Posted on January 2nd, 2018

Dr. Daya Hewapathirane

 The exceptionally rich heritage of visual arts of Sri Lanka extends to a period that exceeds 2200 years, from the 3rd century BCE to the 21st CE. Buddhist paintings form a spectacular component of this heritage. An incredible collection of ancient sculpture and architecture further adorns the conspicuous elements of the Sinhala Buddhist culture, the national culture of Sri Lanka. For some 2500 years, the Sinhala Buddhists inhabited Sri Lanka as its dominant community, and up-to the 16th century, they accounted for over 95% of the island’s total population. (Almost all Buddhists are of Sinhala origin and of all Sinhala people, about 95% are Buddhists. Of the island’s present population of 22 million Buddhists account for about 70%).

This enchanting national cultural heritage reflects vividly the richness of imagination, creativity, aesthetic sense, and inspiration of the island’s Sinhala Buddhist artists. Buddhism, which was introduced to Sri Lanka in the 3rd century BCE, was the primary source of inspiration and influence for artists, sculptors, and architects of the country. The life of the Buddha, ‘Jataka Tales’ based on former lives of the Buddha, the teachings of the Buddha, and incidences and important persons associated with Buddhist history of Sri Lanka, have been predominant themes of ancient artistic pursuits including paintings. Most ancient Buddhist works of art are known to generate inner calm, and evoke serene joy and emotion among people irrespective of their cultural background.


Innumerable ancient sites with paintings are scattered throughout the country – north, south, east, and west, in the hill country and the coastal areas. The large majority of Buddhist paintings are found in Buddhist ‘vihara’ (shrine) and monasteries, the best known are those in ancient cities such as Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Dambulla, Sigiriya, and Mahanuwara (Kandy). All these cities were designated by the UNESCO as World Heritage Sites, owing to their artistic treasures, considered as masterpieces of human creative genius. Most of these sites are Buddhist temples established by Sinhala kings, or which received their patronage in ancient times. UNESCO has identified over a thousand shrines with paintings, which are more than 100 years old.

Paintings are found on ancient cave and rock surfaces, walls, ceilings, doors, wooden surfaces, statues and other sculpture, pottery/earthenware and on textiles. Some found in cave temples are over 2000 years old and some more than a 1000-year-old. Most of the earliest paintings are found in a fragmentary form. Among the oldest paintings are those on rock surfaces in caves, and walls of relic chambers inside ‘dagaba’ or ‘stupa’ (pagoda).

Relic chambers and surfaces inside ancient stupas (dagabas) were lavishly decorated with paintings in ancient times.  Some of these were times of discovered during stupa restorations. Some of these paintings have been reproduced on canvass by modern painters. These can be seen in the Museums of Colombo, Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Mahanuwara. In the past, during temple restorations, new paintings were drawn on plaster applied over old paintings. Wall peelings in most old temples have revealed two or more layers of ancient paintings.


Paintings were done on a layer of plaster applied over various types of surfaces such as rock, walls, and ceilings and sometimes on wooden surfaces such as ceilings.  Material used in all surfaces was natural, most obtained from the immediate environment. Some of these products were boiled and processed in different ways to obtain necessary shades of colours.  A range of colours were derived by a system of blending basic colours. A specially made oily material was applied over completed paintings as a protective coat which also helped to enhance the brightness of colours used.


Little is known of the artists of the ancient times especially about artists before the 18th century. During the 18th – 19th centuries, there were families of artists with their own traditions and techniques of art. There were traditional schools of art or groups of artists headed by a well-known prominent artist. They were referred to as Gurukula”. There were generations of artists in each Gurukula. There were several such gurukula groups during the 18th – 19th centuries (the Mahanuwara period of art). Each gurukula had developed and followed its own art forms and techniques.


Paintings are reflective of the variation in art styles, approaches, and traditions of art in the past. Characteristics of these paintings that are of much appeal to many are the colour choice and coordination, the intricate nature of line and brushwork, the elaborate designs, patterns, and exquisite motifs used for decorative purposes, and the fascinating symbolism adopted effectively to provide greater meaning and depth to paintings. Themes of most paintings are based on the life and teachings of the Buddha. ‘Jataka tales’ or tales of previous lives of the Buddha are common themes of paintings. Paintings reveal the great adoration the artists had towards the Buddha and the strong inspiration drawn from the Buddha’s life and teachings. Buddhist paintings have a strong impact on one’s inner spirit, transforming your mind to a state of innocence and overflowing compassion, joy, and peacefulness. According to the Buddha’s teachings, developing tranquility of mind is fundamental to the development of wisdom.


Based on general differences in art traditions the following major periods of art can be identified:

(1) Classical Period –                                                                                                            Anuradhapura Era: 3rd century BCE to 10th c. CE,                                                              Polonnaruwa Era:  11th to 13th century CE,

(2) Period of Changing Capitals: 13th to 17th c. CE

(3) Mahanuwara Period: 18th to 19th c.  CE,

(4) Modern Period:  20th Century onwards


The classical style of Sinhala art is naturalistic exemplifying a transformation of nature by imaginative contemplation. Paintings show a highly tasteful use of a variety of colours and a skillful depiction of facial expressions of the figures.  With the exclusion of Sigiriya, most of the surviving ancient paintings of the Classical Period such as those of the Tivanka Pilimage in Polonnaruwa, are found in fragmentary form. Most were destroyed when foreigners such as the South Indian Dravidians and Europeans invaded the Sinhala kingdoms of Sri Lanka. Ancient paintings of the classical form of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and a few other places, are of overflowing aesthetic appeal. Most are considered as masterpieces of human creative ingenuity and imagination.  The outstanding quality of these paintings was a determining factor in the identification of World Heritage Sites of Sri Lanka by the UNESCO.

Political instability during the 13th to 17th century period had a negative impact on people’s artistic initiatives. South Indian invaders inflicted widespread damage to Buddhist temples and monasteries where works of art were concentrated. Although painting activity was not as prolific as before, some spectacular paintings were produced in a few viharas such as Gadaladeniya and Lankatilleka near Mahanuwara. Decorative paintings of on diverse wooden surfaces including ancient ola (palm-leaf) wooden book covers and exquisite paintings on textiles (referred to as ‘pethikada’), were also popular during this period.


Paintings of the 18th-19th centuries (Mahanuwara Period) exhibit a predominantly stylized form, referred to by art professionals as ‘abstract symbolism’. It is a unique art form of great appeal, with its own dynamics and structural properties. Dalada Maligawa, Dambulla, Degaldoruwa, Medawela, Ridee viharaya, Mulgirigala are among the many sites with enchanting paintings of this period. They show several stylistic variations in different parts of the country, the most significant being those of Southern Sri Lanka which show a distinctive character. The impact of the European colonial period is partly responsible for variations evident in approaches and styles of paintings of some vihara paintings in the South. Painting drawn on diverse wooden surfaces, clay and pottery were popular during this period.


The cultural resurgence that was taking place in the country in the latter part of the British colonial period, inevitably created the necessary atmosphere and conditions for the emergence of many talented artists and outstanding works of art, and many professionals of repute engaged in research and related publications on ancient works of art. Considering the infinitely rich cultural heritage of Sri Lanka, it is no surprise that modern and contemporary art in Sri Lanka is ever more complex and engaging. Paintings of the modern period is marked by some significant developments in techniques of paintings such as the use of oil paints, perspective, light and shade and three-dimensional modeling. Also evident are different modes of representation and characterization, which reflect a transformation of the country’s mural paintings to a significant degree.

Viharas with unique modern paintings are largely concentrated in and around Colombo. The better known among them, are the Kelani Rajamaha Vihara in Kelaniya, Gothami Vihara in Borella, Bellanwila Vihara in Dehiwela and Sedawatte Ganegodella Vihara. These are places with aesthetically pleasing and spiritually inspiring modern paintings of a high degree of artistic quality. These paintings are reflective of the inspiration drawn by modern artists from the traditional forms of Buddhist paintings of ancient classical period of the nation’s cultural history. Among the better-known artists of the modern period or in the 20th century and thereafter, who have produced painting that depict Buddhist themes include Solias Mendis (Kelaniya Rajamaha Vihare), Somabandu Vidyapathy (Bellanwila Vihare),George Keyt (Gothami Vihare), Albert Dharmasiri (Sedawatta), Upasena Gunawardena (Maligawa Annex), L.T.P. Manjusri, M. Sarlis and S. P. Charles. There were many other artists who have ventured into Buddhist paintings on their own but, are not directly associated with Viharas. Manjusri, was involved in the reproduction on canvas of ancient Buddhist works of art found on rock and wall surfaces in remote historic sites. Jayasiri Semage’s paintings related to Buddhism, are of high artistic quality.


Several modern artists and photographers have contributed to the conservation of ancient paintings by producing near perfect reproductions on canvas and some commendable photographic reproductions. Before they began to disintegrate fully, some ancient Buddhist paintings were copied on canvass by some concerned, committed and far-sighted Sinhala artists of the 20th and 21st centuries. These reproductions can be seen in the national museums of Sri Lanka, such as those in Colombo, Mahanuwara, Anuradhapura Polonnaruwa, and in the Mahanuwara Dalada Maligawa and the Dambulla museum of Buddhist paintings established by the Central Cultural Triangle. There are five special paintings displayed in the Colombo Museum – four on canvas and one on paper. These were drawn in 1930 by an artist known as Ridiyagama Manik Appu. These are drawn in the classical style and are among the most enchanting paintings of modern times.

The ‘Cultural Triangle Project’, set up in 1980, was a joint venture of the UNESCO and the Department of Archaeology of Sri Lanka, under which action was taken to preserve some ancient artworks which led to a series of impressive publications with photographs and descriptions of paintings of 30 ancient Buddhist temples.

Some ancient paintings have been photographically reproduced and analyzed by several, including the author Daya Hewapathirane. Buddhist paintings of more than 60 historic sites across Sri Lanka were presented by him at several national and international exhibitions, including one at the United Nations in May 2012, in commemoration of Sambuddhathva Jayanthi Celebrations. Enlargements of some of his photographic images of ancient Buddhist paintings are exhibited in the first Photo Gallery of Buddhist paintings in Sri Lanka, established in 2011, at the Gangarama Vihara in Colombo. The documentary film he produced on The Heritage of Buddhist Paintings of Sri Lanka”, was presented nationally and internationally and was selected as the Best Buddhist documentary film at the International Buddhist Film Festival held in Sri Lanka in 2012. His recent book on Vihara Paintings published in Sinhala and English, describes, and assesses paintings of 100 sites across the island. Realizing that ancient murals will in time succumb to the natural course of deterioration, this book is expected to remain a valuable record, especially for generations of Sri Lankans to come, to appreciate their enchanting national cultural heritage, which reflects vividly, the richness of imagination, creativity, spirituality, and aesthetic sense of Sinhala Buddhists.

Dr. Daya Hewapathirane

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