One of Sri Lanka’s most curious archaeological puzzles concerns the history of the two massive statues of the Buddha located within 11 kilometres of each other in the North Central Province. They are so similar – in some ways at least – that they have been called twin statues – or Gog and Magog as they were referred to by the founder of Sri Lankan archaeology, H. C. P. Bell, in the late 19th century.
The Sasseruwa statue is only 11 km west of Aukana. Access is not easy, however, due to the condition of the approach roads. Look out for signposts to Resvehere, the name of the monastery where the statue is located. There are around 100 cave cells here, the remains of dagobas, moonstones and inscriptions dating back to the 2nd century BC. Although Sasseruwa was in ancient times an extensive monastery, today only a few monks inhabit the caves.
The Sasseruwa statue is reached by climbing 300 steps. Comparisons with the statue at Aukana become inevitable when you eventually stop to view it. Most important is that the workmanship looks inferior and the statue is incomplete. Unlike its twin at Aukana, it was wrought in sunken relief on a large boulder or escarpment, and united to the wall of rock behind. It is virtually the same height as the one at Aukana – just 10 cm taller, in fact. The right hand is raised as at Aukana, but not in a gesture of benediction, but abaya mudra, a gesture of fearlessness.
There is a vast curtain of rock that towers above the statue, a brooding escarpment that has a light purple hue, like much of the granite of the area, and is delicately patched with blue and green lichen. This unfortunate positioning, and the fact that the statue was carved in sunken relief, causes it to appear dwarfed and diminished. In addition, it has weathered badly in places, which has resulted in it having a distinctly forlorn look.
While the craftsmanship of the Sasseruwa statue is undoubtedly inferior to that of its Aukana twin, it is nevertheless impressive in its own distinct way, as John Lindsay Opie points out in Island Ceylon (1970): A determined attempt at lyrical charm is made in the lines and in the disposition of the masses: the graceful, the excessively graceful curve to the forearm and elbow of the upraised arm may be noted. This quality together with the expression of smiling benevolence, of awe and innocence combined, make the image definitely more appealing than Aukana – which is insensitive and assertive by comparison. The technical excellence, however, and the perfect condition of Aukana formerly caused it to be much preferred to its twin . . . The truth of the matter seems to be that the sculptor of Sasseruwa, while gifted with considerable grace in both the lyrical and religious sense, was an awkward artist – while the Aukana master, though less inspired, was a far greater craftsman and technician.
Popular legend speaks of the two statues being the work of the guru (master) and his golaya (pupil). There was, it seems, a competition between the two sculptors to create the colossi of Aukana and Sasseruwa. Master and pupil sculpted away for years, until one day a bell was rung to announce that the statue at Aukana – made by the master craftsman – had been completed. So it was, the legend goes, that the pupil abandoned his unfinished statue at Sasseruwa and left it to brood over the jungle.
There is another theory that Sasseruwa was a prototype of the Aukana statue carved by the same sculptor (unlikely it would seem, considering the differences in technique and standard), or even a later copy. There is also a localised legend concerning the creation of the statues recorded by R. L. Brohier in Seeing Ceylon (1965). During the 2nd century BC, King Dutugemenu was marching his army against the Tamil usurper Elara, who had made nearby Vijitapura his stronghold. When Dutugemenu reached Sasseruwa he learnt that heavy rains had caused the river known as the Kala Oya to become impassable. To while away the delay and rather than see his army spending time indolently, the King commanded his men to work on various projects. To the stone-masons, builders and sculptors in his retinue he entrusted the task of producing a large statue of the Buddha on the southern escarpment of the mountain.
Before the statue could be completed, however, news came that the swollen river was subsiding. Dutugemenu, anxious to confront the enemy, ordered work to cease and continued his march, though greatly disappointed that the sacred image was left unfinished. When he reached the river bank he found the river once again impassable. Annoyed by the delays, and with the frustration over the Sasseruwa image fresh in his mind, he ordered that an identical image be carved from one of the huge boulders on a hill on the left bank of the Kala Oya.
Entertaining though this legend is, Brohier rightly comments: But surely no warlike environment could have produced these two images. None other than an atmosphere of peace could have nerved the sensitive hands which compassed these statues, more especially the Aukana achievement of consummate art, and invested them with the benediction they bestow.