decay, disease and death (“Chathurarya Sathya”). The idea of the Buddha having gone beyond and above the world surrounded by these perils is also conveyed. Its not clear which animal represent each stage. If we may take the elephant to symbolize birth, the bull, decay; lion, disease and horse, death. But difference of opinion is possible as to whether decay or disease should follow birth. The last of the quartet, horse, may indicate death.
The third band, from outside, of the elaborately decorated moonstones contains a handsome undulating scroll of leaves and flowers. This creaper represents the desires of man, which leads to the never ending circle of existence.
Next is a motif of swans. In ancient India and Sri Lanka, it is said that the swan has the reputation for ability to discriminate between good and bad; when given a mixture of mill and water, it would drink the milk, leaving the water behind. The swan indicates the leaving the desires behind and moving to the next level.
In some moonstones (Nos. and g), the band of swans is separated from the lotus by a scroll, the flowers of which resemble water-lilies. This scroll is far less complicated in its design than the outer one, symbolizing therefore a state of existence in which the force of tanha has been kept under control. Perhaps this band is meant to represent existence in the heavenly worlds as per Paranavithana.
He uses the study of Ananda Coomaraswamy’s work on studying the meaning of Lotus an icon in India and Sri Lanka and believes that the lotus represent the ultimate bliss of “Nibbana”.
However eminent scholar and historian D.T. Devendra in 1965 published and alternative interpretation of the moonstone design as a representation of the Anavatapta Vila (lake). According to him the moonstone is just a floor mat, nothing more. This is the reason that the earliest moonstones were square. The slab, plain or decoratively beautified, was meant for the feet to be wiped on. That was its function and its homely use is borne out by the position given it in the plan. The use of the animals is purely decorative and convey nothing of symbolism.
Another interesting fact is that the bull in the moonstones was apparently dropped in the Pollonnaruwa era (see Vatadage in Pollonnaruwa). This is thought to be the influence of Hindus. The bull is a sacred animal to the Hindus and trampling of this symbol was probably disrespectful. With the omission of the bull the lion too have been taken a way from the moonstone as the lion is used to represent the Sinhala Race. With the omission of these two animals, the bull moved on to a pedestal on the side of the Balustrade and the lion is carved on the outer wall of the Balustrade itself.
Moonstones After the Pollonnaruwa Era
In later stages after the Polonnaruwa Era, the moonstone started to appear in various shapes such as triangular shapes ( Sri Dalada Maligawa – Kandy) and full circular shapes ( Horana Raja Maha Viharaya). The carvings of the moonstones also became varied loosing the standard symbols and patterns. If the patterns in the moonstone represented any symbolic religious meaning, this was totally forgotten after the Polonnaruwa Era. But none of these moonstones didn’t show the level of workmanship that of the Anuradhapura / Pollonaruwa Era craftsmen. Historians believe that this was due to the craftsman of later kingdoms lacked the artistic skills of the older generations and they attempted to create variety and complex patterns in order to make their moonstones attractive to the eye.
- Paranavitana, S., 1954. The Significance of Sinhalese ‘Moonstones’. Artibus Asiae, 17(3/4), pp.197-236.
- Coomaraswamy, A., 1935. Elements of Buddhist Iconography. Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA: Harvard University Press, p.59.
- Ward, W., 1952. The Lotus Symbol: Its Meaning in Buddhist Art and Philosophy. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 11(2), p.145.
- Devendra, D., 1965. Moonstone Motifs. The Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain & Ireland, New Series, Vol. 9(2), pp.221-228.
- Moonstones adorning the foot of stairs
- Guard stones (Mura Gal)
- Balustrades (Korawak Gal)
- The Nagas in Sinhala Sculpture
- Makara Torana – The Dragons Arch
- Ancient Heritage Sites of Sri Lanka