Can you tell us where the Pulligoda Galge is? We kept asking bystanders on reaching Dimbulagala 16 kilometres south east of Polonnaruwa.
Nobody seemed to have heard of it before and that’s how we met Lionel Mendis a retired employee of the Archaeological Department, whose humble home was in the village near the Pulligoda Galge itself and whom we coaxed into accompanying us on our search.
He directed us passing the Dimbulagala temple, the only landmark being a water tank at which point you turn to the left and continue on an unsealed road which takes you passing the delightful Hitcha Pitcha wewa, all the while traveling round the changing range-scape of Dimbulagala, and then another turn off which brings you almost to the foot of a rocky outcrop.
The short climb up and through jungle and rock boulders, guided more by instinct, we reached this forgotten fresco considered to be an important milestone in the history of artistic heritage.
The frescoes at Pulligoda were reported by Bell in 1897, a series of fragmentary remains of old paintings in a shallow cave shrine. Today we see a fragment of what once may have been a larger scene of devotees in the attitude of veneration, consisting of five male figures seated on lotus cushions placed on a broad seat.
The dating of these frescoes are subject to debate. Coomaraswamy and Vincent Smith dated the paintings to the 8th century AD. Paranavithana ascribed them to a period earlier than the the 12th century but with a likelihood of being contemporary with the Polonnaruwa paintings (12th century).
Raja de Silva referring to the material technology of Pulligoda being common to paintings of the earlier Anuradhapura period dates them to as early as the 4th century AD. (even older than Sigiriya.)
Dr. Raja de Silva, former Archaeological Commissioner in a study of early period paintings from 247 BC to 800 AD defines several of the characteristics and elements of the Pulligoda galge frescoes.
He describes that the male figures depicted here have reached a stage of attainment (sovan, sakrudagami, anagami or arhat) as signified by the oval aura shaded red behind each head.
The saintly figures are all seated with their legs crossed. The soles are painted red with cosmetics, like the palms. The lower garments are pantaloons of plain red or stripes reaching down to the ankle.
Their headdresses vary distinguishing two figures as Brahmins. Another wears a white band of sacred thread across the bare upper body marking a sage. Ear rings, necklaces armlets, bracelets are also worn. One figure is green in complexion. The asana on which the lotus cushions are placed is ornamented.
To me the painting seemed unearthly. Though a small fragment was all that remained to be admired, it radiated a state of spirituality, serenity and peace that these forest hermits would have enjoyed. It spoke of elegance, refinement, poise and beauty. One figure held a lotus bud by the stalk while the left arm was folded across the chest in a charming gesture of offering.
The others seem to hold their palms together gracefully. The pigments of earthy red, ochre, yellow and green stood on a background of white with small circular designs. The frescoes even after many years still remain vibrant.
Dr. de Silva says that the characteristics of drawing, shading, perspective and stylistic methods of outlining features at Pulligoda bring to mind the paintings in Sigiriya implying that the artists at both sites were of the same conservative school of temple painting.
Further up is an house with a slab roof.
Lionel Mendis had now become a good friend to us and we were thrilled to hear that he had worked at sites in Kuchchiveli, Medirigiriya and Namal pokuna (Dimbulagala) before his retirement. He was happy to inform us that last month his village was supplied with pipe borne water and now each home had a ration of one hour’s supply.
As we dropped him home he invited us inside and with true Lankan generosity offered us a slice of “pani waraka” which we noticed to be his family’s only food for the day.
The Namal Pokuna complex, also in the vicinity and in fact some 2 kilometers before you reach Dimbulagala temple is not difficult to find. There is a small temple inhabited by monks at the bottom of this ancient forest hermitage.
The way to the ruins is uphill along a scorching rocky-face passing strange crevices and little rock pools. We walked under a blazing afternoon sun enjoying the occasional cool breeze till a pathway emerged through the shade of jungle cover ending in a grassy plain. The ruins of a monastery including a Chaithiya, bodhigara, poyage, dhamma saba mandapaya, ancient guard stones and moon stones were evident. The ruins were enclosed by a stone parapet with four cardinal entrances, immediately outside was a pokuna (nil mal vila) and a stone bridge.
The jungle path leading further up takes you to the Akasa Chaithiya on the summit of Dimbulagala, passing ancient caves of the forest hermitage.
One such imposing rock formation allowed the wattle and daub walls to be built dividing the cave into many rooms including a little verandah as well. Further up are the curative waters of the famed Namal Pokuna, and the maravidiya caves.
The Dimbulagala range is said to house a number of caves cut into the rock with Brahmi inscriptions over their drip ledges as proving their antiquity.
It is said that King Pandukabhaya lived here for a short period in the 4th century. In the Anuradhapura period there was an important vihara here. An inscription of Sundaramaha devi in the 12th century says that 500 monks resided there at that time.
A most notable period of its history was associated with King Parakramabahu II, in the 13th century where the Dimbulagala Maha Kassapa Thera helped the King with the purification and renewal of the Buddhist order. In the early centuries Dimbulagala was known as Dhumarakkhapabbata or Udumbarapabbata.
Today the modern cave temple at the foot of the range is colourful with huge statues depicting events from the life of the Buddha. High up on the rocky summit stands the Akasa Chaithiya and a shrine room to which many make their pilgrimage.
This forest hermitage of medieval times and holy abode since time immemorial, home to some of the most valued fragments of early frescoes was called the Gunners Quoin by the British for some reason.