Soilis Mendis & Kelaniya Murals KELANIYA RAJAMAHA VIHARAYA
Posted on October 8th, 2019

Dr. Daya Hewapathirane

The historic Kelani Raja Maha Viharaya situated in the outskirts of Colombo is a Buddhist shrine of utmost significance. As recorded in the Mahavamsa, Kelaniya is a place visited by the Buddha in the early 5th century BCE. (Mahawamsa alsoreferred top as the Great Chronicle, is the single most important historic work of Sri Lankan origin, written originally in the Pali language, describing the life and times of the Sinhala Buddhist island nation). Many Sinhala kings, from the 3rd century BCE onwards, have patronized this historic temple and repeatedly effected restorations when it was damaged or destroyed by foreign invaders.  In the early 13th century, it was destroyed ruthlessly by the South Indian Dravidian invader Kalinga Maaga. After reconstruction, it suffered damage again in the 16th to 18th century period when the Portuguese and subsequently the Dutch set fire to the shrine and destroyed it.  It was rebuilt again in the mid 18th century, King Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe.

The existing new Kelani vihara building was constructed in 1946, on the initiative of Mrs. Helena Wijayawardane. It added much glory to this ancient site believed to have been visited by the Buddha   She obtained the services of young Soilis Mendis in the early 20th century,to create a magnificent Buddhist edifice featuring the nation’s unique traditional architecture and sculpture and outstanding wall murals.  This new Kelaniya viharaya building has incorporated some of the walls and ceilings of the old shrine in addition to new developments. This older section contains wall and ceiling paintings that belong to the Mahanuwara period whereas the newly added section is adorned with paintings of Soilis Mendis which belong to the Modern period. On a greater part of the walls of the older part of Kelaniya which includes the vestibule and the shine hall with the large recumbent Buddha statue, are the older paintings that belong to the Mahanuvara period, which are mostly depictions of Jataka tales. The paintings on walls and ceilings of the remainder of the shrine are the work of Soilis Mendis With his Kelaniya paintings and sculpture, which took him about twenty years to complete (1927-1947), Soilis Mendis has risen to an unparalleled position as one of the most ingenious artists of modern times.

Kelani Viharaya is one of the most picturesque and imposing Buddhist structural complexes in the country with some exceptionally impressive sculpture and wall murals of irresistible charm. Kelaniya paintings are pre-eminent among Buddhist vihara paintings. They are a class by themselves being the most aesthetically pleasing and spiritually inspiring paintings seen in a Buddhist shrine in contemporary Sri Lanka. They

have greatly enhanced the splendor of Kelaniya as one of the most outstanding Buddhist shrines of Sri Lanka.

Soilis Mendis deviated from the focus on Jataka tales and focused on events of the Buddha’s life. He also deviated from the common Mahanuwara tradition of painting in horizontal columns or stripes.  Instead, he used the entire wall to portray a single theme or event. Often, a three-dimensional effect was obtained in his paintings by the skillful use of a complex of lines, shades and shadows.

Themes of prominent paintings of Soilis Mendis’s in Kelaniya viharaya are:

  • Arrival of the Buddha in Kelaniya, Mahiyangana, Nagadeepa,
  • Arrival of Vijaya in Sri Lanka,
  • Bringing the Tooth relic to Sri Lanka by Hemamala and Dantha,
  • Bringing of the Bo sapling by Sangamitta Meheni,
  • Ceremonial offering of the Mahavihara,
  • Writing of the Visuddhi Magga by Buddhagosha Thera,
  • The ceremony bestowing the Sangaraja position.

Among characteristic features of Kelani paintings is the excellent artistic depiction of the human figure with detailed facial expressions. Evoking sensual and passionate feelings was not attempted in his paintings; instead, these paintings reflect restraint and evoke a sense of serene joy. The motifs, designs and decorations used in paintings are of exceptional aesthetic appeal.

The Kelaniya painting have their own characteristic use and blending of colours.  Only a limited number of colours have been used. Basic colours are rarely used. Black has been mixed with bright colours to obtain lovely colour blends and pleasing shades. There appears to be a common shade that pervades all paintings giving a special or common character to all paintings.  It is pleasing to the eye and helps to provide a serene spiritual outlook to these paintings.  This shade falls between yellow and brown.

Kelani paintings are unique and generally considered by art critics as the best Buddhist paintings done in Sri Lanka since the Polonnaruwa period. Professor Albert Dharmasiri commenting on Kelani paintings says that it was an attempt to revitalize the Sinhala classical art tradition of Anuradhapura. The result however is not a reinvention of the classical tradition but an amalgamation of several Indian, and European visual idioms into a style that recalls the classical naturalism of Anuradhapura. Mr. D. B. Dhanapala writing on Soilis Mendis states “If genius means untutored natural, instinctive, but extraordinary talent, imaginative or inventive, modern Ceylon has produced at least one real genius.”  “A simple peasant, Mendis is. But he is the only genius we have produced who could not only create something new of his own but who could also give away in a spirit of self sacrifice all that he had made in the attempt”.

The greatness of the Kelaniya paintings of Soilis Mendis should be judged against the situation that prevailed during the period he was exposed to and trained as an artist of Buddhist vihara paintings. Basically it was the colonial period when our nation was subject to strong influence of various aspects of European culture. This was well evident in the changes observed in the cultural environment of our country. Both tangible and intangible aspects of our traditional culture was subject to this trend of European influence. Our visual arts, especially temple paintings did not escape this trend. There was a tendency at that time for poor and careless imitation of western forms of art, especially realism in art, and excessive sensuality that was characteristic of western art at that time. Most temple murals produced during the colonial period, especially during the British colonial times reflected this new tendency in terms of approach to and style adopted in paintings, well evident in paintings of the well-known S.P. Charles and M. Sarlis of colonial times.

In this light, the Kelaniya paintings show a magnanimous and commendable revival of, or for that matter an enhancement of, the classical form of art in our nation, where aesthetics and spirituality form the basis or the founding principles. Kelani paintings are artistic expressions of overflowing aesthetic appeal that spectacularly reveal the intense inspiration drawn by the artist from Buddhist spirituality. 

Dr. Daya Hewapathirane

දයා හේවාපතිරණ

3 Responses to “Soilis Mendis & Kelaniya Murals KELANIYA RAJAMAHA VIHARAYA”

  1. dhane Says:

    The historic Kelaniya Raja Maha Viharaya is one of the most outstanding Buddhist shrines of Sri Lanka. Very unfortunately this Buddhist utmost significance unique Viharaya reputation was spoiled by one time its Chief Priest Buddharikkitha conspiring to assassinate prime minister of the country Mr S.W.R.D Bandaranayke. No other Raja Maha Viharaya in Sri Lanka ever had such event in our long history.


    dhane – the focus of this write-up is on the outstanding paintings of Soilis Mendis that adorn the historic Kelani Rajamaha viharaya and definitely not on political issues connected with the viharaya. If that si your interest, why don’t you write on it.

  3. dhane Says:

    Dr. Daya Hewapathirane, I am sorry if I had spoiled your beautiful article about outstanding paintings of Soilis Mendis that adorn the historic Kelani Rajamaha viharaya with my comments.

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